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High water: Gear & skills for hazardous creek fords


This multi-post series discusses recommended gear, supplies, and skills for backpacking in the Mountain West in early-season conditions. These normally prevail in May/June, and in July after exceptionally snowy winters.


Unbridged creek crossings are the greatest hazards in the early-season. High water volume (due to snowmelt) and steep gradients (due to mountain topography) is a dangerous combination.

In comparison, other early-season conditions like sun cups, postholing, intense bugs and even hard snowfields seem like a mere annoyance or inconvenience.

Let’s discuss how to safely manage this element.

Gear

Your most valuable asset in safely crossing creeks will be your brain. But let’s first discuss gear that will and will not help:

Trekking poles

If trekking poles on not on your gear list, add them. You will find them useful at all times: powering uphill, braking on descents, staying upright on roots and small rocks, and setting up your freeform shelter.

During creek crossings, use your poles to check depth and to double your points of ground contact, which will make you more steady.

Specific recommendations. If you want and can afford the best, buy the Black Diamond Alpine Carbon Cork (my long-term review). If you want to spend less, spend a lot less with the Cascade Mountain Tech Quick Lock Poles (my long-term reviews). I know of no pole between these two price points that is worth consideration.

While fording this small but swift creek in Alaska, trekking poles provided two extra points of contact, and a way to test water depth.

Rope

A rope can be slung across a creek to be used as a handline. I generally wouldn’t recommend it:

  • Heavy;
  • Of potential value only for a group of 3+.
  • No value-added during the first and last crossing;
  • Time-consuming and a lot of fuss;
  • Bark damage to the trees used as anchors; and,
  • Ideal anchors may not exist at the ideal fording location.

Simply put, I think there are better solutions than a rope.

On the Otter Trail in South Africa, I watched two husbands try to set a handline for their wives across this ford. It looked very manly, but the handline was of no help: there were no good anchors for it, and there was too much slack in the line for it to be reliable.

Packraft

A primary benefit of these revolutionary inflatable boats is that they provide safe passage across unsafe bodies of water like rivers, lakes, and glacier fjords.

But, like the handline, I generally don’t think they are the best solution for early-season conditions, especially in the context of a PCT/JMT or CDT hike. First, they’re heavy — about 10 pounds total, with raft, PFD, and paddle.

Second, the swiftwater could quickly carry downstream an unskilled packrafter. If attempted in the wrong place, missing an eddy takeout could be fatal.

Packrafting across Alaska’s Copper River Delta

River shoes

I discussed “water shoes” in an earlier post in this series. Don’t bring them. Fords can be done more safely in your hiking shoes or boots, which have a better outsole, more protective upper, and more secure fit.

Skills

In addition to trekking poles, I have a number of other recommendations to stay safe during creek crossings:

Timing

Schedule your day so that you ford potentially dangerous creeks in the morning, when they are relatively low. Snowmelt increases as the sun and temperatures rise, and water levels normally peak in early-evening.

The “official” ford of Evolution Creek in late-June 2006, at its peak flow in the evening. This is a notoriously difficult ford at all times, but in the morning it would be much easier. Better recommendation: ford at Evolution Meadow, just upstream.

Alternates

On your topographic maps, identify alternative crossing points where the creek will be slower and/or shallower, or where there is no immediate hazard downstream like a waterfall.

Do NOT assume that the trails cross at the best spot. In many cases, they do not, because the trails were built for July-September use, after peak flows. To be safe, you may have to temporarily leave the trail.

Where the JMT/PCT crosses the South Fork of the Kings River, it is a torrent. For scale, notice the hiker on the opposite bank.

Rather than ford the South Fork twice, simply stay on the east side of it through meadows and open woodlands. It will be a few minutes slower without the trail, but much safer.

In the evening at its peak flow, Rush Creek could not be safely crossed on its bridge, which was wet and slick.

If the trail crossing is unsafe, head upstream to the flat area between tarns. The creek may be deeper there, but it will be much slower.

Break it down

Rather than ford a single scary creek, tackle independently its smaller tributaries. Apply the same advice to these smaller crossings: ford them in the morning, and at a location where they are relatively slow and/or shallow.

Bear Creek ford on the JMT/PCT, in mid-May 2007, after a very dry winter and before peak runoff in June.

If Bear Creek is running high, ford its East and South Forks individually. The alternate fords should be smaller, slower, and safer.

Natural bridges

Search upstream and downstream for a downed tree that spans the creek. But don’t get too cute — balance-beaming across a thin and slick trunk several feet above raging rapids may be more dangerous than wading through it.

Tag team

Wrap your arm over your hiking partner’s shoulder, and cross together. Put the lightest/weakest person on the downstream side of the line, so that the other group members break the current.

Tag-teaming a swift channel of Alaska’s Yanert River, which was safer than doing it alone. Put the lightest/weakest person on the downstream side.

Pick your line

Like hiking off-trail, identifying the path of least resistance between two shores is an art, and improves with practice. A few simple recommendations:

  • Avoid the biggest rocks;
  • Avoid the deepest and swiftest areas;
  • Angle downstream as you cross, so you are fighting less current. Avoid crossing perpendicular to or against the flow, unless it’s necessary or relatively safe.

Adjust your backpack?

Conventional wisdom when fording a creek is to unclip your hipbelt and sternum strap, and loosen your shoulder straps. The thinking is that you can more easily slip out of your backpack in the event of a fall, rather than it dragging you underwater.

My take: This strategy goes back to a different era, when huge packs were the norm. With modern gear and know-how, your pack should be light enough that you can easily get back to your feet (the swift current not withstanding). If you are still carrying an old-school load, be warned: they are dangerous in early-season conditions, and for the sake of your safety I would suggest that you trim it down.

In addition, I would question the wisdom of attempting a ford where your perceived risk would warrant this preemptive measure. If it looks so dangerous, find another crossing location, wait until the water level comes down, watch another hiker go first, or change your route.

Have questions? Have additional tips? Please leave a comment.


Disclosure. This website is supported mostly through affiliate marketing, whereby for referral traffic I receive a small commission from select vendors, at no cost to the reader. This post contains affiliate links. Thanks for your support.

15 Responses to High water: Gear & skills for hazardous creek fords

  1. Everett March 18, 2017 at 5:49 am #

    I always thought that unbuckling your hip belt and chest strap, and loosening your shoulder straps is a good idea. The point being of making it easy to wriggle out of your pack if you do get knocked over in the current. I may be wrong though; I’ve never tried swimming with my pack on.

    • Andrew Skurka March 18, 2017 at 9:01 am #

      Thanks for the reminder. I meant to address this in the text, because it’s conventional wisdom, but I forgot about it. Please refer to the very bottom of the article for a discussion.

  2. Liz March 18, 2017 at 2:18 pm #

    Long time PNW hiker here, also known as the Queen of Crappy Balance. Despite the conventional wisdom about the hip strap, I tend to prefer cinching things in tightly, to secure the weight to my lower back. I’ve found that having the weight wobbling about makes it more likely that I will go for a swim.

    All this having been said, my experience is in the Cascades; I haven’t had the joy of Sierra meltoff. Yet 🙂

  3. Robert N March 20, 2017 at 3:55 pm #

    If there is a risk of going for a swim you want to assess what is downstream. You don’t want to risk being swept under rocks or downed logs or being swept over falls.

  4. Mark Calcagni March 22, 2017 at 12:16 pm #

    As a hiker and whitewater boater I’ve swum a lot more rapids than almost any hiker. I can tell you this, knowing how to get out of the river if things go wrong is as important as trying to make sure they don’t go wrong. learn got to swim a rapid and by swim I don’t mean the feet up downstream floating “swimmers position” they teach you on whitewater rafting trips. That position is made to just slow you down until they can haul your butt back into the raft.

    Actively swim for eddies. Know how to avoid strainers. If a strainer is inevitable learn how to climb up on to it rather than get swept into it. Know how to ” roll swim across eddy lines that try and push you back into the current. This is one part of hiking knowledge that gets ignored for the most part.

  5. Dan D March 28, 2017 at 6:48 pm #

    Anyone ever throw on their micro spikes while crossing a wet log for the extra grip? Thought just popped into my mind. What do people think?

    • Jackie Buratovich June 4, 2017 at 10:13 pm #

      I just crossed a wet log w/my spikes – worked well!

  6. Leslie April 1, 2017 at 9:11 pm #

    Are you suggesting that we hike in wet boots after a fording a river?

  7. Leslie April 1, 2017 at 9:13 pm #

    Thanks for the help.

  8. Rob Casey April 3, 2017 at 12:40 am #

    As a seasoned hiker, I would like to add my two pennies…

    1. If you are carrying a Gen Spot 3 or similar device, ping your location at the river bank before you cross. When you have safely crossed the water crossing ping again. People following your progress online that do not get a ping on the far side of the water crossing will know there was trouble at the crossing.

    2. Move your camp stove or fire starter to the top of your pack or (even better) into a coat/pant pocket. If you do go for a swim, when you get to the other shore (with or without your pack) you can quickly make a fire to stave off any hypothermia. I have a magnesium bar, and that always gets put into a zippered pocket on me before I attempt a tricky or unfamiliar crossing.

    • Andrew Skurka April 3, 2017 at 7:11 am #

      Having gone for a swim on several occasions, I would take partial issue with the second recommendation. More times than not, post-swim I have decided that the best way to warm up was to keep moving, not by starting my stove or making a fire. It is probably worth two minutes to wring clothing out, but after that point charge uphill. Especially in the High Sierra, where it’s normally sunny and arid, you will dry out quickly.

      There are some instances in which fire/stove make sense, however. When I have swum late in the day (e.g. “I would really like to be across this tonight, rather than having to do it tomorrow morning.”) and on cold/wet days, a stove, fire, and/or shelter is game-changer on the other shore.

  9. Rob Casey April 3, 2017 at 12:45 am #

    Forgot to add this in my previous comment:

    Andrew your advice and articles are articles are always right on the money. Your experience and expertise in so many areas have helped so many that are literally following in your footsteps.

    Your explanations and examples are easy to follow. Take this article for example, the maps you’ve attached are priceless for those (me included) that are about to take the “plunge?” -poor
    choice of words for such an article?? LOL.

    Anyway, thanks so much Andrew.

    • Andrew Skurka April 3, 2017 at 7:05 am #

      Thank you. Glad you feel that way.

  10. kanta June 20, 2017 at 7:39 pm #

    This was the most encouraging, inspiring, assisting thing I have read re: the JMT yet!!! Those creek crossings have scared me more than anything else and your calm, complete, level-headed advice sure makes a difference.
    My courage is back! THANKS!

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