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Water crossings: don’t go down the river

Creek crossing, Henry CoeA water crossing is often reason enough for newbie hikers to turn back and find a less obstacle-ridden path. I have abnormally cold feet but I manage to get across, which tells me pretty much anybody else can.

Not to diminish the danger: a wrong step can get you in deep doo-doo even in shallow water. From a survival standpoint your No. 1 concern is always to preserve body heat (hypothermia will kill you faster than just about anything but a grizzly attack or lightning strike). Water is body heat’s Public Enemy No.1, so walking into it is never a trivial matter, especially given Murphy’s Law of the Outdoors, which is: the harder you try to stay dry, the higher the likelihood that at some point you will get wet.

A stream crossing is just a way to embrace the wetness. On long hikes when your feet feel like they’ve been baking in Mom’s oven, a stream dip can be downright refreshing. A few things I figured out the hard (and wet) way:

  • River stones are not, uh, set in stone: Stepping on them with the idea of keeping your feet dry often causes them to slip and you end up with wet feet anyway. So: test a stone’s stability before you put your full weight on it.
  • Wet stones are very slippery: Like, four or five times more slick than you’d expect. Slipping and sliding is unavoidable.
  • River water is very heavy: The pressure from even ankle-deep water can be amazing. Be ready for that pressure and adapt to it on the way across.
  • Don’t fear cold water: Just concentrate on getting out of it as soon as possible. Keep moving and keep your mind on getting across, not the sensation that your feet are turning into ice cubes.
  • Crossing a stream barefoot is madness. Either take along some sandals or water shoes, or just splash across in the ones you’re wearing. If it’s a day hike, chances are you can hike them dry. (Actually a lot of backpackers do this too, though it would be deeply inadvisable in colder weather; frozen shoes suck big time).
  • Use poles or a staff for stability: In moving water — especially if it’s over ankle deep — you want the extra balance.
  • Use a pole or staff to gauge depth: If it goes in deeper than your shoes are tall, plan accordingly.
  • Imagine your feet are hands: Feel your way across with your feet. Don’t overly trust your eyes, water is always deeper and more dangerous than it looks.
  • Avoid crossing on fallen trees: This just invites disaster: the tree could split, rotate or shift, and you could break bones or tear ligaments you’d need to get your soaking-wet self out of the river. Lots of veteran hikers cross on trees without a thought, but I’ve been hiking for five years and they still scare me.
  • Plan to get wet and you’ll probably stay drier: With most crossings, I just change into my water shoes rather than try to stone-hop across in a vain attempt to stay dry.

For more in-depth advice on water crossings, check out Hiker Dude’s Water Crossing Page. This is a great bunch of tips, worth committing to memory.

3 comments | Permalink | Tags: , |
Tom posted at 1:39 pm August 16th, 2008

3 Responses to 'Water crossings: don’t go down the river'

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  1. scienceguy288 says:

    Great post. “Like, four or five times more slick than you’d expect.” That is definitely true.

    Permalink | Posted August 17th, 2008, at 5:42 am
  2. samh says:

    I put together a quick Youtube video about a year ago guiding folks in some simple steps to remember while fording streams.


    Permalink | Posted August 18th, 2008, at 10:00 pm
  3. Mark Griffith says:

    And loosen your hip belt, so if you go down your pack doesn’t trap you under.

    Permalink | Posted August 25th, 2008, at 9:12 pm

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