9 Safety Tips to Cross a River or Stream

Fording a River is Dangerous

Climbers cross a river in Auyuittuq National Park in northern Nunavut, Canada. Photograph copyright Jason Pineau/Getty Images

When you are climbing in the back country, especially in wild places like Alaska, Maine, and Canada, you will probably need to cross rivers and streams to reach your destination cliff or mountain. Simply put, river crossings are one of the most dangerous and deadly threats to climbers, hikers, and backpackers. A deep, fast moving river can quickly knock you off your feet and end your climbing plans or even your life.

Read 3 Ways to Safely Cross a River or Stream to learn how to assess a river; how to find the best place to cross a river; what questions to ask before attempting to cross; and the three methods to make a river crossing.

Here are 9 tried-and-true tips to help you make safe river crossings.

1. Always Err on the Side of Caution

Always be careful and cautious on every river crossing. Thoroughly scout the river or stream and find the best ford. Cross at the widest point since the water is usually shallower than where the river narrows down. Do not attempt to cross deep rivers with fast currents. If you have any doubts at all about the safety of crossing the river, then don’t cross it. Turn around, go downstream and find a better ford, or wait for the water level to go down since most mountain creeks and rivers are fed by melting snow during the day.

2. Do Not Cross Deep Rivers

Do not cross rivers that are more than thigh deep. If the water is deeper than your waist deep, you have a better chance of losing your balance and getting washed downstream. The more body mass you have in the water, the greater are your chances that you will capsize. Do not cross deep water with a strong current since your foot can become trapped in boulders, branches, logs, and debris and you can drown.

3. Wear a Flotation Device

Always wear a personal floatation device (PFD), especially if the river is more than knee deep. Shop around and find a lightweight PFD that is easy to pack and carry. It will save your life if you have to make any deep river crossings.

4. Leave Your Boots On

Leave your hiking boots on. Always ford a river with your boots on your feet since they have traction and protect your foot from underwater hazards. Never cross barefoot unless the water is very shallow; you can cut or damage your foot on broken glass, bits of metal, stuck fishing tackle, rocks, and submerged logs and branches. Sandals should only be worn if you are wading in shallow water because they do not protect your toes and can become separated from your feet in a strong current. Some climbers use light water shoes that are easy to carry and have traction.

5. Use a Walking Stick for Balance

Use a walking stick or trekking pole for balance. A stout wooden stick about shoulder-height is best to use for balance when you cross a river. Use it to form a stable tripod with your two legs and always move with two solid points of contact. Keep the stick on your upstream side so that the current keeps it in place. If the stick is on your downstream side it will be more difficult to keep it in position. A trekking pole also works but the narrow tip may get caught between boulders or logs. Don’t use two trekking poles; tie the other one on your pack so it’s out of the way.

6. Wear Shorts for River Crossings

Wear shorts for river crossings. It is not a good idea to wear long pants for river crossings. They have more drag than shorts and are slower to dry if they are wet. Change before crossing into a pair of nylon shorts or just leave on your underwear and stow your long pants inside your pack.

7. Face Upstream and Shuffle Sideways

If you are crossing fast water, always face upstream. Lean into the current against your walking stick and shuffle your feet sideways. Always maintain two points of contact with the riverbed—two feet or one foot and the stick—to keep a solid base. Angle slightly downstream as you cross the river.

8. Unbuckle Your Pack

Unbuckle the sternum strap and waist belt on your pack before making a river crossing. If you slip and fall into the current, you need to jettison your pack so it does not fill with water and drag you down. Before your pack fills up with water though, you can use it as a flotation device. Grab it and kick toward shore. If the pack is waterlogged, let it go so you can swim. If you are being carried by a swift current or in a rapid, get into a seated position with your feet facing downstream and paddle with your arms. Let the current take you to slower waters, then swim for shore.

River Crossing Life Safety Tips

River crossings are dangerous so you need to know what to do if your climbing buddy falls into the water. Whenever you try to save someone from shore, make sure you are securely anchored so you are not also pulled into the river. Here are the three basic ways to help a friend. If he is close to shore, reach out with that long walking stick or a trekking pole. Make a quick floatation device like a rolled up foam sleeping pad that is secured by a piece of webbing and toss it out to him. Lastly, only go into the water if you have no other options but realize that by doing so you are potentially becoming the second victim of the river.