How to Safely Cross a Stream When Hiking or Backpacking

In the ink-black darkness long before dawn on a morning in May, seven of us panned our headlamp beams over La Verkin Creek, deep in the Kolob Canyons of Utah’s Zion National Park, contemplating where—and whether—to cross it. Bloated and bellowing with spring snowmelt and brown with the silt of dirt torn violently from its banks, the creek charged past us with a force and noise level that could make any reasonable person question the wisdom of stepping into its path.

I had crossed La Verkin once before, backpacking this route with my young family when this was an easy rock-hop in early October. Now, during the high runoff of spring, it posed a much bigger challenge—and we needed to reach the other side to continue with our ambitious plan to hike 50 miles across Zion in one day. We stood there, all very experienced hikers, keenly aware of the danger of a fast-moving creek.

We scouted along the creek bank and within minutes found a wider, shallower spot just upstream, where everyone walked across La Verkin with the water never reaching above anyone’s knees. With patience and the knowledge of how to manage that potentially serious hazard, we reduced it to an easy obstacle.

Hikers fording La Verkin Creek in Zion National Park in the dark.
Shelley Johnson and David Ports fording La Verkin Creek in Zion National Park in the dark.

Most backpackers, dayhikers, climbers, and other backcountry travelers will encounter unbridged creek or river crossings. These obstacles can vary greatly from easy rock-hops to fast, challenging, often-frigid fords or impassable whitewater. Deciding how to reach the other side safely—and if you should attempt it—will determine whether that episode passes without incident or turns into a situation where someone gets wet and perhaps dangerously cold, or devolves into a horrible disaster.

This story explains in detail how to plan for possible creek and river crossings before a trip, assess the relative hazard of any crossing for your group, and execute it safely. The strategies spelled out below draw from my experience of fording countless streams over more than three decades of backpacking, dayhiking, and climbing, including the 10 years I spent as a field editor for Backpacker magazine and even longer running this blog.

Here’s my main takeaway about creek crossings: Respect the power of moving water because it will almost always push you harder and feel less secure than you expect. Plus, it’s a generally good rule of life to never underestimate any force that can carry your body beyond your control and immerse you in a medium where you cannot breathe.

Please share your thoughts on my tips, your questions, or your own tips in the comments section at the bottom of this story. I try to respond to all comments. Click on any photo to read about that trip.

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A backpacker crossing Eliot Creek on the Timberline Trail around Oregon's Mount Hood.
Jeff Wilhelm crossing Eliot Creek on the Timberline Trail around Oregon’s Mount Hood.

Look at Streams When Planning Your Hike

When planning any backcountry trip, research well in advance about any unbridged water crossings and their typical seasonal levels and relative hazard and plan your trip accordingly. Many that are perfectly safe in summer and fall flow high, fast, and too dangerous to cross in spring and often into early summer, when widespread, deep snow melting rapidly raises water levels.

While stream levels are typically seasonal, the snowpack, rainfall, and temperatures over the preceding weeks and months will determine when any stream becomes safe to cross: They don’t just “open” on the same date every year.

Planning a trip for a time when creek levels may be dangerously high also runs the related risk of encountering significant snow cover on trails at higher elevations, rendering them hard to follow, miserable to hike when post-holing constantly in wet snow, or virtually impassable. In many mountain ranges in the U.S. West, trails above roughly 9,000 to 10,000 feet in elevation may not be largely snow-free until mid- or late July.

Right before your trip, check on the current creek and river levels with the management agency, backcountry ranger office, a local river guide service or gear shop, or an online river gauge if available.

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A backpacker rock-hopping Evolution Creek on the John Muir Trail in Evolution Basin, Kings Canyon National Park.
David Ports rock-hopping Evolution Creek in low-water conditions on the John Muir Trail in Evolution Basin, Kings Canyon National Park.

Prepare in Advance

River and stream crossings can be challenging and very cold: In early summer, the water temperature may sit not much above freezing, having been snow just hours earlier. Bring the following gear for fording any creek or water that’s potentially more than ankle deep.

A backpacker making the Bechler Ford in Yellowstone's Bechler River.
Jeff Wilhelm making the Bechler Ford in Yellowstone’s Bechler River.
  • Have footwear (sandals with closed toes, water shoes, or old sneakers, and perhaps neoprene socks for warmth) to change into for those crossings, to protect your feet and keep your boots dry. Fording barefoot risks slipping or injuring your feet on the rocky riverbed; it’s also harder to maintain your balance walking barefoot on slick rocks.
  • Trekking poles will help maintain balance in any ford, but particularly when there’s a current or rocky bottom or both. Four potential points of contact are quite literally twice as stable as just your two feet. See my review of “The Best Trekking Poles” and my stories “How to Choose Trekking Poles” and “The 10 Best Expert Tips for Hiking With Trekking Poles.”
  • For potentially deep or fast crossings, consider bringing at least two river throw bags for a rescue (one will be of no use if the person carrying it goes down in the river).
  • Bring top layers that are warm enough to insulate your core for a cold crossing and extra dry layers to change into if your clothes get wet.
  • Dry bags or waterproof stuff sacks will keep critical items like your sleeping bag and extra dry clothing layers dry inside your pack, just in case it ends up in the water (which usually means you ended up in the water with your pack). See my review of best backpacking gear accessories.
  • Have an adequately warm sleeping bag protected in an appropriate dry bag or waterproof stuff sack inside your pack for rewarming someone who becomes severely hypothermic on a cold crossing.
  • Carry some type of fire starter, in case someone gets fully immersed in cold water and needs a fire to warm up again. Only in hot sunshine and calm air can someone emerge soaked from a stream and quickly warm up once changing from wet to dry clothes; in any combination of weather and temperatures cooler than that, people can rapidly get hypothermic and may not rewarm quickly just by changing clothes. If someone is shivering and having trouble with simple tasks like changing clothes, they are hypothermic.
  • A stove, fuel, and pot are often standard backpacking gear and mandatory on trips with cold water crossings for firing up a hot beverage or food to help a hypothermic person warm up.

Dry bags usually have roll-top closures and durable, thicker, waterproof fabric to completely seal out water even if completely immersed for several minutes or more. They also trap air inside, creating some buoyancy in water. Some waterproof stuff sacks will keep contents dry if splashed or rained on but not through more than a brief immersion; those are fine for most backpackers and for easy (read: slow and shallow) water crossings with no greater risk than a slip and fall where a pack gets briefly dunked, but not adequate for challenging crossings.

Only attempt a water crossing barefoot if it’s slow, shallow, and mostly sandy rather than rocky. Wearing only socks may be a better option than attempting it barefoot, but your feet can slip inside socks, affecting your balance; wear socks without other footwear only in shallow, easy currents with a pebbly but not terribly rocky bottom.

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Backpackers crossing a creek in Titcomb Basin, Wind River Range, Wyoming.
Todd Arndt and Mark Fenton crossing a creek in Titcomb Basin, Wind River Range, Wyoming.

Decide Whether It’s Safe

First and foremost, assess objectively whether the river or creek you want to ford is safe enough for your entire party to make it—bearing in mind that it comes down to whether the weakest party member will be safe. Plus, everyone should be comfortable with attempting it: Don’t make that decision for someone else or let someone make it for you.

If you feel uncertain about the safety of any crossing, abort your plans, whether that means choosing a different route or abandoning your trip entirely. A scary or bad accident leaves far greater regrets than canceling your plans.

The levels of rivers and streams fed by glaciers or ongoing snowmelt typically rise during the warmer daytime hours, when snowmelt upstream accelerates, and fall overnight when temperatures drop. Time those critical crossings for morning.

Gauge the current’s speed and depth. With a clear stream, you can see the bottom but understand that it may not look quite as deep as it is. With silted or murky water, the depth will not be visible.

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A backpacker in The Narrows in Zion National Park.
David Gordon backpacking The Narrows in Zion National Park.

Throw a stick into the current to visualize its speed—a current moving faster than you can walk is likely unsafe. Toss a rock into the main current and listen for a low “ka-thump” indicating deep water. Seeing that rock carried downstream before sinking to the bottom, or hearing an audible rumbling of rocks rolling downstream, clearly indicates a current deep and powerful enough to sweep a person away.

Crossing any current that’s moving fast and more than knee-deep will be unsafe for most people. Attempt a crossing above the knees only in a very slow current or calm pool.

Sometimes, boulders or a log may offer a dry crossing, stepping rock to rock, across an otherwise, fast, dangerous creek. When deciding whether to attempt that, consider whether everyone possesses the balance and ability to navigate each of those steps, on rocks or a log that are possibly sloping and wet, and the consequences of someone falling in. Again, poles are invaluable aids when trying to walk a log or rocks across a creek.

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A hiker crossing a creek in Shoshone Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park.
Jeff crossing a creek in Shoshone Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park.

Check how cold the water feels. Spring and early-summer runoff from snow melting at higher elevations drops stream temperatures to just above freezing at the same time that it raises currents to levels that may range from challenging to dangerous—and frigid water not only feels really uncomfortable, it can quickly induce hypothermia and compromise your strength and balance when you desperately need it.

See “How to Prevent Hypothermia While Hiking and Backpacking.”

Assess the riverbed: Is it rocky, sandy, so mucky that your feet may sink in and slip around, compromising your balance, or some combination of these conditions? Consider these factors when deciding whether it’s safe and what to wear on your feet.

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Backpackers in the narrows of Paria Canyon, in southern Utah and northern Arizona.
Backpackers in the narrows of Paria Canyon.

See “The 10 Best Expert Tips for Hiking With Trekking Poles” and all stories with expert backpacking skills at The Big Outside.

Whether you’re a beginner or seasoned backpacker, you’ll learn new tricks for making all of your trips go better in my “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” A Practical Guide to Lightweight and Ultralight Backpacking,” and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.” With a paid subscription to The Big Outside, you can read all of those three stories for free (as well as all of this story); if you don’t have a subscription, you can download the e-guide versions of “How to Plan a Backpacking Trip—12 Expert Tips,” the lightweight and ultralight backpacking guide, and “How to Know How Hard a Hike Will Be.”

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