If you spend much time backpacking, eventually you'll find your trail
bisected by flowing water. Can you cross it safely? Here are the three
principles of getting to the other side.
PICK YOUR SPOT WISELY
Don't cross unless you're sure you'll survive a dunk. If you wouldn't be
able to swim those downstream rapids, look for a place where you can cross
Estimate the river's power (depth x speed). Even shin-deep water can knock
you off your feet if it's flowing fast enough.
Look for braided streambeds, which split big currents into smaller, more
Consider the river's conditions--a wide, smooth river is easier to traverse
than one that is narrow and deep or running fast. The outside of a bend is
typically deep and fast, and the bank may be undercut.
Watch for smooth streambeds (indicated by a smooth water surface)-they are
much safer to cross than rocky ones. But beware of slippery, algae-covered
Make difficult mountain stream crossings early in the morning, before the
sun melts the snowfields above and increases flow. After a rainstorm, wait
for the water level to drop.
Waterproof critical gear in multiple plastic sacks or specially designed
"dry bags." :
Wear socks, slippers, or sandals, even for easy crossings, because cold
bare feet can get you trip on underwater objects
For tricky crossings, wear boots, but first remove the insoles so the boots
will dry faster.
Three or four legs are better than two, so use trekking poles or a sturdy
Unbuckle your pack's hipbelt and sternum strap and loosen the shoulder
straps so you can ditch the load quickly if you're swept off your feet.
CROSS QUICKLY BUT SAFELY
To avoid the biggest hazard-getting an ankle trapped and your body pulled
under-shuffle your feet, testing the footing as you go.
Walk diagonally downstream for easiest travel, and drag (don't lift) your legs.
In strong currents, link arms with your partners. The upstream person
breaks the current while the others provide a buttress (see photo below).
Never tie in to a rope. It can drag you under. If you have to swim, float
your pack ahead of you and use it for balance. The pack won't sink,
especially if the contents are in waterproof bags.
-Steve Howe and John Harlin
May 2001 Backpacker
-- Jay DeLong Olympia, WA
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