In this video, I cover 14 top tips for crossing a river safely. Whenever I know there’s a chance of crossing a river on a hike, I will use these tips to ensure I cross safely each time.
Knowing how to assess and then cross a river safely is a core skill that you need to know if you’re heading into the bush and encountering water obstacles.
1. Do your homework
Even before you leave the house, check the route where you are going – will you be crossing a river at any point? Check the weather report for at least a week before. You need to know if there has been any bad weather or heavy rain that may affect the size of the river. If the route takes you through a National Park, get onto their website and check for any dangers or warnings (they are usually good at keeping the information up to date). Finally, call them and speak to a Warden who knows the area and ask them any questions about the river and what sort of scenarios you may encounter.
2. Don’t take unnecessary risks
It’s a no-brainer, but don’t take any unnecessary risks. It’s not worth your life, or the lives of others who may have to be called out to rescue you. Cut the hike short, or just re-route so you don’t have to cross the river if you don’t need to.
3. Find a good stick (or hiking pole)
If you’ve got a hiking pole then all good, but if not, find a good stick. Preferably one that is nice and thick, and strong. If you can get one at least a foot or so taller than you as well then this is good as you can lean your shoulder into it when you’re crossing. A pole works as an extra leg and support on the bed of the river as you’re crossing.
4. Assess the situation
Once you’re at the river, assess the situation. Look both up and down stream and check where the best place to cross is as sometimes the path leading you to the river is not the best point. Look for a slower current and preferably water no deeper than your waist. The more body you have in the water, the more drag you create and the more chance you have of falling in.
5. Test the current
If you’re happy with the point where you’re going to cross, test the current by throwing some sticks into the water and see how fast each point of the river is flowing. You can start to get a mental picture in your head of where the fast points are and if you need to be mindful of eddies or other currents.
6. Assess your exit plan
A point often overlooked. Once you’ve decided on a good spot, check across to the other river bank and confirm that you can get up and out from the river bank. There’s nothing worse than getting across to the other side and then having a mad scramble up the bank to get back onto the path.
7. Always wear foot protection
If you can, take a smaller pair of swimming shoes or thongs to cross the river with. The last thing you want to do is cut your feet to shreds on sharp rocks, debris or dead wood unseen under the water, especially if you are a long way from civilisation. I’d rather have wet boots and dry them overnight than risk cutting my feet crossing a river.
8. Loosen all the points on your backpack
There have been cases where people have fallen into rivers and their bags have been caught on submerged obstacles, causing them to drown. So if you’re wearing a backpack or rucksack, loosen off all the straps, and unbuckle any points so you can get the bag off as quickly as possible.
9. Prepare any valuables for getting wet
If you’re carrying a mobile phone, car keys, camera etc. then it’s always best to prepare them for the eventuality of getting wet. I use a double zip lock bag to keep anything I want dry to stay dry. Again, worst case scenario planning here.
10. Create an equilateral triangle
The idea is to use the pole or stick to create an equilateral triangle between your feet at the back and the stick at the front. This is proven to provide the best frame for support.
11. Spread your weight evenly
Where you can, always try to spread your weight as evenly as possible. This way you’re not relying on one point of the triangle too much. If that point gives way you have a higher chance of falling in.
12. Always face up-river
Face into the flow of the river so you have a better chance of controlling your positioning and angle into the current. You can also see any obstables or debris that may be coming down the river and act accordingly.
13. Take your time!
It’s not a race, and there’s no medal for getting across in one go. If it starts to get too deep, or the current becomes too strong, then head back. This goes back to points 2 and 4. Don’t take unnessary risks, and assess the situation.
14. Mark your crossing for future reference
If there’s a chance that you won’t be able to find the safe crossing point when you’re heading back, then mark it with a cairn so you can find it again.