How to Cross a River While Hiking

Photo credit: Gideon Haden ChomphosyMany of the trails in our area require hikers to cross streams or rivers. Typically, these crossings aren’t very deep or dangerous. Depending on the river and how much precipitation we’ve had, however, fording a river can be treacherous. Even shallow river crossings can be risky.

Good judgement and common sense are definitely essential in getting to the other side safely, but it also helps to have some tips handy. Here’s how to cross a river while hiking.

It’s important that you don’t just beeline for the other bank. Take a look around, and find the best place to cross. This could mean walking up stream a ways… And then downstream… And then finally going back to where you started in the first place. That’s OK. Putting a little time and effort into finding the best place to cross a river is worth reducing the chances of falling in or getting swept away.

Things to look for when crossing a river:

  • slow current
  • shallow water
  • short distance between banks
  • easy approach

Test the current. You can get a sense of how strong a current is by planting a stick or trekking pole in the river. This will help you gauge whether the water is too fast to cross safely, or if you can attempt to cross. It’s important to realize that there are different currents in a river, and they can be moving at different speeds. The water at your feet will be slower than the water by your knees, which could cause you to lose your balance. Be aware of this.

Typically, you want to look for the most shallow spot of the river. This will usually be the shortest distance across as well. These are clear advantages for obvious reasons.

You want your approach to be as favorable as possible. In many cases you can find a way to cross a river without getting your feet wet at all. There may be stones to hop across or a secure log that spans the river. It’s important to always check your path before crossing a river, however.

Test and examine rocks and logs before stepping on them. Stones that appear stable could be delicately balancing on other rocks, and even stones that look big and sturdy can move if jostled. Treat all rocks and logs as though they could be slick, because they may very well be. River currents polish stones and moss, water, and algae can make rocks and logs incredibly slick.

Important tips for crossing a river.

  • If you’re unable to avoid stepping in water while crossing a river, remove socks and shoes before crossing. Hiking in wet socks or shoes can be uncomfortable and cause blisters. Wet skin is softer and less tough than dry skin, making your feet more susceptible to blisters. Bring river shoes or sandals that fasten securely to protect your feet from sharp and slippery rocks.
  • Trekking poles are great for crossing rivers. You have more balance and support with three points of contact, and trekking poles will help solidify your base. A hiking stick can be useful as well.
  • Consider unbuckling your pack. This only really applies to those Hollywood-type river crossings where you’re straddling a massive tree that spans 30 feet above Class V rapids, and you need to quickly remove your pack to avoid plunging to your death. This can, of course, apply to lesser scenarios too, but for modest river crossings, leave your pack buckled. You want your pack secure so that you know where the weight is distributed. A sudden shift in weight, like the ones that can happen if you pack is unbuckled – can throw off your balance, causing you to fall.
  • Put electronics, food, fire starters, clothing, etc. in a dry bag or waterproof compartment in your pack. This will keep your gear in working condition in the event that you or your pack fall into the river.
  • For especially treacherous river crossings, consider turning back. Sometimes it’s just no worth the risk. If you don’t feel comfortable, or you feel as though fording is too risky, don’t cross. If that simply isn’t an option, hike up stream until you find a more suitable place to cross.

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