Upper level stream and river crossings

IMG_6274Right at the lower level of upper.  In August this crossing in hardly ankle deep.

Upper level stream crossings can mean two different, but not mutually exclusive things: moving water crossings higher than the knee of the person walking, and crossings far from the assistance of others. Discussed below are several levels of analysis one should bring to such things.

IMG_1330Swift, cobbled, and flooded.  I swam the lake upstream.

Preparation and assessment is important. It may not be realistic to have a list of all potentially problematic crossings and their solutions, but in the age of satellite photos there is little reason to not do your best.

Volume is the first and most obvious factor. In the lower 48 there is a good chance that some river or creek in the drainage basin has a gauge on it. Find out how close to flood that stream is often running at the time of year you plan to be there.

The drainage basin is the second factor. How big is the basin, what percentage of the aforementioned river volume does it constitute? Insofar as many problem crossings have to do with snow melt, what is the altitude and aspect of this basin? South facing stuff will melt out faster under solar influence, and so forth. Different altitudes melt out at different times. Estimate how much water might be coming down a particular drainage.

Gradient has a massive influence on difficulty, as folks the other weekend found out.  All other things being equal, steeper is harder, both because the water will be faster and because the channel will probably be narrower and thus harder to move up and down.

Vegetation can have an influence on crossing difficulty, insofar as burnt trees can end up in larger drainages and provide bridges.  Not a good thing to count on, for reasons to be addressed.

Geology is perhaps the more important factor, perhaps moreso than volume and drainage (if only because that datas use will depend on previous on the ground experience).  The surface under your foot will make an enormous difference in strategy.  A fast, waist deep crossing with a uniform gravel bottom is pretty easy.  The same on basketball to microwave granite cobbles is terrifying.

Find this stuff out before you go.  Sat photos will even allow for site-specific scouting in many cases.  If the photos are recent that awesome log jam might even still be there.

IMG_6492Slick cobbles and opaque water are a bad combination.

Once you’ve done your homework and selected a route with crossings that are in theory doable, it is time to put things into practice on the ground.

I’m not a big fan of the conventional wisdom which says to keep your pack loose and unbuckled.  It is true that a big (>1/5 body weight) will make it tough to get up if you go down in fast water.  It is also true that unless you’ve done some serious training, such a pack will make a hard crossing much harder simply by virtue of added weight.  Having it loose and floppy will only make this worse.  I’ve also never been especially clear what you’re supposed to do if you shuck your pack in a crossing.  Look for it downstream?  Keep essentials in your pockets and have a long, hungry walk out?  Better to keep a light pack, keep your pack on and well cinched, and if you must carry a big pack (hunting, field research) factor that into trip planning.  You might need to take a different route, or go at a different time of year, or bring more people and/or different gear.

Any upper level crossing requires special preparations before you get wet.  Putting on shell clothing and perhaps a warm hat or vest won’t keep you from feeling the cold water, but it will blunt the shock and save some body heat and function should the crossing take longer than you think, or if you go under.  Everything which needs to should be sealed in waterproof bags in your pack, and the pack should be compressed tight.  You want the pack to be as low profile as possible should the water come past your crotch, and you want the pack to absorb as little water weight as possible.  You should trap some air in your dry bags and/or pack liner, but not too much.  Some buoyancy in the pack will help in particularly deep water, but too much will make it harder to keep your head up if you have to swim.  Lastly, it’s a good idea to have some essentials in waterproof storage in your person.  Firestarters, headlamp, map, and a few snacks.  Whatever you’d need for self-extraction should you have to discard your pack.

It hardly needs to be said that crossing specific shoes like sandles and crocs are not appropriate here.  You want the best traction possible for difficult conditions, so just get your shoes wet.  One pole is a good idea, provided it is stiff enough to take body weight.  Two poles are harder to control.  Remove larger pole baskets, as they cause problematic drag.  Clothing, especially pants, should be trim for the same reasons.

Crossing strategy will be determined by the environmental factors mentioned above, in combination with your own mental and physical abilities.  Scouting for a location can take some time under difficult circumstances.  In the lower 48, most trail fords have been wisely placed, as the requirements of pack trains and hikers are much the same.  It’s worth reading Andrew and Jon’s Open reports for their accounts (and Jon’s photo) of crossing Lodgepole Creek.  As can be seen from the map, Lodgepole doesn’t have too much gradient.  It does have a big basin, and small slick cobbles on the bottom.  Greg Gressel crossed at the lowest spot, which is steeper and a bit shallower.  Greg lost his feet on that one.  I crossed at the main, lower crossing.  Andrew, Chris and Jon crossed on a log not far below the upper trail.  Their thought process, that the upper crossing might be gentler, was a good one.  Lodgepole was just blown out with a lot of melt coming out of its big, south facing basin.  Above Morrision Creek the flow might have been a bit less, but the character would have most likely been little changed.

I crossed Lodgepole facing upstream, with a single stiff trekking pole lengthened to around 135cm.  I had both hands and a lot of body weight on the pole.  The last 1/4 was the deepest and fastest.  For the first 3/4 I angled upstream, while for the last 1/4 I let the current take each step a little backwards.

I prefer to make upper level crossings facing downstream whenever possible.  Fighting the current by facing upstream takes a lot of energy and is slower, prolonging exposure to cold and further sapping energy.  However, foot entrapment is a huge safety concern during high crossings, and for this reason I face upstream and strive for deliberate foot placements when dealing with cobbled and bouldered stream bottoms, which in NW Montana are the rule rather than the exception.  If you loose the upstream fight against the current, pivot quickly and face downstream, tap dancing frantically to keep toes clear of crevices.

For crossings with graveled, sandy, or muddy bottoms, a strong diagonal facing downstream is a my preferred method.  A stronger current will increase the ratio of downward to sideways travel.  Lean upstream into the current and drive your heels in, propelling yourself sideways and allowing the current to force you downstream.  Below crotch level this technique is pretty trivial.  Once your pack and butt are underwater the force of the current will speed up the process quite a bit, and by the time your ribs get wet you’ll likely be in intermittent contact with the floor.  This is fine, maintain directional velocity and go with the flow.  If/when you loose your feet for a while, lean into a backstroke and enjoy the floatation provided by your pack.

This technique works well for rivers and streams with muddy bottoms and quicksand, as your never putting too much pressure on any foot, and can lean back into the current for leverage when pulling a foot free.

Scouting a good crossing is vital.  Shallower water, good bottom conditions, and most especially plenty of clear water downstream.  Sweepers, strainers, and rapids should be well avoided.  Whatever your margin for error, double it.

The most difficult crossings will be those which do not offer good options.  The crossing in the above photo was one of those.  The bottom was slick cobbles, the current swift, and the water dark with glacial silt.  There wasn’t a safe place to cross (though if the water had been clear it probably would have gone), and the creek was too swift and boney to packraft.  Josh Mumm, Luc Mehl and I bushwacked and climbed along the near bank to the confluence, where more water allowed for decent boating (though there was a must make ferry immediately upon launching).  Roman Dial, a more confident boater, put in a bit lower down from this photo and rafted the creek.  A packraft will open up options for many difficult crossings, but is not a universally problem-free solution.

Another tough crossing was 25 Mile Creek during the Bob Open the other weekend.  As the map shows, 25 Mile is steep.  It is cobbled.  The drainage isn’t huge, but much of it does face south.  Greg Gressel crossed a bit above the trail, climbing through a steep section split into three braids.  None of those crossings would have been more than 8 feet wide, but the rocks were bigger and the swim uglier if you lost your feet.  Cyrus and Kate inflated boats and rafted around the creek on the Middle Fork, a safe option I seriously considered.  Andrew, Chris, and Jon took the path I outlined on the map; bushwacking up to a flatter spot where they crossed with little difficulty.  The volume of 25 Mile was probably only 2/3 that of Lodgepole discussed above, and thus not too bad when given a reasonable gradient.  I crossed at the trail, facing upstream and taking an upstream diagonal.  The strongest current was at the far side, and my upstream path gave me the furthest margin of error should I have lost my feet at that point.  A swim through the steep riffles below would have been bruising, and a good place to snag a foot.

I’m not a big fan of log crossings.  They have to be really good to be safe, and often tempt you into high consequence, all or nothing situations.

Group crossings can make a big difference, especially for shorter and lighter group members.  Communication and coordination difficulties make many traditional ideas better in theory than application.  The two stack for upstream facing works well, with one person behind the other holding on to shoulder straps, but it can be hard for the second person to see their feet.  Most of the time I think individual crossings are best, with the most at-risk person in the middle with spotters on either side of the stream.  A throw bag can even be handy here.


Pinchot Creek near flood; steep, fast, big boulders, and just small enough to tempt you into trying.  No good alternatives for miles upstream.  Not worth bothering under these conditions.

To review, preparation and practice are crucial for safe upper level crossings.  The best way to practice is on rivers, during a hot summer day.  Push the limits and swim when it is safe and comfortable to do so.  30 miles from the road, tired and cold is not a good place to do something for the first time.

In the field, calculation and restraint must come first.  Better to hike out than hurt yourself.  At the same time, indecision and timidity will only cause problems.  Once you decide you can do a crossing, do so boldly and with full commitment.  As with most things, safety is primarily created by the mind.


17 responses to “Upper level stream and river crossings”

  1. Concur on the snow basket comment. My smallish (2″ diameter) snow baskets were stuck on my poles by grit and it was very difficult to get a good pole plant in the strong current with the basket on. I ended up borrowing a pole from Chris with no baskets and we each crossed with a single pole which was much easier.

  2. John St. Laurent Avatar
    John St. Laurent

    In preparing for the Open I did some research on this topic, particularly practices in Alaska, that brought me to the same conclusions that you outline here. The topic doesn’t get much discussion, and a lot of the discussion that does take place is intended for casual summer crossings and/or a regurgitation of second and third hand techniques that writers have no direct experience with. I like this term “upper level crossing” as an aid to defining what we are talking about here.

    I’m wondering what your thoughts are on field-expedient PDFs? I brought a self-inflating pad for just this purpose, doubled lengthwise and secured under my shell by my pack straps. I only wore the setup while crossing the log on Lodgepole Creek, in case I fell off and ended up taking a swim. It seems to be a common practice from the early days of packrafting, but I never had a chance to test it before the trip.

    1. Some kind of improv’d PFD is worth testing, which I have not done. You can get loads of float from drybags in a pack, but you need some float in front for it to be useful.

  3. Also, the sleeping-pad-as-a-PFD trick felt like it added a considerable safety margin in the situations where swimming was a possibility.

  4. Good write-up on important but not much discussed topic. I think there would be room for a more detailed how-to posts as well. Actually, putting a drysuit on and going for some difficult road-side water crossing with friends sounds quite entertaining…

    1. A video on this subject would be very illustrative. A drysuit would give you a lot of float, and thus not be especially representative of field conditions. Best do the vid with a team of spotters and dry clothes nearby.

      1. I agree with the best option but I think that drysuit would work as well: just don’t put too much clothing under it and be sure to let all air out of the suit before trying the crossing. ANd maybe even wear some normal shell clothing on top to test for drag, trapped air, etc.

        I’ll keep this in mind and see if I can do a test or two at some point. Unfortunately there are no suitable rivers nearby (only slow flowing ones and one huge class V section…)

  5. This is superb information for anyone looking to travel in wilderness, and big backcountry terrain and raise their skill level. I found it very insightful Dave and thanks for sharing it.

  6. I made a demo video on this subject eight years ago and it is now posted on You Tube. Just Google “John E Hiker”. I disagree about facing downstream ever in deep water. If a log (or other object) is traveling downstream I want to see it coming! I do NOT like this term “upper level” stream crossing because it doesn’t describe anything. The spectrum of stream crossing is vast. When does an easy ford become upper level? When does upper level become extreme level? Fords are either difficult or not depending on an array of factors described in detail in this article. When the ford becomes more difficult other techniques to ford need to be employed. Example, crossing in a group or putting a hand line across the river, or swimming.

    The New Zealand Mountaineering Club wrote a detailed treatise on this subject the size of a small book and makes this article look like some writing on a bathroom wall by comparison. Their treatise includes detailed diagrams of several rope systems that can be employed including a tyrol traverse.

    IMHO wearing layers of clothing and boots for a challenging crossing is a mistake. If you do get carried downstream your boots and clothing are much more likely to contribute to drowning. You cloths & laced boots fill with water and can get caught in log jams. Your feet can get stuck in between rocks. Your buckled pack will hold you under the water. One of the most common ways people drown after falling in the river is because they hit their heads and are momentarily disoriented. It only takes a moment to drown in this scenario.

    Be smart. Don’t attempt a challenging ford alone. In a group you can have people standing by on each bank to assist anyone who gets carried downstream. Personally, I’d much rather loose my pack and gear in the wilderness than loose my life so I always unbuckle my hip belt and sternum strap when fording. What’s so hard about that if you pack ultralight anyway? In 1974 during my NOLS mountaineering course in the Wind River Range of Wyoming our final exam was a 65 miles hike over five days including three crosses of the Continental Divide. We had NO FOOD for that entire five-day journey. It was extremely harsh but we all survived. Moral. You can survive in the wilds a long time without food, water or gear. You can survive underwater for only about three minutes!

    1. Thanks for your insight and video, John. From my point of view the corssing on the video looked somewhat easy: not super strong current, about mid-thigh depth and basic technique. Any chance of having that superb treatise available online? Would be interesting to see techniques for more difficult crossings.

      I’d just like to note that at least my hiking shoes (wouldn’t call them boots) actually float even when filled with water. I don’t bother carrying extra footwear, so if I’m not carrying any fancy watersocks, would it be better to go with shoes, with normal socks or barefooted? I go with my shoes on, except for very easy crossings on otherwise dry days. Actually, in my opinion, the main advantage of any (nd all footwear for crossings is protecting the feet, you don’t want to step on a sharp rock or a pointy stick while wading in the backcountry (done that). The secondary advantages might be added grip/friction and keeping the feet warm. Regarding getting feet caught in log jams or stuck between rocks, I don’t see the footwear making a big difference. Does it make one?

      1. Excellent! Well thought out, detailed and appropriately qualified. I’ll be reviewing it and thinking about it before my JMT solo. And no, I won’t be needing a NZ tech climber’s rope review for this one.
        Thanks, Todd.

      2. http://www.trekkingforum.com/forum/showthread.php?t=23444 or Google “So koennen Sie sicher einen Fluss ueberqueren”

        Here is the link to the discussion on river fording on a German hiking website which includes the article I mentioned published by the FMC (Federated Mountain Clubs) of New Zealand. It’s only available as a download so you’ll have to join the site in order to download the 32 page article. Sorry I don’t have my own website and I don’t know of any site that has posted the article. Maybe you can do that once you get the download?

        I’m not convinced there is a right and wrong way to ford a river. As in most areas of life there are many ways to skin a cat. Nevertheless, more hikers die from drowning during river fords than all other wilderness emergencies combined (bear attacks, avalanches, etc.). I applaud the author for starting a discussion.

        I agree that foot protection is paramount. I see so many hikers fording rivers barefoot that it bares repeating. Staying ambulatory in the wilderness can be the difference between life and death. Cutting your feet during a ford or wandering around your campsite can be catastrophic. I never walk barefoot in the backcountry. Presumably, a leather, laced-up boot is more likely to get stuck between rocks than a sandal or nylon water shoe which is much easier to rip your foot out of should it be necessary if it gets trapped.

        But here’s the MAIN reason I always carry water shoes. During my 1974 NOLS course they had us just remove our socks and ford in our leather boots and walk till they dried. Lets say you are a long distance hiker and it’s been raining for the last seven days. You’ve been hiking all week in soaking wet uncomfortable boots. Now you finally dried them out at last nights campfire. The next day you have another ford. Do you really want to just tramp though the river and have wet boots again? Not me. My water shoes weigh almost nothing and mean I can keep my shoes dry throughout my trek. In addition, they are great for swimming and bathing in lakes and rivers. I hate walking my boots dry! Been there done that. No thanks. Personal preference I guess.

        My demo video was simply an attempt to actually teach a basic skill that you can read about in any hiking guidebook. I was not attempting to demonstrate the most gripping ford imaginable.

        Happy Trails!

        1. Thanks for the link! And the video was very good for showing the good basic technique, thanks again for sharing.

          It’s worth noting that you’re the only one here talking about boots. I prefer to walk in shoes (stuff requiring crampons is another thing), as likely do most people commenting here. And my non-goretex mostly mesh topped shoes don’t stay dry but luckily they don’t stay wet too long either so getting them wet is not really an issue for me. Of course 0,5 lbs of weight is not really an issue either but in my opinion it makes sense to save the weight if there is no loss experienced. I used to carry lightweight crossing “shoes” but have gave up them since moving to trail runners as hikign footwear. I do still carry them sometimes in North around October/November when I prefer to walk in goretex shoes but still have to cross streams. But as you said, personal preference.

  7. The FMC document is easily found in PDF via Google. I’d say the organization of the article trends towards the impenetrable, and disagree with their conclusions. While the rope crossing technique they outline no doubt has applications, they’re bound to be fairly narrow, and as the article admits rely heavily on at least two very strong group members with what amounts to middling or better experience in ropework. Like log crossing, it’s an all or nothing tactic with no mid-stream plan B.

    John, you’ll have to forgive me for finding it hard to take anyone who still wears big leather boots in real wilderness seriously. The limitations you outline are only a few reasons why.

    As for the term upper level the ambiguity is quite intentional. As the Open reports cited above show, crossings which some find moderate others find out of the question. It’s satisfying for both writers and readers to present hard and fast guidelines (do this for water up to mid-thigh, then do…) for this and comparable issues, but doing so de-emphasizes the primacy of individual judgment and is thus both dangerous and intellectually dishonest.

  8. Read this five times now and I think it’s excellent. Curious if you have an opinion on positioning perpendicular to current (facing opposite bank) and any advantage being able to brace against the current with a sideways profile might give. Also wondering your thoughts on using two poles so as to maintain three-point contact with the bottom at all times and the merits of that tradeoff re: difficulty of controlling both poles.

  9. June 9, yesterday actually, marked the most difficult crossing I’ve done. My girlfriend and I had been working our way down from the headwaters of the middle fork of the Stanislaus river in California. It took us about 15 minutes to cross 30 feet in chest deep snow runoff with heavy gradient.

    We had done our homework and actually had scouted the river about 2 weeks prior. However, during the previous 3-4 days temperatures hit 90 F for the first time in the year. Then it rained the evening before. Oh, fickle weather. While scouting up and down the river, the water actually went up about 8 inches.

    The technique we use on very deep, swift crossings is basically leap frogging each other. Facing up stream, one person moves laterally across the current about 2 feet then braces solidly against the bottom while leaning against the current. Then the other moves around (upstream) the braced individual and braces themselves. Its slow going and is nothing like a walk; more like two crabs crawling over each other. We use one pole each in this technique for more contact and really lean into the current to reduce drag.

    The dumbest thing I did yesterday was not flagging down two people on horseback across the river. They were justing turning back to the pack station when we showed up. A couple horses, rope, and two other people for potential rescue would have made me it a much more comfortable crossing. I was also very grateful that the weather was so warm after the crossing. Hypothermia would have been a real risk. Dryish clothing and 20 minutes of vigorous hiking solved it this time.

    I joked afterwards that my girlfriend had never clung to me so passionately before.

  10. […] post Philip put up the other day temporarily boosted traffic to this post from 2013, prompting me to give it a re-read.  One of the best things about this website is being […]

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