The first rule of water crossings is to avoid them whenever you can.
If you can avoid, re-plan or detour around a water obstacle, then it is worth it.
If you have no choice, then read on.
A quick perusal of outdoor literature, magazines or websites will uncover various acronyms of varying usefulness with the aim of assisting the reader across water obstacles.
The problem presented by some of these acronyms is that they can be incredibly difficult to recall. This can be especially frustrating if we are already out of our comfort zone, perhaps being wet and a bit cold, as well as facing the stress of needing to cross water.
Remember the aim is to cross the water safely, not to recount what the letters stand for in CHINCHILLA SYRUP or some other meaningless phrase.
The best thing to do is simply observe the water obstacle and think. Bring everyone in the group together to get as much information or as many ideas as possible.
Take Your Time
It is vital to take your time as a rushed crossing will only end in tears.
Time spent observing with common sense is the answer. At this stage don’t be static but move up and down the banks of the water obstacle as you may discover some extra information like a better crossing point or huge rapids just downstream.
If you must cross a river, select a suitable section where we can see exactly what is up and downstream.
If possible, avoid bends in the river. Aside from the lack of line of sight, water moves round the outside of the curve with more speed.
If we need to cross a large body of water such as a lake how far is it across? Experience has taught me it is always much further than it looks.
Assessing the Water
Really study the water and consider the following:
- Is it deep?
- What kind of temperature is it?
- What is the bed made of – slippy rock or a deep mud that will hold us?
- How fast is it flowing? I have seen rescue technicians wiped off their feet by ten inches of fast moving water over concrete.
- Is the obstacle in flood and carrying items that would hurt us should we enter?
- Is it silted obscuring our view of what is in the water?
- Does it contain animals which will cause us harm?
- What speed is the river flowing? People often forget to check the current in large bodies of water – it may not be as obvious as in a river but look carefully. If unsure throw a stick into the water – can we keep pace with it at a gentle walk or is it outpacing our full speed sprint?
- Where should we enter and exit the river? In the previous article in this series, I highlighted the cold water shock which hits anyone entering cold water at speed. It can be controlled to a significantly degree by entering the water slowly (in a safe place), but watch out for the ‘high water mark’ on your body which makes anyone gasp. Furthermore, imagine swimming across a large cold body of water using a lot of energy in the process – the last thing you need is to battle up a cliff face on the far side. When crossing, deep water especially, you will nearly always be carried by the current so make sure you have compensated for this with the location of your exit point.
- Read the river flow – watch where and how the water is flowing. Are there standing waves potentially hiding dangerous items such as submerged rocks? Is there anything creating slack water that we can maybe use to our advantage? Are there any strainers in the water? Bear in mind that once in or near the water our hearing may be useless so have a backup plan for this.
- What happens when we get to the other side of the obstacle? Is the plan to camp and warm up immediately having crossed or to move on to sleep elsewhere? Remember just how cold you could get being exposed to water, even for a few minutes wading. Water at a comparable temperature to the air will rob the body of heat around 25 times quicker. Plan for this, even down to the time of day you are crossing.
The list of questions that we can ask about water obstacles is large and their relevance depends entirely on the section of water we are aiming to negotiate.
Bear in mind that most drowning victims in the outdoors are young males claiming to be confident in water. As soon as one becomes over confident with water, problems arise.
Involve the Group
Having studied the water we next need to concern ourselves with the members of our group aiming to cross. Are they all confident outdoor professionals? Is anyone a non-swimmer or perhaps injured? What kit is held between the group?
Always think, plan, observe and take your time should you have to cross. If anyone has any doubts in your group stop and think again.
Making the Water Crossing
In the next couple of articles in this series we will look at shallow and deep water crossing techniques.
But remember: it is always preferable and easier to re-route, avoiding the water obstacle altogether, than to re-boot a drowned person.
Disclaimer: The outdoors, and water hazards in particular, are inherently dangerous. The author and Frontier Bushcraft Ltd disclaims any liability, personal or professional, resulting from the misapplication of any of the procedures described or depicted in this or following articles.