Riding Skills: Crossing Deep Water

Being a desert dweller, I don’t get too many chances to cross small streams and rivers. Not to say I never get the opportunity, but it is infrequent enough I often have to remind myself how it’s done. I tend to jog my memory about mid-stream with an audible, “Eeeeks!” For those of you who have yet to cross water with two wheels, here are the finer points I should make a better habit to remember:


Stop and assess the crossing

If there’s even a little doubt in your mind about the depth or speed of the water, stop and scout it out. Look for ripples in flowing water that might indicated submerged rocks or deep holes. Rippled water surfaces moving quickly often mark the shallow portions of a stream whereas the deepest parts usually have slow and calm movement at the water’s surface. If you’re really unsure about the crossing, just commit to wet feet and walk in. It is far better to get your feet soaked than your whole body––and bike.

If the water is over your knees, that’s starting to get properly deep and you may want to reconsider. Deep water, if moving slowly, can be fine if the river bed is smooth. Fast water over a rocky river bed starts getting tricky. As you scout the crossing, even if just from shore, don’t forget to assess your exit on the other side. Pick your line, commit to it, and if it all looks doable, hop on your bike and think positive thoughts. Self fulfilling prophecies are, well, you get it.

Stand and attack

Most river crossings don’t permit the rider to see all the potential hazards lurking below the water’s surface. Just as you would for any rough section, stand and prepare yourself for unexpected bumps and deflections of the front wheel. As you approach the water’s edge make sure you are attacking the water head on. If your wheel is slightly turned, once it hits the water’s inky depths it will dart in the direction of the wheel’s trajectory. The greater the speed, the more violent that “slicing” effect will be. Ask me how I know.


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In this shot from Ecuador, I got my front wheel a little sideways and sliced hard right. I saved it, but it could have ended badly.


Easy on the throttle

You want to maintain just enough forward impetus to maintain your balance and to allow the wheels to overcome small obstacles. That forward speed also needs to offset any forces applied by the passing current. Modulate your throttle carefully, using the clutch to maintain appropriate engine revs. Too much speed simply multiplies the forces that might otherwise work against you if things go pear shaped.


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Who needs a jet ski? Scott Brady has a fondness for water sports and never misses a chance to test the depths.


Keep your eye on the prize

I love my front wheel, only slightly less than the two feet of earth in front of it. I can’t help it, but unless I remind myself not to, I find myself admiring my front hoop and riding head long into trouble. The smarter approach is to make target fixation work for you, and keep your eyes locked on your exit point on the far side of the river. It won’t help looking down into the water. There’s nothing to see there.


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Moments after reaching the other side, Scott said, “Uh, that was deeper than I expected.” Deep it was, but he remained balanced, managed his momentum carefully, and made it look easy. It also helped having 800 pounds of bike and rider cutting through this pond like a battleship.


Be prepared to put a foot down

It has only happened to me a few times, but dabbing a foot mid-stream has to be done with some forethought, particularly in swift moving water. If you put your upstream foot into the water, it will possibly be forced firmly against the bike as it is pushed into a downstream lean. Putting your downstream foot down first will often be more successful, if you have a choice in the matter.

If it gets really bad, kill the engine

If all of the above has failed you, and you feel that unfortunate tug of gravity as your bike lists like a torpedoed frigate––kill the engine. The last thing you need is a bunch of water ingested into your engine. If you anticipate multiple crossings, have the tools and skills handy to de-water your engine.


Water crossings can be a lot of fun and add an extra element of adventure to the day. They can also turn a good day of travel on its ear. In Iceland this summer, as I crossed a river with a bicycle on my shoulder, I watched a BMW GS rider safely navigate 50 feet of water only to dump his bike in the final 10 feet. Although his bike fired up once we got it ashore, he was soaked through. I’m sure he’s still telling the tale of his splash-down at every opportunity. Even when it goes badly, it makes for a great story.


Christophe Noel is a journalist from Prescott, Arizona. Born into a family of backcountry enthusiasts, Christophe grew up backpacking the mountains and deserts of the American West. An avid cyclist and bikepacker, he also has a passion for motorcycles, travel, food and overlanding.