How to Keep Yourself Safe While Crossing Streams in the Snowmelt

We should have all heard by now that this year’s snowpack is still unusually high out West, impacting all kinds of summer plans. And once the snow starts to melt, the water has to go somewhere. Which brings us to dangerous water crossings!

Ideally, thru-hikers should postpone their trips or consider flip-flopping snowy sections of the trail until conditions improve. But since not everyone will follow that logic, here are some invaluable tips from the Pacific Crest Trail Association on how to safely cross a stream.

Look downstream for hazards.

Hazards could include waterfalls, boulders, strainers, undercut banks, or bends in the river where the current gets fast and deep. If you slip and fall, you’re going for a ride. Even a light current can easily push you far downstream. Make sure there’s nothing nasty downstream that you could get pushed into. Also, make sure that the banks aren’t so steep, brushy, or snowy that you won’t be able to get out.

If there’s a log or bush in the stream, always stay downstream of it.

Crossing a swift current upstream of a submerged or nearly submerged log is incredibly dangerous. If you end up swimming in the creek, you’re very likely to get pinned against the log or its branches by the force of the current. Strainers can suck you under and keep you pinned down. It’s called a strainer because water flows through it, but a human cannot.

Slow, deep water is often safer than shallower, swift water.

Look to cross where the water is slow. In slow, deeper water, you can take your time and be more careful picking your foot placement on the bottom.

Consider straight stretches over bends in the river.

Where a river turns, there often will be deep pools, perhaps with undercuts. A straight stretch of a river might be faster, but it’s more likely to be of consistent speed with a uniform bottom.

Photo by Jacklyn Ormel

Keep your shoes on.

Though nobody likes wet shoes, your chances of slipping and falling go up exponentially when you’re barefoot. Wearing shoes or boots also will reduce your chance of cutting, twisting, bashing or otherwise injuring your foot.

If doing a solo crossing, face upstream and have three or more points of contact.

When the current is strong, but still safe enough to cross, face upstream and shuffle across the river sideways. By crossing at a shallow diagonal angle, you can reduce the risk of being pushed backward and slipping on an unseen obstacle. Move one foot at a time. Do not cross your legs. Make small careful steps. Work your way sideways and slightly upstream using the full strength of your legs to keep yourself secure. In most situations, you want to use one or two trekking poles or sturdy sticks. Lean into your pole(s) and lean into the current.

Ditch your pack if you take a swim.

If you fall in, your pack will quickly become a waterlogged anchor that will rotate on top of you and pin you down. Save yourself. Ditch your pack if you need to. Unbuckle your pack before you start your crossing so that you can quickly jettison it even if you’re panicked in a creek crossing.

Tanya Twerdowsky

I am a Jersey girl living in Alabama who loves to run far and eat lots.

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