How to Assess a Water Crossing

Fast flowing river in the Lake District
If you spend enough time outdoors, you’ll eventually be faced with a water obstacle. Photo: James Bath.

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.

Acronym Soup

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.

Someone stood on river bank observing the water
Don’t rush. Spend time observing the water. Photo: James Bath.

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.

Avoid Overconfidence

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.

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James Bath is a Senior Instructor at Frontier Bushcraft and has worked with Frontier Bushcraft since 2011. He has been involved with the instruction of bushcraft since 2005. From a family of teachers, James has instructing in his blood and, whilst always still learning himself, is passionate about passing knowledge onto others where he can - his ‘unique’ and oft brutal sense of humour/sarcasm readily being deployed to hammer a point home.

15 Responses

  1. John Swarbrick
    | Reply

    Nice Article written with real world pragmatisim. Look forward to the rest.

    • James
      | Reply

      Hi John,

      Thanks for your words. The rest will be out pretty soon and show what to do when we actually have to cross water.


    • Paul Kirtley
      | Reply

      Hi John

      “real world pragmatism” should probably be one of Frontier Bushcraft’s straplines…




      • John Swarbrick
        | Reply

        Feel free to have it as a strap line. Look forward to the balance of the article. Look forward to the catapillar turn.

  2. Terry
    | Reply

    From one Srt to another, really good article as always! Nice work.

    • James
      | Reply


      From one SRT to another, thanks.
      Kindest regards,


  3. Julian
    | Reply

    Just one more thing to look out for if you are in a different country look out for any nasty wildlife like croc’s or alligators lol

    • James
      | Reply


      True. Crocs would have the potential to ruin a water crossing. Good point though and it’s worth pointing out that the advice above fits anywhere in the world and shouldn’t just be confined to water crossings in the UK.


  4. Elen Sentier
    | Reply

    Hi James,
    so you’re a “Swallow” rather than an “Amazon” eh, swimming Conniston Water? Good article but … how about one for us lunatics who go out on our own a lot? I walk Exmoor very regularly and Dartmoor quite often; I also do various bits of the Scottish Highlands but that always with one friend. I hardly ever go out in groups as I enjoy solitude. I can adapt what you say for solo work but an article on your thoughts on how best to adapt to solo and twosome walking would be very helpful.

    • James
      | Reply

      Hi Elen,

      Good to hear from you and hope you’re well.
      The above advice fits whether you are with a group or by yourself really. In the next couple of articles there will be methods of crossing water if you are in a group or alone so keep your eyes open for that. The thing about solo water crossings (and I’ve done plenty through the years) is you must cover all of the bases on your own and so the potential for missing anything out in the planning phase is higher. Furthermore, if you do fall in or have a problem you must sort it alone.
      I agree with what you say about the solitude of being alone outdoors (some people call me miserable?!) and love the challenge and the fact I can move at my own pace and do what I want. It’s a great idea for an article so we’ll have to see.
      All the best and thanks,


  5. Elen Sentier
    | Reply

    Shall keep a lookout for the next bits. Yes, ta, very well here and just getting it together for the Wilderness Gathering next week – from the sublime to the Gor Blimey! with regard to solitude LOL, but it will be fun.
    It’s often the “OMG that river’s going fast” (as the Wye usually does), combined with the “it’s 500 miles to the other side!” bits that grab the gut when you’re on your own, and need to be dealt with in all the planning. “Little” Exmoor streams, too, can be very triksy and always seem to be full of kelpies luring you in *g*. Am making notes – without the CHINCHILLA SORBET translations.
    Would never call you miserable *g* … but your “keep off the grass” signs are good (and useful), know the feeling. Being alone – or rather without human company – in the wilderness is marvellous, you discover you are not alone at all but the natural company never impinges on spontenaity and delight.
    all the best,

  6. sean fagan
    | Reply

    Hi James & Paul

    I really enjoyed your article James (and previous article). Has given me a lot of clarity (excuse the pun) on the matter. Its nice to read an article that comprehensively deals with the issue in a realisitc, common sense matter. I’ve had a few scary dunks in my time (I was young!) and it is so easy to underestimate static or moving water. Quality stuff, keep it up James.


    • Paul Kirtley
      | Reply

      Hi Sean,

      Thanks for your comment. It’s good to know you have enjoyed James’ first couple of articles for the site. It’s also good to read that from experience you know the value of his advice.

      Frontier Bushcraft has a team of people with a broad range of knowledge and expertise. We’re doing our best to share this. Glad you like it.

      All the best,


  7. Ryan
    | Reply

    Great article, very comprehensive and usefull. Such an important skill in NZ many people underestimate the waters power.


    • Paul Kirtley
      | Reply

      Hi Ryan,

      Welcome and thanks for your comment.



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