If you have a thirst for adventure, then well-groomed, pristine trails probably won't hold your attention for long. Once you get that first taste of adventure off the beaten path, it’s hard to go back. However, once you leave the certainty of the trail, water crossings become nearly inevitable and knowing how to cross them safely becomes a crucial skill for the backcountry traveller. No matter the time of year, there is almost always water flowing in the mountains, but with the right skillset it needn’t dampen your enthusiasm.
The first thing to keep in mind is that every water crossing should be approached carefully, no matter how easy it appears to be. The cliche that it only takes a few inches of water to drown certainly holds true here. A simple slip while crossing a shallow, muddy stream can lead to disastrous consequences should you strike your head and lose consciousness. For this reason, you should never attempt a water crossing when hiking without partners.
Fortunately, a little leg work can often avoid the need to get wet at all. Even if you’re on a trail that clearly enters the water on one side and exits on the other, don’t assume that this is necessarily the ideal place to cross. Streams change from day to day and even hour to hour, so what may have been the easiest crossing yesterday may no longer be the case. Spend a few moments scouting up and down the stream to see if there is a location narrow enough to step over, or perhaps a fallen tree or series of stepping stones to use.
If there is a potential path to step across, take a minute to judge its worthiness. If it’s a fallen tree, could it be rotten and ready to collapse? Is it damp and slippery? If you deem it to be safe, but are unsure of your balance, don’t be embarrassed to sit down and scoot across on your backside. If it’s a series of stepping stones that you’re considering, will they be slick? Will they move under your weight?
Take a look downstream and imagine what the consequences of a fall will be. Are there overhanging branches that could trap you and hold you down? Are there rapids downstream? If you or anyone in your group has any doubt about crossing, it’s best to take a step back and find an alternate route.
Should fording the water prove to be the only viable option, find the slowest moving section to cross, which will likely be where the stream is at its widest and most shallow. Throw a few twigs in to gauge the speed. If there is constant debris floating down or you can hear rocks moving along the bottom, don’t attempt to cross. Avoid crossing in a location where the banks are steep, as they will make exiting the water difficult and could indicate that the water is quite deep as well. Above all, make sure every member of your party is comfortable making the crossing. Shorter members will have a harder time, so if the water is above thigh level for anyone, it’s best to find another way around. If at all possible, it is often better to make crossings in the morning, when snow melt in the mountains is slower due to nighttime freezing.
Prior to entering the water, put on hiking sandals if you have them, or remove your socks and go barefoot in your hiking shoes. Do not go barefoot, as the risk of injury is too high. Remove extra layers and pack them away to keep them dry in case you slip. Roll your pants up or simply take them off until you reach the other side. Also, undo your pack straps so that you can wiggle out of it in an emergency.
To cross, face upstream and enter cautiously, slowly inching your way over. If you have hiking poles, plant one upstream to lean on for stability and use the other to test the ground for unseen obstacles. To cross as a group, you can form a column behind one person facing upstream, slowly moving sideways across the stream while each person holds the shoulders of the person in front of them.
In the event of a fall, get up as fast as possible to prevent your gear from soaking through. If the current begins to carry you, get out of your pack as quickly as possible and hang on to it for extra flotation while keeping your feet downstream until you can regain control. Once you make it to the far side of the water, dry off as much as possible, get into warmer clothes and eat some food to bring your body back up to temperature as quickly as you can.
While every water crossing needs to be approached with caution, with these skills in your back pocket you’ll be ready to deal with them safely and expand the terrain available to you as you roam the backcountry. Stay safe out there, and happy trails.