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River Crossings Gone Bad
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Craig Marriner

Locale: Central Plateau
River Crossings Gone Bad on 12/02/2012 03:07:00 MST Print View

Anyone ever lost footing with a pack on during a river/stream crossing and gotten swept?

I've been close a couple of times but was saved by my poles.

What I particularly wish to know is how your backpack affected your flotation/body position.

I'm used to hiking with heavy loads (13kg plus) and my strategy on serious crossings was always to loosen straps, unclick hip belt, and, should I get swept, make contorting out of my pack priority number two (after snatching a big breath).

But I've lightened up a lot this past year, down to about 8 kg, and I'm wondering if ditching my pack is really so necessary or wise.

I tried a swim once with pack on back and hipbelt off, and as soon as I cast off the top of the pack tried to force my head under.

It's such a different ball game getting out of a pack when you weigh nothing.

Hiking Malto
(gg-man) - F
Maybe this will help on 12/02/2012 05:12:18 MST Print View

I was swept down a stream in North Yosemite on my thru hike but it was a completely different set of circumstance than what you may expect. There was a series of flooded channels that looked fairly (waist) deep but the water looked very slow moving. By this point I had crossed dozens of raging torrents and I was expecting no major issues. But I I went across the water got deeper and suddenly it was as if a hand swept my feet out from under me. In reality I think what happened was my pack was so light and the water ended up being about belly button deep when I was picked up. The pack had acted as a flotation device. It all worked out because I was swept to the opposite bank. I was able to hold on to my trekking poles and visor so no lost gear. And I was using a pack liner ibecause I was expecting the potential of getting wet sometime during the day. So no gear got wet.

What could I have done differently? Generally I unfasten my hip belt but this time I didn't because it didn't look to be that bad. It is possible that the pack may have floated independently of my body and not swept me off my feet. Second, I had just dislocated my shoulder a half hour earlier and my mind was not focused on that crossing. I likely could have found a better crossing point had I been 100% focused.

As to your question on affect on body position.... Yes it caused my head to go forward some but not a major deal. But I also have a very low volume pack, MLD burn, that could have helped in that regard.

Edited by gg-man on 12/02/2012 05:15:42 MST.

James Marco
(jamesdmarco) - MLife

Locale: Finger Lakes
River Crossings Gone Bad on 12/02/2012 06:27:48 MST Print View

Yupper. . .I was fishing and bushwacking along a stream in western NY in January. I had planned on fishing about 5 miles of stream, setting up a camp overnight, then fishing back. I caught one fish(steelhead) and was going down stream to catch another when I stepped onto a very slipery boulder. I went in with my rod in one hand. Worse, there was a shelf of ice about 1" thick below me. The pack actually acts as a flotation device but it really wanted to turn me over, face first into the water. I struggeled to get turned around, feet first, but was moving too fast in the current. After I relaxed a bit, I managed to roll sideways. I bumped into the ice shelf. It was only about 3' deep, but very dangerous since the current was fairly swift right there as it emptied into a pool(iced over.) I let it swing my feet and body down to the bottom. Fortunatly, my waders and pack were now full of water. This helped, since it made me heavier. I slowly walked to the stream edge, knowing, that if I lost my footing again, I would go under the ice for about 10 yards in the pool...totally iced over. Very close to drowning, then freezing and shaking so bad I could hardly walk(adrenalin and cold,)I reached the bank. I lost the fish and some smaller items(a fly box, some leades, a bottle containg some nymph imitations, some micro-shot...) I SAVED the rod!!! Though the reel was soaked and it froze up. The pack was painfull in retrospect. The dry bags had some bouancy, which kept me from rolling on my back. My hat was gone, it washed off in the water. I emptied my boots and hiked out. Very painfull, except for the effort of hiking and bushwacking to the road (about a half mile) kept me too hot. Have you ever simultaneously been frozen cold and too hot? It IS possible.

Paul Wagner
(balzaccom) - F

Locale: Wine Country
wading for fun on 12/02/2012 10:09:13 MST Print View

That's a terrifying story.

I haven't had this problem, but I've seen it happen. We were hiking up the Mono Creek drainage last 4th of July, and it was during high snowmelt. We'd checked with some of the through-hikers, and they assured that there was an easy log over the creek. But when we got there we saw a triplet (two men and a woman) locking arms together and crossing the stream. It looked like no big deal--although the fact that they had locked arms should have been a clue. At its deepest, the water was maybe mid-thigh, but fast moving.

So I put on my Crocs, grabbed a nearby stick and started across. Half-way across the stick broke, but I still made it without too much trouble. My wife followed with two hiking poles, and struggled a bit, but also made it across. The hardest part for her was that her poles kept getting swept downstream in the current before she could plant them in the rocks.

There was a young couple there, with a dog. They guy forded the creek with his pack, then went back to get his dog. Meanwhile, his girlfreind/wife started across...and lost her footing. She was swept about 20-30 feet downstream, rolling over once in the current. She rolled into shallow water, where she washed up against some alders on the bank, and climbed out. She was completely soaked and frozen, but they continued their hike.

Two days later we crossed the creek on the logs, which were about fifty feet upstream, and a cakewalk.

Brian Lewis
(brianle) - F

Locale: Pacific NW
We always want to simplify things on 12/02/2012 10:21:59 MST Print View

I've helped teach a beginning backpacking class, and the more experience I gain at various aspects of backpacking, the more I realize how simplistic are the various rules of thumb that some well-meaning instructors pound into the heads of their students, using words like "never" and "always".

Starting the CDT SOBO in June of last year my hiking partner lost his footing, really was just floated off his feet in crossing the Belly river. His pack was still fully attached and his remarks afterward suggested that he felt that was much better than the recommended "always" unsnap waist and chest snaps so the pack can slip off easily. In his case the pack floated him up enough that, for the short stretch he sailed downstream, he was able to catch a trailing bridge cable as he swept under the deckless bridge main cables.

It might well be that had he floated down for much more than the maybe 4 seconds he was going like that, that the river might have forced him into a face down position. But in this case it worked out well, for that time frame at least he floated high enough and upright enough to grap onto the one thing he could reach that could save him from what clearly would have been a bad situation.

FWIW, though I managed to cross at the same point as he (before he did) without being swept away, I too had all my pack snaps snapped. The obvious trade-off here is that, while being able to escape the pack might be a good thing once swept off your feet, you're less likely to be swept off in the first place if your pack is more stable on your back and not shifting as you're trying to walk.

And of course, there are times and places in the wilderness that having your pack float away at high speed could leave you pretty screwed too! We were less than a day from a trailhead at that point, but we crossed a lot of tricky creeks later on that trip that were days away from any possible exit. It's always about trade-offs, using experience and wisdom to make the right ones.

David Chenault
(DaveC) - BPL Staff - F

Locale: Crown of the Continent
re: advanced river crossings on 12/02/2012 10:33:46 MST Print View

This is yet another good thread on this subject, which just highlights the big gap in discourse. There's a lot of terrain between the standard methods and using a packraft that isn't addressed well, if at all. It would make a good video. If I can recruit a crew to film and act as safety I'll head out this spring and do some experimenting.

Brian, I'm curious, which crossing did ya'll have trouble with: going up to Elizabeth Lake, or the open right below the lake itself?

I've never been swept off my feet while crossing, but I have intentionally gotten pushed downstream just tap dancing diagonally across the bottom for a while until I got into shallower water. That was crossing Thorofare Creek in May several years ago, solo and rather far from anything. I had my pack cinched and drybags done up with some air inside, and basic safety stuff (fire kit, Spot) in the pocket of my anorak. If I got swept downstream I wanted every chance to keep my pack, as loosing it would have made the walk out not so fun. For that crossing, and others like it, I stow one pole and lengthen the other. Stiffer trekking poles are nice here.

Luke Schmidt
(Cameron) - MLife

Locale: The WOODS
Re Re advanced river crossings on 12/02/2012 11:57:12 MST Print View

David testing different river crossing techniques sounds like the basis for a good article. I don't think I've seen anything like that anywhere else.

Craig Marriner

Locale: Central Plateau
Re: We always want to simplify things on 12/02/2012 15:34:10 MST Print View

I carry an prb in my pocket these days, so there's really not much of a trade off for me on a crossing (other than that my pack and it's load are worth a few thousand dollars, but what's that next to drowning?).

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife
River Crossings Gone Bad on 12/02/2012 16:26:57 MST Print View

On a Colorado backpack a few years ago, I started across what looked like a relatively innocuous stream ford, about knee deep. About four steps in, I stepped in a hole with water up to my crotch, and the next thing I knew, I had tripped over a big boulder hidden under the surface. The several days of rain before I got there had made the water murkier and deeper than it looked!

I didn't get swept away and I didn't quite do a face plant (I kept my head up), but I did get soaked from the neck down. When I got back out, I immediately checked my pack. There was at least an inch of water in the bottom of the pack, but all my insulation was in dry bags and anything else vulnerable was in plastic, so nothing got wet.

That experience is why I keep preaching that either a waterproof pack liner or waterproof dry bags for critical insulation are absolutely necessary. Neither stuff sacks (the opening isn't waterproof) nor a pack cover will keep your gear dry in case of immersion. I found that there was no weight difference. The weather was cold and wet enough (low 30's F at night) that if either my sleeping bag or my insulating clothing had gotten wet, I'd have been in deep doo-doo. My clothing dried in an hour of hiking, except for my Goretex lined boots, which took three days to dry inside, one day of that sitting out in the sun. It was after that trip that I switched to trail runners. BTW, trail runners are far safer for crossing dicey fords than Crocs or Tevas.

I did have far too heavy a pack on that trip--I started the trip the day before with 37 lbs. Next time a relative asks me to deposit his/her ashes (about 11 lbs.) in the backcountry, I'm going to insist it be not more than 3-4 miles from the trailhead! I've also changed my own funeral instructions accordingly.

I have found that I'm actually better off to keep my hip belt fastened. If I leave it undone, the pack is apt to zig and pull me off balance if I zag suddenly.

I will go to considerable length--even aborting the trip if necessary--to avoid deep stream fords. That's because my dog absolutely refuses to swim--a traitor to his mostly Labrador genes!

This excellent BPL article--6 years old and just as valid as when it was written, iMHO--has a section on fording swollen streams:
"Think about what happens if you get swept away and prepare for the possibility. Pick a likely exit spot and seal the pack liner before entering the water. When swimming, leave the waist belt on, sternum strap off."

Edited by hikinggranny on 12/02/2012 16:39:43 MST.

Brian Lewis
(brianle) - F

Locale: Pacific NW
Where ... on 12/03/2012 12:37:29 MST Print View

"Brian, I'm curious, which crossing did ya'll have trouble with: going up to Elizabeth Lake, or the open right below the lake itself?"

Going up to Elizabeth lake. We started in the afternoon right at the customs point at the Canadian border at the eastern edge of the park, hiked south a total of ten miles that first day, crossed the Belly river towards the end of the day and stayed at a (snow-covered) campground at the north end of the lake. Immediately the next morning there was another crossing.

Which brings up another lesson there --- in retrospect when we saw how challenging the crossing was the day before, we would ideally have done a little map recon and recognized that we would soon be crossing it again the next day and so --- bushwacked around to avoid both crossings. The trail seduced us in part by being so easy (and initially snow-free) from the beginning!

FWIW, I'm not sure what you mean by "the open right below the lake itself". I've only ever been there the one time, but looking at the map now ... after that crossing we went via Redgap pass because the Ptarmigan Tunnel isn't open that early, and then via Poia lake. We were doing the higher-snow CDT alternate start, as the Waterton start was undoubtedly (more) treacherous at that point (June 12th 2011).

Brendan S
(brendans) - MLife

Locale: Fruita CO
Re: re: advanced river crossings on 12/03/2012 12:41:27 MST Print View

Good discussion, and it seems there are two here: intentionally crossing water that's bigger that walkable, and dealing with a unintended swim or fall.

I crossed the Colorado a couple times on a trip last April. The first time I was able to do it walking, the second time required a swim. I ended up taking my pack off, holding it under one arm, and sidestroking across. Despite the slow/low water, it still took longer to get across than I thought and I ended up a fair bit downstream (I crossed in an area with a long gravel bar on the other side, so plenty of room). It worked fine, but wearing the pack and having both arms available might have been preferable. Some testing of different methods is a great idea.

Roger Caffin
(rcaffin) - BPL Staff - MLife

Locale: Wollemi & Kosciusko NPs, Europe
Re: River Crossings Gone Bad on 12/03/2012 13:29:56 MST Print View

Mary wrote:
> I keep preaching that either a waterproof pack liner or waterproof dry bags for critical
> insulation are absolutely necessary. Neither stuff sacks (the opening isn't waterproof)
> nor a pack cover will keep your gear dry in case of immersion. I found that there was
> no weight difference.
Absolutely agree. Keep your gear dry!
We use plastic bags inside all our stuff sacks. They are done up to be waterproof. The extra weight is utterly negligeable, but the added security is wonderful.
Things like quilts get stuffed into a UL Pertex stuff sack first, to protect the plastic bag. Again, negligeable weight, but great security.

> When swimming, leave the waist belt on, sternum strap off.
I don't use a sternum strap, but I do agree with keeping the waist belt done up. I know some people say you have to be prepared to ditch your pack, but not me! That pack floats, and is my 'personal flotation device'.

> My clothing dried in an hour of hiking, except for my Goretex lined boots, which
> took three days
Snerk! Yeah.


Edited by rcaffin on 12/03/2012 13:32:19 MST.

Rex Sanders
(Rex) - M

Locale: Central California Coast
Raft guide perspective on 12/03/2012 23:59:24 MST Print View

I've been a whitewater raft guide for 25 years, taught raft guides for over 15 years, and taught trainers for over 10 years, as a volunteer for Friends of the River.

I have been swept off my feet crossing a river (with a lifejacket, not a pack), and fallen out of boats into rivers. I've been rescued, rescued myself, and rescued other people.

I watched someone drown 100 yards away who was wearing a lifejacket, but we couldn't get there in time.

You take deadly risks crossing rivers, even with a lifejacket and training.

Do not think you will stay calm and rational when you get swept off your feet. Many people panic or freeze, even after some training. I did.

A pack that floats, strapped to your back, will try to float you face down in the river. Makes breathing more challenging.

Even if you don't panic, and you ditch your pack, and you are a strong swimmer, you can swim into more dangerous situations – strainers, holes, foot traps, and others – if you don't know any better.

We don't seem to have classes on “crossing rivers for backpackers” in USA.

Get swiftwater rescue training instead. One day classes start at $95. Look for courses aimed at recreational users (fishers, boaters) rather than professionals. You will learn how to cross rivers more safely, how to rescue yourself when things go wrong, and how to rescue others.

If you aren't going to take a class, at least read a good book. Standard disclaimer applies: Reading a book is NO SUBSTITUTE for training. Really and truly.

Good books include:

River Rescue: A Manual for Whitewater Safety, by Les Bechdel and Slim Ray.

Whitewater Rescue Manual: New Techniques for Canoeists, Kayakers, and Rafters, by Charles Walbridge and Wayne Sundmacher.

Stay safe out there.

Kevin Burton
(burtonator) - F

Locale: norcal
practice. on 12/04/2012 12:20:56 MST Print View

If you can try to practice.

It sounds silly but I don't think anyone actually does it.

When mountain climbing almost the FIRST thing you do is to practice a self arrest.

You climb up a hill about 30-40 feet and then allow yourself to fall.

Next time you are backpacking and there is a fast water section followed by a pool of large water try to do a few stream crossings.

The pool will catch you if you sleep and avoid going downstream.

There is danger in doing this because you could cut a leg or twist an ankle if there are underwater obstructions. However, IMO it's far better than NOT practicing if you are careful.

1. the shock of the water temperature can be frightening - especially to children. You have to anticipate this and keep going without thrashing.

2. learn what type of rocks to place your foot. I NEVER put my foot on top of a boulder and try to get my foot on the graven floor. It's far to easy to slip off the rock or to have the bolder shift and then lose your footing.

3. With my ultralight pack (8 lbs/ 3kg) I don't unbuckle. I figure it's FAR more practical for me to keep my pack then unbuckle it and risk losing my gear.

4. Don't rush things. Make sure your foot is FIRM before shifting weigh. You're going to be cold ANYWAY so just take a few more minutes and cross safely.

I've spent hundreds of hours in streams fishing and the only time I slip is when I rush.

Gerry Brucia
(taedawood) - MLife

Locale: Louisiana, USA
River Crossings Not Gone Bad on 12/10/2012 15:33:41 MST Print View

In November 2011 I was solo hiking the Eagle Rock Loop in Arkansas along the Little Missouri River, just a few miles upstream from the Albert Pike Recreation Area where 16 campers drowned in a flash flood in 2009. It began to rain around 7 PM in the evening. When I crossed the river earlier in the afternoon, the water was at most 1' deep. It rained all night long and into the next day, a total of 11", so I found out afterwards.

After a sleepless night in my hammock and daybreak I decided to retrace my steps and headed back up the trail. Unfortunately the crossing that was previously 1' deep was at its deepest point now up to my sternum - 4.5'. The current was incredibly strong. I had loosed the waistbelt of my pack which was lined with a waterproof liner sack. The bottom 12" or so of my pack was below the water level. I relied heavily upon my rigid aluminum Pacer Poles, which allowed me to put a great deal of weight down on the poles as I crossed. It took me nearly 15 minutes to cross the 30' wide river. Running on adrenaline, I resumed my hike, retracing my steps of the day before. Less than ten minutes later I realized/remembered that I had to cross back over the river once again. Once I made it across the second time and had time to collect my wits, I realized I was OUT OF MY MIND for attempting the crossings.

A few years ago I read "Deep Survival" by Laurence Gonzales, a superb book on wilderness survival psychology. Despite having the head knowledge, I fell right into the "trap" of not thinking through my options. Fortunately I lived to tell the tale. I do not know if I would have survived had I been washed away but I can tell you that if I ever encounter such a situation again, I will STOP, EVALUATE, and WAIT OUT the flood, even if it takes a couple of days for the river to subside.