Nothing can ruin a backcountry adventure like a surprise appearance by an unexpected river. When an unforeseen waterway appears along the path, those formerly soothing sounds of the rushing rapids will start to sound a lot like, “Ha ha ha ha, you have to either cross me or turn back!” Unfortunately, crossing a river is one of the trickiest and most dangerous challenges that can arise in the wilderness. Don’t believe us? Just ask Bear Grylls:
Even the mighty battler of the wild was no match for the river, and he’s made out of lion strength and courage dust. Believe us then when we say that knowing how to safely cross a river is a must-have skill when venturing into the great outdoors. If you don’t want to end up like poor Bear, you’re in luck, because we’ve got these helpful tips to safely guide you across surprise rivers:
To cross or not to cross?
As we’ve seen, Mother Nature likes to laugh in the face of expertise, experience, and preparedness. Sometimes all of the guides, tips, and practice in the world still can’t stand up to the power of nature. Therefore, one of the most important skills in surviving in the wilderness is realizing when it’s best not to challenge it. In this case, that means knowing when it’s safer to just turn back. Some signs you’re better off forgoing the crossing:
- There’s a lot of debris in the river. Those logs and branches whizzing by aren’t going to politely move out of your way should you decide to cross. It’s more likely that they’ll strike you, and if that weren’t rude enough, they may even knock you on your rump and send you on your way down the river. That would be bad.
If the river looks like this, it may be wise to turn back.
(Image Credit: http://blogs.wsj.com)
- The current fails the Branch Test. Never heard of the Branch Test? That’s because I just made it up. It’s pretty easy and lets you gauge the speed of the current. Simply toss a branch into the river. If the branch gets swiftly and violently swept away, chances are good that you will too.
- Flows are above your knees. This much water can knock you off balance, and it’s awfully hard to cross a river when you’re being whisked downstream.
- You’re wearing long pants. Since it’s not always practical or warm enough to wear shorts, convertible pants are a must. One zip and they’re shorts! Two zips and they’re pants again! Long pants will increase resistance to the river’s current. Even if you manage to make it safely across, you’ll be wearing soaking wet pants all day, which is right up there with “Being the People in The Blair Witch Project” on the list of things that can ruin an outdoor adventure.
Gearing up for the crossing
Okay, so you’ve scoped out the scene, unzipped your convertible pants, and the water is shallow and debris-free so now it’s time to cross, right? Not so fast! We know you’re anxious to get on with your hike, but before you shuffle on in, there are some steps to take to minimize the risks:
- Scout the river in search of an ideal crossing place. There may be bridges or shallow braided channels where the current is less intense. If not, search for a straight, wide, shallow stretch of river. Imagine the river winding along in the shape of an ‘S’. The safest crossing spot would be between the bends in the middle of the ‘S’. Should you lose your footing, the current may sweep you into the bank of a bend.
- Find a low, open exit point on the opposite side so that you can scramble out of the river with ease. You don’t want to do all the hard work of crossing safely just to slip down a steep bank and end up back in the river.
Probably not the best exit spot.
- Tend to your pack. Make sure important items are stored in waterproof areas. Then, loosen the heck out of the chest and waist straps. If you lose your footing, a tightly secured backpack may snag or hold you down, whereas a loose backpack can be easily removed and used as a flotation device.
- Keep your shoes on! It may be tempting to remove them and avoid a day of soggy feet, but resist. It’s always wise to pack an extra pair, but even if you haven’t, you need that good shoe traction. Plus, a barefoot crossing can seriously injure your feet, and all the dry shoes in the world can’t soothe a broken ankle.
- Fashion a trekking pole (assuming, of course, that you haven’t brought an actual trekking pole). Find a sturdy branch about five or six feet long, and voila! Instant trekking pole that you can use to measure depth and steady yourself against the current.
These would be perfect if only they weren’t still attached to the tree.
Going for it
Once you’re ready to enter the water, it should go something like this:
1. Place the trekking pole on your upstream side.
2. Face upstream and take sideways, shuffling footsteps as you cross diagonally downstream.
3. Make sure to always keep two points of contact on the river bend for maximum stability.
4. Don’t look at the flowing water, which can set you off balance.
*If you’re traveling with others, you’re in luck! It’s safer to cross in numbers than to go it solo. Interlock arms and cross in a line with the strongest person in the upstream position.
Usain Bolt having just crossed a river.
When you emerge successfully and safely from the river, show Mother Nature who’s boss with an in-your-face victory dance.