How to Safely Hike Across a River

Man assisting woman in crossing river
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The beauty of a mountain stream flowing through a forest can be the highlight of a hike. But knowing how to cross a river is a critical hiking skill.

The fact is that crossing rivers, especially when they're running high, is among the riskier things you can do on the trail. Rocks and logs may offer a bridge to the opposite bank. But they're often wet or covered with algae and mosses. That can lead to slips and falls, and, therefore, any number of things that you really don't want to experience: head injuries, broken bones, and the chance to get swept downstream.

The rate of runoff in streams and rivers is highly variable. In years of light snowfall and hot spring days, streams may run at low-to-moderate levels by early summer. However, in years with heavy and late-season snows, rivers can run so high that trails, even ones with actual bridges, remain impassable well into summer.

Two keys to remember: Don't take any unnecessary risks. And don't push anyone past their skill and confidence level. You're only as capable as the weakest hiker in your group.

Before You Leave

When you're about to set off, make sure that you've checked the following items off your to-do list:

  • Check on conditions. Identify your destination or trail. Then call the park or go to its website for updates on conditions.
  • Carry trekking poles. They can help you assess water depth and rate of runoff, then provide additional stability when you do cross a stream. If you don't have trekking poles, find a pair of sturdy branches that you can use instead.
  • Wear shorts or convertible pants. Long pants will increase drag in the stream and can be uncomfortable to hike in once they're soaked.
  • Pack hiking sandals or gym shoes. If a stream is shallow enough to cross, it's often easier to walk through the water instead of trying to boulder hop on slippery rocks. With spare shoes or hiking sandals, you can keep your hiking boots dry. But don't cross barefoot or use flip-flops because the current can easily sweep them off your feet.
  • Get out early. Cooler overnight and morning temperatures mean that the volume of snowmelt is lower early in the day, which means that streams will flow more slowly. Thunderstorms are also more common in afternoon and make currents more treacherous.

At the Crossing

The actual point where a trail meets a river may not be the best place to get to the other side. Scout the river (ideally from an elevated perspective) or look both up- and downstream for alternatives. If you can't identify a safe crossing location, then don't take the risk and turn around. Wishful thinking has no place in this decision, so be conservative and assume the worst. Invariably, streams are faster and deeper than they appear. Follow the tips below to prepare for a safe crossing:

  • Straight. Wide. Shallow. That's what you're looking for when identifying a place to cross.
  • Watch out for debris. If the river is carrying a lot of debris, such as branches and small logs, it's not a good idea to cross. The debris is an indication that stream flows are high. And objects flowing downstream can create a serious hazard if they strike you as you're crossing.
  • Look for braided channels. The crossing may be wider where a river breaks into separate channels. But the current's intensity will be dissipated and there may also be small islands or gravel bars where you can take a break and plot your next steps.
  • Test the current. Toss a branch and watch how swiftly it moves downstream. That will give you a better sense of the direction of the main current and how fast it's moving.
  • Don't cross where flows are much above your knees. Even comparatively shallow water can knock you off balance and carry you downstream if it's flowing rapidly enough. The only time to wade through deeper water is when you locate a flat pool with little or no current.
  • Loosen your pack before crossing. Undo your waist belt and let out the shoulder straps so that it's easier to remove. If you fall in and your pack gets soaked, it can drag you down or get snagged. You might lose your pack but consider the alternative.
  • Look for low and open exit points on the opposite bank. Once you reach the other side, you'll want to be able to get out of the stream as quickly as possible. A scramble up a steep bank could lead to a slip that puts you right back into the stream.

Crossing the Stream

Finally, once you're in the act of crossing the body of water, make sure to keep the following three tips at the forefront of your mind:

  • Face upstream and shuffle sideways. Slide your feet along the bottom while facing the river. Angle yourself diagonally to the flow and move in a slightly downstream direction toward the opposite bank.
  • Always maintain two points of contact with the bottom. Use your poles to steady yourself as you shift your feet. The more contact you have with the bottom, the more stable you'll be.
  • Remember there's strength in numbers. Crossing with a partner or with a group of people creates additional stability. Link arms and coordinate your movements.