Recently I had been to a hike where I had to cross quite a large stream. And I am not so good at swimming either. So after judging the possible depth, I could figure out that I can get across swimming through it. For safety reasons considering a not-so-good kind of guy with me, I picked the shallowest part of the stream. The disadvantage was: The currents were stronger at shallow waters.

So, we had struggle a bit to cross it at first place, and then had to further make our way through slippery rocks of the gorge as we moved ahead with current than we first had anticipated.

  1. When trekking in a group, what is the most efficient way to cross the streams with strong current (If we can't avoid crossing it)?
  2. How to swim through rapid flows in a particular direction?
  • River current is the most dangerous place I know to swim (except open ocean, but there is no reason you find yourself swimming in open ocean on a hike). While hiking, never try it without absolute necessity, and proper gear (rope, PFD, helmet, shoes). Current is always stronger and faster than you. You may try to cross if you have water under your waist, probing the bottom of the stream with a pole to avoid a (deadly) fall
    – Cailloumax
    Commented Jul 31, 2019 at 9:01

5 Answers 5


I would avoid swimming across if possible. For fording the stream, find a wide and shallow section. If you have a group of people, interlock arms and walk across together with the line of the group being parallel to the stream. This gives each person stability up/down stream, which is the direction you are more likely to fall due to the push of the water.

To cross alone, use a long pole that you can stick into the ground downstream from you. You and the pole become a triangle such that you can lean on the pole to offset the downstream push of the water. Move only one of your feet or the pole at one time.

That all said, sometimes you can't cross. Many years ago, I was on the North Cascades and had gotten dropped off at a trailhead. The plan was to hike over a mountain range and back to camp on the other side, something like 10-12 miles if I remember right. There was a sign near the trailhead saying that the "Panther Creek bridge was out". It was a nice summer day, so I figured I'll just get a bit wet. When I got to Panther Creek, I found it was a lot more than what we call a "creek" around here. It was a swift flowing small river, probably 5 feet deep or so in the middle and maybe 50 feet across. I tried to ford it, but it got too dangerous, and I could see once I got swept off my feet I'd be carried quite a ways downstream before I could eventually make it to one bank or the other and grab hold of something. It was a long walk back to camp along the road.

As a side note, on the long hike back to camp along the road, there were several scenic turnouts. At one such turnout a crowd of people had gathered around a car. When I got closer, I could see they were all listening to the radio in that car, which had been turned up loudly for the purpose. I got there just in time to hear the voice of Richard Nixon say "is abhorrent to every instinct in my body". Yes, it was late afternoon (in Washington state) on 8 August 1974.


From my experiences with white water rafting, It is actually far safer to cross at a deep point where the current will be slower even if you are with someone who is not a particularly strong swimmer. You never want to be able to place your feet down for the risk that a foot will get stuck and the current will force you under. The water is strong enough that even if you are wearing a PFD, you may drown only inches from the surface. The best advice I can give you is to plan ahead to bring PFD's and know where you will be crossing.

  • ^^ This. I once witnessed a drowning in a mere 2 feet of swift water despite the efforts of trained rescuers by exactly the means you describe. Foot slips into a hole, water knocks you down and holds you down, which pins your foot in that hole. Game over. Commented Jul 2, 2016 at 1:48

The first step is to make doubly sure there isn't already a bridge, or a common place people already cross at. No sense in getting wet or risking anything if there is an easier, or proper crossing, a few hundred yards up or downstream.

The other first step is to make sure you are all safe when you cross. Bring a strong rope that is long enough to span the river, or to at least span to a spot midway where you can take a break. A hundred foot rope strong enough for this purpose should be fine for most typical back country adventures. You can then tie the rope securely to the first person crossing, and hang on to that as a safety device in case the crosser wipes out and loses control. Learn the proper techniques for the ad-hoc harness. The rope also comes in very handy in hauling backpacks or other gear across the river. Once someone makes it across.

If the river is not violent, and the danger of falling in is simply that you get wet, have to swim to the other side, then bushwhack through some dense mosquito infested brush to get back to the trail, then you should not use the rope. Use the rope where the danger of falling into the drink is very serious, e.g. a waterfall is not far ahead.

As for where to cross, I disagree with Aaron's answer to target a deeper spot. Shallower is better*. Deeper being slower depends on the width of the stream being constant, which isn't always true. Additionally, the force you feel in a deeper section will be greater, and will be higher up on your body, making it more difficult for you to balance. If it's shallower, and you can see the bottom, you're pretty much in the clear as long as you don't rush yourself.

When you cross, walk across, slowly and carefully. Contrary to Aaron's answer, don't swim across, walk. You can put your feet down. However, the dangers of getting a foot stuck, as he mentions, are very real and very serious. If you maintain your balance as you walk across, you will be fine.

If you lose your balance, immediately pull your feet up, and position yourself flat on your back with your feet in front of you, up high. If the river is violent, your friends can haul you in using the rope. If the river is gentle but strong, then float down in the described position, and paddle yourself to one side or the other, and get out. There is no real technique as far as I am aware, just doggy paddle. Resist the temptation to try and put your feet down to stop you from floating downriver. If the river is deep and fast-moving enough to make this whole ordeal concerning, it is fast enough that if your foot gets stuck you will not be coming back up alive.

Afterwards, collect all your gear, dry yourself off, and continue onward.

*This answer based on the assumption that the river is not very deep, and where 'shallow' is not any deeper than waist height.

  • 6
    I'd strongly disagree with tying into the rope; if the person wipes out he could easily be trapped underwater. Holding a loop of rope by hand or tying the rope to a pack allows quick release in an emergency. (Speaking of which, the hipbelt and sternum straps should also by unfastened for the crossing.)
    – requiem
    Commented Jun 5, 2014 at 5:06
  • If the rope spans the river, use that to transport the bags, don't carry them.
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 18:59

Crossing a stream in a group

Each participant will bring their own rope to the trip if such a crossing is anticipated.

First picture: #1 will tie the rope around him. Strongest will cross first. #2 and #3 will not be tied to the rope but they'll simply handle the rope and prevents the crossing person from washing away downstream.

Second picture: When #1 reaches the other side, #1 detaches himself from the rope. #2 attaches himself and crosses the stream.

Third pricture: When #2 has reached the other side, #2 detaches himself, #3 attaches himself and crosses the stream.

Stream crossing strategy


Practice swimming at a local pool regularly, so that you know your capacity, strength, endurance, and technique.

If you swim across a river, you can swim diagonal to the current in an attempt to offset the push downstream. A big part of swimming across rivers is psychological: accept that you are going to go downstream to some extent, no matter how strong a swimmer you are, and if you surrender to this fact the whole experience is much more relaxed.

  • 1
    As someone who wins regularly in a pool and occasionally in white water, the pool swimming keeps your strength up but is poor training for actually swimming in moving water - nothing beats actual training in a suitable place under the right supervision (for example on a white water safety and rescue course l
    – Chris H
    Commented Apr 21, 2017 at 19:02
  • 2
    I've always read that you should never waste energy swimming diagonal. Instead, start well upstream from where you want to land, and swim straight across, letting the current carry you downstream toward your landing point. As you stated, @Milarepa, "accept that you are going to go downstream".
    – 243DRob
    Commented Apr 25, 2017 at 16:40

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.