by Diane Spicer
If you haven't needed water crossing safety tips yet on your hiking adventures, you will.
The day will come when you're faced with a fateful decision:
The sentence that always come into my mind when I'm faced with these scenarios:
"Is this crossing worth the risk?"
Here are some water crossing safety tips in advance, so you'll have the knowledge you need to make a smart decision when that sentence pops into your head.
Before you read the safety tips for how to ford a river or safely cross a fast moving creek, think about why you need to do this.
To get the other side, right?
But the question is a bit more basic:
Why are you on a trail that requires you
to cross moving water on foot?
If you deliberately chose the trail and are comfortable with how to ford rivers, no problem.
If you're in the backcountry, of course there will be no bridges.
But if you're unprepared, and in fact surprised by the necessity of a river crossing, what's that about?
What went wrong?
This is not to shame or blame you, just to get you thinking about how important it is to consult current maps and cross reference them with up to date information available on line.
"I was over prepared", said no hiker, ever.
Now on to the safety tips.
If the trail you're on dumps you unceremoniously at water's edge, and you can see the trail resume on the other side of the water crossing, you're in better shape than if you have to scout for a place to ford a river.
Because if you can see the trail on the other side, you can also see how deep the water is, how fast it's moving, and what the bottom might be like: rocks, logs, deep holes, etc.
But don't automatically assume this is your crossing point.
So the first safety tip involves assessing your situation and deciding on a course of action.
Solo hikers need to approach water crossings differently than a duo, or a group of hikers, so be sure to read the safety tips for fording moving water for solo -vs- group hikers.
To assess how deep and fast the water is, find a rock and chuck it into the water. Listen: a deep "plop" means deep water.
If you can see the bottom, did the rock disappear quickly downstream? Fast water!
Can't see the bottom due to muddy or milky (glacial till) water?
Also listen for the sound of rocks rolling against each other in the water. Those rocks will roll against your ankles, knocking you off balance or trapping your feet.
Also use your eyes to scout what's on the far bank.
Another thing to scout:
Are there any side trails branching from the main trail, indicating a safer crossing that other hikers have used successfully?
Here's the second most important safety tip:
Don't let your brain talk your body into an unsafe water crossing.
Be rational, be focused, be smart:
Scout the river or creek bank and find the widest (most shallow) or slowest spot to cross.
Whatever is on the other side of that fast water will be there next time, or when you return in a season with low water levels.
If you're faced with a wide water crossing that involves logs or rocks or branches which seem like they could be used to help you across, know these important facts before you risk yourself:
In other words, don't assume that these natural objects are on your side.
A few water crossing safety tips for this situation:
If you aren't using trekking poles, get yourself a sturdy stick you can use for balance as you cross.
If you do have poles, be sure they are locked and ready to support your body weight in case you lose your balance.
Scout the downstream area as much as possible, to choose a spot you will head to in case you fall in.
Be prepared to fall into the water: backpack hip belt unbuckled, loose shoulder straps, a relaxed body posture as you slip.
If you decide to attempt the crossing, here's the fourth tip:
Leave your boots on.
You need the traction, protection, and the extra weight created by water filled boots.
I use two different styles of water shoes, depending upon the type of water crossing I anticipate from my map due diligence and trail reports.
And the humble Croc, so lightweight and durable!
Clothing is an important factor in a safe crossing.
Take off your pants, unless they're really lightweight and fast drying, or you have multiple stream crossings to make.
You could roll up your pant legs to keep them out of the water.
Or plan your hiking clothing around your water crossings:
Unbuckle your pack, but leave it in place.
Be prepared to use the swift current to your advantage if you lose your footing:
Now on to some specific water crossing safety tips for solo-ers and groups.
As a solo hiker, you have your two feet against the water's current.
Not exactly true, if you have trekking poles or a walking stick available, and that's a good thing.
In fact, a thick stick is preferable to skinny poles, because the chance of getting it lodged between rocks or submerged logs is less with a wider stick.
If the water is above your knees, think twice about attempting this water crossing by yourself.
Go back to first principles: water crossing safety tips are useless if the water overwhelms you.
Taller hikers might get away with crossing short segments of thigh deep water, but any solo hiker should think long and hard about attempting to cross water that is waist deep or deeper.
It might make sense to sit down and wait for another hiker or three to come along. Crossing together gives you a margin of safety.
You might have to be stern with yourself when thoughts about "losing time" and "burning daylight" kick in. Your safety comes first.
Also think about how to warm yourself back up if you fall into the water.
Or if the water is so swift and deep that you're pretty much soaked by the time you get to the other side.
Things to ponder:
Safety in numbers, just like a herd of wildebeests, right?
Put that safety factor into play this way:
If there are two or three hikers in a group, decide who is the strongest/biggest person.
Put that hiker into the water, facing upstream with feet planted on the bottom and a stout stick in hand.
The tripod hiker is also breaking the current, creating a pocket (eddy) where the water is flowing less strongly for the hikers coming along behind.
As the other hikers step into the water, they hold the hip belt of the hiker in front of them, creating a chain of people who are in the less swift eddy created by Hiker #1.
A side shuffle ensues, until everyone is across.
Note that this method depends on a sturdy tripod person, right?
For larger groups, there's an even more reliable way to ford a river.
Begin with the strongest hiker in the tripod position.
All other hikers get into the water behind her, and face the opposite bank, locking arms or each using their own heavy stick or pole.
Everyone except the side shuffling tripod hiker walks straight ahead in unison, creating an eddy effect which greatly benefits the smaller/weaker hikers downstream.
To finish up our water crossing safety tips, read this detailed information from Washington Trails Association on how to ford a river.
Can you see that I'm trying to get you not only proficient, but confident about crossing moving water on a hike?
I speak from experience when I say that practicing how to cross water before you really need to is the only way to go as a hiker.
In the heat of the moment, you're prone to making mistakes.
So re-read all of these water crossing safety tips, and then take any opportunity to cross moving water when the stakes are low:
C'mon! It'll be fun to find a slow moving, shallow stream or river and practice safe water crossings on a hot summer day.
There are multiple ways to safely cross a river or stream, so try all of the water crossing safety tips you just learned.
And pay it forward by teaching the next generation of hikers your water crossing safety tips!
If you're interested in what I wear when fording a stream or river, take a look at these links.
I recommend only what I wear, so purchasing through these links results in no extra cost to you while earning Hiking For Her a small commission to keep the best hiking tips freely (in every sense of the word) flowing :)
Water Crossing Safety Tips
About the author
Diane is the founder of Hiking For Her.
She's been on a hiking trail somewhere in the world for 5+ decades & loves to share her best hiking tips right here.
All rights reserved.
Photo credits: All photos on this website were taken by David Midkiff or Diane Spicer except where noted.
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