A partnership of the National Park Service and the United States Forest Service.

Stream Crossing Safety

  • Doug Johnson
  • Jan. 25, 2014

Most of us venture into wilderness for relaxation and to remove ourselves from stressful environments. However, it may be impossible to avoid hazardous obstacles during your trip. Water crossings can be hazardous any time of year. Snow melting in the springtime will inundate streams with icy water, and a rain storm in any season can cause flash flooding. Foot bridges and crossings you may have safely navigated before could turn into a dangerous undertaking.

When you come to a risky stream crossing, you should search up and down the stream a considerable distance to find the safest crossing. There may be a fallen tree, a log jam, stepping stones, or a slower-moving section of the stream that would allow safe passage. While it is desirable to remain dry, hopping across mossy stones or performing a balancing act on a high log may be riskier than wading across. If you decide wading is the best option, consider these factors when selecting your ford:

A wide section of the stream may allow a shallower path across slower moving water. Toss a stick into the current to judge its speed. The power of a swift-moving body of water may be deceiving and can easily sweep you off your feet.

Traction in the stream bed is very important. A smooth rock bottom may be very slippery with the slightest amount of current.

Visibility in the water may be limited. Rainfall can add sediment and silt to the water, making it cloudy and difficult to judge the depth. Even a narrow channel can be deep enough for you to lose your footing. If you cannot see the bottom or check the depth, find an alternate route.

Be aware of hazards downstream. Logs spanning the river, rapids, waterfalls, and sieves (sections of the stream that flow beneath rocks) are all potentially deadly. Consider the downstream consequences if you do slip, not just the chance of slipping at the spot you choose to cross.

Find a straight section for your crossing. A bend of the stream can prove to be dangerous. Water on the outside of a bend will move much faster than the calm water on the inside of the channel.

The time of day is another variable to consider. In the morning, snow melt may not affect the height of the stream as much, depending on the distance from the source. The same crossing in the evening after a day of sun may be considerably higher.

Consider your ability to dry off and warm up after the crossing. Most of the water in the high altitudes is at near freezing temperatures. Cotton and down-insulated clothing, as well as down sleeping bags, will provide no warmth while wet.

Here are some techniques to help with crossing once you have found the safest place to do so:

Unclip the belt and chest straps on your pack so you can quickly remove it. If you slip, you don’t want the extra weight of the pack holding you down while you try to pull yourself out of the water.

If you have rope, you can tie one end to your pack. Keep the other end loosely coiled and do not attach it to yourself. If you fall in and drop your pack, you may be able to avoid losing it by pulling it to shore with the rope after rescuing yourself. Never attach a rope directly to you! If you slip while tied to your bag, you effectively become an anchor at the end of the line, a situation that will make your escape difficult or impossible, or even trap you underwater.

Using a long, sturdy stick will add to your stability. A trekking pole may be substituted, but be aware the narrow tip may easily become lodged between rocks on the stream bed. Use only one pole or stick: three points of contact with the bottom is ideal. Face upstream, and shuffle sideways across the stream while leaning forward on the stick. The stick can also serve as a probe to feel the quality and depth of the stream bed around you if visibility is less than ideal.

If you are part of a group, you can increase stability by crossing together. Lock arms and form a line parallel to the flow of the stream. The strongest member of the party should be upstream to break the current while the person or people downstream stabilize the group.

Remember that your whole party will have to cross the stream. Often we only think of our own abilities when evaluating a crossing, but everyone in your group will have to safely navigate the obstacle. Do not overestimate the abilities of the individuals in your party!

Leaving your shoes on during the stream crossing will provide more traction and will prevent foot injuries. Pack extra socks and have spare time to dry out your footwear. Or better yet, bring a pair of lightweight shoes specifically for stream crossings so you can keep your hiking footwear dry.

Plan for delays. Waiting until the stream recedes may be your safest option, or perhaps you’ll have to seek out an alternate route. Detours and an unplanned extra night out will add time to your trip, but may ensure you enjoy your wilderness experience. Keep your itinerary flexible and allow extra time for unexpected delays, which will hopefully turn into more time to explore. Plan out alternate routes before you leave your house or the ranger station so you and your party know the options.

Take your time and use your best judgment when facing a stream crossing. Spending time and energy to find the right crossing is crucial. If you lose your footing in the wrong place, you may not get a second chance. In the backcountry, help may be days away, so you must rely on yourself to make safe and sound decisions.

cut1Crossing a stream in the backcountry.