CalARA: On Water

On Water

PFDs and Wetsuits

Water events can be the most challenging and most dangerous aspect of adventure racing.  Two of the three widely publicized adventure racing deaths and several life changing incidents have involved water incidents.  Moreover, hypothermia while on the water is the most common reason for racers to be removed from longer racers.

Fortunately, shorter races will seldom involve dangerous water conditions.  Nonetheless, reasonable precautions, including the use of a quality life preserver (pfd) and proper clothing will make any race safer and more enjoyable.


There are five basic categories of life preservers.  Type I preservers are the largest and offer the most protection, however, Type III are most commonly used for adventure racing, and they are lighter and more compact.  Self-inflation pfd’s are not permitted by most race directors, and are typically not appropriate foradventure racing.

In addition to be categorized by “type”, PFDs should also indicate their buoyancy or “float”.  Type III devices are required to have a minimum of 15.5 lbs float when new.  Larger type III’s will give up to 17 lbs of float when new.  It is important to note that pfd’s will lose buoyancy over their life span.  You can test the buoyancy of a vest by tying on 15 lbs of metal (a weight set, concrete, a few cast iron pans!) and see if it still floats.  If not, time to buy a new vest.  Keeping pfds out of the sun, dry and well ventilated will substantially expand the life span of a vest.  However, don’t expect a twenty year old pfd to be worth much no matter how much love and care it has received.

Once you have picked you pfd, make sure you know how to fit it.  A rapidly moving river is no time to discover that you pfd is so big or so poorly fitted to you, that while the pfd floats, your head goes under water.  Pfd’s need to be snug. More information on fit.

Tricks of the trade?  There are some, but the main trick is to get an effective pfd.  Some racers have purchased child-spec pfd, since they are lighter and cheaper.  However, a child’s vest may have a little as 7 lbs of float.  If you’re a lean racers, carrying a heavy pack, that 7 lbs of float won’t get you much!

For the first season or two at least, consider a low end.  A smaller vest will likely be more comfortable while paddling, so if between sizes, consider going with the smaller sized vest.  Similar USCG approved type III vests may be purchased at discount sports stores.

Wet Suits

If you are looking to do your first race, it’s unlikely that a wetsuit will be necessary or beneficial.  However, as races become longer and involve disciplines like river boarding, wetsuits become a critical gear item.

Picking the right wetsuit involves numerous tradeoffs – a kayaking wetsuit is great for kayaking, but not so good if you are using it for swimming or river boarding when significant kicking is involved.  A Tri-wetsuit will feels fine for kayaking but will wear out or be damaged quickly.  What to do?  If two (or more!) wetsuits aren’t in your future, you’ll have to find the best compromise you can.  I believe the most common wetsuit used by adventure racers is a 3 mm “farmer john” kayaking wetsuit.  An important safety point – in the very rare instance where your race will involve actual swimming (as opposed to river boarding or tubing) you probably should go for a tri suit, as kayak suits are difficult and potentially dangerous to swim in.

Regardless of the style of suit you buy, you’ll need to make sure it fits properly.


Tubing, River-board, Sledging and Swimming

While kayaks and canoes are the most common mode of water transportation, adventure racers are sometime called upon to use non-traditional means of traveling on water.  Tubing and river boarding (or sledging) are becoming more common features in races.  This is good news for novice racers, because the speed difference between the fastest team and a well prepared novice team in an inner-tube is pretty small.  Some races will also including swimming and whitewater swimming.  Note, that these disciplines are unusual, and race directors will notify you in advance if swimming skills are required.


For tubing, the first question is whether the water you are in will be moving fast or slow.  If it’s going fast, you’ll likely put a premium in keeping your butt in the tube.  Larger tubes typically will make for happier racers – there is no fun in finding out the hard way that your butt isn’t getting the protection from river rocks you expected.  To add a bit of control and possibly some speed to your river journey, you’ll want to consider hand paddles like these.

If the water is slow moving, you may want to consider ways of speeding up your journey.  The two most common are hopping out of the tube and kick behind (and then hopping back in during white water sections).  If you anticipate kicking alot, you may want to consider river fins like the Churchill fins. These will speed up your river progress, but weigh you down if you have to carry them for any significant distances.

Some racers have had success using a kayak paddle on a tube.  A serious note of caution however:  Don’t try this for the first time during a race.  There is skill involved, and it should be learned a relaxed and controlled environment.  If using a paddle while tubing, consider a paddle leash to attach the paddle to the tube.  You want to be able to drop your paddle at anytime, without worrying about it floating down the river.

Also remember that it’s easy to get real cold in a river real fast.  That refreshing cool feeling mid-race may last for ten minutes – then cramping and hypothermia may set in.  Often a good fleece or other water savvy clothing will be the prefect answer for chilly water.  More extreme conditions will require a wet suit.  A competent race director shouldn’t be sending novice racers into cold water without adequate warning, but if you know a river section is involved in race, take some time to research water temps and make your own judgments.

River Boarding

Several high profile races have started to introduce river boarding to adventure racers in the United States.  River board (also called sledging or hydrospeeding) involves using a floating board of some sort and typically river fins to travel on moving water.  While there are serious commercial river boards available (including the 8 lb Carlson board, most adventure racers will use a boogie board of some sort, which is much smaller.  If using a boogie board, a leash system is critical.  Some racers will also attach homemade handles – however, some races prohibit this practice as it may reduce the integrity of the board.  When river boarding, fins are important to help control river position.  As with other sports involving white water, consideration should be given to using a helmet and wetsuit.  Carrying a river-specific knife may also be advisable to cut your tether in the event you become entangled.  For rougher rides, padding becomes pretty critical – helmet, elbow and knee pads and shin guards will make you a happy camper.

Canoes in Adventure Racing

Canoes are less popular options in adventure racing than kayaks, but if you are preparing for an event including a canoe leg, you won’t be able to rely on your kayaking skills to get you through it.  As with kayaks, a little practice in a canoe goes a long way, and it is probably even more important than in kayaking to do a little practice with your actual team members.  Unlike kayaking where uneven strength in a boat typically won’t cause a huge issue, working with team members of differing strength or efficiency takes some time to adjust to in a canoe.  The good news is that even one practice outing should dramatically improve your canoe skills.