How to swim down rapids, what to do if you lose your footing when wading?

There is plenty of articles on how to wade and cross rivers safely. There is also plenty of advice that explains how to stay out of trouble. I have even written one such article here.

But spend enough time wading, or floating down rivers, and sooner or later you will end up in the drink. It is normally highly amusing watching your friend slip head first into a crystal clear trout pool, but sometimes it can be a highly dangerous situation.

So, this short article will cover what to do once in the water.

First some basics.

If you can,t swim, wear a PFD

Swimming is an essential skill when wading in deep water.

If you can not swim, or panic the moment your feet leave the bottom do everyone a favor and wear a PFD (personal floatation device) when on the river.

Do not try to stand in fast flowing water

If the water is deep and swift, do not attempt to stand up, first swim to the shallows (knee deep) before attempting to get to your feet.

Not only is it extremely difficult to stand in a rapid, but you run the risk of losing your balance again and getting your foot trapped between rocks. The force of the water is easily enough to pin someone down, and even with assistance from a friend, it is extremely difficult to break free against the current.

So unless it is the only option, wait until shallow or slow water before trying to stand.

Is it possible to swim in waders?

If you are trout fishing, there is fairly high chance you will be wearing waders. Is it possible to swim in waders, or do they fill with water and drown the wearer?

Firstly, If you are wading, it is a very good idea to wear a tight wading belt to help create a tight seal to trap air inside the waders and keep water out. I know some guides who wear two wading boots.

So, can you swim when wearing waders?

I can swim just fine when wearing waders. When the air escapes, the wader material clings to my pants reducing the amount of water that gets in. Even if the waders are full of water, they do not usually pull you under because while swimming the water inside the waders weighs the same as the water you are suspended in. Waders full of water are neutrally buoyant when in the water. They do not pull you under.

However, water in waders does become an issue when you attempt to get out of the water, in which case saturated waders are extremely heavy. Pulling yourself onto a raft, kayak, or onto a riverside boulder with water filled waders is difficult because they weigh you down. So always wear a wading belt.

A quick summary

When waders are full of air they are positively buoyant and assist in keeping the wearer afloat. This makes floating in waders easy. To make sure that the air remains trapped in the waders it is a good idea to keep your legs elevated.

When wader get full of water, they are still neutrally buoyant when in the water. They do not drag people under, and only become an issue once you try to get out of the water..

Swimming in full fishing kit can be tricky

I also want to highlight that swimming in full trout fishing kit is more difficult than swimming in usual swimwear.

Wading boots are heavy and cumbersome, vests depending on their waterproofness can become saturated and weigh the wearer down or add a small amount of buoyancy.

Landing nets and rods can add a significant amount of drag. Swimming while holding onto a fly rod is hard.

How to swim in a rapid

So you lost your footing or fallen off the drift boat, and now you are getting washed downstream.

You have two options, try and actively swim out, or go with the flow and get out once the current slows. I generally, prefer to get out as quickly as possible so my preference is the former.

You also need to decide between actively swimming, or roll over onto your back and take the passive option.

At this stage, I will note, that it is difficult to swim while holding onto a fishing rod, if you start to get into trouble dropping the rod, and attempting to recover it later is a good idea.

If you want to keep hold of your rod, then the passive technique gives more control and is the preferred choice for people wearing waders.

Active Swimming Technique

As the name suggests, the active technique is when you swim actively with or across the current to reach the shallows as quickly as possible. Just remember, that swimming is a lot more difficult fully dressed compared with wearing togs.

The active style is typically the best method to get through standing waves and to avoid strainers on the river. A strainer is anywhere on the river where the current flows but a human can not follow.

If you decide to active swim, follow the below steps.

  • – Identify and aim for a exit: Keep your head up and your eyes on the exit location. If your head it is easy to become uncoordinated and end up swimming away from the target.
  • – Kick your feet: Kick your feet to generate forward momentum and to prevent them from sinking. The current on the surface is slower so less force is being applied to your body by the river.
  • -Swim. Consider dropping your rod and swim freestyle. Two arms are a lot faster than one.

Passive/Defensive Whitewater Swimming

Enter the passive swimming position in the following situations.

– It is so chaotic that you can not decide what to do. Float with your feet downstream, and knees slightly bent until you’ve figured out where you’re going. When appropriate roll onto your stomach and swim to the side of the river to get out.

– You suspect a drop or fall is coming. This is normally indicated by the inability to see the horizon. The passive position helps prevent your feet from getting trapped as you go over the drop.

– You are wearing waders, and you want to trap the air in the legs.

How to swim in the passive position

  • – Float on your back, with feet pointing downstream. Wading boots might be heavy, but try and keep your toes out of the water
  • – Stroke with both arms simultaneously to move towards the right or left shore. Do your best if still holding a rod in one hand.
  • – Use your feet to push yourself away from any large boulders or obstructions.

How to survive a plunge down a waterfall?

The chances of falling off a waterfall is extremely slim, and only really happen after some serious misjudgments.

Before reaching the waterfall first enter the passive position.

Your chance of survival greatly depends on what is at the base of the falls. A nice deep plunge pool, or jagged rocks, or maybe a mass of circling driftwood. Hitting the latter two is very bad news and the chance of injury and death is high.

If there is a nicely formed plunge pool then the chances of survival greatly increase.

That is because the impact of the waterfall agitates the water surface softening it somewhat.

Treat falling off a waterfall like jumping from a great height feet first.

– Wrap your hands around your head for a little extra protection, while doing so push your nose into your arm to try and prevent water from being forced up your nose.

– Tightly close your eyes, take a deep breath and close your mouth. Hold your breath during the fall, you might be under the water for a significant amount of time.

– During the fall, tense your muscles, and hold your legs together.

– Try to hit the water with feet first, position your feet at about 45 degrees. So not totally pointed but also not flat. The soles of your footwear will absorb much of the impact making it less painful than jumping in bare feet.

– After surviving the fall, it will be tempting to try and swim straight to the surface, but in doing so you will be fighting against the downwards pressure of the waterfall and all of the turbulence it creates.

Rather, it is usually best to start swimming while still underwater. The current is less severe close to the bottom. Try to get away from the impact zone before surfacing.

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