During a recent several-year period more hikers were killed in the North Cascades by drowning—swept away while fording or after slipping from footlogs—than by falls from cliffs, falling rock, avalanches, hypothermia, and all other wildland hazards combined . . .
—Harvey Manning, Backpacking One Step at a Time,
4th edition, page 300
In my years of adventuring I have gained considerable experience in fording creeks and rivers. The result has been an enormous respect for the power of moving water. I have come to realize that nearly every unbridged creek of size poses risks to those who try to ford it. This article is about assessing those risks and “reading” a river, so that you will better know where and how to cross safely—and most importantly when not to attempt a crossing at all.
—Ray Jardine, Beyond Backpacking, pages 356-364
Central Issues Addressed in This Article
How much prior planning needs to be done at home and at the edge of the stream or river to be crossed? What techniques are best for difficult crossings? How should techniques differ for crossing fast moving but relatively shallow streams compared to crossing deep, wide and slow-moving streams and rivers?
I have crossed many streams and rivers over the years. Probably the most difficult was a wide, raging, glacial torrent while positioning ourselves for a climb of Denali (Mt. McKinley) via the Muldrow Glacier. We were lucky that no one was hurt or drowned. After doing research for this article, I was quite surprised at the number of different techniques we could have utilized. Crossing deep and swiftly moving waters safely requires a whole host of strategies and techniques.
Even though it is true that each river or stream crossing is unique and requires somewhat different strategies, it will serve the purpose of this article to divide crossings into two categories:
(1) fast-moving but shallower streams and rivers
(2) deeper and slow-moving rivers.
In this context, “shallow” will be roughly defined as thigh level or below. Depending on how swift and how wide, a body of water more than knee deep should be considered with great suspicion.
I. TECHNIQUES FOR FAST MOVING, BUT SHALLOWER WATERS
Following is a comprehensive synthesis of a number of techniques from a variety of sources. Included are several articles from Backpacker Magazine (May 1989, May 2001, April 2007, May 2007, August 2007 and October 2008) with special acknowledgement to authors Slim Ray, Steve Howe and John Harlin. The synthesis also includes Ray Jardine’s in-depth analysis (Beyond Backpacking, pages 356-364). The experienced backcountry traveler will recognize many of the techniques. I start with in-town planning, then make suggestions for riverside preparation and end by focusing on the techniques for actual crossings.
· Check the weather reports for conditions that might increase the flows of creeks and rivers you will likely be fording.
· Establish an alternative if a major crossing turns out to be unwise.
· Check that all party members will have the equipment necessary to safely navigate the worst crossings (e.g., trekking poles, lightweight footwear, dry-bags for critical gear).
· Consider bringing some form of crampons or wading cleats if crossing multiple swift streams.
· Ideally, bring two collapsible multi-section trekking poles rather than fixed length.
· For cold snowmelt, carry long gaiters or special sock material to prevent direct contact of your feet with the ice-cold water (e.g., waterproof socks, plastic bags over thin liner socks).
Riverside Preparation Before Crossing
Selecting a Crossing Route: Choose a straight, wide, shallow or smooth-surfaced section; avoid narrow sections, river bends, rocky areas and mid-channel boulders. Especially avoid a crossing where the far side is deeper or the bank undercut. Where possible, cross multiple, shallow strands of a braided stream. Check for alternative crossings above where two forks come together. Look both up and down stream to ensure that a designated crossing point is best. Sometimes the designated crossing is not good because it might be suitable for summertime, low-water conditions. Check out the river downstream for rapids and waterfalls. Especially avoid downstream “strainers” (downed trees and snags in the river).
Ready Equipment: Waterproof critical gear with multiple plastic bags or special “dry bags.” Wear shorts or take off pants to decrease drag. Swap boots for river/camp shoes (boots are difficult to swim in if you are swept off your feet). If you don't have river shoes, remove socks and wear your regular boots or trail shoes for the crossing. Do whatever you can to protect your feet from the cold water and rough bottoms. Put minimum emergency gear in your pockets or on a cord around your neck in case you lose your pack in the crossing. Find a long, stout staff if you do not have trekking poles. Undo the sternum strap of your pack, but keep other straps lightly tensioned so that your pack will not throw you off balance. Unhitching the waist belt of your pack before crossing is commonly recommended, but I think the balance issue trumps a fast exit from your pack. However, practicing a fast unhitching for a quick exit is recommended.
Current Expectations: River and stream hydraulics are such that the water flow is slower near the bottom and sides and faster near the top. This means that even though your feet have good traction on the bottom, there can be significant water pressure on the knees and thighs as you approach midstream. Expecting this dynamic and facing upstream will often alleviate problems. It is sometimes useful to toss pieces of wood into the water to verify speed and direction of flow (in case you go swimming).
Roped Crossings? If untrained on how to use a rope to cross high water, don't! Setting up a roped crossing can be dangerous and highly problematic, especially by those without field experience. If the decision is made to use a rope for high water, have someone wade or swim across carrying a long rope (non-stretch if possible) and rig a Z-pulley system on one bank for tensioning. Rig this “skyline” high above the river. Then rig a lanyard and a sliding carabiner as a hand line for each person. As an alternative, place a loop in the end of a rope being used as a hand line with a belayer taking up slack as the crossing is made. Never tie in directly to a rope during river crossings as it can drag you under. There are documented cases of drowning caused primarily by being tied in.
Decision Making: Consider changing your itinerary if the river is fast flowing, more than knee deep or if your party is not properly equipped. Turn back if the water rises much above your knees and look for another crossing. Be aware that a crossing that is simple at one time of year may be impossible at another.
Monitor Depth Variations: Pitch camp nearby and monitor the depth. Consider crossing snow-fed rivers in the morning if there are snowfields nearby. When crossing rivers further from the source snowfields, the minimum depths could occur in the afternoon or evening.
Talk Through Crossing Techniques: Talk through the techniques you plan to use, especially those detailed in the next section.
Actual Crossing Techniques for Shallower But Fast-Moving Waters
Use Pole(s): Cross rivers and fast moving streams with two trekking poles if you have them, extending them to near maximum length. Find a stout pole if you do not have trekking poles. In swifter and deeper channels, a single long staff that you can hold onto with both hands is usually superior to lightweight poles.
Facing Upstream Technique: The most commonly recommended crossing technique is to face upstream as you cross, but angle your path diagonally downstream. Facing upstream and angling downstream presents the most streamlined profile for less drag and allows for “leaning in” to your poles for balance. Keep your pack over your hips. Do not lift your feet, but shuffle along feeling for the changing bottom contours. Keep at least two points of contact with the bottom at all times (three if using two trekking poles). Move carefully but quickly, as feet can go numb making it difficult to feel the bottom. Facing upstream also provides the best retreat profile if this becomes necessary.
Facing the Opposite Bank Technique: An alternative but recommended technique is to move straight across to the opposite bank with most of the water pressure against your upstream leg. The main argument in favor of this technique is that if you lose your balance, the pole and back leg will form a tripod with your upstream leg to regain balance. You will also be able to move faster if numb feet are a problem.
Group Wading: A safer strategy in swifter currents is using the above techniques, but doing it as a group. Grab the pack straps of the person next to you or link arms.
Wedge Formations: For stronger flowing rivers, consider combining three or more individuals into a wedge formation. Start with the strongest or heaviest individual at the point of the wedge (again with a stout pole out front). Add members behind and to the side forming an inverted “V”. Ideally, those on the outside hold on to the person in front with one hand and their own pole in the other. Those without poles hold on with two hands. As the wedge moves, everyone again faces upstream but crabs across sideways or somewhat downstream to go more with the flow. At the difficult parts, everyone does not move at the same time; some move a step or two while others stand fast.
If You Fall: Do everything you can to remain on your feet; do not assume you can swim safely across. If you fall while crossing a deep and fast moving stream, do not attempt to stand up, but shed your pack (holding onto it with a strap). Roll onto your back with feet pointed downstream. Use a sidestroke to swim to a shallow spot.
I I. TECHNIQUES FOR DEEPER AND SLOW-MOVING WATERS
Sometimes water over thigh-deep can be navigated by slowly walking across or by a walking/bouncing technique (if you are beginning to float off the bottom). Whatever the case, still be prepared to swim.
Preparation For Swimming: Sometimes swimming a slow, deep pool can be the safest option compared to crossing where the water is fast-moving. Make sure most of your equipment is protected by waterproof dry bags or the equivalent and that the bags have some air space for flotation. When swimming with a lighter weight pack, undo the sternum strap (if you have one), but keep the waist belt buckled. With a heavier pack, consider towing it across. Partially inflate an air mattress and pack it tightly inside your pack. Consider tying a belayed rope to the pack in case it has to be let go of while swimming. Try to stash trekking poles somewhere if preparing for a swim.
Combination Dry Bag and Rucksack: When it is known that one or more deep rivers must be crossed, consider obtaining a combination rucksack/dry bag fitted with shoulder and waist straps in lieu of a regular pack.
Rafting: If there is a high probability you will have to swim deeper and slower moving rivers, consider rafting your pack across on an air mattress. If your pack is too heavy and awkward for a mattress, consider towing it across after placing the contents into a waterproof dry bag. If there are several rivers to float or cross, consider obtaining a packraft and reading Roman Dial’s Packrafting! An Introduction and How-To Guide. Packrafts are lightweight, portable boats usually weighing less than five pounds.
Potential Deep Water Crossing Equipment: The following equipment can be quite useful: larger pack with extra volume, dry bags, air mattress, rope, pack raft.
Some Final Thoughts
Knowing how to safely ford a deep and swiftly moving stream or river is an important skill, especially for those who get off the main trails and who travel the backcountry in all seasons. There is no substitute for practical knowledge and experience in the field. Consider starting small and working up to more troublesome crossings as confidence and skills build. Practice different techniques to see what works and what needs refinement. It takes time to develop acute river crossing judgment.
Start by assuming that the river will be deeper, colder and swifter than it appears and the rocks more slippery than expected. Even with the various techniques and strategies clearly in mind, river and stream crossings can still be quite risky. They will force everyone in the group to do on-the-spot risk assessment. This assessment will take into account the experience level of the crossers, the dangers of the crossing and the probable benefits derived from crossing. The most important advice: be conservative in your risk assessment! There are no benefits to a river crossing that are worth having someone drown! Particularly if that someone happens to be you!