How to Ford a River

How to Ford a RiverCrossing rivers can be one of the most thrilling part of any hike. It can also be the most dangerous. Always use your common sense when fording rivers, keeping your wits about you. Remember that some rivers cannot be crossed. A good example of this is the Potomac in its later, mature stages--if you enter it without a flotation device, the current will pull you under and you will drown.


Difficulty: Moderately Challenging

Mature Rivers, Shallow Crossing

Things You’ll Need:
  • Good boots or shoes
  • Change of clothes, or waterproofs
  • Rope (can be useful for deeper stretches)
Step 1
Find a suitable location. When crossing any river, make sure you have found a good crossing point. Things to bear in mind are the width of the channel, speed of the current, volume of water, water temperature and depth. Be aware of downstream features. For example, you don't want to cross upstream of a waterfall, rapids, or other fast moving or potentially dangerous tract.
Step 2
Look for the shallows. For more mature rivers lower down in the watershed, look for wide shallow tracts. You should be able to see gravel deposits along the inside bends of meanders. There will be deeper channels cut into the river bed, but you should be able to see the bed across the whole tract.
Step 3
Leave your backpack behind, depending on the river's depth. For shallow crossings, this is not necessary.
Step 4
Enter the river by an easy route. Look for gently sloping banks. Places where animals come down to drink can be useful; you can see their tracks in the mud by the banks. Remember that you are going to have to get out on the other side, so aim for another sloping bank that offers an easy exit point.
Step 5
Prepare to get wet. Walk in slowly, keeping your feet wide apart. Brace yourself against the current; leaning into the flow can help. Preferably, you won't be crossing a river that is deeper than your waist. Deeper rivers can dislodge your footing much easier and carry you downstream.
Step 6
When moving your feet, don't lift them too high. Try to keep them within a few inches of the bottom. Be careful of loose stones and rocks and feel with your toes before you set your weight to each step.
Step 7
Continue to move slowly and gracefully across the stream. The flow will increase toward the center, or toward the outward curve of a meander. Keep this in mind and adjust your footing accordingly.

Streams and Fast Moving Younger Rivers

Step 1
Younger rivers, higher up the watershed, offer an interesting crossing potential. Although they are fast moving, the volume of flow is typically much less than a mature river. This means there is a less mass of water acting against your passage. Moreover, there are typically larger rocks that allow for some rock hopping.
Step 2
Site your crossing appropriately. The site you choose to cross will be the most important decision you make when crossing any river. The first step is always the most important, as this dictates all future possibilities. Be willing to walk alongside the river until a decent crossing point presents itself. Remember to be cognizant of downstream features; if you fall in, you want to make sure you won't be in trouble. A good tip is to walk upstream when looking for a crossing.
Step 3
Try rock hopping if you can. Rock hopping is a very useful way to get across a young river, and hopefully remain dry. Be very careful when doing this as some rocks are more slippery than they appear. A few inches of water rushing over the surface of a rock can markedly alter traction. Pay attention and don't be afraid to get your feet a little wet, as water will build up a standing wave against your body as you move across it.

Deeper Rivers

Step 1
Find a good crossing point that is fairly narrow, with slow moving water. Be attentive to wildlife. Are you in a part of the world where riverine wildlife can be dangerous?
Step 2
Use a rope when crossing deeper rivers. You can't be sure how strong the current is in the middle of the channel and deep rivers are often wide. Tie one end of the rope to a tree, rock, or other solid anchor point. If you have a friend with you, she can act as the anchor. You can also use your backpack as a weight, if it is heavy enough.
Step 3
Site your landing point. The current, no matter how slow, will bear you downstream so aim for an exit point downstream on the other bank.
Step 4
Remove loose clothing. While swimming, you don't want anything that can hamper your movement. Make sure the rope is tied securely around your waist or attached to your body where you can reach it with your hands if necessary.
Step 5
Wade into the river slowly. Once it gets deep enough, launch forward into the in-stream flow and begin swimming. You will need to swim slightly upstream to counter the effect of the current. Even so, you will likely be borne downstream some.
Step 6
Anchor the other end of the rope when reaching the other side. You can either walk up stream to be opposite your entry point, or keep the diagonal line you've made.
Step 7
Allow your friend to follow along. Untying the anchor by the entry point, she can pull herself along the rope.
Step 8
Ford the river again, moving back to your starting point, if you are alone. Untie the rope, and attach your gear, then ford back across and pull your gear in when you land on the opposite side.

Tips & Warnings


Build a raft to keep your gear out of the water. This can keep your gear dry and assist in pulling it across once you've landed on the other side.
You can create a flotation device using your hiking pants. By tying the ends of each leg, and filling them full of air, you can close the waist and displace enough water to create adequate buoyancy to assist your crossing. This works especially well with waterproof pants.
The buddy system is a good practice. Having a friend there to help you can assist with setting up rope anchors, getting your gear across, and acting as a second pair of eyes to avert danger.


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Article Written By Benjamin Williams

Ben Williams is an award-winning reporter and freelance writer based out of Colorado. He has written for conglomerates of newspapers and magazines, supplying news, features, editorial and opinion. While running an Energy Services and consulting firm, he also writes for multiple websites.

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