The Challenging Conditions Myth
The challenging conditions myth was created almost forty years ago by influencers in the sea kayaking industry. By people with a financial interest in the sport who were afraid that promoting cold water safety would reduce the rapidly growing number of people interested in sea kayaking.
It was developed as a counter-argument to cold water safety advocates who said that paddlers should always wear wetsuits or drysuits when paddling on cold water. The challenging conditions argument encourages paddlers to blow off thermal protection - unless they PLAN on encountering challenging conditions.
This is dangerous reasoning. Drivers wear seat belts - not because they PLAN on having an accident, but because they can't predict the future, and wearing a seat belt makes it much less likely that they'll get seriously injured or killed if an accident happens. Safety-conscious paddlers wear thermal protection for exactly the same reason.
Why it's bad advice:
It's unrealistic. Nobody plans on capsizing, and nobody thinks they're going to die out on the water. None of the paddlers who've lost their lives as a result of a sudden, unprotected cold water immersion, ever, in their wildest dreams, anticipated that they would encounter the conditions that killed them. If they had, they would have stayed home.
You can find it everywhere:
The challenging conditions message is hard to miss because it's been woven into a lot of brochures, books, and instructional programs. There are many variations of this myth, but they all promote the same irresponsible and dangerous message.
Three Noteworthy Examples
"If you do choose to paddle in challenging conditions, dress for immersion.”
- Deep Trouble, Broze and Gronseth, Ragged Mountain Press.
"For paddlers who wear lifejackets, extreme weather and water conditions are the usual cause of trouble. If you encounter these conditions, stay off the water."
- American Canoe Association
"... if you plan to paddle in cold water, you just need to be more conservative with your decisions. Paddle in calmer conditions, paddle closer to shore, and never paddle alone." "The safety gear you bring on the water will vary depending on the type of outing that you're doing."
- Kayak Safety Video, PaddleTV, Heliconia Press.
National Outdoor Leadership School's Risk Enhancement
Bad advice like this also has a tendency to morph into more elaborate, but equally dangerous forms. For example, the Challenging Conditions argument that's promoted by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) actually takes the position that wetsuits or drysuits are "unnecessarily extreme". Ironically, NOLS promotes itself as a expert in wilderness risk management. However, the following paragraph actually promotes Risk Enhancement:
"We balance our clothing for both the water and surface conditions. Our best protection from cold shock is to be off the water if a capsize is likely. If you cannot get to protected water or to the shore, dressing for cold water immersion may help, with a focus on insulation on the head and neck.
Some people advocate wearing wetsuits and other extreme cold water protective gear. This would be wise for an aggressive paddler who is likely to tip over or be slammed in the face by a cold wave, but for the more casual ... expeditionary paddler, this extreme is unnecessary."
--National Outdoor Leadership School. Sea Kayak Instructor Notebook 2005 Edition
This faulty NOLS reasoning ignores cold shock, swimming failure, and the fact that plenty of close calls and fatalities happen when paddlers capsize close to shore in flat-calm water, or fall into a wind-shadow trap and get blown far offshore into much rougher water. The advice on just insulating the head and neck also betrays a complete lack of understanding about cold shock. What's even worse is the bad example that the NOLS program sets for its students, who doubtless go home from a kayaking expedition in Alaska or Patagonia feeling that wetsuits and drysuits are "unnecessarily extreme" - a lesson they learned from NOLS.
Paddle TV's "Extreme" Gear Review
This characterization of thermal protection as "extreme" also appears in gear reviews. For example, in a YouTube drysuit review posted by Paddle TV in September 2021, the narrator perpetuates the myth that thermal protection is only for extreme conditions - repeating phrases like "extreme conditions", "extreme cold", "freezing or very cold water" when talking about thermal protection. This kind of information ignores the scientific fact that most people will experience maximum-intensity cold shock at water temperatures between 50-60F (10-15C).
Misleading Gear Checklists
The Challenging Conditions myth has also wormed its way into "essential gear" checklists for cold water paddling. The National Center for Cold Water Safety says you should follow Five Golden Rules for building yourself a strong cold water safety net - one of which is to always dress for the water temperature. With that in mind, look at the following "What You Need For Cold Water Paddling" list and ask yourself what's missing:
Thermos of hot liquid in your hatch.
Having "high-energy" snacks to "stoke your furnace".
Carrying spare clothes in a drybag.
Paddling close to shore in "protected waters".
Ability to make a fire.
Leaving a "float plan" with someone.
Paddling with a group.
The problem here is not that any of those "essential gear" recommendations are bad. It's that the list doesn't mention two critical pieces of cold water safety gear: PFD's and Thermal Protection. It's subtle, but really significant, because it tells paddlers that they don't need to bother with that safety gear as long as they have all this other stuff - like high-energy snacks to "stoke your furnace".
The following articles provide historical context as well as an example of what can happen when an otherwise competent paddler follows the challenging conditions advice.
This is an ANORAK (Association of North Atlantic Kayakers) article on the historical roots of the “Challenging Conditions” myth.
Randy Morgart's gripping account of his near-death experience on the freezing Mississippi River appeared in the August 2010 issue of Sea Kayaker.
Moulton Avery's Feature Article in Sea Kayaker Magazine's November 2010 newsletter is an in-depth analysis of Randy Morgart’s accident. It explores the age-old tug of war between reason and emotion that underlies so many close calls and fatalities in outdoor sports. It also sheds light on the question of how an experienced paddler could decide to leave his thermal protection at home and paddle unprotected on freezing water. This article includes a lengthy critique and rebuttal of the challenging conditions argument.