Primer: How To Ford A River

Whether backpacking, traveling, hiking or participating in any outdoor nomadic pilgrimage, odds are that at some point during your outdoor expedition a river or stream will present a barrier of entry to the land across the way. It’s inevitable then, that fording the river becomes the strongest option available. Because, as the saying goes, the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. Therefore, unless taking days – even weeks – off the desired ETA is an option, crossing becomes imperative.

We’ve all seen examples of travelers both young and old ford rivers along with their gear and companions in numerous movies or television shows – each method dependent on environmental factors at play. These could include the temperature and movement of the water, any surroundings that can be used to your advantage (such as fallen trees), along with who and what you have to work with at your disposal. With all these factors at play, we decided to provide some insight into how to properly ford a river so the next time a moving body of water cuts between you and your destination, panic won’t serve as the only viable option.

Where To Cross

Planning the Attack

Deciding upon where to cross is perhaps the most crucial step in the process, for if you misjudge the river’s depth or strength at this stage disaster could be imminent. Needless to say, you’ll want to take as much time as necessary to make the proper assessments of the river, using key indicators to determine the safest and least risky locations to cross successfully. Here are a few river characteristics to consider when deciding where to cross.

Helpful Hints: Examine the River for the Following

  • Stretches of flat bottoms where the river breaks into different flowing channels.
  • Spots where exiting may be easier than entering.
  • Any ledges that would indicate heavy rapids.
  • Timber growths, this is often where channels are the deepest.

River Hydraulics

When examining the aquatic obstacle at hand, consider how fast and where the river or stream is flowing. Test the swiftness of the water by sticking a trekking pole (if you have one) into the stream to determine the force at hand. You can also test the directional force of the river by tossing at branch into the river and taking note of where it ends up. If you lose your footing and fall, odds are you’ll take a similar path.

Width

Despite what you’re instincts may otherwise dictate, try to opt for a wider and shallower/branched section of the river rather than a narrower section (often called “choke points). Odds are these latter sections are deeper, quick moving and therefore more treacherous sections to ford. It’s also beneficial to avoid choosing a line that ends in exit points with high banks.

Downstream Run-Out

If the crossing looks sketchy, it’s worth taking note of what lies downstream – be it dangerous rapids or a waterfall – in case you do in fact go for an unplanned swim.

What Lies Beneath

Considering the character of the riverbed is an optimal best practice as well. For instance, pay attention to how the water is flowing, if there appears to be any potential snags or holes, or if the water is carrying with it large debris. If this is the case, we’d suggest finding another section to cross.

When in doubt, wait it out

If what appeared to be a small stream on your map has been over-washed thanks to snowmelt, it could be worth your while to take some time to set up camp and wait until the flow has receded. As a general rule of thumb, early mornings are better for crossing rivers swollen by snowmelt as overnight temps put a holding on the melting process.

Preparing to Cross

Step by Step

Now that a crossing has been successfully scoped out and planned, the next step in the process is to prepare for the crossing. Meaning, consider anything that can get wet, will get wet. So, with that in mind, it’s best to prepare accordingly – especially if there are non-waterproof survival essentials or electronics present in your hiking backpack. This is also a good time to mentally prepare yourself for the crossing if it appears something could potentially go wrong. Patience is a virtue here, and fording a river is certainly not a race. You must prepare a coordinated and well-thought-out plan of attack before taking that first step – even more so if the water is cold. Here are some key points to keep in mind:

Helpful Hints: Selecting the Fording Site

  • Try setting your fording line at a 45-degree downstream angle.
  • Never attempt a crossing near a rapid waterfall or deep channel.
  • Pick a line that could carry you to a shallow bank or should you lose footing.
  • Try your best to avoid rocky areas as these can cause harmful injuries.

Protection

Again, as stated above, keep in mind that anything that can get wet, will get wet should you lose footing while making the cross. It’s this variant of Murphy’s Law that should lead you to over-prepare. For instance, store all electronics and other valuables in waterproof bags. You can also tie off your pack liner with either a rubber band or in a knot. That way, any trapped air could work in your favor as a floatation device if needed.

Minimize Drag

Unless the river is exceptionally cold due to snowmelt, it’s best to remove any unnecessary articles of clothing that could cause resistance/drag while crossing. These include heavy jackets, baggy pants, or loose-fitting shirts. Instead, opt for as little clothing as possible to help you easily cut through the running water.

Keep Your Boots On

While no one like a pair of soggy boots or socks, a severely sliced foot or injury is much worse. Aside from complications with potential infections, such an injury could result in a fall and an unexpected drift downstream. A good compromise is to remove the insoles on your boots and peel off your socks – that way you’ll get the protection you need while allowing your boots to dry off faster.

The Backpack

While different survival experts will often differ on whether or not to unbuckle your pack or remain strapped in, we’ve found the best compromise is to simply loosen the hoop belt and sternum strap so that if a fall does occur, you can quickly unbuckle – giving you options on whether to drift or abandon and swim.

Common Techniques

Situational Awareness

Common techniques basically boil down to two scenarios: either a solo or group crossing. Both of which could, in fact, utilize what’s known as the Tripod or Quadpod Method for crossing. Or, for more dedicated group crossings, they could travel together to help stabilize the cross. At any rate, it’s useful to keep these two popular methods in your back pocket, all while remaining aware of some additional “inventive” methods as well.

The Tripod/Quadpod Method

In short, the Tripod Method refers to a third “leg” utilized to ford a river (four legs for the Quadpod Method) which could come in the form of either trekking poles or sturdy sticks to help you remain balanced. Here’s how it’s done:

  • Enter the water at a 45-degree angle downstream, using either one or both poles for stability. It also pays to look for animal tracks, which typically signify they’ve either crossed at this spot or the water is calm enough for use as a drinking hole.
  • Be sure to bend at the knees and lean forward. With each step place the pole or stick in front of you first for an extra point of contact. Keep your center of gravity as low as possible.
  • Test each foothold before committing to the next step to avoid foot entrapment. Use your stick/pole to test water depth and current. Be sure to shuffle steadily and never rush through the crossing.
  • Continue this process until you safely reach the exit point on the other side or you deem it too dangerous to continue on. There is no shame in turning back here as a little extra caution could very well save your life.

Find a Natural Bridge

More often than not, especially in heavily wooded areas, freshly fallen trees can serve as somewhat reliable ways to cross a river and remain dry at the same time. The key phrase here, of course, is freshly fallen as older rotten trees will certainly break under too much pressure. Also, look for trees that still have their bark – as this will provide additional traction as opposed to older trees now covered in slick moss. It’s also important to not stare directly at your feet while crossing either, as this can induce vertigo and result in lost balance. Instead, focus on the steps ahead, and your feet will follow suit.

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Boulder Hopping

Sturdy rocks and boulders can provide an adequate and dry means of fording a river successfully. The key here is to make sure these are stable boulders and not shifting rocks when planning your attack. Here are some key considerations to keep in mind:

  • Use a premeditated route, planning where your feet and hands will end up before making each jump.
  • Work to keep three points of contact with the boulder at all times.
  • Jumping upwards is always the easier than jumping down to a rock.
  • Watch out for wet shimmering spots on rocks and boulders as these can be slick.
  • Always opt for exposed and dry sections when navigating across the river.

Group Crossings

If you’re part of a group there are two options here – either go at it alone or use Mutual Support Method to cross as one. Here, members either hold on to one another’s shoulder straps or waist belts when crossing while the strongest and/or heaviest member of the group leads the way – serving as a group anchor in the process.

Crossing closely to one another will also diverge some of the flowing water around other members of the group rather than forcing them to take the brunt of the river’s hydraulics. Finally, we don’t recommend tieing one another together as this can have detrimental effects if one member of the group loses their footing – taking everyone else down with them.

Mitigate Worst-Case Scenarios

Preparing for the Worst

In the possible event that you fall and are swept away by the current of a flowing river, it’s important, above all else, not to panic. The key here is to regain and maintain your composure to facilitate a clear exit strategy. Obviously, your priority here is making it safely to shore, not worrying about your gear getting wet or finding your footing on the river bed.

There’s also the backpack to consider. In these situations there are two options: either abandon it and swim or use it as a flotation device if you can. One thing’s for certain though, you want the pack off of your back as it will act as a weight dragging you down if you remain strapped in.In the event that you do fall and are swept away, it’s important, above all else, not to panic. Whatever you decide, once you’ve made it to shore, the immediate priority is to get warm and dry. This is best accomplished by fire, so lighting a campfire is ideal right then and there. Also, any dry clothes you may have at your disposal should immediately be swapped out for your wet ones. Hang anything that’s wet out to dry as well. If you’re in a group and don’t have many options, this could also be an ideal time to request extra clothing for warming purposes.

All in all, the best way to avoid disaster is by not pushing your luck when fording a river. If it looks dangerous, always err on the side of caution. Go and try to find another crossing, or simply wait it out for a day or two and see if the water levels recede. The best option, as always, is planning in advance. Know which streams turn into full-blown river rapids during snowmelt or heavy rains, and keep an exit strategy on hand for when fording simply isn’t an option.

How To Start A Campfire

If hunkering down for a couple days is necessary, here’s a helpful guide to starting a campfire so you’ll keep warm and dry next to the raging rapids.

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