Crossing rivers or lakes can be risky. Waters that appear still could have strong currents and seemingly shallow waters could suddenly turn out to be quite deep. Assessing the situation is step one. Knowing how to deal with possible water dangers is step two. In this section, we will give some guidelines on crossing rivers and lakes and how to deal with Water Hazards.

  • If you can avoid river wading and especially swimming then do so! If there is a bridge one mile up the river then detour and take the bridge. Safety always comes first!
  • In general, you should try to remain calm when anything happens to you and you end up in the water. Frantic swimming will get you tired quickly. Try to remain calm and float as you assess your situation and try to come up with a solution.
  • Should you be swept away when crossing a river and the river is filled with obstacles like rocks and logs, the safest position is to float on your back with your legs in front of you to absorb any bumps while using your arms to push away obstacles and steer.
  • Should a hiking partner fall into the water, try using rope or sticks and make an effort to get him/her back to shore. Keep the rope flexible and do not tie it to a tree or other obstacle. A strong current might drag the victim under with no slack to submerge again.

Stream & River Wading

  • Smaller rivers often have boulders. Try finding a place where you would be able to cross the river by using these boulders as stepping stones. Extend your Hiking Poles for more balance. Find a large stick if you do not have Hiking Poles with you. Go from boulder to boulder, planting the balls of your feet on the summit of each boulder. Wet rocks, especially those overgrown with mosses, can be very slippery so go slow and plan your moves.
  • Always walk along the river bank and find a good place to cross. Do not try to find the place where the river is narrowest. Wider parts of the river may have slower currents and shallower waters. Look for boulders that either provide a path or at least slow down the current and provide easy surfaces of deposited gravel behind them. Choose a trackable route (should things get rougher) that offers safe passage all the way to the other side.
  • If you have to wade through the river then assess the river bottom surface. Go in with bare feet only if you are sure that there is no chance of cuts or serious scrapes. If you go bare feet then put your socks in your boots, put them in your backpack, and use your backpack’s splash cover. If your backpack is full then tie the laces together and hang the boots on your backpack. Use your pair of sandals if you brought one.
  • You can assess the current of a flowing river by throwing a stick or other floating object in the water. You will be surprised how seemingly calm rivers can still have a strong current. In stronger currents, plan a route that angles down and is across the current of the river.
  • Undo the waist belt of your backpack. Should you fall, your backpack could drag you down and seriously constrain your movement. With your waist belt undone, you will be able to easily slip out of your backpack should you get dragged away.

Stream & River Swimming

Swimming with a Backpack

  • In general, try to avoid swimming by looking for places that offer safer solutions.
  • Watch out for mountain streams. Their currents are usually unpredictable and the temperature of the water is much too low for swimming. Melting glacier water will freeze you in minutes.
  • As explained in river wading, it is essential to unfasten your waist belt.
  • Do anything you can to increase the buoyancy of your backpack. If you have a splash cover for your backpack then use it. If you do not have one, do anything to keep your backpack from getting wet. Tuck in any equipment that you might have at the outside of your backpack. In case you have empty bottles, put them in the outside pockets of your backpack. If you have plastic bags, you could even fill those up with air and seal them at the outside of your pack.
  • Keep the things you want to keep dry sealed in plastic bags or, if you do not have any plastic bags at your disposal, use your poncho/rain gear for extra protection against water.

  • If you have an air mattress with you, use it as a flotation device and try swimming in the normal way with your backpack on and your air mattress underneath you. In wilder waters, do not use your air mattress as it increases the chances of floating away. If you brought a inflatable life vest then use that and leave your air mattress packed.
  • If you backpack is sufficiently buoyant, you can use it as a flotation device.
  • If your backpack is heavy and pulls you under, try swimming with one arm in the shoulder strap of your backpack and the other arm free.
  • In case of strong currents, make sure to swim across the flow of the current. Swimming against the current will drain your energy quickly. Instead, stay calm and swim across the current direction until you feel its strength weakening.

In Hiking, there may be instances when you have to cross rivers or streams. Keep in mind that safety should be your first priority. Assess the situation and know how to traverse rivers or streams safely.