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
What techniques are best for more difficult fordings? What equipment is needed for these fordings? How should techniques change when fording streams and rivers of varying degrees of depth and swiftness? What kind of pre-trip planning needs to be done at home regarding crossing 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 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. Fording deep and swiftly moving waters safely requires knowledge and experience with a whole host of strategies and techniques.
Even though it is true that each river or stream crossing is unique and often requires different strategies, it will serve the purpose of this article to divide fordings into three sections:
(1) fording fast-moving but shallower streams
(2) roped fording fast-moving but deeper streams and rivers
(3) fording deeper and slow-moving rivers.
The next several pages detail techniques for these three types of fordings. They are the result of extensive research on this topic. Many are obvious; others are controversial. They are presented with the understanding that knowledgeable hikers and backpackers are ultimately responsible for deciding what will work best in the field. The above three delineations are obviously subjective and open to interpretation in the field, but they can be quite useful. Let’s see if you agree.
I. FORDING FAST MOVING, BUT SHALLOWER STREAMS
Following is a comprehensive synthesis of a number of techniques from a variety of sources for fording swift moving but shallower streams. As a rough guideline, I consider “shallow” as no more than mid-thigh deep. The experienced backcountry traveler will recognize many of these techniques. The name of the game fording swift moving, but shallower streams and rivers is BALANCE—avoid going for a swim at all costs. Maintaining a semblance of balance involves many factors. Here are some important ones:
Footwear: Some fords are ho-hum—wear anything or nothing on your feet. If the crossing looks challenging, use tightly laced footwear that provide good traction (preferably the footwear normally used for hiking with socks and insoles removed). Quick drying trail shoes are ideal. Water socks, camp shoes, flip-flops, etc., are a poor substitute for maintaining balance with a heavier pack, slippery rocks and uneven bottoms. Hiking sandals work well and are worth carrying if you have several streams to cross.
Three Points of Contact: Ideal for these fordings are two trekking poles placed well out in front to provide three points of contact at all times (i.e., moving one pole or one foot but not both at once). As the water pressure increases, start leaning in on your poles a bit to keep pack weight over the hips and to increase downward pressure on the legs. Extend the poles to 130-140 cm if adjustable. Be careful to still use the poles mainly for balance and weight distribution (but not for supporting your body weight). Find a stout pole if you do not have trekking poles. In swifter and deeper channels, a single stout pole that you can hold onto with both hands will usually be superior to lightweight poles.
Slow Shuffle: Start by walking quickly towards your selected exit point to minimize the time in cold water. As the current and depth increase, change to a slow shuffle moving one foot and one pole at a time. Even if your feet start to go numb, maintain your concentration by moving steadily across.
Facing Upstream On Upstream Diagonal: Even though stream geography and water flow will often dictate the route across, generally travel on an upstream diagonal. An upstream diagonal makes it easier to stay visually oriented to your selected route, allows for quicker recovery if you stumble, makes it easier to spot underwater obstacles and holes, and if the water is not transparent, you are able to search for solid footing more effectively with your leading foot (with rear leg braced).
[Research Notes: The direction of travel while crossing challenging streams turns out to be somewhat controversial. While reading many articles and forum posts and watching YouTube videos on this subject, I tallied the number recommending a specific direction of travel. The tally resulted in nearly an even number favoring each direction (upstream, crabbing sideways, downstream). Most recommend facing upstream no matter the direction of travel. One expert, a hydrologist who has spent 28 years walking rivers and measuring river flow for the USGS, recommends fording straight across traveling perpendicular to the flow. Those favoring a go-with-the-flow downstream diagonal were usually more focused on crossing deeper and slower moving rivers where the water was at least crotch level and the feet were not always on the ground.]
Video Demonstration of Basic Principles: Click on the following YouTube video demonstration of the entire sequence of fording swiftly moving wilderness rivers and streams. The video was made by former Outward Bound instructor and mountaineering guide, Jon Epstein. The video demonstrates only one unroped technique and is not intended to be an analysis of advanced fording techniques. Jon’s video is well done, the best I have seen on this subject. For a totally different crossing technique illustrated by TV personality, Bear Gryllis, check out this video: Man vs. Wild: Wild River Crossing.
Group Wading: A common strategy for swifter currents is using the above techniques, but doing it as a group for mutual support with the strongest and heaviest person on point. This technique is especially effective with short and lightweight and inexperienced wilderness travelers. There are several mutual support crossing techniques, but the preferred method is to grab the pack straps of the person in front of you. If one slips, the others can compensate. At difficult parts, everyone does not move at the same time; some move a step or two while others stand fast. Those behind can help hold down those in front. For fast flowing rivers, consider combining three or more individuals into a wedge formation. Start with the strongest and most experienced 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 in the chosen direction of travel. It is strongly recommended that solo hikers not attempt to ford swifter currents unless they can link up with a group.
Experience First: Send the most experienced and confident person across first. If he or she is having problems, then reconsider this ford for the rest of the group. Often an relatively easy fording by an experienced person will give added confidence to the lesser experienced.
Falling Maneuvers: If you fall while crossing a deeper and fast moving stream, do not attempt to stand up, but quickly shed your pack (holding onto it with one of the straps). Roll onto your back with feet pointed downstream. Use a sidestroke to swim to a shallow spot.
In summary, fording even shallower streams and rivers can be a dangerous activity. Alternatives to fording (crossing on logs and rocks, riding horses or pack animals across) should be considered whenever available. If alternatives can’t be found, be conservative in your fording techniques and focus on maintaining balance. Do everything you can to remain on your feet; do not assume you can swim to safety in case you fall.
[More Research Notes: Many sources were consulted in preparing Section I. 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. My synthesis also includes Ray Jardine’s in-depth analysis (Trail Life—Lightweight Backpacking, pages 253-261).]
II. ROPED FORDING OF FAST MOVING AND DEEPER
STREAMS AND RIVERS
What about fording deeper and potentially more dangerous streams and rivers than those which are the focus of Section I? One obvious option is to not tempt fate and find an alternative. For those willing to take their fording skills to a higher level, Brian Wilkins from New Zealand has done an extensive review of the literature and much in-field testing of a technique that involves the following: minimum of three hikers skilled in belaying, two lightweight, floating polypropylene ropes (120-130 feet/40 meters each), a double wrap of webbing for each hiker (12-14 feet/4 meters each), some locking carabiners and a stout stick.
A summary of Brian Wilkins’s research and techniques can be found in the Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand Bulletin. Scroll to the bottom of the page to find the “Bulletin Archives” section. Then click on the link to the “November 2011 Bulletin”. The pertinent article, “Fording For Everyone”, can be found on pages 30-33 of this Bulletin. As implied by the title of his article, Brian strongly believes that training in his techniques should be afforded to all who travel in the backcountry where fords are possible. He further believes that traditional non-roped fording techniques should be relegated to the historical records.
A link to Brian’s in-depth article (“Wading Backcountry Water”), summarizing his research and his discussing his recommended fording techniques, can also be found in the Federated Mountain Clubs of New Zealand Bulletin. Scroll to the bottom of the page (just above the “Bulletin Archive” section) and find the sub-heading “FMC Supports River Fording Research”. In that section is a brief introduction and a link to his full report. I recommend that you read his full report. For the specifics of his roped fording techniques go to pages 25-28 (starting with "A refinement of existing fording methods"). I fully recommend Brian’s roped fording techniques as long as there are members of the fording group practiced in using them.
III. FORDING DEEP AND SLOW-MOVING RIVERS
When fording deep, but slow moving rivers, be prepared to swim. For an in-depth discussion of swimming across rivers, consult Colin Fletcher’s The Complete Walker (pages 690-696 in the 4th Edition).
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 more than a lightweight pack, consider towing it across. Partially inflate an air mattress (or blowup pillow) and pack it tightly inside your pack. In a group, consider tying a belaying rope to the pack in case it has to be let go while swimming. Stashing collapsible trekking poles 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. Oversize the pack to allow extra room for air pockets.
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 five pounds or less.
Potential Deep Water Fording Equipment: The following equipment can be quite useful: larger pack with extra volume, dry bags, air mattress, polypropylene rope, pack raft, collapsible trekking poles.
Pre-Fording Streamside Preparation
Conservative Starting Assumption: Start by assuming that the stream or river will be deeper, colder and swifter than it appears and the rocks more slippery than expected.
Selecting a Fording 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 a designated ford is not good because it might have been designated suitable for summertime, low-water conditions. Check downstream for rapids and waterfalls. Especially avoid downstream “strainers” (downed trees and snags in the river). Cross above large boulders (eddies downstream of boulders tend to develop holes). Avoid narrow single log crossings if possible.
Ready Equipment: Waterproof critical gear with multiple plastic bags or special “dry bags.” Wear shorts or take off pants to decrease drag. Wear a hat and shell clothing on upper body (but bulky insulation) to conserve as much heat as possible for longer than expected crossings. Swap out boots for rough- and stiff-soled fording shoes (boots are difficult to swim in if you are swept off your feet). If you don't have good fording shoes, remove socks and wear your regular boots or trail shoes for the crossing. Do whatever you can to protect your feet from rough bottoms and to maintain balance. Put minimum emergency gear (e.g. knife, fire starting, whistle) 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 hip 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 of your hip belt for a quick exit is recommended. Ideal for fording is a lightweight, low profile pack without a hip belt.
Group Spotters on Banks: If in a group of any size, position spotters with long sticks or poles below the crossing point.
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).
Monitor Depth Variations: River and stream depths can vary considerably, from hour-to-hour and season-to-season. A crossing that is simple at one time of year may be impossible at another. Consider pitching camp nearby and monitoring the depth. Consider fording snow-fed rivers in the morning, if the snowfields are nearby. When crossing streams further from the source snowfields, the minimum depths could occur in mid-afternoon or evening.
Decision Making: Consider changing your itinerary if the river is fast flowing, more than knee deep or if your party is not properly equipped. Send the strongest and heaviest person across to scout out the feasibility of the selected fording. Look for another crossing point if the water rises much above your knees.
Things to consider before the trip begins:
Some Issues for Reflection
1. Do most “experts” and experienced backcountry travelers tend to underestimate the dangers of fording? What are the best educational tools to overcome this tendency (assuming some truth to it)?
2. Does this current article contribute to a tendency to underestimate the dangers of fording? Or is it detailed enough to encourage backcountry travelers to think more seriously about their fording techniques?
3. Is breaking this article down into three types of fording useful? Would another breakdown be more effective? Would it be more responsible to treat all crossings as problematic and emphasize only one basic technique (e.g., roped crossings as discussed in Part II of this article)?
4. What is the best use of ropes when fording difficult streams and rivers? What roped-crossing techniques have led to the most problems? What roped crossing techniques are favored by the “experts”? Does the use of ropes, no matter the technique, tend to result in overconfidence in one’s ability to ford difficult crossings?
5. How helpful is backcountry river accident and drowning research? Is it possible to generalize from it to a broad range of backcountry travelers? Does this research give support to some techniques over others?
6. What is the best direction of travel while crossing deeper, more challenging streams (upstream, downstream, crabbing sideways or straight across perpendicular to the flow)?
7. What is the best grouped (close contact, mutual support) fording technique? Or should individuals usually cross one at a time (unless an inexperienced hiker is freaking out?)?
8. What about relying on extended trekking poles for difficult crossings? Or is a stout stick or pole much safer (assuming one can be found)?
9. Does the rise of the internet and social media use greatly increase the knowledge base regarding difficult backcountry river crossings? Are serious hikers more likely to research and rely on the experience of others?
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 those 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 fordings 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.
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 should 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 fording that are worth having someone drown! Particularly if that someone happens to be you!
Legal Disclaimer: Nothing in this website article on fording can substitute for experience, careful planning, the right equipment, and appropriate training. There is inherent danger hiking and backpacking and readers must assume full responsibility for their own actions and safety. The Author will not be responsible for the safety of those who visit this site.