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The "New Zealand Death"

When New Zealand was being colonized by Europeans, accidents rather than old age or disease was the main cause of death in the young population. Drowning was so frequent that it became known as the "New Zealand death". The lack of bridges in remote farmland made the fording of rivers a daily occurrence and the chance of a mishap in our mountain-fed, flood-prone rivers high. Even people on horseback sometimes drowned. A famous explorer of the West Coast in the 1860's, Charlie Douglas, is often quoted as saying: "not being able to swim has saved my life many a time".

Drowning remains the main cause of deaths among trampers today. As an example, there were 18 tramping deaths between 1970 and 1990 in the Tararua Ranges - 15 caused by ignoring the tramping dictum of "you never have to cross the river". However the closeness of a warm, comfortable hut across a turbulent river has often overwhelmed common sense.

In well-travelled areas there are plenty of foot, swing, log and wire bridges across streams and rivers. Outside of these areas, bridges may be rare, dangerous or non-existent. If you have become used to using three-wire bridges, wait until you encounter your first two-wire bridge! Even a bridge marked on the map may have vanished by the time you want to use it - usually destroyed by a flood or removed as dangerous. Remember that some routes are actually in the river bed with multiple crossings needed.

Note that the old practise of using a rope to ford a river is now discouraged. The reasons for this are that a very strong tramper was needed to take the rope to the other shore, the rope was prone to snagging on boulders and the last tramper had little support (the rope merely provided a means to swing him to shore if he slipped).

When Not to Ford

Never cross a river if any of the following conditions are observed:
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) The river is in flood above its normal level.
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) The water is discoloured and surging.
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Trees or other debris are being swept downstream.
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) You can hear stones or boulders being pushed down the river bed.
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Any of your party are not capable of fording the river (cannot swim, are too tired or injured).
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) You cannot see the river bed.

A slight exception is fording murky glacial rivers where suspended rock flour always hides the river bed. Experience and a highly cautious crossing is called for. If you have any doubts then do not cross and wait for the river to subside. To determine if the level of the water is rising or falling, scratch a mark on an easily accessible boulder at the water's surface and check it after half an hour. A good indicator that a river is in flood is if it is well above the "tide mark" of algae that forms just above the normal level of flow on partially-submerged boulders.

Getting Ready to Cross

Leave your boots on to protect your feet against sharp rocks and for more secure footing. Make sure that your gaiters are snug (to reduce drag) and secure (to avoid tripping you or your neighbour). Remove any loose, baggy clothing such as overtrousers. During deep crossings the pockets in your coat may fill with water. To prevent this either take your coat off or fold the bottom of your coat up until it can be secured under your hip belt.

Quick-drying shorts are preferred for river crossings. However in cold, windy conditions wool or polypropylene longjohns keep your legs warm and are quick to dry.

No pack is completely waterproof. Put all your gear inside plastic bags and fasten the tops securely. This is especially important for your sleeping bag and dry clothes - a lot can be tolerated if you know that you have a change of clothes and somewhere warm for the night. Use a packliner or strong plastic bag to contain your gear. This also increases your pack's buoyancy.

If you have a sleeping mat strapped to the bottom of your pack then move it to the top. This reduces the drag of your pack in deeper water and prevents the extra buoyancy from lifting your feet from the bottom.

Where to Cross

Ideally you should cross between easily sloping banks, through shallow and slow water flowing over gravel with no dangers (e.g. rapids) downstream. However rivers rarely present this ideal situation. The steps in selecting a place to cross are:

gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Look downstream to assess the run-out (where people will exit if swept downstream). Dangers to look for include:

gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) holes in the river (often scoured out where channels converge)
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) waterfalls or big rapids
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) rapids with large boulders
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) snags or other debris
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) bluffs which prevent exit and may have eddies or whirlpools which can suck you under
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) side-streams entering the river in the area of the run-out
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) the junction with a river.

gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Try to have a good look at the river bed. Murky waters may conceal many dangers including underwater snags, holes, sharp boulders and quicksand (if the bed is sandy, muddy or silty). A level shingle or gravel bed is ideal and can often be found where a river widens at the lower end of a pool or after a bend. Also look for gravel spits which lead diagonally across the river.

gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Assess the speed of the river. This requires experience. If a stick thrown into the water is swept downstream at faster than walking pace then the river is potentially dangerous. Even shallow, fast-flowing water can be hazardous.

gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Assess the depth of the river. Any crossing which is thigh deep on the shortest members of your party needs careful evaluation.

gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Look at the entry and exit points. The banks should be as flat as possible and clear of debris. Steep banks often indicate deep water. Remember that the current is usually faster and stronger on the outside of a curve thus you should not cross from the inside of a bend to the outside. On the other hand, a crossing between two bends will have a current that takes you across to the other bank.

gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Braided rivers involve crossing several channels. With careful planning a major crossing can be avoided. However make sure that the channels that you have crossed can be returned across, especially if the water is rising. Remember that channels in braided rivers change course and configuration during floods.

Choosing a Technique for Crossing

gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Hip belt done up or undone?

You should always unfasten any chest strap for your pack and loosen the shoulder straps. This helps if you have to remove your pack in a hurry and aids in mutual support. However the choice of whether or not to undo your hip belt is more complicated. If you do not have a quick release buckle then it must be undone.

Done up Undone
Pros Cons Pros Cons
During a recovery, you have more control of your pack. It take longer to remove your pack if needed. You do not need to undo the buckle when you need to get out of your pack This is more awkward and balance can be harder to maintain.
While swimming you do not have to hold your pack down Your buckle really must be quick release and reliable.   During a recovery you have to hold the pack down to prevent it pushing your head underwater.
Your arms are free to propel you towards a bank. You must check that loose clothing does not obscure the buckle.   Only your legs are free for propulsion.

Most modern parties with up-to-date equipment leave their hip belts done up.

gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Hints for walking in moving water

gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Keep your body side on to the current so that it presents as little resistance as possible to the water.
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Take small shuffling steps - almost heel to toe - and keep your feet close to the bottom. Use your feet to feel the bottom.
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Look at the far bank as much as possible so that the water rushing past does not unbalance you.
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Do not lean on logs or boulders under the water since this affects your balance.
gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Move diagonally with the current to conserve your energy. Many tramping trips are planned so that routes along rivers head downstream to take advantage of the current.

gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Mutual support methods

The principle behind these methods is to provide a backup if a member of a party slips during a crossing. For this reason the old method of linking arms is discouraged since it is harder for your companions to support you.

Put the strongest people in a party at the upstream position where they can take the brunt of the current and shelter the rest of the party. The person at the upstream end controls the crossing and makes sure that the party maintains the correct line in the river. All chest straps need to be undone and the shoulder straps loosened enough so that arms can fit between the pack and your back.

gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) The preferred method for deeper waters is for each person to insert their arms between the back and pack of their neighbour. They then grasp either the hip belt or the lower part of the shoulder strap.

gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) When the water is shallower, people are wearing day packs or people have no packs then modify the above technique so that each person grasps the clothing at the hip of their neighbours.

gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) A less strong but still used technique uses a thin pole to provide support. Here each person links arms with their neighbour and holds onto the pole with both hands. The pole needs to be long enough for the entire party, thin enough to grab and strong enough to support the entire party. The only advantage to this technique is that the people at the ends are more secure. However if people become detached from the pole then they cannot be helped without someone else letting go.

gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Swimming methods

You may have to swim across a deep pool. This is only possible if the water flow is very slow and will leave your party cold and wet. Only cross if you are confident in the abilities of your party.

gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) Strong swimmers can use their pack as a float. This is quick but does not have any support in case of trouble. Make sure that there is a clear run of at least four times the width of the river. Take your pack off and wade out into the river. When you reach deeper water let the pack float in front of you, lie on it and start swimming. Hold on with one arm and use the other and your legs to swim with. A well-balanced pack may allow you to swim with both arms.

gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) A party may join their packs up into a raft if they are crossing a wide, very slow, deep river with no dangers downstream. There must be no chance of losing all the packs. Start by putting all the packs in a line on the ground with their straps uppermost. Use the shoulder straps to link the packs together (a rope can also be used). Place the raft into the water and climb on, leaving your legs free for propulsion. The end people help to steer the raft with their arms.

gr_ball.gif (182 bytes) If travelling up or down river then narrow (a few metres), long, slow pools can be crossed by dog-paddling straight across them. Undo your chest strap, loosen your shoulder straps and optionally undo your hip belt. Wade into the pool until hip-deep and then swim across the remaining couple of metres to the other bank. Swimming is easier with your hip belt fastened but your pack stays drier with it undone.


No river crossing is safe. There is always the possibility of a mishap but proper selection of a crossing point with a good run-out minimises the dangers. Remember that your pack is your lifejacket. It's natural buoyancy gives a lot of support.

The best position when being swept downstream is on your back, leaning back onto your pack. Your legs should be near the surface to fend off oncoming boulders and avoid underwater snags. Angle your body across the current so that it pushes you towards the bank. Use your legs and arms (if free) to propel yourself to the nearest bank.

If your hip belt is undone or you do not have one then try to keep your pack on your back by pushing down with both thumbs in your shoulder straps.

When you reach the shallows undo your hip belt and remove the strap from your upstream shoulder. Keep a firm hold of the downstream shoulder strap and let the pack float around in front. Finally stand up and stagger ashore.

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