Safe Ways to Cross a River or Stream

How to Ford a Dangerous River

A couple wades a river below a waterfall.
Photograph copyright Richard Price/Getty Images

While climbing in national parks and wilderness areas, you often need to cross streams and rivers to reach cliffs and mountains, especially in places like Alaska and Canada. River crossings (also called fording a river) is one of the most dangerous parts of approaching a climbing route in the backcountry, especially if the river or waterway is filled with deep, cold water and has a swift current.

River Crossings Can Be Fatal

It’s important to remember that more backpackers, hikers, and climbers are killed in river crossings than from snakebites. Drowning in waterways is the leading cause of fatalities in national park. Before plunging into a wide river or quick stream, make sure you understand river crossing safety and know the steps to make a safe and successful ford.

Don’t Wade in Water Deeper than Your Thighs

Fording a river or stream is not the same thing as swimming across. The rule of thumb is, if the water is above your thighs, then it is too dangerous to cross. Ideally, the water should be only knee-deep. You can be easily knocked off your feet in water that is waist or chest deep, especially if there is any current. Remember, it becomes easier to lose control as your body becomes more submerged in the current. If the water is too deep, turn around or go downstream to find a shallower ford.

Assess River Currents and Downstream Hazards

The first step before crossing a river is to assess the water, the current, and to find the best place to ford. Rivers and streams are usually at their highest and fastest levels in late spring and early summer when they are swollen with snowmelt. Check how fast the river is moving by tossing a stick in the current. If it’s moving faster than you can walk along the bank, then the river is too fast and strong to safely cross.

Look for shallow areas where the water slows and ripples over boulders. Eddies--which form above large boulders--are often good places to cross since the flow is slow. Assess downstream hazards that increase your risk of drowning if you slip in the water, including waterfalls, rapids, large boulders, and log jams.

Avoid fording or swimming directly below a waterfall as they often have dangerous currents that can trap you underwater.

Before setting off, ask the following questions:

  • How deep is the water?
  • How wide is the river?
  • What is the underwater surface like?
  • Is the riverbed composed of sand and gravel or algae-slick boulders?
  • Are there boulders to stand on in the current?
  • Can you cross singly or is it safer in a group?
  • Should you set up a taut hand line to hold onto as your cross and to zip the packs across?

Make a plan for problems. What are you going to do if you fall in? Do you know how to float through a rapid? Where can you escape the river below the crossing?

The Solo Tripod Method

If the river is not too deep and fast, then use the solo tripod method.

Use a trekking pole or wooden stick to form a tripod with your two feet for added stability. Face upstream and step sideways across the stream, probing the stream bottom with the pole and always keeping two points of contact with the bed. You face upstream with the pole because the current forces it into position.

A trekking pole may not always the best tool for the tripod as the narrow tip can be pinched by rocks and logs on the river bottom. Often times a stout stick is the best solution.

The Group Eddy Method

It is safer to cross in a group of either two or three people if the river is deep, wide, and fast. To execute the group eddy method, place the strongest and biggest person at the up-stream top of the group, using a stout stick for a tripod. He faces upstream and plants himself solidly. The other members of the group, usually one to four people, stand behind the leader in a human chain and hold onto the hip belt of the next person upstream. The first upstream person breaks the current and creates an eddy, while each successive downstream person helps create a larger eddy, making it easier for the group to shuffle sideways across the river.

The Group Pole Method

The group pole method is a variation of the group eddy used for river crossing.

Place the strongest member of your party upstream doing a solo tripod with a stick. The other members face toward the opposite river bank and all hold onto a sturdy wooden pole in front of them. They can also lock arms or clasp hands--although neither is as strong as holding onto the pole.

Now the group crosses the river, walking straight ahead to the opposite bank. The upstream person creates an eddy which is amplified by the other members of the group creating a safe crossing. Each team member should stay parallel to the river current, which minimizes its effect. This river crossing method is very safe, especially with a large group, since the chances of a couple people being knocked over are lessened. This method is effective with four to ten people working in tandem to cross the river.

It is best to practice each of these river crossing methods in slow, shallow rivers so you know how to successfully execute them before trying them in a deep, fast river.