When you're a backcountry user it's inevitable that at some stage you are going to have to cross a river. Some will be no issue at all, others will require some skills to be able to negotiate it safely. It's about making the right choice. And the question is do you have to cross it at all!
Here in New Zealand rivers kill a lot of people every year, 21 people died in New Zealand rivers last year. These where a result of river crossings, either by a slip or fall when crossing or being washed away due to depth or flow.
The potential for something to go wrong here is huge. I don't think I'd be relying on my walking poles to cross this.
There are many hazards with rivers and crossing them and you need to have knowledge about them. Each river is different and can present their own unique hazards. These could be rapids, Submerged trees or logs, undercut banks, large rocks or obstructions, strainers like old fences or tree limbs. The depth and flow of a river.
A great example of a strainer with something stuck.
Planning to cross a river requires some thought. Yes there will be some rivers that do not require any thought other than just walking through. Ankle or knee deep, wide, clear, gravel river bed, very low current. A river crossing that, other than getting cold wet feet is the biggest concern.
A simple and safe river crossing.
However that same river with a few hours of rain fall can suddenly become a ranging torrent that once across means you are now stuck on the other side. A river that is now un-crossable or maybe not, "I think I can make it, it doesn't look too bad". Again, you need to make the right Choice.
One of the best things back country users can do is do a river safety course and there are lots of organisations that run them. The likes of NZDA HUNTS courses, NZOIA, LandSAR, Outdoor Training NZ and others. Seeking guidance and training from a qualified instructors to ensure safe practices and correct crossing techniques is well worth while and saves lives.
An NZDA run HUNTS course river safety training.
River safety awareness, preparation and just having that prior knowledge from completing a river safety course can make a huge difference. Understanding the river dynamics, crossing techniques, and being able to assess the river to minimise the risks and those risks could be the difference between getting home safely or not. It can be as simple as preventing having an accident or serious injury or worse.
Understanding river dynamics as a group or individual is essential.
Prior planning of a trip will take into consideration what the weather is doing and what it has been doing over the last few days also. You are going but take into account what the weather will be doing in the headwaters of the same area you will be travelling in. It might be fine where you are but pouring in the headwaters. Within a few hours your river you crossed could have significant flow increase to the point you can't get back across.
Doing a river safety course is generally a few hours in a classroom understanding rivers and the dangers they can present. As a group, prior to going to the river you might 'dry practice' crossing techniques. Then it's off to the river to put into practice. Looking at the river, assessing a safe entry and exit, river colour, flow, depth, assessing a safe crossing point. Looking for anything that could be a danger.
Looking at a river, just by simply throwing a stick in and walking beside it can tell you the speed of the river water. If your stick is travelling faster than you can walk it's probably too fast to cross. Knee deep and about 5km per hour is enough to sweep you off your feet. Even discoloured water can hide depth or hidden obstacles.
Fast following and dis-coloured with obstacles. This could be very dangerous.
At the river, if you are on your own you need a good solid pole that can hold your body weight to help assist you get across. Some use their walking poles and in some instances they can work but if you had to put all your body weight on your walking poles to assist while crossing a fast following river there is a good chance they won't hold your weight. And that can have dire consequences. Best bet is find a good solid branch to help you get across.
A good solid pole to help assist in crossing is a good idea.
Another really good thing to put into practice is correctly packing your pack so that all your gear, clothing, survival and first aid gear, food, tent, sleeping bag etc is protected inside your pack in a good waterproof packliner or dry bag. The idea here is that if you had a fall while crossing atleast you know everything in your pack is going to remain safe and dry. Worst case you'll get everything your wearing wet but everything else will remain dry. This could be where doing your assessment of crossing the river, you strip off down to undies and boots and everything else goes in the dry bag.
On packing your pack, With your gear being put into the dry bag or packliner inside your pack, as a rule you should try put your heavier items to the bottom of the packliner with the lighter items like your spare cloths, bed roll, sleeping bag at the top. Once all in and sealed off this creates and air pocket inside your pack so the weight keeps your hips in the water with the top of the pack keeping your head/ chest up in the water if you should fall in. It is like a big buoyancy devise. It will keep you afloat.
You can see how buoyant the pack is during a pack swimming exercise. Feet first facing down stream and side swimming to the safe exit side.
If you decide to cross a river and you've got all your gear in your pack but what your wearing on, think about what would happen if the cloths prevented you from escaping by restricting access to belt straps if you had to get out of your pack fast. So on that look at what you are wearing, any lose clothing, maybe put in your drybag or tuck it in to ensure it's more streamlined. Even large jackets, pockets full up with water, and can fold over your belt release buckle. Do you need to wear it? Think about what your wearing and if you went in could it make swimming hard or getting gear off harder.
Make sure you don't do up your chest strap as this could ride up under your neck and choke you. Loosen off your pack straps so that if you had to get out of your pack fast you could. Loosen off, not too much your hip belt strap and make sure you can access it easily. All things that if you had to ditch your pack to save yourself will makes it that little bit easier. But if you have to ditch your pack try keeping hold of it as everything you need is in it.
Do we take off our boots to cross a river? There will be some rivers you could to save getting your boots wet. But as a rule no we don't. Imagine you've just walked twenty kms to that crossing point, take off your boots to cross and half way across you stand on a sharp stick that goes right into your foot. You are in real trouble now. How do you walk out? You've got to look after your feet. Some people will carry a pair of Crocs or similar as they are light to carry and dry fast for river crossing saving getting their boots wet for the rest of the trip.
Crossing in socks? discoloured water, what happens if there was some broken glass in there? Not a good move.
In the event of a slip mid stream and your floating downstream, feet first look where you're going. Your feet can be used to push of any obstacles. You should have planned that in the event of this happening I need to side swim to the left or right to safely exit.
Having a unintended swim is not nice (maybe on a hot day) but even so if you have planned correctly, all your warm cloths should be safe in your dry bag. Get to the exit point. If conditions are cold and windy this cold river dunking could make matters worse with the onset of hypothermia. It might be now you can test out your fire lighting skills to warm up and get your warm clothes on, maybe a hot drink.
An unfortunate slip and a wet pack swim. With good planning all your dry gear and cloths should be safe in your pack.
There is always the chance of an accident happening so having a plan that covers as many options as you can is optimal. What to do in the event of an emergency, have a plan. Can you get help if you needed it? have you got cell phone coverage, Carry a EPRIB or emergency located beacon, maybe an Inreach.
As with doing a river safety course you will learn solo crossing and group crossing this is one of those times when you can put into practice. But the real question is do you have to cross the river at all. Yes there will be times you have to, there is no choice. But there will be times in your planning that you know there is a perfectly good bridge you could use then do so.
A perfectly good bridge to use. Good planning to get in and out without getting wet.
From a safety perspective, you've mitigated any risk, you stay dry, keep your boots from getting wet and could prevent having an accident or an unintentional swim. That is good planning. But if you have to cross that river don't take a risk that could be your last. Remember at the start of this article I said you need to make the right choice. This is the time to stop and think.