Most casual hikers will never encounter a treacherous river crossing, but those who are backpacking in the Sierra on the famous John Muir Trail early in the season, for example, may well have to ford a stream that entails some risk. Former Outward Bound instructor and mountaineering guide, “John E. Hiker” (trail name) writes, “One of the most dangerous activities a backpacker deals with is fording a river. Hikers are swept away on river crossings every season.”
In his 3 Ways to Safely Cross a River or Stream: How to Ford a Dangerous River, Stewart Green says, “Drowning in waterways is the leading cause of fatalities in national parks, accounting for 37 percent of deaths.”
“Hiker” completed the John Muir Trail alone at the age of 16 and completed it again in 2007. He has done hundreds of fords. Based on his expertise, he has put together a video showing the basic techniques for safely fording a river in deep water with a heavy load. He continues, “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.”
Some of the major points in the video:
- Never ford alone.
- Most people start having difficulty crossing when the water is mid-thigh or higher.
- Always look for the safest place to cross (usually wide and shallow), which may not be where the trail leads you. Consider velocity and depth together.
- Survey the river (or creek) downstream for hazards.
- Cross early morning before the heat of the day melts upstream snow and ice
- Find a stout stick to use as a tripod (your legs are the other two points of contact). A hiking pole can be used [but its narrow tip can more easily be caught in the river’s rocks].
- Unfasten your backpack’s waist and chest straps.
- Don’t go barefoot. Cold water with slippery rocks calls for foot protection and sturdy footing.
- Face upstream and cross the river by backing down and across at a gradual angle--rather than fighting the current.
The final recommendation, to face upstream, sometimes produces some controversy. However, according to “John E. Hiker” and other experts there should be no question about this: facing upstream is a more stable position again the current. “Hiker” adds, “If I face downstream in a strong current the water just pushes me over and I'm swimming. The wave rides up my back and gets my pack wet.” Perhaps more importantly, “you also get to see what is coming at you. For example, if you are crossing during or after a storm there is danger of debris traveling downstream. If you are facing downstream you will not see it.” He adds that if you were to be swept downstream towards rapid, in two seconds you could immediately position yourself with your feet pointing downstream (the approved method).
River crossings are often part of the backcountry experience; let’s hope you have learned the techniques for a safe crossing. However, always keep in mind that some crossings are too dangerous and should not be attempted.
Susan “backpack45” Alcorn