River Safety

If in doubt, stay out.

Rivers are a living feature of the New Zealand outdoors. Their banks and gorges provide some natural access-ways to our mountainous areas so it is vital to respect them and understand why they are a potential hazard on your adventures. 

Did you know?

There are about 180,000km of rivers in New Zealand, so you will likely meet one on your journey in the outdoors. 

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What makes rivers so dangerous?

Some popular tracks have swing bridges or cableways, but trampers often need to cross rivers. River crossing deaths occur in New Zealand each year, so you need skill and sound judgement. Take all river crossings seriously. If in doubt, do not cross.

Did you know?

14% of fatalities in selected outdoor activities are from crossing a river.
– There and Back, 2016


What often goes wrong?
  • Lose your footing, heavy gear on back, slippery, or people simply underestimate the force.
  • People are often in a rush to get home before dark – so plan your trip effectively so you can achieve your desired kms and have alternative routes set, as well as pack emergency shelter and food if you have to for a river to go down.

 msc NW landscape river boulders 17

Helpful hint

If you see a bridge is out or there is flooding turn back. Tell other people in the area and the local DOC office when you return.


What you need to know

Stop before you cross

If you’re not experienced in river crossings or identifying unsafe rivers, then avoid crossing rivers by selecting tracks that use bridges and always be prepared to change your plans to avoid crossing a river. If you’re experienced in river crossings, you can always seek shelter and wait for the river level to drop.


Warning signs of an unsafe river 

  • Water moving faster than normal walking pace.
  • Discoloured, cloudy, surging water.
  • Visible debris in the river such as tree branches.
  • The sound of rolling boulders on the river bed. 

Helpful hint

Prepare your clothing, gear and footware before crossing to try keep some items dry and make yourself more balanced. 

Where to 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.


Where to cross a river safely

How to cross (group)

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. 

Using the mutual support method

How to cross (alone)

We encourage people who are out there alone to not cross rivers by themselves unless they are very experienced. Wait for another party of people to come by, find a bridge or go back.

Helpful hint

Make sure you warm up with a hot drink, fresh dry clothes or a blanket after your crossing.

Water Quality

New Zealand generally has many areas with safe drinking water, especially in the backcountry away from dense populated areas. It is important to have water with you at all times and therefore to fill up your bottle wherever possible. If you are unsure about the quality in a certain water source, boil it or use a water filter before consuming. For more information visit our cooking and fires page. 

Helpful hint

Take extra care to make sure everyone in your group is comfortable with your planned route, especially if it includes river crossings.

Key Resources 

Get some of our helpful books and flyers

We have free pamphlets, books and equipment to help you find out more information about river safety in New Zealand from our online store. These include vital information in the:

  • Bushcraft Manual
  • River Safety Handbook and DVD

In our resources section you find our FREE River Safety Flyer. 

Read more about your desired activity

Whether you walk, run, hunt or climb – we have specific information you need for your favourite activity, including specific information on river safety in the FREE Multi-Day Tramping Guide – find them here.

Find a course provider

Find a course provider in your area to help you learn the essential skills to help you cross rivers safely.



What is #MakeItHomeNZ?

MSC encourages exploration and adventure in the incredible wilderness regions of New Zealand. We encourage you to participate, get out there and see what all the fuss is about. New Zealand is on the bucket list of so many people around the world for good reason.
We also encourage safe practices that ensure you make it home to your family and friends. We want you to make it home with adventurous stories, memories and photos. But, most of all we want you to make it home to do it all again next time. That's why on every advertisement, press release, video and resource we reaffirm our intent to help the 1.2 Million+ participants in outdoor recreation to make it home. You can help us spread this philosophy by sharing our resources and following the outdoor safety code so you make it home.
– Mike Daisley, CEO

Helpful links

Water Safety New Zealand

Learn more about river safety in the Water Safety New Zealand website 

Find out more

Department of Conservation track alerts

Get updates via their website or when you plan a trip to know which bridges are out before you go. Explore DOC Track Alerts

Find out more

Check the weather with MetService

Pay extra attention to the weather as rain and snow effect the river levels drastically. Explore MetService weather

Find out more 

Explore our insights
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Read Outdoor Safety Code
 Find out more