Field Test Your Cold Water Gear

sea kayak on ice in cold water

Throughout the years, PaddlingLight has provided information on cold water and winter paddling, so if you are a long-term reader, you’ve probably read articles. But if you just started to read PaddlingLight or came here via a Google search, you might not understand everything that goes into cold water paddling or expedition paddling. While this web-a-zine often covers philosophy and gear more now than skills, but skills are more important (we do and have covered skills as well) than both. One skill that we haven’t covered often is the need to field test your gear. While I think that many long-term paddlers take it for granted that we’re going to test gear before we take it with us on a real paddle, it might not be a skill that entry-level paddlers have or understand.

When you get a new piece of gear, especially a piece of gear that your life is going to depend on — when the water temp is below 70°F, your life does depend on immersion gear — you MUST field test it for suitability. This is especially important with cold water gear; your life depends on the right choices and the function of the gear. Because swimming in cold water is dangerous and unpleasant, many paddlers skip out testing their immersion wear before heading out on a real paddle. They read the Internet and make decisions based on what they read and then leave it at that. There’s nothing wrong with researching via the Internet — in fact, I encourage it — but there is no substitute for trying out the gear yourself. Everyone should test their gear after they buy it even if bought after following good advice gained on the Internet.

How do you test it?

Go paddling in a safe environment with friends and get wet while using the new gear. Try rescues. Try using the gear. Try opening hatches with it on. Try removing and putting on your skirt. Roll. Swim. Test how long you can swim in the water with you immersion gear on (at all the water temps that you paddle on and in all the conditions that you paddle in). Make sure you can use your electronics and your safety gear. You need to test your gear to make sure you can do everything that you usually do and everything that you might need to do when paddling for real. The National Center for Cold Water Safety has a good write up about field testing gear. It’s worth reading as well.

What will testing tell you?

sea kayaks on cold water
When you’re 16 miles away from where you started the crossing, you don’t want to find out that your gear isn’t going to work right.

It will tell you many things including:

  • Is the gear suitable for the water temp you plan on paddling?
  • If it’s a drysuit, are you wearing the right layers underneath for a swim?
  • Is it thick enough neoprene?
  • Does the farmer john keep you warm?
  • Should you use a dry top?
  • Does your two-piece actually keep out water?
  • Does it fit?
  • Can you do everything you need to do while on the water when wearing it?
  • Can you swim in it?
  • Can you survive and recover from a wet exit with it on?
  • And more and more…

I can tell you a few personal experiences that I’ve had that educated me. I’ve gone out in my drysuit and wetsuit and suitless into the cold 50°F waters of Lake Superior. I’ve felt what it felt like to swim a long distance in a wetsuit and drysuit. It’s hard work, especially if you’re towing your kayak. It’s cold and the water temp sucks the life and energy out of you. Swimming the length of a pool feels impossible without the gear on. You just get so cold, so tired and your body parts stop working. Even if you have a drysuit on and you don’t have enough layers to keep you warm it really saps your energy and you have similar problems.

As an example, I taught a safety and rescue class once on Lake Superior where I misdressed. I figured that I wouldn’t get into the water too often, so I was wearing just a t-shirt under my drysuit on a 70°F day. It turned out that the participants kept getting too cold in their wetsuits to practice, so I ended up being the rescue dummy for many rescues. After getting in and out of my boat several times in a drysuit with just a t-shirt under, it got to the point where I had to stop for safety reasons. I was getting too exhausted from the cold water sapping energy during routine safety practice that I would normal not have an issue with. I never made that mistake again.

Or as another example, I once decided to try and swim just under 200 yards in two to three foot waves from an island to shore while towing my kayak with my drysuit on and several layers of insulation. The cold was so bad that even with those layers on, it had to work hard at the end just to get out of the water and it was a sandy beach! This was with insulation layers that were too hot for the day. Some of that was exhaustion from swimming that far and some of it was from the cold water. Drysuits and wetsuits add safety, but cold water always ALWAYS has the advantage and it will win eventual. You will die eventually if you stay in it too long even with the right gear. That’s where skills come into play.

These types of field tests will tell you what to expect if a worst case situation happens in an area without the perfect escape or friends nearby to help if you get into trouble. You need to understand your gear and its limits before you really need it.

As the lakes melt this spring in the northern parts of the northern hemisphere and before you take a real trip, get your paddling partners together and test your cold water gear in a safe environment to make sure that you understand how it works and its limitations.

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  • Great stuff !! Hopefully people have the cohones to experiment, look stupid, even foolish, for a second, learning, evolving forward.

  • A very informative post. It is necessary to test out the kayaks and accessories for the safety of your family and friends, just to be sure that your equipment will match your endurance on the next adventure.

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