Here’s How to Cross a River Safely

In order to escape from some disaster, the time may come when you need to bug-out on foot. If that happens, you can’t let any obstacles stand in your way. After all, you are not on a pleasure hike, you’re on a march to save your life and potentially the lives of your family and loved ones.

So when you do come upon something that will halt your forward progress, you’ve got to find a way around it: Over, under, around, through or… across.

man swimming in river

You probably guessed right. I’m alluding to rivers. Rivers are a common obstacle for those traveling on foot and as a rule they are long enough you can’t always just go around them.

If you try to do that, you might be hiking for a very, very long time. That means you’ll need a way across. But a river crossing, unless it is especially placid and shallow, is fraught with peril.

A botched river crossing could see you swept away, your gear lost or ruined, your party separated, or somebody drown. The power of moving water is no joke, my friends. In today’s article we’ll give you some tips and procedures for crossing a river safely.

“Why Try to Cross at all?”

Is a common refrain during theoretical discussions like this? The facts are simply these: if you’re bugging out you aren’t out for a fun romp, you sure as heck ain’t camping, and the situation may dictate you get from point A to point B as a rapidly as humanly possible.

If you have a real serious deadline, the fastest route from point A to point B may very well be crossing a river, and doing so at a point where it is possible with an acceptable amount of risk.

Note that I didn’t say “no risk.” I said an “acceptable” amount of risk, and I spoke with precision. Frankly, there’s nothing safe about bugging out. If you’re bugging out, something terrible has driven you from your home or shelter.

It follows that the risks you would face staying in place mean you’re willing to take a lesser risks in transit to a safer location. There’s no other way to square it.

So for those who constantly clamor for finding a safer crossing, or taking your time, or waiting for the height of the water to go down, or any number of other variables that are entirely out of your hands I say this: it may be this way or no way, and it would serve you better to know how to cross a river safely in case you are ever forced to.

You should always try to cross safely if it is possible, but you should not be deluded into thinking that will always be so.

Hazards of Crossing

If you can cross the river splish-splash and you are standing on the far bank, terrific. You’ll get nothing but well-wishes from me.

But Murphy’s Law is very real, and you should count on having some difficulty crossing. these difficulties might be inconveniences, they might make your life and your bug-out harder going forward or they might be serious showstoppers, or even deadly.

Crossing even a gently flowing, shallow river could see you get hurt. Not watching where you step, or not moving consciously may see you twist an ankle or worse. That will make the rest of your journey agonizing and slower.

Faster flowing and deep rivers may see you lose your footing and be swept downstream. This could serve to separate your party and it will certainly dunk your gear and the entirety of your person.

If you do have any sensitive electronics or other delicate items that can survive water in your pack, and they aren’t waterproof, you can kiss them goodbye.

A variation on the above occurrence is losing your pack entirely. For a prepper who is carrying their toolbox, pantry and home on their back this is a devastating blow to your capability and your morale.

Lastly, you mustn’t forget you don’t belong out in the water. The current could sweep you away, upset your balance and then hold you under, drowning you. You could become snagged on debris beneath the surface, or lodged between rocks unable to escape. A grim and tragic fate for someone as prepared as you is.

But you’re here today, so that that doesn’t happen. Read on to see what you should do when it’s time to cross the river.

Understanding the Variables

Crossing the river safely, for all its variables, is really just until some basic risk assessment and understanding your own capabilities.

For our purposes, a quick assessment can be made by analyzing the river and what ourselves and the people in our party are capable of. Certain kinds of gear, if you have it with you, will also make the crossing safer.

You should also weigh all of that against the overall situation: how much time do you have to spend looking for a safer or better crossing? What’s the worst that can happen if you run late, or miss your deadline? Only when you have all the facts should you be ready to hedge your bets.

Let’s consider the river itself. This is fairly easy:

  • Is it fast moving, or slow?
  • About how deep do you think it is?
  • Is it wide or narrow?
  • What’s the terrain like on both banks?
  • Are there any special hazards or features in the river that may help or hurt you, things like debris floating on the surface, rapids, terrain features like rocks or log bridges that may be used to cross in a safer manner?
  • Is the river’s current state influenced by weather like snow melt or rainfall?
  • Perhaps most importantly, is there a good exit point near where you plan to cross visible from your side?

We have judged the river; now let us assess our own capability and that of our party:

  • Are you ready physically to cross the river?
  • Are you tired or exhausted?
  • Do you have tools that can help us cross, something like a hiking pole or a sturdy branch?
  • Are the others in our party physically able to cross the river? With or without assistance?
  • What’s the best across as a group- relying on mutual aid, or sending one person across towing a line that can then be secured to help everyone else?

There’s no surefire right or wrong way. The right way is the way that gets you across safely. The wrong way is the one that gets you dumped on your butt in the water or worse. below i’ll offer a step-by-step guide for crossing the river alone or with a group.

Some steps to crossing a river are universal, and apply whether you’re alone or in a group. those are at the top of this list. For the rest of them, I’ve divided them into two smaller lists, one for solo preppers, and one for those in a group.

Crossing a River Solo or With Group

Take stock of the conditions

Will you be attempting to cross when the river is highest, or lowest? has there been recent rainfall or snow melt this contributing to both the speed and height of the water?

If you can say with some certainty that waiting even a little while may see the water recede and the pace slow, you should wait if you can. Anything that can improve your chances of a safe crossing is worthwhile if it won’t blow your timetable.

Gauge the current

You can use anything that will float to properly determine the speed of the water. It can be deceptive standing on the river bank, especially if the water isn’t choppy. you can use any stick that will float, empty plastic bottle or something similar.

When you chuck your found item out into the water, try to get it far out into the middle of the river where the water is typically fastest so you know what you’ll be facing at the most vulnerable part of your crossing.

Remember: it only takes a few inches of fast-moving water to knock an adult off their feet. Any water that is over your knees is disproportionately likely to bowl you over.

Use sticks or poles

Never underestimate the value of a sturdy walking stick, or a pair of good hiking poles when crossing a river.

These will give you a third and fourth point of contact respectively, and allow you to probe ahead of you to better assess what your feet will meet on the bottom of the river. This is especially important when crossing fast-moving rivers, or water you cannot see through.

Plan your moves

Before crossing, take a good, long look at the river itself, any terrain features in the middle of the river, and the far banks. Look upstream and downstream. what do you see? Is there a lot of debris coming down the river, things that may knock you over or upset your balance?

Are there any rocks or breaks in the river eventually take a rest or reassess if you get in trouble? Does the river get more treacherous downstream, meaning if you slip and get swept away you’ll have diminishing odds of getting out easily? Look on the far bank: are you even able to get out once you get across?

Unlimber your pack(s)

Depending on your assessment of the river and how easy or difficult for crossing might be, you want to unlimber your BOB by releasing its waist belt at the least and probably the chest strap also if it has one.

This improves your chances of ditching if you do get knocked over it becomes a liability, something that can weigh you down. ultimately, if you get in trouble in an unexpected deep spot that is otherwise navigable you can quickly take off your BOB, and hold it over your head to keep it safe.

Move Across at an Angle into the Current

Crossing the river in a fashion that angles you into the current aimed at your exit point, if possible, is generally the safest, and will provide you the best control and a lesser chance of getting knocked over by the water compared to moving with the current.

Crossing a River Solo

Go slow

If you’re attempting a river crossing solo you’ll have no room for error. There’s no one to come look for you if you get swept away, no one to pull you out if you get into trouble, no one to lean on if you get tired or stranded in the middle of a strong current. take things slow so you can reverse out if needed.

Be sure of your footing

Many a hiker who has attempted a river crossing before will have tales to tell of ass-over-teakettle falls into cold rivers due to moss covered rocks and slippery bottoms.

Don’t let that be you. Shuffle your feet to understand where you are stepping on the bottom, rely on your poles or walking stick for greater stability and for assessment of where you’re stepping. Probing ahead with your poles will alert you to sudden drop-offs, or loose or mucky river bottoms.

Avoid deep water if at all possible

If things are going to go bad, it’s going to happen in water that is over your knees and up to your waist or even higher.

As more of your body submerged in the water you weigh less, which means your stability goes down and it takes correspondingly slower-moving water to exert even greater force on you. That’s how people get swept away.

Group Crossing

Try a huddle movement

A group move, or huddle move, consists of all the members of your group leaning in as if a football huddle with arms around each other’s shoulders or wastes. Essentially, you’ve turned into a bigger, heavier creature with more points of contact, and greater stability in the water.

But if you can think back to third grade field day in elementary school when did the three-legged race with a buddy, you can probably remember how difficult it is to coordinate locomotive movements with another person.

This is probably not something you’ll practice ahead of time, so there’s nothing for it except to go slow, take your time, and communicate!

Also, keep in mind that while it does afford a sort of safety net if someone gets into trouble since their friends will be there to catch them, it may also mean you all fall down and get swept away together if someone in a panic latches onto the person next to them to keep their footing.

Use a static line to help others

For less capable members, or just to increase safety, you can send one member of your group across or a smaller group across towing a length of rope if you have some that will reach and it’s sturdy enough. Once they are across, they can anchor it to a fixed point, or hold on to it while your shore party does the same.

Use this technique will make a crossing much safer for those who are less capable, and it even allows you to employ a safety line to tie them off to the main static line, greatly reducing the chance they’ll be swept away.


Crossing any but the shallowest and slowest moving rivers is always risky. That risk can be increased when you’re in a hurry, and are running from something even worse.

Nonetheless, you may not have the time to wait for the water to recede or to look for an ideal crossing when it’s time to bug out. In such an event, it pays to know how to cross a river safely by yourself and with friends.

crossing a river pinterest

20 survival items ebook cover
Like what you read?

Then you're gonna love my free PDF, 20 common survival items, 20 uncommon survival uses for each. That's 400 total uses for these dirt-cheap little items!

We will not spam you.

1 thought on “Here’s How to Cross a River Safely”

  1. In the event of a wildfire, most people would choose to cross a river, rather than succumbing to being burned alive. Next time some dummy asks “why cross?” or “find another area to cross”, just use the wildfire example.


Leave a Comment