River crossing 101

July 06, 2015 Vince Shuley

If you journey out into the wilderness far enough, there likely will come a time when you have to cross a flowing body of water with no bridge or conveniently placed stepping stones. It’s a common occurrence in early winter conditions in the backcountry, in which case you may need turn around or slip your boots off and carry them over the stream.

river crossing
A swift water rescue scenario demonstrates the “line astern” technique | Photo yelp.com

For the sake of this article and the fact that it’s ridiculously warm outside in British Columbia right now, let’s assume the river crossing is taking place during a summer hiking trip.

The first thing one needs to come to terms with is that your feet are going to get wet. If the water is low and there’s only one stream to cross that day, bare feet is an option. But taking off shoes introduces the chance of lacerating or otherwise injuring the soles of your feet, which will be much more painful than walking along with the squelch of wet hikers.
If there’s no practical way around, the crossing starts by choosing a suitable site. The ideal river crossing should be as narrow as possible on a straight section, as bends have eroded banks that are more unpredictable. Watch for downstream hazards like waterfalls, rocks or wooden debris.

river crossing
Bracing against the flow of the river is important in order to stay upright | Photo Vince Shuley

Trekking or ski poles are particularly useful in rivers, helping maintain balance and can be used to probe the depth of the water and look for potential foot holds. Improvising with a tree branch also works if you’re in a forested area and remember to always face against the current so you can brace effectively against the water flow.
If the water is above waist level at the deepest and fastest-flowing part of the river (usually the middle), the chances of getting pushed over into the river increase dramatically, particularly in the likely scenario of  wearing a heavy pack. There’s a couple of handy techniques that can also reduce the chance of  getting soaked from head to toe, or more catastrophically, getting washed away downstream. When travelling in a group you can use the “line astern” technique, whereby group members hold onto each other’s waist straps or shoulders one behind the other, kind of like a river-faring congo line. The leader (usually the strongest) is supported by his or her team lined up behind them downstream, who assist in bracing the leader against the flow as everyone crab-walks across the river. Another technique is the “group wedge,” where three or more team members huddle with arms around each others shoulders to create an eddy. With everyone slowly stepping sideways, the wedge rotates across the river with everyone bracing against the flow. Coordinated movements will require direction from the leader and a dry run on the bank is a good idea.

river crossing Holly Walker
Ski mountaineer Holly Walker plunges through yet another river in the Tanimas Valley, Tajikistan | Photo Vince Shuley

Ropes can be used to tether group members but should only be used as a last resort.

By combining the right location with the appropriate technique, you can cross rivers without risking the life of you or your friends.