From 2005-2014, there were an average of 3,536 unintentional drowning deaths (non-boating related) annually in the United States. This is about ten deaths per day. An additional 332 people died each year from drowning in boating-related incidents. About one in five people who die from drowning are children 14 and younger (CDC, 2017).
To give it some perspective, it is estimated that between 7,000 and 8,000 people per year receive venomous snakebites in the United States, and about 5 of those people die. The number of deaths would be much higher if people did not seek medical care (Dept. of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, University of Florida, 2017).
We study books, look at pictures, and surf the Internet researching venomous snakes that may make their home where we want to hike or camp. We study pictures about plants that can cause rashes, stick us with thorns and would make us sick if we ate them, but how often have you researched a water crossing before you set out on a hike or when planning a camping trip off the beaten path.
If on a typical day hike you happen to encounter a rushing river there is no reason to risk life and limb trying to cross, but in a SHTF situation not crossing may mean the difference between surviving and not, so where does that leave you.
Some of the information we provide here is based on actual experiences, and the rest is based on research and common sense. In the end, however, it is up to you to gain the necessary experience and physical stamina.
It is important that you get some hands-on experience in a controlled environment before trying a dangerous water crossing. All river crossings can turn into a dangerous crossing so assume danger lurks just below the surface in every case.
Dave and Cody and the rest of the survival reality stars can make it look easy, but keep in mind a crew of experts, along with medical experts are just off camera ready to help. When you are alone, where an injury that would otherwise not be considered serious could cause you to become stranded and die, you do not take chances. If you do not have any experience with river crossing or are not a strong swimmer, you are better off not trying at all.
Before you start your hike or any outdoor adventure, you should know whether there are any rivers along your intended path. Quality rope, floatation devices, and protective headgear can be packed if you have the luxury of being able to plan a crossing before you start out. In a survival situation, however, planning is usually not possible, so what do you do.
The first thing you might try would be to find a shallow place in the river where you could wade across. Such a place is called a ford. It doesn’t take deep water to get you in trouble, and in fact, still water tends to be deeper and may make the crossing less dangerous than a fast moving river that may be only knee or hip deep. Losing your footing due to fast moving water is what creates a dangerous situation.
Prepare your pack because you should not have it strapped tight to your back. It must be such that you can remove it quickly and have all of your gear strapped to the pack so if you do have to release it you can find a single pack easier than several pieces of gear. Having the means to protect it from water is ideal and it could be used as a floatation device. You can attach a short tether so you can float it behind you as you cross if the water is not moving too fast, otherwise carry your pack high and loose on your shoulders for balance.
You have to pick your spot. Cross below any rocks, deadfall pileups and any other debris that could cause injury if the current carries you into the pileup. Cross above any sandbars in the middle of the river. This way the current would carry you to the sandbar if too strong for you to navigate. Once on the sandbar, you can set off once again.
Floating on your stomach angling downstream toward the far bank is the best way to cross without tiring yourself out.
Wading straight across is tiring work. Remove your pants and your shirt as well, if the water is above your waist to reduce water dragging. Leave your shoes on to prevent bruising and cuts. You will need a stout walking stick for balance and plant the stick upstream as you walk to break the current flowing around you. Cross the downstream current at a 45-degree angle.
Your pack will help balance you and the weight is not a hindrance when fording a stream that is only waist or hip high.
Before crossing, study the far bank. You don’t want to get across only to find you cannot climb the far bank.
Study the water and if heavy limbs, logs, and other debris are floating this is the wrong place and time to cross. This may mean heavy rains upstream have caused flooding, so it is best to wait and see if the level subsides or move further downstream for a better crossing.
Springtime crossings are dangerous because of snowmelt at higher elevations and the cold temperature of the water. In spring, it is best to cross at dawn because the cooler night temperatures may have slowed the snowmelt.
Experts do not always agree about rope and river crossings. Rope can be a lifesaver or it can cause you to get dragged under in some cases.
If you have rope and you know you will have to cross the river coming back then you can secure it to a stout tree near the base and secure to your body in such a way it can be released so you do not get tangled up in it and cannot use your arms or legs. If you do get swept downstream, you do have the rope to pull you back, but you can get tangled up in the rope as well. Then, of course, secure it to a stout tree on the opposite bank for crossing back. If you have rope with you then there is no reason not to secure it off on one bank, and carry it across with you, but again do so in such a way as not to get tangled up in it. Let it play out and have it secured loosely to you so it can be released if needed.
If in a group, then getting a rope secured and across is the best method, because getting more than one person across safely is difficult and it takes a team effort to do so and if someone breaks loose, the others tend to try and help putting everyone in jeopardy in the process. One person would get across first and secure off the rope.
CDC. (2017). Retrieved 2017, from https://www.cdc.gov/homeandrecreationalsafety/water-safety/waterinjuries-factsheet.html
Dept. of Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, University of Florida. (2017). Retrieved 2017, from http://ufwildlife.ifas.ufl.edu/venomous_snake_faqs.shtml