Knowing how to safely cross a river is an important skill if you are spending a lot of time in the backcountry. Even small rivers can turn out to be dangerous and, sadly, drowning accounts for several backcountry deaths each year. This post offers some advice for crossing rivers and streams that are below thigh deep.
Preparation and Dry Crossings
In all outdoor scenarios, preparation is the best way to prevent injury. Before hitting the trail, consult a map to help identify any potential water obstacles. If you are hiking in a provincial or national park, park staff can often brief you on the conditions of trails and water levels.
When you reach a river look for a dry crossing. This could be a fallen tree or stones that bridge the water. Keep in mind that jumping between rocks or crossing a downed tree might put you at risk for injury. Logs and rocks can shift under your weight. Particularly dangerous are log jams; places where debris has accumulated in the river. They often look stable but are not. Assume that rocks and logs will be slippery and don’t cross unless you’re confident that you’ll make it. Sometimes wading through the water is the best option.
Finding a Safe Place to Cross
If there are no safe dry crossings, you’ll have to weigh the risks of wading through the water. There are a number of considerations before heading in. As a rule of thumb, rapid water over knee-deep and slow moving water deeper than your waist should be avoided. You can often get an indication of the depth and strength of a river by tossing rocks or branches in it.
If you decide to cross, your first step is to find the safest spot. If possible, scout the river from a place of elevation. A US Army Field Manual suggests looking for the following characteristics:
- A level stretch where the river breaks into a number of channels. Two or three narrow channels are usually easier to cross than a wide river.
- Obstacles on the opposite side of the river that might hinder your travel. Try to select the spot from which travel will be the safest and easiest.
- A ledge of rocks that crosses the river. This often indicates dangerous rapids or canyons.
- Rocky places. Avoid these; you can be seriously injured from falling on rocks. An occasional rock that breaks the current, however, may assist you.
- A shallow bank or sandbar. If possible, select a point upstream from a shallow bank or sandbar so that the current will carry you to it if you lose your footing.
- A course across the river that leads downstream so that you will cross the current at about a 45 degree angle.
I can think of some other considerations as well:
- Avoid crossing near a waterfall or drop-off.
- Be careful of muddy rivers that could make it difficult to move once you are in the water.
- Some rivers have dark tannic waters making it difficult to see rocks and obstacles.
- Ray Mears warns, “water in wild areas are often very cold, perhaps even fed by glacial melt waters: if you fall in the shock will make you gasp and thereby inhale water.”
Finding a safe spot to cross with these considerations in mind is important.
Weather, Season, and Time of Day
The weather, season, and time of day will also affect how strong a river’s current is. In the springtime, water levels are often at their highest because of snowmelt. Even smaller rivers and streams can be ferocious during this time.
Rivers that are fed by melting snow and ice are easier to cross in the morning when the temperatures aren’t as high. Water levels rise as the day progresses and reach their “maximum height between mid-afternoon and late evening, depending on the distance from the source” (Tawrell). It’s a good idea to cross these rivers in the early morning hours.
Finally, the weather will also have an impact on rivers. Heavy rains will cause even small rivers to become obstacles. Low atmospheric pressure can also contribute to flooding even before rain falls.
Be realistic about your skills, experience, and comfort level. Ray Mears warns that one of the most dangerous things about river crossings is overconfidence. When in doubt – DO NOT CROSS. This can be a difficult decision to make. It can feel demoralizing to turn back and this leads many people to take unnecessary risks which can lead to injury or death. It’s always better to err on the side of caution.
Shoes and Backpacks
Okay, you’ve weighed the risks and you’re going to cross. Keep your sneakers or hiking boots on. Shoes will protect your feet and give you better grip in the water. Avoid crossing rivers barefoot or with open toed sandals. Some people like to cross a river in shorts or without pants. This is because clothing gives the water more surface area to grab onto and can make your legs wobbly.
If you are carrying a backpack, the extra weight can actually help you keep your footing in the water. That being said, it’s crucial that you can easily and quickly drop your pack if you lose your footing. Make sure your hip belt and sternum strap are unclipped. A pack can drag you underwater even if you are a strong swimmer. It can also get caught on rocks and logs and hold you underwater.
Before getting in the water, plan an escape route in the event that you fall. Wear a lifejacket if you have one.
Use a Walking Stick
A sturdy walking stick can make crossing a river easier. It should be at least 5 inches in diameter and 7 – 8 feet long. Some people use a thin walking stick or a trekking pole with success. I don’t recommend these as they are thin and can easily get jammed in rocks.
You’ll use the stick to break the current and help you hold your footing. Place the stick upstream from you and make sure that you are facing upstream. It’s easier to hold your footing this way and you’ll be able to see any obstacles that might be making their way down the river towards you.
Always have two points of contact when moving through the water. Your stick will act as the second point of contact when you begin moving. Begin shuffling sideways slowly. Your “legs should be dragged through the water, not lifted, so that the force of the current will not throw…[you] off balance” (Tawrell). If possible, while facing upstream, travel on a 45-degree angle downstream.
Travelling in Groups
When travelling in groups ensure that your whole party is comfortable crossing the river. There are a few formations that can help your group cross. I want to discuss one in particular – the line astern.
A line astern crossing is similar to the technique I discussed above. The strongest person is put at the front on the line. This person, the leader, uses a stick to help break the current and hold their footing. The others form a line behind the leader holding on to the waist of the person in front of them. The leader will help break the current for everyone while the others keep the leader upright. The group shuffles sideways in unison. Check out this video for an example.
Notice that the leader in the video is carefully coordinating the movement of the group and ensuring that people keep the lean into the current. Everyone is also communicating when they are breaking the chain to get out of the water. Good communication is crucial. Everyone needs to know what they are doing and it can be difficult to hear each other once in the water. Always rehearse on dry land before entering the water.
What To Do If You Fall
I hope you never fall and find yourself in a dangerous situation. Knowing your limitations and avoiding dangerous river crossings is the best way to protect yourself.
If you fall, try to fall forwards on your hands and knees. Get out of your pack as quickly as possible. Flip on your back and put your feet in front of you facing downstream. This will help you avoid smashing your head into rocks. Don’t try to rescue your pack. It’s not worth it. Concentrate on saving yourself.
After Your Crossing
Finally, some consideration should be given to the aftermath of crossing. This is especially important when you’ve crossed cold water. Change into new dry socks and footwear if you have them. Do the same if your clothing is wet. If you need to, make a fire to help warm up.
Ray Mears warns that “after heavy rainfall river water may be full of bacteria and anyone with an open wound will need to wash it afterwards.” Make sure you consider the needs of everyone in your party.
I consulted several sources in writing this post:
Ray Mears Essential Bushcraft. 2002. Ray Mears. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
US Army Survival Manual. 1992. US Army. New York: Dorset Press.
Camping and Wilderness Survival. 1996. Paul Tawrell. Green Valley: Paul Tawrell.
How to Read Water: Clues and Patterns from Puddles. 2016. Tristan Gooley. New York: The Experiment, LLC.
How to Safely Ford Backcountry Rivers by Clever Hiker
PCT Day 75: Crossing Wide Creek by Isko Salminen