Back in 2009 I wrote about the recommendation that a person going overboard should kick off their boots to keep from being dragged down. Even as I repeated the conventional survival wisdom I’d been taught, I felt there were problems with the prescribed practice. Now, it seems, the authorities agree, and are rethinking that advice.My brother learned from a Coast Guard officer that they’re beginning to teach people to keep their boots if they go overboard. While it’s true the boots will fill with water, they will not necessarily drag a person down. Even full of water, buoyancy should be neutral. While water-filled boots require more energy to move—a precious commodity in a survival situation, they become vital to survival should a person reach shore, which is, of course, the central goal. A person who finds themselves soaking wet and barefoot in the Alaska wilderness has little hope of survival.
With this new strategy in mind, the feature of Xtratufs that I criticized—that water pressure tightens them to the calf—would probably be an advantage over a rigid-calf boot that would act as a water scoop as one moved through the water. Water seeping into the tighter boot would also warm against one’s feet, much like a wet suit.
Of course, if you’re afraid of boots dooming you in an overboard situation, the most practical and obvious preventative is to wear a personal flotation device on the water. Always. No exceptions.
This isn’t the first change in conventional wisdom. Not that long ago, survival experts discarded the old model of treading water, because, while the activity kept a person’s head above water, it also circulated cold water around the swimmer’s core, lowering their body temperature. They learned that while a person put off drowning by treading water, they increased their chance of developing hypothermia, which is just as deadly. Further impetus to occasionally review the latest thinking on the old “tried and true” methods.