The ability to get across a river without the use of a bridge is a critical survival skill that needs to be practiced repeatedly. Even experienced hikers, doing everything right, can get into trouble when crossing a river.
In an emergency, bridges along the route you’re trying to take may be destroyed, or unstable and unsafe to use, and crossing a river without one when you’ve not practiced it can be dangerous to say the least.
Drowning deaths are more common than many people think and fatalities as a result of crossing a river outweigh deaths by snake bite each year in the United States.
Most people take time to learn about dangerous snakes in their area and what to do to stay safe, but they don’t think about all the skills and dangers involved in crossing a river without a bridge until it’s too late.
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Do NOT Cross a River…
Crossing a river may not always be possible. Here are a few times you should definitely not cross a river:
- Following a snowfall that was particularly heavy or when one occurred later than usual during the season.
- If you can see that big chunks of debris such as branches, logs, or bigger items are being swept along by the current.
- When the river is flowing at a depth that is above your knees. The only time you should wade into deep water is if you can verify (using a floating stick) that there is no current.
- Anytime a river appears to be “running high” or flooded.
- Before you have taken some time to scout ahead for a bridge and/or a ford (shallower water).
- If you are unsure whether you can cross safely.
How to Assess River is Safe to Cross
If you’re not in any of the situations above, then you’re ready to plant crossing the river. Here’s what you should do first…
Climb to a high point to inspect the river to look for.
(1) a section of shallow water that is free of submerged objects,
(2) a straight segment of the river between two curves, similar to the straight part of the letter S, (3) where the current will carry you if you are swept downstream to make sure there are no rapids or dangerous waterfalls,
(4) low parts of the opposite bank where you can get out of the water without climbing.
If you can find a location with all four of the above items, that’s great. If not, locate the spot with as many of the above characteristics as you can. That will be the safest place to cross.
Check the strength of the current
- Throw a stick into the river and walk along the bank in the same direction. If you cannot keep up with the stick without running, the current is too fast to cross safely.
- Pay attention to the height of the water and the angle of river bottom. The combination of surging water and sloping ground makes it more likely the river bed will collapse under your feet and you will lose your balance.
- Remember that places where the river splits off into more than one channel with sections of gravel or strips of land between them may have a weaker current. You can cross one section, take a bit of a break and gauge the safest route across the next channel.
Determine the River’s Width and Depth
- Locate a stationary object on the other side of the river bank (Y). Push a short stick in the ground or place a stone on your side of the river in line with the object on the other side (marker X).
- Walk parallel to the river in one direction 12 paces or approximately 3 feet. Push a second stick in the ground at that point (marker A).
- Continue in the same direction another 6 paces or 1 ½ feet. Place another marker (marker B).
- From this point pivot at a right angle and walk inland until you are in line with the fixed object on the opposite bank. Place another marker (marker C). The width of the river will be twice the distance between marker B and C.
- If you understand that you are using math to determine the length of a triangle, thank a math teacher!
- Use a walking stick if you brought one or find a long branch to check the depth of the water as you move.
When determining whether or not to cross a river without a bridge, think about worst-case-scenario.
If you’ve followed the steps above and you cannot find a location that is safe or if the current is too fast, it’s better to turn back, continue further down the river and check again, or to find another way to your destination.
Prepare to Cross
- Waterproof your pack as much as possible. Plastic bags make good liners if you don’t have access to wet seal bags. Store important preps like matches and extra clothes in the most waterproof sections of your pack.
- Change into shorts or strip down to the least amount of clothing possible. Bare legs will reduce the amount of pull the current has on you and reduce chance of you being dragged under by the weight of your wet clothing.
- A heavy pack strapped tightly to your back can spell disaster if you lose your balance and are being carried downstream. Unbuckle the chest and belt straps of your pack so that it can be removed quickly if you lose your balance. If the worst happens, you will be able to either let go of the pack or clutch it to your chest and use it as a flotation device.
- Carefully assess the skill and confidence levels of your group members. Pushing someone beyond their skill and comfort level is dangerous and can put the entire group at risk.
Techniques for Crossing a River
- Bend your knees and lean slightly forward into the approaching water.
- Find a sturdy branch as tall or taller than you are or use a trekking pole if you have one. Keep it on the upstream side of you so that the force of the current forces it down into the river bottom.
- Don’t clutch at a submerged rock while moving, you could topple over.
- Looking down at the moving water can unbalance you, so keep your eyes fixated on your exit point on the opposite bank.
- The way you move is important so turn your body at an angle facing upstream and shuffle sideways as you move down the river in the direction of the current.
- Keep your feet on the ground as much as possible, and use the trekking pole as a third balance point.
- For groups, lock arms in a diagonal line with the biggest person on the upstream end if they are strong enough to balance against the current. If the biggest person is not the strongest, put the smallest person upstream so the force of the current will be diverted a little bit for each person. The upstream person should shuffle forward a step or two followed by the others, one at a time.
- If one person is swept from the group while crossing, the rest of the group should stay together and either backtrack or finish crossing before trying to help.
- For three person groups, there is a triangle method where each person faces inward, arms locked at the elbows with the heaviest/strongest person at the upstream corner of the triangle. The group should take coordinated steps together, one at a time to cross.
How to Help Prevent Injuries
- Know how to be alert to weather changes by observing the sky. Plan to cross a river in early morning if possible. Thunderstorms are more common in the afternoons. In winter weather, snowmelt volumes will be lower due to cooler overnight temperatures so river current should be slower.
- Avoid stepping on rocks or crossing on a downed tree as these can be covered in algae or moss that is slippery. A fall could cause additional injuries such as head trauma or broken bones.
- As tempting as it may be, do not use a rope to hold onto while you cross. If you slip and go under the rope may wrap around you and cause serious injury or even hold you underwater.
- If you lose your balance and are being carried by the current, try to remain on your back with your feet pointed downstream to avoid hitting debris or submerged obstacles with your head.
- Wear shoes or boots as you wade through the water to avoid bruising or cutting your feet.
Once you cross the river, get as dry as possible as quickly as possible to avoid hypothermia. Do some push-ups to get some heat circulating in your body and change quickly into dry clothes if you have them. Unless you need to move on, build a fire to dry out and get warm.
Crossing a river without a bridge is a risky undertaking and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Always be conservative in your assessments of the situation and the capabilities of those in your party. Disaster can strike in an instant so use careful planning, patience and teamwork. What are some of your river crossing experiences? Share with us below!