Knowing where and how to cross a fast flowing river is one of the most important backcountry skills that a hiker can acquire. Let’s break the process down into four steps:
- Where to cross?
- Preparation for Crossing.
- Techniques for Crossing
- What to do in a worst case scenario.
Where to Cross?
Far too often people rush into the water without giving much thought to what they are doing. Often the ideal place to cross is not where the trail meets the river. Take time to assess your options.
What to look for?
- Swiftness & Depth: If the river is fast flowing and above knee depth then it is potentially dangerous. If it is above thigh height and moving quickly, it may be a good idea to rethink your crossing and either look elsewhere or make camp and try again the following day. Note that in glacial areas, it is usually easier to cross rivers early in the morning, as progressively warmer temperatures will mean that water levels rise throughout the day.
- Width: Generally speaking, look for a spot that is wide and shallow/braided, with feasible points at which to both enter and exit the water (i.e. avoid high banks). Avoid crossing at narrow or “chokepoints” where the current will be strongest.
- Run-out: If the crossing is a difficult one, investigate where the river is heading in case of a fall. Avoid crossing anywhere that the run-out leads to dangerous rapids or waterfalls.
- Character of Riverbed: Riverbeds are uneven. Before crossing assess the riverbed for potential snags and holes. If the water is surging, murky and full of large debris, then either bide your time or look for an alternative crossing.
- Patience: Once the river has been scoped for potential crossing points, if you and/or your group are still having serious doubts as to the feasibility of a ford, it is usually wiser to be patient, set up camp and wait until conditions improve. Water levels can drop as dramatically as they rise.
Preparation for Crossing
- Protection: In addition to your backpack liner (e.g. a large plastic bag with which you line the inside your pack), it is a good idea to have all of your electronics and any other valuables safely stored inside smaller sealable plastic or “dry” bags. Before crossing, tie off your pack liner with a knot or thick rubber band; if sealed correctly, the trapped air will act as a buoyancy aid in case of a worst case scenario (see below).
- Loosen Up: Loosen your hip belt, shoulder and sternum strap and hip belt. Not too much, as this could add to instability. If a fall occurs, you need to be able to either quickly release your pack or hold it against your chest for buoyancy purposes. The one place you do not want it is against your back, where it will act as a weight in dragging you down.
- Keep Your Shoes On: If the crossing is a difficult one, keep your shoes on. Wet feet are a small price to pay for the added protection, traction and stability that shoes/boots can offer.
Technique for Crossing
Tripod or Quadpod Method
An extra “leg” or two in the form of hiking poles or long, sturdy sticks, can be of great assistance in aiding balance and stability during a difficult river crossing. For ease of reference, the following bullet points refer to the Tripod method (one pole), however, the same technique applies to the Quadpod version (two poles) as well:
- Enter the water facing upstream. Use your pole for stability. Grip it with both hands.
- Bend at the knees and lean slightly forward into the oncoming water. Your pole/stick is directly in front of you. Think of a sumo wrestler trying to keep their centre of gravity as low as possible. The goal is the same – not to be pushed backwards.
- In your tripod/bent knee stance, proceed to slowly shuffle across the river. Make things easier by crossing at a slight angle heading downstream (whilst still facing upstream) rather than straight across, as this will mean you are moving with the current rather than fighting against it.
- Test each foothold for stability as you go. The stick/pole will act as a depth tester and stabilizer. Shuffle steadily, but don’t rush; this particularly holds true if you are making your way over slippery rocks.
Fording in a Group
If the crossing is difficult and you are hiking in a group, there are multiple options available including:
- Each member can cross solo (see above), with others from the party taking turns at positioning themselves downstream so that in case of a fall, they are better able to offer immediate assistance in the form of a rope, hiking pole or long, sturdy stick.
- The group crosses together using the Mutual Support Method, with members holding on to one another’s shoulder straps or waist belts for support. The party enters the water in a line angling slightly downstream, with the strongest/heaviest member anchoring the group at the upstream end.
Worst Case Scenario
In the event that you fall and are swept away by the current:
Regain your composure
After the shock of falling, your primary concern should be reaching the safety of shore. There will be plenty of time to worry about whether or not your stuff is still dry once you are out of the water.
If the current is extremely swift and reaching shore isn’t an immediate option, position yourself so that you are floating on your back with your feet facing downstream. If collisions with river obstacles occur, better your feet than your head taking the brunt of the impact.
Backpack – Hold or Release?
There are two schools of thought in regards to whether or not you should hold onto your pack:
- The first is in favour of keeping your pack, as the trapped airspace inside of the sealed bags will help to give you buoyancy. Sort of like a makeshift lifejacket. The negative associated with this strategy is that it only leaves you with one arm to swim, thus making it more difficult to reach shore.
- The second school of thought maintains that you should release your pack, thereby making it easier to actively swim to the shore at the first feasible opportunity. The disadvantage to this method is that depending on the character of the river and terrain, you may not be able to retrieve your pack, which subsequently could prove vital to your chances of survival.
My Choice? I will always keep hold of my pack unless I’m in imminent danger of being swept down treacherous rapids or over a waterfall. In such an unlikely scenario (see Run-Out in Where to Cross?), my best chance of reaching shore may lie in swimming with both arms.
Once you have reached the safety of shore your priority is to get warm and dry. Do some pushups and jumping jacks if necessary. If you still have your pack, slip into any extra clothes you may be carrying.
If your pack has been jettisoned………….good luck searching! If you are solo and your search proves fruitless, depending on the prevailing conditions and how far away you are from civilization, you may need to build a fire in order to warm yourself and dry the clothes you are wearing.
Note, this may not be such an easy task if your lighter and/or matches were stored in your pack. If you are part of a group, now would be a good time to beg and borrow from your hiking buddies!