Wilderness Skills: River Fording
Updated: May 14, 2021
Rivers! What incredibly beautiful and useful features of backcountry travel. They’re the best when you’re thirsty and provide excellent navigation references. They also happen to be incredibly dynamic. They’re constantly changing throughout the year, especially now that it’s spring!
As we all know, spring brings warm, wet weather. If you live in a mountainous region, that means snowmelt in the alpine - bringing a rush of water downhill, ballooning waterways, and increasing current speeds. For those that live in flatter lands, spring means heavy rains and faster, deeper river conditions. These natural events also coincide with our favorite time of year, the start of backpacking season!
Crossing rivers is a very common part of backcountry travel and can get you into areas that are often much less explored. When done properly, it can be exhilarating and fun, when done improperly it can leave you soaked and cold, or put you in a downright dangerous situation. With so many people headed out on their first trips of the year, we think it’s the perfect time to discuss safe crossing and fording techniques.
Planning is key!
Running into an unknown or unsafe crossing is generally completely avoidable! The first step before heading out is to determine where rivers and creeks cross your route. Look over area maps and our Trail Finder to determine their locations. When reviewing these sources, look for where the river is widest, as the flow will usually be the lowest and slowest there.
Check online sources like trip reports and Forest or Park Service websites to find information from others who have been in the area recently. And finally, it’s always a great idea to get in contact with local Rangers to learn about conditions - they have a wealth of knowledge and love discussing trip plans.
Between these different sources you should be able to find out the answers to these questions:
What waterways will you encounter along your planned route?
Generally, how fast and high are they flowing?
Are there any known dry crossings?
Where have others have successfully, or unsuccessfully, crossed?
Pro-tip: If an area’s waterways are fed by snowmelt, plan to cross in the morning as they will be much lower and slower before the snow melts in the midday sun and warmth. Periods of rain will also increase volume and water speed - check the forecast!
So you’ve got the answers and you’re on the trail, staring at the first crossing of your trip. What now?
Avoid the Crossing Altogether
It seems self-explanatory, but before just jumping in the river you should know for certain that you NEED to. This goes back to the planning stage for a second - if you studied the route, you’ll know whether or not it’s required. If you’re not sure, take a second and pull out your map.
River’s often turn back on themselves and if that’s the case you might be able to avoid crossing not only once, but twice! If it’s pretty full-on with fast or deep water, it’s worth checking for bridges or an easier fording spot, even if that means you’ll have to trek a mile or three out of the way. A safe, easy ford is always worth the extra mileage.
Again, kind of goes without saying, but look for spots to cross where you can stay dry! If bridges aren’t an option, look for natural dry crossing points. Things like sturdy trees and log jams, beaver dams, and hop-scotch rocks usually make for excellent dry crossings. If you’re carrying climbing gear and there’s a fixed line in place (or you have the ability to set one) a Tyrolean Traverse is possible - check out this Climbing.com article for an in depth look at the technique.
A note about beaver dams: Beavers don’t actually live in their dams - they are constructed to create a pond, where they’ll then build their lodge. So while the dams themselves aren’t inhabited, they are still incredibly important to the beavers and any wildlife that lives in or near the pond. Also it’s important to mention, beaver da
ms aren’t constructed with human weight in mind - be gentle when crossing on them to keep them intact and avoid injury.
Avoid turning your safe dry crossing into a dangerous wet crossing by following these tips:
Stay aware, features can be variable and shift under your weight.
Look for wet, slippery spots and test features before putting your full weight on them. Rock with uneven surfaces will be less slippery than smooth rocks - look for texture!
Don’t feel like you have to tightrope walk trees, this isn’t the Olympics after all! Put one leg on either side, sit down, and scoot across the log. Shimmying across is a great way to stay balanced and in control.
When using log jams or beaver dams, try to stay on their downstream side and whatever you do, don’t fall in on their upstream side as you could be trapped underneath them.
Remember to use your trekking poles or grab a sturdy stick if you’re able to stay standing. They will be super helpful for keeping balanced.
All this said, if there’s no way to avoid or dry cross the river. It’s time to get wet!
Scout It Out
Just because you see a trail, blazes, or cairns on both sides of the river, doesn’t mean that is the best place to cross. It’s all about minimizing risk, even if that means some extra ground to cover. If you are in a group, make sure you’re communicating! You need to find a crossing that is safe for everyone!
Walk up and down the river - take your time. Look for wide, slow, and shallow spots. Look for the features described above and for both entry and exit points. Make a plan in case you do fall in - look downstream for hazards and escape routes.
Found your spot? Great! Now test the water for speed and depth before getting in. Toss in some medium sized rocks and watch where they go. And more importantly, listen! If you just hear the classic ‘ker-plunk’ and don’t hear them hit the bottom, you know it’s deep. If you can hear them rolling downstream on the bottom, you know the current is strong. While you’re at it, toss in some sticks and hold sticks or trekking poles in the water to gauge current speed and force. These tests should give you some semblance of what your walk across will feel like.
A quick note about depth. Try to cross at shallower points even if deeper sections are moving slower - physics says the more of your body in the river, the more surface area the water has to push on. That can create a lot of force for you to deal with, as this Outside Online article talks about. Ideally, slow moving water won’t be above thigh height and fast moving water will be below knee height.
And for those interested in really nerding out about fluid dynamics, check out this article from the Washington Trails Association - at the end of the article they discuss laminar flows and how they affect river crossings.
Consider removing pants/socks to keep them dry and reduce drag. If you are crossing multiple times, it’s much faster to just keep them on and let them dry as you continue your hike. Carry wool socks - even if wet, they will still insulate and keep you warm and they dry faster!
We advise wearing some kind of footwear on your ford. Most often you won’t be able to see the bottom and you will often be crossing on slippery rocks. Wearing footwear also protects from anything sharp or pointed on the river bottom. Lost fishing lures anyone?
Either keep your normal hiking footwear on or bring an extra lightweight pair of river shoes. Neoprene options work great in the water, dry quick, and make for comfy camp shoes. Carrying an extra pair will add to your pack weight and changing shoes will take some time each river crossing, but for some the added comfort of dry hiking shoes will be worth it.
Open toed sandals with a heel strap will work, but we’d like to note they’ll increase your chances of stubbing toes, they aren’t as sturdy as other options, and they can actually create extra drag with their open areas. Regular flip-flops are not advised, they’ll make crossing much more difficult just trying to keep them on, that is if the current doesn’t get them immediately.
Also, when choosing footwear - it might seem counterintuitive at first - but if your route has multiple fords, consider non-waterproof over waterproof. Waterproof footwear is designed to keep water out, which means they’ll also hold onto water when it does get in. Non-waterproof materials will breathe better and dry faster.
Make sure all of your gear is secure in your pack. All your zippers and pockets are closed, anything on the outside of your pack is lashed down tight and water bottles in holsters are secure. Double bag any non-waterproof electronics. Pack items like sleeping bags (especially down bags!), extra clothes, and firestarters in a dry bag or waterproof stuff sack.
The Actual Crossing
Look to the far bank, not at your feet and never downstream. No need to sike yourself out or even potentially induce vertigo! Thanks to the National Park Service for this great tip (found in their Safe River Crossing article).
Use your trekking poles or grab a stick if one’s available. Use them to keep your balance and probe the river bottom in front of you.
Unbuckle your pack’s waist and chest straps. If you do slip and fall into the water, you’ll want to be able to shed your pack ASAP. If your 40L pack fills with water it will weigh nearly 80lbs!
DON’T HESITATE TO TURN AROUND IF THE CROSSING FEELS UNSAFE.
Face upstream and cross at a 45 degree angle moving downstream. It will be easier at the angle because you won’t be fighting the current with each step.
Keep a walking pole or stick in hand and pointed upstream, and lean into it gently to keep your weight slightly forward to balance out the force of the current.
Shuffle your feet to avoid picking them up too high. Having the current catch them could throw your balance. Always keep two points of contact solid while moving either your stick or feet.
The water will be cold so remember to breathe! While you’ll want to move quickly, don’t rush your steps. Make sure your foot is secure before taking another step - rushing and falling in could be unpleasant or down right dangerous.
If you’re more of a visual learner, Clever Hiker has an awesome Youtube video that shows a solo crossing using this technique, it starts at the 4:50 mark.
Crossing as a Group
Group fords will take a bit of practice to perfect, but they are an excellent way to minimize risk and ensure a safe crossing for all. We definitely suggest practicing these crossing techniques in low-risk environments before taking them into deeper water.
When in a group of two, face each other and grab onto your partner’s shoulders or backpack shoulder straps. The stronger person will face downstream and break the current, creating an eddy for the other person. Side-step across the river, alternating each step and supporting each other.
If you have three people you can cross in a triangle, holding onto each of the other people. The strongest person will stand upstream and break current. This technique is very stable but requires a lot of communication. Usually one person will call out left and right steps.
Single-file Line Crossing
This technique can be used for a group of any size. Get in a single-file line with everyone facing upstream. Grab the hips or pack of the person in front of you; the first person in the line should have trekking poles or a stick for added balance. Just like the two person crossing, the first person in line breaks the current and creates an eddy for the rest of the group, while the person directly behind the leader helps keep them upright. Slowly, with good communication and coordination, step sideways across the river together.
If You Fall
Obviously it’s better not to fall in, but it does happen. Knowing what to do can turn a really bad situation into a wet, laughable one.
Fall towards your hands and knees - not your back! You’ll be able to get up easier/quicker and avoid turtle-shelling down the river. Your pack will also stay drier.
If you fall and are struggling to get up, take off your pack. If it’s safe and possible, hold onto it with one hand while you regain your balance. If you can’t do this safely - let it go, better to lose the pack than your life.
If you are swept by the current, turn onto your back and get your feet pointed downstream. This will somewhat protect you from any boulders/logs/other debris in the river.
Swim to shore as soon as you can and reassess your situation.
Whether you lost your pack or not, get as warm and dry as possible and do your best to stay calm. If needed, make a plan to safely retrieve your pack and get back on the trail.
As we mentioned in the opening paragraph - rivers are constantly changing! While you may feel confident with your route and think you know what to expect with each crossing, you probably won’t be perfectly accurate when you’re out there. It’s important to be flexible and to remember it’s always OK to change routes or turn back! Happy fording!
Steven, the author, lives in Portland, OR and is the Head of Wilderness Data and Community for RightOnTrek. When he’s not hiking, biking, or snowboarding in the Cascades, you can catch him eating a sushi burrito and drinking a beer at one of Portland’s food truck pods.
We’d love to hear your favorite river fording stories and techniques, or suggestions for future technical skill articles! Please, leave a comment or email email@example.com.