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Function And Form Rolled Into One, Waist Waders Are Versatile, Affordable, and Highly Functional
By Eric Martin
I’ll be the first to admit, I’m a lightweight when it comes to getting wet. I hated water fights when I was a kid, I didn’t swim in lakes and streams during my teenage years, and even today I won’t wet wade while fishing. I grew up mere miles from the Deschutes River in Oregon, one of the most premier fisheries in the state; a place where the sun bakes hotter than a camel’s undercarriage and the water flows frigidly cold. A lot of people wade the Deschutes to seek relief from the sun, but not me. Hiking miles back out to the trailhead, soaking wet, stomping through the High Desert powdery dirt and rough edged bear grass was miserable. I chose instead to pack a pair of breathable waders in a backpack and change once I reached my fishing spot, allowing me to stay cool, stay dry and stay comfortable. So began my appreciation for the benefits of breathable waders.
Breathable membranes were born by accident in the basement of Wilbert and Genevieve Gore’s Delaware home. Out of frustration with a project he was working on, Wilbert’s son, Bob Gore, rapidly stretched a piece of the polymer polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) he had been heating. Instead of breaking, the polymer expanded and produced billions of microscopic pores per square inch. These pores were large enough to allow air and moisture in steam form to pass through, but far too small for a droplet of water to pass through. History was made in an instant. Just a dozen years after its creation, Gore-Tex® was being used in spacesuits by NASA. By the mid-70s, breathable membranes were being incorporated commercially into outdoor clothing, and by the early 90s, anglers around the world slogged out of their rubber coated sweat sacks and peeled themselves out of swampy neoprene and swaddled themselves in a revolutionary material that would forever change the fishing industry.
Early breathable waders were a bit hit or miss when it came to performance and durability. There were great waders, and utter garbage. Price tags of the great waders kept a lot of people sweating in their trusty neoprene. Lower cost options were available; unfortunately they soon left the wearer soaked and skeptical as to whether such construction was capable of handling the rigors of salmon and steelhead fishing. Thankfully, advancements in technology, materials and manufacturing have propelled breathable waders, much like the astronauts who first entrusted these magical membranes, to the forefront of modern engineering. This has allowed for incredible growth and development in the industry, with now dozens of options available at excellent price points while also offering impressive performance. Not only do these new breathable waders offer unmatched waterproofing, durability, user fit, sizing, range of motion and overall comfort, they are also incredibly easy to pack, store, clean and repair. Other new developments in the breathable wader scene include designs that incorporate waterproof zippers, and my newfound favorite style: waist high wading pants.
If breathable chest waders are like a bowl of ice cream, breathable wading pants are the same bowl of ice cream but with hot fudge and sprinkles. Same basic foundation, but with the added benefit of a few notable features, the first of which is fit.
To both maximize user comfort as well as life of the wader it is important that the wader fits properly. With standard chest waders, this means you not only have to find something that fits your feet, legs, inseam and waist, but also your belly, chest and torso. I’ve had waders before that had too short of an inseam while the upper reached all the way to my armpits. Or the ever-perplexing conundrum of waders that fit perfectly through the legs, but are strangely tight through the belly area.
An improper fit can limit your range of motion, limit your ability to under layer and put undue stress on seams, shortening the life of the wader. Wading pants tend to be more ’fit friendly’, match a wider range of body styles, and offer a greater range of motion and comfort as your upper body is less restricted. Lacking an upper portion of the wader body also makes waist high waders considerably cooler in warm weather, yet comfortably warm even in the coldest of weather by matching with a good base layer and a jacket.
Speaking of restriction and range of motion, if you row a drift boat, chest waders with a front pocket can cause some issues while rowing. More than once I’ve stuck and oar handle into a chest pocket while maneuvering the oar shafts. Do this in technical water and you’re toast. The sleek design of wading pants eliminates this threat.
Wading pants are also lighter, benefitting comfort by reducing bulk. Savings in weight as well as physical size make wading pants the optimal choice for travel or simply bringing a pair along as insurance on an outdoor adventure. A pair can be rolled up to the size of a loaf of bread and stored under a boat seat as backups in case someone in the boat forgets rain gear, or for easy donning should you decide to jump out of the boat and wade-fish a run or walk your boat around an obstacle. They also fit nicely in a backpack for hike in trips, and save on ever-crucial space when traveling by air.
Have I mentioned answering the call of the wild yet? I’ll dance around like a little kid in order to prolong having to fight with shoulder straps and bulky chest wader material to take a leak, and if you feel the same way, urine luck. With waist high waders, lightening your liquid load is as easy as with a pair of blue jeans. Honestly, this attribute alone will make you a believer. Some models have even increased the convenience by adding a fly style zipper.
Some people will argue that waist high waders can limit the areas you may fish by limiting wading depth. I’m not sure about all of you reading this, but I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve waded deeper than my waist, and I guarantee I wasn’t trying to actually fish while I was doing so. Getting that deep is an invitation for losing your footing, especially in any significant current, and going for an unplanned swim. Did I mention I hate getting wet?
Regardless of the breathable wader you choose, it is important to understand under layers and care for your waders in order to ensure the greatest performance and lifespan. Breathable membranes are only breathable to a certain degree, that is, you can’t go for a jog in them and expect to stay dry. Breathable membranes are industry rated by how much moisture can pass through a square meter of material in a 24-hour period. Greatly influencing the breathability of a membrane is the type of under layers you wear inside the waders. Materials that trap moisture, such as cotton, will reduce the performance of a breathable membrane and leave you feeling clammy. A light base layer covered by a heavier outer layer of synthetic material will lend to the greatest breathability. The outer face material of the waders can also impact breathability. It is important for waders to be tough enough for brush busting, but if you will be using them primarily out of a boat, or for less abusive applications, you may actually benefit from a lighter duty model. The trade off for durability is while heavy-duty materials enhance durability, they can reduce breathability. This can also be true for models with multiple membrane layers, as each of these layers must be laminated together and can limit the amount of open, exposed pores for sweat moisture to pass through.
Keeping the membrane and outer layers clean is also crucial. Think of the membrane and outer layers like the air filter on your car. When they become clogged with dirt, slime, bodily oils, etc., they restrict airflow and reduce performance. When left for long periods of time, these contaminates accumulate to the point where performance is severely hindered. This is especially true for the outer layer.
When you first purchase a pair of waders, you will notice water beads off the outer layer due to a water repelling finish. This finish prevents water from saturating the face fabric, impacting breathability, and also pulling body heat away from the wearer, lowering body temperature. It is important to keep this surface treatment active by allowing your waders to dry between uses, regularly cleaning your waders, and reapplying finish treatment as needed. Most breathable waders are machine washable, but adhere closely to the manufacturer’s specifications regarding what setting to use for washing and drying, and also what types of detergent can be used. I wash my waders and jackets about once a year, and have one pair going on eight years without a leak (knock on wood!). A benefit of all breathable waders is should damage occur, leaks are easy to find and easy to repair, especially when compared to neoprene.
Wading pants are so functional, portable, comfortable and economical you’ll be amazed at how many uses you can find for them. From clamming to monsoon-proof rain gear, backpacking to backcountry hunting, they’ll do it all. Last year I even wore them to a few soggy football games, and even filled my deer tag while wearing them. Even better, wading pants are typically less expensive than chest waders, with a variety of options to be had in the $100 range. This makes wading pants a great option for kids, beginners, or simply as cheap insurance even if you aren’t quite ready to give up your chest waders just yet.
Wading Pants 101: Here’s what to look for
Seams – Make sure all seams are located out of high wear areas. Seams on the inside of the legs, fronts of knees, crotch and seat area incur the greatest wear and failure rates. Look for as few seams as possible, located on the back or outer side of the legs. Make sure to turn the waders inside out and inspect that all seams and junction points have been adequately taped and sealed.
Sizing – Fit should allow for good range of motion without any binding or restriction. If possible, try waders on and simulate squatting, kneeling and stepping up onto objects to test fit. Do not buy waders excessively oversized or baggy as these have higher drag in water and will also wear out faster in areas that rub together.
Reinforcement – Waders with multiple layers of full reinforcement of the entire seat and reinforcement layers that wrap around the full lower leg earn top marks. In addition to the front of the legs and knee area, significant damage comes to the back of waders via sitting, slips, trips and falls.
Booties – Make sure fit of wader booties is comfortable while wearing a heavy pair of socks. Just because a wader is a particular size, doesn’t mean the foot size corresponds to your needs. Having cramped little ballerina feet will lead to miserable days on the water, as will oversized balled up wads of neoprene in your boots. Some manufactures even cut a left and right foot specific bootie, producing the most natural fit and greatest overall comfort.
Pockets – Not all waist high waders have pockets. Typically, the added labor to manufacture pockets will increase price, so shop accordingly.
Waist Straps – Make sure buckles on waist straps engage securely and are easy to manipulate. Wider belts offer greatest comfort and support, as do elastic style belts. If the belt is elastic, make sure it is rigid enough to provide support, and isn’t just there as decoration.
Belt loops – Models with numerous belt loops, especially on the hip area, work best for keeping wading belt secure and close at hand when unbuckled and also benefit keeping tools such as pliers in position even when the belt is unbuckled.
Gravel Guards – Waders need to have gravel guards to keep debris from entering your wading boots and damaging the bootie. Make sure gravel guards fit snug and that lace hooks grip your laces securely. Baggy gravel guards will rub together when walking and quickly wear out. Gravel guards with an elastic cuff adapt the best to a wide variety of wading boot styles.