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How to Make a Safe Stream Crossing

February 13, 2015
Crossing-Moving-Water
ShutterstockMelting snow in spring can cause water levels to increase and make crossings dangerous.

Hikers in the Northeast rarely plan to ford a stream deeper than their boot-tops, but bridges wash out, and spring runoff or a recent storm can swell a normally mellow brook into a treacherous torrent. Moving water is a risky challenge, but with the right technique, you’ll keep yourself upright and dry on your next stream crossing.

Choose your crossing wisely. Scout before you wade in, including the opposite shoreline to make sure your exit from the water isn’t blocked. The direct line from where you stand to the trail on the other side might not be the safest place to cross, especially if it’s the closest point. Current accelerates through narrow points in a channel. A wider place might be slower-moving. Select a crossing point where the stream is straight as current also accelerates around curves. Avoid crossing above strainers—fallen trees with branches in the water—which can trap and drown a hiker.

Prepare your pack. Before stepping in, undo the waist belt and sternum strap on your pack. If you slip, you’ll be able to remove your pack quickly. If you’re backpacking, repack the contents of your pack inside plastic bags, which will keep things drier and provide buoyancy.

Wear water shoes. If you suspect you may need to ford a stream, bring water shoes that fit snugly and cover your toes. Crossing barefoot leaves your feet susceptible to submerged sharp rocks, wayward fishing tackle, broken glass, and rusty metal. Avoid open-toe sandals. They don’t protect your toes and can fold, or increase the drag from the current. Don’t have water shoes? It’s better to cross in your boots or wool socks than barefoot.

Use a wading staff. Grab a hefty stick, at least 2 inches in diameter, to provide a third point of contact as you traverse the current. You can also use it as a probe to judge your next step. A trekking pole will work, but be careful that its tip doesn’t get stuck.

Take off your pants. If your pants don’t zip off at mid-thigh, take them off to reduce drag while crossing and to keep them dry. It won’t do you much good to successfully cross a stream only to get hypothermia from your wet clothing on the opposite side.

Angle upstream. Cross at an angle to the opposite shore heading slightly upstream, which gives a modicum of stability against a strong current.

Cross with a buddy. Four legs are more stable than two. One person should wade slightly upstream and in front, which breaks the current for the other person while the downstream person provides added stability for the upstream hiker. Three people are even better, forming a triangle as you cross.

Be cautious around eddies. Eddies can form below large rocks and against uneven riverbanks. While this water is calmer, the current can be very strong and in the opposite direction from the main flow of water along the eddy line (the edges of the eddy). If you wade through an eddy, be cautious crossing the eddy line going into and out of it; it can throw you off balance.

Know when to turn back.
Even shallow water can sweep you off your feet. Throw a stick into the water. If you cannot walk as fast as it floats downstream, the current is too strong to attempt a safe crossing. If the water is deeper than mid-thigh, it’s too deep. Find another crossing point, turn back, or wait for the water level to lessen, particularly if the weather is stormy and the water is cold.

LEARN MORE
Learn how to cross water safely in winter conditions.

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Lisa Densmore Ballard

Lisa Densmore Ballard is an award-winning writer, photographer, and television producer/host, as well as a long-time member of AMC. She is the author of seven books, including Hiking the White Mountains (FalconGuides) and Best Hikes with Dogs: New Hampshire & Vermont (The Mountaineers Books).