How to Cross a River Safely

If you’re an avid hiker or backpacker, you’ve probably run into your fair share of river crossings. And if you’re a beginner who wants to go on more treks, you’re bound to encounter them eventually.

Whether you like it or not, rivers are part of the natural landscape, and sometimes they act as a barrier between you and your goal. So the next time you need to know how to cross a river, here are few things you should (and shouldn’t) do to stay safe.

Key Takeaways:

  • Avoid turbulent water, strong currents, and high water levels.
  • Cross at the widest part of the river for slower-moving water; consider islands or braids for safer fording.
  • Avoid crossing if the water rises above waist level.
  • Secure your gear properly before attempting to ford.
  • Water levels can change on return trips, so be cautious, especially on out-and-back hikes.

Where to Cross a River

Depending on the depth of the water and how quickly it’s moving, rivers can be incredibly dangerous to cross. Just because the trail ends at a certain point along the river doesn’t mean that it’s actually the best place to ford either. Before diving in, take a moment to analyze your surroundings. Does the water look turbulent? How deep is it? What’s downstream from you?

If you notice eddies, a strong current, or white caps on the water, it may be too dangerous to cross at that location. Likewise, you should never attempt to cross a river if the water rises higher than your waist. Any higher than that, and you’ll have a hard time keeping your feet planted on ground while you wade through the water.

In the event that you do get swept away, it’s important to know what you’ll be carried into. If you can see a waterfall, rapids, fallen trees, or other hazards downstream, it’s best practice to find a different place to cross.

Whitewater Rating System

river with rapids and rocks in a forest

Paddlers will often use the International River Difficulty Scale to classify the difficulty and danger level of a certain stretch of river. While it’s a system developed for rafters, it can be a useful guide for hikers who want to know if it’s safe to ford or not.

  • Class I: Flowing water with small waves and very few obstacles.
  • Class II: The waves of water are a little stronger and bigger, perhaps with white crests.
  • Class III: The waves are bigger yet and hard to predict. You can see the water change direction due to a strong current or occasional eddy. Cross with extreme caution.
  • Class IV: Bumpy, big waves and turbulent conditions – definitely not a good place for a swim or a ford.
  • Class V: This is when the river becomes a roller coaster. Only expert boaters will try to paddle Class V rapids. Hikers should safely take pictures from the shore.
  • Class VI: A dangerous combination of waterfalls, powerful currents, and huge waves. Absolutely do not cross.

Most of you shouldn’t try to attempt anything higher than a Class II rating, just to be safe. However, if the water is shallow enough, you may feel comfortable crossing at a Class III as well, though this should only be done if all other conditions are ideal.

River Width

river flowing through a green forest

Would you rather cross a river at its widest point or its narrowest?

Most people would say the narrowest, but in reality, you’re better off crossing at the widest point of the river. In the narrow sections, all of the water is being funneled into a tiny area, which forces it to flow even faster. It’s in places like these where you’re more likely to encounter rapids and other hazards that should be avoided.

On the other hand, a wide section of river usually has slower moving water with fewer obstacles. Sometimes there will even be an island in the middle of the river, which will cause the water to fork into two different directions. Multiple forks are called a braid. When the water is split up like this, the flow is usually weaker and safer to walk across, making it an ideal place to ford.

River Depth

As I mentioned before, you shouldn’t try to ford a river when the water comes higher than your waist. But even a shallow river can sweep you off your feet if the water is moving fast enough, so it’s never enough to look at depth alone.

Going back to the International River Difficulty Scale, I believe you should only attempt to ford a deeper river (up to waist height) when it’s a Class I. If it’s a Class II river, I’d keep it at knee height or lower.

How to Read a River

Rivers come in all shapes and sizes, but there are a few factors that you can usually count on. The first thing to remember is that the water will be flowing fastest in the middle of the river, while the area close to the banks will be far gentler.

It’s also worth noting that water speeds up when it hits a “straightaway” and slows down after it’s come out of a curve. While it’s not the case every time, it’s generally safest to ford directly after a curve in the river.

How to Cross a River

person crossing a river in brown boots

Under ideal circumstances, you can cross a river without ever getting your feet wet. When I was doing a hike through Zion National Park in Utah, I had to cross the same river over 50 times…one way. Thankfully, the stream was pretty narrow, and there were enough (conveniently placed) rocks where it was possible to jump across without ever stepping foot in the water.

Not every river crossing is going to be this easy, though. If you’re by yourself, it can be beneficial to use trekking poles to provide extra points of contact to help you stay upright. When combating a strong current, you may also find it easier to angle your body upstream and step sideways to cut through the water. Take small steps, and never lift one foot until the other one is firmly planted on the ground again.

However, if you’re part of a group, fording can be much easier than trying to cross alone. Groups of three can form a triangle, holding onto each other’s waists. Even larger groups can form a line or a circle, holding onto one another while coordinating their movements. If you have a strong, experienced hiker in the group, it’s a good idea to have them call out directions in order to keep the group in sync.

Managing Your Gear

man wearing a hat and backpack crossing a river with a trekking pole

When you’re performing a river crossing, there’s no avoiding it: you’re going to get wet. At the same time, that doesn’t mean that you should just step into the water without taking care of your gear first.

While you don’t want to cross barefoot (rocks can be quite slippery and sharp), you should take off your socks and remove your insoles first. That way, they won’t take quite as long to dry once you’ve put them back on again.

Keep all of your gear thoroughly secured inside of your backpack, including your socks and insoles. If you happen to drop something in the river, it’s a bad idea to chase after it, as this can cause you to lose your balance and get injured.

Even if you store everything inside of your pack, there’s still a chance that you’ll slip and get your gear wet. Just in case that happens, it’s best to store your electronics, sleeping bag, and sleeping clothes in a waterproof bag. If you know that river crossings are in your future, you can pack your gear appropriately before you even set out for the day.

Type of Hike

picture of a hiking trail on a map

Crossing a river on the way out? If you’re coming back the same way, there’s a chance that the water level will be higher than the first time you encountered it.

Out and back hikes are notorious for fooling hikers. You think you’re safe because the river was okay to ford on the way out, but when you’re coming back, it could be entirely uncrossable. Rain and snowmelt can influence water levels, so if a river crossing seems tough the first time you get to it, you might be better off turning around and coming back a different day.

What to Do if You Fall

Falling or getting swept away in the river is the last thing that any of us want to have happen. But in the event that you do fall, here are some tips that just might save your life.

So you slipped… And the water was pretty shallow and mellow. Great! You probably got a little wet, but you shouldn’t be in any danger beyond that.

So you slipped… And the water is feeling aggressive but not entirely unmanageable. The weight from your backpack might be destabilizing you, so it’s a good idea to release the sternum strap while keeping the hipbelt attached. If you start to get swept away, though, release the backpack altogether and remove it from your body.

So you slipped… And the water is carrying you downstream. Remove your backpack entirely, so it doesn’t get waterlogged and hold you underwater. Float on your back with your feet pointing downstream and use them to push yourself away from any rocks or other obstacles. Use your arms to help you swim to shore, once you’ve entered a calmer stretch of water.

At the end of the day, my biggest piece of advice is this:

Don’t try to ford a river, if you don’t know how to swim!

It’s just too dangerous to face a mass of moving water when you don’t have the skills to survive if you get swept away. As disappointing as it might be, it’s better to turn around and head home than risk your life to continue up the trail.

Meet the Author!

By the age of 20, Spencer had already tackled some of the most famed mountain ranges in Europe, Asia, and North America. His mission is to help others accomplish their own outdoor-related goals, even within the time constraints of a 9-5 job and a busy life schedule.

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