mountain biker walking through stream

Whether you’ll be mixing it up in XC races, or just exploring the vast backcountry trails, you have to know how to ride a stream crossing.

If you’re racing, you need to be able to stay on your bike and ride through smoothly, or you’ll waste precious time. If you’re out for an epic ride, you need to be able to navigate the stream crossing without falling in. (Getting drenched isn’t much fun.)

There are two types of stream crossings. Streams on level ground, and streams in valleys.

Here’s how to conquer both:

How to Ride Streams on Level Ground

If the stream is on level ground, you are only going up against two dangers – the water itself, and slick rocks hiding underneath.

The water itself isn’t going to do much but slow you down. It’s easier than mud or sand!

Riding Slowly

At a slow to moderate pace, you can simply stay seated and ride through the water.

When faced with longer, sustained streams, you may choose to enter at a moderate pace you can sustain for the entire crossing, and stay seated to pedal across.

With Speed

During a race, there’s a good chance you’ll be moving quickly, so you’ll be hitting the stream at speed.

With shorter, shallower streams, you can definitely gun it across.

The first thing you want to do is get in the attack position. You need to keep your weight back and stay light on the front wheel, especially if you can’t see the rocks clearly. (You definitely don’t want to get stuck in a rut and flip over your front wheel.)

Stay centered over the bike and use your momentum to carry you through. Try to stay pointed in a straight line.

How to Ride Streams in Small Valleys

These stream crossings require you to bring all your technical skills together!

Not only do you have to cross through water, you have steep hills to deal with. Generally you’ll have a steep downhill dropping you into the water, then you cross the water, and finally you climb a steep uphill.

You will approach this in the attack position.

As you progress through, adjust your body angle to the contours of the terrain, making use of the techniques used for climbing and descending steep stuff.

And as always, look where you want to go.

The water is actually the easiest obstacle here. Just remember that the water is going to slow you down, so you might need to carry extra speed on the downhill, or plan to pedal a little harder on the uphill (compared to a dry valley you could roll through.)

The Dangers of Water Crossings

If you find a stream crossing on an XC race course, it’s probably meant for you to ride it. I can only remember one race course where I had to cross a stream where the water was so high that it was nearly impossible to ride through. (And that was due to an unseasonably high rainfall.)

If you’re out on backcountry trails, though, who knows!

The smart thing to do is to stop and check out the water first.

What to look out for:

  • Deep water
  • Fast-moving water (currents)
  • Slick, slippery surfaces
  • Rocks

The main concern is the depth of the water. If the water is deep enough to cover your hubs, it’s probably not worth riding through (due to the risk of water getting into your hub bearings.) If the water is deep enough to cover your wheels, it’s probably not possible to ride through.

When in doubt, shoulder your bike and walk it.

If you encounter fast-moving water, you might want to find a bridge. This is dangerous! A swift current can take your wheels – or legs – out from underneath you.

Whether riding or walking, watch out for slippery surfaces underneath the water. Most big rocks will be slimy.

Also watch out for the smaller and medium-sized rocks. These basically create an underwater rock garden that you must navigate!

Photo credit: Anthony DeLorenzo

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  1. Great article! I cross streams often except I have waders on and a fishing rod in my hand :p

    • @Corey

      Thank you. I see you’re still out there enjoying the great outdoors! Have fun and be safe – the slippery rocks and swift currents, not to mention pop up thunderstorms, are always a concern for any outdoorsman!

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