How To SAFELY Cross a River

Every year, hundreds of backpackers and hikers lose their lives while crossing streams and seemingly shallow rivers. The reasons are underestimating the water’s power, and overconfidence in one’s own expertise.

Even if you avoid these blunders, you’re not guaranteed a successful passage. The price of oversight is extreme. So, you know what’s at stake here if you make one wrong move.

In this article, we’ll cover everything from river assessment and gear suggestions, to a detailed river crossing guide, and a list of fatal mistakes to avoid. Let’s begin.

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The Assessment—Whether To Cross or Not

A map or GPS can tell you if there is a river up ahead that you need to cross. This usually happens when there are no bridges nearby, or when using a bridge might mean a huge detour. You might even be well-prepared to cross, both mentally and physically. But, that doesn’t mean you should.

A river or stream is never the same all year-round. It might flood or dry up. So you can neither trust your memory nor a picture on the internet to determine the condition of the river when you are about to cross it. You have to assess this for yourself, on the spot.

Here’s how:

1. Depth above Thighs? Turn Around!

If you are planning to cross by foot, your body strength has to counter the force of the water. You must never have more than 30% of your body mass below water. Otherwise, the river can sweep you away.

Unless you are an exceptionally weak and short person,

  • You should be fine in water at the knee or below.
  • If the water reaches your thighs, stay on high alert.
  • If it exceeds that height and the riverbank is still out of reach, turn around immediately.

If the water is clear, you should be able to assess the depth before getting in. If not:

  • You can throw in a pebble and listen to the sound. The faster and sharper the sound, the better. If the sound is delayed and muted, the water is deep.
  • Take a long stick and try to reach the riverbed from the bank you’re standing on. You can use this stick as a comparison against your leg.

2. Nothing Faster Than Walking Speed

Throw a twig or leaf in the water. Now walk alongside the riverbank with an eye on it. Walk at a moderate pace. If the object you threw in has overtaken you by a long shot, the river is flowing faster than human walking speed.

Don’t get into this river. If the river is too fast, it doesn’t even need to be deep to overpower you.

3. Cloudy Water Is a No-go

You can’t see through murky waters, which means you can’t assess its depth. At the riverbank, it might seem depthless, but halfway in, there might be enough water to drown someone who is six feet tall.

Unclear water might also mean snags and holes in the riverbed. Your foot can easily get stuck here. Combined with the depth, this is a deadly trap.

4. Yes for Wide, No for Narrow

Amateurs think narrow equals shallow, and hence implies a quick crossing. That is why they are amateurs.

Rivers tend to be deepest at the narrowest points, and shallower in wider areas. These narrow areas are usually riverbends. That means they have a deeper, water-eroding bank.

Your safest bets while crossing a river are:

  • Straight sections between riverbends
  • Wider areas of the channel
  • Braids—multiple water channels separated by small patches of land.

5. Too Chilly To Cross

If you manage to cross the river, hypothermia can be a fatal danger.

Another possibility is that the water is too cold and the river is too wide to cross quickly. That means your legs will be in that icy cold water for several minutes. Your muscles will soon start cramping. 

So, it’s best not to cross an icy glacial river, especially when the weather is chilly.

Dip a hand in and check the temperature. Then, you can decide if you’ll be able to bear it, should it take too long to cross.

6. Look Out for Downstream Dangers

This is preparation for the worst-case scenario. Should the river carry you downstream, what can you expect?

Always inspect for these perils:

  • Downed trees
  • Rapids and waterfalls
  • Boulders and jagged rocks
  • Dangerous animals, such as snakes, crocodiles, and alligators
  • Larger water bodies

If the river doesn’t drown you, any one of these can hurt you. So, avoid crossing at a spot endowed with any of these hazards.

Gear Up For Life’s Sake!

Without the right gear, no expert technique in the world can get you through to the other side.

Unless you have faith in your luck, we suggest acquiring these items before crossing a river:

1. Floatation Device or Lifejacket

Use these so that you won’t drown even if the water is deep. In calm rivers, this can also keep the water out of your lungs. Ensure it fits tightly around your body.

2. Anti-Slip Socks

These are recommended if you are not wearing shoes.

3. Felt-bottom Shoes

These will stabilize your feet on slippery stones covered with algae. They work ten times better than your normal trekking shoes.

4. Wading Belt

A wading belt keeps the water at your waist in case you fall into the flow. It keeps the air trapped in your pant legs, which helps keep you afloat until you reach shallower water.

5. Ski Pole or Stick

A pole or stick like this will provide a three-point contact and support system while crossing the river. Even a sturdy tree branch will work. Without this, you can lose balance.

6. Polarized Sunglasses

Polarized sunglasses will cut the sun’s glare on the water. You’ll need them to assess depth and hazards since they allow better vision under the water’s surface. Not to mention, they will keep the water out of your eyes.

7. Communication Device

Either a cellular or a satellite communication device can prove to be a lifeline in emergencies. You don’t want to be stranded somewhere with a broken leg. Put the device in a sealed plastic bag or waterproof container before crossing.

8. Backpack Liner

Safeguard your electronic devices and other sensitive items, such as food and maps, from water. Use a plastic garbage bag if nothing else is handy.

9. Rope

Use rope as a line to cross, or to reel in a floating person. Don’t use it to tie yourself to others while crossing, though. If someone falls, they will take you with them.

Time to Cross: Step-By-Step

After you’ve decided that a river is safe to cross, you need a solid plan of action. You can fail to cross even a relatively safe river without the following steps:

1. Spot Selection Makes All the Difference

The river assessment will give you an estimate for the best spot to enter the river. Ideally, you should look for an area where:

  • the water is shallow
  • the speed is slow
  • you can see the riverbed clearly
  • there are no riverbends or narrow channels nearby
  • there are no obstacles downstream

If you scout around and discover a spot for dry crossing (say a boulder or fallen tree), use that. Wading in the water should be your last resort.

2. Formation Is Fundamental

There are two scenarios—you either cross independently of your teammates (solo). or all of you cross together (group). The solo rule follows if you are entirely alone as well.

Solo Crossing

1. Side Shuffle

Basically, you scoot sideways until you reach the opposite bank.

  • Keep your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • With your body perpendicular to the current, move the outer foot into the channel.
  • Secure one foot and slide the other foot towards it while keeping a wide stance.
  • Don’t cross your feet. Your stance is weakest while doing this, and you could fall easily.

2. Tripod Method

This method is more stable and safe. You use a trekking pole, or any long, sturdy stick as your third leg.

  • Find a pole or branch (shoulder height or longer), able to endure your body weight.
  • Enter parallel to the stream with a wide stance.
  • Lean on the stick, and drag it along the riverbed as you move forward.
  • As you move the stick forward, you can probe the depth beforehand.
  • Never lift it up. It might swing up in the current and go between your legs. This can trip you and throw you off balance.

Group Crossing

1. Human Train

The shuffling method, but with your hands on the next person’s shoulders. All team members face the opposite bank and hold each other for support while crossing.

  • The stronger people go in the front and end of the line, with the weaker companions in the middle.
  • For two people, the stronger person is positioned upstream.

2. Triangle Formation

For groups of three who are, more or less, equal in strength. Each person leans on the other two for stability. This is useful in difficult crossings.

  • Members link arms while facing inwards.
  • Then they shuffle along to the shore.

3. Course of Action

No matter which formation you choose, some river crossing rules remain constant. These are general rules regarding body language and other basics.

  • Face upstream with the water coming towards you, or stand parallel to the channel, facing the bank you’re trying to reach.
  • Make a wide stance, with your feet shoulder-width apart.
  • Lean forward and bend your knees to lower your center of gravity, especially if you’re carrying a backpack.
  • Cross approximately 45 degrees downstream. You don’t want to take the force of water head-on at 90 degrees.
  • Know that you will end up somewhere downstream on the opposite bank. You can’t cross straight across a swift-flowing river.
  • Always unbuckle your backpack before crossing a river. You have to ditch it if you fall. A tightly secure backpack weighs you down and drags you under.
  • Keep yourself as dry from the waist up as possible, especially in glacial streams.
  • If you are not using waders or any other waterproof clothing, don’t wear pants at all. Traction shoes will do. You don’t want soggy pants hours after the crossing. Just wipe your legs dry and put your pants back on afterward.

4. In Case You Fall

Despite your best efforts, you may still topple. It doesn’t mean you’ll die. If you follow these steps, you might even make it to the other side, scratch-free:

  • Calm down. If you panic and thrash around, more water will get into your lungs.
  • If there is enough water to drown you, let go of your backpack and any additional weights immediately.
  • Raise your toes and nose up. Float on your back instead of trying to swim.
  • Let the water take you downstream. Don’t struggle against it.
  • Edge towards the closest bank, and paddle your way to safety.

Avoid Death and Despair—Don’t Make These Stupid Mistakes

Despite a stellar action plan and superior preparation, the future can’t be predicted. River fording is a risky activity. A single mistake can prove expensive.

1. Fording Without Insurance

Be prepared for the worst.

You have fallen and cracked a rib. Your teammates have managed to rescue you, but now you need emergency medical attention, and possibly emergency medical evacuation.

This is why you should get travel medical insurance before any hiking or trekking trip. An international insurance plan with coverage for hiking can provide financial protection from large medical bills as a result of an accident or unexpected illness that occurs while on a trip in a foreign country.

The way to get insurance for your next wilderness excursion is simple:

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  • Make your purchase and save the policy.
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2. Going At It Alone

Crossing a river is one of the most dangerous feats you can take part in on a hike. We don’t recommend doing it completely alone.

In case you have washed away, no one will know.

You always want someone watching your back. Even if they can’t help you physically, they can call for help and rescue you in time.

3. Crossing Midday or After Dark

Bad timing can make the difference between a safe and a dangerous river. Water flow is not the same seasonally, or even daily. A navigable stream can turn menacingly impassable within hours. It’s prudent to familiarize yourself with the river’s pattern of high and low currents beforehand.

Although this decision will be specific to each river, here are some tips you can follow as a rule of thumb:

  • For crossing glacially-fed streams, set out early in the morning. You don’t want the sun to glare and melt the snow as you’re fording.
  • Don’t cross during monsoons or storms. Always keep the weather forecast in mind.  
  • Check if there is a dam upstream that releases water at certain times of the day.
  • Find out if there is a tidal influence that makes the level or current rise quickly.
  • Never cross after sunset. If you can’t see easily, you shouldn’t cross. Period.

4. Barefoot Attempts

You might think your foot has more traction. and you can properly feel what you’re stepping on. But, that only applies on land. In water, the surface is too rugged and slippery for human feet.

Here are the probable hazards of crossing a river barefoot:

  • Slipping on slimy underwater rocks
  • Stepping on sharp objects and cutting yourself
  • Getting your foot trapped in a snag or hole and having your ankle twisted
  • Underwater animal (snakes, fish, insects) bites

If your foot gets severely injured, you won’t be able to continue your trip after crossing, anyway. So, be sure to wear adequate shoes. If the thought of walking in soggy shoes makes you feel icky, carry an extra pair in your backpack. Remember that reading about your safety isn’t enough. You must do some physical training, and practice the steps we have discussed. Remember, you are fording a river, not strolling in the park.

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Remember that reading about your safety isn’t enough. You must do some physical training, and practice the steps we have discussed. Remember, you are fording a river, not strolling in the park.

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For visitors, travel, student and other international travel medical insurance.

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