Letter Re: Getting Home When TSHTF

Hi James,
I had to send a note regarding this article. As a former outdoor professional I can’t take the chance that someone reading the article would walk away from it with the idea that it’s okay to tie your pack or bundle to you when crossing a body of water.  No! Never!  That is potentially deadly.  I don’t care if you have practiced it a hundred times without a problem.  The 101st crossing could be the one that gets you.  I have lost 8 friends over the last 20 years that were world class mountaineers, elite back country skiers, professional river guides, etc.  They died in the pursuit of their craft.  It really hammered home that accidents do happen and it only takes once.  One was a world class mountaineer that fell to his death because his rope didn’t clear the gate on his carabineer.  He had clipped in thousands of times over the years.  It only takes once.
You should never never tie your pack or bundle to you when crossing a body of water.  When carrying a backpack across a river or stream always unbuckle the waist belt and sternum strap.  If you were to fall you want to be able to get out of the pack quickly and kick it away from you.  You don’t want to have anything like strings or straps that can wrap around you and impede your ability to swim or float.  If you do fall and can safely grab a strap that’s okay.  But don’t hang on to it if it is acting like an anchor and pulling you down.  Let it go if it is pulling you uncontrollably in the current.  Better to lose your stuff than your life.
Most river guides will be wearing a knife, usually attached to a web belt in a sheath.  They do this for a reason.  They can pop a tube of the raft if it’s wrapped around a rock, cut the straps of gear in a capsized raft, free entangled people and so on.  It is one of the most important anything when dealing with rivers.  In Flasher’s article it was even mentioned the dangers of “getting tangled up in the cord”.  This should have been the red flashing light…danger, danger.
Most river professional use strapping like the ones sold by Northwest River Supply (NRS) and not cord to tie down gear in a raft or canoe.  There’s a reason for it.  One being that the knot on cordage will tighten greatly when wet and pulled on (such as flipping in a rapid and being pulled by the current downstream).  There’s not a chance of untying those knots, they have to be cut, thus the knife readily on hand.
If you are going to cross a deep river where you are going to have to float your gear across then you would want to ideally have it out in front of you, not on either side or behind you.  If you are going to use your gear as a floatation device then you can either put it under your trunk and kick with your feet or hang onto it with it in front of you.  If in a current, then point your feet downstream and loosely hang onto it at one side if having it in front of you is not possible.  Mostly you want to keep yourself in a situation where you can let go of it and get away from it if need be.
I would only cross a body of water where I had to swim or float with gear as an absolute last option if there was any kind of current.  Ideally, you want to choose a crossing where you can wade across.  Use a stout stick for maximum stability and to probe for holes or rocks on the river bottom.  Face upstream at an angle using the stout stick to brace yourself.  Move deliberately, one foot at a time.  River crossings should be made on a diagonal moving upstream.  If with others, link arms and have your strongest in the lead.
Apologies for the lecture but this isn’t something to take lightly.  I have crossed a 100+ streams and rivers while backpacking and have taken a couple of falls.  Even with all the skills and know-how, accidents do happen.
The other thing I noted pertained to eight days to go 40 miles.  Even with a full pack and out of shape it should only take maybe four days.  If it is taking longer than you are carrying way too much gear or stopping too often.  Scale it down.  Ideally, you want to get there fast.  If you are walking around with a full pack or carrying a number of smaller packs then you are a moving target.  You want to be as inconspicuous as possible. Take care, – Skylar

JWR Replies: With regard taking eight days to cover 40 miles, I believe that that author was referring to slow, cautious, tactical movement. This involves travel primarily in hours of darkness, with frequent halts for observation and “listening halts”, especially in locations where ambushes are likely.