GTS - Gear That Sucks
November 17, 2022
I taught another Cold Water Safety class on Zoom a couple days ago. This one was for a group of paddlers in New Mexico. Today, one of the participants posted about purchasing a piece of paddling safety gear from well-known national retailer, REI. In this case, it was a “paddling jacket”.
She made the mistake that a lot of paddlers make every single year: relying on the product description which, far too often, thoroughly blurs the distinction between “splashwear”, “raingear”, and “immersion wear”.
This is the piece of gear she bought, the NRS Endurance Jacket:
Another example: The Riptide Jacket.
Despite the claims made in this misleading video ad, it's not appropriate gear for the cold water of San Francisco Bay.
REI's Description of the Endurance Jacket:
“Fend off wind, splash and rain in the lightweight women's NRS Endurance jacket. Delivering waterproof, breathable performance at an entry-level price, it's a handy pick for any paddling adventure.”
That's complete, misleading nonsense. It's not “a handy pick for any paddling adventure” because it's useless as protection when you're actually neck deep in cold water.
Here's why: There's a huge difference between gear that's “waterproof” and gear that's “watertight”. Raingear and paddling jackets are waterproof, not watertight. What this means is that when you capsize, waterproof gear offers no protection against cold shock because water floods in, saturates your clothing, and gets right next to your skin. Manufacturers have been aware of this safety issue for a very long time, but they willfully choose to ignore it.
For the record, in the late 1980's when I was running the Center for Environmental Physiology in Washington, DC, I flew out to California and personally met with Patagonia's senior management, including founder Yvon Chouinard, to discuss the problem of misrepresenting paddling jackets as immersion wear. I've expressed similar concerns to REI, NRS, PaddleTV, and assorted paddling magazines. Nothing has changed, which is frequently the case when safety and commerce have a disagreement.
There's no nice way of putting it: This kind of advertising is both misleading and irresponsible, and it undermines cold water safety. The same is true of gear reviews that recycle the bankrupt Challenging Conditions argument and encourage paddlers to blow off thermal protection. Furthermore, if you encounter an article or video with a title like "Kayak Essentials for Winter Paddling" and it fails to mention wetsuits or drysuits, you can safely assume that it's peddling bullshit rather than useful information.
We deserve better from these companies. They make their living by selling outdoor gear or advertising, and it seems like the very least they should do is to be honest and straightforward about what that gear can and can't do. Particularly when it's “survival gear”. Is that too much to ask? I don't think so.