How to Cross a Stream or River While Hiking: 13 Essential Safety Tips

Crossing a stream or river is a common challenge faced by hikers and backpackers. The allure of pristine waters and the adventure of traversing rugged landscapes often bring us face-to-face with the raw forces of nature.

However, the beauty and thrill of these crossings come with inherent risks. This guide aims to provide an extensive overview of how to approach stream and river crossings with the utmost respect for safety and environmental conservation.

Table of Contents

How to Cross a Stream: Understanding the Risks

Water crossings are not mere obstacles; they are potential hazards that have led to tragedies on the trail. The force of moving water should not be underestimated—a swift current can easily sweep a person off their feet. Water-related accidents are the most common cause of recreational deaths in Colorado.

Recognizing the danger and taking it seriously is the first step in crossing safely.

River Crossing

Assessing a Stream or River

Evaluate the Crossing: Before attempting to cross, assess the situation. Look for potential hazards downstream such as waterfalls, boulders, and strainers—objects that water flows through but can trap a person. Undercut banks and steep, brushy, or snowy exits can also increase the risk of a crossing.

Understand the Water’s Force: The physics of moving water reveals that its force increases exponentially with its velocity. This means that even a seemingly manageable stream can exert a tremendous amount of pressure on a person’s body, affecting stability and safety.

When the flow is fast, even though it is shallow, you may wish to reconsider your crossing or find a place where the stream is broader and the flow slows down.

Choosing the Safest Spot to Cross

Never cross a stream based on random chance. Always take time to assess the area and select the safest spot to cross. Here are some factors to consider:

  • Scout the Area: Don’t restrict yourself to the trail for crossing points. Extensive scouting upstream and downstream might reveal safer places to cross. This could require navigating through brush or uneven terrain but prioritizing safety over convenience is essential.
  • Depth vs. Speed: While it might seem counterintuitive, a deeper section with slower-moving water is often safer than a shallow, swift area. The buoyancy in deeper water can assist in crossing, but remember, stability on the streambed is crucial.
  • Use Natural Features to Your Advantage: Straight stretches, islands, and clear waters provide strategic points for crossing. A straight stretch may offer a uniform current and bottom, while islands can serve as rest points or divide the current, reducing its force.

 

When there is no clear, safe way to cross a stream or river, remember: You do not have to cross. Turning back and calling it a day is always an option if you do not feel comfortable with your options. The mountains will be there another day to hike, climb, and explore.

Gear and Preparation

A few different pieces of gear can help you prepare and safely cross a stream while hiking. The two biggest factors are your footwear and trek poles/walking sticks.

Pick the Right Footwear

Proper footwear is crucial for maintaining grip on slippery surfaces. Keep your hiking boots on for protection and stability, especially if the stream-bottom is hard to navigate without slipping and falling.

Some hikers prefer switching to water shoes or hiking sandals for crossings to keep their boots dry. If you do so, ensure they also provide adequate support and grip.

Using Trekking Poles

A pair of trekking poles can greatly enhance balance and provide additional points of contact with the riverbed. Adjusting the poles for water crossings (like removing baskets) can minimize drag.

If you do not have a trekking poles, you can use a walking stock as a temporary third point of contact as you cross to significantly improve your stability. This is especially helpful if the streamflow is relatively fast.

How to Cross: Techniques and Tips

If you find a safe place to cross a river or stream and have the proper footwear and trekking poles, you can finally make a plan to cross it. Follow these tips to stay safe and make it to the other side in one piece.

Solo Crossing Technique

When crossing alone, face upstream to lean into the current. Shuffle sideways or at a slight angle downstream, ensuring you have a solid footing before making each step. Use trekking poles to test depth and stability ahead.

Group Crossing Technique

Crossing as a group can offer increased stability. Techniques such as the triangle or line method allow groups to support each other, distributing the force of the current. The strongest hiker should be positioned upstream to break the current.

Crossing Footwork Tips

Most people who fall while crossing a stream or river fall victim to the swift current and slippery stream-bed. Keeping a strong, stable footing is essential to avoid being swept downstream. 

Shift your weight to move one foot at a time, avoiding the crossing of your legs. Take small, deliberate steps, moving sideways and angling slightly against the current to leverage the strength of your legs for stability. Always maintain two points of solid contact with the riverbed. Confirm that each foot is securely positioned before advancing to ensure your safety.

Leave No Trace Tips

Always practice Leave No Trace principles. Stream banks are extremely fragile habitat that you can trample and harm without even realizing it.

Cross at established points when possible to minimize impact on the environment, avoiding sensitive areas like alpine meadows or tundra. Scout out the shoreline from afar rather than walking directly along the banks up and down the stream.

Advanced Considerations

Here are more factors to keep in mind as you cross streams and rivers:

Beware of Snow Bridges

Snow Bridge

Snow bridges look inviting, offering easy passage over a stream. However, they often collapse without warning, even after standing for months and dozens of crossings. They are difficult to impossible to predict or assess, and always eventually collapse.

When possible, it is usually safer to cross a stream or river directly instead of using a snow bridge. The fall may injure you and leave you waist-deep in freezing-cold water, with a significant risk of hypothermia or frostbite. 

Timing Your Crossing

Water levels can fluctuate throughout the day and year due to snowmelt, with levels typically highest in the late afternoon and evening in late May and early June.

Planning your crossing for the morning can take advantage of lower water levels. During the high snowmelt season (early summer), take extra care with crossings and have alternative routes ready in case rivers are impassable.

Making the Decision to Cross

Ultimately, the decision to cross should be made with safety as the priority. Assess your skills, the conditions, and the group’s ability. There’s no shame in turning back or waiting for conditions to improve. The wilderness offers many challenges, but by respecting its power and preparing adequately, hikers can navigate stream and river crossings safely, adding to the adventure of exploring the great outdoors.

FAQs

If we haven’t addressed your question yet, leave it in a comment and we will get you an answer and more information as soon as we can.

Q: How do you cross a stream without getting wet?

A: Completely avoiding getting wet while crossing a stream can be challenging, especially in wider or deeper sections. However, you can minimize wetness by looking for the narrowest part of the stream to cross, using stepping stones or logs if available and stable. Wearing waterproof boots or carrying water shoes for the crossing can keep your feet dry, although the latter might not be practical for every situation.

In some cases, using a waterproof bag to float your gear while swimming across in a calm and shallow section could be an option, but this does carry risks and should only be considered if the water is slow-moving and you’re a strong swimmer.

A: Crossing a river without a bridge requires careful planning and consideration of the current, depth, and potential hazards. Look for a section of the river that is wider, as it may be shallower and have a slower current. 

Use trekking poles for added stability and to probe the riverbed before stepping. Face upstream to lean into the current and move sideways or at a slight diagonal downstream. If you’re in a group, consider using group crossing techniques for additional stability.

A: When crossing a river with a backpack, first ensure all items inside are secured in waterproof bags. Unbuckle the waist and chest straps before crossing for safety; this allows you to quickly remove your backpack if you fall into the water. Keep the backpack on your back as it can provide some buoyancy and protection against falls, but be prepared to let it go if it hinders your ability to swim or stay afloat.

A: Avoid crossing a river in the following conditions: during high water levels or after heavy rainfall, when the current is strong and fast-moving, if there are visible hazards such as strainers (downed trees or bushes), boulders, or waterfalls downstream, or if the exit points are steep, brushy, or icy, making it difficult to get out of the water safely. 

Also, refrain from crossing early in the morning or late at the day when water levels can be unpredictably high due to snowmelt.

A: The act of crossing a river is often referred to as “fording.” Fording a river means to cross at a shallow place without the aid of a bridge or boat, typically on foot or with a vehicle.

A: The safest place to cross a river is typically a wide, shallow section where the current is slow and the riverbed is visible and free of obstacles. Look for straight stretches of river rather than bends, which can have deeper and faster-moving water.

Islands or sandbars can also provide a mid-point rest and make the crossing easier by breaking it into shorter segments. Always scout upstream and downstream to find the most suitable crossing point.

A: Assessing a river’s safety for crossing involves several considerations: the depth should be no higher than your knees to maintain balance and control; the current should be slow enough that you can walk against it without struggling; and the riverbed should have visible and stable footing without slippery rocks or sudden drop-offs.

Also, ensure there are no hazards such as strainers, waterfalls, or deep pools downstream. Always err on the side of caution—if a crossing feels too risky, look for an alternative route or wait for conditions to improve.

How to Cross a Stream While Hiking

How to Cross a Stream

Crossing a river or stream while hiking or backpacking is a challenge with inherent risk. However, with the right gear, preparation, and knowledge, almost anyone can do it safely and make it to the opposite bank in one piece and without getting drenched. 

The key is remembering that where you cross is your decision, and that turning back is always an option if the river or stream is too big a threat. I hope this article helps you plan all your future stream-crossing adventures. Safe travels on the trail!

Additional Reading:

If you know of a website, article, or additional resource related to stream and river crossing safety, share it with us in a comment, and we may add it to our list in our next article update. Thank you for sharing with our community!

Alex Derr, Founder of The Next Summit

Alex Derr is an Eagle Scout, climber, and environmental policy expert located in Denver, Colorado. He created The Next Summit to help others stay safe exploring the mountains and advocate to preserve the peaks for the future. Follow him on Linkedin or Twitter or click here to contact him.

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Hi, I'm Alex!

In 2018, I watched in disbelief as dozens of people hiked into a storm on Longs Peak, unaware of the extreme danger. Soon after, I started The Next Summit to educate and empower the public to safely and responsibly explore America's mountains.

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