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Survival: How to Cross Rivers, Streams, and Rapids

by James Roberts, Copyright ©
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Crossing a fast moving river or rapids can be a tricky task.
Maybe you're out hunting in new territory. Perhaps you're simply camping. Then again, it's also possible that you're out in the wilderness on your own (or with people) and need to cross a river in some type of survival situation.

Are you up for it?

Preparation is the key when it comes to doing any type of survival task and crossing a fast moving river or rapids is no different. Here are some things to do or consider when coming across such a situation.

First, a word of caution

Remember that this is just an article with ideas to consider. Anytime you're planning to cross a river, know that this is a very dangerous situation. Along with this, you should consult a professional river guide first, whenever possible. Further, river crossings should be avoided when possible. Finally, having a professional present during such maneuvers to guide you is the best way to go under such circumstances.

Assess your situation and the river

This is really the first thing to do in any situation, particularly a dangerous one. By the way, the best way to assess the actual river may be to climb to a higher point by either moving up a tree or hill. This will give you a clear view of the area.

But there is more to it than just that. Along with this, when it comes to a river crossing, here are some things to specifically assess.

1. How important is it that you cross the river?: This is always something to consider anytime you come up against such a task. Rivers and rapids are dangerous. Thus, you should always ask yourself: Is this something I have to do?.

2. Who has to cross the river with you?: Crossing a river is dangerous enough alone; when you have other people with you the variability of what can happen is that much greater. How many people must cross? How strong and mature are these people (are kids with you)? Can all of the people with you swim, and if so how well?

All important questions when you're about to cross a river or rapids.

3. What's in the water with you?: Of course, it all depends where this river is. In North America you may want to check for bears in the area. In South America, Pirhanas may be in the water.

And though that's a highly irregular and specific situation, crossing Pirhana infested waters is best done at night, as that's not their regular feeding time. Oh yeah, and doing it with an open wound is a real bad idea.

But we digress.

4. How fast is the river moving?:

There is fast, and then there is fast, people. Figure out which one you're dealing with.

5. Do you have to cross the river where you're at?

Okay, so you've determined that you have to cross the river. But do you have to do it right where you're at? Can you go upstream or downstream a ways and find an easier crossing? Of course, that will depend on the amount of time you feel that you have and various other factors, including what you picked up about the river when you took it in at a higher point.

Are there sand banks, and if so where? Are there rocks, ledges, or waterfalls in the way?

You get the idea.

Methods of crossing a fast moving river or rapids

Look for or knock down a tree: This one is simple in theory even if it may not be that easy to put into practice. Trees fall all the time around bodies of water. If one has already fallen and you can crawl across it above the fast moving water to safety, that may be the way to go.

Now if there isn't a tree that's already set up for you, you can try and knock one down yourself. However, you may want to attack a small, yet sturdy tree or one that is already on its way down (but is strong enough to climb) if you are without tools.

Now if you have an axe, the whole world changes. Attack any tree you want. Keep in mind that a sharp stone can act as a makeshift cutting object. However, it's important that your realize that such a task with a stone will likely take an extremely long period of time depending on the tree you're looking to take down, so it may not be wise to even attempt.

That said, if you're going to cross very fast moving, deep, or large bodies of water and have children or people with you that can't swim, a tree or different plan altogether may be the only way to go. Further, if you need to go across rapid moving water under such circumstances, you may want to attach yourself to such people via a rope connecting wrists that is loose enough to allow movement with older children or weaker people. Or something more significant with very young children.

Keep in mind, however, that if you attach yourself to someone and they fall in the water then their body weight, if attached to you, could drag you to your own death.

But ask most parents such a question and they won't care about that. They'll want to make sure they have a fighting chance of holding onto their child.

Flotation devices: Depending on how far you can go downstream will determine whether or not this is a viable solution. However, if it's feasible to be swept down the current then a flotation device may just be the way to go for you and your party.

Bear Grylls (host of Man vs. Wild) once tied off his pants after filling them with air, making a flotation device. Perhaps a piece of tree would work okay. Then again, if you have the ability, making a raft would work also.

Look for shallower and slower moving water: Keep in mind that these things can sometimes be deceiving. Remember that deeper water often moves at a much slower rate. Still, shallow water can also be easier to cross.

And, by the way, if you're looking for such water that likely means that you're planning on swimming or attempting to walk across a river. Which leads to the following.

Considerations and things to do if attempting to swim or walk across a fast moving river

If you're going to attempt to walk across a river it may be a bad idea to simply walk across rocks in your boots, as you could very easily slip. Along with this, if the river is shallow enough where you can walk across it in such a manner, take your boots off (this provides you with better traction), get a strong stick, and use it like a cane to walk across. Further, enter angling upstream or against the current.

However, things change if you're going to have to swim across because the water is that fast moving and/ or deep.

Under such circumstances, look for a spot devoid or nearly devoid of rocks. First, rocky areas tend to be fast moving. Second, rocks are dangerous if you hit them.

Second, having a flotation device may not be the worst thing. Consider it and your situation. If nothing like that is available-and if you have pants then something is (see earlier in this article)- you may need to surf the rapids or may choose to for other reasons. According to this can be done in two ways.

"If they're (water is) shallow, lie on your back with your feet pointing downstream and place your hands at a horizontal angle to your hips so that they act like fins and keep your feet up so that they don't get snagged on rocks. This technique will act as a floating mechanism. In deeper rapids, however, you should come downstream on your stomach trying to maintain an angle that keeps you close to the shoreline and being vigilant and trying to avoid any swirling whirlpools that can occur which can suck you under."

Beyond this, you should pick a narrow part of the river to traverse and realize that under such circumstances you will need to move with the current, not against it. It would tire you out to fight the water.

Further, try to pick a spot to enter that will eventually land you on a sandbar when moving with the current, if possible. Try to time it so that this will happen. Also, you'll want to choose a spot to cross where you can safely reach the other side by traveling on a 45 degree angle. Taking off your clothes and putting them in a sack or tied off bag is probably also a smart idea, as you don't want to cross the river and then deal with hypothermia.

Oh yeah, and avoid waterfalls.

Finally, here's another excerpt from Survival Expert that you may find quite helpful when looking to cross rapids:

"If your only option is to swim across rapids, always swim with the current and never against it. If you also keep yourself horizontal to the water, this will also reduce the chances of being pulled under. If the current is so fast that you'd be unable to actually swim, there are two different techniques to 'surf' the rapids, depending on whether they're shallow or deep.

If they're shallow, lie on your back with your feet pointing downstream and place your hands at a horizontal angle to your hips so that they act like fins and keep your feet up so that they don't get snagged on rocks. This technique will act as a floating mechanism. In deeper rapids, however, you should come downstream on your stomach trying to maintain an angle that keeps you close to the shoreline and being vigilant and trying to avoid any swirling whirlpools that can occur which can suck you under."

In the end, it would seem prudent to avoid having to cross fast moving rivers or rapids. But you never know what situation you may come up against out in the wilderness. Better to think about and plan for this one in advance.


How to Cross a River on Foot

How To Cross A Piranha-Infested River

How to Cross Rivers, Streams and Rapids

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