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Crossing a river can be a dangerous undertaking; many people have drowned while crossing rivers. This page offers some very basic advice on how to do it safely, based on our experience. The Bushwalking and Ski Tour Leadership book discusses river crossings extensively, and you should familiarise yourself with this text.
River crossings can be dangerous. If you are in any doubt as to the safety of a river, you should not attempt a crossing.
If your planned route requires a river crossing, study weather reports and the forecast carefully. Has there been recent heavy rain in the catchment of the river, or is rain forecast? Plan your food supplies so that you can wait for a day on the bank if necessary, waiting for the river to subside. Popular Victorian walking areas which involve river crossings include the walk to Sealer's Cove on the Wilson's Promontory circuit walk, and the walk out of Lake Tali Karng through the Valley of Destruction.
When you reach it, study the river carefully. Some of the dangers to look out for include:
- deep or fast-flowing water
- 'strainers', dead trees in the river which can catch things underwater (including you)
- submerged, sharp, or slippery rocks, and
- an uneven or unstable bottom
Not all of these dangers will be visible upon a casual inspection.
If the river is too dangerous to cross at this point, look for a safer crossing point. Alternatively, be prepared to out-wait the waters.
Every river is different, but I have some very general criteria for what I will and won't cross. They are:
- very fast flowing, white water: unsafe, and I will not cross
- fast flowing: I will cross if less than ankle-deep and I can see the bottom
- moderately fast flowing: I will cross if less than knee-deep and I can see the bottom
- flowing slowly: I will cross if less than waist-deep
- deeper than waist: I hate swimming and I prefer not to cross unless necessary
There are several things you should do before you start to cross the river:
- Make sure that your pack is securely waterproofed with a sturdy plastic liner
- Unless there is a clear sandy bottom, you should wear reef sandals while in the water. Alternatively, you can wear your boots if you can afford to get them wet. I have been bitten on the foot by things lurking in rivers in the past, and a foot injury such as from glass or a sharp rock could curtail your party's mobility, so footwear is recommended
- Undo the waist and chest straps of your pack for a quick exit in case you fall over
- If you can see obstructions in the river, plan a route through them before entering the water, but be prepared to change if things are not what you expected. Select a point on the opposite bank where you will exit the water
- Ideally the two most competent expeditioners should be at each end of the party, ready to help other party members if necessary
- If you intend to cross as a group, for example with everyone holding onto a long stick, make sure that everyone knows what the plan is and what to do if someone falls over. The Bushwalking and Ski Tour Leadership [link] book provides several good examples of how to cross a river in a group
In the water
If crossing individually, use a stick or your trekking pole to test the water depth in front of you. It can also be used as a support, enabling you to keep two points of contact with the river bottom at all times. If the rocks are smallish, smooth, and slippery, I find it easier to step in the gaps between rocks rather than on top of them. In rivers where the bottom is sandy and the water flowing fast, you may find that the sand is unstable and you sink into it if you stand still. Be prepared to either keep your balance or keep moving. Move quickly but carefully through the river and exit at the other side.
If you are carried away
If you are carried away over rapids, obviously you should try to stay afloat. Attempt to manouevre yourself so that your feet point downstream and you are sitting up slightly. This presents your legs and bottom to oncoming obstacles. In the past some people have carried a length of plastic tubing so they can breathe if they are caught under or in a submerged obstacle. Personally, I'm not sure how effective this would be in the real world, but it may be better than nothing.
Out of the water
Dry off as much as possible before putting your footwear back on. Make sure that all members of the party are warm and dry before setting off along the track.
©2005-2013 Lachlan Shield
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