Let’s talk about stream crossing safety.
My family recently took a trip to go hiking in the Sawtooths. It was the last day of our trip, and my parents were watching our daughter while my partner and I went for our first hike together without a little one in tow in years.
I'm a sucker for hikes with a final view, so I picked out a trail that had this beautiful looking lake at the end. I looked at the reviews on AllTrails, but none were very recent, so I wasn't sure about the conditions. We figured we'd enjoy ourselves regardless, so we took a boat across Redfish Lake, and began our hike.
The trail was beautiful. We were surrounded by these incredible, jagged peaks on either side, while occasionally walking through thicker tree cover.
We were only a mile from our final destination, when the trail came to a creek crossing. Only it wasn’t a gentle, slow flowing creek you traditionally think of when you hear the word creek. Recent precipitation and snow melt left it raging. I really, really wanted to find a way to cross so we could get to the alpine lake on the other side, so I started assessing the situation.
The creek was really wide, far too wide to create a bridge with fallen trees. The water was moving really swiftly, and the rocks were mostly flat under water, indicating that they were likely going to be slippery. The water looked like it would be about waist high in some sections. When I tested the water, it was FREEZING (I’m pretty sure an ice bath would have been warmer!) If we were to fall, hyperthermia would be a real possibility very quickly.
We walked along the creek upstream and downstream a ways to see if there was a narrower or shallower section, but were unsuccessful in finding a better spot to cross.
We realized that even though we really wanted to finish the trail, we deemed it was an unnecessary risk to take, so we found another trail nearby to continue our hike instead. It ended up being a beautiful section of trail :)
Stream crossing safety while hiking and backpacking is so important.
Here are some tips to assessing the safety of a crossing, and advice if you’re able to cross:
1: Just because the trail comes to a certain crossing point, doesn't mean that's the safety place to cross.
Rivers regularly change, so what was perhaps a good place to cross when the trail was made, doesn't mean that's the safest spot now. Take the time to look up and down stream to see if there are safer places to cross.
Also, if the water is too high, it’s not worth it! Visibility below the surface is reduced with higher water, and there is an increased risk of floating debris, like fallen trees. I personally don't feel comfortable crossing anything about my mid thighs.
2. Water levels rise as the day becomes warmer, so take that into account.
If you're doing an out-and-back trail, remember that you have to be able to safely cross the stream again. If rain is anticipated, you will be crossing a deeper and swifter stream on the way back. If it's later in the day, the heat will increase snow melt, and the stream will likely be higher. So as you're assessing the safety of the stream crossing, imagine what it will look like upon your return.
3. If you know you’re going to be crossing a large river, consider bringing a rope.
This is probably one of the safest ways to cross, but it does require carrying a large rope and knowledge of knots. It's definitely worth it if you're with multiple people and you can divide up the weight of gear more efficiently.
4. Keep your 10 essentials packed in a water proof/resistant container.
5. Consider carrying designated stream crossing shoes.
Hiking shoes for water crossings, are a great idea to carry in your daypack or backpack if you know there will be a stream crossing.
While you can walk barefooted, this reduces your traction on the rocks below the water, and you are more likely to fall. You could also wear your regular shoes, but then you will be left with wet hiking boots or shoes until they can dry out, and you may be at a much high risk of getting blisters, or if it's cold, damaging your feet.
Carrying lightweight shoes like Crocs is easy, or if you're hiking in your Chacos or Tevas, you don't even need to bring along another pair.
6. Bring hiking poles.
A lot of people think hiking poles are just useful for steep hikes, but they're also great to have for stream crossings! It's important to always have three points of contact to decrease the likelihood of falling. If you don't have trek poles, try to find a large and stable branch to use as your third point of contact.
7. Unbuckle your hip belt and your sternum strap before crossing.
Just in case you fall, you want to be able to remove your backpack as fast as possible so that it doesn’t pull you down under the water.
8. When crossing, face upstream while using your trek poles to help you stay balanced.
This position will keep you the most balanced. Also, never cross your feet, as you may become unbalanced: side shuffling is the best option.
9. Avoid stepping on flat rocks.
While flat rocks seem like the easier route, they’re often really slippery, so it’s worth looking for rocks that are more jagged to grip with the soles of your shoes.
10. If crossing on fallen trees or other natural walkways, test them to make sure they’re really structurally sound.
Natural bridges are a great way to cross a river, but check them first to make sure they won't roll or have holes. Using your trek poles to poke and prod is a great way to test them.
There are some incredible trails that require stream crossings or river crossings. As long as you can do it safely, they're totally worth it, and add to the adventure!
Have you done a stream crossing before? What other hike safety tips and advice do you have?
Written by Shannon Keleher
Owner of Alpine Sisters