Stream Crossing Safety

A hiker wearing a large backpack and carrying hiking boots crosses a stream with thigh-deep water towards the opposite shore.
A backpacker fords the Wassataquoik stream on a section of the IAT.

NPS Photo / Grace Kirk

Knowing how to cross rivers safely is an essential skill to complete the IAT and access trails between the Wassataquoik and East Branch of the monument. Never underestimate the dangers associated with stream or river crossings.

Crossing rivers can be VERY dangerous without preparation, patience, and planning. Hikers must be familiar with safe techniques for crossing rivers and streams. Learn the signs of hypothermia - shivering, loss of manual dexterity and coordination, slurred speech, mental impairment - and know how to treat its victims by rewarming their core body temperature. Remember, no river crossing is worth your life.

Check with a ranger for current river conditions along your route prior to entering the wilderness. Make a backup plan in case the water is too high, cold, or swift to cross.

Keep these points in mind when crossing water channels:

An overhead view of a stream with flowing white-water and small rocks. Trees, which are starting to turn yellow, line either side of the stream.
Wassataquoik Stream

NPS Photo / C. Loft

Protect your feet:

  • NEVER cross in bare feet. Crossing barefoot decreases traction and exposes your feet to submerged hazards such as boulders, logs, and lost fishing tackles.

  • Wear boots or bring extra shoes for crossings. Open-toed sandals do not protect your toes from these hazards and create drag that can cause you to fall. If you do not have extra shoes, remove your socks and insoles and cross in your boots.

  • Move one foot at a time, sliding it across the bottom.

  • Pack wool socks. They will keep your feet warm even if wet.

Choose the safest time to cross:

  • Cross early in the day whenever possible.

  • Plan extra time into your trip, so you can wait until water levels are lower.

  • Wear and pack quick-dry fabric clothing. Pack shorts to change into for the crossing. Long pants increase drag and won't keep you warm when wet.

  • Be aware of weather conditions in the area and cross before storms whenever possible. Water levels may vary drastically according to season, time of day, temperature and upstream weather conditions. Do your research and be prepared.

  • Plan on turning around, waiting it out or going elsewhere if the water is too high, too cold, or too swift.

Choose the safest place and method to cross:

  • Look for the brown FORD sign at the Wassataquoik Ford. The signs designate the official crossing area.

  • For general river crossings, the widest or most braided portion of the channel is usually the most shallow and traight channels usually exhibit uniform flow while bends often reveal deep cut banks and swift water on the outside edge.

  • Water has less momentum on level ground than when flowing down an incline.

  • If hiking solo, use a hiking staff or trekking pole, held upstream, to create a more stable, three point stance. Move only one contact point at a time.

  • Two or more hikers should cross parallel to the current with the strongest and heaviest member upstream to lessen the force on the other hikers. Walk across with arms linked, or face upstream and sidestep across.

  • Keep your eyes on the far shore. You may become dizzy if you look down at the swirling water.

  • In deep water, the triangle method is safest. Facing each other, three people grip each others shoulders or packs and work their way across one person, one leg, at a time.

Assess the water’s properties:

  • Toss a stick in up stream to get a feel for the water's speed: the swifter the water the shallower it has to be to cross safely. If you cannot walk as fast the stick is floating downstream, it is probably not a safe spot to cross.

  • Standing waves indicate submerged boulders, logs, swift water, or an uneven bottom.

  • Small, closely spaced ripples should be indicative of a shallower, smoother bottom. This is a better place to cross than where there are standing waves.

  • Toss a rock into the water. A hollow "ka-thump" sound indicates deep water. If the rock moves downstream before sinking to the bottom, or if submerged rocks can be heard rolling downstream, the current may be too swift to cross at that point.

  • Avoid crossing through water deeper than your knees if possible. The only time to wade through deeper water is when you locate a flat pool with little or no current.

Prepare to get wet:

  • Release the waist and sternum belts of your pack. Should you fall, you must be able to remove the pack before it turns you over, face down into the water, fills up with water and drags you down or becomes snagged on debris in the river. You might lose the pack if the straps aren't connected, but consider the alternative.

    Be familiar with pack buckles and be prepared to shed your pack to remain afloat. Be prepared to lose your pack if you fall or trip in the river.

  • Pack your essential items such as fire starters, sleeping bags, and clothes in watertight stuff sacks or plastic bags to keep them dry in case you do fall. Insulation and the ability to start a fire could save your life if subjected to cold water for long periods. This also enhances your pack's buoyancy.

  • In faster currents, face upstream and cross at a slight angle downstream. Lean slightly into the current, and shuffle-step sideways.

  • Normally, when hiking trails, water crossings are singular events and dry clothing can be removed and put back on once the crossing is complete. However, at the monument, wet conditions are widespread outside of water crossings. Stay in your clothes, socks, and footwear. Have dry clothing, especially socks, to change into once you’re are done traveling each day.

  • Before crossing, place your communications devices and basic survival gear (fire starter, emergency space blanket, etc.) in a waterproof bag and store it on your body during the crossing. If your pack gets away and is lost, your survival may depend on these critical items.

  • If a crossing seems too probably is! Always include an option for a retreat back to shore should the crossing become too difficult.

A hiker with a light grey backpack, navy shorts, and a tanktop stands on a shore of river rocks. She looks at the clear, light brown water of the large Wassataquoik Stream as it steadily flows in front of her.
Hiker admiring the Wassataquoik Stream after successfully crossing.

NPS Photo / Sarah King

After You Cross

  • Wipe your feet off, and put on your dry socks and boots.
  • Congratulate yourself, and enjoy the view!

Always be willing to turn back or wait for a more suitable time if a crossing appears too dangerous!

Last updated: March 27, 2024

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