As the weather warms and snow melts, we are drawn to the back country to explore well-known trails and new terrain. Streams, creeks and rivers at this time often run higher, stepping stones are submerged, the water is cold and the current deceptively strong. Fresh water moving at only 4 mph, exerts a force of about 65 pounds per square foot, enough to topple a hiker. Double the speed and the force becomes four times as great, enough to move a car. If the route we take crosses streams, it’s prudent to prepare for high water before we go and to reduce the risk at the water’s edge. If the risk of a dangerous crossing is high, it’s best to turn around and go another day.
- Review the route for crossings, checking the map. Know how many times the trail crosses water and where. Note how many times the trail recrosses the same stream.
- If the water is likely to be high from snowmelt and/or rainy weather, carry poles for balance. Pack gear, extra socks, shorts and possibly extra footwear in waterproof sacks.
At the water’s edge
- Determine the best place to cross, testing water temperature, depth and speed. Look for shallow, wide places with a slow-moving current. Swift, shallow water can be more dangerous than slow, deeper water. Be aware that immersion can cause cold water shock and hypothermia.
- Look for potential stepping stones and logs that bridge opposite banks. Partially submerged rocks and logs can be unstable or slippery—test the integrity and stability of logs before crossing. Make sure you can climb up the farther bank.
- Assess potential downstream hazards should you fall in, such as waterfalls, big rocks and strainers (branches and other debris through which water flows).
- If necessary, explore upstream or down for a better location. If you know the trail crosses and recrosses the stream farther up, scout upstream to reduce the number of crossings. Be aware that leaving the trail can lead to rougher, more remote terrain.
- Do not underestimate the risk. If the water is high from peak runoff, consider that, with a warming day, the water level could be higher when you return. Turn around if the crossing is dangerous.
Crossing the water
- If you find a good crossing on rocks and/or logs, unbuckle your pack before you cross. If you fall in, the pack will not weigh you down.
- If wading is the best option, keep on your boots. Enduring wet footwear is far better than an injured foot. Wear shorts, if you have them, as they cause less drag than long pants.
- Study the bottom for rocks, roots, gravel or sand before you begin. A gravel surface in slow water is best. Rocks and roots underwater can trip, injure and entrap feet. In the desert, soft sand can be quick sand.
- As you cross, face upstream and assume a gorilla stance. Take small steps sideways, testing the bottom with your feet as you go. Using poles, or stout sticks, maintain at least three points of contact at all times.
- If you are in a group, practice one of several techniques before you cross, with a leader directing each move.
Triangle. Three people face each other holding onto each others’ waists, with the strongest upstream. One person moves at a time, then another; the other two are stationary.
Line. Four to six people cross in a line facing upstream. The person behind holds the person in front, with the strongest at the front and the weakest in the middle. They take small steps slowly as a group.
Scrum. More than five people face upstream, holding each other in a pyramid formation, with the strongest at the apex upstream. They take small steps slowly together.
- If you fall in, let your pack float free. If possible, roll over on your back with your feet pointing downstream. Backstroke to the bank.—ed.
For more information on navigating streams, creeks and rivers, see:
“River and Stream Crossings,”in Christian Bisson and Jamie Hannon, AMC’s Mountain Skill Manual (Boston: AMC, 2017), pp. 119-122.
National Park Service Swiftwater Rescue Manual, Sept. 2012. mra.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/nps-swiftwater-rescue-manual-rev09-23-2012-SMALL.pdf
“Stream crossing safety while hiking and backpacking.” pcta.org/discover-the-trail/backcountry-basics/water/stream-crossing-safety/