The fundamentals of safe wading

by Dan Kennaley | June 22, 2016

Fundamentals of safe wading

Once, on the Little Jocko River near North Bay, I was making my way back toward my car just before dark when I tripped on a mid-stream boulder. The water was only two or three feet deep, but I ended up with some nasty bruises, and by the time I reached the vehicle, I was shivering violently, glad to be safe.

As a result of this and other misadventures, I always try to exercise caution and good judgment when I’m wading. Here are a few tips I’ve picked up along the way.

What to do when you fall
-Float on your back with the current, keeping your head and feet up and facing downstream;
-Use your feet to bounce off rocks;
-Use your legs and arms to propel you toward an exit point;
-Avoid “strainers,” obstacles above and below the water surface that can trap you;
-Don’t stand until you are out of danger;
-Once out, take measures to prevent hypothermia

Cinch that waistline
In the event that you do fall, a wading belt will limit and slow the infiltration of water into your waders. There’s a strong possibility that the problem won’t be your waders filling with water, rather, it will be how wet you’ll get, especially when the water temperatures are low and you’re possibly facing a long, cold walk to your vehicle.

Wield a staff
A wading staff enables you to always maintain two points of contact with the bottom and that’s the trick to using one. Move your wading staff only when both feet are on the bottom and take your next step only when your staff is secure.

When you can’t see the bottom, a wading staff lets you feel around for better footing, and will help uncover hidden hazards. It also functions as a walking stick for the trip into and away from the stream.

Use the diagonal Safe wading - Using Diagonal
Don’t walk directly (90˚) across a stream, where the water pressure on you is the greatest. Instead, take a diagonal line across and downstream with the flow.

Go slow
The greater the volume of water and uncertainty you’re contending with, the slower you need to go and the more cautious you need to be.

Buddy system
As with most activities in the outdoors, it’s best to have a buddy along. You can ask them to physically assist you in wading or to provide crossing options from the vantage point of a high bank or a path already taken. They will also likely take hilarious photos of you after a slip.

Plan your route

Field tip
In heavy current, always keep your body sideways to the current.

Pick your spots to wade across or exit a stream. In tougher conditions, choose the slowest, shallowest parts of the stream to cross, traditionally flats or tailouts. It’s better to walk a few extra metres to a safer spot. Same thing applies when you’re leaving the stream; walk a few metres further to avoid a tricky bottom, a steep bank, or thick streamside vegetation.

Particularly if you’re fishing newer water in tough conditions, keep a mental tally of locations for easier crossings and exits. Plan your moves and have a backup plan in case you find conditions tougher than you anticipated.

Particularly if you’re fishing newer water in tough conditions, keep a mental tally of locations for easier crossings and exits.

Bottoms up
Be aware of the substrate you’re moving through, especially clay, muck, algae-covered rocks, bedrock that has been worn smooth by the water’s action, and trip hazards, such as boulders or submerged logs. Somewhere along the way, I learned the old adage, don’t step on something you can step over, and don’t step over something you can step around.


Get great fly fishing tips for bass here.


Other tips
• Take small steps and keep your legs shoulder-width apart.
• Use polarizing glasses to improve your ability to see the underwater route and any obstructions.
• Adjust your wading strategy to your energy level. After a long day of fishing, you are generally less agile.
• If you need to turn mid-stream, turn downstream.
• Drink water. Dizziness is a symptom of dehydration.

This article first appeared in the June 2015 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS.
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