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River Crossing

All rivers in Alaska can pose challenges to both beginners and experienced backpackers. Unlike most places in the US, Alaska doe not have a lot of civilization. You might find yourself without a of trail, bridge, campsite, or an outhouse at times. Travelers are often forced to use trails that cross bodies of water without a man-made bridge. Glaciers, groundwater, and precipitation feed each river’s hunger and cause dangerously cold water temperatures. Cold immersion, the initial cold shock your body feels and the tightening of muscles, can quickly lead to hypothermia. Even a very shallow, swiftly flowing body of water can pack enough force to endanger the unwary.

If in doubt as to whether a river is safe to cross, find an alternate route.

Hiking a gravel bar
NPS Photo Josh Spice
In Alaska, river crossing is just a part of backcountry travel. River beds are usually the way to travel in the back country for these main reasons:
  • Solid and stable
  • Brush-free walking for miles
  • Usually the fastest route, if you can deal with wet feet.
  • Excellent visibility for bear safety and navigation. 
Before you cross a river, you should use these important tips to prepare yourself for the crossing:
  • have a dry place for important belongings
    • firestarter
    • warm clothes
    • A sleeping bag, if camping
  • rivers can change drastically in a very short period of time
    • frequently changing rain patterns
  • traveling during the morning or evening hours might be your best option
    • glacial rivers rise during high tempuratures
      • afternoon and early hours. 
When you are looking for a place to cross, you should always remember these important tips
  • assess the force and volume of the water flowing
    • this can potentially save you from an injury or death. 
  • Clarity of the water
    • this can show both the depth of the river and if there's a risk of an obstacle 
  • steepness of the banks and thickness of the vegitation
    • can potentially make entering or exiting the river difficult.
  • Choose an area that is wide and shallow to reduce the force of the water on your body. 
  • look at the currents and cross at the calmest section
    • the current will be in a straight line in the water
  • determine a rescue plan and potential take out point.
  • NEVER attempt to cross above rapids or falls.

Scouting the Fortymile River
Bill Edwards
When you are crossing a river, remember these important tips about your gear:
  • If you are only crossing one river on your trip, keep your socks on.
  • If you are crossing more than one river on your trip, take your socks off
    • put your socks on after the crossing and your feet will be dry for the rest of your trip. 
  • Always wear footwear to protect your feet from injury and help with stability.
  • Wear non-waterproof hiking shoes so that your feet can breathe after you cross.
  • Unbuckle your backpack's waist belt in case of a fall. 
    • a backpack can make it very difficult to swim across the river. 

When you are crossing a river, remember these important techniques to help you cross safely:

  • Trekking poles or a staff is great for stability in a river
  • If you are with someone else, link arms or hold onto one another's backpacks while in a line.
  • Take short, solid steps in unison
  • The strongest person should be in the front.
  • Be cautious of drop offs, holes or eddies.
    • eddies can be seen by water flowing against the current
  • If you encounter a soft bottom there is likely a large hole ahead. 
    • retrace your steps and change routes
  • Use everything you can as a learning experience

Most importantly, above all else...
If you are not comfortable with crossing a river for any reason, DO NOT CROSS.
It could save your life.

For more information about river crossings, check out our brochures page.

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