If you hike anywhere in New Zealand, chances are high you are going to have to cross a creek or two (or 17). If you have the rights skills and knowledge you’ll be able to ford the river safely. In this post, learn how to survey your surroundings, pick the best spot to ford the river, best techniques for solo crossings, how to cross rivers in a group and what to do if you find yourself looking at the sky. Handy huh?
Before the trip
As with every hiking trip, proper planning should be undertaken beforehand, even more so when you know that you are going to be crossing bodies of water.
Research what current bridges are in place and the route options available. However, don’t be surprised when the bridge, weather, flow of water, the crossing or anything else has changed. Nature is unpredictable.
It is also a good idea to practice crossing bodies of water before heading out. Find someone more knowledgable and pick their brains.
Before crossing the body of water
Stop and assess the environment around you. Use your noggin and do an assessment of the difficulties versus your abilities. If you even have an inkling that the difficulties outweigh your judgement. Find another route or head back. Now is not the time to be overconfident.
Look for an identify possible exit and escape routes and look for the best place to cross. Sometimes there are track markers on either side of the river or creek. This doesn’t always mean that it is the best place to cross. Rivers change faster (and more often) than track markers do.
Have a look where the hardest part of the crossing will be and plan for it. Wider, faster and shallower creeks and rivers are sometimes easier than slightly slower but deeper bodies of water.
Try to cross where:
- Where the river is wide (it may be faster flowing, but fast, shallow flow is often easier to cross than a slightly slower, deep flow)
- Where the water is shallowest, often just at the top of rapids
- Upstream of where two channels join
- Where the river runs in several channels as these are easier to cross than one big one (although, make sure that you are always aware of your retreat route in case you need it)
- Between bends, where the water is quieter
- On long, diagonal shallow gravel bars that can traverse the whole river width, but watch for the potential final, deep section
- Look for long diagonal shallow bars that you can aim for.
Things to avoid
There are a few things that you should try and avoid if possible.
- Unexplained surface turbulence
- Lose shingle that moves underneath your boots as this will unbalance you
- Large boulders often have deeper pools of water around them, avoid the area around boulders if possible
- Slippery slabs
- Staring at the moving water while crossing, it will make your eyes go all funny!
- The outside of bends often have faster water and scour deeper
- The downstream of junctions often have swifter and deeper water
- Water that flows faster than your walking pace
- Heavily discoloured water, this often means that there has been flooding or heavy rain and will often have hidden debris or other obstacles
- Murky glacial water often hides obstacles
Do not cross even if you are experienced bodies of water that:
- Have flooded, the speed and power of the current will be increasing rapidly even with seemingly minor increases of river level
- Have boulders that are knocking or moving in the flow
- Has branches, logs or other debris floating past
- Has water flowing into branches or debris
- The crossing point takes you to the outer side of a curve in the river, especially if it is a sharp bend as there is likely to be a deep channel there,
- A normally clear river is heavily discoloured unless you are very sure of the ford.
How to ford a river
If you have assessed the situation and deemed the river/creek safe to cross, there are a few techniques that will help you ford that body of water safely.
If you are crossing fast water, always face upstream. Lean into the current against your walking stick and shuffle your feet sideways. Always maintain two points of contact with the riverbed—two feet or one foot and the stick—to keep a solid base. Angle slightly downstream as you cross the river.
Crossing diagonally allows you to move with the force of the water rather than against it. You will use less energy as well which is always a bonus. Especially when you still have miles to hike.
What to do with your feet
Use smaller steps as this gives you more control over your legs and balance. Always keep your boots on. They will provide you with grip on the slippery surface. If you still have a way to hike afterwards, sometimes it is handy to bring along a spare pair of lightweight shoes with grip on them for crossing bodies of water. If this is not possible, remove your socks before crossings and replace them after the crossing with your feet inside plastic bags before popping back on the wet boot.
Sandals are not recommended on anything other than very shallow crossings as your toes are unprotected and they come away from your foot easily.
What to wear
Shorts are best as they will provide less drag and are easier to move in. If you have heavy, baggy trousers strip them off and tie them to the top of your pack.
What about your pack?
Try to waterproof the contents of your pack. Dry bags are a great investment.
Carry your pack high up on your shoulders. Unclip your waist belt and loosen the shoulder straps for faster removal if needed.
A heavy pack will keep you more stable when crossing a river. A silver lining for carrying a heavy pack. Huzzah!
Crossing bodies of water solo
While it is not recommended crossing bodies of water solo, sometimes it is a necessity and can be done as long as you have the skills and experience.
Use your trekking pole to your advantage
Use your trekking pole or a strong branch as a third leg, help on the upstream side of the water. This will give you another point of contact with the bottom. Plus, it is handy to check how deep the water it without having to test it out with your own body. You always want to maintain two stable points of contact with the river bed.
Face upstream and place the tip of your trekking pole/branch on the bottom of the river in front of you. It should be diagonal across your body with the current pushing it against your shoulder for more stability. The pole will break the current. Try to stand upright though and do not lean too much as this will unbalance you. If the pole is on your downstream side it will be more difficult to keep it in position.
Shuffle sideways and a little downstream across the river. Use small, low, steps. Do not cross your feet.
Don’t use two trekking poles; tie the other one on your pack so it’s out of the way.
Crossing bodies of water in a group
If you are in a group, there are several techniques that will help you ford a river safely. A group that is working together and linked securely is far stronger and stable than someone attempting to cross on their own. Except if you are Ma and I. We both nearly ended arse up hand in hand on our last trip together that had river crossings.
There is no single, best way to cross with mutual support: varying heights of party members, composition of the river bed, state of the flow and personal preferences will influence your choice.
How to order your group
The tallest, strongest and heaviest person should always be on the upstream end as this position takes most of the force of the water. If this person does not think they can stand up against or cope with a particular body of water, no one should attempt to cross it.
The second strongest person should be second in line to support the leader.
The rest of the group should stay strictly in line with the flow, sheltered from the flow force, coordinated with and supporting the leader. If you realise halfway through fording the river, don’t try and turn around, instead back out in your wee line. Imagine the coordination it will take to turn you all around in a swiftly moving body of water? Heaps!
The key to crossing in a group is communication and coordination.
Standard pack-strap method
This is the most commonly taught technique, it is very secure as each group member is locked together. This prevents anyone washing away if they let go.
Each group member should reach behind the next person’s back (or over them if they are shorter), and grasp the furthermost away pack-strap.
Over shoulders pack-strap method
This technique is not as secure as the standard pack-strap method. However, it is a more flexible technique when crossing uneven river beds.
The over shoulders method works best for three to five people of about the same height. Each person reaches across the next persons’ pack and holds onto the furthermost shoulder strap of their pack.
This is the securest method that dates back to the olden days well before when I was even born (and I was born quite a few years ago now). It also provides flexibility on even river beds.
The pole method provides the securest support to the leader in strong currents.
Use a strong pole capable of supporting a persons weight. It should ideally be five to six centimetres thick and two to three metres long (for four to six peeps). Interlink arms with your buddy before holding onto the pole. The upstream person should hold the thinner end to ensure they have a secure grip.
No one should let their grip go from the pole. That’s a big ole no no.
Recovery and Survival
Never set foot in a river without having some plan of where you’re going to aim yourself if you get swept downstream. If you’re in a group, discuss this with everyone.
If you do get knocked off your feet, try to get out of your pack as soon as possible unless you can get it underneath your back to use as a floatation device. Orient yourself feet-first then get on your back. Feet-first will protect your head as that will be the first point of contact with debris or boulders. Stay on your back so you can see what is coming and try to steer yourself towards the shore.
Courses and further reading
There are many courses in New Zealand that will teach you safe river crossing techniques as rivers and other bodies of water feature prominently on many of our hikes and summer activities.
Safe river crossing technique courses
Outdoor Education New Zealand offers a range of courses including a one-day river safety course. The course includes information and practical skills about hazards, river characteristics, river crossing principles, decision making, river crossing methods and recovery.
The Te Araroa website has a useful list of outdoor safety courses including river crossings.
Survival Fitness Plan has a great article that goes into more detail on rope techniques, building rafts and how to escape quicksand, bogs and swamps.
It is so important to know your limits when there is any chance that you will have to cross a body of water. Your life is not worth the hike if it is dangerous. If you have any inkling whatsoever that the river crossing exceeds your skills, turn around.
However, that being said, shallow creek crossings can be massively fun. Especially in the middle of a heat wave as Ma and I found out during the week. Much better than sitting inside complaining about the heat.
Be safe out there peeps,
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