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How to Safely Wade in Water

How to Safely Wade in Water

When I was younger and out fishing on the river with my dad and brothers, it was not uncommon for one of us to accidentally slip on the mossy bedrock below the surface, accidentally going into the water. There may have been a time or two that we nearly gave my dad a heart attack. However, over time as we leaned and made adaptations we slipped less and less, and it eventually became second nature to walk in the river or along a lake’s edge and not fall in. Whether you are wading the river in pursuit of fish, or wading and playing in the river on a hot summer day, knowing how to properly navigate and traverse a river may prevent you from drowning or at the very least, avoid the laughter of others as you slip and fall in a most ineloquent manner.

If you are wearing hunting or fishing waders and slip on the undersurface and go down, they could fill with water and act as an anchor weighing you down if you needed to swim to the bank for safety. In this article I have broken down how to properly walk/wade in rivers and lakes.

Follow the steps below to help reduce the chance of slipping or falling when walking in a river or lake:

  1. When taking a step, plant and stabilize your lead foot before moving your other foot.
  2. Always stand upright. Avoid leaning forward as you walk.
  3. Work to keep your feet in a somewhat dorsiflexed (foot more drawn up toward your shin) position. This is a position of stability for the ankle and will help prevent you from rolling your ankle.
  4. If the water is swift or deep, use a walking or wading stick to help with balance.
  5. If you’re using waders, avoid water that is above your belly button or is swifter than you can handle. And, always secure the waist belt as it can help reduce the amount of water that enters your waders should you fall in.
  6. Be aware of what’s downstream. Are there potential hazards to be aware of? Make a mental note for what you would do if you fall and find yourself headed toward the hazard.

Walking or Wading in Rivers

Fast Fishing river Slipping while walking in a river is more dangerous than in a lake because of the movement of water that can carry you downstream. The variety of bottom terrain makes walking more difficult, especially as it can change drastically and immediately.  The swift moving water makes it harder to get out if you suddenly find yourself dropping off an edge. Some Factors to consider when wading in a river are:

River/Lake Bottom

  • Sand/Gravel Bottom: This type of bottom terrain offers the least risk. You are able to walk firmly and confidently on the tiny rocks that are somewhat compacted together providing a firmer base. As you walk on the gravel or sand, your feet will sink in very little and provide you with the ability to maintain your balance.
  • Large Rocks or Boulders: This type of river bottom is riskier, but is not as risky as hand size rocks that are covered with moss. It can even offer an advantage by providing you with rocks to use to brace yourself as you take one step after another. This can be very advantageous is the water is swift and a support is needed.A problem with this type of terrain is that you can trip on a smaller rock or place your ankle in a compromising position for experiencing a sprain or twisting effect to your ankle. This is the type of rock you typically find in fast moving water, and for which a wading/walking stick becomes very helpful for balance. It may even help you to regain your upright position should you go down.
  • Muddy Bottom: Muddy bottom rivers are found where the water is slow or has created a pool. Despite the slow moving water, this is a common setting for people to lose their balance and fall. The reason being is that your feet can sink deep into the mud, which creates a kind of suction effect and prevents you from extracting your sunken foot to take your next step. Here it is important to remain upright and avoid leaning too much to try and free your foot.
  • Mossy/Slippery Rock Bottom: This is the most difficult and risky terrain for falling. As you take each step, your foot may be on a surface that is slippery making both the push off phase of walking and the heel strike phase riskier to slipping. Underwater rocks, if covered with slippery moss, increase the slip and fall hazard, as they produce a hard slick surface. Larger rocks or boulders, even if covered with moss, can be used to as a brace by placing your step to the side of the rock for an immovable structure. Slippery mossy terrain can be found in both fast or slow moving water and can appear in random patches. Depending on the water and other factors, it may be more difficult to see. This is why it is so important to ensure that your foot is properly planted before moving your other foot.

Type of Water

  • Water Depth: As stated above, you should never wade in water that is above your belly button, especially if you are using waders. Should you slip and in your working to not fall in your body dips lower. No problem if you have room or clearance before reaching the point where the water his higher than your waders.
  • Water Current: Rivers usually have places of swift moving water and places of slow moving water. If at all possible, you should cross in the slower moving water, even if it is a little deeper. This will minimize the risk of slipping or falling in the water and may even be less time consuming as you move steadily through the water without the need to stop and survey the path for a swifter moving current.
  • Downstream Obstacles: Consider downstream obstacles that could prove hazardous should you fall into the water and be swept toward it, or if a current might be swift enough to cause you to move toward the obstacle as you move across the stream. Are there fallen trees partly submerged in the water that could cause you to become trapped? If not an obstacle, does the water type change that itself could be a risk. Does the new water type pose a risk or a potential benefit to your safety? Being aware of your surroundings is always a wise mind set when in potentially harmful situations.
  • The Combination: A common sense approach requires that one perform a thorough assessment of the risk when crossing a body of water. This should include an assessment of the streams depth, the rate of water flow, bottom terrain, and any other potential hazards including what is downstream should you fall in.


Gait Pattern

Fishing RiverA person’s gait pattern is simply their manner or style of walking. While it is more analyzed when walking on a firm normal surface for musculoskeletal purposes, knowing a little bit about those elements of gait can teach us how to minimize risk of falling or twisting an ankle while walking in a river.

When your lead foot is about to strike the river bottom, especially when it is covered with hand sized rocks, you should bring your foot upward toward your shin, making it a concentrated maneuver. This is known as the “closed pack position” of the ankle and when it is in its most stable and secure position, and least likely to twist and sprain ligaments. Then as you push off to take your step this position is released so you can produce the needed for of push off. This cycle is repeated to help ensure a more stable ankle for dealing with a difficult terrain.


Walking or Wading in Lakes:

It is important to note that ground and water details are still important when wading around the edge of the lake or at an inlet/outlet to a lake where water is moving. All three sub terrains can be found in and around lakes as well as rivers. You should apply these same principles to the lake as you do the river.


Some Helpful Gear:

Wading Boots: There are many good wading boot options from which to choose and four basic designs. They are:

  • Felt Soles: These types of boots were very popular years ago. They provided good traction on those slippery rock bottoms while they are relatively new and before the felt has become compacted. However, most states have banned their use because they were proven to transfer invasive snails and other organisms between rivers and cause damage to the fragile ecosystem of a body of water which can adversely affect fish and plants in and next to the river or lake.
  • Rubber Soles: The rubber soles are a good option for those slippery algae covered rocks and recommended for most rivers and lakes. These soles do not transport microorganisms or invasive snails.
  • Hiking Soles: This design is for stocking foot waders and are a good option for most anglers as they are very durable and provide good traction on most surfaces.
  • Studded Soles: This design is not suited for muddy surfaces, but they are excellent for slippery surfaces that are covered with algae. The studs also help with traction in faster moving water.

Wading Stick: Wading sticks are lightweight and durable. They are designed to help you wade and provide added support for balance. These may even prove a necessity when fording a swift moving river and helpful when trudging through a sub terrain that is muddy. There are several different designs and styles from which to choose.

Polarized Sun glasses: These are a must! Polarized sun glasses help you see into the water, viewing those usually unseen larger rocks, drop offs, or other potential obstacles. Knowing the terrain allows you to strategically plan each step knowing the sub terrain you will place your next step. A great advantage to help prevent slips and falls.


When properly prepared and executed according to good and safe principles, fording a river or wading along a lake can be fun and enjoyable. Some of the best fishing holes require you to enter the water, maybe swift and filled with obstacvles, and precede to that prime location that will allow you to cast your line to just the perfect spot in hopes of catching the big one.  By following these guidelines outlined above and effectively using some of these helpful tools you’ll be able to stay up, stay safe, and stay dry as you venture out on your next fishing adventure.