If you have ever been western hunting, there is one thing that is certain: you will eventually have to cross a stream of flowing water. There is also one given that comes with western mountain steam crossing: these streams are almost always ice cold and can often be very dangerous! The cooler weather of spring and fall result in the temperatures of these mountain runoff streams rarely getting above 40 degrees, which can make for a refreshing, but also dangerous, part of your adventure — especially in fast-flowing water. This is why it is essential to know and understand the dangers of crossing moving water in the backcountry and also learn how to do it as safely as possible.
Assessing the situation
The first part of any stream crossing experience is assessing the situation and determining if it is worth the risk. To do this, you can look at your proposed crossing location and examine it for any visible dangers. Some of these dangers might be the fast-flowing current or deep water, but some others may be more subtle such as underwater slime or loose rocks that can cause your foot to get caught. Looking downstream is often an overlooked part of assessing the risk, but very crucial. If you were to go down and get caught up in the current, where would you float to? Are there trees or debris in the water that could cause you to get pinned down by the current or is there a drop off that could cause you to go over a small waterfall and get caught in a swirling current? You might be a great swimmer; however, a swimmer with hunting clothing, a pack and boots is not the same as swimming in your swimsuit. Assess the risks at your proposed location and look upstream to see if there is a better area to cross with fewer risks. Sometimes you might even have to turn around and return because the hunting experience is not worth the cost of your life or injury.
This might be the right time to also pull out your mapping app to see if there is a better location above or below your location.
When assessing the stream for danger, it is essential to look at the water depth and speed to determine if this is a reasonable risk. Slow, but deeper water is often a lot safer than shallow fast water because you will be in control of your steps and movement. Obviously, shallow, slow water is the real goal to find, but sometimes this is not possible. When the water is slow, you will have time to pick where your feet go, often by sight and then decide if it is a good spot before transferring your weight. Pay attention to water speed and know that it changes at different parts of the creek as the banks of the water constrict or open causing the water to speed up or slow down.
When selecting a spot to cross a stream, it is often a good idea to look for straight stretches. Straight stretches allow you to see what is downstream; they also typically have the most uniform bottom surface. It is commonly known that a bend in flowing water will usually cause the water to speed up as it wraps around the outside of the bend. Faster flowing water will usually mean deeper channels — sometimes with a steep drop-off. If you cannot see this before entering the water, you may find yourself in deep water with a faster current. This could cause you to get sucked under and lose control of your body position in the water. Seek out straighter sections of water to find safer crossing positions.
Avoid log crossings
If you find a log, you might think that it is your lucky day, and I know many people who have crossed logs successfully, but this is a considerable risk. The sturdiness of the log, the slipperiness of the log, the height of the log above the water and any limbs on the log pose an increased risk to a person crossing it. Not only do you have to worry about maintaining balance while traveling a log with a pack, but you also worry about the what-ifs in case you fall. It is almost always less risky to avoid crossing on a log. Instead, find a safe place to cross and get wet instead of trying to stay dry and have something bad happened.
Crossing a stream is dangerous, but crossing a stream miles from the nearest road in the backcountry is even more treacherous. There are multiple safety concerns to consider before deciding to cross. These include ankle sprains, bruises, impalement, drowning, hyperthermia and more. With these many risks and more, you should think twice and assess the risk before finding the safest place to cross — even if it takes more time. Once you have assessed the situation and found the safest route possible, it is time to cross the stream safely. Part 2 of this article will go over tips and tricks to help you safely cross your location once you have found the best spot.