Every year I attend several risk management conferences and events for outfitters and guides of all stripes, and every year it's the same. The greatest risk to the backcountry traveler tends to be water. The most common outfitter and guide concern is the possibility of a drowning while an individual swims recreationally. But another common and big concern is the ability to effectively cross a river.
I can't tell you how many thousands of rocks I've hopped while crossing small creeks. And I also can't tell you how many times I've helped people as they crossed these features in an unstable way. Obviously, the best way to manage small creeks is by using trekking poles and picking rocks to step on that don't appear to be too slippery. It's also a good idea to avoid crossings above hazards, such as waterfalls.
But what about bigger water obstacles?
The staff at Backpacker magazine have put together a nice video on this subject. Check it out below.
In review, here are some considerations:
Try to Avoid Deep Crossings - Try to avoid crossing anything that is deeper than your knees. You can check the depth by throwing a rock in the river where you intend to cross. If the rock makes a "ker-plunk" sound, the river is deep and may be too difficult to cross.
Look for Hazards Downstream - Don't cross above waterfalls, rapids or any other feature that could hurt you if you fall.
Look for Wider Areas to Cross and Avoid Bends - Wider areas tend to be shallower. And the current tends to be faster around bends.
Look at Waves - Standing waves can indicate boulders and fast water. Washboard light waves indicate a more uniform bottom.
Extra Shoes - If you have extra shoes, it's best to wear them for crossings. It is not ideal to have wet boots and socks while hiking as that can lead to blisters.
Unbuckle Packs - An unbuckled pack tends to be better because you can get out of it quickly if you fall.
Crossing Strategies - Use trekking poles or sturdy sticks to enhance stability. Face upstream and cross at a slight downstream angle. Sidestepping or shuffling across can also help with stability.
Link Arms - If the water is deeper, or if someone doesn't feel as stable, partners might link arms to enhance stability.
Tripod Technique - This is a river crossing technique that requires three people. Each person puts their hands on the next person's shoulder in a circle. The tallest person is upstream. The team then shuffles across.
River crossings are dangerous. Take your time and find the right spot to cross...
--Jason D. Martin