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Winter River Crossings and How to Get Across Safely

Winter River Crossings

Winter River Crossings can be quite high consequence if you slip off a rock and get your boots and clothing wet or you plunge through an ice shelf along the bank and get swept underneath it. You can usually avoid these dangers with extra planning, bushwhacking along the river bank to a safer crossing, or by turning around and retracing your steps back the way you came. But the most dangerous course of action is following trail blazes across a river in winter without stopping to consider your options and whether there are safer alternatives.

Most of the stream or river 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 water crossing 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 or river 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 Facebook or local websites. You can always take a different route or hike a different trail to mitigate the risk of a difficult crossing.

Microspikes or crampons provide traction when crossing wet rocks
Microspikes or crampons provide traction when crossing wet rocks

Rock Hop With Traction

If you reach a crossing and there are rocks in place across the stream or river, 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 have 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 them and give you good traction.

If the blazed crossing is too sketchy, go up river or down river to find a better crossing
If the blazed crossing is too sketchy, go upriver or downriver to find a better crossing.

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 or river, 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.

Bridged Crossings

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. It also helps to hike with other hikers when scouting such crossings because you can take turns scouting the crossing points or send your lighter weight hikers out ahead because they’re less likely to break through.

Snowshoes help distribute your weight on bridged crossings
Snowshoes help distribute your weight on bridged crossings

Ice Ledges

The most dangerous part of any fast-flowing stream or river 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.

Winter stream crossings are often quite safe, but due care is required
Winter stream crossings are often quite safe, but due care is required

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.

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7 comments

  1. Philip yours is an important message. And plan ahead on how to handle going through on even solid looking ice whether it’s a flowing stream or spring-fed lakes. Hyperthermia sneaks up and comes on quickly

  2. I know this article is all about prevention, just wanted to get the reminder out there to keep spare/backup clothing in a waterproof-ish bag if you’re anticipating crossings like these. That clothing will not be as helpful if it’s waterlogged. As always, prevention is a lot lighter than the cure. Thanks for the detailed guide!
    JP

    PS Also thought you might crosslink this article: https://sectionhiker.com/winter-day-hiking-gear-list/
    Have a great holiday!
    JP

  3. I’ve had some success with certain crossings (not too deep or too swift) by putting trash bags over my boots, then traction over the bags, then wading across. I can’t take credit, several folks I know do this. You need to wrap something around the bags so they aren’t too floppy and don’t fall down. I took it one better by having my husband make trash bag waders out of a contractor trash bag using his heat sealer to make 2 legs. Wicked slick!

  4. A light weight plastic bag, as a vapor barrier, over dry socks will keep your feet warm, even if your boots get wet. A plastic bag under your socks will also protect your socks and boots from perspiration wetness while hiking. Putting boot liners or insoles in your bag at night will help keep them dry and warm.

  5. Those are streams not rivers they are not more than a foot deep …lol

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