Before You Leave
• Check on conditions. Identify your destination or trail.
Then call the park or go to its website for updates on conditions.
• Carry trekking poles. They can help you assess water depth
and rate of runoff, then provide additional stability when you do
cross a stream. If you don't have
trekking poles, find a pair of sturdy branches that you can use
• Wear shorts or convertible pants. Long
pants will increase drag in the stream and can be uncomfortable to
hike in once they're soaked.
• Pack hiking sandals or gym shoes. If a stream is shallow
enough to cross, it's often easier to walk through the water instead
of trying to boulder hop on slippery rocks. With spare shoes or
hiking sandals, you can keep your
hiking boots dry. But don't cross barefoot or use flip-flops
because the current can easily sweep them off your feet.
• Get out early. Cooler overnight and morning temperatures
mean that the volume of snowmelt is lower early in the day, which
means that streams will flow more slowly. Thunderstorms are also more
common in afternoon and make currents more treacherous.
At the Crossing
• Assess the situation. The actual point where a trail meets
a river may not be the best place to get to the other side. Scout the
river (ideally from an elevated perspective) or look both up- and
downstream for alternatives. If you can't identify a safe crossing
location, then don't take the risk and turn around. Wishful thinking
has no place in this decision, so be conservative and assume the worst.
Invariably, streams are faster and deeper than they appear.
• Straight. Wide. Shallow. That's what you're looking for
when identifying a place to cross.
• Watch out for debris. If the river is carrying a lot of
debris, such as branches and small logs, it's not a good idea to
cross. The debris is an indication that stream flows are high. And
objects flowing downstream can create a serious hazard if they strike
you as you're crossing.
• Look for braided channels. The crossing may be wider where
a river breaks into separate channels. But the current's intensity
will be dissipated and there may also be small islands or gravel bars
where you can take a break and plot your next steps.
• Test the current. Toss a branch and watch how swiftly it
moves downstream. That will give you a better sense of the direction
of the main current and how fast it's moving.
• Don't cross where flows are much above your knees. Even
comparatively shallow water can knock you off balance and carry you
downstream if it's flowing rapidly enough. The only time to wade
through deeper water is when you locate a flat pool with little or no
• Loosen your pack before crossing. Undo your waist belt and
let out the shoulder straps so that it's easier to remove. If you fall
in and your pack gets soaked, it can drag you down or get snagged. You
might lose your pack but consider the alternative.
• Look for low and open exit points on the opposite bank.
Once you reach the other side, you'll want to be able to get out of
the stream as quickly as possible. A scramble up a steep bank could
lead to a slip that puts you right back into the stream.
Crossing the Stream
• Face Upstream and Shuffle Sideways. Slide your feet along
the bottom while facing the river. Angle yourself diagonally to the
flow and move in a slightly downstream direction toward the opposite
• Always maintain two points of contact with the bottom. Use
your poles to steady yourself as you shift your feet. The more contact
you have with the bottom, the more stable you'll be.
• There's strength in numbers. Crossing with a partner or
with a group of people creates additional stability. Link arms and
coordinate your movements.