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Crossing a creek or shallow ford is a common occurrence when bushwalking. Typically:
- The water crossing is on a track or a well used route
- The water is shallow and the crossing looks easy.
- Group members cross independently.
What could possibly go wrong? “Easy” water crossings are the cause of slips and falls, and in some cases more serious injuries.
Some possible causes of injuries include:
- Stepping on unstable or slippery rocks either out of or just under the water.
- Stepping across slippery or unstable logs.
- Jumping across and landing badly.
- Falling while running across the stream attempting to minimise water getting into boots.
- Misjudging water depth.
- A firm and even-looking stream bed that isn’t firm or even.
All creek crossings should be treated with caution, especially if the group includes novices, less agile or less confident members, or children.
Crossing a creek safely
Stop and bring the group together.
Identify the best crossing point
- Current: Could it bowl someone over? A current moving no faster than walking pace is a useful guide.
- Depth: As a guide, no deeper than the knee height of the shortest person, but even that will be unsafe if the current is too strong.
- Stream bed: A visible and firm bottom free of snags, boulders or entrapment points.
- Entry and exit points: An exit point downstream of the entry point is ideal, where the crossing is not defined by a road or track.
- Downstream: What are consequences of someone losing their footing?
DO NOT CROSS IF:
- The water is discoloured, carrying debris or is turbulent.
- There are snags, cascades or foot entrapment points
- The banks are unstable.
- If there are dangers downstream (e.g. lack of access, cascades, thick scrub, fallen logs).
- The location is in northern Australia, where saltwater and freshwater crocodiles pose a significant risk. See Crocodiles.
Do not cross if there is any doubt that every member of the group can cross safely.
Prepare for the crossing
- Change into alternative footwear if carried, e.g. sandals or runners.
- Footwear must be worn, unless the creek has a sandy bottom where there is a low chance of a foot injury (e.g. runs across a sandy beach).
- Put any items on the outside of packs inside packs where possible (e.g. clothing items).
- Put items such as a mobile phone and camera in a waterproof stuff sack.
- Leave pack waist belt and sternum strap undone so it can be easily removed if necessary.
- Ensure walking poles are correctly adjusted and adjustment locks are firmly engaged. A suitable sturdy stick can also be used if available.
- Remind individuals to keep side-on to the current, take short steps and move slowly.
- A capable group member should cross first to confirm that the crossing is safe and to identify and assist at the exit point.
- Walking poles or a stout stick are very useful for maintaining balance, if available.
- Capable members can ferry packs across and return with walking poles for use by others.
- Two people can cross together with linked arms if a group member lacks confidence. This is essential for children.
- A capable group member should be the last one to cross.
The nature of the water crossing and the capabilities of the group will determine which of the above steps are necessary.