New Thinking about Boots in the Water

By , August 10, 2011

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.

4 Responses to “New Thinking about Boots in the Water”

  1. Don says:

    I would think that, in that climate, you’d have you pants legs pulled down over the boot tops. If this is the case, then you don’t have to worry about them becoming scoops because the pants will divert the flowing water before it gets to the boot top.

    Also, the conventional wisdom was probably appropriate 40 years ago because of the weight of working boots (usually with steel under soles I would think) at that time. Today we have hard plastics, kevlar, and lighter insulating materials, so the boots are probably 60% lighter. That’s a lot of weight difference when you multiply by two and take into account the amount of additional energy necessary to keep it from sinking. I can tell you that the leather work boots I wear around the farm are at most half the weight of the Red Wings my dad wore when I was a kid.

  2. Mark Zeiger says:

    Hi Don, the article on boots overboard refers to a longer one about wearing rubber boots in SE Alaska. The assumptions that both the old and new advice make is that one is wearing rubber boots, as many of us do on boat decks (standard gear for most commercial fishermen, for instance). We almost always wear our pants tucked in so that the rubber upper can keep our pant legs dry as far as they cover, reduce mud splash, etc. Also, I can tell you from personal experience hiking on beaches and muskeg swamps that wearing pants over boot tops doesn’t slow down water entry noticeably! Even with a pair of fully waterproof pants, the water’s usually up and in almost before you know you’ve gone in deeper than your boot top.

    I’d not thought about what to do about leather boots in an overboard situation. I’d guess that if one compares the slight insulation from the trapped layer of water against the skin, plus the lack of any significant drag (being snug against the calf in most models) would make an argument for keeping them on, especially if one contemplates the amount of effort it would take to remove a wet pair of lace up boots while in the water. That operation alone might exhaust a person who has gone overboard. With modern materials, it’d make even more sense to keep them on. The upshot being, although I might curse myself for deciding to wear hiking boots out on the boat, should I go overboard, I might be damn glad I had them, rather than a pair of rubber boots.

    Either way, I sincerely hope this will be a matter of idle speculation to the end of my days. It’s not a subject I care to become expert on through personal experience!

  3. Don says:

    A perfectly reasonable desire.

    BTW, just so you can feel good about your locality, when I got in the truck to move it about 3 pm this afternoon (to let somebody out of the parking lot at work) the thermometer read 107. You can re-read this message in about February to warm yourself up :^).

    Stay dry!

  4. Mark Zeiger says:

    Yikes! At 47 degrees and rainy (thank goodness, we needed it) your comment is warming me already!

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