Image of the March 2014 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
March 2014 Issue
Home / Articles / Skills

Safely cross a river

The mutual support method: linked up, clasping clothes and pack straps

Rivers account for one-third of all New Zealand drowning and with more than 180,000km of rivers in New Zealand, it’s inevitable that you’re going to come across one sooner or later during your outdoor activities.

But while some popular tracks have swing bridges or cableways, the majority do not and it’s up to you to use sound skills and judgement.

Here are some tips and things to consider:

Before attempting any river crossing, Nathan Watson from the Mountain Safety Council, says you should ask yourself three questions.

Do I need to cross?

“If in doubt, stay out,” says Watson. It may be safer to wait out heavy rain and let flood water subside, or maybe you should change your route to avoid having to cross a river.

Where do I cross?

Look at the river from all angles and try and get higher up so you can see sandbanks, channels and the depth. “Look for a crossing place with an even bottom, preferably a shingle bed, and smooth, slow moving water,” says Watson. “Avoid crossing rivers with discolouration, surging water or major rapids, sounds of rolling stones on the riverbed or with trees and debris being carried along.”

How do I cross?

Try and plan a route with known crossing places. All river-crossing methods have their advantages and disadvantages and no method is absolutely safe.

“I recommend the mutual support method, either using hip belts or pack straps or using a clothing grasp,” advises Watson. “If you slip or lose your grip then your companions can support you.”

When crossing…

* Keep your body side on to the current

* Take small shuffling steps

* Move diagonally downstream with the current to conserve energy

* Have a leader to control the crossing and make sure everyone can hear instructions

* Have the strongest people at the upstream end to break flow for others

* Be prepared to retreat if the crossing doesn’t go as expected

Here’s a video from the Mountain Safety Council showing how you can safely cross a river: