Updated: Apr 20
Any adventurous traveler or 4x4 driver will tell you that whether you’re on a 4x4 route or you’re in the middle of a hike, you’ll be fording a river at one point or another. For those of you who don’t know what “fording” a river means; a ford is what a shallow part of a stream or river is called.
That’s why we refer to crossing rivers as “fording” rivers. But fording rivers only relates to crossings on foot or in a car, not via boat or bridge. In this article, we’ll give you all the tips and tricks you’ll need to be able to cross rivers and streams safely, and, more importantly, have a great time doing it!
Fording a River via 4x4 (because crossing a river in a 2-wheel drive is not even an option!)
The following advice should get you to the other side:
If you’ve got your heart set on a campervan experience, don’t worry, there are plenty of 4x4 campervan options available. As long as you don’t attempt a river crossing in your Smart Car.
You need to ensure that your car has a water crossing cover on it, so the water doesn’t damage the radiator. Nor will it get into the car’s engine and other electrical components under the bonnet. There are a variety of options available on the market that some call a radiation blind, and we enjoy calling it a car bra.
Some even DIY a piece of tarp over it. But if you intend to do the latter, you better make sure that it’s tightly secured. Otherwise, you might get tarp in your engine and moving parts instead of water.
You’ll need breather extensions. If you don’t know whether you have them, take a quick look at your vehicle; does it have something that resembles the telescope of a submarine? If yes, then you’re covered. If not, you’ll need to contact a local workshop to purchase an add-on kit.
Always let your vehicle cool down before entering the water. Hot engine parts and components can suck water in past their seals.
You can also use this time to get a guestimate of what you’re dealing with. With clear water such as the Icelandic glacier water, you can easily figure out how deep the water is. It'll be easy to see whether there are any sharp rocks, etc. at the bottom.
With murky water, it will be necessary to walk in. Just remember that safety always comes first. Be careful and immediately get out if you feel the stream starts tugging too hard or the water seems to be much deeper than anticipated.
If your car has lockers, now is the time to engage, since you’ll need as much traction as possible.
Get into the right gear. You don’t want to start changing gears in the middle of a river. The gear that usually works best is the low-range second gear.
Keep a consistent speed. This is not the time to slow down ‘till you find the car stalled in the middle of the river. Nor to speed up and start slipping or have water splash into places it shouldn’t be.
Avoid spinning the wheels and stalling the car at all cost.
If the vehicle has stalled, do not restart if you believe that the engine has taken in water (someone will need to tow you out).
After crossing the river, you’ll need to stop for a bit. This is so most of the water can drain out of your car, which will minimize track damage in the long run.
Once you’ve reached home or your accommodation for the night, just take a quick peek underneath the hood to make sure there’s no water stuck anywhere. Especially in the fuse boxes and other electrical components. Also, check your diff oil.
Fording a River on Foot
The following advice should get you to the other side:
Do a little test walk first to see how deep the water is and how strong the current is. If it’s deeper than knee-length, or you can feel the tug of the stream is too strong, you’ll need to find another place to cross.
Another way of testing this in murky waters where you’re not too keen to enter is by throwing a rock into the current. A hollow “ker-plop” is a warning sign for depth and if you can hear/see the rock rolling downstream, the current will be too strong for you to deal with.
If the water is too deep, or too strong, or there are other obstacles close by such as fallen trees or waterfalls, scout another place to cross, but always downstream.
It may feel counterintuitive, but you want to cross the wider sections of a river. Narrow parts are usually deeper and fast-moving.
If you intend to cross some of the glacier rivers here in Iceland, do so early in the morning. The afternoons usually come with higher volumes of water due to melting.
Cross the river by facing upstream, but heading downstream. In other words, you’ll be crossing at an angle and not straight across. Also, use trekking poles to probe the bottom of the river and keep yourself steady.
If the crossing is particularly challenging, you can cross as a group by interlocking your arms. Everyone needs to be facing in and then shuffle across. Please note that we said this works well if a crossing is challenging, not outright treacherous and dangerous.
Take your time. You’re not in a race, and safety is your top priority.
It might be easier said than done, but if you fall, don’t panic. If you feel like your pack is weighing you down, take it off. And if you’re taken by the current, try to flip on your back with your feet downstream. As soon as you reach calmer waters, you can make a swim for the shore.
After crossing, do a quick self-check. Especially if you’ve crossed where there are obstacles in the water or there’s a chance of some creepy crawlies in the water. Luckily, in Iceland, the latter is not one of our concerns. Make sure you don’t have any cuts and that you’re leach-and-bug-free.
Fording a River: Your Safety and Not Your Destination is the Ultimate Goal
It’s easy to get swept up (pun intended) in the excitement of a river crossing. And when we’re facing some time constraints such as decreased daylight hours in Iceland, we’ll often take on a too-challenging cross we would’ve avoided if we had more time to look for another spot.
Or we’ll start doing things too hastily and take shortcuts, which puts our safety at risk. Always, remember that the ultimate goal when it comes to forging rivers is not reaching your destination, it is your safety.