How to Cross Streams and Rivers


A hiker crosses the creek on the Lost Coast Trail near Shelter Cove, California. (Photo: Seth Levy)

Spring showers mean flowers to some, but hikers are right to think of swollen streams before crocus blossoms. Heavy rain, melting snowpack, and still frozen ground all can cause streams and rivers to widen, deepen, and accelerate.

Though steam and river crossings deserve special attention in spring, crossing moving water is not only inconvenient, but also potentially hazardous, year-round.

According to Arizona State University's Force of Flowing Water Calculator, a stream two feet deep flowing at five miles per hour exerts more than 200 pounds of pressure. Unfortunately, abstract physics become real when unwary hikers run afoul of raging rivers.

In Maine, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy established an official canoe ferry service after an AT thru-hiker drowned in 1985 while attempting to ford the Kennebec River. And every year, other hikers suffer close calls.

Here are some basic tips for crossing moving water when hiking and backpacking.

More advanced techniques may be needed for water crossings you encounter on the trail.

Beforehand

Where and when you head for your hike matters.

  • Check the weather. Has there been a lot of rain? Have the temps recently warmed in an area with dense snowpack? If so, plan a hike in an area without deep or numerous stream crossings or at risk of flash floods.
  • Consider upstream events. During a long crossing, even a shallow stream can deepen to a rushing river if an upstream hydro dam releases or if a faraway storm dumps rain. Treat even shallow crossings with caution when water levels can increase rapidly.
  • Consider time of day. A particular stream or river's flow is the result of numerous seasonal and daily factors. However, during times of greater snow melt and runoff, minimum flow generally is in the morning and peak flow is in the late afternoon. So that shallow stream you crossed after breakfast may be deeper and faster on the way back to the trailhead.

Choose Your Crossing

You've encountered some moving water you need to cross. Now find your way across.

  • Scout a crossing. Sometimes the trail crosses at the deepest point. Look upstream and downstream for shallower water. Be aware that narrower crossings will likely be deeper and swifter. Smoother water usually means a smooth streambed to walk on.
  • Look downstream for falls, rapids, or other hazards, should you get swept off your feet. Don't cross above dangerous hazards.
  • Look at both banks. If the far bank is steep or undercut, don't cross there, as you may have trouble getting back up on land.
  • Water is probably deeper and faster than it appears from shore. Be sure you can make it all the way across and find the trail on the other side with the crossing you've scouted.

Get Gear Ready

Think ahead and protect your gear and yourself.

  • Protect essential gear. Put anything that needs to stay dry (for example your camera, GPS receiver, phone, matches, map) in a waterproof dry sack or case. Or at least pack it safely inside your pack, instead of around your neck or in your pocket.

  • Place extra layers in a dry stuff sack. Wet clothes can lead to hypothermia, especially in cool weather. If you fall in, you'll want or even need dry clothes on the other side.

  • Keep your shoes on. Don't go barefoot. Stream bottoms often accumulate a thick coating of slippery algae, and sharp rocks can damage feet. Take off your socks and remove your insoles, but cross in your usual hiking footwear, or change into sport sandals, water shoes, water socks, or camp shoes. Or you can multitask by soaping up (with a biodegradable soap) a dirty pair of extra socks. Socks provide more traction than bare feet, and might end up cleaner to boot.
  • Roll up your pants. Besides keeping them dry, bare legs present less resistance to rapidly flowing water.
  • Loosen your pack. Unbuckle your backpack's hip belt and sternum straps and loosen its shoulder straps so you can slip out of your pack quickly if you fall. Until it fills with water, a pack is more buoyant than you and can force you under. Plus, a heavy pack can move you downstream faster. The hiker that drowned on the AT was reportedly trapped by a fully-buckled pack.

The Crossing

Get moving to the other side.


  • Trekking poles or a stick can help with balance.
    Face upstreamFacing upstream can make it easier to confront the force of the water and keep your balance. Rely on your trekking poles or hiking stick to brace your downstream side.
  • Maintain at least two points of contact (preferably three) with the bottom. If you don't use trekking poles or a hiking staff, grab a stout stick and plant it firmly ahead before lifting your advancing foot. A pole or stick also lets you determine the depth of the stream ahead before each step.
  • If possible, don't lift your feet at all, but shuffle across. Groups might hold hands or link arms.
  • Be careful on rocks and logs. It's tempting to rock hop to keep boots dry, especially if rocks are laid out as stepping-stones. But a fall from a slippery rock will soak all your gear, and put you at risk for a “rock to the noggin.” Trekking poles or a stick will help with balance. Use logs as bridges with caution, as they can be slippery or tippy.
  • Wading may be the safest option.
  • Watch for rising water levels, especially on longer crossings, which can indicate a flash flood or dam release upstream.
  • If the water is moving fast, angle downstream and across with the current, instead of fighting it directly across.
  • Prepare to fall. If you fall during a stream crossing, get out of your pack ASAP. If you can hold on to it by a strap without compromising your safety, do so, but do not risk drowning to save your pack. Point your feet downstream and aim for the bank in a diagonal direction. Don't try to fight the current straight across.
  • Avoid ropes. Roped crossings are an advanced technique that has the potential to increase hazards if not executed skillfully. Do not attempt a roped crossing without training. If you lack the training to rig a roped crossing on a river that requires it, come home with a good story, and don't try to ford the water.
  • Planning an advanced swim or float across a river? Read Colin Fletcher's "River Crossings" section of The Complete Walker.
  • Don't be afraid to turn back. Crossings can deepen dramatically in the middle, where increased water velocity removes more of the stream bottom. Poke around to see if a there's a shallower spot close by. If all else fails, turn back. Coming back with a good story is better than not coming back at all.

 

Have a suggestion for safe water crossings? Share it below.

Filed under: Outdoor Skills

Comments

trouthunter
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May 6, 2011 at 7:35 p.m. (EDT)

That's a very important bit of information, and one of the risks I see people taking without thinking things through, or understanding all of the problems one can encounter.

I like your advise for taking the time to scout out the river, and taking time to evaluate your situation.

I agree, turn back and live to try it another day if you have any doubts, stop & think it through.

One of the tricks wade fishermen employ is finding a spot in the current that is strong enough that you can actually "sit" into it, giving your legs and back a break for a moment. The fact that rapidly flowing water only two or three feet deep can be forceful enough to support your body weight is testament to it's power.

If you step off into a hole and go under in a fast current section (run) of river you can find yourself at the mercy of the current until you can manage to get out of that run of water and find slower water.

The advice found in the article for using a stick to test the water in front of you, and to help with your balance, can't be overstated.

Keeping your side turned to the current lessons your profile and reduces drag.

In low water with very fast current lifting one leg out of the water can lessen the amount of force you feel from the water, but your balance suffers also, that's one reason a stick can help so much.

Thanks for a great article!

kayakingdog
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May 6, 2011 at 9:30 p.m. (EDT)

yes, never underestimate the power of water...

whomeworry
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May 6, 2011 at 11:48 p.m. (EDT)

One sure fire killer is brush and log jams in midstream.  Do not cross above such obstructions if possible.  Should you get swept into these obstacles you can get pinned against them, under water, with a quick and fatal outcome. 

Ed

Tipi Walter
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May 7, 2011 at 9:14 a.m. (EDT)


These is a relevant thread for me as I am preparing a long backpacking trip into the Cohuttas where there are two major river trails with each having around 40 crossings.  Yikes. Here are my thoughts:

**  Know your bail out points.  I am surprised the article did not mention this as it's probably one of the most important bits of information for hikers pulling a river trail.  Bail out points either are known from experience or from a good map, and they are simply being on the right side of the river when a rainstorm comes in and nixes your plan on crossing.  A bail out point is nothing more than a marked sidetrail leaving the main river trail.

Therefore it is important to have a good topo map of the area so you can plan an emergency bushwack out if no side trails are available, but in the Southeast Appalalchian mountains where I backpack, it is very difficult to bushwack on creek banks which have no trails.

When I go on the Slickrock Creek trail with its 12 crossings, I always plan for the possible bailouts:  Big Stack Gap trail by Wildcat Falls, Ike Branch near the Lake, Nichols Cove trail, Stiffknee trail, etc.  The Cohuttas have these side trails too, like Peniteniary Branch.

**  Use boots when it's a rough crossing.  Yeah, forget about dry boots if the crossing is deep and go ahead and use your boots as they offer the best footing of all alternatives, and better than crocs (million times better than bare feet).

**  Two hiking poles.  This is a no brainer, although as a rule I only carry one, but you can look for a stick to augment your Two Rule.

**  Rock hopping is age related.  Yes, in the old days I could take gazelle jumps with a 65 lb pack and fly thru the air from rock to rock, but not anymore.  Now I pull baby steps on creek crossings and go real slow.  As the article says, I always plant one foot before moving the other.

**  Do not wear gloves in the winter when crossing.  You will invariably lean over and use a hand for support on a wet or underwater rock, so keep the gloves in the pack.  Oh, and if the camera is in your shorts pocket, pack it inside the pack.

**  Beware on the approach to the crossing as you maneuver along the bank as often this is the place where the rocks are slimy, wet and slick and many backpackers have fallen hard before ever reaching the water.  They are scrutinizing the water itself and forget about the rocks underfoot.

**  As a last resort, you can wait it out, although this option has a Chris McCandless feel to it, except in my neck of the woods the waters will lower considerably in three or four days.  Most backpackers do not like this option as then they can't get home and a possible Ranger Alert begins. Tell your significant others about High Water, Rains, and possible delays---before you go.

**  As an obvious proponent of UltraHeavy backpacking, or at least carrying tremendous loads in food and books, I have to say the hardest part of river crossings is fording with a refrigerator strapped to your back.  Every wobble is magnified, every little slip becomes a close fall, and the Towering Behemoth only wants to slam you down to the ground, in this case under water.  So, it's a real challenge crossing high fast water with a big load.  Go slow.  And definitely don't take the trail's "official" crossing point as gospel.  Scout out both up and downstream, and many times you will find a great, wider or more shallow ford.

trouthunter
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May 7, 2011 at 11:02 a.m. (EDT)

Tipi Said:

"Therefore it is important to have a good topo map of the area so you can plan an emergency bushwack out if no side trails are available, but in the Southeast Appalalchian mountains where I backpack, it is very difficult to bushwack on creek banks which have no trails."

Absolutely!

I would add to that taking time at home (maybe that's what you meant Tipi) to study a topo of the area you are heading into so you have a working knowledge of the terrain around you.

In any event, Tipi is correct, you must plan with a topo, not figure it out as you go.

Waiting until you are in dire straits to study a map is poor preparation.

As Tipi points out, creek banks in the S. Appalachians can be quite treacherous with slick rocks and huge boulders that you can't walk around because one side is in deep water and the other side is buried into a steep bank. Then you also have to contend with heavy foliage which is Amazon like in many cases.

Often times it is easier to locate a route where you can climb up the bank 50 or 100 feet before trying to walk parallel with a river in a steep gorge. You have to get away from the collision of water, huge rock, tree fall, eroded banks with exposed roots and heavy plant growth, found along banks.

Stream crossings in waist deep water can require as much energy expenditure as walking a couple miles of difficult trail and I've often been surprised how exhausted I was after a difficult crossing.

Tipi Walter
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May 7, 2011 at 11:49 a.m. (EDT)

trouthunter said:

Often times it is easier to locate a route where you can climb up the bank 50 or 100 feet before trying to walk parallel with a river in a steep gorge. You have to get away from the collision of water, huge rock, tree fall, eroded banks with exposed roots and heavy plant growth, found along banks.

 Creek gorges are often terrible places to bushwack thru as one of my trips thru Pisgah NF and Upper Creek proved back in '84.  I lost the trail high above the river and knew if I reached the water I could find my way out.  Unknown to me, the hillside dropped off to a near vertical face and I became a reluctant mountain climber with a 50 lb pack.  There's a point you reach where you can't go back up and you can't get down, and so you hang on in panic mode with a large backpack.  River gorges are very scary places.

trouthunter
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May 7, 2011 at 12:03 p.m. (EDT)

"reluctant mountain climber" - I like that.

Yes Tipi, there are times when I've found I had very few good options and after a couple miles of bushwacking I was slap give out.

Seth Levy (Seth)
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May 7, 2011 at 2:50 p.m. (EDT)

I took the official "AT Ferry" across the Kennebec River near The Forks, ME. The water was so shallow the canoe scraped bottom a few times and i began to regret taking the "easy way out."  In the middle of the river, the water level suddenly rose, and it took Steve the Ferryman and I paddling hard for a few minutes just to cross.  Since then, I've had enormous respect for crossings.

In Maine this spring, I would expect water would be especially high, so all you southbound AT hikers - Be Careful!

Callahan
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May 7, 2011 at 5:01 p.m. (EDT)

In shallow and low flow crossings use two support sticks or trekking poles or combo of to provide additional stability, particularly if slippery conditions exist.

In higher flow that may sweep a second support out of contact with the floor surface and therefore may unbalance you causing a fall.  Use one pole or preferably a larger stick that provides two handed grip, waist and head height.  Not only placing the stick slightly forward but additionally upstream as a debris blocker and this also grounds the stick better with the water  pressure from the flow.

Tipi Walter
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May 7, 2011 at 6:25 p.m. (EDT)

Callahan said:

In higher flow that may sweep a second support out of contact with the floor surface and therefore may unbalance you causing a fall.  Use one pole or preferably a larger stick that provides two handed grip, waist and head height.  Not only placing the stick slightly forward but additionally upstream as a debris blocker and this also grounds the stick better with the water  pressure from the flow.

 This is true and reminds me of one of my worst crossings in flood waters on the Upper Bald River back on a trip with my dog in 2007.  After about five days of rain on a 12 day trip I was scheduled to return and cross over the Upper Bald to get out.  The usual ford is below the knee deep, this time it was belly button high and rushing with tons of water all around me.  I had my dog in one hand and my hiking pole in the other and the current slammed my dog against my right leg and we all very nearly tumbled into the raging waters.

In one quick instant I flung my dog out in front of me to claw his way to the far bank while I seriously considered Death as a metal-tasting, copper?, sensation in my mouth for the next several hours.  A few miles downstream I flung off the pack and took a picture of the tumult.


53-15.jpg


40CascadesonBaldRiverinHighFloodStage.jp

It's hard to believe this is the same place.  The above shot shows Little Mitten sitting on a Bald River rock during a dayhike.  The second fotog shows the same exact place on the day I had to cross it, but my attempt was further upstream by about three miles and of course at a more level ford.  It was butt terrifying.


Robert Rowe
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May 7, 2011 at 7:11 p.m. (EDT)

Visions of "Deliverance" dance in my head ....

Yogi Robt

_____________________________________________________________

As long as the idiots don't like you ... it proves you're not an idiot --  Ted Nugent, outdoorsman & musician

trouthunter
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May 7, 2011 at 7:18 p.m. (EDT)

Cool photos Tipi,

I have wade fished several tailwaters where the water level was dictated by the number of electric turbines they have running at any given time. I have fished rivers that look like your photos twice in a single day, so it's not hard to believe at all.

One of the rivers I fish is over 300 yards across and you do not want to be caught out in the middle with the water rising fast!!

Sometimes the water level in tail waters is at low, or normal flow, and sometimes it is class 5 white water. All within a few hours.

There are schedules for the release of water  that are made available to the public via phone recordings, websites, or sign postings.

Most places have large signs warning people that the water can rise suddenly without warning, and to be alert.

When the power generating turbines open it takes a while for the rush of water to reach you depending on how far downstream you are from the powerhouse, and what the river gradient is. Sometimes this leads people to believe they have changed the schedule and it's safe to fish a while longer.

I'm always shocked by the number of people I see wade fishing wide rivers who have not taken the time to get the water release schedule. Or by the knuckleheads who stay in the water as it is rapidly rising trying to get that one last cast.

Every once in a while you hear of one drowning.

Jake W
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May 8, 2011 at 2:30 p.m. (EDT)

I like the "UltraHeavy backpacking" name Tipi! I've always just referred to myself as more the 'mule' type but ultraheavy is much more catchy! Forget those ultralighters, I'm going to pack some more food into my bag! Away I go, (slowly!, but surely).

Just Kidding Ul'ers!

Tipi Walter
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May 8, 2011 at 10:15 p.m. (EDT)

I'm getting my kit ready for the next trip and eyeballing a cantaloupe and a bag of apples lovingly as certain additions to my food load.  Who says you can't pack out melons?  In fact, I one time humped a whole watermelon into the Pisgah NF, Wilson Creek area.  UltraHeavy backpackers do the impossible, and eat their way to lighter weight.

trouthunter
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May 8, 2011 at 10:26 p.m. (EDT)

We will be waiting on another great trip report Tipi.

I say take the cantaloupe & apples.

I often carry fruit, potatoes, etc. I do like fresh food better than dehydrated.

Where to this time Tipi?

whomeworry
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May 9, 2011 at 6:12 a.m. (EDT)

Apparently there are others who also wish those damn fish scales went to 100 pounds - or more…

My week long summer kit typically weighs 60 pounds, about ten pounds lighter than what I hauled in my youth.  I always get goofy looks when passing hikers see me toting a pizza box into the wilderness, or a wok with a cooler full of fresh vegetables and meats, not to mention the liter vessels of wine, whiskey or cognac to help wash it all down.  The heaviest thing I ever packed was a pony keg for a week long base camp about twelve miles overKersargePassin the high Sierra.  Despite using a Kelty frame customized just for this purpose, the load was very balky, making the weight even more burdensome. While it makes for a great story, I never came close to attempting such nonsense again.

Ed

Tipi Walter
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May 9, 2011 at 7:34 a.m. (EDT)

trouthunter said:


Where to this time Tipi?

 My plan is to enter Big Frog wilderness and go south into the Cohuttas and leave when I feel like it. 

Tipi Walter
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May 9, 2011 at 7:49 a.m. (EDT)

whomeworry said:

Apparently there are others who also wish those damn fish scales went to 100 pounds - or more…

My week long summer kit typically weighs 60 pounds, about ten pounds lighter than what I hauled in my youth.  I always get goofy looks when passing hikers see me toting a pizza box into the wilderness, or a wok with a cooler full of fresh vegetables and meats, not to mention the liter vessels of wine, whiskey or cognac to help wash it all down.  The heaviest thing I ever packed was a pony keg for a week long base camp about twelve miles overKersargePassin the high Sierra.  Despite using a Kelty frame customized just for this purpose, the load was very balky, making the weight even more burdensome. While it makes for a great story, I never came close to attempting such nonsense again.

Ed

 I too have carried all sorts of tremendous loads.  Some of my recent trips have been absurdly heavy---by choice.  In '94 I humped the canvas cover and liner to an 18 foot diameter tipi and it kicked my butt.  And there's nothing like trying to get a 140 pound cast iron woodstove onto a mountain top in the middle of nowhere where there are no roads.  I did this little exercise three different times.  It's done like a domino on the ground: lift one side up and over, set it down---repeat.  With an 800 foot elevation gain, you don't have to follow the switchbacked trail as it's easier to just go straight up the mountain.  Remember the guy who carried his mother up to Mt LeConte on a chair strapped to his back?  He was an UltraHeaviest.

N2DaWild
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May 9, 2011 at 11:38 a.m. (EDT)

Very important concepts indeed.

gonzan
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May 9, 2011 at 12:01 p.m. (EDT)

What a great article! I grew up playing in and around the swift water in the gorges and canyons of the cumberland escarpment, and learned quickly how powerful and terrible the water can be. It was an advernture figuring out how to navigate the treacherous banks, boulders, and crossings.  It is easy not to think about how daunting crossings would be for the uninitiate; a helpful a list of tricks and cautions is perfect.

Explorer Robby
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May 9, 2011 at 1:24 p.m. (EDT)

I have seen myself plan a trip with a water crossing that I could actually step from rock to rock and not get my feet wet the day I camped beside the stream. After a good afternoon shower we watched the water level rise almost 9'. When we made the crossing the next day (over 12 hours later) the water was still above my waist. If it had of been flowing, we would probably have waited another day to make the crossing. Where we were we had to make a river crossing even if we turned around and went out the way we came in (and that was down river, so I expect it was still at higher levels). I learned alot of respect that day. I now try to make sure I have a way out without a river crossing now, and I always bring extra food just in case.

Rick-Pittsburgh
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May 9, 2011 at 6:53 p.m. (EDT)

Very good info. The algae bare foot thing is something that I have a bit of experience with. Ohiopyle State Park(S.W. Pa.) has natural waterslides. Even if I am only there with the wife just watching for a few hours the first aid kit is with me. I always wear my Teva Omniums anytime I am exposed to water. It never fails, someone is in bare feet and they slip, fall, and get hurt. It happens so regularly I pretty much expect it. I kinda feel that in areas such as this people over look the possibility of slipping on rock and crackin the ole melon. At the same time many of the people that come to the slides are people who don't regularly subject themselves to that type of environment. That place is nothing but rock.

Alicia
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May 16, 2011 at 8:33 a.m. (EDT)

Thanks for all the feedback and the additional tips and suggestions.

izogi
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May 18, 2011 at 10:36 p.m. (EDT)

Hey thanks for the great article. I think the optimal way to cross a river various from place to place depending on environment and the common types of rivers in an area, but most of what's mentioned here should be common and very important advice all-over.

I've been interested in river crossing for a while. The New Zealand Mountain Safety Council is perpetually researching optimal methods for crossing rivers in this region, and every few years the advised methods change slightly, which I find surprising because it's not as if crossing rivers is a new thing but I guess rivers are also extremely complex things, and sometimes the only way to learn for sure is to carefully study the times when things went wrong.

Certainly one of the things that gets repeated over and over again in New Zealand (probably because it's so hard to get through) is for people to always be mentally prepared to turn back or simply stop and camp and wait for a river to go down. Far too many people over here have killed themselves through falling into heuristic traps, frequently things like their car being parked 5 minutes from the far side of a flooded river.  Group dynamics and trust of other people are also an important thing.  I think the worst crossing decision I've been a part of, which I'm not very proud of, was this one which I took a short video of as the last couple of people came across. The group was okay and had some fairly experienced people in it as well as a couple of relative newbies, but the dynamics weren't working so well that day with some increasing disagreements. The decision to cross had been made before the last few (very experienced) people showed up, and were probably influenced by some desires to get to a dry place fofr the night. That was the last time we crossed anything that day, and we ended uncomfortably camping for a couple of days waiting for it to stop raining and for the side creeks to go down. (Full story here.)

Seth, or anyone, I'm curious about a couple of things in this write-up.

Something you suggested is facing upstream.  Could you or someone please elaborate on this?  I've not heard it phrased that way before, but possibly because most of the river-crossing material I've read has focused on group crossings when you tend to line up in one form or another with one person taking the brunt of the current on their side. (Either that or, depending on the specific method, the person on the end could be a very light person with someone strong inside them holding them up as a shield to block the current from everyone else.)

The other thing I'm curious about which you mentioned is un-buckling one's hip belt.  I nearly always leave mine done up, although I always disconnect the sternum strap for any significant crossing. If you slip and fall in, and happen to have waterproof pack-liner inside (which nearly everyone here does, at least, because it rains so much), you could happily end up floating on your pack and it's a life-saving device.  Having tried it a few times in a river safety course, there's no way I'd ever want to risk losing my pack in a crossing, though it's handy to be able to dump by popping open the hip-belt it if it does become a problem.  The pack will lift up from your hip (so the sternum strap could choke you if it's not opened), but apart from that it's often possible to float across a river quite happily.  Sometimes it can be a pain to stand up once back on dry land if the river dumps you there with a very heavy water-logged pack. :)

cfmiller58
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May 18, 2011 at 10:51 p.m. (EDT)

Good article. I take as much from other experiences listed in the comments as I do the articles.  Good stuff.

 

heathcote
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May 19, 2011 at 1:17 a.m. (EDT)

It was so nice to read the post from izoqi from New Zealand, Mountain Safety is the top organisation promoting safe travel in the NZ wilderness and their advisories are to be trusted. However the organisation entrusted with the management of the wild areas "Department of Conservation" (DoC) can not be trusted in up todate information on river conditions. Some offices seem to employ sales people instead of rangers to run the information desk and on two seperate occasions I have had to complain in this regard. Both involved flooded rivers close to the offices involved and on both occasions visitors from overseas were put at serious risk and had to be advised and escorted out of the bush. When in New Zealand please do not venture into bush areas even for a day unless well trained and properly equiped and prepared for emergency stop overs. Medical kit, survival bag or tarp, and emergency food should always be in your pack. With modern ultra light hiking gear redily available this is no hard ship to carry and could save your life. One other point to note is toileting; going 5 meters off a dense bush track for a comfort stop can get you hoplessly lost! If in a party have someone stop to guide you back to the track or route. If alone know how to use your compass with deliberate error aim off to refind a known position from which to navigate back to safety.

Live your dream but live safely!

whomeworry
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May 19, 2011 at 4:04 a.m. (EDT)

izogi said:

..Something.. ..suggested is facing upstream...  ..please elaborate on this?..

The other thing I'm curious about.. ..un-buckling one's hip belt.  I nearly always leave mine done up... ..If you slip and fall in.. ..you could happily end up floating on your pack and it's a life-saving device. 

Facing upstream:
Facing upstream offers more control. If you are crossing a stream big enough to consider safety, you should be using some sort of staff for additional stability.  If you were facing downstream, and the current pushed you off your stance, your arms would be taking the brunt of this shoving match, one you’ll probably lose.  Facing upstream you can lean against the staff but your legs will still absorb the brunt of the force.  Facing upstream also permits a greater width in your stance between the staff and your legs.

Unbuckle waist strap:
What you say about the pack acting as a floatation device is true – sometimes - but it is a double edged sword.  Your pack also increases the surface area the current can push against, making it harder to recover, once cast adrift.  Furthermore should you attempt to jettison the pack after your fall, it may “weathervane” you into undesirable orientations, sometimes making it impossible to complete the jettison procedure or regain control.  Another issue is floatation devices are only beneficial when they keep your head above water; that pack can float over you, forcing your head under, or at least making it one more challenge to deal with.  Then there is the issue of the pack snagging up on something in the water.  The force of the current may make it impossible to unbuckle your pack, effectively trapping you in place.  Lastly, thinking your pack will float assumes relatively short emersions.  I forded some rivers in Alaska where crossings were one hundred yards wide, or more.  By the time we reached the other bank the current swept us almost a mile downstream, and our packs were more like sacks of wet laundry than floatation devices.  All things considered, unbuckling the pack is the safer option.

Ed

izogi
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May 19, 2011 at 6:21 a.m. (EDT)

@heathcote: Hey, thanks. It's just another place in the world but I think of it as home. :) And yes, DoC's a mixed bag. There are some brilliant rangers working at DoC who know their patch really well and can give excellent advice on how to treat everything local, but it's tough to employ and train people into those kinds of jobs with the budget DoC has, so sometimes the info's a bit thing and the advice can be very conservative by default or sometimes just bad. The Mountain Safety Council, as you indicated, is more of an organisation that's built around researching all sorts of local outdoor safety issues and then training people, and ultimately training them to be trainers.

@whomeworry: Thanks for filling in the gaps. So are you meaning to lean into the current as opposed to with the current so as to be more in control a fall if there is one? That part makes sense to me, although I think I'm just confused because in some circumstances facing directly into a current could also increase surface area for the water (two legs instead of one, and possibly a wider waist) and make falling more likely. Especially with linked crossings, you'd lose all the benefit of having a single person on the end taking most of the water's force off everyone else, but I'd have thought it'd also make a difference as a single person. It depends on the river too, I guess, which I suppose is where experience comes in (and I'm certainly still accumulating that) and why it's a good idea to take as many safe opportunities in rivers with experienced people as possible.

Regarding the pack thing, I've frequently found that when I end up in water, my pack immediately rolls underneath me and keeps me upright, although I'm sure that's not an absolute rule.  A couple of times when being swept down a river (in a controlled training exercise) I found that it liked to go first, with me facing backwards floating on it, and tended to protect my head from anything (rocks, etc) that I was being swept into.  I think that's why I'm cautious about wanting to let it go because it's potentially also such an excellent safety device in a dangerous river for other reasons. But I take your point that it can also turn out to be a hindrance and potentially lethal in certain circumstances.

bobcrowley
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May 19, 2011 at 6:57 a.m. (EDT)

i ll be crossing burnthouse branch creek tomorrow in wilson creek, pisgah nat fst, either from the greentown trail, 268 or the greentown trail shortcut 268a, trying to find where or if these trails connect, and last time i turned around rather than cross cause it was still late winter, but it looked deep enough to wade, though if i ll find the trail connection is another story

Catherine Baldridge
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May 19, 2011 at 3:05 p.m. (EDT)

Release the waist band.  My pack held my head underwater while my friends stood and laughed at me because I had slipped and fallen in a stream on the Appalachian Trail. 

Face up stream and side step so one leg won't wash against the other and trip you.  You can lean forward into the current.  Glacial streams in Alaska are so cold you might not be able to feel your feet.

I wear flip flops because I can hold on to them with my toes.  They float.

Try your crossing first without the pack.  I cross in my undies to keep boots and shorts with pocket contents dry.

gonzan
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May 19, 2011 at 3:41 p.m. (EDT)

 

I agree that virtually every crossing is going to be different and requires handling differently.

As Ed mentioned, facing upstream typically helps prevent you from being toppled over, and gives you more control in the event of the water pushing you over topside. If you face upstream or lean aggressively into the water sideways, and pay really close attention, you can effectively use the current to drive your feet into the bed of the watercourse. If the current is strong enough to sweep your feet out from under you, then it will have been more than strong enough to topple you over. Between the two option, being swept over sends you head first and head under with you pack on top of you pushing you under. This takes a lot of effort and time to recover from. It is much easier to regain footing with you are feet first and on your back or side.

Whether I unbuckle my waist/lumbar belt depends on the condition of the location I am crossing and how well I know the river or stream. The more violent, unpredictable, and treacherous the conditions, the more I will opt to unbuckle. Falling into violent water with a pack on greatly increases the difficulty recovering by limiting your mobility, making swimming next to impossible, and greatly increasing the force that the water can exert on your person.  When in any doubt, It would be much better to lose a pack that be drowned because of it.

Explorer Robby
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May 19, 2011 at 6:16 p.m. (EDT)

I want to hike with you , and I will make sure there is a water crossing. :)

Tipi Walter
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May 19, 2011 at 7:38 p.m. (EDT)

Bobcrowley---I hope you got my message about Burnthouse and Upper Creek.

As far as facing up or downstream, for me it always has to do with water-glint and trying to see the bottom.  I like to be able to see the bottom of a creek, if possible.  Often times there's light reflection disturbing the view, so I face in different directions.  In real high water there is no way to see the bottom, of course.  And I always leave my hipbelt cinched because with 60-80 lbs I want the pack to be secure and tight to my back with no surprise movements.  A heavy loose pack can throw off your balance even on dry land.

whomeworry
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May 20, 2011 at 5:58 a.m. (EDT)

izogi said:

..So are you meaning to lean into the current as opposed to with the current so as to be more in control a fall if there is one? That part makes sense to me, although I think I'm just confused because in some circumstances facing directly into a current could also increase surface area for the water (two legs instead of one, and possibly a wider waist) and make falling more likely. Especially with linked crossings, you'd lose all the benefit of having a single person on the end taking most of the water's force off everyone else, but I'd have thought it'd also make a difference as a single person...

..Regarding the pack thing, I've frequently found that when I end up in water, my pack immediately rolls underneath me and keeps me upright, although I'm sure that's not an absolute rule...  ..But I take your point that it can also turn out to be a hindrance and potentially lethal in certain circumstances.

Which way to face:
Attempting to present the smallest cross section to the current by standing sideways to the current (versus head on) sacrifices the functional strength and stability of the tripod formed by your legs and hiking staff.  Additionally, as Catherine points out, facing sideways to the current puts you in an all or nothing position, regarding control.  Should your up stream foot get swept, you will have no way to recover, as that foot will be forced into or past your down stream foot.  Should the downstream foot wash away, your up stream foot will offer no support, and merely be dragged along for the ride.

Group Crossings:
As for group crossings, I prefer to cross one person at a time.  If you have a rope (why not!) the first person crossing can cross with one end, then the rope is tethered on both sides of the stream to facilitate safer crossing of other party members.  Many wilderness experts consider tethering a crossing person as risky, however, since the rope can snag and turn the situation deadly.  You may consider tethering the packs of stream crossers, as this will allow a simpler recovery of gear should it get jettisoned.  Crossing linked, en masse, fails to take advantage of the best safety resource of the group, that being someone on dry land who is in a better position to react to a mishap than anyone in the water.  But this is an oversimplification, as circumstances may well dictate some form of group crossings, for example one member of the group may be too weak or injured to cross safely unassisted, or the stream may not be swift and dangerous, but merely possess a slippery bottom, in which cases a linked group crossing may reduce risk of a water incident.  In any case the linked group crossings should not be aligned with people directly up steam of one another.  If an upstream person gets swept they will become a bowling ball and sweep others downstream that are in his way.  Lastly if resorting to a group crossing, consider using a staff or long tree limb as the object that links everyone, instead of linking arms or grabbing hold of one another.  The problem with interlocking arms and and grabbing each other is should one fall they will be placing the force of their fall on one or two other people, whereas that force would be more evenly distributed among the entire group if they were all linked by grasping a pole.

I believe Freedom of the Hills has a small section devoted to stream crossing, but ultimately there is not one size fits all solution.  A good appreciation of hydraulics, a working knowledge how a tripod (two legs and a staff) can best oppose a force, and an understanding of the dynamics of the group present are the fundamentals that will help you determine the best crossing technique for each situation.

Ed

whomeworry
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May 20, 2011 at 6:05 a.m. (EDT)

Catherine Baldridge said:

..Glacial streams in Alaska are so cold you might not be able to feel your feet...

The rivers are cold too.  Actually I got so chilled on one crossing I couldn't feel my arms or legs, and found it difficult to stand steady on the other side.  I hate cold and I hate getting wet.  I am a woos!

Ed

Seth Levy (Seth)
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May 20, 2011 at 10:03 a.m. (EDT)

It's worth repeating that, while researching this article, I found experts often warned against the dangers of roped crossings in the absence of training.  I find this surprising - because it asserts that the dangers of a roped crossing gone awry are potentially worse than the danger of an un-roped crossing gone awry (taking a swim!).  Has anyone here been in a roped crossing that didn't go as planned?

izogi
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May 20, 2011 at 7:45 p.m. (EDT)

Hi Ed.  Thanks for clarifying.  I find it really interesting because at least several of our local resources seem to contradict this advice.  The only online one I can find quickly is the river crossing advice on New Zealand's Water Safety NZ site, which (and it's referring specifically to group crossings) advises at the end of that page (emphasis mine):

  • keep your body side on to the current
  • take small shuffling steps
  • move diagonally downstream with the current to conserve your energy
  • have a leader to control the crossing make sure that everyone can hear instructions before you get into the river
  • have the strongest people at the upstream end to break the flow for the others
  • have the upstream person just slightly ahead of the person next downstream and so on down the line
  • If the crossing does not go as planned: Stay linked up and back up slowly out of the river. Do not break the link until everyone is into very shallow water.

Something I've found though, is that definitely in this country people often have quite different ideas about how best to approach safely crossing a river, and usually it's a consequence of when they learned, or when their trainer learned (if they didn't learn from an official source).

I believe the points above are based on the approximately current advice of the NZ Mountain Safety Council which seems to be constantly refining its advice from ongoing research -- not necessarily because they can't decide but because gear technology changes and the popular places people go changes and the ways people go there changes and people's attitudes and experience levels change. If you take a river safety course in NZ, the course material will almost certainly trace back to the NZMSC. The NZMSC would also be specifically targeting the bulk of local rivers, which in New Zealand's main back-country districts tend to be biased towards fast flowing mountain rivers that flood quickly and go down quickly. It's probably also favoured towards common local hiking/tramping techniques. For instance, bigger overnight or longer packs with waterproof pack-liners (making them floatable) are common, and although people use walking poles they aren't anywhere near as common here as other places around the world. (Maybe there are reasons but it's probably unwise to get into that debate in this thread :) .)

With all that in mind, though, I should stress that I don't want to put anyone at risk by suggesting they try these techniques without either being certain of their safety or first getting independent advice, because it might just be that the reason they're different has something to do with local conditions over here. But I'm curious to know if that is the case, or if they're merely different because the organisations that publish them and train people don't communicate very well, or actually disagree with each other internationally.

The above website didn't cover it but I think part of the reasoning for advising to leave the hip belt fastened, particularly in a group crossing, is related to what Tipi said about wanting it to be secure and tight. If people are interlocking arms in a line, a tighter pack helps to anchor people so they can't be separated as easily, and if the line does for some reason get swept away it helps to keep it together.  The NZMSC is advising the hip-belt thing in the River Safety pamphlet downloadable (for $0.00) from this page which says "Mutual support methods provide a backup for people who lose their footing. There are two styles: (1) Using waist belts or pack straps -- this is better, especially in deep water. (2) Using a clothing grasp when packs are not work -- this is OK for straightforward crossings, only when the river is knee to mid-thigh deep and there is a weak current." Unfortunately the Bushcraft Manual which has more detail about their river safety advice isn't a free download, and I don't have one handy so I can't check specifically what it says.

In practice it's been my experience though that if someone in a line does slip, even on the end into the current, and if the line's been well organised from the start (something that admittedly doesn't always happen), they'll be held up by the rest of the group as long as there's a strong person inside who's anchored by everyone else, and the person on the end can then regain their footing.  A few years back I believe the NZMSC was advising to have a light-weight (but confident) person on the end, specifically because by far the biggest usefulness of that end person was to break the current giving an easier ride for everyone else --- the end person didn't necessarily even need to have their feet on the ground because they're really more of a battering ram. I think now the (official) advice has reverted back to having a strong person on the end, possibly because in practice everyone needs to be using the same method and people were sometimes getting confused given there's often inconsistent training between group members.

That last point above about slowly backing out is an example of something else that was almost "refined" about 5 years ago, when there was an experimental technique being considered called a zipper (I think), to let an entire group turn around and face back the way they came. I think that was decided it was too complex to teach correctly and potentially caused more problems than it solved, so I don't think it's in the official handbook.  I don't have a copy of their current handbook to see what's being advised right now, but I think it's fairly close to the list above.

Ray Anderson
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May 20, 2011 at 8:53 p.m. (EDT)

Excellent article; excellent advice for crossing streams or any fast moving water. One other thing: Don't crouch when crossing a stream. It is a natural inclination to lower your center of gravity, but when you do, you increase the chances of more water making contact with your body--especially if you bend your knees.

Tipi Walter
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May 21, 2011 at 8:18 a.m. (EDT)

whomeworry said:

Catherine Baldridge said:

..Glacial streams in Alaska are so cold you might not be able to feel your feet...

The rivers are cold too.  Actually I got so chilled on one crossing I couldn't feel my arms or legs, and found it difficult to stand steady on the other side.  I hate cold and I hate getting wet.  I am a woos!

Ed

 Izogi's points on group crossings are interesting and they get me to thinking about solo trips where creek crossings often become the most hazardous part of the whole trip---just because I'm alone.

And then there's the whole subject of creek crossings in the winter at 0F, which throws another element of pain and risk into the equation.  At such times, it's even more important that the boots stay dry, so these crossings must be done in crocs or sandals or watershoes, thereby keeping the boots in dry mode for as long into a trip as possible.

Some creek trails must be hiked all day in a permanent set of crocs or watershoes, (because of the many continuous crossings) and here is where it gets interesting as you freeze your feet for a minute or two and then continue the trek along the bank in the snow.  After a day of this my toes feel like I've got a case of Denali gangrene frostbite---so maybe there's some truth in the value of neoprene socks after all.

whomeworry
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May 21, 2011 at 8:28 a.m. (EDT)

May I suggest to the naysayers they read the prologue, and last few pages of the chapter: Lucania or Bust to Bradford Washburn’s biography: The Last of His Kind, David Roberts, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009.  The referenced passages describe Brad’s and climbing partner Bob Bates near disastrous 1937 crossing of the Donjek Rive in Alaska.  This same crossing as also recounted by Brad, in his classic understated fashion, in the American Alpine Journal, Volume III, Number 2, 1938, page 125: The Accent of Mt Lucania.  For those who wish for a more detailed accounting of this epic river crossing, check out Escape from Lucania, David Roberts,New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003.

------------------

izogi said:

Hi Ed.  Thanks for clarifying.  I find it really interesting because at least several of our local resources seem to contradict this advice... 

New Zealand– that’s American for trekker’s Utopia!  Few places on Earth I desire so much to visit, but finances leave it beyond my reach.

What concerns me about the group crossing tactics you describe, is they imply the necessity of fairly coordinated movement, and correct, instantaneous, reaction among the team, something that is usually limited to folks who practice such maneuvers, together, on a frequent basis, such as swift water rescue squads.  Perhaps the literature and techniques you reference are intended for search and rescue personnel, and not the rest of us Joes?  Keep in mind football squads practice all day executing the same basic plays to synchronize their movement, and their stakes are not life and death.  Is it wise for a group of weekend warriors to attempt these procedures lacking extensive practice?  This sounds less like good stream crossing tips than a recipe for getting soaked and a lot of laughs, provided no one gets hurt…

Another thing that struck me was the explanation of these techniques in practice included a fair amount of ifs: if the line is well organized, if the strong person is anchored by everyone else, if the end person can regain their footing - it all starts sounding kind of sketchy, as does the whole notion of the designated (sacrificial?) “battering ram” position.  If the water is so dangerous that one and all is “forced” to into performing what amounts to precision water ballet in an oversized flushing toilet, perhaps it is better to not venture the crossing at all.  Wisdom versus knowledge versus testosterone: which will save your butt - or kill you?  I am sure the search and rescue folks, not to mention next of kin, very much prefer being called to extract live bodies from the wild instead of dead ones who literally got in over their heads.  

Perhaps you have only experienced successful stream crossings, where everyone kept their feet or were successfully belayed.  Some day, if you are intent on crossing swift water en masse, you may witness the truly chaotic, frightening, spectacle of an entire group getting washed downstream.  It’s everyone for himself, and by the time all are back on dry land some will still be on the wrong side of the stream, and some will be unaccounted for – at least for a while – since no one is able to keep track of all the floaters, and one or more usually get swept WAY down stream.  This is no fun; even when no one is hurt, the drama can ruin a trip.  My advice: keep it simple, the brain doesn’t process fast enough to ponder all the ifs when things go awry, and a group has too many moving parts to be defined as simple, let alone move in a concise coordinated manner, when people start losing their footing.

Lastly –and again - I feel compelled to ask you reconsider unbuckling your pack.  Perhaps it has served you well when (if) swept away, but perhaps one shouldn’t even venture into water where one feel the need for a floatation device to keep safe.  In any case you have the option of jettisoning an unbuckled pack, then clinging to it should you choose; but do unbuckle before crossing, as you will find it very difficult to do once you are set adrift.  Some day if you insist on crossing buckled up you may experience the misfortune of your floatation device (i.e. you buckled pack) turning against you, making you feel helpless as if lashed to a big log drifting downstream.  (I was glad my buckle was undone.)

Ed

Robert Rowe
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May 21, 2011 at 8:52 a.m. (EDT)

Was discussing this subject with a very resourceful lad .....    He, in his inimitable way, suggested bringing along several condoms (!) ... to inflate, close-off the ends, and afix to the pack as a floatation-aid.   Kinda like the WWII "Mae West" CO2-actuated life-preserving vests.

Now that would make a great photo-op !

NoSmo King

trouthunter
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May 21, 2011 at 10:24 a.m. (EDT)

Robert Rowe said:

Was discussing this subject with a very resourceful lad .....    He, in his inimitable way, suggested bringing along several condoms (!) ... to inflate, close-off the ends, and afix to the pack as a floatation-aid.   Kinda like the WWII "Mae West" CO2-actuated life-preserving vests.

Now that would make a great photo-op !

NoSmo King

 Amongst my Backpacking and Fly Fishing buddies (that I learned from) we employ empty stainless water bottles shoved into the pockets of a good PFD while wading big water. It really does help, but you need a good form fitting zippered PFD like they wear on ski - jets.

izogi
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May 21, 2011 at 9:37 p.m. (EDT)

Hi Ed.  Thanks for the comments.

whomeworry said:

What concerns me about the group crossing tactics you describe, is they imply the necessity of fairly coordinated movement, and correct, instantaneous, reaction among the team, something that is usually limited to folks who practice such maneuvers, together, on a frequent basis, such as swift water rescue squads.  Perhaps the literature and techniques you reference are intended for search and rescue personnel, and not the rest of us Joes?  Keep in mind football squads practice all day executing the same basic plays to synchronize their movement, and their stakes are not life and death.  Is it wise for a group of weekend warriors to attempt these procedures lacking extensive practice?  This sounds less like good stream crossing tips than a recipe for getting soaked and a lot of laughs, provided no one gets hurt…

It's definitely aimed at everyone here who visits the outdoors and wants to learn it.  I'm fairly certain the NZMSC considers over here that the more people who've taken a River Safety course the better. This isn't to say that everyone bothers with it. You'd mostly find the interest amongst clubs and amongst the MSC's direct members.  Most of my own experiences have been with a club, and with people who know each other well enough to know who's confident with what, and I took one of the MSC's courses a few years ago when our club arranged it.  I should really pop along to a refresher course some time, though.   On regular outdoor trips we'd usually take reasonable opportunities to hop in a river in a group and practice it, and if there are newbies tagging along, we'd bring them with us (with permission) and show them things and get them used to it. Really though, it's about mutual support, taking advantage of stronger people to help weaker people, and having a group with more mass and less face-on surface area to hold up against a current. It does require some coordination, but so does any river crossing, and I don't think the necessity for instantaneous correct reactions are as critical as you suggest, as long as there's experience there to stop everyone and correct for it.  Group crossings also require some trust of other people, so that's essential.  If you're not confident it then I definitely wouldn't recommend it, but I think in some respects it's something that's hard to convey properly without demonstration and training in controlled situations (which is what the courses are for).

I should really stress that one of the strongest things conveyed in such a course is that you should find optimal crossing points and never ever get in at all if there are any doubts whatsoever about safety, including the possibility of what could happen if you slip and fall, and I think that's basic advice that everyone gets everywhere and it's consistent with Seth's article. I think this is the biggest thing anyone can take from one of these courses and it's why the NZMSC wants people to take them.  Nearly every river-crossing drowning locally over here is a consequence of people getting into rivers they never should have entered in the first place, usually because they were in flood.  I appreciate your thoughts about the possibilities of getting swept away, but I'm not sure they apply because (with a couple of exceptions that I'm not proud of and have learned lots from) I doubt I or my friends would intentionally get into something where it'd be likely that slipping would result in something so serious.  I doubt even the SAR teams would enter a flooded river these days without thinking extremely carefully and being sure of their safety.  They have strong policies of not putting themselves at undue risks, and these days they can nearly always wait for any bad weather to clear and call in a helicopter.  I'm sure they'd be happy to cross rivers in groups using mutual support methods when it's the most appropriate method, though.

denis daly
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May 21, 2011 at 11:42 p.m. (EDT)

Izogi the technique you mentionened about a human Chain to cross swift water has been used since the French Indian War here. Faceing upstream to see any debri and to keep control. As far as what SAR's mandate's etc. I could email 2 friends on a National SAR volunteer team and ask if that helps you get more info if it helps in  your studies and any questions.Wouldn't be a problem at all if you have any questions..Seth thank you for the article since it pertains to me and Tippi as well for the refresher of bailout points...I was reading about this subject just 2 weeks ago...

sparkaj
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May 23, 2011 at 10:38 a.m. (EDT)

I can't stress enough how important it is to unbuckle and loosen your pack. No the back padding on a heavy pack won't float you like a floatation device like someone else questioned.

I've always known that if you are crossing semi deep water you need to unbuckle and loosen . I just got back from a treacherous 16 mile canyon hike where we bushwhacked for about 6 miles and cross the river constantly and had wet feet for 3 days.

I am pretty experienced with water crossing and usually only cross when it's knee to thigh deep or boulder hop & tree cross. I always use sticks or poles and usually keep my side facing upstream unless it's very swift and higher than my knee and then I face upstream.

2 nights ago while looking for a crossing in a particularly swift and turbuilent section of the river at around 6:45pm (no light to see the bottom with because the sun was over the canyon wall already) we deadended at a spot where the river ran between two narrow granite walls and there were a series of small rapids and falls. It didn't look much worse than some of the hairier spots we had been crossong so I went first and probed with my stick while standing on a large wet boulder. I was slowly making my way in when the current took my feet and I fell chest deep into swift freezing water (It didn't feel so cold in the sun when it was knee deep) I was bareley able to hang on to the boulder. I was facing upstream, couldn't catch my breath, and the current was pulling my pack like a parachute which was buckled & strapped tight to me restricting my arms from reaching good and the sternum strap added to the shock of cold keeping my chest from breathing. My friend reached me with his pole and after about 2 minutes of struggling I was barely able to get out.

Very scary. 

Luckily the evening temp was only about 65 and I was so pumped with adrenaline and physical exhaustion my body stayed warm. We found camp about 30 minutes later and I stripped down and was walking around in shorts only for about 1/2 an hour. Stayed warm better that way and dried off.

From then on, every time we crossed any pools or deep spots I definitely unbuckled and loosened up.

 

P.S.  keep your poles strapped to your hands. I lost mine during this incident and suffered a badly bruised shin crossing the stream without it when I slipped on an underwater boulder. Quickly found a replacement stick after that.

izogi
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May 23, 2011 at 10:01 p.m. (EDT)

Hi sparkaj:

"No the back padding on a heavy pack won't float you like a floatation device like someone else questioned."

If you meant me then I wasn't referring to back-padding on a pack.  Are you thinking of a situation where everything within the pack is bound inside a water-tight pack-liner?  Because that's what I was getting at. The conditions here which often involve rain and walking up and down rivers (often as much within as beside) tend to mean that very few (serious) people go out without such a pack liner, and there's no way I'd expect a pack to reliably float without that.  Sorry if I didn't communicate this clearly.

In typical situations it'll float through the bouancy of whatever clothing and mattress and sleeping bag and everything else you have inside the water-tight liner, though I expect precisely what occurs after that will also depend on other factors, which is why it's obviously still necessary to consider all sorts of things before leaping into a river.  Outside controlled conditions there have been very few times I've pack-floated, and a couple of them were accidental when I got out of my depth. It's not something people tend to do intentionally without careful consideration and prior experience, and tends to leave you with a very soppy heavy pack for a while afterwards.

If anyone's interested, I asked about the hip-belt thing (and also the group crossing thing) in a local forum a couple of days ago and had some feedback.  The local New Zealand expert thinking, and I really want to keep stressing that it might be inappropriate outside NZ, is definitely to be leaving hip-belts fastened, albeit whilst being ready to quickly open them.

Seth Levy (Seth)
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May 24, 2011 at 10:57 a.m. (EDT)

Hi Izogi,

I do use a sealed dry bag inside my backpack.  it's a thin sil-nylon bag, made by sea to summit.  it keeps everything bone dry, has a roll-top, and can used used as a vapor barrier liner too.  even with the buoyancy this could theoretically provide, I'd still come out strongly on the side of NOT buckling my pack.  Even buoyant, the pack will decrease your mobility in fast water, and present a larger profile to the current.  Since the pack is buoyant, it is going to want to be on "top" of the water, and this would likely mean that you were face down.  Further, if you absolutely have to swim downstream in fast water, most experts say that you'd want to do it on your back, feet pointed down stream.  This is supposedly because it's riskier to entrap a leg and become submerged that it is to hit something feet first.  Of course, there is a wide degree of subjectivity in the "best" way to do anything outdoors, from making coffee, to staying dry, to staying found, but I can think of very few circumstances where being strapped into a heavy bag, no matter how buoyant, would be a good thing.

gonzan
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May 24, 2011 at 5:07 p.m. (EDT)

 

Learning how to "swim" whitewater takes some practice. The instinct is to either stand up or float with your feet under the water. This greatly increases the likelihood feet and limbs becoming entrapped under logs and rocks. Such entrapment is usually fatal, as a swift current is far stronger than a person's ability to right themself.  As Seth mentioned, the goal is to float on your back so that you can see your approach, while bending at the so that your feet are above the surface of the water. In this position you are proceeding butt-first, have the ability to fend of rocks with both feet and hands, and have the ability to paddle with your hands. Using this method your head is the least likely thing to suffer trauma, and your limbs are not likely to become entrapped. Just be carefully to attempt standing only once you are out of swift water and over sure footing.    

Seth Levy (Seth)
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May 25, 2011 at 10:15 a.m. (EDT)

gonzan, it seems that I have taken your advice "In this position you are proceeding butt-first," in other areas of my life, not just swift-water rescue!


gonzan
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May 25, 2011 at 11:50 a.m. (EDT)

Seth said:

gonzan, it seems that I have taken your advice "In this position you are proceeding butt-first," in other areas of my life, not just swift-water rescue!


 Hahaha! That gave me a good laugh, I think I have done the same all too often :)

(PS, please forigve my many typos in the previous post)

newfiebound
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May 27, 2011 at 10:20 a.m. (EDT)

I think the best advice is a good topo map, good navigational skills with some common sense. Reading a stream becomes an art handed down from one hiker to another. Crossing at the designated spot on the trail is usually the best but as Tipi has mention various weather can have a grave effect on the conditions. Knowing how to read a stream is a vital skill even on short day hikes, we talk about the long hauls but it is on the simple day hike that injury or even death could occur just because of carelessness. 

The points made apply to any stream even what looks like the small harmless cross can be deceiving, my advice is as always never let your guard down so you keep on trekking!

Robert Rowe
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May 28, 2011 at 6:29 a.m. (EDT)

It just occurred to me to ask ....

Do any of you pack-along any rope(s), aside from guy-out line?

I realize rope is not light; so, I am guessing (?) the answer is going to be "NO".

_________________________

~ r2 ~

whomeworry
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May 28, 2011 at 3:18 p.m. (EDT)

Robert Rowe said:

It just occurred to me to ask ....

Do any of you pack-along any rope(s), aside from guy-out line?

I realize rope is not light; so, I am guessing (?) the answer is going to be "NO".

_________________________

~ r2 ~

Most of the time I bring along 100 feet of 1/4" nylon braided.  Use for bear hangings, and misc similar duties.  Suitable for rigging a hand line for stream crossings.

Ed

izogi
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May 29, 2011 at 5:45 a.m. (EDT)

Hello Seth.  Fair enough.

I mean no disrespect to anyone here but I won't ignore the advice from local experts (who do spend lots of time and effort on empirical research in local conditions and fine-tuning the advice), and I wouldn't ever ask anyone to go against their own judgement either. As I mentioned earlier though, I am very curious to figure out why the template advice is contradictory over here from elsewhere. If anyone who reads this thread has some insight then I'm all ears.

Cheers. Mike.

Tord
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June 12, 2011 at 11:03 a.m. (EDT)

The safest way of crossing a stream involves a rope, of a non-stretchy kind, and far longer than the crossing. First, you find a suitable tree to attach it to, or a friend you can depend on (strong enough to hold on even if you fall)!

What you do then is move downstream enough to keep the rope tight and cross the river/stream by walking across keeping the rope tight with you tied in at the end, so you use your arms and your walking stick/poles to keep right upside up, and cross while walking a circle segment, always keeping the rope stretched. When the first guy is over that guy helps the next till the entire procedure is reversed with last guy being secured by some of the earlier :-)!

Big backpacks can be transferred this way, if you first put them in a water-proof paddle bag, and then secured by the rope. The rope should be thick enough to give good grip. If there is a bend in the river near a suiatble crossing that can often be used to simplify the crossing! The rope should at least be three times longer than the width of the crossing, and you should train crossing before doing it fully downloaded with backpacks, et cetera!

whomeworry
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June 13, 2011 at 7:49 a.m. (EDT)

Tord said:

The safest way of crossing a stream involves a rope.. ..with you tied in at the end...

Do note being tied into a rope presents its own safety issues, if either end has a mishap, leading to the rope potentially snagging something in the water.

Ed

Tipi Walter
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June 13, 2011 at 8:05 a.m. (EDT)

newfiebound said:

I think the best advice is a good topo map, good navigational skills with some common sense. Reading a stream becomes an art handed down from one hiker to another. Crossing at the designated spot on the trail is usually the best but as Tipi has mention various weather can have a grave effect on the conditions. Knowing how to read a stream is a vital skill even on short day hikes, we talk about the long hauls but it is on the simple day hike that injury or even death could occur just because of carelessness. 

The points made apply to any stream even what looks like the small harmless cross can be deceiving, my advice is as always never let your guard down so you keep on trekking!

 There are two kinds of creek crossings:  Dayhiking or Backpacking.  Here's an example of dayhiking (or "without a pack"):

(This video was posted by gsindall and shows Slickrock Creek in NC at flood level).

While a person without a pack can do something like this---and it becomes more a swimming event---backpackers on the other hand would find this crossing nearly impossible.  Just wearing a substantial pack changes everything on water crossings.  I'd like to see the follow-up vid of these guys doing the crossing with their 60 lb packs.  Or doing this type of crossing at 20F.

gonzan
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June 13, 2011 at 10:04 a.m. (EDT)

Though I don't currently carry any Lifeline suitable rope, I would like get a some PER to take on trips where it could come in handy. PMI has one that is pretty impressive. It is 7.5mm, 15.57 kN (3480lbf), and 150ft only weighs 1.3 lbs, and prices in at around $100.

Callahan
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June 13, 2011 at 12:24 p.m. (EDT)

gonzan said:

Though I don't currently carry any Lifeline suitable rope, I would like get a some PER to take on trips where it could come in handy. PMI has one that is pretty impressive. It is 7.5mm, 15.57 kN (3480lbf), and 150ft only weighs 1.3 lbs, and prices in at around $100.

 What material is this rope ?  If double braided, what is the cover and what is the core ?  Seems incredibly light for 150ft.

gonzan
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June 13, 2011 at 1:54 p.m. (EDT)

*facepalm*

 Yeah, I completely screwed that up, sorry.

It is a classic kernmantle. Both the sheath and core are nylon, and 150ft is 3.9lbs, not 1.3. I made a double mistake: I was thinking of another 7.5mm that is 4.3/150ft, and then I mis-typed "1" instead of "4" (4 right above 1 on a ten-keypad) Regardless, I apologize for my error.

For comparison, 150ft of 10mm static sport weighs about 7lbs.

I just spoke to PMI to confirm that it is nylon and a classic kernmantle. I also wanted to clarify the diameter as it is listed as 7.5 on one website, and 8 on another. It is actually right at 7.6mm, but for certification, the numbers are rounded up.

Seth Levy (Seth)
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June 17, 2011 at 8:55 a.m. (EDT)

Hi tord - I've been thinking a lot about my comments about roped crossings being potentially hazardous, especially after fording the flooded Wassatoquoik Creek in northern Maine this week.  I was thinking about the consequences if I fell during the wide, deep crossing.  I knew to float on my back, so I probably wouldn't have drowned, and would have fought to the opposite shore downstream.  So, the consequence there would have been bushwhacking back a mile or so.  However, if I had been roped, I might have become entangled, and ended up face down.  Worse, the rope might have swung me, like a pendulum, to the shore I left from, where I would have to re-attempt the crossing.  In short, I see how a rope might make it easier to retrieve a hiker swept down stream, but I don't see compelling evidence that it improves safety.  I should say that there is a notable exception: crossings where there are distinct hazards downstream.  I suppose in this case, being roped and subject to any associated hazards would be FAR better than being swept over some water falls!

Tord
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June 19, 2011 at 11:02 a.m. (EDT)

Exactly as you surmise, this way of using a rope is the only safe way if you fall, especially if you use a quick release :-)! Seen people fall, and been saved by the rope, from a waterfall some 50 meters further downstream. Could have been nasty! Seems to be the norm that you turn with your back to the stream if you fall, especially if the rope is secured to a point higher up from the stream than you are.

Seth Levy (Seth)
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June 21, 2011 at 10:30 a.m. (EDT)

Hi Tord-

Just to be clear, I'm not saying that "this way of using a rope is the only safe way if you fall," just that the real risks of doing a roped crossing might be worth it if the risk of falling over a high falls was also present.  One thing that never ceases to surprise me is the significant differences in "standard operating procedure" for different outdoor activities. The advisability of roped crossings are certainly and taking your pack off during crossings are certainly more recent examples.  While it's tempting to say there is a "right" way to do things, this is seldom the case.  I recall Colin Fletcher writing of his genuine shock that someone would use anything other than a bandanna to insulate the handle of their pot (his hiking buddy had used a sock).

izogi
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June 22, 2011 at 6:07 a.m. (EDT)

As usual things may be impractical in a different context, but here the standard line tends to be that if there's a waterfall down-stream and a significant risk of being swept into it then it's a bad crossing decision on the grounds that there's not a good run-out if things go wrong, and ropes are advised against for the risks of getting entangled and potentially creating more problems --- part of that might be to do with complications in training people to use ropes safely. It could also be to do with the style of rivers here and other localised things, though. YMMV.

Callahan
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June 23, 2011 at 2:37 p.m. (EDT)

So let's say good common sense is key to success and survival.

whomeworry
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June 24, 2011 at 2:46 a.m. (EDT)

izogi said:

..if there's a waterfall down-stream and a significant risk of being swept into it then it's a bad crossing decision on the grounds that there's not a good run-out if things go wrong, and ropes are advised against for the risks of getting entangled and potentially creating more problems...

 Yep.

A hazard crossing with no run out isn't smart; go up or down stream whatever distance necessary to find safer going.  And under no circumstances should one cross tied into a rope, unless they don't mind turning into the world's biggest bass spoon when the line gets fouled.

Ed

Tord
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June 24, 2011 at 1:36 p.m. (EDT)

Sorry, to disagree! Seen this very method save people's lives.

Using a rope tensioned across a river is very nasty, unless it is a thick steel wire with no give at all - yep, I've tried it, on a tame creek, before learning how you should do it!

And I do have tried it myself in earnest! Not always possible to choose a position elsewhere - this was on a mountain, with no safe crossing upriver, as the ice over the mountain top lake was very dicey (with no good maps telling us how big the lake actually was - some tried that way, but had to give up. You'd had to travel pretty far down to find some flatter land, possibly safer, some extra day(s) of travel.

But it certainly is up to the individual to risk his life what-ever way he likes - but doing it a bad, if traditional, way, just because that's the way it has been done since the universe was created is not wise.

What do you hold the rope in your hand guys do if you trip? Let go and get swept away a few miles?! Or hang on and have no hands free?! Hitched in, using one, or two, walking poles, and keeping the rope tensioned all the time is the best method I've tried.

Not that different from swinging from one ridge to another while climbing - I am no climber, so the vocabulary is different, I'm sure, but I hope you get what I mean (and English is definitely not my 'mother's tongue')!

So no safety lines, that's the way you think is the best for crossing a stream?!

Good luck, and I hope you have good insurance!

Yours,

Tord

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