Water in the backcountry can be a curse or a blessing. While on a backpacking trip, finding a water source can mean lighter pack loads and the ability to stay longer in the field. On the flip side, a small stream can turn into a raging river following a rainstorm, which could mean the end of your journey into the mountains. Water, especially swift-moving water, can be the most frightening thing you face on your hunt. Anticipating the water you will encounter will help you be ready mentally and physically.
Over the years guiding hunters all over Alaska, both near freshwater and saltwater, I have explored many different options and solutions to keep myself dry in the field. I collected a few photos from recent hunts that I’ve been on for this article to help you think of the situations you may encounter on a future hunt so that you can be prepared.
CROCS, FLIP-FLOPS, BAREFOOT
My least favorite option. While it is important to keep your boots and socks dry so that you can continue your hike in comfort, the time it takes to remove your gaiters, boots, and socks and roll up your pants is usually more of a pain than it’s worth. Many hunters who prefer this method will bring a light pair of tennis shoes or crocs to give their cold feet some protection from the rocky river bottoms. If you plan on only needing to cross a stream once or twice on your hunt, this may make sense for you and will help clean off any smelly foot jam you have going on.
GAITERS + RAINGEAR + TAPE
Often, I hear hunters say that they have good gaiters and therefore can cross streams up to knee-height without any chance of getting wet. While this may be a good backup option, I personally try to plan on staying dry while crossing creeks on backpack hunts. I rarely carry more than one extra pair of socks, so I always try to take care of the pair I have on. If you find yourself without a good method to cross, I would recommend this method of crossing before going barefoot over the sharp shale and rocks hidden underneath the water’s surface. The best way is to put your raingear on under your gaiters, then replace the gaiters, cinch them up tight, and throw a tight buckle or strap of electrical tape around the top of your boot and another strap of it just below your knee. Don’t expect to be able to cross slowly with this method as water will undoubtedly find its way in the seams and eventually get to your pants.
Back in the day when I was assisting on Kodiak hunts, I opted for the overbootie option to keep me dry. I preferred to keep my hiking boots and hunting pants on all day and did not want to have to hike in the ever so common, yet uncomfortable, rubber hip boots. We found the Neos Overshoes option (aka Sourdough Slippers) and carried them with us on all our hunts. They were a little bulky but provided a quick solution that was easily thrown back and forth across the creek to another hunter, allowing one pair to be shared easily. To our dismay, Neos discontinued making their large brown overshoes and we were left to continue repairing our old pairs or explore other options.
Those who still use plastic Koflach boots while sheep hunting are accustomed to the glacier socks, a thin liner that would go between the inner soft bootie and the outer hard-shell plastic boots. They could easily be rolled up and down for stream crossings. However, in today’s day and age, I find very few Alaska hunters who wear plastic boots anymore. The modern leather type boots we have available are plenty for any mountain hunt you will go on in Alaska or the lower 48. The best solution I have found for an on-the- go overboot are the Wiggy’s Lightweight Waders. They are a lightweight solution at 11 oz. (pair) that can easily be put on over your boots, gaiters, and pants and rolled up to crotch height. They are thin and easily rolled up into a small pouch on your backpack. On recent hunts, I have asked that all of my sheep and goat hunters bring their own pair in their pack. A small repair kit to seal up tears or small holes is a good idea, and I recommend buying a new pair each season if you use them a lot. At $85 a pair, it’s worth it to stay dry and fresh each year.
Even if you are not planning on crossing rivers on your hunt, keep in mind that if you will be getting dropped off from a floatplane, having a set of Wiggy’s to throw on before exiting the plane can save you from having to begin your hike with saltwater in your dry hiking boots.
When you decide to go on a moose hunt, float hunt, or any hunt where you will be in and out of the bogs, marshes, and wet tundra, I’d recommend going with a pair of breathable waders with accompanying rubber-soled wading boots. When shopping for this option, you will find yourself in the fishing world and probably end up with a pair of Simms waders if you are willing to pay for a higher quality set. I usually prefer waist-height waders, but there is nothing wrong with chest-height waders either. Just think about how much deep water you will be crossing and how many days you will be spending wearing these lovely waders.
While crossing water may not be inherently dangerous, falling in freezing cold water and swimming downstream can easily become a life-threatening event. Always make sure to have good walking sticks for stability. I recommend having your backpack loose and unbuckled in case you do go for a swim. That way, you can easily ditch it to swim to the surface. Make sure to select a braided out part of the stream where it’s spread out wide and cross at an angle with the current. Do not try to force yourself into the current with each step.
When the situation makes sense, we have used rafts affixed to a rope pulley system to cross a river in the same spot each time. While this works for a base camp where you must cross a river each morning and evening, it does leave you high and dry, or wet and in danger, if you must cross back at a different point than where you left your boat. For a few hunts in the river country of the Rocky Mountains, I’ve used my “Walmart Special” dingy raft to paddle across a few rivers to access hunting areas. This is especially an interesting experience when you are loaded heavy in a raft that is worth 0.01% of your total hunting gear. Hang on tight, wear a life jacket, and say a prayer before you cross!