How to cross a river safely

1:07 a.m. on May 19, 2012 (EDT)
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One of the most dangerous activities a backpacker deals with is fording a river. Hikers are swept away on river crossings every season. Here is a video I produced demonstrating the basic technique for an individual in deep water and with a heavy load. While there are many ways that can be employed for a ford this video shows the most common and accepted technique as described in the book Freedom of the Hills published by The Mountaineers.

2:37 p.m. on May 19, 2012 (EDT)
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5:12 p.m. on May 19, 2012 (EDT)
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That is a great video. Excellent sound as well.

There was an interesting discussion here a few months back, crossing in a group as well.

What about jogging on the spot for a bit if the water is that cold - would it make a difference on a long crossing to enter warmer? And putting all your important things in a waterproof bag if you haven't already (fire stuff, toilet paper, gadgets etc)? If you don't have those shoes, what about putting a spare pair of socks over your boots if you can tolerate wet boots afterwards?

7:31 p.m. on May 19, 2012 (EDT)
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I agree that is a great video with great audio.

I looked like you were wearing a mic?

I used to wade fish a lot and I find many people underestimate stream crossings, and current strength in particular.

You are right, you need some kind of grippy shoe to wear on mossy rocks that also affords some foot protection.

Thanks for posting,

Mike G.

1:59 p.m. on May 20, 2012 (EDT)
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Thanks for your kind remarks. I made this video as an experiment in 2005. As a former Outward Bound Instructor I was interested to see if I could produce a video to teach an actual skill. I had watched other commercially produced backpack videos (before You Tube) for sale at places like REI and I thought they were lacking. Recently, I was looking on You Tube and noticed some others had produced river crossing instructional videos and I also found them falling kind of flat. 

I shot this video with a filmmaker for a laugh. We had no script and neither of us really knew each other. He turned on the camera and I just went into OB instructor mode and off we went. The demo we ended up with is not perfect and could be tightened up with more information included. However, without a script or shooting schedule I was pretty happy with the result and I still think it's better than anything else I have seen on TV or online. 

So I asked the filmmaker to post it on You Tube. We used filmmaking techniques which are usually absent in most instructional videos. Instead of overdubbing tacky music we added the recorded sounds of the river, walking on the rocks, and sounds of breaking sticks as I bushwhack through the brush - just like you would do in a feature film. In addition, we made a "motion picture". Rather than a "talking heads" kind of production we added motion so either I'm moving or the camera is moving.

Overall, I think it was a pretty successful experiment. Nevertheless, it may not be commercially viable as it took less than an hour to shoot but an additional thirty hours of editing.

We also did another throw away piece about lighting a campfire that could find if you search for John E Hiker.  

2:44 p.m. on May 20, 2012 (EDT)
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As A former OB instructor and mountain guide I have had the opportunity to ford dozens of rivers with dozens of clients. This video was shot in February and the water is ice cold. You can see snow on the ground if you look carefully. In addition, you are watching my third crossing. I had to cross back and forth in order to convince the cameraman it was safe to let me wear his $500 wireless microphone. 

• Trying to warm yourself before crossing cannot hurt but ultimately I think crossing in cold water is about mind over matter. It's kind of a mediation. I think people can handle a lot more pain and stress than they are aware of. I have done some group crossing where clients have been screaming and crying during the crossing. Convinced that their feet were going to fall off. The pain in their feet and lower extremities just unbearable. One kid cried for almost 30 minutes after the crossing because his feet hurt so much. On that particular crossing I crossed six times to ferry groups over. It's mostly in your head in my opinion. Experiential education is what it's all about. Once you've survived some cold crossing you get used to them it's like riding a bike. 

• Keeping your stuff in a waterproof bag inside your pack is always a good idea whether crossing a river or not. Generally, I take the time to look for a acceptable crossing location where I am NOT likely to fall in the water.

• When I took my NOLS course in 1974 we would just remove our socks and cross in our leather boots. Then we would just have to walk until they were dry. Nowadays, I prefer to keep my shoes dry and always pack water socks like I demonstrate in the video. Nevertheless, you can cross in your boots or even just your socks. I'm not convinced that placing socks over the outside of your footwear provides any advantage.  


9:15 p.m. on May 20, 2012 (EDT)
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Very nicely made video, and very informative and solid advice for beginniners and those more seasoned alike.

7:04 a.m. on June 14, 2012 (EDT)
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Thanks for including your video and your knowledge of creek crossings.  Here are some thoughts---

**  First off, with all the rocky water bars it seems the river was very low with the potential to be a real butt-kicker at higher levels.

**  The tripod system works good until the pole tip slips off a rock on the bottom of the creek.  Putting too much weight or reliance on a pole can be bad when the pole slips.  It's important to plant the pole firmly with several "double pokes" until seated, etc.

**  I use Crocs for crossing but I'd like to try water socks, although I'm not sure they can serve dual duty in camp like the crocs as the crocs are very easy to slip on and off in camp which is something done a hundred times a day.

**  You're advice to don't cross alone is problematic as all of my trips and crossings are done alone and have been for years.  I would never let the idea of crossing alone stop me from doing a trip.

**  I just wished you wore a typical 75 lb NOLS pack as the pack shown offers no realistic crossing technique since it doesn't include the whole other problem which occurs when wearing a heavy pack during a ford.  As I found, there's "dayhiking" crossings and "backpacking" crossings, and yours seems to be in the dayhiking category.  Wearing a butt heavy pack changes everything.

10:36 a.m. on June 14, 2012 (EDT)
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thanks for posting your video.  really interesting and helpful. 

observations, for what it's worth:

-water flow and pack size can vastly increase the degree of difficulty.  with a large pack and bigger water, i'll tend to carry the pack with only one shoulder strap, and try to keep that shoulder downstream.  don't want a big pack dragging you down. 

-i use dry bags anyway.  works well for rain; it's near-essential for stream/river crossings.   


-crocs are great camp shoes, light, comfortable for most people, do an decent job with protecting your feet (really sharp things, not so much) and dry very quickly.  once you put some wear on the bottoms, though, they offer no traction.  on slimy rocks or in fast-moving water, they can be a liability.  also, they aren't very secure on your feet; if one happens to fall off, it's gone floating down the river. 

-water socks are light, inexpensive, dry fast, offer some toe protection.  not the greatest for pointy underwater obstacles.  fivefingers are in some ways a more expensive version of water socks & offer similar benefits/detriments, except that the toes don't dry as fast. 

-keens offer a lot of protection.  they are heavy and most don't dry quickly.  one exception, for me anyway, is the hydro guide.  a more open design so they dry faster, screened holes in the footbed and holes in the toe bumper help water drain, and a fairly sticky siped sole.  fit might be an issue for some people - the strapping leaves something to be desired, and they are built quite wide, probably to leave room for neoprene socks.  combined with neoprene socks, they are probably my favorites for canoing & spending extended time in and around the water. 

-the more open sandals like chacos, tevas and the like are a compromise. good protection from pointy rocks, but your toes are exposed.  they dry quickly, they don't fall off, and some have a very good sole for traction.  they are mostly on the heavy side.  tevas that still use hook/loop closure are at risk of getting fouled up with silt, and i have broken some of their plastic hardware in the past.  i have a pair of chaco z1, recently restrapped by the company, that have a very sticky, marking sole.  best traction for slimy river bottoms.  i like the Z1 because they can adjust easily to accommodate socks in camp or neoprene socks for the water, simple design doesn't have much opportunity to fail, and they are supportive enough for extended walking.  they are relatively heavy, though.   


2:23 p.m. on June 15, 2012 (EDT)
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Very good demo.

I like the boots I hike in for a lot of reasons - traction is one.

While crossing water, I like the extra traction and support my hiking boots give me.

On the other side I remove the boots, wipe dry the inside as best I can - usually about as damp as they would normally be under usual trail use and put on new, dry socks.

My feet have had a refreshing rinse and a change of socks.  The damp ones go on top to dry for the next crossing.

The boots? Not affected at all.  They are selected to be comfortable all day as well as evening.  I don't have the extra weight with water or camp wear.

3:23 p.m. on June 28, 2012 (EDT)
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Meaning no disrespect to your video (which by the way is well-done) , but I often wonder whether 'How-to's of any kind don't lead people into thinking they know and understand more about a subject than they actually do.

The bane of my life is people who go on the internet to research something, then promptly head off to try it out. That's not saying that some solid information isn't helpful, but that it might lead to a false sense of security.

One example that springs to mind was a person I saw on one site giving out very bad advice about climbing - if anyone had tried what he suggested, they probably would have fallen. But the message of the postings said very clearly that his way was the right way, and by doing it, your safety would be assured. Anyone who'd climbed at a gym would have known better, but I worried about people who would decide to tackle a sheer rockface based solely on what he'd said.

Sometimes the only way to learn is by doing, and I'd hate to hear of someone with no experience at all trying to cross a river just because they'd seen a video on Trailspace telling them how to do it. Sometimes the effects of a mistake are minor. In that case they could be deadly serious.

11:30 a.m. on June 29, 2012 (EDT)
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Again, Thanks for viewing my video and adding your comments. I've had a lot of interesting reaction to this video since I posted it on May 1, 2012.  I've stated already, there are many acceptable ways to ford a river and this video only demonstrates one technique. This video was not designed to be an authoritative dissertation on river crossing. Rather, I produced it as a demo to pitch a program idea to public television. I only downloaded it recently on You Tube because I came across some other "river crossing" instructional videos and I thought my demo, from seven years ago, was much better and I wanted to see if the rest of the world agreed. I now feel vindicated as the video has had over 5000 views in it's debut eclipsing even the Discovery channel videos that have been up for several years. More impressive is how many websites (without my request) have embedded the video on their sites. I'm very flattered by this response and it indicates to me there probably is a niche market for high quality, thoughtful, wilderness instructional video. 

The subject of "how to" is interesting and probably beyond the scope of this forum but I will weigh in with a few comments since Peter1955 has raised the issue. 

I do not believe you can legislate stupid. For example, I don't eat meat. I think meat is poison and is largely responsible for most of the obesity, heart disease and cancer in the USA. However, I am NOT in favor of outlawing it's consumption. I also think soda pop contributes to obesity but I don't support the city of New York trying to regulate the size of soda drinks in the city. 

With over 20,000 miles of trekking on four continents and over 40 years of experience I consider myself an expert backpacker. I rarely if ever come across someone on the trail with as much experience as me. I am also a professional musician and music teacher.

There are many "how to" books and videos published on the subject of music and mountaineering. Not all of them have good information. Indeed, some of these books seem to have been written by authors who have no experience or expertise in the subject matter at all. The government does not regulate this industry. There is no law that says you have to know what you are talking about to publish a "how to" book. Consequently, there are lots of how to books with misinformation in them. It's easy for me to identify misinformation as I am an expert on the subject. However, most people in the market to purchase the books are novices and have no way to separate the wheat from the chaff. This is unfortunate but I'm not sure what can be done about it. 

Plenty of people read about river crossings in a book and then go do it. I wanted to see if one could do a better job with a video and I am convinced it is possible. Nevertheless, I am not aware of any lawsuits against publishers of "The complete Walker" or "Freedom of the Hills" for wrongful death due to information they read in a book. I am not a lawyer but I think Trailspace is safe from prosecution for posting this video. 

While I agree that how to guides can possibly give some people a false sense of security I don't think that how to guides should be removed from the market and certified for content.  Like I said earlier, you can't legislate stupid. This is the Darwin principle. 

Not everyone interested in going to the backcountry has the time or money to hire a guide or take a NOLS course. Most people rely on how to books and I think this is okay. For myself, I just want to make sure anything I publish comes out of my extensive experience and knowledge. I have no intention of publishing anything with false or misleading information. I cannot speak for other authors.  

I agree, there is no substitute for experiential learning. When you play the banjo incorrectly you only suffer from bad technique. When you do something really stupid in the wilderness the cost could be much higher. I almost died a couple of times in my youth during mountaineering excursions. I was lucky and learned from those formative experiences. Sometimes people aren't lucky and it is sad when they die. Nevertheless, shouldn't the rest of us do our best to educate beginners so that tragedies can be avoided in the future?

12:19 p.m. on June 29, 2012 (EDT)
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Absolutely. Every bit of information helps and, as I said, I think your video is quite good.

My concern was more about the philosophy of 'how-to' videos in general, as I would have expected would have been clear from my posting. Just a few thoughts on the downsides of that kind of format.

Perhaps the question is how any how-to video is presented; if it's 'This is the way to do it', then people are more likely to act on it than if it's presented more as 'Here is an example of a technique that can be used.'.

Maybe that's why you see so many disclaimers of the 'Do not try this at home' variety.

12:58 p.m. on June 29, 2012 (EDT)
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Peter - Agreed. I think your comment "how any how-to video is presented; if it's 'This is the way to do it', then people are more likely to act on it than if it's presented more as 'Here is an example of a technique that can be used.'." is good advice in all aspects of life. As to the disclaimers. The USA is the most litigious society on earth, again, probably beyond the scope of this forum. 

 I am including some comments from a more "international" perspective posted on another forum. I think people reading this thread will enjoy them. In life, perception is everything. Cheers, Johnny Hiker...


as a grown man who spend his childhood/adolescence between russia and ukraine, crossed many rivers and swamps; to me this guy just looks like he is teaching 2 year olds.

If you have a buddy and some rope, just tie some rope around yourself of your buddy and go in the river. If the current is too strong then your buddy will pull you out, if not then you, well just cross that river.

Jokes aside, whole video seems sill


  • As a South African who spent his youth growing up in nature, this video would be suitable if the target audience was 75 year old women.
  1. The river he was trying to cross you can basically just walk across. I've crossed much more epic rivers where you have to swim. 
  2. I agree it is good to be prepared but I think videos like this actually create fear in people. If you're so afraid to cross such a small little river, then I'm not sure if you should be hiking.---------------------------------------------------------

I have to agree, crossing a river is mostly about common sense.

  • Obviously you're going to try and find a place that looks passable. 
  • Obviously you're going to have to swim, and the current is strong - obviously you need to check for potential hazards downstream. 
  • Obviously you should try get across as quick as possible. 
  • Obviously you should check the water temp. 
  • ------------------------------------

As a kid growing up in the canadian rockies, why did my parents let me loose on the rivers ? Fording... whats that... f**k it, lets swim...

  • --------------------------------------

this guy is legit.

  • --------------------------

(%#) Did that on my first tour of hiking with my girlfriend. Being the newbies we were, we tried crossing barefoot and without a stick. How hard could it be?

It was hard... Slippy rocks, the cold and the current is quite the opponent. I don't remember if he told, but it's very easy getting hypnotized by the flow of the water. So don't look down for too long.

I had to go back and fetch my girlfriend because she was paralyzed in the middle of the river standing in the cold current. At times I had cold water scratching my balls. After a good amount of time in that river I managed getting us both safe to other side. I'm quite glad we were dumb enough not getting sticks before we went for it, because it turned out being one of the best memories I have (sadly enough?).


Ha, ha, I love the comments from South Africa and Russia. The sad fact is most First World citizens have absolutely no relationship with the out of doors and hiking, for many Americans, may be their only experience in the wilderness during their lifetimes. In North America more hikers die from drowning accidents during river crossing than from avalanches, bear attacks, or anything else in the backcountry. I'm glad you guys posting are all experts but most people are not and this video is for them (%#) not for you. --Johnny Hiker

During a recent several-year period more hikers were killed in the North Cascades (Washington State, USA) by drowning—swept away while fording or after slipping from footlogs—than by falls from cliffs, falling rock, avalanches, hypothermia, and all other wildland hazards combined . . . —Harvey Manning, Backpacking One Step at a Time

In my years of adventuring I have gained considerable experience in fording creeks and rivers. The result has been an enormous respect for the power of moving water. I have come to realize that nearly every unbridged creek of size poses risks to those who try to ford it. This article is about assessing those risks and “reading” a river, so that you will better know where and how to cross safely—and most importantly when not to attempt a crossing at all. —Ray Jardine, Beyond Backpacking

5:00 p.m. on July 21, 2012 (EDT)
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a bridge

10:54 a.m. on July 23, 2012 (EDT)
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Good job.  I would add that a lot of times crossing where the river is widest will have the lowest velocity and shallowest depth.  For streams with velocity, add one rope per party for safety.  I like to carry packs with only one strap when making crossings.

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