Crossing Streams and Other Bodies of Water
So, this is the real McCoy. My previous blog was written for fun during my furlough.
If you hike long enough in the backcountry, you will inevitably have to do a water crossing. It may be on a log, stepping on rocks, or fording through it. Over the past several years, I have done quite a few crossings and learned a lot along the way.
Honestly, I didn’t know much about the topic beforehand so I researched the Internet, read about it in my backpacking field guide and various articles in Backpacker magazine. I’ll share my experience crossing various bodies of water including an ocean inlet, streams, creeks, brooks and rivers. By no means am I an authority on water crossings – it’s mostly common sense. If crossing over or through water intimidates you, you are not alone – it’s very common. With a little planning and will power, you can conquer this.
My first real water crossings were on the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine. This remote part of the Appalachian Trail has plenty of water. There were two of us and we used the buddy system on some crossings.
Methods for crossing (Fording the body of water)
Always – Put on your water shoes, roll up your pants. Loosen your backpack straps and unbuckle the sternum and waist strap. This may help if you slip. A pack can pull you under.
Solo – Facing upstream, use hiking poles. side step and try to keep three points in contact with the bottom at all times.
Two or more – Couple of methods here. You can face upstream, lock arms and side step your way across. You can also form a single file and face upstream. The person in the front forms a barrier. Place the weakest at the back of the line where there is less resistance to the current.
Swollen, fast current. This is a judgement call. My general rule is if the current is fast, I don’t usually cross if it’s higher than my waist. It’s difficult to keep your footing in a strong current with a slippery bottom.
Obstacles. Never cross upstream close to logs, tangles or debris in the water. If you slip, you may end up getting sucked under the obstacle.
Rapids, bends, waterfalls. Avoid crossing near these if possible. Water flows faster in curves and bends. Rapids are full of hidden hazards. Slip near a waterfall and well, you know…
Temperature. A cold mountain stream will numb your legs and feet within a couple of minutes. It can be shocking and cause you to panic. Move as quickly as possible to avoid cramps.
Some thoughts here. Did you know in Maine (other parts of New England as well) a brook is what most of us would call a stream or creek? A stream can be a large creek or what many out west would call a river.
Crossing over on a log
This is challenging if you are afraid of heights. The sound of rushing water just adds to the fear factor. I find it easiest to hold my poles out like a tightrope walker as it provides a bit more balance. One foot in front of the other and keep moving. If you are with others, it may help to carry the pack of the person who is struggling. That 30-40 lb pack lets you know that it’s there. Unbuckle the waist and sternum, loosen the shoulder straps. If you do fall, roll out of the pack to avoid getting pulled under.
Crossing on rocks, boulders
Choose your stones wisely. Most rock crossings are on shallow streams and creeks. I often use my poles for more stability and have slipped off many rocks. Your best tool here is a pair of hiking shoes with sticky soles like the Camp Four 5-10’s. Avoid moss-covered ones and test to see if the rocks are wobbly. Boulder hopping with a full pack is tricky. Lean to far and you’re going in. Believe me, I know.
While I’ve done a few, it’s a bit sketchy. Always use a headlamp and test the water depth with your hiking poles.
Equipment: You really don’t need much, but here are some ideas.
Water shoes – A good pair of waterproof shoes provides traction and forms a barrier between your feet and a rocky bottom. Hiking shoes with good soles for rock hopping.
Trekking poles – Gives you that third or fourth leg for added stability. Also can be used to pull you out if you fall.
Paracord – If you need to fasten it to your buddy, it can provide some assurance.
Extra socks – It’s no fun to hike in wet socks.
My hardest water crossing was an unplanned one. On a beach hike, my wife and I crossed a tidal inlet to a lagoon at low tide. On our return, the tide was rushing in and the 10 foot crossing at 1 foot deep became a 50 ft. wide crossing up to our shoulders. We put our daypacks above our heads, locked arms and barely made it across. Before and during the crossing, I briefed her what to do if we lost our footing. Fortunately, the current was coming into the lagoon. If the current had been going out, I doubt we would have risked it.
We’ve run across many solo hikers in the backcountry where there are an abundance of water crossings. It’s all the more important to understand the hazards when you are alone. Find the safest place to cross and never cross at night when you’re alone, it’s just not worth it.
Some final thoughts. Hike long enough and you will have to cross water. With the proper gear and techniques, it’s just mind over matter.