How to Cross Streams and Creeks When Hiking

body of water between trees under cloudy sky

Many hiking trails or backpacking routes involve crossing a stream. Hikers and backpackers should keep in mind how to cross safely and also with the least environmental impact.

Different Kinds of Stream Crossings

A stream crossing is simply a place in the intended route where a hiker has to cross a moving water body. Stream sizes can vary from a rivulet to major water bodies in backcountry settings. Each kind of stream crossing will require different criteria for assessing hazards and commitment. A trickle will only require a step or hop to cross over, while a large river may require more preparation and risk. Most large creeks and streams will not require such commitment, but may involve some planning and creativity to cross.

Plan Ahead Before Crossing a Stream

Before leaving, plan ahead by looking at the map and trail description to see if a stream crossing is part of the intended route. Many established hiking trails will have pre-determined crossing points built into the trail system. These can vary, but some common types of stream crossing include:

  • A formal footbridge constructed by a trail crew or other group. These are obvious in that they have cut lumber, have been nailed or bolted together, and have handrails. They are often seen on front-country trails with heavy traffic.
  • A rougher footbridge made from logs that stretches across the stream and do not have handrails.
  • A series of rocks placed in a series or line across the stream to place the feet.
  • A flat area of the stream where a hiker has to find their own away across.

How to Cross a Stream

When crossing a stream that does not have a formal bridge, be aware of some key points.

  • Are the logs or rocks wet and slippery?
  • How deep is the surrounding water?
  • How fast is the water running?
  • Is there anyone in the group who might be nervous while crossing?
  • Are there rocks or other obstacles downstream that could injure someone if they feel in?

After assessing the hazards, take some simple precautions to avoid potential injury. These include:

  • Using trekking poles or a hiking stick to maintain balance when walking over logs or rocks.
  • Unbuckling a backpack and loosening straps if crossing deep water. If you should fall over, you can easily get out of the straps quickly and avoid being dragged down by the pack weight.
  • If someone is nervous about crossing, bring their pack over after you have carried yours across. Offer a helping hand for stability. Have them focus on what’s directly in front of their feet, and go slowly.
  • Have a spotter below the crossing with some rope to throw out if someone falls in.
  • If the stream is flowing too high or too fast, be aware for flash flooding. Consider finding an alternative crossing point if things look too dangerous.

Crossing a stream means being able to size up the situation and make good decisions based on experience and hazard awareness.

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