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How To Ford A River or Stream (If You Must): Exploring Hazards and Methods

Avatar for Samantha Biggers Samantha Biggers  |  Updated: June 25, 2020
How To Ford A River or Stream (If You Must): Exploring Hazards and Methods

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Crossing moving water is often something you should avoid entirely in a lot of situations.

Some of you may be familiar with the book and movie “Into The Wild”. Every year a lot of people make the journey to the bus that McCandless lived in and later died in. Unfortunately, there have been a substantial number of deaths that have resulted from people making this journey.

Guess what led to their deaths? Fording the river that sometimes rises a lot and blocks people from getting to and from the bus. Even the most well-trained persons are no match for a raging river. Getting knocked off balance is all it takes. The bus was recently removed from the area in the hopes of preventing any further incidents.

Some Supplies For Fording

  • Rope
  • Watershoes or waders
  • Dry bags
  • Extra clothing

Hidden hazards beneath the water can be really serious.

Just because that streams looks pristine doesn’t mean that it might not have all kinds of hazards lurking beneath the surface. While getting your foot stuck between rocks is awful enough, what about broken glass, rope, fishing line, hooks, and so forth? That is just a few of the things that can be beneath the surface. Junk can be swept down a river and wind up in areas where people would never expect major it. Broken glass in water sends a lot of people to the doctor every year. In summary, first, consider the following hazards.

  • Possibility of sharp rocks or loose stones that may result in getting your foot stuck.
  • Slipperiness. Some creeks have slimier rocks than others for example.
  • Broken glass. This is usually from soda and beer bottles.
  • Old fishing nets, rope, line, and tackle.
  • Muddy bottoms in waterways. You can get stuck easier than you might think.
  • Current and depth
  • Dams and waterfalls nearby (We will talk more about this later)

In some climates, wildlife can be a hazard when fording.

I didn’t grow up in swamp country with gators but I do know that they can be sneaky and hide. Snakes and other dangers can be an issue as well.

When I lived in Ketchikan. Alaska, it was common for fisherman to run into bears. So in some wilderness areas you may have to deal with that type of thing. Bears can swim really well. Grizzleys are the most aggressive but as the saying goes, “Never get between a Mama bear and her cubs!”.

Water can be contaminated and encourage infection.

Some waterways are really filthy or contaminated but it may not be that apparent all the time. If you have cuts and abrasions and go in some water, you are risking infection. If you have any known wounds and have a chance to protect them from getting wet when fording, it is something to consider. During an actual SHTF event, waterways can become much dirtier than they were in good times.

I like to keep some of the bandages that provide a 360 degree seal around small wounds in our medical kit. You can get them in different sizes too.

Weather miles away can make a big difference

Flash floods are extremely dangerous. A massive downpour or a dam bursting or releasing some of the extra water can lead to extremely violent waters and quick-rising of water levels. It is amazing to watch this. I saw it happen at just a small dam while on the side of a spillway once. Impressive.

If bugging out post SHTF, try to plan routes that avoid fording rivers and creeks.

Some places have a lot of water and streams so in that case you are probably going to have to do some crossing here and there regardless. What you should try to do is avoid any routes that require major fording. Even if you do it right and the creek or river is not that big, it still takes time to arrange gear and get attired properly to ford. Getting wet and cold can happen even when it is really quite warm outside. Do not underestimate how quickly hypothermia can progress.

Consider all of this when planning routes. Fording may not actually save you as much time and work as you thought it would.

Staying on major waterways or crossing them can increase your chances of running into other people.

Major waters have always been good places to run into others. Water is crucial to life so this shouldn’t be that big of a surprise.

If you are trying to keep a low profile and avoid others, then sticking to a major waterway may not be the best idea. You may want to at least keep yourself a safe distance from it.

When you are crossing a river or stream, you are prone to ambush.

One is in a vulnerable position when crossing a major stream or river. You are wide out in the open for all that is nearby to see. There is nothing to hide behind or under. Ok, maybe you could duck behind a rock or something in some places but you get what I am saying. Ducking underneath water can protect you from gunshots too. Shots into water often don’t penetrate that far.

So if fording in unknown or potentially hostile territory it is wise to be doubly observant or maybe even scout around a little to see if there are any signs of activity or other people in the area.

The Hazards and Tragedy of Waterfalls

Every year in the United States, at least a few people die from looking over waterfalls. Sometimes people wonder how this could happen so often but the answer is quite simple. People think they will get this amazing view from the top of a waterfall. Well the fact is that the only way to get that view is if you get very close to the edge and look right over and that is when they slip. It is tragic how often this happens. In the mountains of Western North Carolina we have a lot of waterfalls and this happens almost every year with the level of tourism we have. Don’t get me wrong, it happens to locals too but with this being a mecca for outdoor activities, we experience our share of outdoor-related tragedy.

The other hazard of waterfalls is that you attempt to ford too close to the falls, slip, and get carried over. It is best to ford well away from any waterfall. This is one reason why paying attention to maps and having a good one that you understand how to read is so important if you are hitting the trail or bugging out.

Know where the dams are. If water is released, it can make waterways very dangerous to cross.

You can get swept away if the water is suddenly released from a dam. Please take the time to be aware of the dam system in the area you are hiking or bugging out in. Our nation’s dams are in terrible condition. For more information on dams and their dangers, take a look at my previous article.

Hazards of Crossing via Downed Trees

Trees are much slicker than they look. It is very dangerous to walk across a felled tree. The only time I ever really did this at a sketchy height, I had on corked logging boots that are designed to dig deep into the bark and provide traction and it still wasn’t a good idea to do over what was probably muskeg I would get stuck in.

If there is a way to provide a rope above the log to hold onto then it may be a bit safer but it is still a risky way to cross water, especially if the drop is far or if there are rocks below. You don’t have to hit your head as hard as you might think to cause big trouble or drown.

Ford as a team or group if crossing is going to be more difficult or treacherous.

Linking arms and going slowly can help. Not only is a group more confident, the greater mass and support can reduce the force it requires per person to get across faster moving water. Take your time and look out for one another.

Throw a few rocks to test potential depth and current of an unknown body of water.

The sound that a rock makes and the movement of the rock after it hits water can offer you some insight into the depth and flow. If you throw a small rock and it is swept away downstream then the current is powerful enough that you should try to find another spot. If your rock makes a hollow sound when thrown and sinks, then the spot is quite deep and not a good choice for fording.

How To Keep Gear Dry When Fording

Dry bags that will float can be utilized when fording. You can put the gear in them and let them float as you make your way across. This helps out a lot because you don’t have to carry the weight. Dry bags can also be used to help provide some flotation ability for you as you cross, depending on how heavy they are. You do want to be careful about attaching dry bags though. Ropes and such can get tangled and cause a lot of trouble. Carabiners that can be released quickly or similar are a better option.

Keeping your body dry and core temperature up.

Being in cold water can lead to hypothermia fast. I had it happen to me once during the summer. I felt like an idiot, to be honest. Never letting that happen again.

If water is really cold and you can’t just roll up your pants and get across fast, then you need to think about hypothermia. A good set of waders or a wet suit is nice if you planned ahead but that is not going to be likely for many people that find themselves in a fording situation.

Consider how fast you will be able to get into dry clothing or have access to a heat source too. Stomping off down the trail when you are soaked and cold may be a terrible idea but if you can get dry and warmed up fast, then maybe you can ford pretty cold places without getting hypothermic. It all depends on a lot of factors and decisions that you will have to make based on your observations. Situations like this are why fording can be so dangerous and should be avoided a lot of the time.

Building A Raft or Float

This is only practical if there is really not any other way or water is too cold to cross without risking hypothermia. It takes time to build a raft and although it is something that people used to do, this is modern times and you have to ask yourself if it is really worth it or if you can just walk a few miles extra and cross somewhere else.

Conclusion: Ford only when necessary and in calm areas where you are fairly sure of the potential depth. Take any precautions you can and take your time. Consider the potential for hypothermia and try to get dried off as soon as possible. You can become hypothermic under warmer conditions than you might think. Do not be overconfident in your abilities. Some rivers and streams are beyond the skill of even the most rugged and trained individuals.

What do you have to add to these tips and advice? Have you ever had to ford a particularly hazardous stretch of water?

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4 Responses to “How To Ford A River or Stream (If You Must): Exploring Hazards and Methods”

  1. SOP for Boy Scouts is not to attempt a crossing alone. Cross with your Buddy, holding onto each others forearms. One person acts as the anchor for the other to take side steps in a 180 degree arc
    and then the other acts as the anchor while your Buddy rotates around. This can also be done with three people, most suitable for faster flowing water. If alone use your hiking stick as your anchor and pivot around that for 180 degrees and then reset your staff. What you don’t have a staff? You must be a Tenderfoot. Not to mention you are out of uniform. A hiking staff is part of your field uniform, go find a big stick.

  2. Quite a few years back my brother in-law and I were running around a drained lake. Mostly it was dry and easy traveling except for the creek channel that flowed though the lake, as we were jumping across I told him to side step this muddy spot! He did not need the warning and landed smack dab in the hole up to his chest in the mud! Had another person not have been there he could have been swallowed up and never seen again.

  3. Solid read, a good knowledge to have. Thank you, Samantha!
    Never underestimate the force of the current. A knee deep stream can knock you over just like that!

  4. This is very good advice. Here in AZ where flash floods kill people every year we have a saying. “Turn around, don’t drown.” Too many folks think their vehicle can go through running water with no problem but unless they have a snorkel and 4 wheel drive AND even then if the water is flowing too fast, or is deeper than they think, they’ll get stranded and can die.

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