How to Survive a Fast River Current

These channels of water might look harmless, but they can be deadly

From camping to kayaking, many of the outdoor activities we love often revolve around rivers. The narrow channels of flowing water might look harmless on the surface, but if you venture out unprepared to deal with the current, you could be putting yourself in danger.

According to the CDC, drowning is the fifth leading cause of unintentional injury and death in the U.S.

From 2005-2009, there were an average of 3,533 fatal unintentional drownings (non-boating related) annually in the United States — about ten deaths per day. An additional 347 people died each year from drowning in boating-related incidents.

Rivers are a key element of the outdoors, they supply camps with water, give hikers a place to cool off in the summer and the view isn’t bad either. But people don’t always realize that rivers may have very fast currents, and getting caught in the rushing water can be very dangerous.

Even a river that looks calm on the surface can have a fast under current and that’s dangerous enough alone, but add boulders, logs and other debris and injury becomes likely. It’s also important to remember that many rivers are fed by melting ice and snow, those cold temperatures could shock your system and give you hypothermia. That shock impairs your motor system and has caused many drowning deaths in otherwise excellent swimmers.

Experts say you should avoid crossing rivers unless it’s absolutely necessary. In the event that crossing is unavoidable, here’s the safest way to go about it.

When Planning to Cross:

1. A helmet and life vest will be useful. If you have them, put them on.

2. Try to determine how fast the water is moving. Throwing objects, especially buoyant objects, into the middle of the river will begin to give you an idea of the speed. But remember, you can’t really know how fast the undercurrent is moving and just because the surface is moving slow doesn’t mean it’s safe to cross.

It is recommended that you either climb a tree or get to higher ground to get a better view of both the pace of the river and what obstacles lie downstream. From your vantage point you should also look for a point that might be easier to cross. You might consider hiking to find a safer spot to cross if you determine the water is too quick where you are.

3. Once you’ve found the place you want to cross, look for fallen trees or trees on their way down. If you find a light downed tree, you can prop it across the river and try to cross on top. Bigger trees will be more secure for crossing but they will be harder to position over the river. If you have an axe, or other sharp tool, you can cut down a tree—but be aware this will take time and energy.

If You Fall in or Get Taken by the Current:

If you happen to fall in and get taken by the current, there are two ways to maneuver down the river.

1. The method experts recommend most is going down on your back, with your feet pointed downstream, and your head positioned upstream. This way, your head is protected and your legs will take any of the damage from rocks and debris. The top half of your feet should be poking out of the water and your head should be above water as well. Look downstream and keep calm, breathe with the flow of the water, to keep from swallowing too much water. When you come up on a calmer area, flip over and swim diagonally toward shore, with the flow of the current.

2. The other less popular method is to swim on your stomach, head-first downstream. It is easier to control your direction this way, but your head is vulnerable to impact with rocks and branches. Remain calm, breathe with the flow of the water and look for a protected spot where the water is moving more slowly so you can make it to shore.


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