According to statistics from the National Parks, the main danger in the backcountry isn’t wildlife, extreme temperatures, or even falling. Drowning is actually the top concern.
That means hikers should take it seriously when their path leads them through a waterway. Preparation is essential and so is a working knowledge of what to do–and what not to do–if you find yourself having to ford a river or stream.
What to do before you hit the trail
Before you even arrive at the trail, grab a map and familiarize yourself with all the areas you’ll encounter water. If possible, it’s a good idea to call a ranger station or national park office to ask how high the water will be at those spots. This way, you’ll have an idea whether you’ll have to camp for the night by the river or if you’ll be able to safely make it across.
Furthermore, pack extra socks and sandals for crossing the river. Crossing barefoot should be your last resort, and you should never get your dry socks and hiking boots wet. Trust us–wet hiking boots make for painful blisters.
Select a fording site
The exact spot where the trail meets the water might not be the safest place to cross. Study the water. Look for hiding rapids and submerged rocks and test for depth.
It might be hard to see with the naked eye how quickly the water is flowing or how deep it is. According to The Washington Trails Association, it’s best practice to toss a stick into the water to test how fast the current is moving and where it takes the stick. If the river is flowing quickly—and if it’s higher than your knees—it could make for a dangerous crossing. If this is the case, camp out overnight and try crossing again in the morning.
A great spot for crossing a river is where it’s broken up by an island or where the flow is separated into multiple, weaker streams. Check for areas with more shallow banks and sandbars. Shallow areas are your friend!
Helpful techniques for a safe crossing
Early in the day is hands down the best time to cross a river. When rivers are fed by glacier melt, flow is lowest in the morning. By the afternoon, the warmth of the sun has melted more ice, filling streams and rivers with more depth and force.
As previously mentioned, it’s good to bring a pair of sandals for crossing. It’s essential to keep your boots and socks dry. If it’s a gentle stream you might be able to get away with being barefoot. If not, wear sandals or double up on socks for the crossing—just make sure you have a dry pair of socks for when you get to the other side.
Lean into the current, walking across the river sideways. Be sure to use a hiking pole or a big stick so you can keep your balance in the water and test for conditions up ahead, such as sneaky rapids or sharp rocks. Keep a sure footing and take your time.
The group advantage
If you’re hiking in a group, three of you can cross together, locking your arms and all facing each other toward the inside the circle. Move carefully across this way, with the grounding support of your fellow hikers.
Hiking groups can also find a spot on the river where there are two trees on opposite sides of the river and tie a sturdy rope to a strong tree. Send your strongest and most experienced hiker across the river, where they can tie the rope to the second tree. This way, everyone in the hiking party can use the rope as a support as they cross the river. Be sure that the last person to cross the river is also a strong, experienced hiker as it will be their job to carry the remaining rope across.
Make no mistake—fording a river or stream can be dangerous and must be attempted with utmost care and safety. But for skilled hikers who know how to cross safely, it can mean experiencing more of what nature has to offer.
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