Stream crossings can be intimidating for many hikers, even small streams where the consequences of getting wet or falling are minor. But learning to cross small streams forms the foundation for coping with larger streams and rivers, where the consequences of a fall are much higher. Here are some expert tips for stream and river crossings that can help you learn this important wilderness travel skill.
1. Wait for high water to drop to a safer level
Fording a river or stream that’s running high from rainfall or is a raging torrent from snowmelt is dangerous and unnecessary. High water levels usually fall quickly and waiting for the level to drop is safer even if it means a delay.
It’s easier to cross a stream or river in shallower water when you can see underwater rocks and holes that can trip you up. High water also carries with it hidden wood and subsurface debris that can injure or entrap and drown you during a crossing. Proper planning before your hike can help you anticipate high water crossing, so you can build delays into your route and resupply plan, or bring a packraft for more extreme crossings. What water level is too high? I wait out water levels that exceed my lower to mid thighs or find a safer crossing point.
2. The marked route might not be the best place to cross
River and stream beds change year to year as the result of spring thaws and erosion, but most trail blazes or cairns don’t and might not be the best place to cross anymore. If a crossing looks sketchy, hike up or down stream and try to find a better crossing point that’s shallower, has slower current, or has a better route across the rocks.
3. Face upstream and use trekking poles to maintain your balance
Trekking poles are very helpful in maintaining your balance during a stream crossing and for probing the bottom to find hidden rocks or holes that can trip you up. Facing upstream lets you see where the fastest current is in a stream and how to avoid it.
4. Pointed rocks provide a better grip than flat rocks
When crossing a stream, people look for flat rocks to put their feet on under the assumption that they’ll be easier to walk across. But flat rocks can be very slippery when they’re wet and often have slippery algae growing on them. You can usually get a better grip by walking across pointed rocks, even if they’re wet, because your shoe soles will bend over the their top and grip them more securely. Try it sometime.
5. Wear foot protection
It’s important to wear some sort of foot protection during a stream or river crossing to protect your feet from injury, even if it means carrying a pair of waterproof camp shoes like Crocs with you. Rivers and stream beds are full of sharp rocks, broken sticks, and thorns. If you won’t hike barefoot on dry ground, what makes you think it’s any safer to cross a stream barefoot when you can’t see your feet or the river bottom clearly?
6. Stay low
While it’s tempting to clamber over big rocks during a stream or river crossing, it’s often better to cross on rocks closer to the surface, even if they’re partially submerged. The problem with big rocks occurs when you need to climb down onto wet rocks closer to the surface and your momentum increases, making it easy to slip and fall. Staying low and going slow are often better.
7. Unbuckle your hip belt and sternum strap
If you’re carrying a heavy backpack, unbuckle your hip belt and sternum strap before you cross a fast-moving stream or river. Otherwise, there’s a real chance that your pack will fill up with water if you fall and the added weight can hold you underwater. By undoing your hip belt, it’s easier to shrug off your pack if you need to eject it.
8. Make sure beaver dams are solid before you try to cross them
Beaver dams can provide a convenient way across a stream as long as the haven’t been damaged and are still actively maintained. If you see a hole in the dam or a spot when it’s been breached and water is flowing through it quickly, find another place to cross. Chances are it’s not structurally sound to hold your body weight.
9. Wear trail shoes that drain and dry quickly
Many backpackers wear trail shoes that drain and dry quickly because getting your shoes wet during a stream or river crossing is often unavoidable. If you plan to hike somewhere where there are a lot of stream crossings, you can save yourself a lot of time and hassle by wearing mesh trail runners or mids that don’t have waterproof breathable liners because they dry so much faster when water comes over the top of your ankles and swamps your shoes.
What are your stream and river crossing tips?
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