Picture this: You’re hiking on the shore of a river in a deep canyon, and suddenly you’re confronted with a cliff and no way around it. You can’t climb the cliff, but you need to continue on. You look across the river and you see a wide bank that should make for easy traveling.
The only problem: a swift river with rocks, overhanging tree limbs and rough spots. It’s 50 yards wide, and you can’t see the bottom. Do you know how to navigate this problem?
I’ve faced a similar issue before. More on that later. For now, let me share some really good advice I found on sectionhiker.com.
Fording rivers and streams is always a major challenge for overland travelers, especially in the backcountry. Depending on the time of year, the weather and the terrain, rivers can change. Even in a single stretch, you can have alternately swift and slow spots, deep pools and shallow riffles. Normally, you can’t see the bottom to know what you’re stepping on or into. And without fail, the bottom is slippery.
The main danger: being swept under, trapped underwater, and drowning. Walking through a river might not look as dramatically dangerous as climbing vertical rock, but it can be quite risky. So here’s some tips from sectionhiker.com:
- Scout the river for a good spot to cross. Really look it over, finding rocks or islands you can hop to, obstacles to avoid and swift portions that could be dangerous. A current traveling 20 mph at knee level is more than strong enough to knock you off your feet.
- Release your pack. If you’re wearing a backpack, unbuckle the hip belt and the chest strap. If you fall in, the extra weight and volume of the pack will make it much more difficult to regain your feet or swim. Better to let that pack slip off your shoulders than drag you under if you fall.
- Good boots or water shoes are best for river crossings. Sandals, for the most part, don’t provide any better traction and far less protection for your feet.
- Look for “strainers.” Strainers are low-hanging branches, pieces of wood or other obstacles overhanging the banks. Don’t cross upstream of these. If you do and slip, the current could take you into one of these, where you could be trapped between the strainer and the current. The current will eventually push you underwater and trap you there.
- Look for chokepoints. These are narrow, deep sections of a river where the current picks up speed and the water level tends to be deeper. Don’t cross here. The current will be too strong and could sweep you off your feet.
- Eddies can be helpful. Water in eddies moves slowly, and if the water isn’t too deep eddies can be a good place to stop and rest during an arduous river crossing.
- Examine rocks and waves. Water downstream from a rock moves slower than other places, and like eddies, can be a good place to stop and rest. “Standing waves” are similar — they are places where water is rushing over an obstacle, like a rock, giving the appearance of a wave. I’d say be careful here, though, as these can also hide deep pools. Whatever you do, don’t cross over the whitewater portion of a standing wave. This is where the water is moving the fastest.
- Use your trekking poles or some other walking stick. This will give you three to four points of contact with the river bed, not just two. A pole will allow you to probe the ground in front of you so you can identify deep holes, obstacles or shallower places to cross.
- Cross as a group. If there’s two of you, one person can lead and break the current while the person behind follows. By linking arms, you can help each other stay upright. If there’s three of you, form a triangle. These are even more stable than a single line.
I use a lot of these techniques during water crossings. I also found, when crossing the Gunnison River in Colorado, that it’s smart to mark your crossing if you plan on going back the way you came. I did this by building a small cairn (a man-made, conspicuous rockpile) from rocks I found on the shore.
One mistake people make, in trying to keep their feet dry, is hopping from dry point to dry point at any cost. It’s a good way to get stranded in many cases. Sometime you just have to find the gentlest part of the stream and walk through it. That way, you get moving quickly and avoid the possibility of losing your balance and falling in the river, or worse yet, hitting your head on a rock.
My two cents, in addition to some great info from sectionhiker.com.
Got any other thoughts? Respond here or e-mail me.