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Rule 3
Field Test Your Gear

Why You Should Field-Test Your Gear

Cold water gear is your lifeline if you capsize. It's Survival Gear and you should be intimately familiar with it.  Will your gear really keep you warm? How do you know? Wetsuit style, fit, and thickness are critical to your safety. So is the clothing worn under a drysuit. Does your gear work like it’s supposed to? Does it interfere with a rescue or roll? How can you find out?

Should you wear a hood? What kind of gloves work best for you? How much air should you purge from your drysuit? If you paddle on 50F (10C) water, how much time will your gear buy before you become too chilled to function?   If the water temperature drops to 42F (5.5C), what additional layers will you need under your drysuit?   Field-testing will answer all of those questions and more.

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Sea kayaker Rita Scherping field tests her drysuit with different amounts of air in 40F (4.4C) water.

Field testing means practicing with your gear “in the field” - at the water temperatures you’ll encounter if you capsize. That’s what expert paddlers do, and it’s the reason they’re intimately familiar with their gear, and all of its strengths and weaknesses.

This 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 into the water and really checked it out. Field-testing can be fun, it will open your eyes, and it will definitely build your skill and confidence as a paddler.


A trio of sea kayakers testing gloves and layers.

Rita Scherping, Mark Bernardo, and a friend in 40F (4.4C) water. 

How and where to field-test

Practice with your gear in a safe location, in weather conditions and at water temperatures like the ones in which you'll be paddling. You need to know how your gear performs in those conditions, and field-testing gives you the opportunity to work out any kinks in the system. Always field-test new gear.

Valuable Things You Can Learn From Field-Testing

  • Whether new gear is working properly.

  • Whether you're able to use it effectively.

  • Whether there are any gear-related challenges, limitations, weaknesses or problems that need to be solved.

  • Whether or not the system of thermal protection you own is up to the challenge of protecting you or doesn't have a prayer of keeping you warm in the water on which you're going to paddle.

Bottom Line

While wearing all of your cold water gear, can you do the following things?

  • Deploy, inflate, use, and stow a paddle float

  • Find the grab loop on your sprayskirt.

  • Deploy use and stow a tow rope.

  • Find and use the release tab on your tow rope when you're upside down.

  • Attach your sprayskirt.

  • Pump out your cockpit – with the skirt attached.

  • Properly set up and roll.

  • Effectively use a GPS, cell phone or VHF radio.

  • Activate a strobe light or Personal Locator Beacon 

  • Operate a clip or zipper.

  • Open a box of Walker's Shortbread Cookies.

  • Find and blow your whistle.

  • Turn on your headlamp.

  • Assemble a spare paddle.

  • Open a container of flares and fire one.

  • Do a boat-to-boat rescue – as rescuer and victim.

Manual Dexterity

Many of these points involve making absolutely sure - through experimentation and practice - that you have sufficient manual dexterity while wearing gear like neoprene gloves, mittens, or pogies.

Field-Testing is how you confirm that you can use all your gear smoothly and effectively - even when you're under stress.

Although you may not own or know how to use things like a sprayskirt, strobe, pump, paddle float, tow rope or VHF radio, reading the Case Studies associated with each Golden Rule will help you appreciate how valuable gear like that can be.

Bill Burton's Experience

"Years ago I was surfing a big break with friends on Lake Michigan on New Year’s Eve. I was wearing NRS Toaster Mitts. When I capsized, I rolled up twice, got knocked back over twice, and decided it was time to pop out. I found I could not grasp the loop with those boxing gloves, nor could I grip the sides of my skirt, nor remove the Velcro straps on the mitts.


Upside down in the frigid water, things were getting quite peaceful, when I decided I really wanted to see my family again. It occurred to me not to grasp, but to insert my thumb in the loop, and tragedy was averted. I now always call this the THUMB loop when teaching, and recommend wet exit drills in full gear, if not in actual conditions (better)."

Field-testing vs Swim-Testing

  • Field-testing, enables you become familiar with your gear and learn to use it effectively.

  • Swim-testing is like a pilot's preflight test - a last minute check to make sure everything is in order.

Rule 3 Case Histories with Lessons Learned

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