One of the most dangerous obstacles you can encounter on a family hike is a stream or small river crossing, especially one that is unplanned. With hundreds of crossings under my feet, I have learned that “what you see” on the surface is often not “what you get” under the water; especially when it comes to such things as strength of the current or composition and stability of the stream bed. However, with some knowledge and observation, you and your family can safely cross a stream.
Each Crossing is Different
Every crossing must be evaluated on its own merits. No two crossings are ever alike, and even the same crossing can be drastically different depending on things like time of day and temperature, water flow and depth, obstacles and hazards, weather and more. To ensure the safety of your family, there are a few things you can do before, during and after a fording.
John Hart, author of Walking Softly in the Wilderness notes,
“On most well-traveled trails, at least in the regular hiking season, you will find simple bridges across [most] large streams.”
Further, many streams are small enough for you to simply hop across, assisting children who cannot quite make the leap, or shallow enough that your family can walk through the water without much ado.
However, there may be times when the stream gets wider, deeper and swifter; with hazards in and around the water, and it becomes imperative to consider more advanced strategies.
Before You Decide to Cross
1. Evaluate the stream and scout out the best location to cross. You are looking for a crossing point that is shallow, with relatively slow moving water. You do not want to be too close to a bend in the stream and you should stay away from hazards such as snags or logs stuck in the water. Try to cross where there is a sand bar, island or large rock part way across.
Enter the water where the bank allows for easy entry into the water and be sure to check that the bank on the opposite side is not too steep for you to get out. A good thing to do, especially at the beginning of the hiking season, is to practice this at streams and small rivers even if you are not going to cross or are using a foot bridge.
2. Evaluate your group. How experienced are they and are they mentally and physically up to the task at hand? Do you all swim and float if you were to fall into the water? Many times even a simple crossing of ankle deep water can give one or more in your group anxiety, let alone taking on a more challenging crossing.
3. Check your gear. Does everyone have the appropriate clothing and footwear for the crossing and dry socks and clothing to put on after? If the answer is no, consider not doing it.
If any of these points cannot be answered in a positive way, especially where children are involved, and you cannot find a way around the obstacle, it is probably better to err on the side of safety and turn back or choose a completely different route or trail. If after careful consideration, you have determined that you and your family can cross the stream safely, do the following as the fording dictates.
Technique and Gear Considerations to Safely Cross a Stream
1. Dress appropriately. Most crossings can be done in the clothing and footwear you have, minus your socks. Store your socks in a dry place such as a ziploc baggie or day pack, and put them back on to warm your feet after you have crossed. Do the same for children. Additionally, if you can, roll up your pant legs to keep them dry (If you have shorts on, you are in luck!).
There is nothing worse than completing a fording in your pants or socks, and then having to hike in the wet clothing afterward. Not to mention that it is a great way to promote a lower body core temperature, the prelude to hypothermia, and blisters on you, or your children’s feet.
2. Find and use a crossing aid and assist your children. If you are not using trekking poles or a walking stick, find a pole or stout branch from a dead tree to use as a point of balance as you cross. The stick or pole will act as a third leg to help you maintain your stability as you move through the water. Older children should do the same. Younger children may have to be carried across or assisted on either side by a parent or adult.
3. If necessary use a group crossing technique. Preferably 3 and no more than 4 persons form a circle facing inwards. With arms interlocked and grasping the person to either side, move into the water at the point of crossing. Only one person moves at a time, while the others stay still and provide stability. Your crossing group will look sort of like a large wet inch worm shuffling through the water.
If the water is not too swift, you can also form a line abreast facing the opposite bank, with each person putting their hands behind the person next to them, grabbing on to clothing or a pack strap. The strongest and heaviest person is at the head of the line as you enter the water parallel to the flow. The front person breaks the water flow as the group moves together towards the other side. These techniques are best practiced on dry land before attempting them in water.
4. Use proper technique and body positioning. Unless you are using a group crossing technique, make sure you and your children enter the crossing facing up stream. Lean slightly forward and if you have a crossing aid, put the staff out in front or trekking poles to either side. Shuffle through the water; do not lift your feet up high or out of the water with each step, as this can cause you to lose your balance and take a swim. As you move across, feel the bottom of the stream with each foot to find firm footing before you shift your weight and take the next step. Above all, keep calm, breath evenly, think clearly. Stay focused on what you are doing and keep your eye on the opposite bank – the one to which you and your kids are safely crossing.
If someone in your group does fall in while fording, make sure they know the safest body position and swimming technique: On your back, facing feet first down steam to push off obstacles and backstroking to slow your speed in the current and steer.
As noted outdoor writer John Hart states,
“Most fords are very innocent. But there can be a genuine danger in crossing a high-volume, swift-running stream…”
If you and your family encounter such a stream on your hike, take time to carefully measure if the crossing can be made safely or if fording is better saved for another day.
Have a safe and fun hiking season; I look forward to your comments and questions. If I don’t have an answer to one of your questions, I will find an expert that does.
If you would like to learn more about stream crossings, especially advanced techniques such as specialized gear, crossing aids and group crossings, check out these resources:
Walking softly in The Wilderness, by John Hart
The Complete Walker IV, by Colin Fletcher, Chip Rawlins
Backpackers Review – (Basic Techniques)Stream & small River Crossings
Adventure Pro – (Advanced Techniques) How to Cross a River Safely