How To Safely Cross A River

Water crossings should only be done if absolutely necessary, and utmost care must be taken when rivers are crossed. A failed river crossing can result in severe injury or even death, so make sure to remember these simple things if a river is blocking your path.

Be Aware of River Hazards Before Crossing

If your adventure or survival situation prompts you to cross a river, make sure there is not an alternative route, such as a bridge to use. This can mean checking a map, walking along the bank, or getting to higher ground to scout the area. Look for areas where the water is both shallow and even, and don’t cross rivers that are discolored or carrying debris since this indicates flooding and powerful currents.

It’s also important to look out for areas with steep slopes and strainers since these are unsafe places to enter and exit a river. Only cross if you can see clearly the the river’s bottom and make sure the water is no higher than the knees of the shortest member of your party. If the water is flowing faster than walking pace, then it’s unsafe to cross.

Ways To Cross A River Safely

When entering the water, keep your boots on to not only maintain grip, but also to avoid injury from the riverbed. Since cold water poses a serious safety concern in the wilderness, always wear wool socks and be sure to have an extra pair in your bag. It’s also important to be slow, methodical, and aware of where you’re walking to avoid getting your feet stuck in between rocks.

If you are with a group of people, it may be a good idea to form a human chain by interlocking arms and moving across the stream together, just remember to put the strongest people on the outside of the chain. Another option is to send the strongest member of the party across the river with a rope so the others can use it to cross. If you’re crossing a river by yourself, use a stick to probe the bottom and provide balance.

How To Survive River Hazards

One of the greatest concerns with river crossings is the risk of hypothermia, so look out for signs and symptoms after crossing. These include:

  • Shivering
  • Apathy
  • Slurred Speech
  • Stumbling
  • Mumbling

If you or someone in your party is experiencing signs of hypothermia after a river crossing, make sure that you remove any wet clothes and replace them with dry ones. Don’t continue to hike until signs of hypothermia have receded, and build a fire if necessary.

If you fall during a river crossing or find yourself swept away by rapid currents, remember to avoid breathing in water by being prepared for the cold shock. If the rapids are shallow, lie on your back with feet up and facing downstream. If the rapids are deep, roll onto your stomach and swim aggressively at a 45 degree angle.


Knowing what conditions are safe for crossing is crucial when faced with a river on your path, but having adequate knowledge can spell the difference between getting across safely or possibly drowning.

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