If you fish, hunt waterfowl, hike in the backcountry, or participate in any other activity that requires you to spend long periods in the water, you will eventually decide to get a pair of waders. The choices can be overwhelming and waders are not an inexpensive purchase. Buy right and you will have a great waterproof pair that will last for years. Buy wrong and a year down the line you could find yourself wet and with a lighter pocketbook.
Waders historically came in rubber. This material is thick, heavy, durable, and somewhat constrictive. Rubber waders are completely airtight and do not breathe at all. Picture a pair of latex or rubber rain boots that come up to your chest, and you get the idea. If you’ve ever owned a pair of rubber boots you are aware that eventually they will crack and the rubber will degrade. Rubber waders are no different.
Neoprene, a synthetic rubber, has been widely used in waders since the 1980s. Improving upon natural rubber, it is lighter, more flexible, and less likely to degrade. Neoprene breathes more than rubber but still forms a relatively impermeable barrier for vapor and liquid. It provides good insulating properties.
Finally, Gore-tex waders were introduced in the early 1990s as a synthetic breathable material. Functionally waterproof, the material also has pores that periodically open to let out vapors from inside. This allows it to be classified as a breathable waterproof material. Not as durable as Rubber or Neoprene and much more expensive, Gore-tex is nonetheless considered cutting edge technology in wader construction.
Types of Waders:
Waders come in either boot foot or stockingfoot configuration. With boot foot waders, a rubber boot is permanently attached to the bottom of the waders. This is nice because you don’t have to buy a second item (wading boots), but if the boots wear out then the waders are no longer useful.
Stockingfoot waders have a thick “sock foot” on the bottom of the waders that are typically made of neoprene. The benefits to stockingfoot waders is that you can use different types of wading boots for different environments such as cleated rubber for winter and felt for slippery rocks. This allows you to vary your traction on the river bottom based on conditions.
Waders come in several different lengths. Hip waders feature too separate very tall boots that typically strap onto the belt. Waist-high hip waders come up to your waist. Chest waders come up to the top of your chest and typically feature suspenders as well. Any job you could do with hip or waist-high waders could also be done with chest waders so we are going to stick with those due to the added versatility. Nothing is worse than wearing waist-high waders, stepping in a pothole on the river bottom, and feeling cold April water rush into your legs.
Breaking it all down:
Rubber waders may be a good choice for working in the water, but for fishing and hunting we are going to assume that they would be too heavy, bulky, and hot to be very effective.
That leaves us with two choices: neoprene and breathable. Neoprene provides more natural insulation. It is also less expensive than breathable waders. It is a more durable material. That being said, I am not going to recommend neoprene if you can avoid them. The material is heavy and slows you down. They are impractical to wear in any water or outside temperature above 80 degrees because you will cook in them. Finally, they take a long time to dry out, especially if water gets inside the waders.
Breathable waders are just such a great advancement in technology that I truly believe as soon as companies improve durability, neoprene will be a thing of the past. They are lightweight. A pair of breathable waders in stockingfoot is about 3 pounds. A neoprene pair is closer to 8. They are non-restrictive and easy to move in. The breathability allows you to stay cool when you need to. If using them in cool weather you can just layer up underneath the waders. By adding wool baselayers, a puffy jacket, and thick socks, you could wade in some extremely cold waters while remaining comfortable.
My pick is to go with a pair of Simms stockingfoot waders. They are the company that first used neoprene in the 1980s and Goretex in the 90s. If you are on a budget stick to the Simms Freestone waders for around $250. While not actual gore-tex, they feature a Simms brand breathable material and the same 1-year replacement warranty (and then $60 repair warranty) that the more expensive Simms products do. You will need a pair of wading boots as well (or a size bigger pair of rubber boots until you can get some proper wading boots) to give you the traction you need on the bottom of a stream or river.
If you want to get the best waders for your money and not have to buy another pair for a long time then go with the Simms G3 stockingfoot waders. Made in the US and full Goretex they are top of the line in every sense of the word. Featuring an ironclad Simms warranty, they include 1 year of replacement for any leaks and after that repair or replacement for life at a $60 cost. These waders are meant to be repaired if damaged. Truly the best fishing wader on the market. You can also add a couple of hundred dollars if you are balling out and get the Simms g4 which features a waterproof zip front for those times when nature calls.
Buying waders is a significant purchase and one that will directly relate to your comfort level while in the water doing what you love. It may be tempting to grab a cheaper pair of $150 neoprene waders and call it a day, but just know that a year or so later you will be spending that same $150 again for a new pair. The old saying “buy once, cry once” really applies to waders purchases. If you get a quality pair from a reputable manufacturer with good breathable materials you can expect them to last 5-10 years with some minor repairs from time to time.