When you’re hiking and come upon a small, trickling body of moving water, what do you call it? A river? A creek?
Most people would probably refer to it as a stream, but what are streams, rivers, and creeks? Are there any differences between them?
This article explores creeks, streams, and rivers to show you what they are and their similarities and differences.
Let’s take a closer look at these types of flowing water.
What is the Difference Between a River, Stream, and Creek?
Stream, river, and creek are all used interchangeably, with stream having the broadest definition and being used the most.
A stream is a naturally flowing body of water running through the earth’s surface in a channel between opposite borders called the banks and a bottom surface called the bed.
The water that forms a stream may come from groundwater, surface water, subsurface water, precipitation, melting ice or snow, and surface runoff. Most streams are fresh water and drain into lakes, seas, and oceans.
Streams that flow due to melting snow or ice are usually the clearest and are called snow streams.
About 75% of the earth’s surface runoff flows into streams and ends up in larger bodies of water, like lakes and oceans. For example, the famous Amazon River, a stream by definition, flows into the Atlantic Ocean. It accounts for 20% of all the world’s water held in streams and is the world’s largest river by volume.
A stream naturally flows down from high to low elevation areas with the help of gravity.
To mark the difference between a stream, a river, and a creek, factors such as speed, location, depth, and water volume are considered.
Generally, a stream refers to a small water body flowing on the earth’s surface. A river is larger than a stream in volume and size, while a creek is the smallest in size, volume, and depth.
A stream is also called a creek, brook, fall, or branch. They are classified into different types, including:
- Headwater streams;
- Alluvial fans;
- Deltas (forms at the mouth of a stream due to the sudden decline in velocity and sediment deposition that causes the stream to break into distributary streams – many smaller streams);
- Ephemeral streams.
Depending on water flow, land shape, and gravity, streams come in different patterns, such as braided, curved/sinuous, meandering, and straight.
A braided stream is made up of several small, shallow water channels that split and recombine to form a network resembling multiple braid strands.
A straight stream channel usually forms along a linear weakness zone like a joint or fault system in the underlying rock. Streams with straight channels are rare.
Many streams form a river or drain into a river as a tributary. One of the rivers with the most tributaries is the Amazon River, which has over 1,000 tributaries with varying water volumes, sizes, depth, and flow speed.
Depending on size, features, location, and how long they contain water, rivers are classified into various types, such as:
- Ephemeral (a short-lived river);
- Exotic (A river with its origin in a humid region that flows out into a dry region. The Nile River is a good example here.);
- Youthful river;
- Mature river;
- Old river;
- Rejuvenated river;
- Periodic river;
- Permanent river;
- Alluvial river;
- Bedrock river;
- Both alluvial and bedrock rivers.
Although most rivers flow on top of the land, some flow underground and are called subterranean rivers.
A subterranean river may form due to natural phenomena, like gradual erosion, or human activities, like construction. London’s famous lost rivers are a good example of rivers that flow underground due to human activities.
The point where a stream originates is called the source while the point where it drains into a larger water body is called the mouth. Headwaters refers to a source where many streams flow out of the same region.
The distance a river or stream flows between the source and its mouth is known as the course. The course is divided into three parts – the upper course, the middle course, and the lower course.
Rivers have various features. You might see waterfalls, a flood plain, reservoirs, valleys, riverbeds, shorelines, and dams. A dam is an artificial wall across a river holding back a large water reservoir, but a river may form a natural reservoir on its own.
Another notable thing about rivers is that river water can have different colors, from black, green, red, yellow, bright blue, and brown. The Crystal Channel (Caño Cristales) in Colombia is known as the Liquid Rainbow or River of Five Colors.
Crystal Channel (Caño Cristales) River, Colombia
Are a Creek and a Stream the Same Thing?
When you talk about a stream and a creek, you are talking about the same thing, given that stream is the baseline term for a body of water moving on the Earth’s surface.
Creeks are technically streams, but people have different names for different-sized streams. A creek is a small stream that is usually only about half a meter deep and very narrow.
The water in a creek flows slower than a stream or river and has less volume. Many creeks join to form streams and rivers before ending in the sea or ocean.
How Long Does a Creek Have to be to be a River?
Generally, there is no rule regarding length, width, flow volume, or other factors when determining when a creek becomes a river.
However, the stream order system ranging from first-order to twelfth-order is used to classify streams. A stream in the first-order is the smallest in size; creeks fall into this category.
A first-order stream flows into larger streams, but it doesn’t have a significant water source flowing into it.
Medium streams are in the fourth-order to sixth-order, while streams larger than this are considered rivers. For example, the Amazon River is a twelfth-order stream, while in North America, the Ohio River is an eighth-order stream and the Mississippi River is a tenth-order.
A first-order creek joins with another into a second-order stream, and several streams will then form a river. A second-order stream has first-order streams as tributaries, while a third-order order stream has first- and second-order streams, and so on.
Skoga river, Iceland
What is the Difference Between a Crick and a Creek?
The terms creek and crick refer to the same thing: a small water mass flowing in a channel between banks.
The difference between the two words is in the pronunciation and area of usage. Crick is usually used by people in the south and midwest of the US.
Crick is a regional spelling and pronunciation variant and a shift from the official or professional way of spelling and pronouncing the word creek.
Usually, crick is used by writers in fictional writing and doesn’t appear in professional writing. For example, Mark Twain uses the word in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, Charles Alden Seltzer uses it in The Range Boss, and William Faulkner uses it in Flags in the Dust.
If you don’t know what to call a body of water flowing in a channel within banks, call it a stream. The name is general and refers to all such water bodies.
If the stream water mass is on the smaller side, you call it a creek, and if it is a larger flowing body of water, you can call it a river.