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Crossing Rivers in the Back-Country


By touring - Posted on 12 August 2010

Crossing a river or stream in the back country is typical for hikers and bikers. When bridges aren’t available, adventure seekers need to carefully navigate across these channels to avoid unnecessary injuries.

Waterways are highest, and coldest, in the spring and early summer as the snow melts. Later into the season, the water level drops but are still prone to sudden flooding from thunderstorms. Narrow canyons between mountains are the most vulnerable to sudden fluctuations.

Crossing streams and rivers should always be done with caution as muddy or slippery bottoms can lead to a loss of balance, a loss of equipment and even a loss of life. In the back-country, hikers need to be more vigilant since rescue personnel are usually hours or days away.

Knee-high water is easy to wade through. Thigh-high water is a bit trickier to cross, especially if the current is moving fast. At crotch level, not only is it cold, but the force from the water can easily push a person over as the center of balance of the human body is in the lower abdominal area.



When crossing rivers and streams in the back-country, people need to use common sense to get across safely. Here are a few tips to ensure a safe crossing:

  • Check the speed of the current and the height of the water. The faster the flow and the higher the water, the more force will be pushing against your body. A rocky bottom makes it harder to keep balance.
  • Look downstream for the conditions of the water. Just in case you lose balance, you don’t want to be swept into rapids or into a canyon with steep walls that are impossible to scale.
  • Instead of hiking in wet boots for the rest of day, change into a pair of sturdy sandals before fording the river. Protective footwear helps to prevent slips and protects feet from sharp rocks and submerged branches. Avoid wearing loose flip-flops as these can easily come off, leaving you barefoot in the middle of a rocky patch.
  • Before entering any water, undo all backpack straps and carry it over one shoulder. If you lose balance, a weighted pack can drag you down and pin you under the water. It’s better to loose your supplies than your life. This is so true when .
  • When crossing with bikes, put them downstream of your body or they will be pushed into your legs and trip you up. This goes for parents crossing with children too.
  • The water will be cold but fight the urge to sprint across. When running through the water, you are more likely to topple over as your legs get slowed by water resistance. Carefully pick each step for a solid footing.
  • Once on the other side, dry off completely since damp feet are more prone to blisters.

An un-bridged stream or river is no reason to cut short an outdoor adventure. Safely crossing rivers in the back country requires common sense and caution.

Crossing a Stream or River

Get more insider tips on Canadian Adventures at Scenic Travel Canada.

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