Fording a River

John and Matt Ford a River on the Maine Appalachian Trail - 1

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.

John and Matt Ford a River on the Maine Appalachian Trail - 2

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.

John and Matt Ford a River on the Maine Appalachian Trail - 3

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.

John and Matt Ford a River on the Maine Appalachian Trail - 4

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.

John and Matt Ford a River on the Maine Appalachian Trail - 5

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 and Matt Ford a River on the Maine Appalachian Trail - 6

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.

John and Matt Ford a River on the Maine Appalachian Trail - 6

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.

John and Matt Ford a River on the Maine Appalachian Trail - 7

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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  1. I use trailrunners and usually decide to just walk right through the river with my shoes on. They typically dry pretty fast (within three hours of hiking). It especially makes sense just to keep shoes on when the weather is wet anyway – you certainly get a lot more grip and protection than with sandals.

  2. Can you tell me the story about "squirrel meat?"

  3. Sure, here's the link:…

    Thanks for the great post!

  4. What a great trail name story!

  5. Few other good tips;

    1) If there is still ANY snow anywhere in the mountains crossing at dawn can be infinitely easier than later in the day when spring melt raises the flow.

    2) If it looks deadly, it probably is. Don’t be afraid to scout far for a safer crossing, it could save your life.

    3) If you have stronger/weaker members in the party, have the stronger member “break trail” while grasping wrists with the weaker member who should be just down stream of the stronger member. This can reduce the amount of force on the weaker member enough to get across.

    4) Closed toe footwear, like Keen’s will greatly increase your security and safety.

  6. Anything deeper or swifter than those photos needs another plan. One person goes across and takes off pack and works as a spotter for the other person or persons…that is ready to jump in if someone falls. Also be sure to practice a bit with the pack unbelted before crossing to get the feel for all the weight on your shoulders.
    Do not automatically follow an agile strong athletic big guy across just to prove you can do it. That happened on NOLS and the second smaller man fell in and had to be dealt with for hypothermia. The water was thigh deep and current so strong that it floated you leg downstream as soon as you lifted it. We put up a zip line after that.
    Also if a trip leader seems to be suggesting something dangerous, question authority, get help for yourself. A group needs to accommodate the ‘weakest’ member without resorting to humiliation. Stopping and looking for the best crossing and talking to everyone about their comfort level or help needed (like taking someone’s pack) is a great time for instruction and looking at the scenery. No need to rush, this is your vacation.
    Use hiking poles or a found strong stick and remember that the rocks can be extremely slippery. Look upriver to watch for any logs coming down.

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