Survival: Cross a River

Don't get swept away, use this technique.

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After a multiday downpour, four friends and I tried to ford the waist-deep McKinley River, in Denali National Park. I was the last in a single-line chain (each hiker holding the waist of the person in front). But the chain broke, and I ended up floating down the glacier-fed river, with my pack dragging me down because I’d neglected to unbuckle it. My fingers went numb almost instantly, yet I got lucky and was able to open the buckles by batting at them repeatedly. Now, when I cross a river, in addition to unbuckling my pack, I remember these precautions:

1. Look for braids, which indicate shallower channels.

2. Avoid areas that have strainers, sweepers, or a cut bank on the far side that will be hard to climb up.

3. With multiple people, use the “pyramid” technique: Link arms, spread into a V with the point facing upstream, and move sideways across the river.

4. If you fall in, float feet forward and swim like hell for shore.

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