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I was reading about off-roading just now, in particular best practices for conservation and safety, and I ended up on the Wikipedia page for fording. But that page deals mostly with either natural fords or man-made crossings that are deliberately below water level.

Suppose you are in a situation where you have to cross a stream in the back country, and suppose there are an existing set of tracks through the stream (I am a firm believer in never crossing a body of water unless there are clear tracks from previous crossings, so as to prevent upsetting the delicate ecosystem of the stream). What is the best method to take to get your vehicle across the stream 1.) in the safest way possible, and 2.) with the least amount of impact to the stream ecosystem?

  • If there are existing tracks, at some level of linguistic precision it is already a ford. It has been disturbed, so the right thing to do is cross in the same place, assuming that your vehicle can tolerate the current water height, bottom conditions, and entrance/exit conditions. – Jon Custer Apr 26 '18 at 19:10
  • @JonCuster I agree that the ford already exists. The distinguishing factor is that it's austere. The Wikipedia article linked shows fords paved in stone or concrete. – Jonathan Landrum Apr 26 '18 at 19:14
  • The (many) off roading videos on the internet almost never show paved fords. You are off road after all (or at least off pavement). And, those paved fords on Wiki likely weren’t paved until last century... – Jon Custer Apr 26 '18 at 19:24
  • I get that; I think we're misunderstanding each other. I am specifically not asking about fords that are part of a roadway system like those found in the UK. I am asking about crossing a body of water safely and with as little impact to the environment as possible. – Jonathan Landrum Apr 26 '18 at 19:29
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    The existing track across is your best bet. Limited additional impact on the stream, no new tracks on the ground. Given the tracks across, it was safe at one point to cross. (Avoid places where tracks go in but none come out!) Still, you need to determine if it is safe for you to cross now. Thus water height/depth, possible changes since the last crossing (flood, ...), bottom conditions, entry and exit routes, your vehicle (snorkel or not, ...), your abilities, and your or your group’s rescue gear play into that decision if it is safe. – Jon Custer Apr 26 '18 at 19:47
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I will answer in reverse order:

(2) the least impact to the stream ecosystem, presuming you intend to cross, is to use the preexisting track. First, this restricts disturbance to an already disturbed place (kind of like walking on the trail, not next to it). Second, you aren't going to need to break ground to another part of the stream, again limiting new disturbance. (But, did that track heading off just a bit back there lead to a bridge or safer place? Check the map.)

(1) Safety. Since somebody else managed to get across, it is conceivable that you can too (avoid places where tracks go in but none come out!). But, conceivable is not a clear yes. You need to determine for yourself if it is safe for you to cross now, as opposed to them back when. So:

  • What is the current water depth, do you need a snorkel (and have one)?
  • What is the bottom like (rock, gravel, sand, mud, big holes), and is it possible that it has changed since the last crossing, such as being washed out in a flash flood?
  • What do the entry and exit look like, and do you have approach and takeoff angles that can handle it (and don't forget how deep the hood might go in the water on a steep entry)?
  • How do you rate your abilities (previous experience), your group's abilities (if multiple vehicles), and your rescue gear (winch, traction devices, mechanical knowledge and tools if you stall out the engine with water)?
  • Did you actually walk the proposed crossing to check it out?
  • If all else fails, how close to civilization are you, and how good are your communications (cell, radio, PLB)? You did leave a proposed itinerary and return time with someone back in civilization, didn't you?

"Is it safe?" is ultimately about risk assessment giving the whole system a good look. If you are alone, and it was deep when you walked it, and has tree snags, and you are out in a vehicle you borrowed from a friend without any equipment, there is no shame in turning back and leaving it for another day. There is no shame in turning back in a well-equipped group if it just doesn't seem like a good risk. Even if you just feel uneasy, reconsider going - our brains have millions of years of evolution trying to keep us alive with vaguely uneasy feelings so listen to them! A little healthy paranoia goes a long way at times.

Have fun, tread lightly, and be safe.

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    Great answer, and great job expanding on your comments – Jonathan Landrum Apr 27 '18 at 0:53

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