Crossin’ the Creek: A How-to Guide to Safe Stream Crossings
Read on to find out how to safely cross any streams you encounter on your next hike with this handy guide by Camping & Hiking Expert Alex L.
Whether you’re taking a jog in the park, backpacking through the wilderness, or are out on a call with Venkman and the Ghostbusters team, sometimes you need to cross streams. In all seriousness though, getting across streams and tributaries is a challenge that many of us face when out hiking. It may seem like a straightforward task, but being prepared before you hit the trail can help you have a more fun and safer outing. Unfortunately, I can’t help you when it comes to fighting ghosts, but read on for some tips and tricks about how to safely cross streams while fighting cabin fever and getting outdoors.
The first thing you should do before any hike is just a little bit of research! There are great sites out there like AllTrails, Hiking Project, or even TripAdvisor that can give you a sense of what your hike is like before you even start to load your pack. From user reviews, park updates, difficulty levels, and photos, proper planning can help you know beforehand if a bridge is out, if water levels are high, and how confident you may need to be in your footing and gear to get across a stream you’ll encounter on the trail. All of this is really helpful information, and you should trust the experts! Don’t bite off more than you can chew if you’re new to the sport or the area, or if you don’t have the right footwear to cross water you know you’ll encounter along the way.
We all know that gear is important, and the right gear for you will make or break your experience crossing streams when on the trail. For some folks, a sturdy waterproof boot with slip-resistant grip will be the best for hopping along those slippery rocks. For others, a nice pair of hiking sandals, like Keens, are perfect for getting right in the water and crossing with comfort. Some find trekking poles a necessity for crossing water, while others would just as soon grab a stick from the ground.
Everyone’s gear needs and comforts are different, but all are equally important when it comes to a potentially dangerous situation like crossing water. Speak to your Curated Expert about your abilities, preferences, goals, and needs to make sure you have what you need for wherever your travels may take you, especially if they take you across any water!
Once you’re prepared with your intel and your gear (and your map), it’s time to take a hike! When out on the trail, you may encounter a number of different types of stream crossings, which I’ve roughly lumped into two categories: Bridges and not bridges. It’s important to note that from here on out, we’ll be specifically discussing streams and smaller tributaries — that is to say that none of the crossings I’ll mention will require any swimming or boating.
Crossing rivers is an entirely different ball game that could require specific gear, abilities, or a different route, and it can be far more dangerous than crossing streams and tributaries, even with proper preparation. Always use caution when crossing water, regardless of where you are or what the crossing may look like.
Let’s start with what can be the easiest type of crossing, bridges! Typically, if there is a bridge over a stream or tributary, it means that the water would be too difficult or dangerous to cross without it. If the bridge is out and the stream is not rerouted or dried up, play it safe and find an alternative route. Even shallow water can have quick currents that will take your feet right out from under you. That bridge was built for a reason, so let’s heed the warnings of those who made it happen.
If the bridge is there, it’s still important to assess its safety before you cross. If it’s a larger, built-up structure with handrails and clear supports, go ahead and cross like you would on any other part of the trail — hooray for the marvels of engineering! Other bridges may be quite a bit more rustic, though. With these, there are a few things you should keep an eye out for. Are there holes or missing boards on the floor? How many? Does the wood look rotten? Are the handrails complete and sturdy? Use your eyes, a gentle toe tap, and a shake of the rails to make sure the bridge isn’t more dangerous than the rushing water it’s crossing, or you may be in for an unpleasant or unsafe excursion. Once you’ve determined that it is safe to cross, there are a few simple practices that will keep you safe, no matter what the bridge is like.
Firstly, cross the bridge one at a time, particularly on older or smaller bridges. Some of these bridges may no longer be equipped to handle the weight of multiple hikers and their gear. It takes only a minute or two longer but can be the difference between safe passage and a wet hike.
Next, unclip your pack’s sternum and hip belts. While it could be annoying for a second, there’s actually a good reason for this. God forbid you slip, the bridge gives, or any other unfortunate accident winds up with you in the water; the last situation you want to be in is face down in the stream with a heavy pack you can’t get off. Unclipped straps make it easy to avoid that, and getting your pack wet or even losing it is a billion times better than winding up in the hospital (or worse).
Finally, if the bridge has handrails, use them! Whether it’s a brand-spanking-new metal reinforced boardwalk or a rickety rope bridge, anything can happen. Having something to hold onto if a board gives or a mossy plank trips you up can make all the difference between being wet or hurt and being safe. If there are no handrails, take extra caution. If it is more of a log or a plank than an actual bridge, no one will judge you for scooting on your butt so you can hold on while getting across or finding a different route that you’re more comfortable with (if they do judge you, find better hiking buddies, seriously). Crossings like that are often wet from the water, the rain, or moss, so keep that in mind as even the best of boots can slide on a wet, wooden surface.
Okay, but what if there’s no bridge? Let’s say you come across a stream and the trail is clearly on the other side, but only a collection of rocks connect the two banks. What do you do? Just like with anything else, stick with your comfort level — no hike, view, or campsite is worth injury or death. If you feel comfortable crossing, here are a few tips to make it as smooth and safe as possible.
To start with, stick to rocks. Wet feet are not only an issue of comfort but also of health and safety. Trench foot will ruin your trip, I promise. If there are no bridges or rocks to cross, you should likely turn around or find another route. The one exception to this is if the stream has very shallow, slow-moving water. In this case, take off your boots and socks and cross very carefully, making sure to dry your feet thoroughly once across. You must be able to see the bottom to avoid things like sharp rocks, snakes, or faster-moving undercurrents, which can even be present in streams less than eight-inches deep. Take note of how quickly any sediment at the bottom may be moving and any potential obstacles on the streambed. Even with perfect conditions, in the absence of a bridge or rocks, wading through the water should be considered a last resort.
Now let’s assume, as is usually the case, that the people maintaining the trail made sure that there’s at least some semblance of a rock bridge to cross. How do you cross it safely? Like with bridges, unclip your pack straps and cross one at a time. A slip or trip can be made even worse if you inadvertently bring your buddy down with you. That’s not to say you shouldn’t help each other but do so from the solid ground of the banks.
Next, determine the safety and stability of the rocks and what the stakes are if you slip. Will you wind up with wet boots and maybe a scrape because the water’s only a few inches deep? Go for it, if you feel comfortable. Higher stakes, like deep or rushing water, require higher abilities and even experienced backpackers can slip and get hurt. Trust your gut and play it safe, water is nothing to mess with. Are the rocks wet or mossy? Slippery rocks present a large obstacle and should be avoided at all costs. Touch the rocks closer to the bank with your hands and your boot to get a better sense of what other ones in the stream may be like, but know that that could change from rock to rock!
Then, use a long and sturdy stick (or better yet, a trekking pole) to determine how stable a rock actually is before you step foot on it. A rock may be dry, large, and flat but resting like a see-saw on a smaller rock beneath it; worse than a slippery rock is one that will topple or move once you rest your weight on it. Use the pole to get a sense, but take each step slowly and with care to make sure it’s actually a safe stepping stone.
Finally, if you’re crossing on a rocky path that has larger boulders embedded in the water, use your hands! Give the rock a bear hug, grab a sturdy notch, whatever it may be—stability is your friend and a thousand-pound boulder is likely more stable than you or I could ever be.
Ultimately, being aware of your surroundings and abilities is key to staying safe on the trail no matter where you are, but especially when crossing a stream or creek. Keeping all these tips in mind with an eye towards safety, whether you’re on a bridge or leaping between rocks, can make all the difference between a wet or dangerous outing and a fun and safe adventure. Good gear helps too! Solid hiking shoes, trekking poles, and first aid equipment will make you all the more prepared for whatever you cross, connect with a Camping & Hiking Expert here on Curated to find the right gear for your trek—we’ve all crossed quite a few streams I’m sure!