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I'm curious of a good technique to cross a stream while backpacking that's above the boot's waterproof line but no higher than the knees. I typically face upstream and use my hiking poles for stability. However, I'm not a fan of soggy boots, so I tend to go barefoot, which adds to the risk of slipping on slick rocks or stepping on a sharp edge. Is it best to wear the boots anyway and try to dry them by rotating socks? Or would a pair of camp shoes that quickly dry be a good option?

This is similar to this question, but less related to survival and more about typical backpacking trips. I'm often going solo and on well maintained trails, but without a bridge at the streams. And because of leave-no-trace principles, I don't want to construct anything to cross on top of (e.g. fall a tree).

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    @Lagerbaer, it's similar, but I'm going for less of the survival in icy waters and more for the "is it better to hike with a soggy boot, carry separate water shoes, or go barefoot" on crossings that it would take effort to get your entire body underwater, but deep enough that a waterproof boot would take on water. Of course, I'll let the community decide if I'm not being unique enough. – BMitch Mar 17 '12 at 2:12
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    @BMitch Agreed - the two questions are very different. One is a general backpacking question and the other is a potentially life or death survival situation. – berry120 Mar 17 '12 at 18:18
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    Don't cross the streams! en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… – geerlingguy Feb 12 '13 at 16:26
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It depends on how many crossings. If very few, I do them barefoot and change. If there are a lot of crossings in a short distance I have shoes that I just wear for the entire hike. I'll cover both.

General Rules

  • Don't use rocks if you can avoid it. Stand on the bottom of the river. Just don't try rock hopping - you're asking for serious injury. (Yeah, I've done it too, without getting hurt, but it's a bad idea.)
  • Use a hiking pole (or two) for added stability.
  • Avoid funnels with rapid current.
  • If you feel unstable then put your rainfly on your pack and float it or, at the least, unbuckle the belt so you can ditch it if you go under the water.
  • When you step, wiggle your foot before putting weight on it. If it's slippery try a different footing.

Barefoot

  • Try to avoid stepping where you can't see.
  • Do not go barefoot in high traffic areas that could have broken glass.
  • Most river rocks aren't sharp, but use caution.

Shoes

  • If there are so many crossing that it's not practical to change, I just hike in shoes.
  • Look for aerated shoes that will drain fast. Find something that's still a good fit. This will vary from person to person. It seems that everyone I meet uses something and swears by it and there is nothing else possibly better ever...
  • Test first. I do this with places that allow returns. I put the shoes on with socks and hose them until soaked. Then I walk five miles. If my feet hurt, I return them. I do take care to not beat them up in that five miles.

We do Jack's River here in GA every year. Last trip I used these and they worked amazingly well for 16+ river crossings in 8 miles. However, you have to buy what works for your feet. I tried on about a dozen shoes before I found these.

  • +1 I've learned the hard way on rock hopping. While I still step from rock to rock, that's only when they are at or above the surface, and there's no hop involved. That style water shoe looks like the perfect combination for stream crossing and a camp shoe. Thanks. – BMitch Mar 16 '12 at 22:13
  • For a fast-flowing river, I strongly recommend a dedicated wading staff, which feels far more solid and secure than a trekking pole, which is not designed to support a body+backpack leaning on it. – gerrit Jul 5 '16 at 14:05
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The traditional tip is to cross at the widest point, where the river has the least power and is spread over a wider area. Often this is the most shallow point also. You will cross while facing upstream, but you can move slightly downstream to use some of the force of the current rather than working against it. If you are a group, lock arms and move in a line or in a supporting triangle.

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I'm always using sandals. There are good trekking sandals with profiled soles that gives you adhesion not much worse than trekking shoes. Of course, they are not as much stabile, but you have no problem with drying them.

When the water is not higher then the knees, the current is not strong enough to be dangerous for you, of course you must always be very carrefull crossing the stream.

  • I have been in some rivers where the current is below my knees but moving fast enough that I would still be concerned about foot entrapment if I'm not careful. – MaskedPlant Jun 5 '12 at 14:50
  • I second getting a good pair of sandals that work well for both wading and hiking. It's changed how I approach hiking -- you don't have to think twice about rivers, streams, or swamps. – Doug Kavendek Jun 30 '12 at 19:22
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Everybody's method is going to be somewhat different, because they're using different footwear and other equipment (such as poles vs no poles).

Plan ahead and get information on what water levels are likely to be like given the time of year and the amount of snow this year. If a certain hike is likely to be impossible to complete safely, you want to know that and not do it.

If I know a big crossing is coming up, I start looking for one or two good sticks to use for balance. (I don't hike with trekking poles.)

If the creek is high enough or fast enough to look dangerous, I try to discipline myself to spend a significant amount of time searching around for the safest place to cross. The safest point may be 100 yards away from where the trail hits the creek, and may be invisible from the trail. The safest point is usually the widest, because the water flows most slowly there. Sometimes in 10 minutes of searching you can find a tree or rocks to get across without wading at all, or you'll see another hiker who will tell you a better place to cross.

Unclip belly band and pectoral strap so that if I fall, I won't be trapped by my pack. Make sure sleeping bag, down jacket, etc., are inside a trash bag or something.

I usually hike in running shoes. To cross a stream, I take off my socks and remove the inserts from the shoes, then put the shoes back on to protect my feet while crossing. Although river rocks are mostly smooth, a foot injury could ruin my whole trip, so I don't want to cross barefoot.

While crossing, rehearse what you have to do if you get swept off your feet. If this happens, shrug off your pack. The big risks of death are head injuries and getting trapped underwater. To reduce the chance of a head injury, try to orient yourself so you're going feet first.

After crossing, hike 10 minutes and then put the socks and inserts back in the shoes.

One of the biggest problems with hiking boots is that if you wear them for foot protection while crossing a stream, they will probably never dry out, and you'll end up destroying your feet with blisters.

  • Good point about the inserts – Rory Alsop Apr 25 '13 at 7:23
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Never tried them but I've heard Crocs often mentioned as a good and reasonably lightweight solution.

  • As Crocs can't be fastened with straps I'd never use them in a reasonably fast flowing river. Go for Teva sandals instead. – fgysin Aug 13 '15 at 12:38
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New Zealand has many tracks with river crossings, and it is known that rivers can be deadly if approached without respect. With that in mind, always check out what is down stream for if things go pear-shaped - avoid sieves (branches which you get washed into and held under) as well as rapids.

Stability wise, you would have the following ranking:

  1. Boots, laced up well
  2. Sandels
  3. Bare feet
  4. crocs or jandels or similar. I am joking. Just don't. Crocs have the holes in them to allow the last shred of your dignity to escape.

Comfort wise, if your boots get wet, then they get a bit heavy. As long as you can dry your feet out in the evening, and have dry socks to start each day, you can last a while with boots getting wet. If they are leather and you have few crossings, you can wring your socks out after each crossing, but I usually don't bother.

I often use sandals, and they are also handy for having around the camp site in the evening, instead of my big clod-hoppers - though sand flies do make a meal of the ankles where I come from.

I only cross bare feet if it is a sand or shingle base, as I can't afford to slip and wreck my ankle, or get a deep cut filled with mud. Your feet are your life.

If you do decide to remove your boots to cross, do it properly, and TIE them to your pack or belt or something, using the laces. If your boots are just tied to each other and looped around your neck, and you fall over - they are gone.

Use a stout stick about your own height, as a third leg, keeping it upstream. It allows you to maintain two points of contact to the riverbed.NZ River This is a pretty typical South Island river. It might be the Hawden valley just below sudden valley, or possibly the doubtful valley, but I honestly can't remember when I took it.

Some good advice can be found at the mountain safety council site: NZ Mountain Safety Council

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An alternative to sandals and going barefoot: bring two plastic bags with heavy duty elastics. You can take big bags and tie them all the way up at your thigh, but make sure you wrap them well in strong currents, or the added surface will just get you knocked over.

It's a lightweight, space efficient and extremely cheap solution. Also, rubber bands and plastic bags will be useful in other circumstances as well. For example to make a wind jacket or repair holes in a tent.

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I always have a pair of very light running shoes or sandals. Putting some waste bags on your boots can sometimes help, but they are easyly going apart. I consider to make kind of boots of strong plastic which I can put on my regular boots. Boots can go higher then knees. It'll be a kind of very light fishing boots.

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I always bring a pair of lightweight shoes or closed toe sandals when backpacking. I find that having a different pair of shoes to put on once I get to camp makes a world of difference to my feet. It lets my feet relax and gives both my feet and my boots more time to dry the sweat out. I also use these for crossing wide streams.

If you don't want to pack extra shoes, the next best thing is to take off your boots and just wear your wool hiking socks. The socks will give some protection to your feet and they actually grip slippery rocks better than the rubber soles of shoes or sandals. If the stream bottom is sandy or muddy just cross in bare feet - socks won't help in those cases.

On the other side of the stream, wring out the socks and hang them on the outside of your pack. Dry your feet off well and let them air dry until they no longer feel clammy. This is a good time to apply any necessary treatment to your feet (friction blocker, mole skin, athletic tape, talc, etc) as they will be clean and dry. Put on dry socks and your hiking shoes and continue down the trail.

If you encounter another stream just put on the socks that are already wet for crossing the stream and repeat. Be sure to dry those socks out well on the outside of your pack and at camp so that you can still use them for hiking if needed. They'll get caked with dirt when you walk up the bank of the other side of the stream so you'll probably want to wash them out well in the last stream you cross so that they're cleanish for later.

As for my pack, I always have everything in my pack in either ziplock bags or trash compactor bags. Be sure to put your hiking shoes in a bag before crossing the stream and put them in your pack so that you have two hands and so they don't get wet should you fall.

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