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.
Your most valuable asset in safely crossing creeks will be your brain. But let’s first discuss gear that will and will not help:
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.
A rope can be slung across a creek to be used as a handline. I generally wouldn’t recommend it:
- 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.
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.
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.
In addition to trekking poles, I have a number of other recommendations to stay safe during creek crossings:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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.
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.
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 🙂
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.
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.
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?
I just crossed a wet log w/my spikes – worked well!
Are you suggesting that we hike in wet boots after a fording a river?
I have addressed footwesr for early season in this post, https://andrewskurka.com/2017/backpacking-footwear-early-season-conditions/.
I suggest that you wear well fitting shoes that are ideally breathable, somewhat stiff, and aggressively lugged. And, yes, wear them wet. In these conditions it is completely impractical to keep your feet dry.
Thanks for the help.
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.
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.
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.
Thank you. Glad you feel that way.
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!
I use a large Sea To Summit bag inside my pack and once, in the Escalante river, stepped into water deeper than I am tall. My backpack, rather than dragging me down, pulled me up. With the water tight Sea to Summit bag inside my 35 pound pack was floating.
As a whitewater river guide and Spring hiker…
1. Don’t solo cross unless you have to. Your safety increases exponentially with another person. I have relied on trail strangers/new friends many times – to both our benefits.
2. Plan ahead, map it out. Andrew nails it above – plotting your crossings by a) avoiding them altogether, b) timing for early in the day, and c) knowing the best crossing is often not the dashed trail line on the map. Saves hours of frustration.
3. Steady vs. Speedy. Even the most experienced guide on a river they know well, will take time out to assess. Stop, watch the river, grab some quick energy food, gather yourself. Steady, Calm and Balanced = Safety.
4. Know your escape routes. Once in the cold, rapid water you will NOT be able to think, just react. If you fall in, you can be downstream in a heartbeat – set in your mind where you will swim to and exit BEFORE you fall in. Staying upright and dry is not the issue, getting across in one piece is.
Finally moving water is far more powerful than you, period. Respect.
I want to cross a creek that’s heavy flow (400 CFS) and too deep to wade, but it’s next to a road, so I can drive in any equipment that would be helpful. No bridges for miles. I’m wondering if a larger inflatable raft might make sense?! What training would you recommend before I attempt something like this? It’s class 2/3 at worst and I’d have 30 lbs of gear with me.
If it’s next to the road, I’d definitely use a boat. You want something that you can “ferry” easily, which involves pointing it at a 45-degree angle between upstream and the opposite shore, and then paddling. The force of the water will push your boat across the river, and depending on the speed of the river you may not go downstream too much.
You could use a packraft, they’re not cheap. I’m sure you could find an inexpensive canoe or sit-on-top kayak.
I always thought you were suppose to cross a water barrier sideways and facing downstream, and not having your body facing directly at the other side? All the pictures I see show a direct straight across body position.
Never face downstream.. you need to face upstream and brace with your legs and poles.
I’m going to push back on that. I’ve probably forded over one-thousand notable streams, and I’ve found that hiking downstream on a diagonal makes it significantly easier and puts some marginal fords into the “viable” bucket. And I’m still alive.
When you face upstream and try crossing perpendicular to the flow (or, worse, diagonally into the flow), you must allocate a higher fraction of your strength into simply staying upright. With your remaining strength, you can make progress across. Whereas on a downstream trajectory, less strength is required to stay upright because you are letting the current carry you some (versus fighting 100 percent of it), and thus you have more strength leftover to make progress.
But every stream crossing is a little different — water velocity, depth and width, placement of large rocks, etc. I don’t think there are any hard rules on the technique.
Shoes: I actually find a nice pair of Keen sandals with covered toes work well. I do wear socks. This way the boots stay dry. Look at the Keen sandals that are medium stiff, have great traction, and do not collect debris (foot covering).
As for rafts, I use my BA Q-Core air mattress. It can be blown up quickly with the filling system. Then the backpack could be double wrapped in trash bags and strapped to the mattress. I would recommend this for the smoother stream crossings and not for the white water areas. Use judgment.
I like the advice that when it’s dicey you should watch another hiker cross first. The sacrificial penguin method! 😆
Great info and interesting comments! Thank you.
I’d like to add a few things for beginners: When scouting a crossing, make sure the other side is exitable (not a cliff or huge, unclimbable boulders). If your crossing has logs and rocks that are submerged, avoid them. They may be slippery from being worn smooth by water or from algae. Walk around them rather than atop, even if it is deeper to do so. As you go, find flatter and smoother spots to step by using your feet to scout where you cannot see (this is why you need toed shoes — you may kick a sharp rock).