How to Cross Rivers, Streams Or Rapids Safely?

Jeremy Bowyer
Written By Jeremy Bowyer

Jeremy Bower is a generational survivalist and expert outdoorsman.

Whilst in the wilderness we have been met by many challenging situations, however rivers, streams and rapids have proven to be a nasty and difficult thing to overcome. Especially, if you are in an area you have never known before. Surely, if you have been to the river, stream or rapid previously, you are well acquainted with it.

river passing

Therefore, you might not experience thorough trouble, however crossing water is more difficult than you might imagine, especially if it’s a larger distance to cross over.

Whether you are out camping or it’s more of an emergency survival situation, you should always be prepared. Similarly, to creating your survival gear, you need to prepare your mind for survival. And that counts for crossing rivers, streams and rapids, which are equally, if not more dangerous than simply sleeping in the wilderness.

In this article we will talk about the steps you need to take in order to cross the river, stream or rapid in a safe and healthy manner. It might not be easy; however, you will be glad that you’ve done it and stayed healthy and without injuries.

Learn How to Cross Rivers Safely In 6 Easy Steps

Step 0 – Be Aware

Being aware is always important, it doesn’t really matter where you are. However, when it comes to survival your awareness level should be much higher than usual. It’s really important to know that every single river, stream or rapid can be more dangerous than it looks.

That means that you need to be prepared with enough knowledge prior to the situation occurring where you need to cross a huge, fast-paced river. If you’re unsure about survival or preparedness, you should read on the subject now, or take a course with a professional survivalist. Just make sure you have enough knowledge to save your own life and others if necessary.

river crossing horse

Step 1 – Evaluate The Situation and The Water (River, Stream or Rapid)

The first thing you should do when you approach a water stream would be to evaluate the challenge itself. The best way to assess the stream properly, would be to do it from a higher point, from where you could also see what’s on the other side of it. That could be done by climbing on a tree or on a nearby hill if there is one, in order to have a clear view of the surrounding area.

In the occurrence where you approach a river or stream, there are a few questions you need to ask yourself, before you start to cross it.

  1. “Do I really need to cross this river/ stream/ rapid?” – Rivers and rapids are a dangerous task, so before you try to do it, consider whether you have a different option.
  2. “How many of us have to cross it?” – If you have to cross the river alone, it will be far more difficult than if you have company to assist you in the task. Are any of the people with you physically uncapable, are there any kids? If the answer to those questions is “Yes”, you should also think about their ability to swim in order to prevent disaster.
  3. “What lives in the water?” – The answer to this question depends on the geographical location of the river. If you are in North America, there might be bears nearby, in South America on the other hand, there might be piranhas. Some of this wildlife could be potentially dangerous for your well-being. Try not to cross the river, if you have infected, open wounds and you’re worried there might be predators.
  4. “Is the river faster or slower?” – Depending on the speed of the river, the level of danger could rise or drop. And with the level of danger comes the level of ease as well. It’s important to notice the speed of the stream to have the closest possible estimate.
  5. “Do I have to cross the river from this particular point?” – A few meters up or down the river might make a huge difference to the ease or difficulty with which you will cross it.
water crossing

When answering all of these questions, remember that the answers depend on a variety of factors. Is there enough time, is there enough sunlight, are there sand banks, rocks, ledges, etc. All of these things should be inside your mind, should you approach a water stream. If you have decided there is no other way than to cross it, move on to:

Step 2 – Choose The Method Of Crossing

There is one way that, if you’re lucky, will make your life so much easier. This would be using a fallen tree to cross the body of water, as trees commonly fall near water streams and rivers and they can be adapted as a bridge. However, there is also the possibility that, there won’t be any fallen trees. In such a case, you could push a tree over, however, that is incredibly dangerous and ecologically wrong. If you decide to push a tree over, you should look for a smaller one, or one that is already on the path of falling down. 

crossing a stream

There is also the option to use a tree, if you have an axe, which is a whole different story. Yes, it would still be ecologically wrong, however if it’s just one tree and it helps hundreds of survivalists, it wouldn’t be a tragic occurrence. If you are going to be crossing a deep, fast-moving and dangerous body of water, using a tree might be the only way to go. Swimming wouldn’t be advisable, especially if you’re with children, and your best bet would be going above the water.

One more way of crossing, if you’re with a group of people, would be attaching the group to a rope and going one by one. The rope would be best attached to the wrists, especially if you’re in a group with older people or children. Attaching the rope to wrists, allows for freer movement of feet and doesn’t overcomplicate things. One thing to keep in mind if you choose this method is that if one person falls in the water, their weight will pull on the rest of the group. And if there are weaker people in the group, they will fall in the water.

river crossing rope

If the river or stream is calm enough, you could rely on a flotation device to carry you down the current. This should only be done if you’re 100% sure that you will succeed. If not, the river could carry you and you might not be able to get out. A flotation device could be a piece of tree, a raft (which you might have to build), or an inflatable object.

Always try to look for water which is shallower or slow moving. Keep in mind that if it’s shallow, the water won’t look as dark as it does when it’s deep. Also, bare in mind that if the water is moving slowly that most probably means it’s deep.

Step 3 – For Those Who Wish To Walk Or Swim Across

Many of us believe that swimming or walking across a stream or river is an easy task to do. However, there are a couple of things you must consider.

river crossing tree
  1. Walking in the river with boots, leads to a higher chance of slipping – If you wish to walk across the river, make sure to examine the bottom, as it will probably be shallow enough to see the bottom. After you have examined, it would be most advisable to take off your boots, as if you wear them, there’s a bigger chance of falling and hitting your head.
  2. When walking across, secure yourself with a stick – Find a stick long enough for you to be able to use as support (walking stick). This way you will be much steadier whilst walking.
  3. Swimming across a slower area of water – Whenever you are planning on swimming across the river, search for spots which are lacking rocks. If there are rocks, that means the water is moving in a quicker manner and there is higher possibility of injury. 
  4. Swim with the current, not against it – If you have a situation where you need to use your own body as a floating device, do not swim against the current. It will always be stronger than you, especially if it’s fast.
  5. Travel across on a 45-degree angle – You will need to choose the correct spot where the water will take you across in the correct manner. That’s why you need to consider angles.
  6. Take off clothes if you must swim – If you don’t take off your clothes prior to swimming and you don’t have an extra pair, you might be dealing with hypothermia later.
  7. Keep yourself horizontal on the water – Keeping yourself horizontal whilst swimming will reduce your chances of being pulled under.

Step 4 – Try To Find Another Way

If you’re scared or worried about succeeding in the crossing of a river, stream or rapid, you should try and find another way for your journey. Don’t push yourself, especially if there are others who depend on you for their well-being.

Step 5 – Be As Safe As Possible On Your Journey

Don’t jump right in the river as you see it. Remember, there are many living things below the surface which you must consider prior to crossing.

success river crossing

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