News - Sat 7th Apr 2018 - Guidance on River Crossings for Participants at the Cape Wrath Ultra™ - Cape Wrath Ultra

Guidance on River Crossings for Participants at the Cape Wrath Ultra™

7th Apr 2018


Above: Relative Height 3 - Thigh Deep. Shane Ohly (Left - Race Director) and Gary Tompsett (Right - Course Planner) cross one of the Knoydart rivers that participants will encounter on Day 2. Note the under arm, rucksack strap grip and the relative difference of water height between Shane and Gary. © Ben Winston


SHOULD you cross? WHERE should you cross? HOW should you cross?

We have written the following advice to help you consider your approach to river crossings during the Cape Wrath Ultra™.

This event requires numerous river crossings – generally expected to be shallow wades. However, when river levels rise, there is an increased danger of serious injury and drowning. 

In Scotland, rivers (large, medium and small - called burns) are well-known for exhibiting remarkable changes in character within just a few hours, during inclement weather. Wet feet would be the least of your challenges!
The skill and ‘nerve’ range of participants to cross rivers will be varied. Some participants will be well practiced and capable of deeper and faster flowing crossings. Some participants will be unpractised and fearful of some crossings – even if they are not deep. And lastly, some participants might be over-confident, even if the river is deep and fast-flowing. 


RELATIVE HEIGHT - What does this mean to me when crossing rivers?

The following advice is designed to inform, and present a gauge as to the considerations to be made at various relative heights of rivers. We say relative heights, because an individual's height, weight and build will be affected by the same river state differently. A shorter, lighter, weaker person will be more noticeably affected by any river. In this advice we do not consider swimming as an acceptable method of crossing rivers (either deliberately or by accident) and our advice is intended to prevent floating and swimming. 

These relative heights are suited to the flow strengths that these rivers are likely to exhibit at our intended crossing points. In spate these rivers may not be deep, but they will be fast-flowing, and our graphic and advice reflect this trait, rather than that of deeper, slower river crossings that will exist off-route. We would rather that you become competent at shallower crossings than risking deeper immersions.

If in doubt, it is usually best to head up stream to seek an alternative crossing point.


There is some margin for independent decision making, as smaller participants may opt to cross rivers in a team with the assistance of larger participants they may be running with.



Relative Height 1
Water Height: Below knee
Special Techniques: None. Participants should be able to cautiously cross rivers of this height without any special techniques or considerations.​

Relative Height 2
Water Height: Knee Deep
Special Techniques: Participants must cross cautiously and will need to select an appropriate crossing point and may wish to use trekking poles to steady themselves, or group together.​

Relative Height 3
Water Height: Thigh Deep
Special Techniques: Participants will need to select an appropriate crossing point and will probably need to use trekking poles AND group together whilst crossing. The consequences are likely to be VERY SERIOUS if a participant stumbles or slips. ​

Relative Height 4
Water Height: Groin Deep
Special Techniques: Participants SHOULD NOT CROSS rivers that are groin deep unless under the supervision of the Event Safety Team. Unsupervised participants finding themselves at a Groin Deep river crossing MUST STOP racing and seek an alternative crossing location.​

Relative Height 5
Water Height: Waist Deep
Special Techniques: Rivers this deep MUST NOT BE CROSSED, even as a group. Seek an alternative crossing location / solution. 


It is distinctly possible that some difficult river crossings will be encountered. This might occur in the following circumstances:

  1. If there has been a prolonged period of rainfall preceding the event.
  2. If there is heavy rainfall during the event. Mountain rivers and even small streams (in Scotland called ‘burns’) can swell dramatically, and equally, can recede fairly quickly.
  3. If you have gone off-route and are forging a path that we have not specified as the event route.
Cape Wrath Trail video diary - Day 1

Cape Wrath Trail video diary - Day 1 *Please note that this video diary is NOT a description of the Cape Wrath Ultra™ race route!*This video diary was filmed in September 2014 when Shane Ohly (Event Director) and his wife, Heather, completed the Cape Wrath Trail. They spent 15 days walking the route, much of which has also formed the Cape Wrath Ultra™ race route. These videos are intended to give potential Cape Wrath Ultra™ competitors and Cape Wrath Trail walkers an insight to the adventure that awaits them.

Posted by Cape Wrath Ultra on Wednesday, 28 October 2015

"This river doesn't look uncrossable. It was!" (But only after a detour upstream). It is important to note  that even minor streams, such as this one (location HERE) could become uncrossable during heavy and prolonged  rainfall. In this instance, the river was too wide to jump across, and the power of the water too risky to attempt to wade through at this point as there were also downstream hazards (waterfall and confluence with larger river) that meant being swept away would likely result in a serious injury.


Please be aware that the event organisers, during many reconnaissances (in poor weather) have never been totally prevented from crossing any of the rivers on the Cape Wrath Ultra™ route. However, some detours of up to 1km were made in the worst conditions, and techniques, such as careful crossing point selection, crossing in groups, and the use of trekking poles for additional security were required.


Above: Gary Tompsett and Claire Maxted carefully check one of the Knoydart rivers that participants will cross on Day 2 before committing to a crossing. © Ben Winston


Some measures to assist you with river crossings:

  1. Most importantly, all participants are experienced and will be expected to make sound mountain judgements, and not jeopardise their own or other people's safety.
  2. A route design that endeavours to avoid river crossing locations that are more often troublesome.
  3. A Mountain Safety Team that may be despatched to known trouble spots and/or known workaround routes. However, in reality this team may not be able to reach multiple locations in any one day, and depending on the spread of participants, and prevailing conditions, may not be deployable for all participants, in all instances.
  4. The advice in this article.


  1. News and advice from our Mountain Safety Team will be displayed each morning during the event (from 0500 in the main mess tent). The day's weather forecast will be displayed the evening before and any meaningful changes highlighted each morning.
  2. Participants may choose to take additional equipment for the whole event and for each respective day stage, if you feel that this may help e.g. trekking poles, waterproof rucksack liner. Participants must not bring or attempt to use ropes of their own to aid river crossings.
  3. Participants may choose to buddy-up with others if they feel that this may help all involved. Buddying-up makes river crossings safer.


DURING-DAY-STAGE - River crossing selection point
  1. Do not hurry this task. Study the river. Look upstream and downstream of your position. This might include observing others completing their crossing OR
  2. Consider searching for an easier crossing point upstream where the river may be narrower, or downstream where the river may be wider and shallower. Adopt any workaround that the Mountain Safety Team or Organisers may have explained.
  3. Choose a section of river that is wider (often shallower), has a uniform riverbed, even flow and no deep channels. This can usually be determined by studying the flow forms of the water. Often these better locations can be found within just 100 metres of your position.
  4. Avoid crossing where there is a combination of many large boulders and fast flowing water. One consequence of falling is hitting your head or other injury to the body – this is more common than drowning.
  5. Be aware that undercut banks on the outside of river bends are often unstable and this is where the deepest water may be. Entering the river at these locations can cause an unintended swim, and exiting at these locations can be difficult.
  6. Do not cross above a waterfall or gorge, UNLESS the crossing point is clearly at Relative Height 1. Consider the consequences of a fall and being washed downstream.
  7. Do not cross above a confluence of rivers, especially where a smaller river is joining a larger river, UNLESS the crossing point is clearly at Relative Height Level 1.
  8. Participants should not cross if the river is clearly at Relative Height 4 (unless supervised), and must NOT cross if at Relative Height 5. Other options are to explore up/down stream, wait or turn back.
  9. Do NOT cross above tress and branches that may act as a 'strainer' if you are washed downstream, pinning you against the obstruction.
  10. Consider whether crossing a marginal river could then leave you trapped between rivers, especially if rivers are rising. This is too complex a scenario to give further advice on, and would need to be assessed by the participant on a case-by-case basis.


DURING-DAY-STAGE - Execution of the river crossing - TOP TIPS
Cape Wrath Trail *walking* insights - River Crossings

Cape Wrath Trail *walking* insights - River CrossingsThese three videos were recorded in September 2014 when Shane Ohly (Event Director) and his wife, Heather, completed the Cape Wrath Trail. They spent 15 days walking the route, much of which formed the Cape Wrath Ultra™ race route. These videos are intended to give potential Cape Wrath Ultra™ competitors and Cape Wrath Trail walkers an insight to the adventure that awaits them.

Posted by Cape Wrath Ultra on Saturday, 14 November 2015

Cape Wrath Ultra™ Event Director, Shane Ohly, provides some insights into the challenges of crossing the many rivers found on the Cape Wrath Trail. Filmed in September 2014, the changes to the advice now (Feb 2016) is that participants should always keep their shoes on to cross rivers, even if they choose to remove their socks / GoreTex Socks first and that rock hopping (as done by Shane) is not recommended.


  1. Use the assistance of another to cross the river, where possible, and consented. With the stronger participant upstream and making small steps one at a time. This can be completed with any larger number of participants. Firmly holding the rucksack strap below the underarm is better than holding hands or arms.  This can be briefly practiced on dry land before starting into the river for real. Solo crossings are still quite acceptable and normal in the lower river height levels. See our graphics for Relative River Heights and explanations at the top of this article.
  2. Use of trekking poles for river crossings will increase confidence and stability in the water.
  3. Stow all objects into your pockets, including your paper map, GPS units, gloves and food. Fasten all pockets. Hands should be kept free for best reactions and purchase in case of a fall – unless handling trekking poles.
  4. Shoes should be kept on. It is possible to keep socks dry (if already dry) by removing shoes, then socks, replacing shoes and then crossing the river. We do not recommend crossing rivers with bare feet because the risk of foot injury is greater and rocks are often very slippery.
  5. Approach the selected crossing with patience and determination. Ignore the effects of cold water – concentrate on balance and footing.
  6. Avoid a method that involves leaping from boulder to boulder when crossing. This can lead to a fall and injury – wet feet are tolerable.
  7. Face upstream as you cross. In this way, you can study the water more readily, and the force of the water cannot fold your legs at the knees.
  8. Plant your feet into the river bed between boulders (you will be glad to have your shoes on) rather than attempt to stand on submerged boulders. This will aid stability and avoid falling injury, or full body immersion.
  9. When in deep faster-flowing water, avoid staring at the surface of water for too long. This can put you off your balance. Instead, look through the water at riverbed features, and occasionally look at the shores to steady your gaze.
  10. Do not throw your rucksack across marginal rivers, however narrow. If you were then unable to cross the river, you would then be without your pack and safety equipment. 
  11. We advise that you keep your rucksack on and with all belts fastened slightly tighter. This will provide some protection in a fall, and it keeps your equipment to hand. As your rucksack will be fairly small and compact, there is little risk that it will provide additional purchase for strong flowing water, or cause entanglement or weigh you down if you are swept away. In the unlikely event of being swept away, you will need your emergency clothing and equipment.
  12. Participants must NOT devise any ‘roped’ or ‘equipment managed’ methods of crossing rivers.


Above: Claire Maxted facing up stream and using a single trekking pole to steady herself during a river crossing. Relative Height 1-2  (2 is Knee Deep). © Ben Winston


DURING-DAY-STAGE - After the river crossing
  1. Look back at your crossing. Have you left any item of equipment or anyone behind? 
  2. Should you beckon anyone to your crossing point or should you intervene with others that look to be crossing at a worse location? These will be your options to consider.
  3. In marginal conditions, and before continuing to a potentially more hazardous next river, do you need to reconsider? Are conditions worsening?
  4. After a testing river crossing, you should take some time to gather yourselves before continuing. Are you okay and do you need to address anything immediately? If in a group or with other runners in proximity, should you be together, checking upon each other, and are you all okay? Should you calm and attend to any stresses or nerves. I.e. to seek or to give comfort? Should you pause to change any clothes, especially if hypothermia could become a problem? Should you eat and drink? If you have gone off-route to achieve this crossing, this is when you should study and plan your new ongoing route to get back on track as fluently as possible.



We have rehearsed some contingencies (listed below) for perceived troublesome river crossings. It will not be possible to predict them all - far from it. There are hundreds of river crossings and opportunity for issues.

  1. Re-routing: The perceived contingency routings may be pre-mapped, either on your event map, or as information provided at the pre-start of each event day.
  2. Interception: The Mountain Safety Team may meet you, and deflect you to a new routing and/or crossing point. Possibly a distant bridge, mapped or otherwise determined.
  3. Managed: The Mountain Safety Team may ‘supervise’ and/or ‘equip’ a crossing of a marginal river. Look for a high-visibility team of staff.
  4. Abandonment of course by the organisers or participants: Very unlikely, but possible in the very worst weather. At worst, this would require the organisers to arrange for diversionary transport logistics to the next overnight camp.
  5. Unknown measures: Be aware during the day-stage that other solutions may have been devised. If in doubt, and if not in danger, the participant should continue to the routed crossing point and expect the ongoing plan to be revealed.
  6. Waiting: It is possible that participants may need to wait before crossing a river. There could be a shelter or bothy of some use nearby. You will all be carrying warm clothes. We will be able to detect stationary and off route participants using the GPS Trackers and this will alert us to any unexpected issues.

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