The Challenging Conditions Myth

Background:

The challenging conditions myth was created almost forty years ago by the sea kayaking industry (SKIN). 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 increasingly vocal cold water safety advocates who said that paddlers should always wear wetsuits or drysuits when paddling on cold water.  The "challenging conditions" argument undermines cold-water safety because it encourages paddlers to rationalize a decision to blow off thermal protection and not dress for the water temperature.

 

What the myth says:

The Challenging Conditions myth tells paddlers that unless they “plan on encountering challenging conditions", it's perfectly fine to forget about wetsuits and drysuits, and dress instead as if they were going for a hike in the woods.

 

In other words, SKIN was saying that as long as you weren't planning on capsizing (because you figured you could handle the conditions that you expected to encounter out on the water), you didn't need to worry about dressing for the water temperature.

 

Why it's bad advice:

The biggest problem with following this very bad advice is that none of us can predict the future. 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

 

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 send the same irresponsible 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. A particularly elaborate version of the Challenging Conditions argument actually takes the position that wetsuits or drysuits are "unnecessarily extreme". Ironically, it's promoted by the National Outdoor Leadership School, which considers itself to be a leader in wilderness risk management.  However, the following paragraph is actually 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 reasoning ignores the fact that plenty of fatal and near-fatal accidents  occur when paddlers capsize in flat-calm water or fall into a wind-shadow trap and get blown far offshore into much rougher water.  The misplaced focus on 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 "extreme" mantra also appears in things like gear reviews.  In a YouTube drysuit review that Paddle TV posted 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 misleads paddlers and undermines cold water safety because in reality, most people will experience maximum-intensity cold shock at water temperatures between 50-60F (10-15C). That's a scientific fact that Paddle TV completely ignores. 

 

Essential Gear

The Challenging Conditions myth has also wormed its way into "essential gear" checklists that advise paddlers what precautions they need for cold water. 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 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.

What's Missing From That List?

It's thermal protection, of course. Not one mention of wetsuits or drysuits. Doesn't that seem strange?  Yes, it does, but once again there's a reason for it:

 

Most of those recommendations were developed in the 1980's by people with a financial interest in the rapidly growing sport of sea kayaking.  Their goal was to convince paddlers that they really didn't need thermal protection like wetsuits or drysuits - because they were afraid that telling people about lethal hazards like cold water would hurt business. 

The problem here is not that any of those "essential gear" recommendations are bad.  The problem is that the list leaves out the most important safety considerations: PFD's and thermal protection.  It's subtle, but really significant, because it's telling paddlers that they don't need thermal protection as long as they have all this other stuff - like high-energy snacks to "stoke your furnace".

Further Reading:

As noted above, the Challenging Conditions Myth has been around for almost 40 years, which accounts for the fact that it's so widespread.  The following articles provide both an historical context as well as an example of what can happen when an otherwise competent paddler makes the mistake of following its dangerous advice:

Bared SKIN Where The Sea Kayaking Industry Went Wrong on Cold Water Safety

This is an ANORAK (Association of North Atlantic Kayakers) article on the historical roots of the “Challenging Conditions” myth.

Cold and Alone on an Icy River

Randy Morgart's gripping account of his near-death experience on the freezing Mississippi River appeared in the August 2010 issue of Sea Kayaker.

 

Anatomy of a Bad Decision

Moulton Avery's article analyzing Randy Morgart’s near-death experience on the freezing Mississippi River explores the age-old tug of war between reason and emotion. It 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. It includes a lengthy critique and rebuttal of the challenging conditions argument. It was the Feature Article in the November 2010 Sea Kayaker Magazine newsletter.