Walking On Water

Face it: you aren't Moses and the waters won't part, so here are ways to cross wild rivers safely.
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Face it: you aren't Moses and the waters won't part, so here are ways to cross wild rivers safely.

Pick your spot wisely

  • Don't cross unless you're sure you'll survive a dunk. If you wouldn't be able to swim those downstream rapids, look for a place where you can cross safely.
  • Estimate the river's power (depth x speed). Even shin-deep water can knock you off your feet if it's flowing fast enough.
  • Look for braided streambeds, which split big currents into smaller, more manageable channels.
  • Consider the river's conditions: A wide, smooth river is easier to traverse than one that is narrow and deep or running fast. The outside of a bend is typically deep and fast, and the bank may be undercut.
  • Watch for smooth streambeds (indicated by a smooth water surface) they are much safer to cross than rocky ones. But beware of slippery, algae-covered stones.
  • Make difficult mountain stream crossings early in the morning, before the sun melts the snowfields above and increases flow. After a rainstorm, wait for the water level to drop.

Prepare carefully

  • Waterproof critical gear in multiple plastic sacks or specially designed "dry bags.
  • Wear socks, slippers, or sandals, even for easy crossings, because cold bare feet can get cut or make you trip on underwater objects. For tricky crossings, wear boots, but first remove the insoles so the boots will dry faster.
  • Three or four legs are better than two, so use trekking poles or a sturdy stick.
  • Unbuckle your pack's hipbelt and sternum strap and loosen the shoulder straps so you can ditch the load quickly if you're swept off your feet.

Cross quickly but safely

  • To avoid the biggest hazardgetting an ankle trapped and your body pulled undershuffle your feet, testing the footing as you go.
  • Walk diagonally downstream for easiest travel, and drag (don't lift) your legs.
  • In strong currents, link arms with your partners. The upstream person breaks the current while the others provide a buttress.
  • Never tie in to a rope. It can drag you under.
  • If you have to swim, float your pack ahead of you and use it for balance. The pack won't sink, especially if the contents are in waterproof bags.

If you dunk...

  • Ditch your pack. It will wash ashore downstream.
  • If you can't stand up immediately, point your feet downstream to push off rocks, float on your back, and aim for quiet water.
  • To rescue a buddy, offer a stick, toss a rope, or make a human chain. Don't let yourself be pulled into the water, and never enter the water if you don't feel safe doing so.
  • Dry off thoroughly, eat hot, sweet foods, and hike fast to warm up.

Quick Tip:

The Heavier, The Better

In a fast-water ford, keep your pack on (with the hipbelt and sternum strap unbuckled). The pack's extra weight will give your feet added purchase against the current.