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How to Navigate Water Crossings: Fording Rivers, Streams and Creeks Safely

Crossing streams, rivers or creeks can seem intimidating, but these tips will help make your next crossing a safe and enjoyable one.

Crossing streams, rivers or creeks can seem intimidating, but these tips will help make your next crossing a safe and enjoyable one.

The Basics

Water is powerful, even in seemingly calmer sections, so always exercise caution when in and around water sources. Here are a few key points to remember when hiking or backpacking:

  • Always unhook backpack straps before getting near a water source. That way if you fall into the water, your pack won't weigh you down.
  • Cross in calmer sections of current, even if that means hiking up or downstream to find a better crossing.
  • Avoid water that is higher than your knees. Deep water makes it easier to lose your balance or be swept off your feet. 
  • Logs, rocks and other materials near water can be slick. Check the condition of the surface you're planning to cross on before taking a leap of faith. Rocks with craggier surfaces may be less slick than flat rocks. 
  • Test the stability of rocks or logs before moving. Using a hiking pole or a single foot will help you determine if your next step will be stable. 
  • When crossing, face upstream to pinpoint where faster currents are flowing. 
  • Avoid injury by wearing footwear when crossing. Carry water shoes on backpacking trips when you know water crossings are inevitable. 
  • Never cross above a waterfall or a logjam. 

The power of poles

Hiking poles are extremely helpful when navigating water crossings. They allow you to have three points of contact in the water at all times, which means you can have one foot lifted while both poles are planted to maintain stability. Without poles, you leave yourself vulnerable to being knocked down by stronger currents when you lift your foot to move forward. 

Poles are also great for probing the water and seeing what the current is like. If you feel a lot of resistance against your pole, it's likely your legs will feel it even more. Use your poles to help find the slowest moving and shallowest sections of water to cross.

Choosing footwear

What hiking boots or shoes you wear is a very personal choice, but water crossings should always be attempted while wearing stable footwear. Not only will the tread help you cross on wet surfaces, but the protection the footwear offers will help you avoid jammed toes or sharp objects that are hiding under the surface. 

Bring a pair of fast-drying shoes that you can change into before crossing. Many hikers use lightweight trail running shoes or even waterproof camp shoes like Crocs (so long as they're stable on your feet). What you choose to use is up to you, but protecting your feet is important, particularly on backpacking trips where you're further from treatment in the event of injury. Extra socks are also a good call when you might encounter water so you can keep your feet happy and dry during your hike.

Waptus crossing. Photo by Brittany Port.jpg
River crossing with friends and trekking poles. Photo by Brittany Port

Crossing in groups

If you're hiking with others, crossing water sources as a group is a safer way to navigate stronger currents. Having one hiker follows the leader allows them to benefit from blocked current and help stabilize the leader. If you're hiking with two other hikers, form a triangle to provide extra stability. 

Tips for Rivers

Rivers can often seem deceptively easy to cross, but understanding how water moves can help you determine if it's safe to do so. Various objects, such as rocks, soil and tree ruts create different levels of friction in a stream. This, in turn, creates different water surfaces called laminar flows.

The basic principle is that various layers or channels of water move at different speeds. The lower layer of the river moves more slowly than the top layer. The layers next to the bottom and sides are the slowest; each subsequent layer will increase in speed. The top layer of the river is only affected by the air. The fastest part of the river will be just below the top layer of the river.

For hikers, this means that your feet can have good traction on the river bottom below, but your knees will take the full brunt of the force of the current, which could knock you over. Reading the speed, depth and flow of the water will help you determine a safe route to cross. Remember, if it doesn't seem safe, don't risk it. It's better to turn back than to end up in a dangerous situation.