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.
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.
First half slideshow of our hike:
The continuing story of our northbound JMT section hike…..
By day 3, we all had our trail legs. You know what I mean, the steadiness that you get after a few days of stepping on, around and over stuff. Backpacks have a way of changing your center of gravity. Bend over a bit too far to smell those lupines and you’ll see how blue they really are. The night at Thousand Island Lake was amazing. The sound of the distant snow-fed waterfall created a peaceful nights’ rest.
At Thousand Island, it was a bit difficult to find a private place to do your business. Sorry for bringing it up, but it’s just one of those things that you have to do. One could write an entire blog about it, but I’ll spare you the details. Let’s just say that sometimes you have to venture out to find that secluded spot and hope that the nearest trail is out of view. It is arguably one of the most challenging yet natural chores in the backcountry. Mosquitoes present a significant challenge with this, so you may need to apply some repellant where the “sun don’t shine”. The cathole shovel, tp and antiseptic wipes are essential gear. However, in a pinch so are a stick, leaves and some handfuls of dirt. Let’s leave it at that.
We admired the view from our campsite and did the usual tasks. Filtering water, making breakfast, tearing down camp and repacking those packs. The last task was usually the biggest pain. Packing around those bear canisters is like emptying a sardine can and then stuffing them back in. The climb out of Thousand Island Lake was steady and hot. The views over our shoulders of Banner Peak were ever-changing and dramatic. As we rounded a ledge, a fat marmot sat perched on a rock and it looked like a good place to stop. This is their territory and the scat is enough to prove it. Pausing occasionally to catch our breath, we would hunch over to shift the weight of the pack and lean on our poles. It was a funny sight for sure. Island Pass was like something out of a movie. Little archipelagos of grass seemingly floated around us. Birds were abundant here as were so many varieties of flowers. This area made me regret that we had to cover 10 miles today.
We descended into an area near Wough Lake and heard rumblings of thunderstorms. The skies to the north were menacing and I kept an eye on the direction it was moving. We discussed what our plan would be for inclement weather, especially if caught out in the open. Things like avoiding meadows, tall trees and shallow caves if lightning is nearby. Lightning is a strange and dangerous occurrence and you should have a plan whether you are alone or hiking in a group. In a group, it’s a good idea to spread out so a stray bolt doesn’t take everyone out. If possible, find a clump of medium-sized trees for shelter. The tallest and shortest trees are not advisable. The position for protection is simple. Sit on your backpack or sleeping pad with your two feet touching the ground or pad. Don’t lay or stand up if possible. If in a tent, do the same and don’t touch your tent frame. Enough of the morbidity, you can do some research on hiking and lightning. It is “enlightening”.
We would cross several streams over single logs perched 6-8 feet above rushing streams and creeks. It requires a sense of balance with a pack and if you are unsteady should consider having a mate take your pack across for you. Something about a skinny log, sights and sounds of roaring water can unnerve almost anyone.
We passed through a canyon and ran into a large group from Tennessee. They proceeded to tell us how they were pummeled by hail and rain for 1 1/2 hours. I must say, God protected our little group because we avoided bad weather all week. Either way, be prepared. We started the steady climb up Donahue Pass and a 80% cloud cover made it much more comfortable as we were totally exposed. The trail is well-defined and there are plenty of boulders to take breaks on. We ran across a couple of SoBo’s (southbounders) who provided upcoming trail conditions. We did the same. It’s very common to briefly stop and chat to discuss weather, trail conditions and experiences. People who are out here most often share our appreciation for the outdoors and generally are friendly with good attitudes. While I still scratch my head when we come across solo female hikers, they are safer out here than in their urban neighborhoods.
We would also run across a PCT thru-hiker who was disappointed that he wasn’t going to be able to walk 30 miles today. Man, I thought we were doing good at 10 miles per day.
Reaching the Pass, we would tread across the last remnants of snow fields and cross into Yosemite territory.
The trail becomes a bit hard to follow on the north side of Donahue as you cross more snow. Some cairns indicated the general direction.
We quickly descended into the beginnings of Lyell Canyon. The landscape, ever-changing was devoid of all but the hardiest of vegetation. The hiking poles made the descent easier as we snaked our way down. Forty five minutes later, we reached a wide creek and realized that we would have to ford it. Two hundred feet downstream was a waterfall and cascade, so no crossing there. We put on our water shoes and stepped in the cold creek that would become the Lyell Fork of the Tuolumne. Here, underneath the snow of Donahue Pass, the water was a chili 40-45 degrees.
I crossed without incident, my wife mentioned that her feet were getting numb within 30-45 seconds. When fording water, it’s best to unbuckle your pack in case you fall since it can absorb water and drag you under. It took a bit to warm up from the creek as I imagined what it would have been like if there had been a heavy snow year.
We would cross countless tributaries to this creek as we ventured further in the valley. Some streams were cutting across the trail on a ledge that was five feet wide. Rock hopping was common and we definitely got better at it. We would also cross the creek twice more before finding a campsite. At the last crossing, we did it in our hiking shoes. My shoes, while excellent on the trail, were not waterproof.
We made camp around 100 ft. from the water in a beautiful stand of pines within earshot of the cascades. The sun was setting quickly as we ended a tough day on the trail. Dinner was spicy beef stew. We slept like hibernating bears. Tomorrow, July 3rd would be a race to Tuolumne Post Office to retrieve our supplies.