It’s surely nice when you come across a river or a stream on your hiking trip and you simply jump from a stone to another and continue your walk on the other side of the river. A piece of cake. But things aren’t always as simple and convenient as that.

Some streams or rivers can become completely impassable during snow melting periods or after heavy rains and storms. Streams and creeks in the Alps can become quite rage during spring when glaciers start melting. Sometimes even a stream that seems shallow and safe can be quite dangerous. Don’t risk your hiking trip, and above all – don’t risk your health and life.

Experienced hikers, trekkers, and mountaineers are familiar with safety tips for crossing raged watercourse. If you want to deal with unexpected situations like a pro, learn these fording rivers and streams techniques and skills. Actually, when you master them, there won’t be any unexpected situations for you.

Kandersteg Lämmerenhütte WeHike
Photographed by Daniel Garcia Gutierrez at the Kandersteg to Lämmerenhütte WeHike

Safety Measures before Crossing Rivers and Streams

Fording a river or a creek safely means certain precautions measures and detailed observation. So, what factors should you consider before facing this dangerous challenge?

Find the Best Location to Cross

The first thing to remember: don’t just cross the river on the place where it intersects your paths. It doesn’t mean it’s the best point for fording. Water volume and level so as the riverbed are quite changeable and dynamic, so the point that was good for crossing a few days ago could be completely changed within several days. Look up for more convenient spot and try to avoid fast currents and points where the banks are narrow.

If you try to cross water and the water goes above your thighs, turn back. The water mass is obviously too strong and that is not a safe point to cross.

Use the ‘Stick Method’

Throw a wooden stick into the water to see at what rate it flows. If it flows faster than you can walk, the river might be too swift and thus unsafe to cross at that point.

Binntal Valley Passo della Rossa WeHike
Taken at the Binntal Valley and Passo della Rossa WeHike. Image Credit: Friedhelm Weinberg

Look Up for an Island, Sandbar or Rocks

An island or a sandbar in the middle of the river indicates a good crossing point because there are great chances that the currents are more manageable on the other side.

The rocks that are sticking out of the water indicate the less powerful currents too.  Rocks and islands actually split the power of the current into smaller substreams which are easier to manage with.

Bends are Generally More Safe Points for Crossing

If the river is forming the letter S, the best and the safest point to cross is the middle of the letter. If you fall into the water, the current might carry you to the bank.

Protect Your Backpack

Repack your backpack in waterproof bags so your load doesn’t get wet. Protect your electronics, gadgets, and valuables as well.

Wehike Europaweg Matterhorn
Photographed by Thomas Melchior Ytterdal at the Europaweg and the Matterhorn.

How Exactly to Cross the Raged Body of Water?

When you finally find the best crossing point, here’s what you should do.

Keep Your Boots On

Even if you want to keep your boots from wetting, it’s not a good idea to cross the water barefoot. Boots will be your protection from potential hazards in the water such as rocks, logs, broken glass etc. Remove the boot insoles before crossing, and when you safely cross on the other side of the river, put them back in.

Don’t Cross in Long Pants

When your pants get soaked in the water, they will increase drag and add extra resistance. And once you’ve crossed the water mass, you would like to have them dry. Keep them in your backpack, protected with a waterproof bag.

The best option is to wear underwear or nylon shorts when fording the river or stream.

Walking Stick Will Help You

Walking stick, hiking staff or trekking pole – find yourself a third leg or an additional contact point with the river bottom. Just be cautious because the bottom tip of trekking pole can stuck between the rock, but it will certainly be a good support.

Photographed during the Kandersteg to Lämmerenhütte WeHike Credits: Daniel Garcia Gutierrez

Watch Your Step When Crossing

It’s important to have two contact points with the bottom at every moment. Both feet, or one foot and a stick or pole. Face upstream, but move slightly downstream, trying to lean into the current rather than fighting it. Bend your knees and keep your pole/stick right in front of you so you can test the depths with it before you make next step. This way you can shuffle slowly and steadily across the river. Don’t rush and don’t panic!

Cross as a Group

When hiking in a group, try river crossing together. Four contact points with the river bottom are better than two, and more than four means more stability. The strongest person should be slightly upstream to break the current. The downstream person will deal with slower current this way, helping the whole group remain stable and upright.

Return If Don’t Feel Safe

If you reach the point in the water that seems unsafe to proceed, return back. Scout another location to ford the river.

Keep or Release the Backpack?

This is an issue that brings doubts to many hikers, but there’s no right answer – it’s completely your decision. But, there are two things you can do if the worst scenario happens.

If you keep your backpack, you can take the advantage of its buoyancy purposes. The major drawback is that in this case, you have only one arm to swim.

On the other hand, if you release the backpack, you will be more feasible to swim. The disadvantage is, obviously, backpack swept away by the current, and you can never know if there are chances to retrieve it.

When You’ve Conquered the Water…

Once you’ve reached the shore, it’s time to dry and retrieve your normal body temperature! Change into dry clothes, start a fire, do quick exercises.

And finally, although these skills are important to every active hiker, try to avoid river crossing as much as possible. Pre-trip planning such as gathering info about the weather conditions or using maps and satellites images can help you to avoid any unexpected situation.

Cover photo taken at the Le Basset and Col Ferret. Image Credit: Dipankar Pathak


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