How to Ford a River

Last week, I had a backpacking trip with a daunting start–fording the Queets and the Sams River, no oxen. Here’s how I kept my feet wet and my wits about me!

KNOW BEFORE YOU GO

First off, when fording any river is to have advance knowledge. Is the river fed by glacial runoff? How deep is the river? How strong is the current? What are the recommended parameters? For our river(s), Olympic National Park strongly advised that crossing in the spring, winter, or late fall was inadvisable. They recommended crossing when the cubic feet per second (strength of the current) was no greater than 800 CFS. A current that is strong can knock you off your feet even if barely above your shins, while a calm, lazy river can be crossed even if chest deep. If the river is fed by glacial runoff, it will be lower in the morning and higher later in the day, especially on warm days when there is more melting up high (not to mention the freezing water!). For the Queets trail, Oly NP had a link for CFS conditions from a spot downriver, but not every trail will have this. Trip reports are also your friend!

PACK BEFORE YOU RAFT

Poles can be of an immense help when crossing. I read articles recommending one pole for aid, but in hindsight I can’t fathom doing it with just one! They boyfriendo opted to grab a walking stick, which can often litter the banks of crossings like this left by previous trekkers, but I wouldn’t bank on a good one being present if at all unsure. I did keep my rubber tips on the poles, but I don’t actually know if that’s a best practice.¬† Besides poles, water shoes or other good waterproof footwear can be of a great help. In my research, some people said to not wear open-toed sandals, due to the danger of toes banging on rocks–one article even said to just wear your hiking shoes without socks for the crossing! I opted to wear Tevas with an ankle strap anyway. I did bang my toes a bit, but I didn’t feel like buying or renting water shoes for one small trip. I would strongly advise against flip-flops or anything without an ankle strap.

It looks calm enough here, but looks can be deceiving!

EYES UP

Once at the riverbed, keep an eye out for any cairns on either side. While nowadays cairns are often built by people to look cool (and can actually be harmful in the wrong places), cairns along trails, including river trails, often signal best places to enter/exit. Also scope out where the trail is on the other side before crossing–the best route might not be a straight line to the trail on the other side, so knowing where to go after crossing is extremely helpful. This trail had pink plastic tape tied to mark the way in places, so remember to scan above ground level if you see nothing lower.

BUCKLE UP, BUCKLE DOWN

Last chance to turn around! Once at the bed, I got my poles out, and made them longer than I would for a normal hike. I moved my boots to the top of the main compartment of my pack, and I moved all electronics (Garmin GPS, phone, camera) to the top lip pocket of my pack. In case I did take a little spill, I wanted those things up as high as possible. Car fobs are tricky–I wanted it on me, as in a real bad situation ditching your pack can be necessary, but it needed to stay secure¬†and dry, ruling out my short’s zipper pocket. I tightened the strap of my Chubbies to keep my sunglasses as secure as possible. After tightening and securing everything, you then want your pack unbuckled.

Glacial runoff will be ice cold! Luckily this water was significantly warmer.

Yes, unbuckled! As I said, if you do fall or get swept under, the weight of a pack can drown you. You need to be able to ditch it quickly in an emergency. While getting your gear wet or losing it forever would be devastating, it isn’t worth your life. With that last step, I watched the boyfriend’s route and gingerly entered the water behind him. You want to face upriver, and if needed arch across the river rather than a straight line. Once the water got past my ankles, I had a system–one pole down to check depth and current, then the next pole, then my feet. River rocks can be slippery, so I would make sure my feet were solid before moving. You want to maintain at least two, if not three, points of contact at all times.

 

The water on our crossing at its worst was over-the knee. There were a few times the current was swift enough that my legs were shaking, and it was easier to fully remove my poles (one at a time!) and re-plunk them than to fight the current. I wobbled badly once, and slipped a tiny bit once, but other than that, I made it just fine!

Had disaster stuck and I had fallen, tips are to try to get up on your own, ditching the pack if it hinders you. If you are taken by a strong current, flip onto your back and go down the river feet-first, waiting until the water is calm enough to swim. Some people do bring a Personal Flotation Device for crossings, while some people in groups chain up arms for crossings. A lot of these factors depend on the river itself, so again, do your research.

ON THE OTHER SIDE

If the crossing is in the middle of your hike or near the end of it, now is a great time for a snack while you dry, especially if it is warm out. A small towel can help a lot here, as you do not want to be putting wet or even damp feet into socks and boots. Unfortunately, the very beginning of this trail was the crossing, and being eager to hit the trail, I did not dry off enough. We had to stop around two miles in as I had some serious hot spots going, and I switched to fresh socks, which helped.

The next day, the return crossing was even easier. Maybe it was confidence, maybe it was that the water level was a bit lower, but crossing that river was the perfect treat to refresh our legs! While not every crossing will be a treat, they certainly do bring some excitement.

Have you ever had to ford a river on a trail? Let me know if you have any tips or tricks that helped!

4 Replies to “How to Ford a River”

  1. This is such helpful guidance! Thank you!

    1. Thanks! I was so nervous beforehand. While I’m glad I researched in advance, I didn’t need to have been so anxious!

  2. Wow, a lot more to river crossing than I thought! Definitely pays to plan and prepare, I would say, after reading this article.

    1. Yes! There were a few dayhikers crossing when we returned who were grateful for our advice, but we still saw one take a spill.

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