While most good trails have good crossings (i.e. shallow fords or footbridges), some do not. There is an art to hiking across streams.
Wilderness trails sometimes present challenging stream crossings. Rapid snowmelt or a sudden rainstorm can make a tame stream treacherous. Whitewater kills; even fairly shallow fast-moving water can knock you down and hold you under. And don’t even think about crossing streams above waterfalls!
Discretion is indeed the better part of valor. If a stream looks too dangerous to cross, it probably is. Retreat and come back another day.
Crossing to Safety
• Reconnaissance is well worthwhile. A trail might not cross a waterway at the very best place. Survey the scene up and downstream.
• If possible, cross a mountain stream early in the morning when the flow is lowest. (Snow melts slower during the night than during the day.)
• Cross at the widest (usually the most shallow) part of the stream. Look for a flat water section below a wide bend.
• Cross at an angle (downstream is usually best) because heading straight across exposes you to the full force of the current.
• Given a selection, choose a sandy bottom over slippery rocks for your way across.
• Use a hiking stick as a third means of support (third and fourth leg if you’re using two trekking poles). If you hike without one, search for a suitable makeshift stick along the stream bank.
• Loosen your shoulder straps and unfasten your pack’s waist band. You must be able to wriggle out of your pack if you take a tumble; your pack could trap you in—or under—water.
• Step slowly and cautiously. Securely plant your front foot before moving the trailing one.
• Keep your boots on to protect your feet and maximize your footing. Bare feet are okay for crossing wimpy watercourses with sand bottoms.
• If you’re hiking a trail with lots of stream crossings, employ alternative footwear such as lace-up or slip-on trail shoes or amphibious sports sandals designed for very wet conditions.