Cold Water Safety – Golden Rule Number 3: Field-Test Your Gear

by Nancy Soares on January 21, 2013

by Moulton Avery

Editor’s note: This is the second in a 4 part series on cold water safety by Moulton Avery.  Moulton is an expert on heat and cold stress.  He gave his first public lecture on hypothermia in 1974.  He was executive director of the Center for Environmental Physiology in Washington, DC for ten years, and is the founder and director of the National Center for Cold Water Safety.  He is a former ACA Sea Kayaking Instructor and Instructor Trainer. For more information on cold water safety and Golden Rule Numbers 1 and 2, please see 

If you’re going to paddle safely in cold water, you need to make absolutely sure that your cold water gear works well and that you have the skill to use it smoothly and efficiently.  That’s where field-testing comes into play.  Field-testing is a process of experimentation and practice through which you become familiar with your gear, identify and correct any problems, and learn to use it effectively.

Field-testing a paddle-float rescue in 42F water.

Field-testing a paddle-float rescue in 42F water.

Why You Should Field-Test

Just because you went out and bought yourself a “wetsuit” or “drysuit” doesn’t mean that you have a cold water safety net.  For example, the gear you purchased might be:

  •  Difficult to use.
  • The wrong shape or size.
  • Poorly designed and easily broken.
  • Ineffective when not used properly.
  • Totally inadequate for the conditions.
  • 10% product and 90% advertising hype.

Field-testing is the best way to identify problems  like that – so you can fix them.  That may seem perfectly obvious, but it’s surprising how many people paddle around in wetsuits, drysuits and other assorted cold water gear without ever having gotten in cold water and splashed around – just to check things out – let alone practicing wet-exits, open-water rescues, or rolling. 

Valuable Things You Can Learn From Field-Testing

  •  Whether new gear is working properly.
  •  Whether you’re able to use it smoothly and effectively.
  •  Whether there are any gear-related challenges, limitations, weaknesses or problems that need to be solved.
  •  How much thermal protection you need at different water temperatures.  For example at 55F (12.7C) vs 42F (5.5C)
  •  Whether your system of thermal protection is really up to the challenge of protecting you in the water on which you’re going to be paddling.

 How and Where to Field-Test

You should test and practice with your gear in a safe location, in weather conditions and at water temperatures similar to those in which you’ll actually be paddling.  You need to know how both you and your gear perform, and field-testing gives you the opportunity to work out any kinks in the system.  Always field-test new gear.

Bottom Line

While wearing all of your cold water gear, can you…?

  •  Attach your sprayskirt.
  • Properly set up and roll.
  • Operate a clip or zipper.
  • Assemble a spare paddle
  • Find and blow your whistle.
  • Deploy, use, and stow a tow rope.
  • Open a container of flares and fire one.
  • Open a box of Walker’s Shortbread Cookies.
  • Deploy, inflate, use, and stow a paddle float.
  • Pump out your cockpit – with the skirt attached.
  • Do a boat-to-boat rescue – as rescuer and as victim.
  • Effectively use a compass, GPS, cell phone or VHF radio.
  • Find and pull the grab loop on your sprayskirt under water.
  • Turn on a headlamp, strobe light or Personal Locator Beacon (PLB).
  • Find and use the release tab on your tow rope when you’re upside down.

As you’ve no doubt noticed, a lot of these tasks require manual dexterity, something that can be compromised in a number of ways:

Cold water can numb your hands to the point where they no longer function.  In other words, you can wind up completely helpless even though the rest of your body is toasty warm inside a drysuit.  If you’re having a “bad day”, this can happen in under a minute.  To visualize this, imagine trying to kayak with boxing gloves on your hands.

Not wearing enough thermal protection can result in your entire body getting cold. One way your body defends itself in the face a cold challenge is reducing the flow of warm blood to your hands and feet – that’s why they’re generally the first parts of your body to become uncomfortably cold.

Putting on thicker gloves or mittens won’t help. You can only solve that problem by increasing insulation and conserving more body heat.  Wrist seals that are too tight can also reduce circulation to your hands.  Wearing thicker neoprene gloves or mitts can reduce tactile sensation and dexterity to the point where it’s very difficult or impossible to perform certain tasks.


A lot of paddlers recommend using “pogies” to keep your hands warm.

Pogies are basically a fingerless, tube-like mitten, made of fabric or neoprene, which wraps around the paddle shaft.  Invented by Bonnie Losick way back in 1974, pogies were an immediate hit with whitewater paddlers because they offer both protection and direct hand contact with the paddle.



At first glance, Pogies certainly seem more straightforward than spending a lot of time practicing and getting used to doing everything while wearing neo hand protection, and many sea kayakers have mistakenly concluded that pogies are an ideal solution for open-water paddling.  However, as you’re about to find out, if you have to do anything with your hands other than hold the paddle, pogies have a very significant disadvantage, and for sea kayakers, it’s a whopper.  Here’s the classic, textbook example:

May, 1987, Sand Island, Apostle Islands Area, Lake Superior

The incident began when Greg Martin, an experienced paddler, capsized in large, confused seas about 100 yards off a point of Sand Island.  There had been morning snow flurries, the air temperature was 35-40F (2-4C), and the water temperature was in the low 40s (5-6C).  Although he was wearing a perfectly good drysuit with plenty of protection underneath it, the only thing protecting his hands were pogies.  Following his capsize, Martin was unable to roll up, which forced him to remove his hands from the pogies in order to pop his sprayskirt and bail out.

Although he was able to reenter his boat within five minutes using a paddle float, he had to do the entire self-rescue with his bare hands exposed to the cold air and water.  During that short time, they became so cold that he was unable to reattach his sprayskirt.  Without the skirt, every wave washed into the cockpit and pumping was useless.  Pushed by the wind and waves, Martin’s beloved Nordkapp was heading for what proved to be a very destructive rendezvous with sea cliffs and he prudently chose to swim an alternate route to shore.

Case Note:

By themselves, pogies can really let you down.  For sea kayakers, it’s better to get used to wearing neo gloves or mittens.  If you want to use pogies, use them in conjunction with neo gloves – for example, wear thinner neo gloves underneath the pogies.  Mountaineers have been doing this for decades with fabric gloves and mittens – it’s essentially a layered system of hand protection.

No matter what system you use, you should rigorously field-test it.  Proper field-testing would have alerted Martin to the fact that his pogies only worked as long as hands remained inside them.

Rolling in 42F water with new gloves

Rolling in 42F water with new gloves

Mastering the Mummy Roll

The sensory confinement and increased buoyancy of cold weather gear can be disorienting, particularly when trying to roll.  If you’re going to paddle on cold water, it’s a very good idea to practice cold water rolls and rescues in benign conditions close to shore until you’ve worked out any bugs in your system.


Roughly nine out of ten open water paddling fatalities are the result of cold water immersion – a tragic situation that takes the lives of hundreds of paddlers each year.  It doesn’t have to be that way, and this is your chance to do something about it.

Support the National Centerfor Cold Water Safety.  We’re a brand new non-profit organization and we need your help.  Between now and January 31st you can make a contribution here:  After that date, you can visit us online at

© 2012 National Center for Cold Water Safety. This information is protected by copyright and cannot be reproduced without permission.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Nancy Soares January 21, 2013 at 4:12 pm

Thanks, Moulton, for another informative, thoughtful, and well-written contribution to this website. This is one of those topics that will never go away. Everything that needs to be said on this subject needs to be said again and again, in myriad ways. In Buddhism, it’s called “skillful means”, i.e. everyone learns differently so you need about as many ways of teaching people as there are individuals, in this case individuals who kayak. And then there are those who need the two by four upside the head. But that’s another story…


Doug Lloyd January 22, 2013 at 2:24 am

Nice series so far, though I don’t care about the politics of the paddling industry though it was probably worth mentioning last time. Any sport with a risk component should benefit from a caveat emptor perspective that you would think basic intelligence would include, but apparently not. I mean how many thousands of years has mankind been dieing in cold water boating incidents? I like your list though, Moulton. It represents the essentials for sure. There have been many pioneers advocating cold water paddling education and each one emphasizes different aspects with the consensus being flotation, immersion protection, cold water shock and early onset swimming fatigue awareness.

I have done a lot of incident research for magazine articles with much of it not reaching the light of day for various reasons, that combined with my own 30 years of cold water immersion incidents tells me you are on the right track here and with your organizational goals and objectives.

Specifically with reference to GR#3, field testing gear is probably less important than having it and wearing it but it is only logical to try it out in actual cold water and perhaps increasing rough conditions and higher winds, where these latter considerations considerably add to your misery especially with untested gear.

I love my porgies and have four brands and thicknesses but I always have lightweight neoprene diving gloves handy in a pfd pocket. Thick gloves hurt to hold a paddle shaft for me. Yet, thre is nothing, nothing more frustrating than loosing manual dexterity in cold water made worse by high winds. Field testing gear is great. Try field testing (with help) no gear! Boy, if those cold hands don’t convince you to get good gear, nothing else will. And, do you need to modify knobs on radios and can you punch in rescue summons on your other communication devices for example? And what about thermal protection for your head. A re entry and roll, so easy to do in a pool, is infinitely more difficult in a howling gale in cold water without a head covering. Try it a few times without that. So yes, your points and point #3 is well taken.

I remember coming out of my kayak at a river mouth and loosing hold of my boat in heavy breaking surf. Swept out seaward, it was a fight to get to shore. The thermal protection under my dry suit was squeezed tight until I looked like and add for one of those vacume suctioned leftover meat bags! The suit/liner combo was awesome for self rescues while not allowing overheating during upright paddling but a long swim in frigid water? Dry doesn’t mean warm necessarily. What about rolling with a hooded paddle jacket that fills the hood full and makes rolling back up difficult!

Well my friend, to me I just wish the folks you mentioned who are not anticipating an incident on what they hope is a friendly outing would take and wear proper equipment and those who do know better and head of into rougher, cold water, would more thoroughly field test their gear looking at all the permutations that might and often due ensue. Safety does have levels too. And fortunately selfless advocates. The latter sounds like legacy to me!


Tony Moore January 22, 2013 at 9:44 am

I have 2 pairs of pogies, and use them for touring on the coldest days…they are just more comfortable, very warm, and give you a good grip on the paddle. However, I would NEVER be without neoprene gloves within easy reach, as the pogies are useless once your hands are out of them. And I never use them for rock gardening, so that my hands are always available for pushing off rocks, etc, as needed.
I’ve always said don’t assume you have skills that you haven’t practiced, and practiced in real conditions…merely reading it in a book doesn’t cut it. As you have aptly pointed out here, a similar caveat applies to gear…test it in conditions, know what it will and will not do, and find out how it will affect other gear and actions (eg. pulling a spray skirt loop) you may have to accomplish. Great post, Moulton, as always!


Nancy Soares January 22, 2013 at 10:07 am

A couple of thoughts: first, the hood thing. I don’t wear a hood because I always wear a helmet and I tend to get too hot anyway. But one time I decided to snorkel out at Pillar Point on one of those very rare still, quiet days. I got out to the reef, took off my helmet, put on my snorkel and mask and stuck my head in the water. I thought I was going to die! Instant brain freeze. I had been swimming many times out there with my helmet on and never had that experience. No snorkeling occurred. So yes, hoods. But interestingly, in the waters I paddle, my helmet has worked fine as head protection. Second, Eric used to wear those yellow dishwashing kitchen gloves a lot. He really liked them – they kept his hands warm enough, they provided some protection against rocks, and they allowed him a reasonable level of nimbleness. Of course, they didn’t last long, but they were cheap. And lastly, @Doug, people may have been dying in cold water for thousands of years, but I wouldn’t be surprised if more die now than in the past just because in past millenia people didn’t go out especially in small boats unless they really knew what they were doing. In the past, most people were hunting or fishing and had long traditions of survival. With the advent of recreational paddle sports and a heavy reliance on technology instead of common sense combined with the fact that death isn’t something most of us contemplate much, certainly not in relation to own demise – well, you’ve got a lot of accidents waiting to happen.


Doug Lloyd January 22, 2013 at 10:28 am

Yes Nancy, today the ocean in one big playground, treated like an amusement park perhaps. My comment was influenced somewhat by First Nation friends I have talked to who mentioned specifically the high number of losses sustained here on the west coat over the millennia by ancestors engaged in travel by small boat for commerce, etc., but certainly not leisure as far as we know. As we have heard, the article people’s who actually kayaked were often almost sew into their craft because they new immersion was fatal. Anyway, not a point that deserves much discussion I suppose. We are here today, Walmart and Costco sell cheap SOT kayaks and other craft, and the need for awareness and education continues perhaps almost in a manner it will always be a matter of trying to catch up. Funny that well healed sea kayakers are often the victim of cold water safety infractions, which is Moulton’s point to some degree. When I first started paddling in high school, cold water awareness and gear issues around same were emphasized thoroughly by the canoe fraternity.


Moulton Avery January 24, 2013 at 2:47 pm

Nancy, that brain freeze happens to me if cold water contacts my forehead. I suspect that your helmet protected you in that respect. In the rolling picture above, I wasn’t wearing my neo hood; just the neo hat with brim. That worked fine as far as the brain freeze, but without the hood, enough cold water got to my ears that I couldn’t do more than 2 rolls in succession without pausing a minute to let the ears warm up. No vertigo, but definitely short-duration ear ache. One thing that Eric’s mellow yellows is that they would have eliminated both re-wetting of his hands from wave splash and, more importantly, heat loss due to evaporation of water from is hands.


Moulton Avery January 22, 2013 at 7:26 pm

Doug, thank you for your insightful comments; it’s always a pleasure to read what you have to say. Tony, thanks for your support of cold water safety and for sharing your thoughts with fellow paddlers. Ditto to you, Nancy. Given the fact that evolution did not endow us with gills, you’d logically expect most people to approach padding tiny boats on water of any temperature with a modicum of caution. That generally appears not to be the case.

By way of explanation, I like the analogy that Lawrence Gonzalez uses in Deep Survival: lots of folks living in the fishbowl; oxygen magically bubbles up from the bottom and food rains down from above; predation is absent, and so is the need to be on one’s guard.
Entering into nature’s realm as if it was an amusement park is just asking for trouble, but people do it every day. Most of the time, they get away with it and emerge unscathed. But having slipped the noose purely by chance, they’re clueless about how close it came to closing around their necks – so they learn nothing.

It takes a lot of work to open their eyes, but for the most part, with respect to cold water safety, I believe it can be done. Given that roughly nine out of ten open water paddling fatalities are the result of cold water immersion, a little awareness can go a long way. Go a step further and educate folks about wind = waves and alert them to the subtle trap of wind-shadows and the danger of being blown off shore, and you can reap a dramatic increase in paddling safety.

The 5 Golden Rules were specifically designed to enable any paddler to construct a strong cold water safety net. Dressing for the water temperature is certainly a cornerstone of the system, but from my perspective it’s simply not enough. Far too many people mistakenly think that “wearing a wetsuit” or “wearing a drysuit” suffices. Field-testing and swim-testing inject reality into the system. Try swimming, floating, or simply splashing around in 50F (10C) water wearing a pair of swim-trunks and a “rashguard” under your drysuit; reality immediately intrudes with all the subtlety of a gorilla in a fine china store.


Jens Marklund March 16, 2013 at 7:30 pm

Thank you for your very interesting articles about hypthermia and sea kayaking!

Your point about always making sure you have protection even outside the pogies, is much appreciated. Here in Sweden we also face low water temperatures, and I´ve been a long time advocate of exactly this practice, to wear neoprene gloves under the pogies. NOT keeping the gloves nearby, wearing them….

We had a sad accident here a few years ago, a well trained and fit young man died of hypotherma after a capsize. One of the factors delaying the rescue – thereby being on of the factors causing his death – was that his friend had difficulties in assisting him, using his cellphone etc, as his hand were too numb.

This accident enforced my practice to use gloves but also introduced two new elements:
1, Always keep your cell phone or VHF near you body, inside you PFD, to avoid them getting too cold – in the fatal incident I speak of, the friend’s cell phone went dead very quickly beacuse of the low battery temperature. Yes, it was freshly charged, but that did not help.

2, Have a pen or something of similair shape in you PFD:s pocket. If your hands get numb, you can use it to press the buttons on your phone or VHF. If your hands are REALLy numb, hold the pen in your mouth and dial!

all the best to you over there,
Jens Marklund


Nancy Soares March 16, 2013 at 10:28 pm

Thanks so much for your comment Jens. Always good to hear from our Scandinavian friends. Great lesson learned – I love hearing these stories even though it’s emotionally wrenching, as it teaches us and if we can learn anything from the mistakes of others, well, it’s helpful. Another item for the Cold Water Safety crew. I like the bit about the pen. Thank you for both reading and commenting!


Moulton Avery March 18, 2013 at 3:13 pm

Hi Jens. Thank you so much for commenting! Those are excellent suggestions. One can lose the use of one’s hands in under a minute if the circumstances are right (or wrong), and you are so right about the battery power of devices being compromised by cold. When mountaineering back in the day, we used to rewire our headlamps and hook them up to 6 volt lantern batteries which we carried under our clothing. I’d forgotten about it and that advice hasn’t been part of my current cold water safety information; I’m very, very glad that you mentioned it.

Preparation can be complex, and oftentimes it’s the little things that wind up making a big difference. I really love your pencil/pen suggestion. That’s one I haven’t ever considered, so I’m thrilled that you shared it. It’s because of thoughtful people like you that our knowledge of cold water safety evolves. I learn new things every day, but it’s not often that someone raises points about cold water that are new to me. Truly exciting!

We build this cold water safety house one brick at a time and the more people like you who participate in the conversation and contribute their own knowledge and experience, the stronger that house will be. Our new web site is now live: It’s a work in progress, and I’d be very interested in hearing from you when you’ve had a chance to see it. Please get in touch with me via the web site; I’d love to get to know you better.


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