In high-use areas, you are likely to find a nice little bridge to help you cross a stream, but the farther you advance into the backcountry, the more likely it is you’re going to have to cross a stream using your own initiative. I’ve crossed streams on logs and stepping stones, in ankle-deep and waist-deep water, and all very safely. I’ve also crossed streams during and just after rainstorms when they become very dangerous.
Following an amazing thunderstorm and torrential downpour, we came upon a stream in the throes of a flash flood. The stream was neither very wide (about six feet) nor very deep (thigh deep on a man, waist deep on me), but it was moving very rapidly and carrying all sorts of debris in its wake.
Although there was a log, which under normal circumstances might have made a nice bridge, it was too slick at this point to cross over standing up. We walked up and down the stream looking for another option. There was none. The place we had intended to camp was under several inches of water and we had just passed a tree that had been struck and knocked over by lightning. We were soaked and our only thought was to get to higher ground and a road.
We tried crossing the log sitting down but the current tried to pull our dangling legs beneath the log. Our only option was to cross the stream using the downed tree as a brace. Frank made it across successfully, and I was within arm’s reach of Frank when I lost my footing and my right leg was pulled painfully beneath the log.
With Frank grasping my arm, I was off balance and unable to regain my footing. I was slowly slipping beneath the log. He finally, reluctantly, let go. Using both arms to hold onto the tree, I was able to pull my leg loose, and Frank quickly pulled me out of the water.
All of this happened within seconds. I neither had the time to remove my pack nor harness myself with rope, which I should have done earlier in this very dangerous situation. I was lucky. Many are not. Accidents at streams kill numerous hikers each year.
If there is neither a dry log nor stepping stones, you must think carefully before crossing any stream. Take a good look at it. How fast is the current? How deep is it? If it is deeper than about 18 inches, be especially careful. I’ve been knocked off my feet in knee-deep water. Using a rope will not prevent you from falling but it may help you in the rescue if you do fall. Never tie a rope to your body as this could create an even more dangerous situation. Keep these factors in mind when looking for a place to cross: