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Survive This: A Plunge into Raging Whitewater

Learn to battle your way out of a raging river—and find a safe spot to crawl to shore—with these tips.

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.


The wilderness can be a dangerous place, especially after a zombie apocalypse. This month we’re partnering with AMC’s Fear The Walking Dead to bring you advice on how to survive everything from bad weather to ravenous walkers. Stay tuned—if you can survive the end of the world, you can survive anything.

This story was written by BACKPACKER’s editorial staff. Featured content has not been influenced by AMC.

Predicament: You’re hiking through a deep gorge when you come across a slick log crossing the water. You inch across, a stream surging with hip-deep water just below you–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 obstacles1. Raise your head for better vision. Rebound off rocks with your legs, and keep away from strainers (downed trees). Kick and paddle towards calm water in an eddy or near the shore.

Before crossing a stream, remove bulky layers of clothing. If you’re wading, and the water surface comes well below your knee, cinch up pack straps for better balance. At knee level? Unbuckle your pack’s hipbelt and sternum strap and loosen the shoulder straps. Even deeper? Don’t cross; wait for slower flow, find a wider, shallower crossing point, or turn around. 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   

Beware: Low ground can also act as a pit snare for walkers; if the dead have been wandering the area for some time, odds are good that more than a few will have sunk into the gorge-bottom river, and remain there caught on rocks or in strainers. They’re likely in a dormant state, so float with care: Keeping your feet up will both protect you from getting caught on underwater rocks and trees, and keep you from kicking a submerged walker into predation mode.

Arm yourself before you crawl ashore: Grab a heavy stick and probe the shallows for hidden walkers. It can be hard to tell how long you’ve been drifting downstream, and the river can carry you into unknown territory faster than you think. 

Catch an all-new season of Fear the Walking Dead on AMC starting on April 15 at 9/8c.

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