How To Safely Cross a Backcountry River

The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, “You never step into the same river twice.” Although this aphorism has broad philosophical implications, it still holds true if interpreted literally. Rivers are powerful and can be unpredictable. From trickles to torrents, river crossings are one of the most dangerous hurdles that hikers must overcome. So, to prepare, here are a few tips to keep in mind for the next time your hike leads you to a riverbank.

Before Your Trip

Study your map: Are there any obvious river crossings that you should prepare for?

Research beta: The internet holds a plethora of hiking guides and beta that can give you a heads-up for any challenges you may face.

Ask about the water levels by calling the park service or another land manager before your trip.

Pack wisely: Consider packing a lightweight dry bag and sandals!

Credit: Harry Berking
Credit: Harry Berking

On Your Trip

Risk versus reward

Is there another way around? Jumping on rocks may keep you dry, but practice extreme caution, because the water may make the rocks slick.

Take stock of the situation

How fast is the water flowing? Can you see the bottom of the river? Is the riverbed made up of solid rock, sand, or loose or slick boulders? What is the safest path? Typically, a wider section will be shallower than a narrow channel. As well, take a look downstream for obstacles like waterfalls that could pose a serious danger if you were to fall in.

Wear proper attire

Wearing sandals or other shoes will protect your feet from injury and help prevent slips. However, baggy clothes will make it substantially harder to move when you’re wet, especially if you end up having to swim. If you are wearing a backpack, it is wise to unclip your straps to make it easier to swim in case you fall in.

Have a plan

If you are in a group, decide whether someone should cross first, and then, set up a rope to make subsequent crossings and gear transport safer and easier. If you are alone, have a plan B. Always have a rescue plan.

Know the stance

If you are crossing alone, face upstream, or into the current, and take a wide stance, leaning forward with bent knees. Use a stick or trekking pole to create a tripod for more stability. Then, take small side-steps, judging the quality of each foot placement before committing. Avoid lifting your foot too high to prevent falling in if your other foot stumbles. Face upstream at all times, but travel at a slight diagonal downstream to save energy.

If you are hiking in a group of three or more, the safest way to cross as a unit is to form a stable foundation, such as a triangle, square, pentagon, or another shape. To form this sturdy base, group members should stand on the shoreline facing each other. Then, raise your arms, and place your hands firmly on the shoulders of the person standing next to you. With everyone holding this strong framework, take small steps as you cautiously cross the river.

Know what to do if you fall in

If possible, swim to the other side, directing your stroke slightly upstream. If the current is too strong to swim, drift with your feet in front of you on your butt until the river calms down.

River Crossing

Things to Consider

The early bird gets the worm

In the spring, water levels are the lowest early in the day before the snow melts, so time your river crossing wisely!

Water flows in tiers

The water’s surface flows at a different rate from the depths, and the flow rate is typically slower near the banks than in the middle. So, lifting your foot too high can mean it gets caught by a faster-flowing current, which can cause you to stumble or fall. This also explains why you should be cautious with every step until you are safely on the other side. The current will flow at different speeds throughout the entire river, so each step presents a different challenge.

Volume and velocity

A slow-moving river with a high volume of water can pose just as much danger as a lower-volume stream moving quickly.

Don’t rely on underwater support

Logs and boulders may seem like attractive handholds, but they can easily break loose underwater. Instead, try to rely on the stable tripod foundation that you form with a stick or trekking pole.

Practice caution with logs

Logs that span a river offer an appealing way across, but they can break loose and could even pin you underwater. Be sure to thoroughly test logs before trusting them.

Be willing to back out

If you feel uncomfortable going any further, turn back and search for another place to cross.

Know when to wait it out

Being able to identify when you shouldn’t cross a river is just as important as knowing how to ford through it. You may want to reconsider if you cannot see the bottom, the water level is above your knees, the current seems intensely strong at the riverbank, there is flash flood potential, or if the water is excessively cold. Be patient, because water levels can change within an hour!

River Crossing

The next time your adventure requires you to pass through a river, keep these tips in mind. Can you think of any more tips? If so, leave them in the comments below!