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Outdoor instructions in Lapland often recommend to always use a wading staff for river crossings, and not a trekking pole. Ever since I purchased my Folding Wading Staff in a Swedish outdoor store, I don't understand how I ever did without. Trekking poles are not designed to sustain the weight of hiker+backpack leaning on it in strong flow, and I wouldn't want a trekking pole to collapse under heavy weight in the middle of a fast-flowing river crossing. Outside Scandinavia, I don't even see wading staffs for sale in outdoor stores. Google Search in English yields returns for fishing stores, but not hiking, as if the only context to cross a river is when fishing. How do people cross fast-flowing rivers without a dedicated wading staff?

Hnappadalsá in Lónsöræfi
Hnappadalsá, Lónsöræfi, Iceland, 20 September 2015. This river was difficult to cross, and would have been out of the question without my wading staff.

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    For my personal circumstances, I simply have never had to cross a river that big on foot. I would use a ford or a bridge. – user2766 Jul 5 '16 at 15:00
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    Not suggesting this as a practical answer, but is the stream much smaller in the early morning? – ab2 Jul 5 '16 at 18:53
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    @Liam According to whoever maintains the trail to Lönsoræfi, this is the ford. A faint trail with cairns exists on both sides, and the next river crossing (crossing a much larger river) has a massive bridge. I've see routes in the same region cross even trickier streams without bridges. I don't quite understand Iceland. – gerrit Jul 5 '16 at 19:12
  • @ab2 Possibly (I took this photo in the afternoon, I was too impatient to wait 16 hours), but I still wouldn't like fording without my fording staff. Although this being late September, I don't expect snowmelt to be a large fraction of the stream. – gerrit Jul 5 '16 at 19:15
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In New Zealand most river crossings are not done solo. After being taught how important it is to choose a safe crossing point or choose not to cross, you are taught to link people in the group together and cross as a group (Up to four per group, although specifics of terrain may mean pairs are better).

The group is much stronger than the individual, you put the strongest person second closest to upstream, next strongest at the head to take the force of the water, weakest down stream. various technique exist for linking up which I won't go into with this answer.

Ropes can be used by those with experience - they have a very dangerous downside if used incorrectly and not widely carried. For solo use ropes are not practical.

Here, solo walking is widely discouraged, especially where river crossings are expected as its too dangerous. Staffs a not normally carried as many river crossings are in bush country where suitable branches can be found to use for the task and they are relatively heavy with limited other uses. Hunters will use their rifles in emergencies, but for obvious reason prefer not to. Fisherman sometimes carry staffs, but most avoid crossing the the big fast rivers and fishing is no good when the river is in flood anyway.

It should be noted that in New Zealand about half of Mountain deaths are river crossings and 80% of those are in flooded rivers, you are taught to think 'not crossing is the best option', then prove to yourself crossing is safe. You are taught how to back out, and backing out is preferable to going on unless you can show otherwise.

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How do people cross fast flowing rivers without a dedicated wading staff?

I can answer this only for Colorado and California. You find a place where you can cross safely, given your strength and balance. This may mean a significant detour.

First, for below timberline: Scout upstream and downstream for a log that has fallen across the stream. You will eventually find one that you are able to cross on. You may have to walk on the "wrong" side of the stream longer than you really want to, but be patient. By wrong side of the stream, I mean the side where the trail isn't; it's probably overgrown and/or hilly and hard going. But you will find a log.

Second, for above timberline: Walk upstream past several confluences of minor streams with the main stream and eventually the main stream will be crossable. If this is a longer detour than you really want to make, be patient!

On a day hike, never cross a barely crossable snow-melt stream in the morning unless you know of a much easier place to re-cross it in the afternoon. Snow-melt streams can enlarge dramatically during a day of melting.

As for how to cross that stream in Iceland without a wading staff if one is alone, the OP did not ask that question and I don't know how to answer it. If there are several people, see this question, especially the answer by Lagerbaer If I have to cross an icy, flowing river, what are some ways I can cross safely?

As for swimming the lake, as the OP contemplated, unless you know the temperature of the lake and the temperature you can tolerate in a swim, it seems risky. See Swimming to Antarctica by Lynne Cox. Lynne, a well insulated young woman specializing in long, cold swims, swam across Lake Myvatn in Iceland as part of her training to swim the Bering Strait from Little Diomede to Big Diomede. Lake Myvatn was 45 degrees F, and she found it cold when she started her training.

  • A bit nitpicky perhaps, but there is no guarantee that you'll be able to cross further upstream. Or at least not that going upstreams far enough is any less dangerous than attempt a crossing where you are. – Guran Jul 6 '16 at 10:26
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    @Guran If you go up stream far enough you will be able to step over any river, without getting your feet wet. random example but sometimes far enough can be thousands of miles... – James Jenkins Jul 6 '16 at 13:24
  • @JamesJenkins In theory yes, but the way upstream may be blocked by a glacier, a steep loose cliff or other terrain as dangerous as the crossing itself. If the shortest reasonable route past an obstacle includes returning to your starting point, that obstacel is, for all practical purposes, unpassable. – Guran Jul 7 '16 at 7:56
  • @Guran There may be an exception that I don't know about, but in Colorado and California, which is all I was talking about, you will be able to cross the stream before you get all the way up to the glacier. As for a stream being impassable, yes, sometimes it is; better to acknowledge that than drown. – ab2 Jul 7 '16 at 13:49
  • @JamesJenkins, go far enough up the White River, and you won't need to worry about getting your feet wet -- instead, you'll need to worry about falling into a crevasse. – Mark Jul 7 '16 at 23:29
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I've crossed a lot of fast flowing creeks and rivers in the Canadian Rockies, some deeper than my waist. The technique I use, and teach others to use, is to walk facing upstream, and walk sideways, leaning into the flow of water. It ultimately comes down to balance and how sure your footing is, I grew up crossing glacier fed rivers this way, so it was something learned as a child and practiced my whole life.

Depending on the intensity of the flow, you may want to start upstream of where you want to be on the bank on the other side, and back step a little with each side step making your way to your landing at an angle, it's a lot easier to work with the current than it is to fight it. You can use the rocks in the water to help you with your footing, feel for them with your feet as you shuffle them to the side, and plant your foot in front of rocks that feel steady with you heel on the rock. Take small controlled steps so you don't lose your balance, and don't pick your feet up higher than you have to. Step too high or too far and the current is going to take your foot away. I always keep my arms out and in front of me and keep my knees bent for balance, the force of the water is strong, and it doesn't take much to get thrown off, so take your time and don't rush things.


Edit: Here's a video of the technique I describe, while crossing a river in Iceland no less: Crossing a freezing river in Iceland.

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