How to Safely Cross Rivers

How to Safely Cross Rivers

River and stream crossings can be intimidating for many hikers, even on small streams where the consequences of getting wet or falling are minor. Here are 10 expert tips for river and stream crossings that can help you master this important wilderness hiking skill.

1. Unbuckle your hip belt and sternum strap

If you’re carrying a backpack, unbuckle your hip belt and sternum strap before you cross a fast-moving stream or river. Otherwise, there’s a real chance that your pack will fill up with water if you fall and the added weight can hold you underwater. By undoing your hip belt, it’s easier to shrug off your pack if you need to eject it.

Unbuckle your hip belt so your pack doesn't fill with water and drag you under if you fall.
Unbuckle your hip belt so your pack doesn’t fill with water and drag you under if you fall.

2. Face upstream and use trekking poles to maintain your balance

Trekking poles are very helpful in maintaining your balance during a stream crossing and for probing the bottom to find hidden rocks or holes that can trip you up. Facing upstream lets you see where the fastest current is in a stream and how to avoid it.

Trekking poles help prevent falls during stream crossings.
Trekking poles help prevent falls during stream crossings.

3. Cross on shorter rocks, not taller ones

While it’s tempting to clamber over big rocks during a stream or river crossing, it’s often better to cross on shorter and lower rocks closer to the surface than bigger and taller ones, even if they’re partially submerged. You’ll be able to control your momentum better if you’re lower down and you won’t fall as far or hard if take a spill.

While it's tempting to cross a stream over big rocks, it's often safer to stay low
While it’s tempting to cross a stream over big rocks, it’s often safer to stay low

4. The marked route might not be the best place to cross

River and stream beds change year to year due to floods and erosion. If the position of the river crossing on a map looks sketchy, perhaps because the riverbed has changed in the interim, you don’t have to cross there. Feel free to hike upstream or downstream and try to find a better crossing point that’s shallower, has a slower current, or has a better route across the rocks.

If the cairned stream crossing is too difficult, find a better one
If the cairned or marked stream crossing is too difficult, find a better one.

5. Pointy rocks provide a better foothold than flat rocks

When crossing a stream, people look for flat rocks to put their feet on under the assumption that they’ll be easier to walk across. But flat rocks can be very slippery when they’re wet. You can usually get a better grip by walking across more pointy rocks, even if they’re wet because your shoe soles will bend a little on top of them and grip them more securely. Try it sometime.

Pointed rocks provide a better grip than flat wet rocks
Pointy rocks provide a better foothold than flat wet rocks

6. Wear footwear for protection

It’s important to wear some sort of foot protection during a stream or river crossing to protect your feet from injury, even if it means carrying a pair of waterproof camp shoes like Crocs with you. River and streambeds are full of sharp rocks, broken sticks, and thorns. If you won’t hike barefoot on dry ground, what makes you think it’s any safer to cross a stream barefoot when you can’t see your feet or the river bottom clearly?

Wear well draining and quick drying trail shoes if you know your route has stream crossings
River and stream crossings are much safer if you wear foot protection such as shoes or sandals

7. Wait for high water to drop to a safer level

Fording a river or stream that’s running high from rainfall or is a raging torrent from snowmelt is dangerous and unnecessary. High water levels usually fall quickly and waiting for the level to drop is safer even if it means a delay. High water also carries with it hidden wood and subsurface debris that can injure, entrap or drown you during a crossing. Proper planning before your hike can help you anticipate high water crossings, so you can build delays into your route and resupply plan. What water level is too high? I wait out water levels that are higher than mid-thigh or I move to a safer crossing point.

Wait for high water levels to drop.
Wait for high water levels to drop.

8. Make sure beaver dams are solid before you try to cross them

Beaver dams can provide a convenient way across a stream as long as they haven’t been damaged and are still actively maintained. If you see a hole in the dam or a spot when it’s been breached and water is flowing through it quickly, find another place to cross. Chances are it’s not structurally sound enough to hold your body weight.

Make sure beaver damns are very solid before you try to walk across them
Make sure beaver dams are active and well maintained before you try to walk across them

9. Wear trail shoes that drain and dry quickly

Many backpackers wear trail shoes that drain and dry quickly because getting your shoes wet during a stream or river crossing is often unavoidable. If you plan to hike somewhere where there are a lot of stream crossings, you can save yourself a lot of time and hassle by wearing mesh trail runners or mids that don’t have waterproof breathable liners. They’ll dry much faster when water comes over the top of your ankles and swamps your shoes.

Wear trail shoes that drain and dry quickly because getting wet feet is often impossible to avoid
Wear trail shoes that drain and dry quickly because getting wet feet is often impossible to avoid.

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