Fording a stream is one of the riskiest parts of a mountain trek and you should choose the safest location possible. Where there are no bridges, whether man-made or natural, you need to plan your actions carefully. The water in mountain streams is often very cold, and this cold combined with the current can quickly chill muscles, which can lead to pain, loss of feeling and balance difficulties. There is also a risk when you ford a stream that you will get stuck, hurt yourself or fall with your backpack and get pushed under the surface.
The current can vary
The strength of the current can vary throughout the day. The current in the morning is usually slower since the melt-off from snow fields and glaciers subsides during the night. This normally means that the best time to ford a stream is early in the morning. Remember, though, that if it rained during the evening and night, the melt-off will be greater. Streams in low-lying terrain often have a steady current throughout the day. Visibility, bottom conditions and the banks in low-lying streams can also be very different compared to streams in a mountain environment.
Always survey the area
The riskiest places to cross the stream are located where the water widens and splits into several branches, at watersheds and above tributaries. Choose your location where the stream is widest. This is also the shallowest area and the area with the weakest current. Survey the area first, cross up-stream and, preferably, in the morning. Remember that the risks increase significantly when the water is knee-deep or higher. If the current is too strong or the water too deep, walk upstream - where there are fewer tributaries there should be less water.
Use a pole for help
It is easiest to ford a stream with the help of a trekking pole or something similar, both to keep your balance and to check how deep the water is and what the bottom is like. If there are several of you, let the most experienced person go first and potentially attach a rope on the other side that others can hold for support. The rest of the group should then use the line to cross, holding on with both hands and turning their bodies against the current. Avoid crossing two at a time, since if one falls, the other usually falls, too.
Important to remember:
• Before going into the water, you should unhook your hip belt and shoulder straps so your backpack will fall off quickly if you fall.
• Do not cross barefoot – athletic shoes, sandals or boots provide grip and protect against sharp stones.
If you do fall
If you happen to fall, it is important that you quickly release your backpack and, if possible, attempt to hold onto it. In a best case scenario, the backpack will be between you and the bank you are trying to reach.
In order to reach the side in a strong current, use a technique to swim across rapids. Lie on your back with your feet downstream and close to the surface. Steer toward land using your arms, preferably with your body at approximately a 45 degree angle to the current. Your head is turned toward the bank and functions as a rudder. Try to read the water so you do not bump into stones or other obstacles. Do not put your feet down to the bottom until you can feel the ground or reach backwaters since you risk getting stuck between stones. A foot stuck between two stones and the pressure of the water against the body can result in a broken leg or ligament damage.
Never take a chance
There is a lot to say about how to ford a stream, and the advice that is given here is just a short summary. If you are going to head out into the wilderness, it is a good idea to learn several techniques for how to ford a stream and how to react in the event of an accident. The most important piece of advice we can give is to never take a chance. It is always better to trek a bit further to find a safer place to cross.