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Backpacker Magazine – April 2008

Survive This: A Plunge into Raging Whitewater

Learn how to battle your way out of a raging river with these tips.

by: Lora Shinn

Illustration by Tim Marrs
Illustration by Tim Marrs

Predicament
You're inching across a slick log–over a stream surging with hip-deep water–when you slip and fall into the rapids.

Lifeline
Wriggle out of your pack and float on your back. Face downstream with your knees bent and toes pointing up to avoid snagging underwater obstacles. Raise your head for better vision. Rebound off rocks with your legs, and keep away from sweepers (downed trees). Kick and paddle towards calm water in an eddy or near the shore.

Before crossing a stream, remove bulky layers of clothing. It's critical that you unbuckle your pack's hipbelt and sternum strap and loosen the shoulder straps. Ford fast-flowing water facing upstream.

Despite the popular perception, don't assume that early morning is the best time to cross melt-swollen streams. Variables like river distance and snowpack depth can generate peak flow at any time of day or night, says Jessica Lundquist, an engineering professor at the University of Washington who has studied snowmelt fluctuations in Yosemite. If rushing water is more than knee-deep, wait for slower flow, find a wider, shallower crossing point, or turn around.



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READERS COMMENTS

Kendi
Sep 11, 2010

I'm a river guide and have taken Swift Water Rescue training and have been a lifeguard for over 22 years. The biggest thing to keep in mind is DO NOT TRY TO STAND UP!!!!! in moving water above mid calf (we usually say ankle deep though). In every river there is a hole just the right size to fit your foot and keep it there. If you get your foot trapped you will most likely end up dying due to hypothermia, exhaustion and/or drowning. Get to the shallow water and crawl out if you must but do not stand up until the water is either shallow enough or calm enough to do so.

Jim McBride
Apr 13, 2010

Leaving a fire burning is usually not a good idea. It might be OK in the winter if everything around is snow covered. If that is the case, you probably should not be deliberately getting wet.

Jeremy
Apr 13, 2010

@Jason - Fighting the current to get to shore will surely tire you out well before you reach it You should conserve energy by floating with the current, as the article states.

@MovingWater - Great idea if you plan on coming back. But what if you don't? Then you've left a smoldering fire... That's not LNT.

JASON
Jan 11, 2009

I THINK IF YOU ARE FOTUNATE TO ONLY HAVE TO CROSS KNEE DEEP WATER THEN IT CAN ADD TO YOUR CHANCES OF MAKING IT. THE REALITY IS IF YOU FALL IN THE WATER YOU SHOULD SWIM YOUR BUTT OFF TO ONE SIDE OR THE OTHER.YOU HAVE TO INSTANTLY START ATTACKING THE WATER AND DO SOME JUMPING JACKS WHEN YOU GET TO SHORE.

MovingWater
Sep 01, 2008

Knee-deep? I suspect that even that might be alittle ambitious. If rushing water is at your knee, it will more than likelly be not only alrready too forecful but also too cold. Knee dep water willl take even experience hikers down and give them hypothermia.

If you must really cross, start a small fire, on the river bank, let it burn down to coals. Make sure you have a warm top in a waterproof pary of your pack that willl stay dry, and then cross, that way, when you go in the drink and come back, you will be able to warm yourself with the fire, take off the wet clothes and put on the dry, and might survive.Even in warmm ambient your body wet will lose core temp quickly.

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