River crossing methods

For all river crossings, keep your pack hip-belt done up if it is a quick-release type. Sternum straps should be undone, and shoulder straps loosened. This transforms your pack into an attached personal flotation device in the event that you do end up swimming.

Individual without aid
It is possible to cross by yourself if the current is not too fast nor the water too deep. Knee height is usually the limit. This should only be attempted in the most basic of crossings. It involves choosing a clear route at 45° to the current. Move into the current and walk across and downstream, with the side of your body to the current. This prevents the legs buckling at the knee joint. Small steps and sure foot placements are required for this method.

Individual with a pole
If stability is required a pole may be used. The pole should be 2–2.5 m long and 6–8 cm in diameter. This method is suitable for rivers that are not swift flowing and are not deeper than the waist. It requires the riverbed to be relatively flat and snag free. The route taken is directly across the stream at 90° to the bank. Position the pole so it is upstream of your body, press it against the bottom and when secure walk forward leaning on the pole. It could be said that the base of the pole on the riverbed is being used as a pivot point for the person scribing an arc.

Group mutual support
This method is highly recommended for groups of two to 12 or more people. It provides a semi-rigid structure that is flexible enough to maintain position in the current while being loose enough to correct any mistakes that may occur during the crossing. Each individual is held twice at each join, providing excellent back up should one person let go.

The group stands in a line parallel to the river bank and the current. Everyone leaves their pack on and the hip-belt done up, unless the hip-belt is not quick release, in which case it should be undone. Shoulder straps should be loosened and sternum straps undone.

Each person puts their arms behind the next person’s back, between the pack and the back. They then grasp the base of the shoulder strap on the opposite side, or the hip-belt in the same position. If no packs are used, the arms go behind the backs and grasp clothing at waist level.

Connected closely in this way, the whole group crosses the river together. Should the group need to retreat from the river without completing the crossing, the whole group should walk backwards all the way into safe, knee-deep water.

Triangle of support
As shown in Figure 30.1, three people face inwards with arms firmly linked, heads close together, and feet apart. The heaviest person faces upstream, with the other two sideways to the current. Only one person moves through the water at a time. In this way, the two who are stationary support the one who is moving, but with the greatest care.


Line astern
Three or more people stand, one behind each other, facing into the current, and give each other support by holding onto each other’s belt. The front person moves first, then number two who should be the heaviest, and finally the third, until the party is in one line again. In fast-moving water, each member of the group moves at the same time.

Line abreast using a pole
Three or more persons stand in a line, parallel to the river bank with arms interlocked and holding onto a long pole. Everyone moves together, giving each other support, with the strongest person on the upstream end.

Crossing with a rope
Roped crossings are generally not recommended for bushwalkers and ski tourers. Roped crossings require a great deal of skill and equipment, and should only be attempted by people who have formal training or experience in rope work and swift water rescue. There are several types of roped crossings, but as most walking parties do not carry the required amount of equipment to effectively set up a safe, roped river crossing, they are often impossible in practice. Specialist courses can be taken to improve skills in these areas.

No matter which method is used, there are certain rules and precautions that should be observed. These include:

  • multiple points of contact with the bottom
  • move one point of contact at a time
  • swim if you fall—do not put your feet back down until you have safely reached calm shallow water