Winter stream crossings can be dangerous if you slip off a rock or fall through an ice shelf and get your boots and clothing wet. However, you can often cross safely with a little extra planning or by bushwhacking along the bank to a safer crossing. But the most dangerous course of action is following trail blazes across a river in winter without stopping to consider whether there are safer alternatives.
Most of the stream crossings one finds on blazed hiking trails are considered safe for warmer weather use when getting wet boots or socks isn’t the end of the world. They’re typically located in areas with lots of rocks so you “rock-hop” across them without getting your feet wet or in shallow areas where the force of the current is unlikely to sweep you off your feet. There’s also no reason you have to cross a stream or a river at the blazed location if there’s a better crossing point nearby, although many hikers do. If for some reason your feet do get wet when temperatures are above freezing, you might get uncomfortable but there’s less of a danger you’ll become hypothermic or get frostbite if you keep moving and you’re properly equipped with extra insulating layers and some ground insulation to sit on if you have to stop to warm up.
But the difficulty of blazed stream crossings can change drastically when temperatures drop below freezing and getting wet shoes, wet feet, and wet clothing has to be avoided at all costs.
Pick a Different Route
The easiest way to avoid a dangerous or sketchy winter stream crossing is to plan ahead, especially if you’re on a day hike. Check your map, consult a guidebook, and find out what you can about your route beforehand using other information sources like social media or local websites. You can always take a different route or hike a different trail to mitigate the risk of a difficult crossing.
Rock Hop With Traction
If you reach a crossing and there are rocks in place across the stream, you can often rock hop. In winter these rocks will likely be covered with snow or black ice. But wearing traction, like microspikes or crampons can help prevent an uncontrolled slip. In my experience, it’s best to walk across rocks close to the surface of the stream or river, rather than taller rocks or boulders, because you build up too much momentum leaping from one to the next which can result in a slip.
Some of the rocks may be covered with softer ice that hasn’t completely frozen or still has water running on top of them. They’re usually ok to step on with traction, provided you’re wearing waterproof boots because your spikes will penetrate the ice and give you a better grip.
Find a Better Crossing
If you reach a blazed crossing that’s quite wide and isn’t bridged by rocks, bushwhack up or down the side of the stream or river until you find a better or narrower crossing that is bridged. There’s nothing that says you have to cross at the blazes.
If you stick within sight of the stream, you’re not going to get lost, since you can always backtrack. Sometimes you can completely bushwhack around a stream or river crossing, provided you have a map and navigation aids to find and follow a safer route. Snowshoes are often required if you’re bushwhacking in winter and forging a new route that others have not taken.
Streams and rivers can become bridged with snow and ice in locales with extended winters, cold weather, and heavy snow. These take some careful scouting to ensure that they’re solid and that you won’t fall through them when crossing. Snowshoes are very helpful in such circumstances because they distribute your weight across a larger surface area than bare boots, microspikes, or crampons.
The most dangerous sections of any fast-flowing stream are the ice ledges that form along its banks. These may mask deep holes, fallen trees, and undercuts. Avoid these crossing points, because you can be swept under them by fast-moving current and drown. These are also the points where you’re likely to get your clothes wet, in part or completely, and the risk of hypothermia and frostbite is the greatest.
Preparation is the Key
Winter is a great time to hike, but proper planning and preparation become even more important if there are stream and river crossings along your route. Waterproof boots and traction aids like microspikes, crampons, and snowshoes can make winter water crossings much easier and safer, but they’re no substitute for planning your route in advance, risk assessment, and careful observation when you encounter water obstacles on the trail.