Adventure riding is great fun, one mile you are riding down a gravel road kicking up dust, the next mile you spot a dirt track off into the bush and decide you want to do some exploring. Sometimes that off-road exploring can land you in some dicey situations, where you need to do a bit more than just hit the throttle and grin. Whether you find yourself traversing across the planet in extreme driving conditions, or just heading out backcountry with some friends for the weekend, you are eventually going to come across a river that looks like it might be easier to swim across than ride across.
Have no fear thrill-seeking adventure rider, not all is lost. With some strategic planning and a bit of river-research you can likely make it across with no more than some wet riding gear and a freshly washed bike. In this tutorial, I will walk you through what to do when you encounter a river of epic proportions with a step by step guide and two-part video. The video was shot in rural South America after coming across a river where the bridge had not, and was likely never going to be completed. It was just as the rainy season was wrapping up and turning around would have meant three-days of backtracking along with a missed adventure.
Know you have a problem!
Just like a 12-step A.A. meeting, it’s good to know you have a problem. When you come across a washed-out road or over-sized river, it’s good to recognize you have a situation that might require some thought and take some time to oversee the entire obstacle. Even if you are on a time deadline or think you’re better than this silly water obstacle, a mistake could leave you with a drowned bike and more problems than you had on the shore when you were still feeling cocky and confident.
Assessing the situation…
If it’s just one river and you can see the whole obstacle from start to finish, great you are more likely to survive. If it’s a series of rivers or washouts, then you’ll probably want to get as high up as you can to assess the obstacle from start to finish, then move in for a closer look. In this video, I knew it would take longer to cross then the daylight hours I had left, so I resolved to look over the river from a high-point, then set up camp for the night while I thought about my options. It made more sense to get started on the crossing in the morning when I would be rested, well fed, and have the most opportunity to find help if I got into trouble.
Protect Your Gear
If you have items attached to the bike like GPS units or cell phones, or maybe even camping gear tied on the back, this might be your last opportunity to keep them dry. Take any electronics that don’t mix well with water and put them in a zip lock style bag, tupperware container, or at the very least try and tie them up in a plastic bag. Anything hanging off awkwardly on the bike that you don’t want wet or to possibly lose, you may just want to take off for the crossings and either walk it across or wrap it in garbage bags, then tie it down.
Get to know what’s under the water?
The most important part of an entire river crossing is getting to know what is under the water in the area where you want to pass. If it’s after a flood or the end of rainy season, there might be virtually anything on the river bottom. Mossy rocks, logs, garbage, or maybe someone else’s motorbike! Walk up and down the river to look for possible crossing options. The top of a river will often reflect the major obstacles under it, if you see rapids or big ripples, there is probably big rocks or something underneath it. Once you think you see the best options, resolve to get your feet and probably pants wet doing a little research. Then get off and walk the route you want to take, noting if the water level is going to be higher than your airbox. Walk one way across and a few feet over on the way back, just because your first walk was smooth doesn’t mean you are going to drive that exact path across. Just one foot over might be a dip in the riverbed or an obstacle that might ultimately dump you in the water.
Mark Your Route
Sometime you might be coming out of the bush into the water and exiting into the bush on the other side. Or maybe you’ll encounter a series of streams or rivers all in one place and need to cross them at different locations. For these incidences, you might not recall all the locations you walked once it comes time to give it a go on your motorbike. If you can find something obvious to mark your entry and exit points from the river, it will make your life much easier! A branch standing up, some limbs marking both sides, or in the case of the video tutorial, I found some bright colored garbage items that I put on sticks in the mud so I could easily see them and my potential route from various points of the river while I crossed.
Luggage or no luggage?
Depending on what you are up against, it might be time to decide if you think you can do it with or without your luggage. Naturally it is going to be easier without your luggage and it might save everything from getting wet that’s inside of it too. Just in case you both go swimming! In this video the better choice would have been to take the luggage off, however it did keep the bike out of the water when I dropped it close to shore.
Go For It!
Once you finally decide to cash in on that good David vs Goliath river crossing story to tell around the campfire for years to come, take a deep breath and go for it! Get up-stream on the bike so that if it falls, it’s not falling on you. If you have someone to help you, position them near the end of the bike on the opposite side. They can stabilize the back end and jump in to help if you get into trouble. Drop the bike into first gear and slowly feather the clutch as you enter the water. Aim the front tire as much into the current as possible so that you are still making progress to get across, yet not fighting a cross current.
Slow and steady wins the race here. Keep the bike in motion and try to keep up with your progress. If you find that you hit an obstacle under the water, then take a minute to move the front tire and see if it can be easily maneuvered around. If your rear tire happens to get stuck and spins out a small hole in the riverbed, then tip the bike over as much as possible to let sand wash into the hole. Then tip the bike back onto the sturdier fill-in.
Keep your thumb close to the kill switch in the event of a fall, kill the engine to prevent as much damage as possible, and if you are lucky enough to traverse the river problem free, take a second to note the embankment on the other side. If it looks steep, take a break before going for it, or if possible, hop on the bike and give it some throttle to get over the final hump.
Take Some Photos!
I find that no matter how good of a story I have, someone always has a better one. I crossed a 40FT wide river, so they once crossed a 140FT one. I crossed a 15,000FT mountain pass through the snow, so they carried their bike over the same pass on their back. Well, in order to add a little evidence to your epic adventure, it’s always good to have some photographic evidence. Maybe one day the grandkids will think you used to be cool too!
Thank the Motorcycle Gods
Even if the bike ends up going for a swim and you along with it, it’s important to have fun and be thankful that you made it out alive. No matter how much you love your adventure bike beauty, in the end it’s just expensive metals with a pretty plastic exterior, it can all be replaced. Be happy you got to experience that kind of adventure, and if you’ve lived to tell the story, maybe take a minute and thank the motorcycle Gods.
Check these two videos for more details:
>>> How to cross a deep river on your motorcycle. Part 1 of 2
>>> How to cross a deep river on your motorcycle. Part 2 of 2