When you’re out camping, living off-grid or trying to get out of Dodge, you may have to ford a river or stream. At first glance, it might not seem like a big deal – the water is calm, only ankle-deep, or “not moving fast enough to be a problem”.
And yet, beneath the seemingly calm surface can lie turbulent currents. Believe it or not, assumptions like these often lead to disaster. In fact, more hikers, campers and backpackers in national parks die from head injuries or drowning while trying to cross rivers or streams; sometimes the number is higher than the fatalities caused by snakebites. Most people are simply unaware that crossing a large body of fast-moving water is potentially lethal, and can seriously injure or kill anyone not aware of its dangers. In this guide, we show you how to cross a river or stream safely.
Before heading out
Even before setting out on your hike, map out your path. If you can avoid fording any rivers or streams to get to your destination, then choose that route. Fording rivers, especially those that have deep cold water that runs with a swift current is by far one of the most dangerous parts of hiking.
Check for updates
If the trail you’ve chosen has any online pages that posts updates, check them out. Call the local ranger station if possible. Never assume anything about your trail based on your last trek; conditions may change faster and more drastically than you anticipate.
Prep your gear
Safely fording a river also means having the right equipment to do it. Don’t assume you can manage without:
- Trekking poles – these can help you measure the depth of the water, and give you added stability and support as you cross. If you don’t have trekking poles, you can improvise with long sticks.
- Hiking shorts – wear hiking shorts or hiking pants that have detachable pants legs. Don’t wear long pants when crossing as pants will cause you to be dragged down by strong currents.
- Hiking sandals – these are the best choice for footwear when crossing rivers or streams. Boots can slip and get worn faster from being submerged, and going barefoot is no guarantee you won’t slip and you may only injure yourself. Crossing in flip-flops is not a good option as you can lose them in strong currents.
- Backpacks – Right before crossing any river or stream, detach the straps at the sternum and waist if applicable. If you slip and fall into the water, the current can drag you along by your backpack and drown you. Release the straps so you can quickly ditch your pack, just in case.
Scout it out
While at the riverbank or at the edge of a stream, assess the situation and conditions before you cross. By no means should you cross if the water is thigh-high! If the water is this high, turn back and find a shallower, safer spot to cross. In ideal conditions, the water should be, at most, knee-deep. Don’t dare cross water higher than your thighs unless you can find or improvise a raft.
Fording a river is nothing like swimming it. Be patient when looking for a safe spot to cross. If it means walking another mile or two to find a place where the water is slow-moving, then make the effort. Taking more time is preferable over the risk of drowning.
Assess the current and other hazards
Remember that currents are at their strongest and fastest in late spring and early summer and after local and upstream rains; these are the times when rivers and streams have the most water volume.
Check the speed and strength of the current first by tossing a stick right into the current. If it moves faster than you can keep up by walking along the bank, then the current is too fast and too strong to cross safely. Look for shallower areas where the water flows over large rocks or boulders. These will be safer to cross as the rocks work like natural “speed bumps” and slow the water down. If you see these, take note of them as a viable spot, but don’t cross immediately; go further downstream and assess the possible hazards – there may be logjams, rapids, waterfalls and boulders. Take note of these as hazards if you slip and are carried downstream.
Choose your landing site
Before you cross, you must also choose where you’ll end up on the opposite bank. Don’t cross at a point where it’s impossible to get out of the water and “land” on the other side. If the opposite bank is too high for you to hoist yourself out of the water, don’t cross there. Be sure to choose a spot where there’s a “beach” that’s easily accessible and isn’t blocked by any obstacles.
Cross at the right time
The time of day also has an impact on how safe it will be to cross. Cooler morning and evening temperatures mean that the snowmelt will be less, and the volume and speed at which water travels downstream will be lessened. Thunderstorms are also less common in the early morning and late in the day; avoid rivers or streams in the afternoons.
If the water temperature is low, as in early spring and late fall, consider how long you’ll be in that water before crossing. If the water is cold try to find a narrow crossing point so you don’t lose too much body heat.
The actual crossing
When it’s time to get your feet wet, don’t rush. Take your time and wade through the water carefully. Shuffle your feet forward, moving towards the riverbank on the opposite side. Position yourself such that you are moving diagonally but towards the flow to lessen the forces that can trip you up. Use trekking poles or long sticks for added stability and traction as you cross, and ensure you always have two points of contact with the riverbed.
Safety in numbers
Crossing alone is the most dangerous, since there’s no one to assist you if anything goes wrong. Crossing as a group is safer and preferable to going it alone. If you’re crossing as a group, wade through the river together.
The strongest person should be in front to serve as a “break” for the current; he should likewise move diagonally upstream (against the current) and have the others in the group follow behind him, likewise in diagonal fashion. All members of the group should also cross with trekking poles or sticks for surer footing.
Crossing a river or stream out in the wild has many hidden dangers. Doing so is often mistaken for a simple, mundane task, which is why many people end up with broken bones, head injuries or even drown.
When crossing water, remain mindful and take note of the following:
- Never cross directly under waterfalls. Features like these have strong undercurrents which could drag you under and drown you.
- Don’t cross where you can’t see what’s underwater. There may be submerged branches, unstable stones or other debris that can trap you.
- If you absolutely have to swim across deep water, don’t do it unless you have an improvised raft or flotation device. Never rely solely on your own power.
- Be careful when stepping on stones; you can slip on moss and get seriously injured.
- Never cross or try to swim in rapids; chances of escaping the current are slim and you could eventually go over a waterfall.
While most people regard rivers or streams as just another obstacle, experienced hikers treat them with the respect they deserve. Remember that a single misstep can literally mean the difference between life and death. When crossing fast-moving water, knowledge and preparation go a long way to ensure you get safely to the other side.