How to Cross Rivers Safely

 How to Cross Rivers Safely

Oftentimes rivers are fairly easy to cross without too much hassle but heavy and rains and melting snow can change all that and turn it into a dangerous crossing. Moving water is risky but by following some simple safety advice you can ensure that you stay upright and get to the other side without any issues.

River Crossing Safety

It only takes as little as 6 inches of fast flowing water to sweep you off your feet and put you in a dangerous situation. If at all possible, you should look for an alternate route across but if you have no other choice, follow the tips below.

Check the Crossing First

The last thing you need is to get over to the other side only to find your exit route is blocked. Don’t just find a spot and wade straight in, scout it out first. You may notice that the direct line between yourself and the other side isn’t the safest option in which case you will need to plan another line. Current accelerates through narrow points in a channel. A wider place might be slower-moving. Select a crossing point where the stream is straight as current also accelerates around curves. Avoid crossing above strainers—fallen trees with branches in the water—which can trap and drown a hiker.

If there is no safe place to cross, then don’t. Your life isn’t worth the risk.

Get Your Pack Ready

If you slip while you are in the water you don’t want your pack making it hard to regain your balance. Before stepping into the water, undo both the waist belt and sternum strap on your pack. If needed, you will quickly be able to release your pack. Pack everything into plastic bags to help keep them dry and provide buoyancy.

Water Shoes

If when planning your trip you know that you are going to be needing to cross bodies of water, consider bring along some water shoes. You should never cross barefoot as you will run the risk if injury from sharp rocks, wayward fishing tackle, broken glass, and rusty metal. If you don’t have any water shoes? It’s better to cross in your boots or wool socks than barefoot.

Wading Staff

You don’t have to fork out for a trekking pole but if you do, be very careful that the tip of the pole does not become stuck. A much easier option is to just grab a hefty stick, at least 2 inches in diameter. This will provide you with a third point of contact as you traverse the current.

Remove Your Pants

Wearing pants can increase drag while crossing so if they don’t zip off at mid-thigh, take them off to reduce drag while crossing and to keep them dry. It is all good crossing a stream safely but you don’t want to end up getting hypothermia from your wet clothing on the opposite side.

Angle Upstream

When crossing, do so at an angle to the opposite shore heading slightly upstream, this will give you more stability against a strong current.

Don’t Cross in the Rain

Always be aware of your surroundings. The depth and speed of the water could change in seconds. Avoid crossing a river when it’s raining as a flash flood upstream could trigger a rush of water before you even have a chance to react.


The more legs you have the more stable you will become. One person should wade slightly upstream and in front, which breaks the current for the other person while the downstream person provides added stability for the upstream hiker. Three people are even better, forming a triangle as you cross.

Personal Floatation Devices

Wearing a personal floatation device is highly recommended, especially when you are crossing knee-deep river. You can purchase a floatation device online or from your go-to survival gear shop. Choose a lightweight one that’s easy to carry and pack. PFDs can save your life if you have no choice but to cross a deep river.

Be Careful of Eddies

Eddies can form below large rocks and against uneven riverbanks. While this water is calmer, the current can be very strong and in the opposite direction from the main flow of water along the eddy line (the edges of the eddy). If you wade through an eddy, be cautious crossing the eddy line going into and out of it; it can throw you off balance.

Be Prepared to Turn Back

If you feel like you can’t make it or you start to run into trouble, turn around and head back. Even shallow water can sweep you off your feet. Throw a stick into the water. If you cannot walk as fast as it floats downstream, the current is too strong to attempt a safe crossing. If the water is deeper than mid-thigh, it’s too deep. Find another crossing point, turn back, or wait for the water level to lessen.

If You Fall Down

If you get knocked off your feet, slip out of your pack immediately. Don’t waste time and energy trying to get back up. You probably won’t be able to. You want to orient yourself feet-first, and then get on your back. You want to use your feet rather than your head to bounce off objects. Stay on your back so you can see what’s coming. Try to steer toward the shore. As long as you don’t drown, your next course of action needs to be staving off hypothermia.

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