How to Cross Rivers and Streams when Hiking

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August 28, 2017
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If you ever find yourself backpacking for fun, or in an emergency, you will probably cross a river or stream. There are several things I am concerned with when crossing moving water:

  1. Cold Water = Possible Hypothermia
  2. Shallow waters = Faster current
  3. Faster currents = getting swept off of your feet
  4. Invisible hazards of the river can be just as dangerous

First thing you should always do before crossing water is to get to higher ground to look for the best crossing areas. Things you are looking for are:

  1. Level ground with several channels. Several channels are easier to cross than a wide river.
  2. Upstream of shallow bank or sandbar
  3. Choose a course across that will allow you to cross at about a 45 degree angle

You are also looking for hazards that will hurt your crossing. Here are a few items to look out for:

  1. Obstacles on the opposite bank that will hinder you getting across
  2. Upstream of deep channels or waterfalls because you don’t want to get stuck in these
  3. Rocky places – slipping
  4. River estuaries (empty to bigger bodies) – tidal changes can create more hazards and they are extremely wide and tough to cross.
  5. Rock ledges – rapids indicated by water changes perpendicular
  6. Eddies – Current behind an obstacle with ever changing direction

With all the items discussed, you have plenty to research and learn about, but let’s go over actually crossing the water as well.

How to Cross Rivers and Streams When Hiking from Ken Jensen

Deep Swift Rivers

When crossing deep swift rivers follow these tips:

  • Swim WITH the current
  • Keep your body horizontal as much as possible. This reduces your chances of getting pulled by an eddy current.

Fast Shallow Rapids

If you find yourself at fast and shallow rapids, do the following:

  • Lie on your back with toes pointed downstream.
  • Place your hands by your hips and find them to guide and help avoid obstacles.

Deep Rapids

I know this is contrary to what you may think, and I would encourage you to get more opinions, but you will do the following:

  • Lie on stomach
  • Point head downstream and toward the opposite shore (I know, I know)
  • Stay away from converging water or obstacles because they cause eddies and swirls

Swift Treacherous Streams

These are especially dangerous, and if you find yourself facing treacherous streams, follow these tips:

  • Remove clothing except your shoes to reduce drag.
  • Tie it into a bundle and attach to your pack or shoulders.
  • Make sure you can remove the pack if the water catches it, so you don’t get pulled.
  • Use a pole at about your height (ideally 6-7 ft). Place it upstream on the ground. It will break the incoming current and place a downward force on you.
  • Take small steps and keep good footing.

crossing river

crossing river

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