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How to Protect Yourself From Drowning

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It’s summertime and that may mean the beach. Regardless of what season, if you go to the woods, you may have to cross rivers, ponds, lakes, or other water obstacles. Whether you are on vacation at the beach or trying to cross a river on a wilderness trek, there are certain things you can do to keep you safe.

At The Beach

My family recently took a beach vacation. The water was warm, the marine wildlife exotic, and the beaches were beautiful. The beach is great, but you have to be careful. My brother-in-law would not consider himself a survivalist, but he made an interesting observation. The beaches where we were vacationing, if the beach was protected by a reef, they had very low instances of fatalities in the water. The beaches unprotected by reefs were very hazardous to swim at if not outright suicidal and many had been the scene of fatalities. A wise observation indeed.

This may not be true of all places, but if you are traveling to a beach location, it makes sense to do some research and speak with a knowledgeable source about the possible hazards that are associated with a specific area.

Rip tides are always a concern, and no one wants to be carried out to sea. Pay close attention to red flag warnings. If caught in a rip tide, remain calm and swim parallel to the beach.

Hazardous marine wildlife is always a possibility, but in the Hawaiian Islands, more fatalities occur from coconuts falling from trees and striking people on the head than shark bites. Once again, researching the area you are going to visit makes sense.

While attending a Scout Swimmer course in the military a number of years ago, part of the training was about hazardous marine wildlife including jellyfish and sharks. Part of the block of instruction included the bit of information that diving instructors referred to the color yellow for bathing suits as “yum yum yellow”. This meant the color yellow is also the same color as the food of several varieties of sharks. Is this true? I don’t know, but to this day I don’t wear swim trunks that have yellow on them if I am swimming in the ocean.

Protect Your Feet

Depending on where you are and what you are doing, you may want to consider some sort of water shoe or scuba booties to protect your feet. Walking on a reef or coral can easily cut your feet. Even hot sand during the summer can be painful to walk on if the bottoms of your feet are not callused and used to it. Be sure your footwear will stay on your feet and is suitable to be worn in sandy, wet conditions.

Water Crossings

Let’s switch gears a little bit. You’re in the woods, tundra, or jungle during your latest adventure and you have to cross a body of water, let’s say a river. What do you do? Easy. You put elements of your patrol on security on each side of the water crossing, get a volunteer to swim a rope across, construct a transport tightening system to build a rope bridge, put across far side security, and cross the river. Easy right? But what if you don’t have a platoon or even a squad and you didn’t bring ropes and carabiners? Here are some ideas.

Go Around

Not always possible, but if it is, sometimes the path of least resistance is best. If you can, go around the water obstacle.

Look For a Ford

The depth of many rivers, creeks, and streams are often not constant. There may be natural fords that can be found by exploring along the banks of the river. Animals also have to cross rivers and will find the shallowest spots to cross, so look for game trails. Logs fall across rivers and streams and can be used as a makeshift bridge. Footing can be precarious on these. It makes sense to cut a pole to use in conjunction with either wading or the use of a natural bridge to help you keep your balance and keep from falling.

Poncho Rafts

I love military ponchos. They have a bunch of uses. (See my previous article, “How to Make a GI Poncho Hooch”) They can be used to make a field expedient poncho raft to get you and your gear across a water obstacle.

Before we get into the construction of the poncho raft, I’d like to talk a little bit about waterproof bags used to keep gear in your rucksack or backpack dry. If you are carrying gear for an extended period in your ruck and you are not keeping your sleeping gear and extra clothing in some sort of waterproof bag, you’re wrong. In cold climates, this is potentially a fatal mistake. I like and use these: : Sea to Summit Lightweight Dry Sack, All-Purpose Dry Bag, 13 Liter, Pacific Blue : Boating Dry Bags : Sports & Outdoors and these: : USGI Wet Weather Bag : Sports & Outdoors.

You may have camera gear or optics that you do not want to get submerged in water and may need to store in a rugged, waterproof case.

Besides keeping things you want to dry, the trapped air in these items will provide buoyancy. If not saturated in water for an extended period of time your pack itself will have pockets of air that will help it, and you, float.

After ensuring the things in your pack you want waterproofed are waterproofed, place the ruck or backpack on the poncho. GI ponchos have snap fasteners on two opposing sides. Fold the poncho over your pack, close the snap fasteners and roll your ruck in the poncho. Then take cordage and tightly tie off the two ends. Take a second poncho and repeat this process, with the seams created by the snap fasteners on opposite sides of the protected ruck. If you have a buddy or a partner, there’s enough room to put two rucksacks inside and create a raft. As a final touch, it is recommended that you take a length of cordage and tie off a water bottle or canteen (most will float, even if full of water) in case your poncho raft sinks, so you can locate and recover it.

If you don’t have GI ponchos, the same can be done with waterproof tarps. Simply roll them up tightly and tie off the ends.

Make no mistake. You are not constructing a destroyer. You and a large portion of your gear are going to get soaked, but this can and will keep you and your gear afloat for a significant period of time.

PRO TIP 1: This technique doesn’t work great in rapid or very fast-moving water. As a matter of fact, if there are rapids or extremely fast flowing, depending on the degree, I won’t attempt to cross at all, but walk down the bank until I can find another way. ENTERING VERY FAST-MOVING BODIES OF WATER CAN KILL YOU.

PRO TIP 2: If you do this in cold weather and you simply must do this, it makes sense to strip down and put your clothes and footwear in a waterproof bag in your pack. You’ll freeze while you do this but slipping into dry clothes and doing a little physical training or activity on the other side will warm you right up. Wearing soaked clothes in a cold environment can easily lead to hypothermia and hypothermia can kill you.


We have covered a diverse range of topics ranging from swimming on a beach to crossing a river in the wild. Whatever environment you find yourself in, bodies of water deserve to be treated with respect. Good luck out there.