Waders: Application Specific

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Waders: Application Specific

Maneuvering a boat around an unexpected obstacle is much more comfortably and safely done with waders.


Waders: Application Specific

A quality pair of waders will prove their worth well beyond the river. by Eric Martin, SSJ Gear editor

Some pieces of gear can be defined as being technique specific, whereas others fall into the category of being more application specific. Technique specific items have hyper-focused design and construction to excel at a very narrow, specific niche of usage. Steelhead jig rods would be an excellent example of a technique specific design; long and balanced to cast small offerings and easily manage line control on long drifts, light enough to remain comfortable, and soft to protect light leaders for delicate presentations. But outside of this usage, the design is incredibly ineffective; too long and lacking the sensitivity for drift fishing, not powerful enough for other species such as salmon, and the list goes on.

The beauty of application specific gear is that these items work very well for a wide variety of situations. Now don’t get me wrong, I love buying gear, but doesn’t it make more sense to buy a single item which covers twenty tasks instead of twenty technique specific items to cover those same twenty tasks? A perfect example of such an item would be a pair of quality waders.

At first glance waders seem like a tool designed with bank-bound anglers in mind, but I assure you their value is much more broad reaching. While waders are crucial for bank angling, they will also help a drift boat angler who unexpectedly has to portage a boat around an obstacle, they will protect a river boat angler from an unexpected rain storm, they can help you collect razor clams from the surf, pursue ducks in a swamp, moose in a bog, or even offer protection while attempting to repair a broken water pipe in the crawl space of your home. (Don’t ask about that last one!) Without a doubt, I have relied upon my waders in far more situations than I had ever imagined, and I easily place them as one of my most favorite pieces of gear. 

Maneuvering a boat around an unexpected obstacle is much more comfortably and safely done with waders.

Maneuvering a boat around an unexpected obstacle is much more comfortably and safely done with waders.

Like most other forms of outerwear, it wasn’t all that long ago that wader construction relied upon a range of materials such as vinyl, treated nylon and neoprene. It has only been over the last decade or so that nearly every outdoor product category from everyday rain jackets to high performance tents has experienced materials shift to breathable membranes dominating these product categories. 

By now, most of us understand at least the basic function of breathable membranes. Microscopic pores allow heat and water vapor to escape out through the membrane, while being so small that water in droplet form cannot penetrate in though the membranes. How these membranes are constructed, the other materials and overall design of the completed item such as a pair of waders, and even the care and maintenance of the item by the consumer can play heavily into the actual performance of that item.

If a breathable item such as a pair of waders comes with a rated performance of waterproofness or breathability, great, it can help you understand what you may expect from that item, but don’t let this limit your search. There are currently no standardized tests to obtain this data, so manufacturers will often use a test that produces the best outcome, or perhaps test only the membrane by itself, not the finished garment with face fabrics and DWR (durable water repelling) treatments applied. It is important to also note that the performance of breathable materials is dynamic. It can change with the age of the item, the care and cleaning that has been performed, how the item fits, and even the environmental conditions in which you wear the item. The difference in air pressure (warm internal air vs. cold external air) as well as relative humidity impacts breathability, as does how clean the face and inner membrane side of the garment is.

Fit, Features, Design

Fortunately, even the most economical of breathable waders offered today is lightyears more advanced than the offerings from just a few years ago allowing the user to worry less about a particular rating or brand, and focus more on the actual fit, features and design when shopping for a new pair of waders.

Size: Performance ratings aside, start by breaking down waders based on more easily identifiable aspects, arguably the most important of which is size. Improperly fitting waders will affect everything from durability and range of motion to breathability and comfort, and there are a lot of different areas in a pair of waders that are important to fit properly. Thankfully, gone are the days of manufactures simply offering restrictive “small, medium, large” type sizing. The ability to fine tune chest size, inseam and even bootie foot size is now much more commonplace. 

Make sure you select a pair that allows sufficient room for layering of clothes and heavy socks without being so loose that the material rubs excessively when walking which can result in wear and breakdown of the material. It is almost important to test proper fit by squatting, kneeling and stepping over tall objects to check range of motion fit. Restriction during such motions can cause excessive stress and failure of seams. 

Outer Design: Next, I like to look at the general outer design of a pair of waders. Is the external fabric of sufficient durability to withstand busting through brush if I do a lot of bank angling? Are there areas of extra material and reinforcement in high-wear areas like the lower legs and seat, does reinforcement extend up high enough on the knee area to protect when kneeling? 

Seams: Another key aspect to look at when examining the exterior of a pair of waders is to note when the seams are located. Squatting and kneeling place a lot of stress on the front of the knee area, so seams in this location, if not durably constructed, may quickly fail. On one of my earliest pairs of breathable waders, there were seams on the inside of the legs. The stitching on these inner leg seams deteriorated quickly from abrasion when the material swished together while walking, and the seams soon failed. Waders with seams on the outside or backs of legs and styles with as few of seams as possible are optimal.

Gravel Guards: When examining a pair of waders don’t overlook the gravel guards in the ankle area. This doesn’t seem like a feature that should require a great degree of consideration. If waders have gravel guards, you’re good to go, right? Well, believe it or not, some gravel guards are designed to be so sleek to reduce wear that they are actually too small to extend around the tops of beefier wading boots. I found this out the hard way. Make sure to test the fit of the gravel guards with your boots on before hitting the water.


Shoulder Straps: Shoulder straps also should be inspected. First, make sure the buckles on each strap are opposite each other, that is, one male and one female. This way when nature calls, you can unbuckle the straps from the wader chest, then buckle them into each other in front of your neck so they don’t fall down out of reach behind you, or dangle into the water. Some shoulder straps are simply two nylon straps stitched to the top of the wader, whereas others utilize a yolk system to better support the load and also help to keep the straps from working their way down off your shoulders while casting or bending over. Make sure there is sufficient adjustment range in the straps to provide a secure fit.

Belt Loops: How many times have you thought about how many belt loops there are on a pair of waders? I sure didn’t until one day when using a pair of waders that had a single belt loop located in the center of the back waist. I unbuckled the belt to make an adjustment, and the two ends flipped behind my back, my pliers slid to one end causing the belt to dangle in the water and caught the current and pulled the belt out of the single loop and swept it downstream in mere seconds. Lesson learned.


Pockets: Another key feature is pockets. Most waders have at least one pocket on the front chest. Make sure this pocket has a zippered closure to prevent dumping pocket items when bending over. Is there a passthrough handwarmer pouch behind this pocket you can tuck your hands into, or use to store other items? Is the handwarmer pocket fleece lined for extra warmth? Can the handwarmer pouch opening be zipped closed to prevent you from snagging a reel or oar handle? I once tore the front pocket off a pair of waders when an oar snagged a pouch opening while rowing a technical stretch of water. What about internal pockets? I prefer to keep my phone and other important items like my truck keys in an inside pocket where they are easier to access and also better protected from rain or accidental soakings. 

Maintenance: After you’ve purchased a pair of breathable waders, make sure to properly maintain them. When waders are new, water will bead up on the surface due to the DWR treatment. This helps to prevent the face fabric from absorbing water which will reduce the degree of breathability of the material. As waders are worn and soiled, this finish will wear off. When you see the waders are no longer beading, it’s time to clean and reapply a wash/dry in treatment to restore the DWR finish. Cleaning also benefits internal oil and sweat build up which can clog pores of the membrane and reduce breathability. 

A tip for extending the life of your booties is to use an old truck floor mat when putting your waders on and off next to the vehicle to prevent any sharp rocks from damaging the neoprene booties which can be terribly difficult to patch and repair. When you get home, wet waders should be hung by their shoulder straps and allowed to fully dry inside and out to prevent mildew.

If you are still on the fence because you’ve heard breathable waders can be cold, especially during winter steelhead season, fear not. Simply invest in a pair of fleece liner pants and you’ll stay warm and toasty.

Breathable waders offer the greatest degree of comfort, both in heat and moisture regulation and also flexibility and range of motion. Their lightweight construction allows for easy, compact storage when not needed and they can easily be carried along in a backpack or boat box on every trip “just in case” even if usage may not be needed. Even though upfront cost may be higher than other styles of waders such as neoprene, breathable waders will allow a far longer service life as small holes can be easily be detected by spraying the exterior of the wader with soapy water and then fill the leg cavities with air and look for bubbles. Most waders will even come with patch material and a sealant solution to allow easy repairs at home.

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