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Stream crossing safety while hiking and backpacking

People die in stream crossings. They underestimate the risk. It’s better to turn around than risk a dangerous crossing. Remember, most hikers delay their trips until after peak runoff. That’s the safest option.

How to assess a creek crossing for a safer place to cross.

Look downstream—and consider what happens if you get swept away.

Are there any hazards? Hazards could include waterfalls, boulders, strainers, undercut banks or bends in the river where the current gets fast and deep. If you slip and fall, you’re going for a ride. Even a light current can easily push you far downstream. Make sure there’s nothing nasty downstream that you could get pushed into. Also, make sure that the banks aren’t so steep, brushy, or snowy that you won’t be able to get out.

Beware of strainers. If there’s a log or bush in the stream, always stay downstream of it.

Crossing a swift current upstream of a submerged or nearly submerged log is incredibly dangerous. If you end up swimming in the creek, you’re very likely to get pinned against the log or its branches by the force of the current. Strainers can suck you under and keep you pinned down. It’s called a strainer because water flows through it, but a human cannot. Avoid strainers by crossing downstream of these types of hazards.

Stream crossing safety advice for hiking on the Pacific Crest Trail

PCT hikers cross a creek in Yosemite in July. Photo by Justin “2t” Helmkamp.

Slow, deep water is often safer than shallower, swift water.

You always have options if you make the time to create them. Look to cross where the water is slow. Cold water isn’t nearly as hazardous as a powerful current. In slow, deeper water, you can take your time and be more careful picking your foot placement on the bottom.

The physics of moving water is not in your favor. Water weighs 62.4 pounds/cubic foot and the pressure exerted by moving water increases with the square of its velocity. If water is moving twice as fast, it’s exerting four times as much force. If it’s moving 10 times as fast, that’s 100 times the force. Remember buoyancy as well. You’ll float more as the water gets deeper, which makes it even harder to stay firmly placed on the stream bed.

Consider straight stretches over bends in the river. Look for islands. Look into the water.

Where a river turns, there often will be deep pools, perhaps with undercuts. A straight stretch of a river might be faster, but it’s more likely to be of consistent speed with a uniform bottom.

If the water is clear, look closely for deep spots and smooth bottoms. Use the stream’s features to your advantage. Islands in the stream give you a break in the middle of the crossing and might mean that the current is cut in two and weaker on both sides. Sometimes crossing above a bend will mean that if you are pushed downstream, you’ll end up on the opposite shore.

Two hikers attempt a safe crossing of a river while backpacking.

PCT thru-hikers cross under a waterfall in the Sierra Nevada. Photo by Jacklyn Ormel.

Scout for safer crossings by walking up and down the river.

The trail is not always the best place to cross. You might need to walk for hours up and downstream looking for a place to cross. Don’t be lazy. It could cost you your life. Scouting can be extremely hard work. You may find yourself thrashing through brush and going cross country through rugged terrain. But look long enough and you’ll almost always find a safer place to cross. Use your map as well. Look for areas upstream of confluences where the flow is lessened or meadows where the rate of speed is reduced.

Do not take the act of leaving the trail lightly. Cross-country travel has its own significant dangers and consequences and you should learn to manage these risks before attempting it. If something goes wrong, you’ll truly be in the middle of nowhere.

Be careful if crossing a log.

Logs get you out of the current and they keep your shoes dry. But they also hold their own risks and dangers.

  1. Is the log securely anchored on both sides?
  2. Is it wet?
  3. Is it large enough diameter to not bend or sway when you’re on it?
  4. Are there branches in your way that could trip you up or catch your pack?
  5. Is your balance very good or more mediocre? Have you practiced crossing logs and built personal experience on them?
  6. Is there bark or rot that might break apart when you step on it?

What will happen if you fall? Will you fall far? What’s the landing zone like? Is it rocky or full of sharp sticks that could impale you? Will the log be a strainer that will pin you underwater if you fall on the upstream side? Fully assess the consequences.

Crossing a creek on a log.

Crossing a long with clear hazards below. Photo by Ethan Gehl.

Glacial silt hides murky dangers.

Glaciers often create water that you can’t see through. Glacial silt, also called rock flour or glacial flour, might make the water cloudy white, grey, or brown. You probably won’t be able to assess the depth without measuring it with a stick or stepping into a stream. And glacial silt is often a sign of a rapidly changing stream bed that might hold lots of big, unstable rocks.

The time of day can make a difference in water levels.

Usually, streams are most unsafe when the basin is still full of snow. As the day’s sun melts the snow, stream levels rise. That means that stream flow is often highest in the afternoon and evening. If it’s high, consider camping and waiting until morning when the creek might be lower. But beware, this common phenomenon does not always hold true. If you’re many miles down from the snow, it can take many hours for the water to tumble down the drainage. If you’re crossing far down a drainage, early morning flows might be very high as the melt from the evening before finally gets to your location. Look at your maps and assess how big the drainage is. The sun does indeed have a large effect so make sure you consider it when planning your crossing.

Stream crossing safety while hiking and backpacking

PCT hikers cross a deep river that’s a minor crossing later in the year. If the conditions warranted it, and they knew group crossing techniques, they might have tried grouping up. Photo by Jacklyn Ormel.

Do a risk assessment and consider turning around. Be honest with yourself.

People have different skills, knowledge, strengths and risk tolerances. If it’s not for you, be honest with yourself and don’t attempt a risky crossing. If something goes wrong in the middle of the stream, you might not be able to save yourself. The time to make a safety call is on the shore. When you’re swimming it’s already too late.

Stop, sit and think about the situation. You don’t need to cross the stream.

  1. What are the dangers? How likely is it that something might go wrong?
  2. How strong is your team? Are you experienced in working together? In this moment, how are you? Tired? Burnt out? Arguing? How weak is your weakest member?
  3. What’s your contingency plan?
  4. What’s the environment? Is it raining? Cold?

It’s always better to turn around than step beyond your safety zone. Just because a group crossed the creek yesterday, doesn’t mean you should. You may have different conditions, circumstances and risk tolerance.

We hear of far too many close calls with PCT hikers getting in trouble during creek crossings. And there have been too many deaths on the PCT.

Sometimes it’s just too dangerous. If you’re out there during peak snowmelt, or when a rainstorm is hammering your drainage, it’s quite possible that it’s simply not safe to cross. Have maps and plenty of food so that you have options. It’s ok to turn around or leave the PCT on a side trail if you think it’s too dangerous.

Crossing a creek in a snow storm

Crossing a small creek during a summer snow storm. This would not be a good day to do a deep crossing. Photo by Neil Butler.

How to cross a creek while hiking or backpacking

Do not cross a creek until you’ve done the risk assessment work we talked about above. Once you’re ready, here’s some advice.

Keep your shoes on.

Though nobody likes wet shoes, your chances of slipping and falling go up exponentially when you’re barefoot. Wearing shoes or boots also will reduce your chance of cutting, twisting, bashing or otherwise injuring your foot. Your shoes will get wet—but they’ll dry.

If the bottom is rocky, don’t move one foot before your other foot is secure.

Cross streams one step at a time. Streambeds can be ridiculously slippery, so take it slow and pick your foot placement carefully. Be as grounded as possible.

Three points of contact while crossing a creek. Photo by Ryan Weidert.

Three points of contact while crossing a creek. Photo by Ryan Weidert.

If doing a solo crossing, face upstream and have three or more points of contact.

When the current is strong, but still safe enough to cross, face upstream and shuffle across the river sideways. By crossing at a shallow diagonal angle, you can reduce the risk of being pushed backward and slipping on an unseen obstacle.

Move one foot at a time. Do not cross your legs. Make small careful steps. Work your way sideways and slightly upstream using the full strength of your legs to keep yourself secure. Keep two points of contact securely pressed into the ground at all times. Make sure that each foot is firmly planted before you make your next move.

In most situations, you want to use one or two trekking poles or sturdy sticks. Lean into your pole(s) and lean into the current. It’s debatable and situation dependent whether you want to use one or two poles. If the current is moving your poles around, you might find that you need both hands to manage a single pole. But if a single pole breaks or moves, you don’t have the security of the second pole. It can be a good idea to remove your trekking pole basket to reduce drag.

Crossing the inlet to Evolution Lake on the PCT and JMT.

You can quite easily fall in shallow crossings. Photo by Briar Owen.

Group crossing techniques generally are the gold standard. Practice techniques with your partners.

  1. If you have three people, try the triangle method.

Unbuckle your packs and form a triangle facing each other. Hold on to the waist of the person next to you. Have a strong person upstream to break the flow. Stay close together and have a leader talk the team through each step. Make sure two people are securely planted before the third person moves. Together, as a tripod holding each other up, you’re stronger. Work your way slowly across the stream as a team.

  1. If you have four to six people, cross in a line facing the current.

Have a strong person in front breaking the current. The person in front should be leaning on a pole into the current. Each person behind them holds the person in front of them up while also reducing the current for the people behind them. Weaker members should be in the middle of the chain, not in the back or at the tip of the spear. A leader, usually a strong confident person, should call out each move. The entire group should follow the moves of the person breaking current in the front. Everyone moves one foot, makes sure it’s firmly planted, and then follows the called-out directions from the leader to move again.

  1. If you have many people, form a wedge or rugby scrum to really break the current.

A large group that is practiced and works well together can form a wide wedge that breaks a significant amount of current. Like the techniques above, have a strong person at the tip of the spear but place other strong people next to them and a little bit behind and then more people next to them. Take a swiftwater rescue class to further develop these group crossing techniques.

If you have enough people, station them downstream to offer a hand or throw a rope if someone takes a swim.

But beware, it’s far too common to see people standing on the shore (taking photos!) with people risking solo crossings. Work with other hikers to manage risk. If the danger is so great that a swim is likely and rescuers are necessary, you probably shouldn’t be attempting the crossing at all.

stream crossing safety advice for hikers and backpackers

Three people attempting a group crossing while two look on. Generally, we’ve found that grabbing your partner around their waist is more secure than a hand on the shoulder. Photo by Owen Rojek.

Ditch your pack if you take a swim.

If you fall in, your pack will quickly become a waterlogged anchor that will rotate on top of you and pin you down. Save yourself. Ditch your pack if you need to. Unbuckle your pack before you start your crossing so that you can quickly jettison it even if you’re panicked in a creek crossing. Realize the consequences. You may be wet, in the wilderness, with no equipment. It’s an emergency of your own creation and it’s bad news.

By the way, we hope you keep your gear in waterproof stuff sacks. You can fall and get soaked in tiny little creeks. Make sure your electronics, sleeping bag and warm clothes are protected. Also, make sure you don’t have a bunch of loose stuff hanging off your pack. It’ll catch the flow of water, pull you off balance and you’ll lose it forever. Everything should be securely attached.

Stream crossing safety advice

Crossing a deep spot with substantial current. Photo by Jacklyn Ormel.

Planned swims are only appropriate when the current is nearly non-existent, and runout is safe.

Sometimes the safest place to cross will be a deep, slow-moving area. Make sure that it’s genuinely slow moving! Swimming across a deep, swift creek is exceptionally dangerous and even a very light current will feel strong when you’re in it. You’ll find that swimming a creek crossing is quite challenging, so don’t even attempt it if it’s not slow or you’re not a strong swimmer. You’ll get swept away before you make it across.

Obviously, you’ll want to waterproof your gear as it will get wet. Your pack will weigh you down, so we recommend against attempting to swim with it on. It’ll push you under. Stick your bag on an inflated sleeping pad and swim while pushing it across.

Do some mental math before you start across. Gauge the current. If you swim straight across, where will you end up on the other side? Make sure that downstream location has an easy exit. If you want to end up directly across the creek from where you start, you will need to swim into the current facing partially upstream. The combination of calculating your angle and speed, and not fighting the current, is called “ferrying across” a river.

To us, this looks like a very fast moving and probably dangerous crossing. Photo by Neil Butler.

To us, this looks like a very fast moving and probably dangerous crossing. Photo by Neil Butler.

More stream crossing safety advice for the Pacific Crest Trail

Exposure to cold stream crossings increases the risk of hypothermia.

We hope that you’ve taken a wilderness first aid class and know the signs, symptoms and treatment of hypothermia. Manage the risk of hypothermia by not crossing streams when you’re already cold. Travel with partners who can assess and treat you. Keep your body well fueled by eating properly. Cold shock and hypothermia mean that you might be even less able to handle the situation if you go for a swim.

If you get swept away or something goes wrong, get into a defensive swimming position.

Point your feet downstream and be on your back. You want to look where you’re going and use your feet to protect yourself from impacts. Protect your head and face. Swim quickly to shore and away from hazards.

A beautiful evening crossing. Photo by Owen Rojek.

Don’t even think about ropes unless you’ve been specifically trained in advanced swiftwater skills.

Ropes are often poorly used by backpackers crossing creeks. They can pin you down, strangle you and kill you in a multitude of ways. Don’t even think about it unless you’re a swiftwater expert.

There is a whole world of learning ahead of you if you’d like to become proficient in water safety.

We always encourage you to deepen your backcountry know-how. If you’d like to learn more, look toward swiftwater rescue and whitewater boating communities. Take a swiftwater rescue class. Consider getting certified. Build personal experience and learn from experts. There is a wealth of information available, including this National Park Service Swiftwater Rescue Manual.

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