Water Crossings – It’s About the Risk
Have you ever crossed a rushing stream or creek? I’ve read many a tale from hikers crossing rain-swollen streams up to their chests in the 100 Mile Wilderness in Maine. Obviously, they survived to tell about it but was it worth the risk? This could be a very short blog and I could say – use common sense. If you hike in the backcountry long enough, water crossings are inevitable. Most of the time, it will be safe to cross to the trail on the other side. Sometimes, the choice could be the difference between life or death.
I’ve crossed streams, creeks, and rivers and have never been swept away. Crossed frozen creeks and have never fallen through. But, what would you do if you got swept under, fell off the log or broke through the ice? Here are some ideas.
– Assess water hazards. Most well-established trails cross water at a location that is fairly safe. However, rainstorms and snowmelt can turn any crossing into a treacherous ordeal. Never cross:
1. In front of or immediately after a waterfall. Only a Darwin Award contender would do this.
2. Where there is debris, logs, branches that you could get entangled in. The water pressure can force you under the debris.
3. Rapid water above your thighs or waist. Even if it is below your knees, fast-moving water can trip you up. Assess the risk and look for a safer location.
4. Where there is a sharp bend in the creek or river. The water speed varies greatly here and it may be hard to climb out.
5. Where the bank is steep. You may not be able to climb out.
– Night crossings are not recommended unless you are familiar with the crossing and the water is very shallow. Do you know if there is a waterfall or some other water hazard downstream?
– Remove your socks and boots, strap them to your pack. I tie the socks in a knot. I carry a carabiner, tie my shoes in a knot and clip them in.
– If you have trekking poles, extend them to where the handles are above your waist to account for holes in the creek bed.
– Loosen the various harnesses on your pack. Unbuckle the sternum and waist straps. This allows for a way to shed the pack if it pulls you under. Often, the weight of the pack will pull you head first going downstream which is bad.
– Ziploc or waterproof bags should have been on your supply list. Put all electronics in those and stow in your backpack lid or high up in your pack. Depending on the depth of the water, might be a good idea to move your sleeping bag and strap it to the top. Same with your food supplies.
– If you have two or more people, face upstream and link arms. As an alternative, you can face upstream and form a conga line with the strongest person in the front. Hold on to the person’s waist in front of you. Shuffle feet sideways as you cross.
– If you perform the crossing alone or one at a time, use your hiking poles and face upstream. Always have three points in contact with the bottom. Shuffle or take small side-steps. Some crossings have rope or guy lines. If you feel comfortable with those, grab on and shuffle across.
– If hiking in a group, there may be someone who has a fear of being pulled under. Offer to make an extra trip and carry their pack. The extra weight of a pack while crossing a log or in the water unnerves some people. You can also tie a rope to their waist in case they trip or fall in.
– Cold water. Find a shallow spot. Icy cold water can cause you to lose feeling in your feet and legs and possibly cause debilitating muscle cramps. Cross as quickly as possible. Use a safety line if you are with someone.
– River shoes or water shoes with a thick rubber sole. Some people use waterproof sandals or clogs. Most waterproof hiking boots still allow water in over the top. If your hiking shoes get wet, you are just inviting blisters.
– Trekking or hiking poles provide you with additional stability. Put your hands through the straps in case you drop it.
– If you have convertible hiking pants, unzip the legs and stow them in your pack. If you are wearing cotton, you might want to cross in your tighty-whities or swimming trunks. It’s not great to hike in wet clothes.
– Carabiners, rope or paracord to tie loose items or as a safety line.
These work great and are lightweight: Black Diamond Neutrino Carabiner – gray, one size and strong paracord – Military 550 Paracord from Our School Spirit – Made in the USA (Black)
– Waterproof gear bags, bear canisters for food and ziploc baggies.
What to do if you fall in:
– In rushing water: If you followed the previous instructions about unbuckling the backpack harnesses before crossing, and it begins to drag you under, roll out of your pack and point your feet downstream to protect your head from rocks and debris. Try to navigate to the creek or river bank and grab on to overhead branches or anything along the bank.
– Once you crawl out of the water, assess your situation. If it is daylight, look for your pack downstream. You may see it washed up on some rocks or caught up in a tree root. Be careful when pulling it out., it would suck to fall back in. If a friend has a carabiner and rope, someone can attach it and pull it out.
– Falling through the ice: If your pack pulls you under, roll out of it. Frog kick and try to propel yourself onto the ice. If you are with someone and still have your hiking poles, extend one so they can pull you out. A rope and a branch can come in handy here too. Once out on the ice, spread your body out to increase the surface area and crawl toward the bank. Don’t stand up until you are at the bank. If you have a change of clothes, it would be a good idea to get some dry ones. Hypothermia is the real enemy now.
Do you have any tips for water crossing based on your experience or something you’ve read? Please share them with us in the comments section.
A great guide for backpackers: The Backpacker’s Field Manual, Revised and Updated: A Comprehensive Guide to Mastering Backcountry Skills
I like this guide in paperback form, but is also available in Kindle format.
Lastly, a true story and lesson learned from one of my crossings: Hiking on a southern California beach with my wife, we crossed a 10 foot inlet where the Pacific fed a lagoon. Up to our shins, it was easy. On the return leg 4 hours later, the inlet was 60 ft. wide and ultimately up to our shoulders as the tide rushed in to the lagoon. We made it, but it was scary. The salt water also caused a chemical reaction with my magnesium fire stick and almost caught my pack on fire. Whew!
Good, affordable trekking poles: Kelty Upslope 2.0 Trekking Poles, Ano Blue
Disclaimer: The information in this blog is for informational use only. There is no guarantee that following the recommendations will protect you from harm. Use common sense when hiking. Most seasoned hikers are not competing for the Darwin Award.