How to wade across a river or stream is a question often first asked by outdoors people when they are confronted by a potential water crossing.
It is much better to have practiced techniques beforehand and thought about options at the route-planning stage, before heading out.
Any potential water crossing, planned or unplanned, should be assessed in a methodical manner. Click the following link for advice on how to assess a water crossing.
With all of our checks done and questions about crossing water answered we now need to look at actual methods of negotiating water obstacles. This article will focus on shallow water techniques – wading.
What depth of water can you wade?
Once the depth of water starts to reach knee height you should really start questioning whether you should continue. Obviously each individual or group wading will make their own decision based upon the water being crossed, their experience and the potential outcome should a wader be washed off their feet.
As I have mentioned previously, I have seen nearly a whole team of trained individuals swept off their feet by only 10 inches (25cm) of water moving quickly over a firm surface.
So, how do you wade across a river?
How to wade a river solo
The strongest way to cross a river solo by wading is with the use of a stout pole that is around 7 or 8 ft (2.5 metres) long. Always take extra care when entering water watching for slippery rocks and the like. Bear in mind that water has a nasty habit when seen from above as actually being deeper than it looks as well.
Face upstream when wading so you can spot items floating that may cause harm and also so you can continually read the flow of the water.
The force of the flow would also buckle our legs should we be facing downstream, resulting in the very least in a dunking.
Enter the water slowly and carefully and use the pole as a strong third leg held out in front of your body. Rest the top of the pole on your shoulder and try not to take the strain on your arms as this will result in a tripod (a very strong arrangement) not being held together at the top (which weakens it massively).
Trust the pole and really lean into it.
Move slowly and carefully; always maintain at least two points of contact with the river bed. Watch out for a leg or the pole skidding off smooth rocks even when you think they are secure.
Never cross your legs as again this will result in a wetting. Rather, shuffle sideways.
With any wading technique it is worth wearing footwear to aid with grip and also it offers more support to ankles and sensitive parts of your feet whilst crossing difficult terrain.
Can I wade across a river wearing a pack?
As for carrying gear in a pack the old advice was to loosely wear the rucksack on one shoulder with all straps undone. In case of falling in the pack was easily discarded and would not snag on the user or any obstacles. Dependent on the flow of the river and size of pack, the user could either try to hoist themselves on top of the pack or pick it up further downstream.
More recent advice centres around wearing the pack as normal with both shoulder straps done as well as the waist belt – the idea being the sack will provide buoyancy upon falling in. In case of falling in, the swimmer should face downstream in the usual defensive swimming position and be supported by the pack.
I have tried this technique several times in various water flows, with various pack sizes holding various amounts of kit. It is quite remarkable how much buoyancy can be afforded by this system but extreme care must be taken when using and practicing this technique.
How to wade a river as a team
Should there be more than one person crossing, there are several options now open to us.
Of course the same initial questions need to be asked and answered and plans created.
If you have several people consider the following options:
Line astern is exactly the same as the single person wading but with each person holding onto the one in front.
Put your strongest and tallest person at the front, ideally who is the most experienced in water as well. The further downstream a person is the less violent and lower the water will be as the others upstream act as breakers.
Communication is vital here and the lead wader should be in charge at all times informing the group when to move.
Remember never tie anyone to anything or anyone else. Put simply, ropes and water tend to be a deadly combination in the wrong hands. Even something as simple as looping a hand through a pack strap could prove disastrous. Always ensure you are able to easily let go of anyone you are holding onto should you all fall.
The wedge formation enables the group to move less confident or injured members across a river. Again the more confident waders should be at the upstream end providing support and guidance.
Less confident members of the group are once again slightly protected from the flow of the water. Using this technique large numbers of people can be moved in relative safety across water.
Certain readers may also be familiar with another technique which needs at least three people linking arms or holding rucksack straps facing inward. Upon entering the water they rotate across the river. In my experience - and in the experience of other members of the Frontier Bushcraft team - this method is difficult to control, completely disorientating and more often than not results in a dunking whilst tangled with two other people.
In the next article we will look at deep water crossings - a very different matter altogether.
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.