Timber Wolf, Lake Superior, Ontario

A lone timber wolf greets
paddlers along the north shore
of Lake Superior, Canada
(Photo by Michael Neiger)

The Rucksack Masthead
By Michael A. Neiger, Marquette, Michigan
Wilderness tripper: backpacking, winter camping, swift-water canoeing
Web site URL: http://therucksack.tripod.com • E-mail: mneiger@hotmail.com
Contents copyright © 1984-2007 by Michael A. Neiger • All rights reserved.


Mary Powell of Flint and Gail Bosio of Midland ford the East Branch of the Black River in Montmorency County

Mary Powell of Flint
and Gail Staisil of Midland
ford the East Branch of the
Black River at a snow-covered,
washed-out, railroad bridge
on a CUPG wilderness trip
in Montmorency County, April '02.
(Photo by Mary Powell)


Bush skills

A RuckSack primer on...

How to ford
or swim a
wilderness river

By Michael A. Neiger
Copyright 2002

Last updated on October 13, 2004

Have you ever arrived a remote spot along a river and wondered what lay beyond the opposite bank? Maybe a secluded ridge dotted with old growth. Perhaps a hidden cave.

Have you wondered what it would be like to bivouac on island just offshore? Or, has a steep cliff ever stopped you cold on a remote shoreline?

If the lure of the less-traveled side of a waterway has you hooked, it may be time to cross over and check it out.



Crossing rivers and waterways, especially those with cold, deep water or swiftly flowing current, can be very challenging and dangerous for even the most experienced wilderness tripper. In "The Backpacker's Field Manual," author Rick Curtis notes, "More backpackers are killed in stream crossings than die from snakebites." Be careful and err on the side of caution. Always wear a personal floatation device.


Scout out a safe fording point

In selecting a spot to cross a river, look for a slow-flowing, obstruction-free section. Wide, relatively straight sections are generally shallower and less swift than narrow areas and sharp bends. Check the opposite bank to make sure it will be easy to clamber up.

To learn more about the character of a river's current, like where you might end up if you loose your balance and get swept away, toss a stick into the river and watch where the current takes it. Rocks can be thrown into the current to help differentiate between shallow and deep areas.

Avoid wading across swift-water areas that reach above your knee, as foot entrapment and subsequent drowning is a real hazard in strong current. Likewise, never attempt crossing a river in flood stage or that's strewn with logs, slabs of ice, and other floating debris.

If there is any doubt about your ability to safely negotiate a crossing in the location at-hand, don't try it. Instead, thoroughly scout upstream and downstream for a manmade bridge, natural bridge, or a safer fording area. Study a topographic map for a more promising spot. Look for placid, meandering sections where the contour lines are spread out, indicating a low gradient. Places where the river spreads or divides into several smaller, less challenging channels are also good areas to look for.


Check for hazards just downstream

Once a suitable area is found, check for hazards downstream from the crossing point in case you get into trouble. Avoid crossing just upstream of

  • bends in the river
  • waterfalls
  • dams
  • violent rapids
  • log jams
  • sweepers (overhanging trees)
  • strainers (submerged logs, exposed roots, brush, and vegetation)
  • cliffs
  • undercut banks
  • dangerous hydraulics (boiling souseholes or recirculating current holes that hold onto swimmers, sometimes underwater)
  • fences (across the river)
  • old bridge pilings
  • standing waves (unlike lake waves that move, standing river waves or haystacks don't move and indicate deep water)

It's also a good idea to locate secondary landing areas as well as points where spotters can stand by with ropes or long poles in case a rescue is necessary. Calm pools of water and long, shallow stretches make good wash-out areas.


Dress properly

Loose or baggy clothing--especially bloused pants and tucked-in shirts--trap w water, create a lot of resistance, and are very difficult to swim in. Cross in shorts or a tight-fitting layer of polypro underwear. Whatever you end up wearing, opt for quick-drying synthetic layers over deadly cotton ones.

Always wear some form of footwear for ankle support, traction, and to protect your feet from underwater debris such as sharp sticks, fishhooks, broken glass, pieces of metal, barbed wire, etc. Tennis shoes, Nike Aqua Socks, and strapped sport sandals work well.

When you reach the opposite bank, be prepared to dry off, change into dry clothing, consume some snacks, and start moving as soon as possible to warm up. A lightweight, but highly absorbent "pack towel" is handy for drying off.


Wear a PFD

Unless you're wearing a personal floatation device (PFD), swim well, and are knowledgeable about swift-water safety, don't attempt to cross anything but the calmest and shallowest of creeks.


Watch for hypothermia

Hypothermia, caused by exposure to cold water and/or air temperatures, is a hazard of river fording. Learn to avoid, recognize, and treat it. It's early warning signs include:

  • slurred speech
  • confused thinking
  • shivering, fatigue
  • poor coordination


Use a walking stick for support

A couple of walking sticks or a long pole can be used on the upstream side to create a stable, three- or four-point stance when crossing. Equally weight both feet and the supports, moving only one contact point at a time for maximum stability. Jane Beckwith fords the Pigeon River

Jane Beckwith of East Lansing
uses two improvised walking sticks
to ford the Pigeon River
on an early May '02
CUP Group trip.
(Photo by Mary Powell)

To use a balance pole, rest one end of the pole against your shoulder and angle the business end out into the current. To maintain control of the pole, grasp it with one hand placed up high, near your shoulder, and the other hand down low, near the water. This same pole is also very handy for probing the river bottom for hidden hazards such as

  • logs
  • exposed roots
  • rocks
  • quick-sand-like areas (also known as loon shit)
  • drop-offs


Face upstream & slide feet along bottom

By facing upstream, or at least up-current, you'll be able to read the current as well as prevent the force of the water from buckling your legs at the knees. Movement should be slow, deliberate, and methodical, like a crab. Check your footing as you go and walk with a wide, flat gait as you lean into the current.

Always force your legs through the water in short shuffle-like steps instead of lifting them up and out of the river each time. Sliding or scooting your feet along will reduce the chance of foot entrapment. It'll also prevent shifting current forces from upsetting you each time you move a foot in and out of the current.

Generally, it's best to cross at a slight angle to the current, either up-current or down-current. Crossing current at a right angle is not recommended for maximum stability. Whatever you do, keep moving while in the current to maximize your balance and control.

On longer fords, look for places to rest, such as the slack water or "eddies" located on the downstream side of boulders. Mid-stream gravel bars, sandbars, and islands work well too.


Cross with a partner

A partner or two can make river fording easier since the lead or upstream person breaks the current while the others provide support. Groups can form into a number of secure and stable formations. A straight line or "chain" formation is very common. Other huddle-like formations include the triangle, circle, and wedge.

Group formations can be strengthened if the members lock arms, clasp hands, or grasp onto each other's clothing or backpack. Having everyone grasp a very long pole at chest level is another option. Whether a group forms up side-by-side or facing each other, the force of the current can be minimized if the formation stays parallel to current, not perpendicular to it.


Avoid slippery logs & boulders

Sometimes it's safest to simply get your feet wet and wade across a river instead of trying to stay high and dry on a slippery log or a series of unstable, slimy rocks. If you elect to cross on logs or rocks, a walking stick can reduce the chance of a slip and fall. A handful of fine gravel or sand can be spinkled on a slippery surface too.


Waterproof your gear

Depending on the load, a properly waterproofed rucksack may float very well. Double bag critical gear with large, heavy-duty plastic bags, twisted and knotted shut. For deepwater, swimming-type crossings, you can improve the buoyancy and waterproofness of a rucksack by securing a plastic or nylon tarp around it.


Loosen rucksack straps

If you're going to wear a rucksack during a crossing, always loosen the shoulder straps and undo the waist belt and sternum straps so you can jettison it quickly if you get into trouble. Avoid carrying anything in your hands, other than a walking stick, as you'll need to be able to swing your arms to maintain or regain your balance.


Plan for problems

If you get into trouble and end up swimming, immediately jettison your rucksack and use it for floatation while working your way to shore.

In rocky rapids, float on your back with your feet pointed downstream and near the surface so you can both avoid foot entrapment and fend off rocks. If you're bearing down on a logjam or strainer, reverse your position in the water and approach it hands-first, on your stomach, so you can immediately clamber up on top of the deadly mess. You must act quickly to prevent the current from entrapping you beneath the deadly sieve.


Rope-assisted crossings

In certain situations, a rope can be rigged from bank to bank as taut hand-line or "rail." To reduce the chance of entanglement, use floating rope and always work your way across the river along the downstream side of the line. Never, ever, tie a rope to yourself as the force of the current will hold you underwater and drown you in certain situations if you loose your footing.


Swimming-type crossings of deep water

If you're an experienced swimmer wearing a PFD, swimming with a floating rucksack in tow or in front of you may allow you to cross waterways that are too deep for traditional fording. Not only will this technique get you across deep-water rivers or out of river fords gone bad, it'll also allow you to reach isolated islands and cross narrows in lakes. Michael Neiger swims a lake narrows with his pack, using his closed-cell foam pad as an improvised PFD

Michael Neiger
swims a lake narrows
on Drummond Island's
Pine Lake during a July '02
CUPG trip.
His rucksack is waterproofed
with a silicone nylon tarp
and he's improvised a PFD
from his closed-cell
foam sleeping pad.
(Photo by Rick Szumski)

A good way to make a rucksack more waterproof and buoyant--after double-bagging critical contents such as food, sleeping bag, and clothing in heavy-duty plastic bags--is to lay the rucksack on a nylon tarp or piece of clear plastic. Next, wrap the material up around the rucksack, gathering and tightly twisting the surplus edge material together, before securing it with a piece of rope.

Another alternative is to construct a raft by lashing logs together. It keeps the packs out of the water and affords swimmers a place to rest, rehydrate, and snack during longer crossings.Michael Neiger emerges from a Lake Superior after a 1300 meter swim along a trailless section of coastline

Michael Neiger,
Mary Powell of Flint (not shown),
and Sue Schenk-Drobny
of Marquette (not shown)
used this raft constructed of
dried beaver timbers lashed
together to get around a
1300-meter-long section of
trailless, rocky, Lake
Superior shoreline in Canada
on an Aug '02 CUPG trip.
Note use of outrigger to stabilize raft.
(Photo by Mary Powell)

Since the rucksack loads vary, experiment with your floating pack system before a trip to make sure it floats properly. If the danger of entanglement is not an issue in flat-water situations, a short tether can be used to maintain control of a floating rucksack.


A stream, lake narrows, or other waterway without a manmade bridge does not have to be the end of your journey. In fact, it could be the start of a whole new one. By learning when and how to safely ford or swim a wilderness waterway, you may be able to reach some less-traveled backcountry.

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In God's wilderness lies the hope of the world,
the great, fresh, unblighted, unredeemed wilderness.
— John Muir 1838-1914, Alaska Wilderness, 1890

Content Copyright © by Michael A. Neiger
All rights reserved.
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