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Hiking through old-growth forest with no trail, is a lot slower than hiking on a trail. The actual speed seems to vary greatly depending on the particular forest, with estimates ranging from perhaps 1 to 10 miles per day, so that's an order of magnitude range depending on location: How fast can you typically hike through untracked forest?

Suppose there is a river going roughly the direction you want to go, but you don't have a boat. Is it easier/faster to walk alongside the river, than to cut straight through the forest? I would have thought the greater availability of sunlight on the river bank would have positively encouraged extra vegetation growth at ground level, but I have seen it claimed the overall effect is positive; if so, why?

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    I feel like this is impossible to generalize about; if the river bank is super muddy (to the point of being a swamp), or super rocky (to the point that I'll break my ankle on loose stones), or becomes a vertical cliff at some point, or becomes a steep sand dune, or ..., or ..., then no, it will not be faster. If it's hard-packed dry dirt then, yes, it'll be much faster. I'm not sure how you can give a generalized answer to this question beyond "depends on the river bank". – Mike Ounsworth May 31 at 21:02
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    Another reason it can be worse, but not in a forest (hence not an answer): in dry open country there's often more vegetation along the river banks and flood plain than anywhere else because of water availability. On exposed moorland the shelter caused by river gulleys can allow trees to grow filling the gulley, and you'll find bogs. – Chris H Jun 1 at 8:37
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It depends and is hard to generalize about.

If river volume is seasonal (think late summer in temperate countries, especially with snow-capped mountains or places with a specific rainy season), you could hike on exposed riverbank during periods of low flow. This is the sweet spot and if it works well, it's really beneficial (see fgysin reinstate Monica 's answer).

If the water reaches the forest, it could be slightly worse as it cuts off detouring on one side. Often I find tree branches and brushes overhang the river edge. Still, I don't know enough to generalize about all possible conditions.

However, in steep terrain, small streams often cut gullies in which debris accumulates and go through a series of small waterfalls, which are essentially cliffs, and slippery ones at that, making hiking possibly harder.

Also while a river with a bed of solid stone, earth, gravel or bigger pebbles may make for good trekking, some rivers instead have a bed made out of bigger rocks that can be quite unstable and/or covered with algae. In that case, you need to consider the risk of twisting an ankle or taking a bad fall ending on a hard rock, especially if loaded with heavy packs. Similarly, falling into a deep river with a backpack can be extremely dangerous, as you can drown really easily. The West Coast Trail has had several fatalities on the low tide rock flats, where there are some small tidal channels to cross.

Last, riverbeds can become very dangerous if there is a sudden rise of water due to heavy rain upstream, possibly not even noticeable where you are. Or any other reason for this happening (such as dam releases - is there an upstream dam?). This is doubly so if you decide to camp in that area. Be aware of weather risks and be sure you could quickly gain higher ground if needed. Canyon-type terrain, where there are cliffs on either side of the river, can be quite dangerous and should, in my opinion, best be avoided.

River conditions, as noted, can vary. Plan on what you would do if the water level changed by your return trip. Carry a PLB rescue beacon.

(For reference I live in Vancouver, which is characterized by mountainous and broken terrain, lots of water and dense forests with thick underbrush. We have large seasonal variations in river levels. Even coastal forests are hard to walk through without trails. We also have a high frequency of outdoor accidents to hear about).

Edit: while it is hard to generalize about river hiking, informed locals or past hikers could make a reasonable guess whether a particular stretch of a specific river in a given time frame could be hiked or not (keeping in mind that the timing low/high water seasons will vary year to year). You could call park rangers or read trail reviews online, for example.

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    This pretty much matches my experience although water is limited around here. Wet watercourses are obstacles. Dry watercourses tend to be the best--if you're hitting dryfalls you would probably hit obstacles elsewhere. I have seen a total of one dryfall where there's another class 1 route and one other where you can get past on a class 2 route. Normally if there's a way around it's in the class 3 to 4 range. – Loren Pechtel May 31 at 4:29
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On rare occasions it can be easiest to walk in the river.

I had this happen to me on a trek in the Rocky Mountains up near Banff / Lake Louise. The valley next to the river was old-growth forest mixed with flooding debris and borderline impassable. After hardly making headway during one morning, and calculating the time it would take us to walk the needed distance in the valley we decided that a new option was required.

We first tried to follow the riverside, i.e. the sandbanks and gravel patches immediately next to the water. The issue here is that these patches tend to always occur on the inside of river turns - with the outside generally being the fast flowing water washing up (and digging into) a steep bank held together by roots. So if you have a meandering river the easy-to-walk sand or gravel ground will "switch sides" constantly.

In the end we just essentially walked in the river itself, which had a depth maybe up to knee-high at max and was not very fast flowing. We donned extra socks and fixed our rain pants over our hiking boots to give us some thermal isolation. Of course we were completely soaked up to about mid-thigh, but we made decent ground and were able to exit the valley in some 3 hours (that would have taken us 12+ hours easily trying to cross the forest and debris).

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    It should go without saying but it doesn't hurt to be explicit about it either: this can be extremely dangerous! If you do not know for a fact that the river is shallow and slow enough where you will be fording, never walk into it, lest you risk drowning or serious injury. – R. Barrett Jun 2 at 22:09
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Along the unregulated river, in the natural landscape, where the dominating formation is the forest? Usually it will be much worse.

First of all, expect the vegetation to be much more dense.

Second, natural rivers are not like regulated channels, they are wide, have many branches / gulfs going deep into the land. Expect a lot of wading, often through mud.

Third, in mountains, it's often a dead end road, ending with the rock wall. The valley might also get very narrow, and the bank very steep. However, mountain rivers, if not deep (water below knees) might be better to cross through. Just mind you might end up in the steep ravine ending with a waterfall, and there's a danger of sudden water level rising. It can really be dangerous!

The best reason to follow river beds is because of the orientation.

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On the plus side:

  • the river may be below its maximum, and have exposed dirt/rocks/pebbles
  • there may be less of whatever big trees/thick vegetation exist nearby but that don't like to be quite by the water

On the minus side:

  • there may be thick vegetation that likes water, which there isn't nearby
  • following the river is inherently longer than following a straight line
  • you will generally have fewer routing options, as one of the directions will be into water

Personally, I wouldn't generally imagine it to be quicker, although there might be other reasons to prefer walking by a river (scenery, access to drinking water, simple navigation, etc).

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As others said it's hard to generalize about.

One can ask why you want to hike faster.

If you're looking for help of human beings then walking near a river is probably a good idea. There are some chances that you'll meet someone before you reach your planned destination,less chances to get lost and you'll be more easily spotted than in a deep forest.

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