River Crossing: How to Cross a River Safely and Properly

River Crossing: How to Cross a River Safely and Properly

The beauty of watching a mountain stream flowing through a forest could be your highlight of the hike. However, knowing how to cross it is a critical hiking skill. This is one of the riskier things that you may have to do on a trail. Bridges are possible to the opposite bank with rocks and logs, but they're often wet or covered with algae and mosses, making them slippery. This could, unfortunately, lead to slips and falls, and, ultimately to any number of things that you really don't want to experience: head injuries, broken bones, and the chance to get swept downstream.

We present to you a few techniques for crossing a fast moving river or rapids in a survival situation. Knowing where and how to cross a fast flowing river is one of the most important backcountry skills that a hiker can acquire. River crossing should not come to you as unexpected. Such hazards can be anticipated with lots of preparation and planning. Guide books, maps and Google Earth are the place to start. The next is to communicate with people who have been there recently.

River Crossing

Look Around

Try to find the best place to cross the river, avoiding bends, where water whips around the fastest.

Avoid Narrow Crossings

Narrow crossings can be the most dangerous as they’re often the deepest part of the river. Instead, look for the widest section; keep an eye out for mild ripples—which are safe to cross—and avoid whitecaps, which can be treacherously slippery.

River Crossing

Shuffle Up

Lean into the current, face upstream and move across the river with shuffling sidesteps. While you sidestep, you’re less likely to fall since you won’t lift your feet as high. In a group, link arms - this technique creates more contact points with the streambed and gives everyone a more solid footing.

Bump on a Log

If the rapids are too fast, do not shuffle; instead try to look for a log that spans the whole river and then straddle the log and scoot along until you reach the other side. Do not walk on it as it may be too slippery.

Use Trekking Poles or a Stick

Use trekking poles or a stick for extra balance to avoid falling over and as a probe to read the river's depth.

Take Off Boots

It may be a bad idea to simply walk across rocks in your boots, as you could slip very easily. Taking boots off provides better traction and get a strong stick to use it like a cane to walk across.

River Crossing


If the only option that you’re left is to swim, then swim with the current and never against it. Try keeping yourself horizontal to the water which can reduce the chances of being pulled under.

Protection of Backpack

Put all the electronics, fragile and other valuable in smaller sealable plastic or “dry” bags and put a backpack liner or a backpack rain cover. A large garbage bag can be helpful too.

Let’s conclude with these two tips - don't take any unnecessary risks, and don't push anyone past their skill and confidence level.

The rate of runoff in streams and rivers is highly variable. In light snowfall and hot spring days, streams may run at low-to-moderate levels by early summer. However, with heavy and late-season snows, rivers can run so high that trails, even ones with actual bridges, remain impassable well.

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