River Crossing – How to Ford a River

Hiking in the wilderness is a great experience that many people enjoy. Most hikers stick to well-known trails and maps to ensure a safe and fun experience. 

Now imagine backpacking through the countryside and coming to what was expected to be a stream has now become a river. Snowmelt can cause a stream to fill the riverbed and overflow its banks. If there is no other alternative, you will need to do a river crossing to continue on your journey.

Fording rivers, or river crossing, is a skill that our ancestors had to master in order to settle this great country. Being able to safely and effectively ford a river can be the difference between life and death. It is a skill that all outdoors people should learn how to do.

What follows are some essential tips and tricks for fording a river.

Understand How Rivers Work

One of the most important things for a hiker to understand is how rivers and currents work. There are basically two different flow patterns with how the water runs.  Debris such as rocks, trees, and soil can create different channels in the bottom of the river. These create what is called laminar flow.

These different channels can affect the depth of the river in certain spots as well as the speed in which the water flows.  The lowest layer of water will move the slowest, which means that your feet will be able to maintain good traction in the water. However, the higher layers will move faster. More than likely this will be the water running into your legs at a higher speed, and this is where you run the risk of losing your balance.

It is a good idea to test the river before you commit to crossing. Use your hiking stick or poles to test the water pressure by dipping it into the water. Also, throw a stick in the water and follow how it flows along the surface. You especially want to keep an eye out for any rough patches or whirlpools that could suck you in. If you fall in the water, you will likely follow that path.

This is also a good time to assess whether or not you wish to attempt to cross the river by reading the river. You should balance the safety of the crossing with you want to continue on your trek. If you think you can cross the river safely, and then continue. If you are unsure, see if there is a safer crossing or turn back and follow a different route if possible.

Choosing A place to Cross

If you have chosen to continue on your journey, the next step is to pick a spot to cross. There are several things to keep in mind when choosing the path you wish to cross. If at all possible, find a higher vantage point where you can get a good look at the river from above.

You want to look for points in the river you can get to if you do get swept into the stream. Approaching the river at a forty-five-degree angle going downstream will also aide in moving towards the banks.  This will also aid in not getting swept away in the current. 

Keep an eye out for shallow channels and sandbars, as they can break up the crossing make for an easier time in crossing the river. The more shallow the crossing the better, as the deeper you wade into the river the more water that can push against you.

Also, look for tracks of large animals like deer or bears along the sandbar. That will help you to determine if the river is safe enough for large animals to cross.  

If you see forks in the river, go for those areas as they will be shallower and easier to cross. If you do not find any of those, try to cross at the widest part of the river, as it will also be more shallow and easier to cross. 

Keep an eye out for dangerous obstacles that are around you or that can be seen close downstream. Fallen trees, rapids, and waterfalls can make for a dangerous crossing or put you in a very dangerous situation if you fall. Check downstream if you see any of these danger signs to see if there is a safer crossing. 

When accessing a crossing, many experts use the WADE method:

  • WATCH: Look at the environmental conditions. Is you put a stick in the water, follow where it goes. Look for wildlife and see how they cross the water, or if they even try.  Look at how high the water level is.
  • ASSESS: Do you have to cross the river to continue? Is there a bridge or other natural dry crossing you can use? Is there a safe entry point? Are there any obstacles? Can you do a “dry crossing” over rocks or tree trunks? Is there snowmelt that will raise the river level as well as make the water much colder?
  • DETERMINE: Decided if you and your group can safely cross the river.
  • EXECUTE: Put you plan for a safe crossing into action

Preparing to Cross

You’ve determined that the river is safe for you and your group to cross.  Now is the time to put your plan into action. Before you begin your crossing, there are a few things that you need to do to prepare. 

  1. With your backpack strapped on, unclip the waist and sternum straps. While this will cause the pack to shift as you move, it will also allow you to shake it off quickly. If you fall, the pack can weigh you down. Being able to remove your pack quickly and safely is a must in surviving falling in the river. Remember, packs are replaceable, you are not.
  2. Always wear footwear when crossing a river. You never want to cross barefoot, as your feet will not have as much traction as a set of footwear. Also, you run a risk of getting cut by rocks or sharp sticks. Wear some tennis shoes or surf shoes. Surf shoes are also waterproof which will keep your feet relatively dry. 
  3. As you don’t want to cross in your hiking boots, make sure to carry them where you can keep them dry. If you can place them in your backpack. Otherwise, tying them together and draping them around your neck will do the trick as well. 
  4. Another precaution for wading across the river with a group is to not use a rope. It may seem logical to tie everyone together to keep the group together. However, if a person you are tied to is swept into the river, you will likely be swept along with them.
  5. If you have trekking poles handy use them to help keep your balance. Anything that can add stability will make your crossing that much easier. 

Crossing the River

Cross the river at a 45-degree angle heading downstream. Take your time and test your footing. It is better to take fifteen minutes to cross a river safely than rush and end up being swept in the current. 

It is always best to cross with a group. There are a few methods for safely crossing a river with a group. Some of these methods work best in certain crossing situations.

If the water is not too deep and does not appear to be too difficult you can have one person cross with a line. Once they are safely across, they can affix it to a nearby tree. The rest of the group can use the line as something to hold on to and guide their movement. Again, do not tie members of the group to the line, but clip onto the line. The rope is simply to give better stability. The last member brings the line in with them.

With a more difficult crossing, you may want to use the tripod method. Three members link arms facing inward. They then shuffle along across the river. This will give everyone stability in the group and will help to keep everyone’s balance.

Another technique if crossing with a group is called the eddy technique. This method requires the hikers to line up facing upstream. They then push on the hips on the person in front of them as they cross. The leader should be the most experienced hiker, as they will take the brunt of the force of the river, making an eddy for the people behind them. The group can then safely sidestep their way across the river. Coordination and communication is key to using this method successfully.

Alternative Crossing Methods

Depending on your surroundings, you may have some options on how to ford the river. The environment can allow for other, safer routes in crossing the river.

  1. Riding a Log. If you can find a downed tree across the river, this can allow you to cross the river while staying dry. Try to find a log with lots of bark still on it, as this will give you better traction. Avoid smooth logs with layers of moss, as these will probably be slippery.  Face upstream, sidestepping as you work your way across the log. Keep your eyes moving to avoid vertigo, as this can be very dangerous and will affect your balance. 
  2. Boulder crossing. You will often find fallen rocks more than you will fallen trees when crossing a river. Plan your route and look ahead of you before beginning. You will need quick reflexes if you follow this route, in case you come across a loose rock. Keep at least three points of contact to help maintain your balance. Use your trekking poles to aid in your balance. Be aware that even though the rocks may look stable, they may have a slick layer of slime ready to put you in the water.

What if You Fall in?

So you lost your footing or found a loose rock and are now being swept away by the water. What do you do? The most important thing is to not panic. Float on your back and point your feet downstream. With your hands, paddle yourself towards the shore.  Again, make sure you unclip your waist and sternum straps before you begin your crossing. If you find yourself in a situation where the river has taken you, this will make it easier for you to jettison it. As mentioned before, the pack is replaceable; you are not.

After You Cross the River

We will assume that you have successfully crossed the river with no issues. Depending on the rest of your plans for your hike, there are a few further steps to take. If you are hiking one way, then you will not need to worry about the river at this point. Enjoy the rest of your hike, and remember what to do if you come across another river.

If you are doing a round trip, you will need to cross this river again. With that in mind, there are a few things to do to make the return trip easier for you. Mark your crossing point, both on a map and using some form of landmark, such as tying a rope at a nearby tree. This will save you time in preparing to cross. Also remember how much time the crossing took, as this will save you time and get you back before dark.

Another precaution is if you are camping for an extended period of time. If there is heavy rain, flooding, or snowmelt the crossing point can be made inaccessible. Make note of alternate crossing points. In areas such as the backcountry of New Zealand, flash floods can make crossing difficult or nearly impossible. The last thing you want to happen is to be stranded in the wilderness. 

Crossing a river can be an exciting and adventurous part of a hiking trip. It can be a great team building exercise if you are with a group. The most important thing is to be aware and be safe.

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Sam Brooks

Sam Brooks

Hi, my name is Sam Brooks and I'm a huge hiking, fishing and camping enthusiast. I bring my dog Max as often as I can because he also loves the great outdoors. Although I consider myself a private person, I really want to share my passion and knowledge with the readers here at outdoorcommand.com