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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