River Crossings

On the Landmannalaugar To Thorsmork trail there are apparently many small crossings of watercourses. But there are also a couple of larger ones including one that may require waiting for a friendly vehicle if the bridge has washed out again.

I’ve never done anything much in the way of serious river crossings having always managed to avoid them outside of an ML course.

So for the last year or more I’ve been soaking up any knowledge I came across on the subject and thought I’d put it up here. If anyone has more to add I’d love to hear it.

The one thing that I do remember from my own experience becomes quickly and intuitively obvious; always aim for a point upstream of your entry point since that way the water is hitting your knees from the front. If it is catching them from behind it will tend to make them buckle.

But I only remembered that once I read the excellent Backpacker’s Handbook by Chris Townsend. Chris also mentioned Iceland specifically as an example of a trip where his route changed completely due to high water levels in rivers!

He advises stripping-off down to shorts and t-shirt where practical and putting your clothes in a waterproof bag. Zip off trousers are a good idea here unless, like us, you’re planning to take swimming kit for the hot pools (hmmm, maybe I should just use the zip-offs…).

It’s usually best to cross in a huddle, or in a sort of “conga line” with the strongest at the front, and preferably carrying a stick for support.

Also, find the widest spot as that will be shallowest and slowest. Don’t cross any white water!

The way you carry your rucksack is critical. Hip belt and chest strap must be undone or else they could hold you under, with the bag floating on-top of you. People have drowned in just that way.

Opinions vary on whether to also take off one shoulder strap. Chris advises keeping both on. I’d definitely use both since it would give far more load stability. The last thing you want is to instinctively move to balance a wayward pack and have that movement itself throw you off balance.

He also advises that since you’ll probably be cold on the other side, have some high carbohydrate (very sugary) snack ready since carbs are the quickest way to sort out hypothermia.

Crossing in bare feet is highly inadvisable. Stones and freezing-cold water make for an incredibly painful combination especially with the weight of a pack. As we found out a couple of years ago in the very far north of Sweden (I must post something on that one day…). It may also mean that you cannot feel that you are shredding your feet on sharp rocks.

One option is to take light shoes of some kind specifically for crossing and camp/hut use. Lighthiker, as ever, has come up with some very good options there. But with the amount of food we’ll be carrying, we don’t want to carry extra footwear. So we’ve decided to use Inov8 Terrocs only. Probably remove socks before crossing, possibly replacing with Sealskinz afterwards.

Of course the final option, other than turning back and trying another route, is to simply wait and let the waters subside. This can happen surprisingly soon after heavy rain and will scupper your itinerary less than a watery grave!

8 Replies to “River Crossings”

  1. I’ve always been a one-shoulder-strap-off man, but I think you’re right about it being a personal preference – and probably very dependent on the weight you are carrying.

    One thing I have found though is that if you are using a pole for balance, it is much better to step with the lead leg, move the pole, then follow with the other leg (rather than what a lot of people do, which is move the pole then step towards it one leg at a time). Again, this may be one of those personal prefence things, but I’ve found this better for keeping your centre of gravity balanced..

  2. Good advice there – I always rated that book by Chris Townsend and rated it 5 out 5 on BPL. It is the how to backpack book to have and glad you like it. looks wild walking there – you sure do walk in some wonderfull places.

  3. Thanks Chris. It’s impossible to be sure without trying it but that does sound like it would provide more balance. Moving the stick out first means you would need to lean out onto it… and if it was on something loose.

    Whereas stepping first means you rely more on your feet – far more feedback from them.

    Thanks that’s worth knowing.

  4. Martin – I’ve must get hold of Chris’ The Advanced Backpacker

    If the Backpacker’s Handbook is anything to go by it’s going to be well worth the read.

    The picture above was taken a little off the beaten track on the Kungsleden in the far North of Sweden. The Kungsleden is very easy but our variations provided some of the more “interesting” days I’ve had in the mountains. But that’s another story all together. :)

  5. This is such good advice!

    I was amazed on my first cold-water river crossing by just how powerful the flow was, even when it was only up to my knees. It could easily have knocked me over, even though I had poles. And the ability of freezing water to sap energy really has to be experienced to be appreciated.

    Exciting stuff :)

  6. Peewiglet – agree fully on the astonishing ability of cold water to sap your strength and just plain hurt. Even crossing those very shallow glacial melt streams had me hoping about in pain on the other side…

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