Crossing Water Safely in Winter

December 23, 2016
crossing water
Ryan SmithThe first step in crossing water is to find a safe route to the other side.

Whether you’re on a snow-covered hiking trail or bushwhacking through the woods, at some point on a snowshoe trek, you’re bound to come to a stream without a bridge. Whether the water is frozen or not, even a small stream can pose a slippery challenge. And if there’s ice, will it support the weight of you and your gear? Here’s how to safely approach a water crossing in winter.

As a rule of thumb, ice needs to be at least 4 inches thick to reliably support the weight of the average adult—if it’s new, clear ice. Double that thickness (8 inches) if the ice is old (was the last thaw more than a few days ago?) or white, which means it is porous with bubbles. What’s more, ice seldom forms uniformly. It might be 6 inches thick in one spot and only 2 inches thick a couple of feet away. This is especially true if there’s water running beneath it. And if it snowed while the water was freezing, the snow both acts as an insulator, slowing the freezing process, and adds weight, which reduces how much additional weight the ice can bear. Before stepping out onto the ice, test it by pressing down with a trekking pole or throwing a large rock onto it.

Bill Quade, an AMC staff guide at the Highland Center in Crawford Notch, N.H., advises snowshoers to carefully pick where they place their feet as they traverse a stream. He suggests looking where other people have crossed ahead of you. If you can comfortably match their foot placement, it’s probably a good place to cross.

But don’t automatically follow in those footsteps. “One of the biggest mistakes is just following, without thinking about what steps are best for you as an individual,” Quade says. “The person ahead of you may be able to step further or balance on smaller rocks.”

He explains: “At an open-water crossing, it is worth looking up and down the bank for a route that allows you to cross on rocks or logs above the water. Switching to MICROspikes [lightweight grippers that attach to the soles of your boots] can make balancing on rocks easier while still providing traction.”

If you must cross a stream, trekking poles will greatly aid your balance, but the decision whether to keep on or take off your snowshoes depends on the situation. Keep them on if the stream is frozen. On smooth, thick ice, the claw under your snowshoe’s forefoot will act like a crampon, giving you traction. If there are lots of humps and bumps, you’ll be safer if you remove your snowshoes, especially if there’s open water near your crossing point.

Just in case you accidentally soak your boots, Quade suggests you pack extra socks and some plastic bags. Use them as a barrier between your dry socks and wet boots. Quade adds, “If your snowshoes get wet and ice starts to build up, chip it off right away to keep it from clumping up as you hike.”

And if you fall in and get completely wet? Change out of those wet clothes immediately to reduce the risk of hypothermia. It also helps to drink hot fluids and eat an energy bar, gel, or even a candy bar, as glucose provides instant fuel for body heat. Then you’re more likely to warm up and be able to continue.

Crossing open water? Learn how in “How to Make a Safe Stream Crossing.”

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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).

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