How to navigate water crossings when backpacking

by | Nov 28, 2023 | Backpacking

This post may contain affiliate links.

Imagine yourself deep in the backcountry, surrounded by the scent of pine, your pack snug, and the promise of a campfire-cooked meal just ahead.

You’re in the zone, rocking that wilderness vibe—until you come across Mother Nature’s pop quiz: the dreaded water crossing.

We’ve all been there, pondering the refreshing splash or the soggy disaster that awaits.

Will your boots conquer or will you squelch along in defeat for miles?

It’s the backpacker’s riddle, the hiker’s puzzle, and it can put a damper on your outdoor adventure.

But fret not, fellow trailblazer!

There’s a trick to keep your spirits high and your feet dry (or at least drier).

Lace up, roll up those pant legs, and let’s turn that watery adversary into a tiny blip on your trekking radar.

The most important things you need to do to safely cross water

A rocky river with trees

When you’re facing a river or stream on the trail, it’s important to assess the current before stepping in.

Look for calmer sections where the water moves less rapidly. Don’t be tempted by the shortest distance; a safer spot may be upstream or downstream.

Before you cross:

  • Check the depth and current. Use a stick or trekking poles to gauge the water’s depth and strength.
  • Unbuckle your pack. This allows you to quickly ditch your backpack if you fall in.

Consider the risks:

  • Fast-moving water can be stronger than you expect, even if it looks shallow.
  • Hidden rocks and logs can trip you up.

Strategies for a safe crossing:

  • Go slow and steady. Take your time to maintain balance.
  • Face upstream. Position your body against the current for more stability.
  • Use three points of contact. Keep two feet and one pole (or stick) in contact with the riverbed at all times.

Remember, you’re not obligated to cross if it feels too risky. Turning back or waiting for the water level to drop can be the smartest choice. Stay safe and respect the power of nature.

Assessing the situation

A hiking boot stepping on a rock in a stream

When you’re facing a river or stream on your hike, taking the time to assess your situation is key to a safe crossing.

Identifying safe crossing points

Scan for a section of the river where the water flows straight over a wide, shallow area; bends often have deep and dangerous pools.

You’ll want to find a spot that has a visible path to the opposite shore and less turbulent water. Use stable, visible rocks or logs as potential aids.

Evaluating water conditions

Notice the colour of the water; if it’s murky or filled with sediment, it could be hiding stronger currents or deeper sections than it appears.

Remember, water conditions can change rapidly with weather, so if it’s rained recently, be wary of increased flow rates and water levels.

Considering time of day and weather

Cross earlier in the day when water levels might be lower and you’ve got daylight on your side.

Also, if the weather’s looking rough or it’s been raining upstream, those are signs that you need to reconsider your crossing or wait until conditions improve.

Preparation and gear

Hiking shoes and backpack and trekking poles in the grass

Before you tackle any water crossing, having the right preparation and gear can make a significant difference in your safety and success.

Choosing appropriate footwear

You’ll need reliable footwear that’s designed for traction on slippery surfaces and can handle getting wet.

Look for shoes with a sturdy grip and quick-drying materials. If you’re crossing deeper waters, consider sandals specifically made for water sports or a pair of older running shoes that you don’t mind soaking.

Using trekking poles

Trekking poles are more than just walking sticks; they can help you maintain balance as you cross a stream.

When you plant them in the riverbed before taking a step, they act as an extra set of limbs, giving you stability and support against the current. Make sure they’re adjusted to the right height and have a durable tip for the best performance.

Packing waterproof bags

All your gear should be in waterproof bags or a dry sack inside your backpack.

If you do slip and fall in, you’ll keep your essentials dry.

Electronics and anything else that can be damaged by water should be double-bagged for extra protection.

Crossing techniques

Crossing a stream while backpacking

When you’re backpacking and come across a water crossing, knowing the right techniques can help you get across safely and keep your adventure going.

Here’s how to tackle those crossings, whether you’re alone or with a group.

Solo crossing methods

You’ll want to find the shallowest and calmest part of the water to cross.

Use a sturdy stick or hiking poles to keep you stable as you move across the stream or river.

Flex your knees slightly, lean into the current, and shuffle your feet to maintain a firm footing.

Group crossing strategies

If you’re with others, form a line or use the mutual support method. Have everyone face upstream, link arms or shoulders, and move as one.

The strongest person should be at the upstream end to break the current.

You’ll find it easier to stay upright with the added stability from your friends.

Navigational aids for water crossings

Before stepping into the water, pick a spot on the opposite bank to aim for, ensuring that it’s a suitable exit point.

Wearing boots or shoes with good ankle support can prevent unwanted twists or sprains.

Look ahead and step with confidence to where you want to go.

Safety protocols

A river with a heavy flowing rapid

Water crossings are risky, and having the right safety protocols in mind could save your life.

It’s important to assess each situation and not be afraid to turn back if conditions are not in your favour.

Stay calm in emergencies and know some basic first aid specific to water-related injuries.

Knowing when to turn back

If you’re at a water crossing and the water looks too deep, is moving fast, or the weather conditions are worsening, trust your gut and turn back.

It’s better to find an alternative route than to risk being swept away by currents or getting injured.

Remember, your adventure’s not worth putting your life in danger.

Responding to emergencies

In case you or someone else gets into trouble in the water, don’t panic. Move quickly and carefully to safer ground if you can.

If you can’t get out on your own, signal for help immediately.

Keep a whistle within reach for such situations, as yelling alone may not be heard over the sound of rushing water.

First aid for water hazards

If you’ve been in the water and are feeling cold, get dry and warm as soon as possible to avoid hypothermia.

In case of cuts or abrasions from rocks or debris, clean the wound with clean water and apply a sterile bandage.

Know the signs of waterborne illnesses, like nausea or fever, and seek medical attention if symptoms arise after a crossing.

Environmental considerations

When you’re backpacking through the wilderness,

it’s super important to think about how your actions affect the environment around you, especially when it comes to water crossings.

Minimizing impact on water sources

Don’t use soap or toothpaste near streams or rivers, even the biodegradable kind.

These products can harm aquatic life. Walk single file if you’re part of a group crossing a stream to reduce the erosion of stream banks.

Before you cross, check if there’s a designated crossing place or a durable surface like rocks or gravel to step on.

This helps you minimize your impact on underwater plant life and the stream’s ecosystem.

Respecting wildlife and habitat

Stay aware of your surroundings and give wildlife plenty of space.

Animals might depend on water sources for drinking or as part of their habitat.

Always observe from a distance, and don’t disturb the water more than necessary.

This means no splashing or throwing objects. If you see plants growing by the water, don’t trample them as you cross; stick to the path that causes the least disruption.

Remember, you’re a visitor in their home.

After the crossing

It’s not over yet—here are some things you should consider doing to avoid any nasty surprises.

Drying equipment

Once you’ve crossed the water, immediately take the time to dry off any wet gear. If you’ve got a towel, give everything a quick pat-down.

Lay out your equipment in the sun or a breezy spot if possible.

This goes for everything from your boots to your backpack.

Keeping your gear dry prevents mildew and maintains its insulating properties, which is particularly important in colder environments.

Checking for leeches or injuries

Check your body carefully for leeches or scrapes you might have picked up during the crossing.

Don’t panic if you find a leech; just slide your fingernail under the suction area to detach it.

Wash any wounds with clean water and apply a disinfectant if you have one.

Then, cover with a bandage to keep out dirt and bacteria as you continue your hike.

Planning for future crossings

Review the crossing you’ve just completed and consider what you’ve learned for next time.

Take note of water levels, the strength of the current, and any strategies that worked well or could be improved.

If you struggled or found it challenging, look for routes that might offer easier crossing points in the future or times of the year when the water may be lower.

More about backpacking:

Popular posts

About Us

Elise & Ross

We’re Elise and Ross, avid backcountry campers and outdoor adventurers! We started Gone Camping Again as a way to share our knowledge and experience about wilderness living and travel. Our hope is that we inspire you to get outside and enjoy all that nature has to offer!

Read more about our story.