Glacier National Park Hiking Tip: How To Safely Ford Streams

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Glacier National Park Hiking Tip: How To Safely Ford Streams
My wife Shannon and I have spent a lifetime exploring and hiking Glacier National Park, and having hiked all of the maintained Glacier National Park Trails, and many of the trails that are not maintained, as well as the countless Glacier Park “climber’s trails” that are only known to climbing enthusiasts and not found on any map. With all of this hiking and climbing, we’ve had our share of river and stream crossings. Through the years, we’ve gained some valuable knowledge on how to safely ford a mountain river or stream- mainly through trial and error, and we’d like to share what we’ve learned with you.

Even though the Glacier National Park trail crews (which are among the best trail crews in the world) have built countless foot bridges and suspension bridges along the 735+ miles of maintained trails, there are many Glacier National Park Hikes that still require hikers to ford a stream or river. One example of a classic ford in Glacier National Park is the trailhead to the Nyack / Coal Creek Loop, or to Harrison Lake. Both of these Glacier National Park Hikes require that you cross the Middle Fork of the Flathead River. Now once you’re on the Nyack / Coal Creek Loop, there are also many stream fords throughout this entire 42 mile hike where the water is straight from glaciers, and are colder than you’ve ever imagined. These are just some examples of Glacier National Park Hikes that require that you ford a river or stream.

Number One Cause of Death In Glacier Park: Drowning
Fording a mountain stream in Glacier National Park can be extremely dangerous, especially if you are not familiar with “stream fording basics”. Drowning is the number one cause of death in Glacier National Park, so the following tips on stream fording may not only prove to be extremely helpful to you during your Glacier Park hiking adventure, but the following tips could actually save your life.

Narrower Is Not Better
Most of the best places to ford a stream or river in Glacier National Park is actually the WIDEST spot between the river banks rather than the most narrow spot along the river or stream. Narrow areas might be tempting to ford because the distance between the banks is less, therefore allowing you to spend less time in the cold water. But the problem with narrow areas, also known as “choke points”, is that there is an incredible amount of water flowing through these narrow areas. This means that you will be fighting a far swifter current with far more energy compared to a wide section of the river. Also, the depth of the water in these narrow “choke points” is usually deeper, which makes the fording process much more difficult and hazardous.

The most ideal place to cross a river or stream in Glacier National Park is typically a very wide section that is quite shallow. This is where there is the least amount of energy flowing down the river, making the crossing far more manageable and safer. Even though you’re be in the water longer, you’ll be in shallower water with far less current energy to contend with.

Trekking Poles
Trekking poles are a must while crossing a stream or river in Glacier National Park. They will help you maintain your balance as well as help keep your footing as you slowly and carefully walk across. We don’t go anywhere without our trekking poles, so we are never without them. If you don’t regularly hike with trekking poles, make sure you remember them before you attempt any of the Glacier National Park Hikes that require a stream crossing. Trekking poles will make your ford 10 times safer and 10 times less stressful.

River Sandals
Wearing the right footwear while crossing a river or stream during one of your Glacier National Park Hikes is also vitally important because you cannot afford to slip… not once. And we learned long ago that fording a river or stream with our hiking boots on is a really bad idea, that is unless you like hiking in wet feet the rest of the hike.

We prefer to be dry, which includes our feet, so what we like to wear are what we call “river sandals”. A “river sandal” is basically any sport sandal that has good tread on the soles, and has a stiff enough sole so the pebbles and rocks underneath the sandal don’t hurt your feet. And one of the most important features of “river sandals” is that they cannot slip off your feet during any situation. We wear Teva brand sandals with velcro straps and have for many years, but there are several good companies out there in the market that offer equally good products.

So we take off our boots, socks and pants and put on our sandals. We put our socks and pants inside our pack and tie our boots to the outside. If we know we have only one river or stream crossing, once we have forded the stream or river, we “hide” our sandals somewhere nearby where we forded the stream so we don’t have to carry these wet sandals the rest of the way. We hang them from a small tree and keep them out of sight from the trail. Then on our way back, our sandals are there waiting for us. We have yet to have a varmint or other animal chew on them before our return, but there is that possibility.

Cross In Your Underwear (Or Shorts)
My wife and I don’t hike with anyone else, so we are comfortable taking off our pants to cross a river or stream during our Glacier National Park Hikes. We also wear athletic underwear by Under Armor, so they basically look like biking shorts anyway, so if other hikers show up during our crossing, they won’t even notice that we are in our “underwear”. We stuff our pants and socks into our backpack, and tie our boots to the outside of the pack by their shoestrings. If you’d rather wear actual shorts while crossing, that’s fine too, other than it’s something extra to carry during your Glacier National Park hiking adventure.

Release Your Pack Straps
Before you attempt to cross a river or stream in Glacier National Park, make sure you release your backpack hip strap and chest strap. This is extremely important because if you don’t, and if your slip and fall into the current, then your backpack could potentially pull you under and you could drown. And don’t think that you can unstrap your pack as you are rolling down the river… things are happening too fast for you to be messing with straps. So please do not forget this important step!!!

And if you do end up slipping and rolling down a river, it’s better to lose the backpack than lose your life! So don’t risk it if you get into trouble.

River Depth
We refuse to cross a river that is deeper than just below our waist. We prefer fording rivers and streams where the water depth is just above the knee. We’ve crossed rivers that were waist deep, and it wasn’t easy. There was so much energy and force working against us that if we would have slipped, we would have been in deep trouble, or at the least we would have lost our backpacks. Plus, the water temperature was so cold that our thighs and hamstrings were beginning to stop functioning, and it became very difficult to move our legs at the tail end of the ford. So obviously, the shallower the crossing, the better!

Watch Out For “Strainers”
A “strainer” is a stationary pile of trees, branches and other debris that are jammed together on the surface of the river or stream, where the water is continuing to flow underneath it. Strainers are commonly found on the up-river end of an island, or where the river bends sharply. If you get swept underneath one of these strainers, you have a really high likelihood of drowning because once you’re underneath a strainer, it’s almost impossible to get out of it.

So when you are choosing a place to ford a river or stream during one of your Glacier National Park Hikes, look downstream and make sure there is not a strainer waiting there for you. If there is, find another place to cross.

Constant Change
The rivers and streams of Glacier National Park are constantly changing, even on a daily and hourly basis. One brief thunderstorm can change the depth of a river or stream dramatically, so keep this in mind as you are enjoying one of the many Glacier Park Hikes that involve fording a river. We’ve had this happen to us where the morning ford was super easy, and when we came back that evening, the stream had rose nearly 2 feet. The crossing was far more risky and difficult, and if the stream had raised any more before we got there, we would not have been able to cross. So pay attention to the weather, and keep in mind that if it’s raining, your river or stream is rising.

Snow and glacial melt also change the depth of a river or stream dramatically, especially during early summer. During the morning, there is less snow and ice melting, therefore the streams and rivers will be lower. But if it’s a warm or hot day and there is plenty of snow in the upper elevations, then by later afternoon that simple, gentle river you crossed in the morning might instead be a raging torrent by the time you need to cross it again on the way back. So keep in mind that Glacier National Park rivers and streams are constantly changing, even on a daily basis.

Don’t Rock Hop
Rock hopping across smaller streams can really end up ruining what was a great day. One slip on a rock, and you could either take out a knee, sprain or break an ankle, break an arm, or a number of other undesirable outcomes. Now “rock hopping” is different than stepping from rock to rock with the help of trekking poles. Rock hopping literally involves “leaping” from rock to rock. That’s where trouble can happen. Again, one slip on a wet rock (or wet soles), and you could really hurt yourself. So if you end up where you think you might get across a small stream by jumping from rock to rock, you are far better off taking the time to take off your boots, socks and pants, and walk across this small stream, even if you’re in bare feet.

Stay Calm, Don’t Hurry
One thing that you can’t help but notice while crossing rivers and large streams is that the water is really, really, really cold. In fact, some of the glacier fed streams, such as Nyack Creek, are so cold that by the time you’re close to the other side, your legs and feet will hurt so bad from the cold water that you don’t know how much more pain you can stand. When this happens, one tends to want to hurry to get out of this painful situation. This is the last thing you want to do because that’s when you’re most likely going to slip. So no matter how much it hurts, try to shut it out of your mind and keep walking very slowly, taking care with each step until you’ve made it safely to the other side.

Ask A Ranger
And before you hike any of the countless Glacier National Park Trails, and you’re not sure if it involves a river or stream ford, make sure you ask a ranger at one of the visitor centers or ranger stations. They will tell you if there are any stream fording required, and where the best places to ford these streams are located. For some of the most notorious crossings, such as on the Middle Fork of the Flathead River at the Nyack Trailhead, they will provide a map for you to take with you that shows you exactly where to cross.

Fording Rivers and Streams is one of those necessary evils on a fair number of Glacier National Park Hikes, and by following our advice that we’ve just shared with you, your fording experiences will be far less eventful, and far safer.

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