Safety Tips for Fording Rivers and Streams

Bearcamp River, New Hampshire

I hate getting my boots wet during river crossings and it's nice when you're on a trail where you can jump from rock to rock across a stream or river. But when you are really out in the wilderness, it's likely that you'll need to ford a river or stream where you need to walk across it to get to the other side. Depending on the temperature and water levels, fording rivers and stream on backpacking trips can be quite dangerous. But there are some basic precautions you can take to mitigate your risk and developing skills at reading water and understanding the factors that cause it to flow the way it does can greatly increase your safety margin.

Fording a river is not the same as swimming it. If the depth of the water is above your thighs during a crossing, turn around, and find a better place to cross. I've heard stories of AT thru-hikers who have forded streams that came up to their chest. Don't even think of doing this. The more body mass you have in the current, the less control you have, so make sure the water does not come over your thighs if possible and certainly not over your waist.

Scouting

The first thing you should do when reaching the edge of a river or stream that must be forded is to scout for a good location to cross. Don't assume that the blazed line of site to the other bank is the path you should follow. The volume of water flowing downstream is not constant and the best crossing point can differ depending on weather conditions, temperature, or new hazards that were not present when the blazed crossing point was laid out. River conditions are very dynamic, so a good crossing point on one day may not be safe on another.

Release your Pack

Before you cross a river or stream, you should always make sure to release the hip belt and sternum straps on your backpack so you can jettison it if you lose your footing and get washed downstream. Otherwise, your pack will fill with water and severely compromise your mobility. Water weighs 2 lbs per liter/quart, so if you have a 50 L pack, there's no way you'll be able to lift it while you're fighting for your footing. Let it go and save yourself first.

Footware

Imagine you are climbing a rocky mountain blindfolded and in the rain. That's essentially what you are doing when you cross a river bed. Underwater rocks are wet and slippery and you probably won't be able to see them. Some people carry sandals or crocs for river crossings. I don't believe that these provide enough traction or protection for your feet and recommend that you use your regular boots, trail shoes, or special purpose water shoes instead. Northwest River Supplies (NRS) carries a good selection. 

Strainers

Always look for pieces of wood, trees, or branches in the water or overhanging the banks, which are called strainers. You never want to cross upstream from a strainer, because if you slip and get flushed up against it, the current will eventually push you under water and you can drown. Don't be fooled into thinking that shallow water is less risky than deeper water. I've almost drowned in 6 inches of water after being swept into a strainer in a shallow river.

Chokepoints

After checking for strainers, look at the current and how fast it is flowing. Avoid crossings at points where the banks of the stream are more narrow. The power of the current will be strongest here and could sweep you off your feet more easily. If there is an island in the middle of the a stream, this may be a good place to cross because it splits the power of the current into smaller substream that can be more manageable.

A Big Eddy on the Bearcamp River

Eddies

Now look at the side of the river closest to you and near the far bank. If there are rocks near the banks, they usually form an area of water called an eddy. If you look closely at the water in an eddy, you'll see something very counter-intuitive: the water in them flows slowly upstream. The same thing happens on the inside curve of a river. Again these can be safe havens during a crossing, out of the current.

Rocks and Waves

Next look for rocks that are sticking out of the water. If you look closely at the surface of the water, you can see that the water flowing behind exposed rocks is moving more slowly than the water on either side of it. The current here is less powerful and these can be good places to rest during a crossing if the current is strong. The same is true for standing waves, but the rocks that form them are underwater. Don't cross in the whitewater part of the wave, but beyond it, and use caution because these features sometimes occur in deeper sections of the river.

Use Walking Poles or a Stick

When crossing a river, use your walking poles or a stick for extra balance to avoid falling over and as a probe to read the river bottom. Wider branches can even be used to break the current if you plant them firmly against the river bottom and stand behind them.

Cross as a Group

It you are hiking with another person, you can increase your safety level by crossing together in swift current with one person standing directly behind the other. In this scenario, the upstream person breaks the current, creating slower water behind them, and making it easier for the downstream person to help them remain upright. With four legs on the river bottom, there's less chance that two people will fall over and get washed downstream. With three people, you can form a triangle, which is even more stable. Crossing in groups like this should be practiced before trying it in a less controlled situation.

Summary

A lot of the techniques I've described here for scouting and fording rivers are taught in basic whitewater rescue classes and are well documented within the whitewater kayaking and rafting communities. If you're interested in learning more about them I suggest you purchase the classic Whitewater Rescue Manual: New Techniques for Canoeists, Kayakers, and Rafters by Charlie Walbridge. This book is also a very useful reference if you are interested in packrafting, a new backpacking variant that combines backpacking and small personalized rafts for long distance wilderness trips.

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13 Responses to Safety Tips for Fording Rivers and Streams

  1. baz carter August 5, 2009 at 2:38 am #

    Another tip is to face upstream that way your legs wont get bent at the knee by the current.

  2. Robert Ballantyne August 5, 2009 at 4:41 am #

    Making it across creeks seems to be part of many trips here, in what Americans call the Pacific Northwest. I thought that I'd like to add a few considerations for travelers in the mountains. Fording — especially going into the fast water — is an event where I feel a little bit, or a lot, out of control. I cannot see the bottom, and the flow can be variable (in other words, not what I expected). My point is that I don't like it, and avoid it as much as possible.

    Strainers are not the only hazard. Water flows downhill, and sometimes in the mountains downhill can be very steep. I recall one ford where we found a relatively calm pool beneath a waterfall. The crossing worked, but if we'd lost it the next waterfall beneath us was intimidating. (The only place to climb out was into some devil's club… but that's another story.)

    In mountains the flow is often from snow and glaciers high above. The quantity of water varies almost predictably during the day. If it is a day trip, and the walk involves creeks, early morning crossings may be easy, but on the return that afternoon the conditions are likely to be much more challenging. This will occur after the objective has been reached, the hikers are tired, and the thought of the trailhead and the reward of a beer seems close.

    I met a couple of long-distance ski tourers who had a technique I've never tried. Wading open water in a snowy landscape is a foot-numbing experience. What they found was that their thermoformable liner boots actually absorbed very little water. So they would remove the plastic shells of their ski boots and wade in wearing only the liners on their feet.

    Crossing water should not be unexpected. Most such hazards can be anticipated with lots of preparation and planning. Guide books, maps and Google Earth are the place to start. The next is to communicate with people who have been there recently. In this region we are lucky that the the community of hikers have some excellent online resources where experiences are shared. I recommend them.
    http://www.bivouac.com http://www.clubtread.com/sforum/

    I enjoyed this story and picture from last summer's MEC catalogue: http://macte.ch/agata The Tatlayoko Lake area is remote and beautiful, but the story is not about that, it is about fording.

  3. Earlylite August 5, 2009 at 5:01 am #

    Great comment Robert. Fording streams in winter or where there is glacial ice melt adds a whole additional level of danger.

  4. LongWalker53 August 5, 2009 at 6:11 am #

    Another terrific tip Robert! I really enjoy your articles. Thanks!

  5. Sarah Kirkconnell August 5, 2009 at 2:35 pm #

    Out here what I dislike and have had to do is cross glacial fed "creeks". They are usually brown colored and you can hear rocks tumbling loudly as you approach – often coming down our lovely white volcanoes.

    The best bet is to find braids to cross and do it before it gets hot in the day. Of course, it seems that often I get to them at 5 pm on a hot day and they are running at full overdrive. Sigh!

    Most of all though on those? Have trekking poles, cross with some form of footwear on and if you can, cross at a downstream angle – it seems to make the water current not as hard on your legs.

    I have had a hard time getting some less experienced hiking partners to understand why the widest crossing can be safer than the shortest. Ugh!

    Last but not least….while rock hopping and finding trees to cross can be nice, don't put your trust in them. A slip can be very bad news. I'd rather just walk through if I can.

  6. Scott August 5, 2009 at 4:08 pm #

    Awesome article. recently I forded a river over 20 times on one hike. What I learned: if your hands get wet while fording a river, make sure you dry and clean your hands thougharly. I recently got viral menigitis by either drinking bad water, mosquito, or by biting a fingernail (bad habbit) after my hands had come in contact with stream water. Carry handiwipes. I know this may sound trivial, but…..I've learned my lesson. A week long headache and a 3 day stay in the Hospital is no fun.

  7. Earlylite August 5, 2009 at 6:27 pm #

    20 times! I guess it was one of those mature meandering ones like you out west with oxbows. Sorry to hear about the viral meningitis and I'm glad you caught it in time. I carry a little bottle of purrell with me and always squirt a dab on my hands whenever I come in contact with water on the trail. Haven't gotten sick yet! I also carry handiwipes, but mainly use them to clean the sweat and DEET off my face before bed each night.

  8. Earlylite August 5, 2009 at 6:30 pm #

    Sarah/Robert: You obviously live in a place where there is snow all year round. Back east we never encounter snowmelt issues between May and early mid-October. High water is almost always caused by heavy rain.

  9. Sarah Kirkconnell August 5, 2009 at 6:33 pm #

    The nice thing is that by mid August most snow here in Washington is gone outside of alpine tundra and glaciers. So…if and when we have a dry September river crossings can be EASY! :-)

  10. Emmett Lyman August 6, 2009 at 8:27 pm #

    A quick note on releasing your pack straps (learned from humorous experience): be sure you remove any socks that you've hung on your hipbelt and sternum strap before releasing them and entering the water. Otherwise you're going to have wet feet in the morning!

  11. Tom Murphy August 10, 2009 at 5:09 pm #

    Adam and I had to cross the North Fork on the Thoreau Falls trail twice this weekend. Even though the crossing was managable and ultimately successful there was a lot of stress and worry.

    I can appreciate that a day full of questionable crossings would cause a lot of mental fatigue.

  12. Earlylite August 10, 2009 at 5:50 pm #

    Water crossings do that, even if they're full of stones. My occasional day hiking partner and I had a similar level of angst last month crossing the stream that runs up the Basin Trail on North Kinsman in the Whites. It was really quite a low consequence crossing but generated a disproportionately large amount of angst for her.

  13. Garry gale May 21, 2012 at 2:08 am #

    In the wilderness area of Scotland..many burns become scarily dangerous very quickly when heavy rain makes water levels rise alarmingly, Sometimes no option but to get across them… if you have a backpack with a closed survival bag protecting a sleeping bag..it can act as a buoyancy device … esp. for very short deep crossings. It makes sense (bit extreme) to strip off and put dry clothes inside your pack in a plastic bag…. crossing a wild river will get you VERY wet!!! Keeping your clothes as dry as long as possible can save you from hypothermia!

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