Volume , Issue

Background

 In April of 2017, well-known outdoor footwear creator Randy Merrell and members of his family were hiking in Grand Canyon National Park when his wife and her teenage step grandson lost their footing crossing Tapeats Creek and were swept away. While the teenager’s body was eventually found, Randy’s wife’s body has never been recovered. Just three months later, two Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers drowned, one crossing Kings River in Kings Canyon National Park and the other crossing Rancheria Creek in Yosemite National Park.

Sadly, these are only a few of many instances where hikers and backpackers have drowned attempting water crossings. In fact, drowning is one of the most common causes of death in the backcountry according to a review of emergency medical service events in US national parks and is the second most common cause of death in the wilderness according to an article in Backpacker Magazine.

Safety Strategies

 The following information, safety strategies, and techniques are from the Pacific Crest Trail Association, Washington Trail Association, and National Park Service swiftwater rescue manual. The assessment strategies should be used prior to any water crossing and the techniques described can be used to reduce risk during the actual crossing. Keep in mind though that if a safe place to cross can’t be found and/or safe methods can’t be used to make a crossing, no attempt should be made. Your life isn’t worth the risk.

Find The Safest Place To Cross

 The first step in a creek or river crossing is to find the safest place to cross. While picking the shallowest area may seem the most logical, if the current is fast, slower, deeper water is often safer because moving water is very powerful. Water weighs 62.4 pounds per cubic foot and the force it exerts increases with the square of its velocity. For example, water moving at just 4 miles per hour (a brisk walk) exerts a force of 66 pounds on each square foot of whatever it encounters. If the speed doubles to 8 miles per hour, it exerts a force of 264 pounds per square foot.

 Very deep water is also not safe, because as you try to cross, you began to become buoyant, which leads to less stability and control. Unless you are crossing flat water with little to no current, it is generally not safe to enter water that is greater than knee deep.

 Another consideration when selecting a crossing location is what lies downstream from where you plan to cross in case you fall in or get knocked off your feet. Avoid crossing upstream from waterfalls, rapids, or hazards like submerged or partially submerged debris like logs called strainers. If a person is swept into a strainer, they can get pulled under by the current and pinned against it due to the force of the water, which can quickly lead to drowning.

Man caught in strainer – photo credit: Montana River Guides

Lastly, use the creek or river’s features to your advantage. An area with a sandbar or island may be safer as the current is usually weaker on either side and you have the ability to rest before finishing the crossing. Crossing where the river or creek splits into multiple channels may also be a good option as water slows and becomes shallower as it is dispersed. Crossing in a straight section versus a bend can also be safer as bends may have deep scour holes and undercuts.

Timing

 Timing can be very important when crossing rivers and creeks. If a nearby snowfield feeds the water you are crossing, the water level will most likely be highest in the late afternoon and evening from snow melting throughout the day making an early morning crossing safer. However, if you are far from the source of snow, the water you are crossing may actually be higher early in the morning as the snowmelt from the prior afternoon and evening finally reaches your location. Consulting a map to see how far you are from drainage areas can be helpful.

Is What You’re Crossing On Safe?

 Crossing water via rocks, logs, and snow bridges is common, but may be even more unsafe than crossing through the water if they involve crossing in a dangerous area. Always consider what will happen if you slip and fall into the water. If you do decide to cross on rocks, look for ones with craggier surfaces because they tend to be less slick and make sure they are solid and won’t shift under your weight. When crossing logs, check to see if they are well anchored on both sides and consider things like branches sticking up that may trip you or a wet surface that may be slick. If the log is slick or your balance is poor, crawling or scooting across may be safest. Snow bridges are especially hazardous as they are often fragile and there isn’t a good method to reliably test their strength.

Crossing Techniques

 There are several techniques to increase safety for solo and group water crossings. First of all, keep your shoes on as they significantly reduce your chances of slipping. Next, if you’re wearing a backpack, undo the hip and sternum straps so that you can get out of it quickly if need be. Backpacks can quickly become waterlogged or snagged in a strainer if you get swept away.

 If you are crossing solo, use trekking poles or a sturdy stick for stabilization. Enter the water facing into the current with your poles or stick in front of you making a tripod formation with your feet. Always keep two points of contact with the creek or riverbed. Slowly shuffle across sideways taking small steps making sure your feet are always firmly planted before you make your next move.

Group crossings can be safer in swifter water. If you have a partner to cross with, link up with your arms around each other’s waists and enter the water with the strongest person facing into the current to help break the flow and the second person helping to stabilize the first. This is called a line astern formation. Both people can use poles or sticks in their free hands for added stability.

Three people can cross in a line astern formation or form a triangle facing each other with their arms around each other’s waists and the strongest person at the top of the triangle facing into the current. Groups of four people can cross in a line astern formation, while groups of five or greater can cross in a V-shaped wedge formation with the largest member at the front of the V and the rest of the group in descending order of size on both sides of the wedge; this is the most stable in deep and swift water. Unless you’re a swift water expert, never use a rope in creek or river crossing as you can easily get caught and held under water by a rope or get strangled.

Water crossing formations – photo credit: The Trek

You’ve Been Swept Away

If, despite your best efforts, you fall into swift water or find yourself being swept away during a crossing, there are several steps you can take to mitigate risks. First, unless the water is less than knee deep, get into a defensive swimming position, which involves getting on your back with your knees slightly bent and feet near the surface facing downstream. This position allows you to see where you’re going and use your feet to protect yourself from impacts. While it may be tempting to try and stand up, doing so puts you at risk for foot entrapment, a very dangerous situation in which your foot or leg becomes stuck under a ledge, rock, or other debris while the current forces you forward under the water. While in the defensive swimming position, paddle with an aggressive backstroke toward shore. 


A. Foot entrapment B. Defensive swimming position – photo credit: Anesthesia Key

Your Partner Has Been Swept Away

 If your partner gets swept away, the Wilderness Medical Society Clinical Practice Guidelines for the Treatment and Prevention of Drowning: 2019 Update

 recommends that unless you have formal water rescue training, do not enter the water; there are high numbers of fatal drownings of untrained persons attempting in-water rescues. Instead, get to a safe location and attempt a rescue by reaching or throwing something to your partner. The Wilderness Medical Society guidelines found insufficient evidence to recommend specific rescue devices.

Extra Resources on Creek and River Crossings

This is a great video discussing/demonstrating safely fording backcountry rivers

This video is from Yosemite National Park Rangers discussing the dangers of swiftwater with footage from a rescue operation from a creek crossing gone wrong

You Might Also Be Interested in


Afghan Evacuation, Austere Medicine, and the COVID-19 Pandemic

CPT Terri Davis, MD, FAWM9/22/2022

One doctor's account of assisting evacuees during COVID.


Norovirus in the Grand Canyon

Thomas Myers MD / Medical Advisor for Grand Canyon National ParkBrad L. Bennett PhD, Paramedic, MFAWM / Military & Emergency Medicine Department, USUHS8/5/2022

Transmission, prevention, and treatment in the backcountry


Canoeing with Tornadoes

Lynn E Yonge, MD, FAAFP, FAWMWalker Plash, MD, FAWM7/29/2022

Danger from the sky during canoeing expedition


Thermodynamics of Oral Hypothermia Treatment

Aaron R. Billin, MD, MS, FAAFP, MFAWM6/1/2022

Thermodynamics of the Oral Treatment of Mild Hypothermia