|Rivers are one of the greatest hazards in the New Zealand Outdoors. Errors of judgement often have serious consequences. There is an average of about three river-crossing deaths each year. Eighty per cent of these accidents are in flooded rivers or side-streams.
It's not only the untrained who die. Experienced and skilled people have drowned after being tempted to give it a go against their better judgement.
You should not take any river crossing lightly: the risks are too great. You must take particular care with children playing in or near moving water.
Whenever possible, plan to use bridges or cableways to cross rivers.
The problems of cold water
New Zealand rivers are often only just above freezing point, especially when they drain a glacier. Even a short time in the water causes rapid cooling of your legs and feet, resulting in poor co-ordination and cramping.
With deep crossings, the shock of cold water may cause a rapid and involuntary intake of breath. There is a risk of drowning from gulping water. It may help to splash your face before crossing to condition yourself.
Prolonged crossings, or long gorge trips with many crossings, may lead to hypothermia. You can reduce this danger by choosing a route and a method which minimise your time in the water.
After deep crossings, it may be best to stop and make a hot drink, change into dry clothes, and rest.
Before you or your party attempt to cross a river, there are questions you need to ask:
1. Should we cross?
If in doubt, stay out.
2. Where do we cross?
The choice of the safest place to cross is vital. Try to view the river from a high bank. You may be able to see gravel spits or sandbanks just below the surface and get some idea of the depth and position of channels.
3. How do we cross?
Use mutual support methods. The more people in the party, the more strength there is for crossing and for supporting anyone who slips or falls. All river-crossing methods have their advantages and disadvantages and, in difficult conditions, no method is absolutely safe.
Knowing when to cross a river is not a black and white decision, it’s about good judgement. We advise that you attend a Mountain Safety River Safety Course to learn how to anticipate what might go wrong and therefore recognise and avoid potential problems.
Find out more from our river safety pamphlet available on our resources page, or join a course in your area via our training page.