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How to cross a river as a group

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March 2023 Issue

The mutual support method of crossing a river.

You are at a river which you want to cross; it’s been decided it’s safe to cross and where to cross. But how should the crossing be done?

If there are two or more people, the mutual support method should be used. This method is much stronger than other forms of linking up; if one person lets go they are being held by one or two others. There is less movement between adjacent people compared to other linking methods so the forces acting on the link are less.


  • Prepare for possible immersion. You need to avoid gear getting wet or torn off, or losing your pack if you fall in. It’s recommended to double-bag gear using a pack liner and then placing essential items such as electronics, clothes and sleeping bag in another dry bag.
  • Remove any loose items on the outside of the pack. Also remove your hat and glasses, or put a tie around your glasses. Do up laces and gaiters. Consider your clothing, you may want to take off your coat, long trousers and/or long johns.
  • Keep your boots on. It is better they get wet than you injure your feet on rocks or sharp objects.
    The pack is your life jacket. For multiple or significant crossings, pack to aid buoyancy by putting light stuff on top with sleeping mats tied on top of the pack
  • Undo the chest strap and loosen the shoulder straps a little. If the pack has a quick release hip belt buckle, keep this done up. This aids stability and keeps the pack attached if you fall; it is your life jacket and has everything you need.
  • Tuck in any loose clothing that could be pushed up by the current to cover the hip belt buckle. Check you can release the buckle easily if needed, even under tension.


  • Work in groups of two to six people. More people make the group stronger but more than five or six becomes unwieldy and hard to manage. The width of a suitable crossing area may limit the group size.
  • Put the strongest person at the upstream end to break the flow for others.
  • Each person puts their hand between the back and the pack of the person beside them and holds their hip belt or pack strap.
  • The end people will each be holding one person and be held by one person. The people in the middle will each hold two people and be held by two people.


  • Keep the group in a straight line parallel to the current to minimise water resistance.
  • Don’t lift your feet; take small shuffling steps; using your feet to feel the bottom.
  • Watch the far bank as much as possible, this keeps your head up and makes it less likely that you’ll fall forward.
  • Don’t clutch at logs or boulders under the water; this may unbalance you.
  • To conserve energy, allow the current to take you in a slight diagonal direction downstream.


  • Unbinding often unbalances people, so wait until everyone is on dry land before unbinding. While it is tempting to unbind in the shallows, if you fell backwards here, it would be into the current or deeper water.
  • Algae often grow in the shallows, adding to the likelihood of slipping or falling.

What next

The mutual support method is for a group of people using large capacity packs with frames. But what if you have day packs, no packs or you’re alone? This will be discussed next month.

– Heather Grady is an instructor with Outdoor Training New Zealand