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Safety Tips for Crossing Rivers & Streams

River crossing in the President range, Yoho National Park
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On a spring hike in Kananaskis Country I couldn’t help but notice that the Elbow River was flowing hard already. In fact kayakers could be seen playing in the rapids. The scene brought to mind river safety – in particular safely tips for crossing rivers or stream on foot. When I was in Auyuittuq National Park in Nunavut, we were given stern warnings and a lot of useful tips on how to get across a river alive. The reason – drownings are the biggest cause of death in Auyuittuq National Park – and not falls off mountain peaks.

River crossing in the President range - be mindful of safety tips for crossing rivers
River crossing in the President range
Fording an icy stream in Auyuittuq National Park - keep in mind safety tips for crossing rivers
Fording an icy stream in Auyuittuq National Park

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A case in point is the story of a woman who managed to climb Mt. Thor (see photo below) – which boasts the world’s tallest vertical face. But on the return to the trailhead she slipped in the river with her backpack on and drowned.

You're more likely to drown in the park's rivers than kill yourself on Mt Thor - or any other mountain in the park unless you keep in mind safety tips for crossing rivers
You’re more likely to drown in the park’s rivers than kill yourself on Mt Thor – or any other mountain in the park

Here are 12 safety tips for crossing rivers and streams

If it’s a cold river or stream you’ll be crossing, ensure you carry a pair of neoprene booties in your knapsack – and put them on. This way your socks and boots will stay dry as well.

Carry a pair of hiking poles. They are invaluable for balance and for testing the depth of water.

River crossing in the President range
River crossing in the President range of Yoho National Park

If you’re crossing with a backpack loosen the straps and unfasten the waist and chest straps. If you fall in the water, you don’t want the weight of your pack to prevent you from getting up.

Face upstream and as you head across and move with the current instead of fighting it.

Two of the biggest safety tips for crossing rivers

Never wrap your boots around your neck. People have drowned when the laces get wrapped around their necks.

Don’t stare into the water. Look across the river or stream to help maintain your balance.

Crossing a very cold - but low river in Auyuittuq National Park
Crossing a very cold – but low river in Auyuittuq National Park

Choose an area where the water is slower moving. Pick a flat area over a steep area and a braided area over a single channel.

Cross below the biggest rapids.

Time your river crossing

The timing of your river crossing is critical in some parts of the world. In the Arctic the lowest flow is typically between 2 AM and 7 AM. Be prepared to wait hours or even days if necessary before crossing. And be prepared to cross in the middle of the night. Also be willing to abort the trip or the route if the water levels don’t drop.

Consider the abilities of the weakest group member. Perhaps a strong member of the group will need to ferry a backpack across the river for the weakest member.

Crossing as a group may have some merit. A strong member can stand upstream and other members can continue single file behind. The downstream eddy makes the going easier.

Never rush a river crossing

Don’t rush the river crossing. Get your balance before moving forward.

Maybe this isn't such a good idea
Maybe this isn’t such a good idea

Other safety tips for crossing rivers 

Also be aware of cloudy water which masks obstacles like large rocks or holes.

Note the location of drop-offs, waterfalls, pools and unstable riverbanks. I know I have scoured the banks of a river looking for a safe crossing while while hiking the President Range trails in Yoho National Park. On that occasion we never did find a safe crossing.

On a hike to the Bow Hut one year in Banff National Park, it took my friend and I an incredibly long time to cross a river – because we didn’t have neoprene booties or poles. Lesson learned.

Have you turned back because of a dangerous river crossing? Have you ever had a close call?

Further reading on safety tips

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

12 safety tips for safely crossing rivers that could save your life

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