Dressing for Falling Through

The Swedes have a well developed understanding of skating risks.  Their data from the 09/10 season shows there is a half percent chance they will swim on a group tour.  The more elite tour skaters  have a 1% chance of swimming as do private skaters (in North Americal we are pretty much all private skaters).  This rate seems about the same as for people exploring ice in their iceboats.   For anyone who spends a lot of time on lake ice it is more a matter of 'when' than 'if' you will fall in.  If you are  properly prepared falling in is usually not a big deal.

Your choice of clothes can have a big effect on how falling through goes.  At one extreme, Lake Carmi (Vt) skater, Chris O'Shea, points out that cotton clothes can be killers.  They have mediocre  insulating properties when they are dry and it only gets worse as they get wetter.  Wool and synthetics drain out better so they retain some of their insulating properties.  Richard Saltonstall, who has considerable experience falling through, has sometimes resorted to wringing out his wet synthetic layers after falling through and, in warmer, light wind conditions, he can keep going for the rest of the day (he is a very fit person).  The long standing Swedish method is to bring a change of clothes in your pack, in a dry bag (or two plastic bags) to keep them dry and provide flotation while you are in the water. For this to work, your pack needs a snug waist belt and possibly  a leg loop or two to keep it from riding too high to provide useful flotation when you are in the water.  Also, having the flotation on your back tips you forward unless you have your arms on the ice. This method is intended for who are equipped and skilled at getting back on top of the ice quickly.

Specialized Cold Water Clothing

Notice:  The following is a pitch for wearing cold water clothing.  It is a pitch that has been made to many but only a few have taken to heart.  I take this to mean that the idea is either ahead of its time and/or seen as being over the top.  If you are of that mind, read Lloyd Robert's comments below.

While claws, throw ropes and life jackets may get you out, they won’t keep you warm on a long trip home.   An alternative is to wear cold water clothing.  A breathable dry suit offers the best protection that is reasonable to wear on a long trip.    A wet suit is a less expensive and reasonably effective alternative.  Some snowmobile suits are designed to offer flotation and some  immersion protection and they dramatically increase what you can do in the water in the few minutes you have to save yourself. (Click here for an impressive demonstration of this).  See links further down the page for manufacturer's web pages on these suits.

Note: All the cold water cold water clothing discussed here is oriented to situations where you are unlikely to be in the water more than a few minutes.  If you are interested in cold water survival suits check out the Mustang Survival website.  Their immersion suits provide significantly longer probable survival times in cold water but are not suitable for most recreational activities on ice.

 Advantages of a dry suit include:

  • Less risk associated with cold water shock and a much lower rate of body heat loss in the water.  This is doubly important for thinner people who loose heat the fastest.
  • Provides significant flotation  (an inflatable life jacket provides a LOT more and is a recommended addition, especially if you are called on to rescue someone else).
  • Keeps you warm after getting out.  You most likely will not need to head for the barn after falling in
  • Keeps you dry on wet days or on sloppy ice and it is an excellent wind stop layer 
  • Reduces the risk of cold water immersion induced heart arrhythmias for older skaters. 
  • In the unlikely event you ever encounter a worst case situation such as being well out on weak ice when you go through, your probability of survival will be significantly better in a dry suit than with a pack full of dry clothes on your back.
  • Provides peace of mind, especially if you find yourself on dodgy ice.  
  • Strongly recommended for people with bad habits like exploring ice alone.

Other considerations:

  • Gore-Tex costs more but is reported to be more durable than some alternative dry suit fabrics.
  • These suits cost a lot (500 to $1000) but are inexpensive when you consider the ‘risk reduction adjusted cost’ and peace of mind for you and those who care about you.  Many people have reported finding very reasonable prices in end of season close-out sales.
  • It is common to think of ice recreation as free and consequently  not want to spend money on it.  Using sailing or snowmobiling a examples, you spend thousands of dollars getting outfitted.  For people who are going to be on lake ice regularly, in relative terms, a dry suit is not that expensive. 
  • Get a suit with a relief zipper and GoreTex boots..
  • Wax zippers regularly. I use paraffin or hard ski wax on my metal zippers.  Real zipper lube does not seem any better.  If you have a plastic zipper, find a lube that works well with it.  TIZIP lubricant is recommended by a zipper manufacturer and available from bagpipe suppliers.  I had suit with a poorly lubed plastic zipper that opened behind the zipper slider after after it was worn for a while!  It now  works fine after a moderately liberal coating of TIZIP.
  • Be careful with the wrist and neck gaskets.  They are easy to tear if abused.  If they do tear it is usually when getting in or out of the suit.  Duct tape makes a reasonable temporary gasket repair if you somehow manage to tear one on the ice. Talc dusted on the seals reduces the stress on the gaskets a lot when putting the the suit on and dusting your hands helps when taking it off.
  • Inspect gaskets regularly and replace them as soon as they start to degrade (often around 5 years).  If they look checked when you stretch them at the edge that is a sign they are getting old. If you are prudent, this is a good time to have them replaced. I usually wait until they tear.
  • Don’t get oil or fuel on gaskets.  In most cases they will not fail immediately but it will significantly reduce their life.  Oil is common in holes cut with chain saws  and water with vehicles underneath may have both fuel and oil on the surface.  Sunblock, bug repellent, and even skin oil adversly affect the seals.
  • Some experts say gaskets should have a latex protectant wiped on them periodically (especially when putting the suit away for a while). Our local dive shop recommends just washing them well with warm water and a mild detergent at the end of the season (an anytime you think they might have gotten  oil or grease on them). Another diver I talk to just used the standard unsented talc dusting bag on his seals (available from dive shops or on the www).
  • An unscented talc powder dusting bag mades getting the gaskets on and off easier (and less likely to to overstress a gasket).  These bags can be found at a local dive shop or on the www.
  •  Know what you are doing if you trim the gaskets (Neck gaskets are usually designed to be trimmed. Wrist gaskets may not be).  The bottom line is you do not want leave any sharp notches in the edge. 
  • Don’t expose the suit to many hours of sunlight when you are not wearing it.
  • Sweat:  If it is cold I wear one or two heavy weight fleece  layers inside and one or two outside under a wind jacket.  If it is warmer I wear one or two inside and none outside. Warm season paddlers often have a single light layer inside their suit. This does not provide much insulaiton if you do fall in but you are still way ahead of the game if you get out quickly.  I have been able to find a mix of clothes that lets the Gore-Tpex layer breathe well and controls body temperature.  This takes experimentation to sort out.  If you get damp inside, leave the suit on and closed.  You will dry faster and get less chilled.  I usually change into and out of the suit at home.
  • Leaks in the feet:  I wear mine inside shoes when wading in shallow water.  Sand and small stones can create small holes that leak a little water into the suit resulting in cold feet. It took 10 years of this abuse to become really noticible. The holes were easily repaired by pouring water into the feet and marking the wet spots so they could be patched with Aquaseal.  I now wear a 3 mm neoprene sock over the dry suit feet to protect the suit better. 
  • Suits that are impervious (not made with a breathable fabric) are not recommend for for skating, sailing, etc as they keep all your sweat inside which significantly reduces the insulating ability of the clothes you have under the suit.  It will be too hot when exercising and cold when you are not.  
  • If you are planning to get wet, wear nothing on the outside and lots of layers inside (I usually wear 3-4 layers depending on how long I will be in the water and the air temperature).   Two layers gets pretty cold after a few minutes in the water (but nowhere near as cold as you would be without the suit).
  •  Freedom of movement:   At the medium speed pace most of us skate the dry suit is not much different than the winter clothes we normally wear.  I suggest trying a suit long enough to get the sweat factor sorted out.  By then you will be able to judge whether the peace of mind is worth having the suit.  A properly fitted shorty wet suit might be a better alternative for people looking for maximum freedom of movement.
  • Tearing the suit:  People often look at the suit and think it could easily tear, leaving you with an open bag that will fill with water if you fall in.  The likelihood of tearing the suit is low.  When was the last time you tore your clothes when you were on the ice?  The likelihood of tearing your suit on the same day you fall through is much lower.  Sail repair tape or duct tape usually works as a field repair.
  • Remember to check that all the zippers are closed. 
  • Fashion concerns:   Let fashion be defined by function rather than the other way around.  As it often does, fashion will catch up after a while.  Lead rather than follow.
  • Don’t let the suit make you over confident .  There are many situations where having it on will improve your odds significantly but there are also some situations where it won’t help much.  Remember not to lead others without similar protection onto dicier ice than is reasonable for them.
  • The suit I have is a Kokatat front entry suit with optional Gore-tex boots and relief zipper.  I like it a lot and have heard good things about other brands or styles. I wear it about 50 times a year and have had it for over 10 years.

An alternative to a dry suit is a neoprene wet suit.  In the water it is not as good as a dry suit but a wet suit is much better than normal clothing.  Sweat mostly stays inside the wet suit making that factor simple to manage.  Body temperature control is manageable with layers. One of the local skaters has been happy with a farmer john, a neoprene top and other clothes on top of that.   Depending on what style of suit you use it may be prudent to carry extra clothes if you will be far from a warm place.  Once I sailed into a new ice hole with a farmer john suit underneath my sailing clothes. I was warmed back up by the time I walked half a mile towards shore.  I went back out and fished out my boat before heading home.  A shorty wet suit with a front zipper and upper arm and mid thigh leg coverage should be a good bet in warm weather or a high exercise rate. . 

For snowmobilers and fishermen there are snowmobile jackets,  pants and one piece suits that provide both flotation and a bit of immersion protection.  These suits appear to dramatically improve your odds if you fall through. 

 Some links:

  • Mustang Survival makes a wide range of wet and dry suits as well as clothing for fishermen and snowmobilers that provides flotation and some immersion protection.
  • Artic Armor:  fishing and hunting suits
  • Striker fishing and snowmobile suits



Testimonial by Lloyd Roberts:  Lloyd is the elder statesmen of Maine iceboating.  He wrote the ever popular iceboating book 'Think Ice'.    He recently read the this page, acted on it and sent the following emails:



    Inspired by your treatise and e mails I have bought a dry suit.  Maine Sport, our around the corner LL Bean.  Just happened to have one on sale, spring stock for kayakers that they did not want in inventory through the winter.

    It is a NRS, made in Vietnam by an outfit in Oregon.  Nice looking workmanship, booties, relief zip, Gortex like fabric.  I immediately took it for a swim in the skim ice at my beach.  Absolutely wonderful, hands got cold and I now have a waterlogged pair of insulated leather boots that will  probably eventually dry out.  Took it skating the next day, no sweat build up, maybe better than Goretex?  Best part was the price, $600 marked down to $450.  The booties are giving me a little trouble with wrinkles causing pressure sores on toes in skate boots. I guess I will amputate the booty toes. No great amount of water would get into legs through boots I think and I hope not to be in water for hours like a kayaker might be.  It seems a bit baggy, perhaps Kokatak is better tailored.  A military web belt keeps it under control. Buoyancy is nice.  Short on pockets (none).

    With the indelible memory of videos of the guy who drowned (while he was drowning) here last year and my aversion to being in water this is wonderful. For the price of a set of runners or a sail most of the danger of being on ice is gone.  Some of the good DN racers wear these things, everybody should.  The nylon cordura knees and seat should keep from wearing through those areas for some time.

        Thank you,  thank you,  thank you.   


***************************************************end of email:

Comment from Bob 12/20/10: In the last paragraph,  I think Lloyd overstates the degree to which the suit reduces risk.  In many ways, risk is reduced significantly but in situations (like being far out on ice that that is too thin to get back on) it will only buy you some time.   Unless you have a lot of clothing thickness inside the suit, you are still loosing heat at a fairly high rate.  Also your hands are likely be useless in a few minutes with or without the suit. 

From personal experience I can say the suit tends to make you over confident.  This has to be guarded against both for yourself and, especially, for anyone who is with you who does not have a suit.

As for cutting off the toes:  everything is a trade off.  At some point Lloyd will see if the leak rate inside shoes or skates is high enough to be a problem.  There are a number of stories of  waterproof or even wind proof pants keeping most of inner layers dry in quick (under approximately 30 seconds) immersions.

One last thing: All the safety experts recommend floatation for all ice travelers.  The suit provides some but the flotation decreases at the trapped air is burped out of the neck seal.  A life jacket provides more.


Lloyd Roberts wrote the following article for his local iceboating newsletter. It is slightly abbreviated.




            For many years Bob Dill, has been a proponent of wearing a “farmer john” trunk covering wet suit under his usual ice boating clothes in early season to avoid hypothermia in case of immersion.  He used it once and was able to stay out on the ice long enough to extract his boat and get home.  Now he is beating the drums for wearing light weight dry suits made for kayakers who are at high risk of tipping over, expecting to right themselves and keep on paddling without getting wet.  Benefits of a breathable fabric, Goretex or the like, suit are several.  They are the ultimate all over wind breaker.  You avoid the risk of cold shock induced cardiac arrhythmia, especially in the senior skipper, which can be fatal.  You have built in flotation, about mid chest and similar to a floatation jacket, enough to raise your arms out of the water and still have your head well above water.  You don’t get either cold or wet other than hands and maybe there are useful mitts that take care of hands.  There is some floatation in your legs to help get them up to the surface for the big pull onto the ice.  Down sides are; cost, several hundred dollars but less than a sail or set of runners, modest hassle of getting into the thing,  some accumulation of sweat moisture around upper body (about like a floatation jacket),  some care of latex gaskets or cuffs, some experimentation of what to wear under it ( polypropylene or other wicking underwear and a layer of wool or polar fleece etc. suggested, not cotton, that gets soggy).  A jacket over the suit works fine. I like mine. So far I have used it only for skating.  Eric Anderson uses one for competitive DN sailing.


We have now experimented with three stages of immersion protection. The simplest is a Stearns flotation jacket firmly belted at the waist.  In a real breakthrough incident this kept the wearer dry from the upper abdomen up.  He had lots of buoyancy and was able to extract himself from the water and surrounding ¾ inch ice with ice claws, it took a few tries due to ice rebreaking.  The jacket did not interfere with getting out.  He was not really cold and drove himself home.

Jory Squibb, an economist (cheapskate), decided that the dry suit route was too expensive and bought a wet suit coverall ($75 or so) to give him lower unit protection in addition to a flotation jacket.  This was tested and worked better than anticipated.  His legs now floated instead of sinking, the wet pants are 7mm foam and booties.  He seemed to be about 1/3 out of water, similar to dry suit flotation.  When he got out he felt warm, not wet.  The floatation jackets are over $200 new but less than ½ price on the net, so the whole outfit was under $200.  Dry suits are on the net in $3-400 price range. The only remaining problem is cold hands in wet mitts.  This could be a problem sailing or skating home.  The answer could be a spare pair of mitts in a waterproof (tied trash bag perhaps) bag in the knapsack along with a throw line and lunch.

We have had an opportunity to try a commercial throw line made by “Seals” bought at Maine Sport ($40).  This is 40ft of 3/8 woven yellow plastic line stuffed loosely into a 6X11 inch stiff Cordura bag.  There is a section of plastic tubing on a loop to form a handle at each end of the line, the bag stays at one end.  You pull the other end out a few feet and toss the bag.  It is heavy enough to toss well and far.  The swimmer easily grasps the handle or line with soggy mitts and is effortlessly beached on the ice, slicko.  The 3/8 line is easy to pull on.    It is too big for belt wear, put it in the knapsack with lunch and dry mitts, outfit complete. Loading the line into the bag is easy, just stuff it in more or less in layers. This is a five star item.

            A major downside of immersion clothing is that the feeling of warmth and flotation security lessens the anxiety about marginal ice.  An immersion suit does NOT make ice any thicker.  If the back of the axe goes through, so may you, “just say no”. Absolutely wear the ice picks and carry a throw line.


More from LLoyd on Rapture of The Ice and Post Immersion Stress Syndrome (from the 2011 blog and the Chickawaukie Iceboat Club newsletter).



Click Here for the new location of Eric Anderson's article on Cold Weather Cloting for the Racing Iceboater.

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