Before you plunge into a river blindly, investigate all potential crossings. Ideally, you want a place where the river spreads out (like in a meadow), the current is gentler, and there are no downstream hazards, such as overhanging branches or rapids. Factors to consider:
>> Water depth and speed Rapidly moving water above knee-height is enough to knock most people over. Toss a rock into the current; if it moves downstream before sinking, the current is too strong to safely cross.
>> Water temperature Cold water numbs your feet, saps your strength, and can lead to hypothermia. Unless the water’s mild and gentle, don’t cross in bare feet. Bring extra socks to change into, and take time to warm up after you cross.
>> Distance across For wide rivers, plan your route to cross as high upstream as possible, so you’re above river junctions. The more tributaries you traverse, the less volume you’ll encounter in any given channel. This is also the case with braided rivers.
>> Entry and exit points It does you no good to have the perfect crossing if it leads to a steep, muddy bank with no way out.
>> The river bottom Riverbed rocks can be slippery and treacherous and can even trap a foot. Make sure you cross in boots or sturdy shoes to stabilize your foot placements.
>> Hazards Strainers are downed trees or overhanging branches that create deadly traps for swimmers. Water moves under and through them and can pin you. Avoid strainers at all costs. If you fall and are floating toward a downed tree, swim directly at it, and use your momentum to climb atop. Also watch for obstacles, like logs, floating downriver.
Ford a River
>> Remove rain pants and anything that can catch the current. Tie loose gaiter straps or shoelaces. Unbuckle your hipbelt and sternum straps, so you’re not anchored to your pack if you fall.
>> Angle slightly upstream as you cross. Use a stick for a third contact point. Move one foot, the other, then the stick, one at a time. Sidestep across, shuffling rather than crossing your feet, to maximize balance.
>> Don’t stare at the mesmerizing current.
>> If in a group, hold hands or link arms for stability. Place the largest team member in front of a line to form a human eddy.
>> If a fall’s likely, position a spotter downstream to help your buddy to shore.
Stay Upright in Whitewater
Watch how to ford wilderness rivers safely at backpacker.com/rivercrossing.