How To (or Not To) Ford a River

Fording a river in Maine. It was chest deep at one point.

Fording a river in Maine. It was chest deep at one point.

When you enter the great state of Maine, you’ll notice that they’ve stopped building bridges over rivers and streams. It’s important to know how to cross a river, and which rivers are too dangerous to cross.

One night I was staying in a shelter in Maine. The rain poured down literally all night long. The next morning, three miles into the hike, I came to a river crossing. I was with three other hikers, and we decided to cross, even though the river was gushing at fast speed, we couldn’t see the bottom, and there were rapids downstream.

We all went into the freezing water together. By the time we made it to the middle of the river, which was roughly 40 feet wide, we were caught in the strongest part of the current. It was difficult to move our feet without having them swept out from under us. At the highest point, the water came up to the top of my rib cage. We eventually got out of the current and made our way to shore. We ended up having to set up camp and build a fire where we were because all of our gear was soaked.

When should you avoid crossing a river?

  • If the river comes up to your hips or higher, don’t cross.
  • If the river is moving too fast, don’t cross. Try this test: throw a stick in the water, and walk downstream alongside it. If the stick moves faster than you can walk, the river is too fast.
  • Don’t cross if you can see fast rapids, large boulders, or a significant drop off downstream.

If there was a lot of rain the night before or all during the day, the rivers tend to be higher. If the river is unsafe to cross, just wait until the next morning. Chances are, it will go down. The dangerous river that my friends and I crossed was perfectly safe the next morning. We saw several hikers rock hopping to get across, without any problems.

What should you do before you cross?

  • Leave your boots on if the water is quick or you can’t see the bottom clearly.
  • You can change into your camp shoes if the water is clear, shallow, and doesn’t pose much of a threat.
  • Don’t go barefoot unless the river bed in completely sand, with no rocks.
  • Unbuckle your hip belt on your pack before you cross. If you fall, you want to slide out of your pack, not get dragged down by it.
  • Before you get in the water, choose a path. Find a spot that seems to be the shortest crossing point and the most shallow.
  • Several rivers in Maine have cables that run from one shore to the other. Hold on to these to cross.

Tips for crossing a river or stream:

  • When crossing the water, face your body upstream and maintain a wide stance. Don’t face the opposite shore and walk across; you’ll trip more easily.
  • Use your eyes to find the best places to put your feet.
  • Occasionally, you’ll be able to rock hop your way across the river. Be especially careful on the rocks. If they’re smooth, you’ll slip off more easily.
  • Beware of downed trees across the river. If they’re submerged in the water, don’t use them to cross. If they’ve been there for awhile, they’re probably very weak. Your body weight could snap them. Also, if the water is deep underneath of the tree, you could be sucked under if you slip.
  • If you’re part of a group, help each other across. Link arms with each other and form a circle, everyone facing inward. Inch your way across.

The most important thing when crossing a river is to stay safe. It’s not worth potentially getting injured just to keep up with your hiking schedule. If a river seems too dangerous, just set up camp and wait until it calms down. If you’re alone, just hang out and wait for another hiker to come along, then cross together.

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