Every time I see an article about river crossing tips for wilderness travelers, I get a bad feeling in my gut because more often than not, they continue to propagate myths rather than deliver best practices based on real experiences.
Who started this madness?
First, there is no single best way to cross a river, because all rivers are different. Crossing techniques for a boulder-strewn glacial-fed river tumbling out of Mt. Rainier are going to be quite different from crossing techniques for rivers in the Brooks Range.
This means – that's right – safe crossing depends on real-time judgment…an interesting concept for people who demand formulas and checklists.
The only rule I really advise when crossing a river is this one: if you aren't comfortable swimming it, don't try to cross it.
Other than that, my favorite myths I'd like to debunk (especially for rivers with cobble bottoms) is that of "facing upstream" or "having two or three points of contact" or "keeping your pack belt unstrapped".
Let's address each one of those in turn.
Myth #1. Always face upstream.
The number of calories you expend by fighting the current will exhaust you before you get to the other side. The river is not your enemy, because currents are strong and you can't win, so don't fight it.
Quarter downstream and go with the current. Be one with the river. You'll have more energy left over if you do get in trouble mid-crossing.
Myth #2. Always maintain 2/3 points of contact.
This is a reasonable strategy in a river with big, slick boulders (which are inherently dangerous because of the risk of foot entrapment), but it's a waste of time and energy for cobble bottomed rivers.
Think of the river as a dance hall, not a vat of butter. Move with it, and allow the fluidity of the river's currents do some of the work for you as you hop across the bottom. "OK, but what if I step in a deep hole because I'm not probing?" Yeah, so you swim a few yards until your cycling legs find some new ground. It's scary at first, but with practice, you'll become quite accustomed to this rhythm and you'll be crossing some deep wide rivers with grace and ease.
Myth #3. Always unclip your pack hipbelt.
Right – so that – combined with facing half-sideways, the current grabs your pack and slides it right off of you? Oh wait – maybe this is why people face upstream (sic)!
OK, seriously. Keep your pack strapped. It will vastly improve your stability. When practicing river crossings in deep water with safe runouts, go under with your pack, reach down and undo the hip belt, and swim with your pack.
Now, let's consider my recommendations in context. You must be a good swimmer, you must be able to react underwater, and you must be able to remain calm under pressure.
Big rivers are scary. Practice these techniques with safe runout zones, learn to river swim, and have fun. Crossing and swimming big rivers are some of my favorite activities in wilderness hiking.
This is not a comprehensive guide to river crossing safety. If you want that, and real world experience with rescue certification, swimming rivers, and crossing them in the wilds, take the BPL Packrafting Course.