Backcountry Safety When Crossing Rivers in Yellowstone

It’s important to remember that while Yellowstone National Park is beautiful, it’s also dangerous. Summer flash floods and high water can prove perilous.
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You’ve heard before that it’s important to remember that while Yellowstone National Park is beautiful, it’s also dangerous. Summer flash floods and high water can prove perilous.

Crossing Rivers in Yellowstone's Backcountry

River crossing can be a dangerous endeavor when in the backcountry.

Recently, a Yellowstone National Park press release recounted the death of an angler who lost his footing while fishing in the Yellowstone River near the Mud Volcano area. As he attempted to cross the chest-deep water, he slipped and the swift current swept him roughly 200 yards downstream. Despite the attempts of a visitor to administer CPR, the angler couldn’t be revived.

To cross a river safely, follow these steps.

1. Be cautious about crossing a river that’s deeper than your knees.

Throw a large rock into the river where you plan to cross to gauge the water’s depth. If the rock goes “ker-plunk,” it’s deep, and thus unsafe to cross.

2. Make sure there are no dangers downstream

Look out for waterfalls, logs and boulders that could lead to injury if encountered.

3. Look for the widest spot to cross

It will be shallower than a narrow channel.

4. Avoid bends in the river

Typically, the current runs faster around bends that along straight sections.

5. Watch out for waves

Standing waves likely mean that there’s a boulder under the water, so avoid that spot. Washboard, ripple waves generally mean the water is shallow, and safer for crossing.

6. Change into sandals if you have them

This will allow you to keep boots and socks dry for the rest of your adventure.

7. Unbuckle your pack before crossing

That way if you slip, you can easily let go of your pack so that if it gets stuck on something in the water, you’re not tethered to it.

8. Use a stick or trekking poles

They’ll provide balance for what could be a slippery traverse.

9. When crossing, face upstream, and cross at a slight downstream angle

Side-step or shuffle across the water to keep yourself steadier.

10. If you’re hiking with a friend, link arms while crossing

This will give both hikers extra balance. If the water is especially deep or swift, you can try the tripod technique (three hikers are required) in which individuals stand in a triangle shape (the tallest person should be upstream) with hands on each others’ shoulders; side-step or shuffle over the other side of the river to prevent falling.

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