If I'm alone in a survival situation and I have to cross a very cold river that's still flowing, how should I accomplish this safely?

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    Are we talking about a river covered in solid sheet ice, or a flowing river that's just incredibly cold?
    – berry120
    Commented Jan 28, 2012 at 17:04
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    I meant a river that is still flowing but is very, very cold ie. a really bad hypothermia hazard.
    – wyocalboy
    Commented Jan 28, 2012 at 17:08
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    It depends on how deep it and swift it is. If it's dangerous, walk upstream and downstream to find a crossing that's not dangerous.
    – xpda
    Commented Jan 28, 2012 at 22:35
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    Building a bridge or a boat is the obvious answer, but the question is so vague to be useful to return visitors or address a specific issue you might face. Let's work on asking very specific and very answerable questions during beta instead of wide open to interpretation. Your access to tools, clothing, and time will dictate the safe manner of crossing.
    – bmike
    Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 17:41
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    In the spirit of improving the beta, can those who voted to close, please open a post in meta explaining why this is a bad question for TGO? Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 20:32

4 Answers 4


First off, weigh up whether it's worth crossing said river. I know this question is about if you "have" to cross it, but bear in mind that falling in is a real danger and if you do, hypothermia can onset very quickly and be deadly. It depends on the situation - if we're talking about a shallow, wade-able body of water that's not much more than a stream I'd be much less hesitant to give it the go-ahead than if we're talking about something 20ft deep and triple that in width! Sometimes your gut reaction can be good here, if you think it looks highly risky and you might not make it successfully, don't attempt it! And if you can't swim strongly and you're just relying on trying to balance on top of a few logs without falling in, don't even think about it.

If you decide you to cross it:

Look for a bridge - No, seriously. Some people really can miss the obvious.

Prepare - Be sure to prepare thoroughly first. Re-pack your rucksack so all the vitals you'll need are kept as dry as they can be, and accessible (you'll want things like chemical heating packs, stoves, fire fuel and dry, warm clothes to all be very handy when you reach the other side.)

Find a good point to cross - As a general rule avoid deep, fast flowing water. It's better to find somewhere that might be a bit wider, but shallower and easier overall. If the river narrows at a particular point don't be fooled, the water has to have gone somewhere and unless it's branched off to another stream, it's because it's gone down - i.e. it's deeper! Wider patches are generally shallower, slower flowing and therefore a better choice even if it seems like you've got more of a task ahead of you to cross. There are also other telltale signs you can look out for - reeds for instance tend to thrive better in shallower water.

Find a good time to cross - Leave yourself plenty of time before it gets dark - it may take longer than you think, and you don't want a lack of light providing an unnecessary complication. I'd advise crossing late morning if you can at all - that way you ensure you get plenty of light which crosses one of the list of things to worry about (and it's an easy one to cross off) and you also ensure that you get to the other side when the day, on average, should be warmest. If anyone's fallen in or got wet, you'll be glad of every little bit of heat you can get to warm you back up!

Stay out of the water if you can - See if there are any materials around which you could use to construct a raft or similar. The best thing to avoid getting frozen solid is to stay out of the water in the first place. Equally, try and see if you could build a bridge with logs or any other suitable material.

Rope yourself to a secure point on the bank..? - This is a contentious one. I initially recommended it because the plus side is that you won't get swept away in a current, the minus side is that it could get caught or pull you under. Judge the situation accordingly, but if you do use it, use a quick release karabiner to attach it to yourself (so you can remove it quickly and easily if you have to.)

As soon as you're across, get the heating supplies out - It may well be that adrenaline is keeping you going and you're colder than you think. Equally even if you feel ok, the next person of your team to cross may not be. Make the most of this by getting a fire going if you can, get warm clothes out, and keep an eye out for each other to make sure everyone's ok. Have some warm soup, run around - anything to get you warmed up again!

  • 5
    and if it looks like your going to Not make it across....DONT TRY!!!! if there are downed trees that would make it accrost I personaly would try and make a "bridge" to the best I can. I would also spread my weight over a larger area, while lowering my center of gravity.
    – mjrider
    Commented Jan 28, 2012 at 17:32
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    +1, not crossing is generally by far the best option and the one I'd recommend most (as I tried to emphasise!)
    – berry120
    Commented Jan 28, 2012 at 17:35
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    Another thought just came to me. DO NOT FREAKING TRY THIS ALONE! ONLY CROSS WITH A BUDDY
    – mjrider
    Commented Jan 28, 2012 at 17:39
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    One more point: when crossing by walking you should face upstream, and if you have a walking pole use it and maintain at least two of three points of contact with the riverbed. If you face downstream, there is a very real danger that a foot can get caught, and the flow of water can bend your knees until you end up folded backwards and are drowning.
    – HorusKol
    Commented Jan 29, 2012 at 12:39
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    Berry, I think you should reconsider the rope thing - I've heard of using rope handlines (i.e. secured to both sides of the river), but tying yourself to a rope is not a best practice at ALL. If you fall in a swift current, you're almost guaranteeing you're going to drown - you generally won't be able to use the rope to pull yourself out, instead it will hold you under the current.
    – Ryley
    Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 16:43

There is one more important technique you can use that I was taught in New Zealand, where you have to cross rivers all the time.

If you have a group of people (at least 3), you can greatly enhance safety by forming a chain in the following way:

  • Position the strongest person upstream, the second-strongest person downstream and the weakest person in the middle.
  • Open your hip belts.
  • Every person holds onto the next persons waist by putting their arm between the neighbors back and pack:
    enter image description here

  • Start crossing slowly. Keep your boots on for stability and protection from sharp rocks.

  • The line of people you form should be parallel to the flow. That way, the stronger persons at the end of the chain break the strength of the river for the people in the middle while they themselves get supported by the middle people.
  • Cross diagonally, moving across and downstream. That takes much less force than fighting the current.

A note on shoes: I was taught to leave them on. Riverbeds are slippery and can have sharp rocks. Your shoes protect you. And once out of the water, the small amount of water in your shoes warms up quickly and forms an insulating layer similar to a wetsuit. Or so they say :) I have done the above in relatively cold water (no ice floating on it, but it was of glacial origin) and didn't suffer frostbite.

Image taken from Queenstown Team Building & Group Development.

EDIT: I forgot to say that, of course, the first and most important skill when it comes to river crossing is the skill to make the right decision. Rivers can swell quite quickly in rain, but once rain is over, those rivers that flood fast also drop fast. I was held up for a night by a waist-deep side-creek that flooded due to rain, and in the next morning it was only ankle deep.

If you are unsure whether you have a good reason to attempt a crossing or not, imagine that your crossing led to a fatality and you have to explain yourself to the grieving family. If you are in a survival situation, you might have a legitimate reason, but any sort of man-made deadline becomes irrelevant. (Wanting to be back in time for Super Bowl, or even wanting to be back in time for work, is not as important as not drowning).

  • +1, good answer... I like that it doesn't require extra gear...
    – Ryley
    Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 20:29
  • About walking in ice water - I have done that - not to cross a river, but for enjoyment. First 30 seconds are cold, then I loose sensitivity and opt to immediately get out. But no frostbites from a 0 degree centigrade water. On the other hand: if you only have one pair of shoes, how do you dry them once on the other side?
    – Vorac
    Commented Jun 1, 2012 at 14:07
  • You don't dry them.
    – Lagerbaer
    Commented Jun 1, 2012 at 14:38
  • The method I learned in my Swiftwater Rescue class was to form a circle with no more than 5 or 6 people. They told us this was more stable than the chain in fast-moving water and indeed it is in my experience.
    – montane
    Commented Jan 19, 2013 at 2:45

OK, this isn't a hypothetical question. You will have to ford numerous rivers fed directly from glaciers if you hike in the Swedish mountains. These are extremely cold, very rapid streams with rocks everywhere. Some basic advice is:

  1. Use a rod or stick as support. You should always lean on two points - two legs or one leg and the rod.

  2. Never have your hip belt attached - you must be able to drop your backpack if you lose balance.

  3. Take off your shoes/boots.

  4. Never ever walk deeper than right above the knees if the river is rapid, otherwise you won't be able to fight the current.

If the water is deeper and less rapid so you can / have to swim:

  1. Take off everything and swim naked.

  2. Pack clothes so that they are protected from getting wet and give as much buoyancy as possible. Plastic bags are your friends.

Synthetic garments are a saviour since you can get warm fast even if they get wet.

  • 4
    Why would I take of my shoes? wouldn't that hurt my feet if the rocks are sharp?
    – Ryley
    Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 16:29
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    @Ryley -- The wrong king of shoes get very heavy and will drag you down. Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 20:20
  • @RussellSteen I guess it's a tradeoff - I prefer heavy feet over bloody feet :)
    – Ryley
    Commented Feb 7, 2012 at 20:28
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    @Vorac - I almost always hike in trail runners, which drain immediately.
    – Ryley
    Commented Jun 1, 2012 at 15:18
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    Our practice is to have a separate pair of very lightweight shoes for crossing rivers. Both other choices are bad: either you walk in wet boots up to your doorstep or you risk injuring your foot (sharp stones do exist, you can't control your step being in a really difficult stream, and fast streams drag stones rolling near the bottom).
    – Steed
    Commented Oct 31, 2012 at 13:11

The first thing is to think very hard about whether you really need to cross it, in most circumstances the answer will be NO so there needs to be a strong reason to do so.

DO NOT cross a river just because you are travelling in a straight line and the river is in the way. A river is a good source of water and, food and materials and they are an excellent guide to navigation as there is a good chance they will eventually lead you somewhere useful. They are also an obvious marker for anybody looking for you. There is also a good chance that if you follow a river you will eventually find a road or path crossing it.

If you have a tarp, bivi bag or heavy duty bin bag with you then use that to wrap your pack as well as you can this will both keep your kit dry and help your pack to float.

If you have water bottles empty and re close them, they will be useful flotation devices also inflate any plastic bags you have.

IF you have rope or cord attach it you an anchor on the 'home' side of the river and your pack this gives you an anchor if you slip and and you can retrieve your pack if you fall and need to drop it.

It may also be useful to cut a staff to help you. This should be a reasonably straight and sturdy piece of wood. This will both help you to support your weight as you cross and can also be used to probe the river bed ahead of you for any unseen obstructions such as rocks, sunken logs or holes, all of which are major potential hazards.

In general you want to use the staff as a third leg, plant it somewhat downstream of your steps to support yourself against the current. Similarly walk with great care, keeping two firmly planted points of contact (feet of staff) at all times, only transferring your weight forward once you are sure you have a firm footing.

Clothing requires some care. Here the compromise is between protecting yourself while you cross and getting your only insulating clothes wet. As a rough guide keep your boots on but remove your socks and keep on any wicking base layers and water proof shells which will dry fast and provide meaningful warmth during the crossing. However in cold conditions you should try to provide yourself with warm, dry clothing to change into as soon as you have completed the crossing.

Also if at all possible be prepared light a fire as soon as you have finished the crossing ie find and dry-pack tinder kindling and fuel.

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