How To… is kinda what we do. Our entire team is made up of folk who love teaching as much as they love riding. We’ve crossed a few rivers in our time and, yes, drowned a couple of our own bikes too. Our Iceland and Portugal riding holidays both take in a number of river crossings and we’ve learnt over the years what works. As Brake Magazine shares here; it’s better to swallow your pride and walk the bike across, than to swallow a mouthful of river water when you clip an unseen rock riding through… Click here to learn about our courses.
Crossing a river is part of adventure riding. Everyone will come across a monster at some point. They are at once both fun and a bloody danger. Most of us will have seen one of the millions of hilarious Youtube videos of people falling foul of flowing water but in reality, with a few simple rules and a dose of common sense, watching your beloved bike float off down the river without you isn’t necessary.
There are some great hurdles when you start riding adventure bikes off-road, natural terrain throws up some tremendous challenges to test us as riders. One of the most common ‘obstacles’ we face is the river crossing, which can just as easily be fun or utterly destructive depending on what’s under the water. There’s plenty to worry about of course: how deep it is, where the rocks are, how fast the water’s flowing, how quickly should you ride through it, what gear you should choose or what the weather is doing.
Rivers are naturally daunting because they contain an element of unknown about them. Only a mad man would steam on through a river ‘blind’ hoping for the best. Any water crossing, even some puddles, can quickly and easily go so horribly wrong. At no point is drowning your bike or taking it for a little paddle a good idea or worth the risk.
The surface of a river always reflects the ground underneath. So if the surface is full of big chop then it’s going to be full of big rocks.
While technique, skill and knowledge undoubtedly play a part in riding a motorcycle, sometime a good dose of common sense will get you just as far. When it comes to crossing water, be it flowing or static, common sense is definitely your greatest friend. Rule number one is to never delve into a river without being sure of the parameters. Rule number two is read the signs. How fast is it flowing, how wide is it? What’s sticking out of the water? Are there crocodiles? If you’ve got to the point that you’ve decided crossing is a great option or the only option, then technique and knowledge should get you through with little more than wet socks. We dragged in river crossing and general off road teaching expert Simon Pavey to help explain how to stay above the waterline. Afterall, he’s spent 30 years drowning bikes so you don’t have to.
Simon Pavey is no stranger to river crossings either from riding adventure bikes around the famously damp Welsh countryside where he lives or navigating horrendous flash floods in a Dakar stage where the ground is washing away before riders very eyes. “Something I’ve learnt over the years through hard pain and many drowned bikes is that rivers are something you need to give a lot of respect to. It’s very easy to cause yourself a lot of trouble with a river so for me I’ve learned to respect them more and more over the years.
Just how important it is to respect a river crossing cannot be overstate for Pavey, who’s seen and experienced for himself many a problem from just a moment’s thoughtlessness. “It is so easy to drown your bike, to fall off or end up in a potentially life-threatening situation. Fast or big river crossings are serious. Water can be very powerful and even a fairly shallow river with a fast side flow can take the wheels away from underneath you on any type of bike. Rivers can be fun. Charging through water is awesome but it’s the easiest place to make the simplest mistake and it doesn’t necessarily respect riding ability either. The best of riders can get caught out and for those of us who’ve been riding off-road for any amount of time. At some point we have all showed too much bravado or a moment of thoughtlessness and paid the price.”
Reading rivers is somewhat of a fine art. When it comes to understanding what’s happening with a river there is little substitute for getting in and picking your line. Whether you know a river or not, flowing water can change quickly and dramatically. “A fantastic tip I picked up in Iceland is that the surface of a river always reflects the ground underneath. So if the surface is full of big chop then it’s going to be full of big rocks. Likewise, if it’s flowing and glassy then it’s probably smooth, but smooth can mean sand. When the flow visually looks slow in an area, it can often be very deep underneath. Even with a little river knowledge, I’m always still on the side of caution. Don’t be afraid to get off and walk through the river first. Even when you are walking through you have to be careful. It’s comical for your mates but it’s pretty easy for that to become a difficult situation if you do go under. At the very least you’ll get utterly soaked and likely cold.
It’s not just the fast flow of a river you need to be wary of. The bottom surface is can be challenging and unpredictable. You have to get in and check it out with your feet by walking through to make sure you know how soft, boggy or rocky it is. Figure out how deep it is, where the rocks are, how big the rocks are and so on. Rocks in a river can be so unpredictable and super-slippery, covered in algae or loose and small as well as round and rolling around – all of which are perfect ways in which a wheel can slip, drop or suddenly get away from you.”
It’s much safer to put yourself up stream of the bike if you’re walking it through because the pressure of the flowing water isn’t then pushing the bike towards you.
You might not want to get wet feet but that’s a small price when you consider the consequences of crashing in a river and how much pain, mechanical woe and wasted time that can bring. Whatever is there you need to work out by feel so that nothing comes as a surprise. “It’s also important to respect the power of the water. The flow doesn’t have to be particularly deep to sweep you off your feet. Anything over knee height with any kind of flow is something that put you under.”
“If you’re not confident or there’s the slightest doubt about riding through then get off and walk the bike through. Don’t risk it by trying to be clever.” Sound words from Simon who’s seen many a rider fall foul of over confidence in his years of Rally and Enduro racing. “Something I see all the time with people who perhaps have less experience is they see a water crossing or a puddle and go from riding steady to pulling the grenade pin and hitting the water far too fast. At no point is that the correct solution.”
If you’re not confident riding across visible ground then don’t let your inner child take charge and attack the water when you can’t see the ground. It makes no sense and is asking for trouble. Even in a puddle your front wheel can find a rock or sharp-edge rut and that regularly ends up in a swim. The safest option if you’re not sure is to walk the bike through in first gear and if possible get some help: “If you’re not on your own then more than one person is a help. Not ten of you round a bike, too many cooks and all that. Just one person at the bars, in control and a mate at the back ready to catch the bike’s weight if they need to. This is basically to stop it going down if the rider stumbles or hits something and unsteadies themselves. They can help push a bit maybe to keep momentum so you’re not spinning and digging a hole, which will be for their benefit too if they’re next through the river.
“It’s much safer to put yourself up stream of the bike if you’re walking it through because the pressure of the flowing water isn’t then pushing the bike towards you and risking falling on top of you. It gives you better chance to keep hold of the bike if you make a mistake as well. If you’re down stream of the bike and you make a mistake the first thing that happens is the bike falls on to you. This is a rule some people don’t agree with and they like to position themselves down stream to reduce the flow of the river over their legs. While this does help, I’ve seem far too many bikes washed away to risk my own safety by being down stream of my bike.”
The principle of slow in and fast out is a great one to adhere to. It applies across all motorcycle riding but when it comes rivers it a golden rule. “You should tip-toe in and then drive through it, on the throttle with the back wheel pushing the bike forward, your weight a little bit back. Be positive without being aggressive and going too fast. Remember the front wheel is most likely to hit something and unsettle things so you have to be ready to react. The biggest mistake people make is too fast. You need to be riding at a speed where you can react appropriately when you have unplanned directional change due to the mossy rock. You need remaining brain space at all times, so you can take that dab, nip the clutch and save the moment.”
It’s not a time for wheelies or using a lot of revs. Let the back wheel and the torque of the engine be the driving force. Cover the clutch in case things get out of shape but stay off it and let the back wheel drive through the water. Usually this will be with low revs and in first or second gear depending on your bike. You simply don’t want or need speed. We can’t stress that enough. As well as creating more crash risk you can also create a bow wave which may pushing water up into the air intake. Water doesn’t burn well so keep it steady.
If you’re riding through on the pegs be prepared to react as well: “All the basics apply still,” says Simon, “so be ready with your two fingers over the clutch so that if you do have a little bobble, or something happens, you can catch the clutch immediately to take the drive away. Don’t use the clutch when you don’t need it but being ready. Using it will save the bike from being drowned because you only had your hand on the throttle and were hanging on too tight. ” You’re going to have to be ready to react to correct any sudden movements the bike does. This is where walking through first and learning where the obstacles are pays off because you’ll know if there’s a sloppy bit, loose stony patch or drop-off. Check out the video below for an example of why the clutch is our friend.
This is a really similar skill to pulling away in the sand. It’s a technique that translates to many areas of technical riding because it allows you to start on the footpegs and in complete control. If you do stop for whatever reason it’s important to get your bum away from the seat when you pull away again. “When you pull away sat down in a river, you are entirely at the mercy of the rocks you can’t see. It’s very difficult to effectively counter the movements the rocks cause with your bum planted on the seat. When you start on the pegs you can react quickly to all the micro changes.”
The most difficult aspect of this is getting the balance correct so you can get on the footpegs. “Pulling away starts by getting your bum off the seat prior to setting off. Your balance should be controlled by the leg on the floor. Position yourself in a stood up position, with one foot on the ground and the other on the footpeg. In this position you can determine the amount of pressure needed on the handlebar and the footpeg to maintain your balance as you pull away. With the bike already in gear, push off with the foot on the ground and immediately pull away, making sure you stand tall on the bike immediately. Look to get your balance as quickly as possible and place your foot back on the footpeg. Sometimes you may require multiple dabs and that it more than okay.” You may need a little extra throttle to pull away but you don’t want to get too excited as wild riding and rivers aren’t good companions. If things do get a little out of control that’s okay, as long as you stop and get it back together.
Finding yourself digging a hole in the soft, silty base of a river is not an uncommon occurrence. Wherever you find sand, you’ll find someone who gets stuck. The technique for rescuing yourself is almost identical to that of digging yourself from soft sand. It’s important to recognise that you are no longer moving forward and refrain from attempting to drill for oil. Stop the bike and take a breather. Accept that you’ve now got wet feet and get off the bike. “To get the bike out you need to treat it like sand. You’ll need to lean it over to allow the river bed to fall back under the rear wheel. Unlike in sand you can’t go all the way to the floor as you’ll drown the bike. Lift the bike back up and it’ll now be sat on a nice layer of dirt.”
From there you’re ready to begin pulling away. Like in sand, the pulling away technique is different to normal riding. “Aggression is important in helping the bike claw it’s way out but unlike in sand you don’t want to scrabbling to get up to speed quickly. With your gear selected and body ready to push, set the revs nice and high, at least half throttle. Then feed the clutch out quickly and smoothly. Don’t dump the clutch, be smooth or you’ll stall. As you feed the clutch out, turn the throttle further and push. A short burst of effort will get you out of the hole and on top of the river base where you can calm things down again.”
You need to be far more careful with this in a river than with sand however. Covering the clutch and maintaining control is important. If you loose balance or make a mistake, get the clutch in and the bike back under control. If you’ve got a friend to help, get him to pull the bike from the front or to turn the front wheel. It’ll help much more than pushing from the back.
Water crossings of any sort are part and parcel of off-road riding and adventure travel. Have a look before you leap to reduce the risk element right down and stack the odds in your favour. The further you are from help the more difficult things become. If we’re in it for the long run, in it for the ride, then we need to be a bit savvy when riding through water. So next time you see a river, don’t hit it in third gear and hope you survive. Use your newfound knowledge and watch your friends become the crazy ones. It’s far funnier.