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9 Expert Stream Crossing Tips

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.

Wait for water to drop to a safer level or find a different crossing point.
Wait for water to drop to a safer level or find a different crossing point.

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.

If the cairned stream crossing is too difficult, find a better one
If the cairned or marked stream crossing is too difficult, find a better one.

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.

Trekking poles help prevent falls during stream crossings.
Trekking poles help prevent falls during stream crossings.

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.

Pointed rocks provide a better grip than flat wet rocks
Pointed rocks provide a better grip than flat wet rocks

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?

Wear well draining and quick drying trail shoes if you know your route has stream crossings
River and stream crossings are much safer if you wear foot protection such as shoes or sandals

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.

While it's tempting to cross a stream over big rocks, it's often safer to stay low
While it’s tempting to cross a stream over big rocks, it’s often safer to stay low

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.

Unbuckle your hip belt so your pack doesn't fill with water and drag you under if you fall.
Unbuckle your hip belt so your pack doesn’t fill with water and drag you under if you fall.

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.

Make sure beaver damns are very solid before you try to walk across them
Make sure beaver dams are active and well maintained before you try to walk across them

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.

Wear trail shoes that drain and dry quickly because getting wet feet is often impossible to avoid
Wear trail shoes that drain and dry quickly because getting wet feet is often impossible to avoid.

What are your stream and river crossing tips?

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23 comments

  1. I’ve never agreed with the facing upstream tip. Going perpendicular to current gives a better position for bracing against swift or high flow.

    • I first learned this in a whitewater rescue class and have found that it works well for me. One trick is to use trekking pokes or sticks to create an eddy that you can stand behind. It’s especially effective when crossing with a partner, where you stand behind and brace them against a current.

  2. Swift water rescue training also teaches to to safely cross in groups of 2 or more. Face each other, grab each others arms, lean in a bit, and slowly cross. For singles, upstream poles can be placed and held together, braced against as a tripod, and you lean toward the current. Move sideways. No eddy effect for something that small diameter.

  3. Re rec #1, how long a wait are we talking about? I get there are lots of factors to consider, but I suspect many people won’t be up for a wait of more than a day. For some the limit might be more like an hour or two. Is that likely to be enough time to let dangerously high water drop to something manageable?

    • 8-24 hours is usually enough for the water level to drop significantly. It really depends on the size of the water drainage. In areas experiencing snowmelt, it’s best to cross before the temperature increases and water volume increases.

  4. Face upstream if there’s current, as Philip says. For fly fishers, this is a fundamental of stream-craft. Look at your leg below the knee. The front of it presents a V shape to the current and this helps deflects the current. The side of your leg won’t do this. It offers more resistance to the brunt of the current

  5. Some good points in that post Philip. Some other thoughts for consideration. Entry and exit points should always be assessed before crossing. Are you sure you can get up the other bank once crossed. Foot trap hazards should be always in your thoughts. If you lost balance and your foot is trapped you’re in a dangerous situation. Consider the fact that even a low level crossing (water below the knee moving fast) can if you lost balance see you carried downstream, and what risks await you further downstream? Rocks, fallen trees as examples. So entry, exit and where will I end up should be in your river crossing plans before crossing.

    There is many more tips and advice online for those looking for advice – a good link from Dave C https://bedrockandparadox.com/2013/06/04/upper-level-stream-and-river-crossings/

  6. Re: recc #7, I have heard that it is better to wear a pack on your front while crossing water as, in the event of a fall, a buoyant pack worn on your back can push you face down into the water. Any obs? Thanks, John.

    • If you lose your balance and fall or are swept off your feet, the idea is to ditch your pack asap (thus the unbuckled sternum strap and waist belt). Its not that the pack will hold you under, but it could prevent you from regaining your balance and effecting a “self-rescue”.

      Wearing a good-sized pack on your front would reduce your visibility of the river in front of you, and I imagine it would also get in the way of using your arms and mess with your balance…

  7. This article left out the most important safety tip of all:

    Spengler: There’s something very important I forgot to tell you.
    Venkman: What?
    Spengler: Don’t cross the streams.
    Venkman: Why?
    Spengler: It would be bad.
    Venkman: I’m fuzzy on the whole good/bad thing. What do you mean, “bad”?
    Spengler: Try to imagine all life as you know it stopping instantaneously and every molecule in your body exploding at the speed of light.
    Stantz: Total protonic reversal!
    Venkman: Right. That’s bad. Okay. All right. Important safety tip. Thanks, Egon.

    Otherwise, great article!

  8. In addition to wearing well-ventilated (non-gortex lined) trail runners, remove your socks and insoles before the crossing. Your shoes (and feet) will dry much quicker when you’re walking again with dry socks and insoles.

  9. Great tips, Philip! If anything, I would like to suggest you take out of the article the first picture. No real criticism necessarily. While I understand that gentleman seems to be facing minimal flow, the first picture less experienced hikers see here is that it’s okay to walk through chest deep water holding your pack over your head while holding your trekking poles up in the air with a smile on your face… We all know plenty of people barely scan through articles without taking the time to read, and as soon as I saw that picture the alarm in my brain went off thinking it was a picture of what not to do… Again, I understand that the individual in question was probably quite confident about this particular crossing, but I am never relaxed in a water crossing, and while I have never gone higher than my waist, I am certain that I am using both my trekking poles even then.

    As to what to do with the pack during an unknown chest deep water crossing, I would like consult with you on it. I would be inclined to try to decide between wearing it, unbuckled as you suggest, or leaving it behind and hauling it with a rope. If I am going to wear it, I probably want to do an attempt to familiarize myself with the river without the pack first and then come back for the pack. That way if the water is iffy and/or things go wrong, I don’t have to also deal with the pack. If I know about the crossing ahead of time, maybe a heavy construction weight trash bag filled with air and plenty of rope would allow me to have it float across? If there’s two of us maybe we could zip line the packs if we bring a long enough piece of cord? What do you suggest?

    • I’m not taking out the picture because people don’t bother to read the caption or recommendation to wait for water levels to drop. That’s not minimal flow. I consider that to be extremely dangerous behavior and would recommend that the guy find another crossing point.

      • As to your second question, I won’t cross a stream or river running much above my knees. No need to float a pack.

      • OK – I compromised…:-)

      • Thank you for the answer, Philip. As you mentioned, the one or two times water got to my waist, I couldn’t believe risking it to get any higher even if the current was slow. I hear of people going chest deep, but I can’t imagine doing that in a river regardless of speed. Again, thank you.

  10. Always good info with Philip. Another river tip: If you fall and are being swept downstream, turn face up with your feet out of the water. If your feet are down and catch on the bottom, the current (if it’s a big enough stream) will flip you down and keep you there. Anyone who might have been able to help will not be able to see where you are. Also, face up, feet out will allow you to use your legs like shock absorbers against rocks. Plus, you can navigate better for an exit.

  11. On waist deep and swift white water I focus on the bank of the other side……Looking at the white water can make you dizzy and lose your balance….Of course unbuckle your sternum strap and waist belt.

  12. How about running a rope across a questionable stream, if no too wide? I’m 6′ and 200 with a lot of wading experience but for other members of our group, the 5’2″ 110lb gal having a rope to hang on might’ve been a comforting addition? Ran into this out west during run off season, burr, and had no choice other than turning around or get it done.

    • Taking an inexperienced group on a route with high water crossings is a trip planning malfunction on the part of the hiking leader. They should have picked a better route or date for the hike, found a better crossing point, or screened people off the hike who didn’t have the experience for the conditions. I do it all the time on the hikes I lead.

      In my experience, crossing with a rope is often worse than without. You’re better off learning two and three person crossing techniques, where the bigger person is positioned up stream and creates an eddy for the smaller.

  13. There are technical issues here but don’t forget the psychological ones: If a trip leader heads across without talking to everyone else about their comfort level, STOP them. Question authority. To cross safely, get help for yourself if needed, don’t follow without evaluating the situation yourself. On NOLS (without the leaders there that day) a big strong assertive guy crossed a roaring river and encouraged a smaller man to follow and he fell in and had to be rescued, and put in a sleeping bag for hypothermia. We eventually had to put a zip line across to secure the packs.
    On a trip to the Ozarks a very tall athletic leader wanted everyone to cross a wide stream by jumping across on big boulders….easy for him, not for most. As a result one gal fell in in a different area and hit her head but no one saw that. She was ok but it could have been a disaster.
    Be aware that what you are seeing in front of you may not be the worst part. Way across the river– is it deeper? swifter? need spotters? is everyone gathered here to watch? can you help someone without humiliation (pointing out their ‘weakness’)? Can this be done by co-operation and become a learning experience or is it a macho thing that requires plowing through fast to get there faster?
    Relax and remember why you are there.

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