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Rule 4
Swim Test Your Gear


What Is Swim-Testing?

Swim-testing is a best practice, like wearing a PFD, or wearing comm gear on your person rather than stowing it in a hatch.  Swim-testing is like a pilot's preflight inspection - a last minute safety-check to make sure you're wearing enough thermal protection and that it's working properly.

Why You Should Swim Test

Kayaking is a water sport.  There's only one way for any paddler to learn how much thermal protection they need at various water temperatures, and that's by swim-testing their gear. If you don't know how your cold water gear performs at a given water temperature, whether it's 35F, 45F, 55F, or 65F (2C, 7C, 13C, or 18C), you're not going to know what you should wear in terms of thermal protection.


It's not enough to simply buy a wetsuit or drysuit and wear it. This is survival gear, and every paddler should be intimately familiar with it. The argument that paddlers will be chilled during a paddle because they swim-tested their gear misses an important point: Paddlers who understand how to properly use thermal protection don't have this problem.


When paddlers object to swim-testing, I have to wonder why. Every paddler should be confident that their thermal protection is appropriate for the conditions in which they are about to paddle, and every trip organizer or trip leader should be confident that participants on their trip are well-prepared for immersion. Failure to cover this base invites problems and opens the door to liability.

How to Swim-Test

  • Put on your thermal protection, get in the water, and splash around.

  • Sit, float, tread water, or swim - whatever works best for you.

  • Hold your nose and see how it feels to get your head dunked.

  • How long you stay in the water is up to you - it's your gear that you're testing.

Note To Trip Leaders

Swim-Testing is especially useful to Trip Leaders / Trip Organizers. Let's say you and an assistant are leading a trip with 9 other paddlers. The water temp is 50F (10C). Everybody shows up at the put-in about the same time and starts getting ready to launch – carrying boats to the ramp, getting gear sorted out, and putting on drysuits. When they're ready, you're all standing around and it's time for the trip safety briefing.

Everyone is wearing drysuits. But unless you saw exactly what they were wearing when they put on their drysuits, you really have no idea whether they're wearing enough protection for a 50F (10C) capsize, swim, and rescue. Furthermore, unless they've actually been in 50F (10C) water with that same gear on, how do they know if they're really “dressed for the water temperature”? That's where swim-testing comes in. It's a reality check that tells you whether the Survival Gear that your group is wearing is up to the task of protecting them in the event of a cold water capsize.

Do I really have to swim-test my gear every time I go out?

That's up to you. It's a very good idea, but no one will force you to do it.

Valuable Things You Can Discover By Swim Testing

These mistakes really do happen. Sometimes they're amusing, sometimes they're merely unpleasant, but every once in a while - if you don't catch them before you get out on the water - they can be fatal.  Think of your thermal protection as Survival Gear.  Make sure it's working well every time you use it.

  • Your drysuit has a torn gasket.

  • You forgot to close the "relief zipper" on your drysuit.

  • You forgot to properly close the main zipper on your drysuit.

  • You should have paid more attention to the instructions on how to seal your two-piece drysuit.

  • All by itself, your drysuit provides about as much insulation as a shower curtain, and you need to find some nice warm stuff to wear underneath it.

  • The gear you're wearing on this particular outing is totally inadequate to keep you warm in the water.

  • You didn't burp your drysuit enough, so you feel like a blimp in the water.

  • You burped your drysuit way too much and squashed all that fluffy pile insulation down to the thickness of a penny and now it doesn't feel warm any more.

  • You were sadly mistaken when you thought that a "paddling jacket" was the same thing as a "drytop".

  • Your neoprene gloves or the wrist seals on your drysuit are a wee bit too snug. They reduce the flow of warm blood to your hands - which are quickly becoming very cold.

  • You need to get a neo hood, a neo hat - or both - to protect your head and neck from that chilly water.

  • The 3mil farmer john & drytop combo that was just fine and dandy at 65F, is not nearly enough to keep you warm at 48F.

  • The wetsuit you got on sale is too large. You're trying to compensate by wearing a thick polypro top and bottom underneath it, but whenever you move, very cold water flushes in and out, causing you to squeal like a little piggy.

Pro Tip

How To Get An Expert "Feel" For Cold Water

  • Experienced cold water paddlers have a remarkable "feel" for cold water. Give them a water temperature, and they know - without even thinking about it - exactly how much protection they need to paddle safely and comfortably at that particular temperature.

  • Swim-testing embeds that kind of cold water data in your brain - over and over again. You can learn a lot from that process, and the knowledge really sticks with you.

  • You'll develop a feel for cold water a lot faster if you make a habit of measuring the water temperature every time you swim-test. Measuring it yourself is better than hearing your buddy say "47 degrees" because you learn better by doing than by hearing.

What if I don't want to swim-test?

In our experience, that's never a good sign. Swim-testing is no big deal when you're properly dressed for the water temperature. If you're unwilling to swim-test, it's usually because you don't think your gear will keep you warm and/or dry when you're in the water - or you feel that getting your gear wet will compromise your ability to stay warm while you're paddling.  Again, this is your survival gear that we're talking about, and if you're unwilling to take a little dip before you paddle to make sure it's working the way it should, maybe you need to rethink what you're wearing.

Reasons people give for blowing off swim-tests.

  • They don't happen to have any cold water gear with them at the moment.

  • Their gear is brand new and they're too nervous to try it out.

  • Their nasty, old, worn-out gear is shot to hell, and they have a strong gut-feeling that it won't keep them warm - even during the swim-test.

  • Their gear is just perfect for the air temperature, but way too skimpy for the water temperature.

  • It's windy and cold at the launch site, and they don't want to get in the water.

  • They're worried about getting cold and wet.

  • The water at the put-in is so skanky with scum, oil slicks and dead fish that it takes a major commitment to just put their pretty boat in the water.

Bottom Line

The real issue for most paddlers isn't whether they swim-test every single time they paddle. It's that they never swim-test their gear and consequently have no idea whether it's working properly and will protect them if they wind up in the water.

 Rule 4 Case Histories with Lessons Learned

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