River Rapids

Survival Skills – Crossing Rivers

In a lot of situations in the wild, you may find the need to cross a stream or a river.  Sometimes you may be prepared to do that, like when fishing with a pair of waders on and you want to get to a sweet spot on the other side.  Or sometimes when hunting you may need to ford a stream to get to a downed bird or animal.  And of course in survival situations the ability to cross a river may mean the difference in life and death.  In all cases, there are some important things to keep in mind, because in any case you don’t want to get washed down the river, injured, or worse yet, drown.

The very first rule (after you have done some investigation of your options) is to determine if the risk is worth the reward.  Many times I have crossed a river that was too fast only to try to get to a good fishing spot, and many times I fell.  My waders filled up, and I got washed downstream, a few times sustaining some significant injuries along the way.  It has been a long time since I let that happen, I have learned my lessons, but that doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen again.

When I say to assess the risk versus the reward, which is the crucial thing I didn’t always do in my younger days, I mean to evaluate what you will accomplish by crossing the river.  If it is 15 degrees in January and you are trying to retrieve a wounded duck, this may be a situation where you wouldn’t want to risk your own life by getting into treacherous water.  While I certainly don’t condone wasting wildlife, your life is more important than that of a duck.  In that particular case, you shouldn’t be shooting in a situation where that could result in the first place.  In certain survival situations, you may have to cross a river, and in that case, you need to know how to do it safely.


Where would you cross?

So with that paramount rule in mind, here are some things to consider and look for when needing to cross a stream or river:

  •  The first thing to do is look for a safe place to cross a river.  Look for a level part of the river, without rapids (unless they are very shallow).  If there is a place where the river breaks into two or more wide channels, this is even better, unless they are fast rushing channels formed by the river being squeezed into a smaller area, like a chute.
  • If you can’t see a large enough stretch of the river from where you are standing, try to get a better view from higher ground, or climbing a tree (keep in mind that climbing trees is dangerous too, so be careful about that).
  • Be sure to look at what is on the other side of where you choose to cross.  If there is a steep bank, dense vegetation, or some other obstacle, that is not a good place to cross.
  • If you see sand bars in the river, that generally means that the river flattens out in that area.  If you cross upstream from a sandbar, you know that you will have an area where the river slows down below you.
  • Try to find a route that will take you at about a 45 degree angle downstream.  Trying to cross upstream against a current is much more difficult, and more likely to cause you to fall.
  • Keep in mind that rocks submerged in water are going to be very slippery.  I have found the most slippery rocks in some of the fasted waters that I fish.  I’m not a biologist, so I can’t explain that, but that’s been my experience.
  • Obviously avoid deep rapids or waterfalls, although some small waterfalls caused by beaver dams are ideal places to cross, on top of the dam.
  • Be wary of large boulders in the river as they create different water flows ahead of, and behind them.  Ahead of and directly behind a large boulder, the water is slowed down, but only at those points.  The water is faster than the rest of the river just to either side of those boulders.

Strong Flowing River

Those are a few things to look for, these are the basics, but there is much more to talk about regarding this topic.  In future posts I will discuss this topic in more detail as I believe this is an often overlooked skill that many people don’t even think about.  Maybe I’ll even share a real-life story of how I learned what I know today regarding crossing rivers.