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.
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Congratulations I really like this article as it is so important that clear and well illustrated articles are promoted on this topic. Although I have yet to put it to the test as yet I have heard that using a drybag/wet bag inside your rucksack which is oversized and used to trap excess air can be a very usefull buoyancy aid in the event of being swept of your feet.
Something I’ve found useful is using a water bladder and blowing it up. Acts as another aid to flotation.
James, you do the most errifying things! This is a very good article but, being a cripple, I don’t think it’s something I should try hough unless it really was an emergency and there was no way round. These situations happen though so it’s good to have your advice.
I like Jon’s idea of blowing up a water bladder as a buoyancy aid. I don’t carry these as I choke when I try to drink from that system (another damned “feature” of the diseases!) but my friend does so when we’re out together this is a good idea.
You ought to write a book, James 🙂
Great article James, nice one.
A super refresher for me as I attended the Woodlore Applied Bushcraft course last month and had a great opportunity to practice these techniques.
Interestingly this was my first Woodlore course since you and Paul have left the company. I have to say that I found the course a great disappointment. River crossings were about the only useful aspect.
The course contained very little related to the bushcraft philosophy as far as I can see it and was just a basic introduction to hill walking and navigation. As I’ve been hill walking for around 30 years there was sadly very little else new for me in the other content.
I can’t help wondering if Woodlore have lost their way since many of the staff left to join Paul at Frontier, Ray seems to have very little to do with the company these days either. I don’t think I’ll risk another course with them. For sure I will be looking towards Frontier for my future instruction, can’t wait to to join you.
I’m always sorry to hear that someone has been disappointed when they’ve given up their time and hard-earned money in exchange for a bushcraft course or other outdoor experience/training.
I hope you have made your feelings clear to Woodlore too? Even if you don’t intend to take any more of their courses, I’m sure they would appreciate your candid feedback.
While I don’t want to delve too deeply into the recent evolution of this course as I only know what I have heard from clients and other ex-members of Woodlore staff, I feel I should make the comment that I know the course has changed – both in content and venue – since I came up with the original concept. Also, “Applied Bushcraft”, which wasn’t my choice of name, was always something of a misnomer.
I wrote the original syllabus for the Woodlore Applied Course and James and I ran the first two courses in the summer of 2010. These were the only ones I led for the company as I left at the end of that year. I have heard that some elements which I considered central to the original training concept (such as the infamous “end scenario” on the banks of the River Usk) were subsequently removed in favour of a more straightforward course. This last element certainly required sensitive and thorough de-briefing of the group as it left some individuals quite grumpy at the time.
It is much easier for an instructor not to challenge individuals in this way; it is, however, less beneficial to the client’s long-term development in cementing a resilient mentality for when things become difficult in the great outdoors.
Interestingly, several of the clients who went through this experience are joining us at Frontier on overseas expeditions. So, they didn’t hold it against me for more than a couple of years 🙂
I certainly appreciate your candour and as for you joining us on one of Frontier’s courses or expeditions, you would of course be more than welcome.
Please let us know if you are looking for training in specific skills or areas or knowledge and we’ll do our best to help you.
the hardest part of any cold river/beck crossing is the initial dip of the meat n 2 veg. 😉 Any serious folks wanting to get the best white water training in the uk go see the rescue3 boys in bala wales. They know the game inside out and teach fire n rescue, special foreces, police rescue, animal rescue, mountain rescue and the RNLI in all things water safety/crossing related inc getting folks outa trapped vehicles. The courses are cheap considering what ya get and after less than a wks training you can walk away with the ‘swift water rescue technician’ cert.
Hi Paul, In fact I was originally booked to attend the Applied course in 2010, but my wife became pregnant that year and had a tough time with it to begin with. I deferred originally until 2011, and then again until 2012 as we still had a young baby in 2011.
I know from having attended three previous course under your direction (Fundamental, Journeyman and Campcraft), each in different ways a perfect learning experience, that something has been lost. A great shame for Woodlore, but I’m pleased you have had (or made!) the opportunity to go your own way. I’m sure you’ll build a deservedly strong reputation for Frontier in the future.
(formerly Jon Brian)
Ah-ha, Jon, OK. That explains why I didn’t recognise your surname. Good to hear from you! 🙂
Thanks for your kind words. I’m glad you enjoyed those three courses so much. It would be good to see you again when you have the opportunity to join us.
It does seem that Frontier has a strengthening reputation, which is in large part down to the motivation, enthusiasm, hard work and professionalism of the team we have here. We all love what we do, sharing what we know and seeing clients develop and grow in skill and confidence. It’s hard work but to be part of something where everyone is pulling in the same direction is really exciting.
All the best,
I was recently trapped behind a half dozen low water crossings which had gotten high enough during the night that I was afraid to drive through them. I waited a few days for the water to go down but it kept raining and more rain was in the forecast. Eventually I felt I needed to hike out before I ran out of food. As an experiment I stripped naked and crossed the first water crossing. I didn’t use my hiking poles because they were holding my tent up. I couldn’t find any good sticks so I just went for it. The fast part of the water was crotch deep. I faced across the stream rather than upstream. My reasoning was that I wanted to present the smallest cross section to the flow and that I would be more stable with my feet pointing across the current rather than upstream. It was tricky moving my feet. But this worked well. I don’t think I could have done it facing upstream. I think the current would have knocked me over. I wore river runner’s sandals but other than that was naked. I made it across that crossing and hiked down to the next one and crossed it, still naked. I was knocked down in the second crossing. At that point I went back to camp to consider alternate routes out as I knew I wasn’t going to do the half dozen crossings clothed with gear.
I’m not trying to be disagreeable as I know that your approach is what everyone on the internet advocates but I can’t imagine that I would try it if I get stuck in a similar situation again. Why do you face upstream rather than across the stream? I guess if I’d had wide crossing I might have considered doing it your way. not sure though. It was hard to move the down stream leg but once you succeeded in moving it, it was pretty stable. I guess it was during one of those downstream leg steps that I got knocked down. The fast part of the the channel was probably less than 3′ across. Maybe only 2′. Just a few steps. I would lean into the upstream leg and then kind of jerk the downstream leg forward as far as I dared. I think that is what I did anyway. I made 4 crossings that way and got knocked over once. I also knew that if I got knocked down I could easily make it to the far side. This was a test for doing it clothed with pack which is substantially more dangerous than naked.
Hi John, thanks for sharing your observations and experiences. To answer your direct question, facing upstream in the article is largely contingent on having a “third leg” in the form of a staff or pole. Making a tripod and keeping two points of contact is very stable. It still doesn’t quite answer why orient upstream rather than any other way. Well, when you have a stick to lean into, it’s most stable if you lean into the flow of the water. Pressure on your legs also tends to lock the knee joints rather than buckle the knee. A further oft-stated advantage is that you can see any debris flowing down the river towards you. Personally I think this is somewhat hypothetical in most cases, unless it is a flash flood in a previously very dry stream bed. It also begs the question of what happens next if you do see something coming towards you? What do you do to get out of the way? Noone ever seems to have a satisfactory answer to this 🙂 But can you walk with a staff facing across the stream? Yes, this also works and has some advantages, as you describe, in terms of presenting a smaller cross section.
If you don’t have a staff then another technique that may be of interest is the so-called “New Zealand” technique of running/bouncing across the flow without trying to stop on each footstep. The net effect is that you go on something of a diagonal path downstream across the flow. It works surprisingly well and I like it. You have to commit, though, and if you trip you could well be swimming next. You can see it in action at around 21 seconds into the following video… https://youtu.be/3oka1sDy97c?t=21
I hope this helps.