River Crossing Safety

By: George Spearing

River crossings can be deceptively hazardous. Even a very shallow swiftly flowing body of water can pack enough force to 'skittle' the unwary. If you cannot walk at the speed of a stick thrown into the river, or if the river is swift and above knee height, then it could be hazardous to cross. If a river is in flood then wait for it to subside. Generally, in areas of snow try to cross early in the morning before snow melt has added to the flow of a river. If in doubt as to whether a river is safe to cross, then find an alternative route.
Here are some methods for water crossings...

Crossing Alone
1. If possible, view the river from above to identify the shallowest point and smoothest area of river bed possible, avoiding submerged snags, boulders etc. Do not attempt a crossing if large pieces of debris (logs, branches, etc.) are being carried downstream.

2. Keep your boots on. Wet boots are preferable to damaged ankles or feet. Do not cross wearing long pants, these will increase resistance to the current. Release the waist and chest strap on your pack before crossing - this way you will be able to free yourself quickly if you lose your footing or find yourself in a position where your pack is snagged and holding you down. It's also well to remember that your pack has a certain amount of buoyancy and can serve as a flotation device if necessary.

3. Generally, the safest area to cross will be either a shallower braided section or a straight section between bends in a river. If you imagine the river in the shape of the letter 'S' then the safest area to cross will be the middle of the 'S' between the bends. That way, if you should lose your footing, hopefully the current will carry you into the bank on one of the bends. Realize though, that water can be deeper and swifter at bend sections, so always look for the best 'run off' section of a river that will carry you to a safe point and not into danger if you lose your footing.

4. Use a strong pole or stick about five or six feet in length as support, placing it on your upstream side so that the current forces it into the bottom. Always keep two points of contact on the river bed at all times and cross diagonally downstream, resisting the current much like you would a strong wind. Take shuffling footsteps, feeling for the bottom. Try not to look down at the flowing water as this may upset your equilibrium, look ahead for the best possible route. Resist the temptation to grab at submerged or semi submerged rocks in transit, as this may upset your balance.

Crossing in a party
1. Members of the party stand in line abreast, each placing their hands behind the back of the person on either side of them and grasping the lower part of that persons pack shoulder strap. (or clothing if no pack is worn) This will 'interlock' the party. If a pack does not have a quick release buckle on the hip belt, then the hip belt should be left undone and clothing grasped instead.

2. Enter the water parallel to the current, with the strongest member of the party in the upstream position, this will break the flow for the others. Move with the upstream person just slightly ahead of the next person downstream and so on down the line. If a member of the party should break away during the crossing, the remaining members should maintain formation and either back out, or complete the crossing before attempting a rescue if necessary.

Crossing in groups of three
Another crossing method is the 'Triangle' crossing. Three members enter the water in the shape of a triangle with each member facing inwards, arms linked and each grasping the person to either side of them. The heaviest person should
be at the point of the triangle that directly faces the water flow and is on the downstream side
of the triangle. In turn, each member moves one step at a time, supported by the other two.

With any crossing, ensure that important items are stowed in waterproof areas of your pack. (Plastic rubbish bags make good pack liners)If you lose your footing and are carried away, release your pack but hold onto it. Float with your head upstream, this will allow you to fend off from any obstacles with your feet. Using a rope to assist in crossing is not generally a good idea and could be hazardous unless it is anchored correctly and a proper technique used. Ropes can hold people under the water, entangling the person crossing and preventing their ability to swim. They can also become snagged on the river bed or to a rock, pinning the person in the river. A rope may also end up pulling someone from the bank into the river. Remember, flowing water is deceptively strong. Do not view river crossings lightly.

Method for gauging the width of a river (or gorge)
1. Sight a point 'A' on the opposite bank.

2. Place a marker 'B' into the bank directly opposite.

3. Walk at right angles for a known number of paces and then place another marker 'C'

4. Continue for another equal number of paces and then place another marker 'D'

5. Turn at right angles away from the river and marker 'D' and keep moving back until your second marker 'C' and the point 'A' on the other side of the river are in line. The distance from here back to 'D' will give a good approximation of the width of the river/gorge.

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