How To Cross A River: The Hiker’s Guide

An open lead in the Arctic. Not a river, but not the kind of water you want to jump into!
A narrow water obstacle (open lead) at the North Pole. Not the kind of water crossing you want to attempt.

Picture the scene: your hike has taken you deep into the serene and beautiful hills. Ahead lie swathes of green grass, shimmering peaks and slashes of crystal blue water. But in no time at all the stunning view turns dim as the rains come and turns streams into wild torrents. Now you need to know how to cross a river.

On your travels there are times when your route is going to be blocked by a river, or significant body of water. Some organisations, think military, advocate only one way to cross these kinds of features: jump in with all your gear and swim across! Not one of the rules for hiking we recommend.

Crossing swollen rivers or large bodies of water can be hazardous. Following a storm or flood there is a real risk to life. Today we’re going to explore a number of methods you can use to move or reduce the risk that comes with crossing a water feature.

Walk Around The Water Obstacle

Sometimes this is the easiest method of avoiding getting wet. Walking around a water obstacle (a river, a lake, open lead, etc) will add some distance to your journey and you need to carefully consider the full length of your detour before making a decision.

As an example, and depending on the risk associated with the crossing, you might find it’s simpler just to cross the river. Adding 10 miles to your hike as you search for a shallow crossing point versus wading through one metre deep water doesn’t make sense.

Wade Through The Water

Every river you will ever come across will have both deep and shallow points. The key here is to find a point in the water or stretch of the river that is shallow enough for you to simply walk across whilst remaining safe. A word of caution: flowing water that reaches over waste height is a risk and shouldn’t be attempted if you’re hiking alone.

Here are a few points to consider before you and wade in:

  1. Strip off the bulk of your clothes. Wade through the water in your underwear and keep your mid and shell layers dry.
  2. Seal all your dry clothing in a dry bag (always, always pack your equipment inside a dry bag).
  3. If working in a group tie a piece of rope between the first person into the water and a second person. The latter will remain on the bank and act as an anchor point.
  4. Use your backpack as an emergency flotation aid (buoyancy can be achieved by inflating your dry bag and sealing it in a way that it holds a large volume of air inside)
  5. Wear a pair of trainers for the crossing. If you don’t have a spare set of footwear, then wade in your socks. Never wear your hiking boots to cross the river because wet footwear causes blisters (check out my guide on how to prevent blisters).
  6. Walking poles can be used to provide stability when crossing.
  7. Test the current before fully committed. If it feels too strong step back out and find another crossing point.
  8. Wear a minimal amount of clothing when you cross. Walking around in soaking wet gear is not particularly proud pleasant and, in cold environments, there is a real risk of hypothermia.

Swim

Swimming across a water obstacle is one of those last resort methods. The time it takes to prepare and find a suitable crossing point is significantly longer than wading through a river. Swimming is also hard work and comes with it additional hazards:

  1. Risk of drowning.
  2. Cold injuries.
  3. Water borne diseases/parasites.

How to prepare to swim across the river:

  1. Test the current first. If it’s too strong, find another place to cross.
  2. Strip down as far as you’re comfortable and place your equipment inside the dry bag in your backpack.
  3. When sealing your dry bag trap as much air as possible inside so that it acts as a flotation aid.
  4. Secure your backpack to your wrist using one of the straps, or piece of rope. If you encounter difficulties, you won’t lose your flotation aid.
  5. After entering the water place one arm over your backpack, then use your legs and free arm to paddle your way to the far shores.
  6. Keep our strokes steady, don’t rush and definitely don’t stop.
  7. If at any point you feel the current is pulling away is too strong, turn around and head back to the point where you enter the water.

If you’re hiking in a small group a group use ropes attached to the swimmer and one person acting as an anchor point. This will allow you to haul back anyone running into difficulties during the crossing. Once on the far side the first person can pull team mates across.

Make A Raft

This method works best when you have a group of hikers attempting to cross a river. It will also work for lone hikers carrying a large backpack. The idea is simple: use your backpack(s) as a makeshift raft.

Even if you’re a solo hiker and your ruck is large enough park you can lie on it and scull your way across the river.

If hiking in a group you can lash a number of backpacks together to form a larger raft.

How to make a raft from two, or more, backpacks:

  1. Inflate and seal the dry bag in each backpack.
  2. Use the straps of each backpack straps to secure them together.
  3. Lash a rope between your makeshift raft and one person who will remain on shore an act as an anchor/safety. If you’re alone hiker this doesn’t apply to you.
  4. Remove any clothing unnecessary clothing to prevent it from becoming soaked.
  5. Once the first person has crossed the first person who crosses then attaches a rope between themselves at the raft
  6. The person acting as the anchor point on the foreshore will now pull the raft back and make their way across.

The person has just crossed the river can help by pulling the rope and drawing the raft across the river

Use A Bridge

Common sense tells us that at some point to another every river will have a bridge over it. Finding one may not always be simple and there is a possibility you might have to add a significant number of extra miles to your hike in order to find a suitable bridge to cross.

Play cheers no two bridges I’ll be there like all made a like. What do you do you find one take a little bit of time to make sure it’s safe to cross. Here are a few suggestions:

  1. Visual assessment, does the bridge looks safe to cross?
  2. Look for warning signs. In particular, anything that indicates the bridge is on safe to cross.
  3. If structure looks rickety, test it. The last thing you want is to plunge through a rotten plank and plunge through into the water polo.
  4. Move steadily across the bridge without stopping.

If you’re lucky enough to find a steady concrete bridge then disregard all the points above and strike out the far side for bank.

Did you find these tips useful? I’d be grateful if you could share this post and let everyone know how to cross a river. Back soon, happy trails.