In this article, we’ll explore what you need to know to safely navigate rivers and stream crossings on the trails, both solo and with a group, how to prep by doing a risk analysis before crossing, water crossing techniques, and how to stay afloat in the event of an unplanned immersion.
Whether you’re preparing for a backpacking trip, rafting excursion, or fishing trip in the backcountry, knowing how to read and safely cross swift water is an invaluable skill that could save your life and the lives of others.
About River Crossings
Rivers and seasonal creeks can either be a thrilling challenge or a real pain in the neck for hikers.
Water is a powerful force of nature. River and creek crossings involve inherent risks that demand our respect. Every year, outdoor enthusiasts underestimate its potency, succumb to impatience, or fail to conduct a thorough risk assessment, leading to unnecessary injuries or fatalities.
The strength and speed of flowing water can be deceptively powerful since what we see on the surface is only half the story. Understanding how water behaves and exerts force while monitoring for hazards above and below the water is crucial to deciding where and how to cross without taking an unexpected swim – or worse.
How To Perform a Risk Assessment
People have different skills, competencies, strengths, and tolerance for risk. What you consider an acceptable level of risk may not be acceptable to others around you or within your group.
If you’re traveling in a group, you’ll need to understand the limits of everyone’s experience and respective thresholds for risk. Establish a baseline standard of acceptable risk so everyone in your group will only tackle challenges they feel comfortable with.
If there is any time to be radically honest about your limits, it’s now. And if you lack confidence in your abilities, there’s no shame in turning around or waiting for someone more experienced to show up so you can cross together. It’s more common to hear stories about the fatal consequences of people going against their gut instinct in the outdoors than when they choose safety.
Looking towards your obstacle, note the water’s depth, width, speed, surrounding hazards, and terrain. If something goes wrong mid-crossing, you might not be able to save yourself. The time to make a safety call is on the shore. Because when you’re swimming, it’s already too late.
In case of an unexpected water crossing or one that’s more turbulent than expected, apply the STOP strategy for risk assessment and management when deciding if and how to cross as follows:
Before crossing, stop and assess the situation. Don’t rush into the water without considering the potential risks and hazards.
Evaluate the factors that may affect your safety, including the depth, width of the water, tides, weather conditions, and your swimming abilities.
Is the crossing a calm, lazy river or is it an angry, frothing torrent churning up whitecaps? Does the creek barely clear your hiking boots or are you wading into waist-deep water? What time of day are you crossing?
Water levels typically rise as the sun melts snow at higher elevations, regardless of whether there is snow on the trail. That means that stream flow is often highest in the afternoon and evening. If it’s high, consider camping and waiting until morning when the water level is lower.
Keep in mind that if you’re making your way across a creek with the intention of returning later, the water level might go up as the temperature rises throughout the day or if it rains.
Scan the water and surrounding area for any potential hazards.
Are there tree branches or tips of sharp rocks jutting out of the water? Walking across a flat and sandy riverbed will be a breeze, and you may even feel tempted to cross barefoot. But if the crossing is a maze of slick boulders and partially submerged tree limbs, then it’ll be more difficult and potentially dangerous to navigate. If you can’t see clearly to the bottom, you might be in for a nasty surprise.
In winter and early spring conditions, snow bridges offer a false sense of security. When a bridge is thick and secure, they make for easy travel over frigid creeks. But during warming periods in late spring and early summer, snow bridges gradually weaken. All snow bridges eventually fail, and falling through one can be fatal.
Trekking poles are an effective way to gauge if a snow bridge will support your weight. If you break through the snow or the snow surface fractures with your hiking pole, imagine what your body weight will do to it.
Silt from glaciers should also be taken into account when crossing. Glacial silt, also called rock flour or glacial flour, can cloud water and give it a gray, brown, or white appearance. You probably won’t be able to assess the depth without measuring it with a stick, throwing a stone, or stepping into the creek. Plus, glacial silt is often a sign of a rapidly changing stream bed that might hold lots of bulky, unstable rocks – proceed with caution.
Based on your risk assessment and if it’s safe to proceed, devise a game plan for a safe crossing. On popular hiking trails like the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Wonderland Trail, navigation apps like FarOut make it easy for hikers to share feedback about creek crossings on trails.
There are times when the trail itself is not the best place to cross. You may have to hike upstream and downstream for miles to find a safe place to cross. Patience is your friend here. Laziness could cost you your life. But you can rest assured when you look hard enough for a safer crossing, you’ll almost always find it.
What To Look For In A Safe Crossing Location
Putting it all together, what exactly should you look for in a safe water crossing? Here’s a handy checklist to help you identify the right ingredients for a stress-free crossing!
- Clear or less turbid water for visibility
- Gentle and slow-moving current
- Shallow water depth for stability
- Stable footing on solid rocks or firm riverbed
- Gradual entry and exit without steep or slippery banks
- Minimal debris in the water or hazards upstream or downstream
- Suitable weather conditions for safe crossing
- Accessible alternative routes for safety
Prepare for the Crossing
Now that you’ve decided on the best place to cross, it’s time to get yourself and your gear ready! The following tips will help you stay safe and afloat during your crossing:
- Keep your boots or trail runners on: Hiking in wet shoes isn’t fun, but removing your shoes to cross barefoot increases your chances of slipping and falling on obstacles hidden just below the surface. Wearing shoes or boots also reduces your chances of cutting, twisting, hitting, or otherwise injuring your feet. But if you prefer not to cross in wet shoes, which can be uncomfortable and lead to blisters, Xero Sandals and Chacos are breathable, quick to dry, and offer good traction with grippy soles and adjustable straps.
- Unbuckle your pack: In a creek crossing, free your backpack waist and chest straps so you can easily jettison your pack in the event of an unexpected fall. If you fall in, your pack will become a waterlogged anchor that can rotate on top of you and hold you down.
- Change into a pair of shorts: If you’re trudging through a deep creek crossing, you’ll want to keep your gear as dry as possible. If you have a backup pair of quick-drying shorts or swim trunks on hand, you can change into those or unzip the bottom half of your convertible hiking pants.
- Get your trekking poles ready: Trekking poles can help you maintain balance when crossing creeks and locate hidden rocks or holes that can trip you up. If you don’t have trekking poles, find a sturdy walking stick to keep your balance.
Solo and Group Creek Crossing Techniques
The crossing technique you choose will depend on whether you’re alone or with a group. Running through a crossing or diving in without hesitation isn’t the best approach. Slow and steady wins this race. Safe and successful crossings require careful preparation, patience, and teamwork.
There are no two ways about it. Crossing a stream or river alone is more hazardous than a group crossing.
Grab your trekking poles or find a sturdy tree branch. This will serve as both a probing tool to measure water depth and check riverbed conditions, along with providing a third point of contact with the ground.
Position yourself facing upstream, forming a tripod with your two legs and the trekking pole or walking stick. This tripod stance increases stability and balance.
If the water rises above your knees, think twice before crossing. As your body becomes more buoyant, and more surface areas are exposed to water, it becomes harder to maintain balance and control in the water. Crossing together with another hiker or group gives you a better margin of safety.
There are several techniques for fording rivers as a group. One of the more popular ones is forming an upstream line, walking parallel with the current, with the strongest hiker taking the lead at the front to break the current for the least experienced hiker at the end of the chain. Group members link arms, taking small steps forward, until everyone reaches the other side.
When hiking with three people, try the triangle method. Unbuckle your packs and form a triangle facing each other. Position the strongest member of your group with their back facing upstream to help break the current. Take hold of each others’ waist or hip belts and slowly work your way across the creek together.
How To Rescue Yourself If You Fall In
Accidents still happen regardless of our best efforts. You may lose your footing, slip on a slick boulder you didn’t spot from the shore, trip over a submerged tree branch, or be swept away by a strong current. In the event that you get swept away, it’s important to first and foremost stay calm. Sure, easier said than done, but you can’t make rational decisions and get yourself out of trouble when you’re hyperventilating and panicking.
Once you get your bearings, get into a defensive swimming position (i.e. on your back with your feet pointing downstream). Look where you’re going and use your feet to protect yourself against hazards.
Scan the banks for exit points. Currents tend to slow where creeks and rivers bend. Eddies are areas where the water begins to swirl back upstream, making them a perfect spot to exit. Gentle banks along the water’s edge will make it easier to pull yourself out.
As soon as you spot your “out,” flip over and swim toward the shore with the current. Once you’re out of the water, take a minute to compose yourself and take stock of your surroundings.
If you kept your pack on or used it as a floatation device, chances are your items will be soaked. If you ditched your pack to stay afloat, your only possessions are the clothes you’re wearing and any items in your pockets.
If you don’t have a dry pair of clothes to change into, strip off any cotton or down layers that you’re wearing, as they soak up moisture and take longer to dry. Even if your synthetic clothing is dripping wet, it’s better than wearing soaked cotton and down. During a hot day, you can strip down to your skivvies, hang your clothes out to dry, and sit in the sun to warm up.
If you’re able to get your bearings, post up near a trailhead or junction. With some luck, another party may come by and spare you clothing, food, water, and an InReach so you can get help if hypothermia strikes or you sustained injuries during your swim. Continue to monitor yourself for the signs and symptoms of hypothermia until help arrives or you reach civilization.
Remember that no one has to drown at a creek crossing. It is up to you to prioritize your safety and make informed decisions in the backcountry based on your abilities, your environment, and the available resources.
Ash Czarnota is a freelance writer based in Southern California with over 3,000 trail miles under her feet. She is the founder of Go Galavanting, an online community to celebrate adventurous women and highlight emerging thought leaders in the outdoor industry. A PCT alumni, Joshua Tree enthusiast and burgeoning climber, Ash uses her outdoor experiences to craft content that educates and inspires a rising generation of adventurers to embrace their inner wild. Connect with her on Instagram (@salty_millennial).