Here’s a great sequence of photos that illustrates good river crossing technique. The two gentlemen pictured here are a father and son, named John and Matt, that I met on my 100 mile wilderness hike on the Maine Appalachian Trail last month. John is a carpenter by trade who lives in Rhode Island, and his son Matt goes to college in Virginia. Although we hiked apart during the day, I ended up spending most nights with them at the same shelters and campsites and we became friends.
The first thing you should notice is that both John and Matt unbuckled their hip belts and sternum straps before crossing this river. If you don’t do this and fall in fast moving water, your backpack is going to rapidly fill with water and become very heavy. So heavy, that you won’t be able to lift it, and you’ll be dragged under or washed downstream in swift current.
If you unbuckle your hip belt and sternum strap, it will be much easier for you to escape from your pack. Don’t underestimate this possibility. When you cross in knee deep water or higher, it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to see the bottom of the river and any rocks in your way. Falling is quite easy, so don’t fall. Use hiking poles if you have them or grab a stick and use it as a probe and extra stabilizer when you are in the water.
You should have also noticed that John and Matt are also wearing sandals to keep their boots from getting wet. Different people have different preferences about the kind of footware they prefer for river crossing: some just use their regular boots and some change into sandals or water shoes. Regardless, you need something to protect your feet and ankles. After this crossing, John told me that he wished he had brought a more protective water shoe because his sandals did not provide sufficient protection against underwater rocks.
When I took these photos, I was impressed by the Matt’s route finding capabilities during this river crossing. He picked a great route that divided the crossing into two halves. The first half is shielded by upstream rocks that break the power of the current and provide stepping stones to the halfway point of the crossing. From there Matt as able to stabilize himself on a big rock in the center of the river and minimize the period of exposure to the full current when crossing from it to a rock on the opposite bank.
John took a similar route, and both made it across successfully. As you can see, he’s using a hiking pole as a probe because he can’t see below the surface.
During my own crossing moments earlier, I had just walked right across the river where it met the trail, leather boots and all. I remember that the water came up almost to my waist on that crossing and it was one of the deepest of my trip.
I didn’t scout the river nearly as well as I should have and I didn’t break the river into two parts, like Matt had, by analyzing the places where I would encounter current. Nice job, Matt!
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