Selecting a good pair of waders can be a bit of a challenge. You can find waders from $35 to $800. How do you sort through the mess and come out on the other end satisfied with the product you have selected? I have learned a few lessons through making good and bad choices with waders. To have a good experience there are a few things you need to look for when selecting waders. This post will explore all the reasons to have them, how they are constructed, and what to look for when you buy them.
Waders have an interesting history. They first showed up around 1850 but didn’t really have a hold on the industry until the 1940′s. Waders were made of rubber. Now as you may well know, rubber is very waterproof, but if you are in it for any real length of time you become just as wet from perspiration as you would just standing in the water. Not only are they uncomfortable, rubber chest waders are dangerous. If you fall into the river in a pair of them, you will most likely sink to the bottom. People would tie a rope around their waist to keep too much water from getting inside, giving you a chance to stand back up. There are still versions of rubber waders out there that are extremely inexpensive. Usually they go to the hip and have terrible fitting boots on them. I had some bad experiences with this type as my first pair of waders and on a salmon fishing expedition in Alaska. I don’t recommend rubber unless you are a farmer working in an irrigation ditch.
Around the 1980′s neoprene became the material of choice. I has similar qualities to rubber when it comes to sweatiness, but they were a lot more warm. Fisherman in colder regions can be found in these still. One big problem with Neoprene is that if you wear them day in and day out they start to have a horrible odor and the fisherman will too. We still use neoprene on the boot foot portion of our modern waders. It is very durable and makes sense to have on the foot.
When breathable waders came on the scene in the 90′s fly fisherman have never looked back. Breathable waders give the fly fisherman the ability to stay comfortable in warm or cold weather. You won’t drown when wearing a pair breathable waders if you take a tumble (I have taken a few thousand myself). If you search on YouTube or the internet you can find videos of people jumping in pools to test modern breathable waders. You can swim just like if you had fallen in with clothes on. I have even heard a story about a guy who fell into Yellowstone lake that remained a-float thanks to his breathable wader’s ability to trap air. It seems logical, but I have never actually found the story.
The bottom line is, you don’t want anything but breathable. You can dress for every condition with breathable waders, from cold to warm you will stay comfortable.
There is a give and take when it comes to breathable waders. You can have more of one or the other and not necessarily all of both, breathability and puncture resistance. In a perfect world we would have bomb proof waders that breathed like cotton, but there is no such thing. Wader manufacturers experiment with both, but the more they focus on puncture resistance the less waders breath. Conversely, when they focus on absolute breathability then waders puncture easily and leak. To find a balance is the challenge and some companies do better than others.
One way manufacturers enhance breathability while maintaining puncture resistance is by piecing together different fabrics. They incorporate thicker layers in crucial areas like the legs, where abrasion from rocks, sticks, barbed wire, and other foreign objects tends to happen more. They focus the breathable portions of the wader on the torso, usually using less fabric. Simms is a huge leader in the wader world. In their more expensive models they use 5 layers in crucial areas and 3 layers elsewhere. Sandwiched in between those layers is a breathable membrane called GoreTex, which we will get to in a second. But when you piece together all of these sections for waders you increase the number of seams. Seams can lead to big problems.
Waders are typically pieced together with sewing machines. Sewing machines use needles. If you weren’t aware already, needles make holes. The way this problem is overcome, is by using water proof tape on the seam areas. This works for the most part but eventually the tape will wear out. One of the first places you will find leaks in your waders is at the seams. Especially on the inside of your legs where they tend to rub together a lot.
There have been two major solutions to this problem. The first is an ingenious option that doesn’t increase cost. I am talking about moving the seams to the front of the wader. This takes care of the problem of your legs rubbing together and gives your waders a substantially longer life. The second solution has come from advances in technology and that is Sonic Welded seams.
Sonic welded seams are the latest and greatest in wader seam advancements. I have not yet been able to try it out but there are two companies using the patented technology, Orvis and Redington. This feature has been added to their waders at a very competitive price point. The way I understand the method is very basic. They use high frequency sound waves to basically weld the seams together (the name “Sonic Weld” gave it away) eliminating the need for needles and thread. The companies that are making them are very reputable and if I get the chance I will definitely try them out.
The outer layers of waders are made of poly urethane fabrics that are woven together very tightly. They are not waterproof but water repellant. The outside layers are made to protect the waterproof materials sandwiched between them. The membrane is porous. However, the pores are small enough to let water vapor out but not let liquid water back in.
There are only a couple of ways to get that waterproof membrane between layers of fabric. The most common method is done by simply taking the durable outer layer and spreading (like peanut butter on bread) the liquid breathable membrane on it. This has a few flaws that might seem obvious. It is nearly impossible to get the this layer of liquid membrane perfectly even across the entire fabric, so you end up with thick and thin spots. The thin parts are more susceptible to wear and tear, thereby causing premature leakage. The thick portions of the material make the wader less breathable, defeating the purpose of having it in the first place. The price you pay for your waders is going to be a function of how precise a manufacturers tolerances are, and the amount of research and development that goes into the types of liquid materials used.
The next method for integrating a membrane is using one that comes in a sheet, a lot like fabric. I know there are other companies out there trying to do this, but the most well-known and trusted company out there is Gore. Gore came out with GoreTex in the late 70′s. It has been used for hundreds of applications, from shoes to gloves, and by the military. It is made from the same material as the coating on non-stick pans. The raw material is essentially heated and stretched until it forms tiny pores. These pores are big enough to let water vapor out but to small to allow liquid water back through. If you want to learn a little more I would recommend this awesome podcast episode by Zach Matthews: Design Detailed with K.C. Walsh. Zach also wrote a great article for midcurrent.com.
There have been a few companies that have used GoreTex like Cloudveil (I have never heard anything good about Cloudveil waders) and Simms. It comes at a high price because GoreTex has very stringent requirements for allowing their material to be used. When you buy a product with GoreTex you are buying quality, but you are going to pay for it for sure. Read more about GoreTex performance.
The last thing concerning waders I want to talk about is boots. Now, I will be posting separately about boots but I want to talk to you about boot-foot waders. I do not recommend you get them. There are two reasons I don’t like them, if you do, I would love to hear why. I have seen it and experienced it. When walking through some muddier portions of a river or lake you get your foot/leg stuck in the mud. You pull up to free yourself and what happens? Your boot comes off taking your socks with them. You try to stuff your foot back into the boot but your sock is bunched up in the bottom and you have to stop and fix it. I don’t know about you but I hate it when that happens.
The next reason is ankle support. It is very important when you become a serious angler to make sure you are safe on the river. The last thing you want is to be out all alone, slip on a rock and break your ankle. Boot-foot waders do not offer good support, so I would caution you against them. Get a good pair of stocking foot waders and a good pair of compatible wading boots. You will be happier!
When choosing waders it is important to know what your getting. My first pair of breathable chest waders ran be about $75. They have been patched a couple of times but they are still holding up (I gave them to my father-in-law, he has used them twice). I now run around in Simms G3′s that ran me $450 and I don’t regret buying them in the least. In a lot of ways, you will get what you pay for. I recommend trying on a few pairs before pulling the trigger, get the best you can afford. Below, I will post some links to some great brands to check out. Thanks for reading this post. If you have any questions as always, leave me a comment in comments section below and I will be happy to answer any and all of them.
Here are some waders that I feel are extremely good for the price. You have several options to choose from but these are all around the $300 range. I own Simms waders and love them. My wife uses a pair of Redington waders. I have no personal experience with Patagonia or William Joseph, but I know lots of people who use them and love them. They are all great competitive brands. You cannot go wrong by choosing one of them.