Subscribe Contribute Advertise Facebook Twitter Instagram Forums Newsletter
river crossing technique
Display Avatars Sort By:
Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
river crossing technique on 04/18/2011 15:21:47 MDT Print View

Many backpackers cross a small river in a line parallel to the current. However, for some of us traveling solo, that doesn't help much.

If the small river is narrow and if there are trees or anchor points on either side, you can "walk an arc" across with a rope, and then walk back to recover the rope. Alas, if the river valley is wide with no trees or anchors, then the rope doesn't work.

I will be carrying several thousand dollars worth of camera gear, so I am reluctant to risk putting it in the drink. At a minimum, a large plastic bag will be involved there for waterproofing. I suppose that I could make my whole backpack into a large floater.

This early in the season, I don't know how bad the crossing will be. I'm guessing optimistically that it will be thigh-deep water, but it could be waist-deep. This year, due to extreme snow in the mountains, this river crossing will be both cold and deep, with slippery footing.

Many backpackers use trekking poles for balance. I don't.

Any suggestions?


Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: river crossing technique on 04/18/2011 15:35:31 MDT Print View

Hi Bob

> several thousand dollars worth of camera gear,
Serious dry bag stuff. I would suggest using a very good dry bag here so you are not worrying about the gear while crossing.

> guessing optimistically that it will be thigh-deep water, but it could be waist-deep.
Any river that has gone up that much could be flowing rather fast. That sort of water is dangerous stuff, especially if slippery and cold. Me, I might coward out, and use a different route.

The idea of making your whole pack into buoyancy is very, very good. We have done that before, and it does add some safety. But if there are rapids around, it is still dangerous.

(Yes, some interesting 'experiences' when I was younger.)


Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: river crossing technique on 04/18/2011 15:47:55 MDT Print View

Roger, yes, there is an alternate route. However, that is ugly and I will avoid it unless there is no choice at all. No rapids that I am aware of, so the buoyant pack is part of the solution.

Apparently horse riders complain about getting wet at this crossing.

If it will be too risky, I may have to wait until the late season when the river level will be much lower and safer. However, that would screw up the photographic mission which needs to be mid-season.

Where is Crocodile Dundee when I need him?


Aaron Benson
(AaronMB) - F

Locale: Central Valley California
RE: River Crossing on 04/18/2011 16:03:00 MDT Print View

I've never had to deal with a crossing where there was much concern, so forgive my simple thinking, please.
It seems antithetical and I would be apprehensive, certainly depending on the flow and what was downstream, but if the situation called for it, perhaps you can get yourself safely across and then pull in your floating/water-proof pack from the other side?

Hiking Malto
(gg-man) - F
Steam Crossings on 04/18/2011 16:04:27 MDT Print View

I had the "opportunity" to do 17 stream crossings in GSMNP yesterday that ranged from knee deep to crotch level, and I'm 6'2". On most of them the water was moving very fast but the only good part was that the water temperature was a bit warmer than the norm in the Sierra. BUT.... there is absolutely no way I would have avoided going into the drink without trekking poles. I have done my share of stream crossing but this the most back to back in a day and I was surprised at the sheer force of the water. On one crossing, my foot slipped and my body turned full force into the current, only the trekking poles saved the day. So, if you know you have potentially nasty crossings why wouldn't you take poles? Three points of contact on a foot movement is infinitely better than one.

Michael Ray
(topshot) - MLife

Locale: Midwest
Re: river crossing technique on 04/18/2011 16:37:48 MDT Print View

Use nearby branches as trekking poles? It definitely helps to have 3 points down while 1 leg is up.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: river crossing technique on 04/18/2011 16:50:25 MDT Print View

From the limited information that I have about the area, the river valley is flooded in the springtime, so there are no trees or tree branches within it.

I suppose that I could carry in tree branches from five miles away, or maybe carry in trekking poles from 35 miles away. Somehow this doesn't seem optimal.

The buoyant backpack seems like it would be enough to keep me from going under, but I don't know if that is the whole solution.

Assuming that I could swim across, and then pulling my backpack across on a line... hmmm. That seems risky if the line broke. The current's force on the backpack might be a lot.

I better look for another alternate route.


Bill Markwood
another vote for poles on 04/18/2011 18:25:36 MDT Print View

As an avid fly fisherman, I have spent many hours walking in and across rivers and streams of varing current strength. I ALWAYS carry a wading staff. One minute and everything's fine; the next you're on your ass or floating downstream. I can only imagine what that experience would be like with a full pack; it's not worth finding out.


Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: river crossing technique and poles on 04/18/2011 18:25:53 MDT Print View


Our experience has been that trekking poles (or sticks) are not always a lot of use in FAST water. Sure, they are very useful in calm or slow water, especially when the bed is slippery. But in fast water it can be very difficult to get the pole to even touch bottom. You can spend a lot of time just trying to get the pole into the water and anchored on the bed. If the water is off the snow and freezing, that time can be unwise.

Our preferred technique (and used in New Zealand where they have a LOT of this) is to cross in groups, NOT singly. You get into a line pointed downstream, with the strongest (and heaviest) at the upstream end. Then you move one by one, with everyone else helping (supporting) the person moving. This works even with just two people.

In extremis, in NZ, they may camp on the river bank for a day waiting for the water to go down. That is a known and respected reason for being late back.


Bill Markwood
another thought about poles on 04/18/2011 18:30:13 MDT Print View

Roger is right about it being hard to get a pole or staff down to the river bed in fast water. It just starts to shimmy. When this happens to me, I usually turn around slowly and head back to the shore from which I came.


Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: river crossing technique and poles on 04/18/2011 18:38:28 MDT Print View

I studied the map for another hour, and then I went for a long walk to think about it. I discarded the ugly alternative route and decided on a shorter alternative route, so I can avoid the river crossing completely and shorten the trip a bit. That would still line me up for the important portion of the trip, which is photographic. The only downsides are that I will have to drive an additional 200 miles, deal with a different wilderness permit agency, and do a bit more elevation gain on the trail, but those are not killers.

I'm not used to intentional river work that is more than knee-deep. The last time that I got into a situation like that, I got mostly across and then the water was up on my pockets. The river bank was high, so I had to take the pack off and heave it up over my head onto the bank. That wasn't very elegant. When carrying camera equipment around, I don't want to get that wet.


Tom Kirchner
(ouzel) - MLife

Locale: Pacific Northwest/Sierra
Re: river crossing technique on 04/18/2011 18:43:56 MDT Print View

"Any suggestions?"

You're in solo; don't do it.

Find another route or go later.

peter vacco

Locale: no. california
if it's near a lake ? on 04/18/2011 18:52:57 MDT Print View

if thee can find a nearby lake to cross on, this is a fine spot to both justify ( $ ) and deploy an ... alpacka raft !

you may not even know you "need" one yet.

but you do.


Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Re: Re: river crossing technique on 04/18/2011 18:54:56 MDT Print View

Maybe one of the lighter packrafts for ferrying yourself and gear?

Unfortunately, this will add substantial weight to your pack.

Here's one of the lighter options at 35oz.

Travis Leanna
(T.L.) - MLife

Locale: Wisconsin
Re: Re: Re: river crossing technique on 04/18/2011 18:56:04 MDT Print View

Heh, Peter must have been posting while I was. NEED a packraft......

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
Re: river crossing technique on 04/18/2011 19:10:06 MDT Print View

Yeah, I know how that goes....
1) Protect the camera gear. At least double bag it. Every piece of gear could be in a heavy duty zip lock with some foam rubber. If the pack happens to go swimming, it may bounce some rocks.
2) Put the zip locks in a dry bag. Blow it up and seal it.
3) Same for your pack liner. DO NOT compress your pack. If it goes swimming, you want it as a life preserver, and, you do not want to let it loose.
4) Felt pads (usually these can be purchased from a good fishing shop as replacements) can be
rigged around your shoes with a couple holes. These provide excellent traction on slick rocks, but fail on gravely bottoms.
5) You really should carry a hiking staff rigged with a 1/4" screw on top as a camera mount.
The staff will act as a third leg while wading, and acts as a fair substitute for a tripod.

If you have extra film (what??? FILM????), also, double bag that. Humidity can raise heck with it, depending on which type it is. Difficult to clean off if it gets damp or wet.

I usually bring a 80-300 zoom and a 20-70(maybe it was an 18-60??) macro/zoom. There is a small range that isn't covered, of course. There is also a 2x can be difficult to use but better, weight-wise, than bringing a larger lens. You have to use manual settings, though... no point and shoot, though exposures are usually OK...

Again, all wrapped in foam, duct tape wrapped. Makes the lightest carrying cases I know of. The closed cell foams are the best, since, they do not absorb knew that.

Anyway, if I am out to take pics, thats what I do. I actually got wet once and my gear stayed very dry, so, I know this works...though, it adds about 10# to my pack.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: Re: Re: river crossing technique on 04/18/2011 19:10:29 MDT Print View

The last time that I was crossing a body of water using an inflatable raft, I was harrassed by the local authorities for not having a fire extinguisher, PFD, and safety sticker. I haven't rafted since (35 years).


Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: river crossing technique on 04/18/2011 19:16:59 MDT Print View

"5) You really should carry a hiking staff rigged with a 1/4" screw on top as a camera mount."

I would never carry anything as heavy as that. Besides, that is what a tripod is for.

For this one trip, my camera gear adds up to about 10.5 pounds. Consumables add up to about 11 pounds, and non-consumable base weight is about 11 pounds.

A friend was complaining that the tripod did not appear to be multipurpose gear. Actually, I use it as the camera tripod, and also to support one end of my tarp at night.


jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
Re: river crossing technique on 04/18/2011 19:44:11 MDT Print View

Maybe this is obvious but

Early in the morning there's less flow, easier to cross

Late afternoon - lots of snow melt

This can screw you up if you cross easily in the morning and have to cross back late in the afternoon

Or, you can plan your route to do difficult crossings early in the morning

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: Re: river crossing technique on 04/18/2011 19:55:58 MDT Print View

Jerry, the daily variation in water level is well known. Once you get halfway out of the mountains, the variation isn't so obvious. Also the variation is different from the sunny side to the shady side of the pass. The snow melt up higher toward the high passes doesn't bother me because it is only ankle-deep. It's the major crossing 30-40 miles downstream that caught my attention. Apparently some of the rivers had foot bridges that were wiped out thirty years ago, and the parks have chosen not to replace the bridges.

I re-read the guidebook about my original choice of trail, and it mentioned how it was busy with rattlesnakes. That just gave me more desire about my alternative routes. I mean, rattlesnakes are alright, but I don't need the extra protein in my diet.