The Wonder of Waders

Taking a long paddling trip on smaller rivers and streams can be a wet adventure, especially if the particular waterway you're paddling is apt to pass through shallow areas, logjams, or other impassable areas that require you to get out and walk the kayak through. If the weather happens to be cool, these frequent exits from a warm, dry cockpit can leave you damp, dejected, and decidedly chilled.

Wetsuits may help fend off some of the cold, but paddling with damp neoprene clinging to your skin all day can leave you smelling bad enough to rule out sharing a tent with anyone else—and may even keep you from wanting to share one with yourself. A better alternative, a drysuit, will reduce the odor problem, but it comes with a hefty price tag attached and even in cool weather, it can easily turn into a sweat-suit.

Paddling in Comfort without Wading in Debt


A far better, far more cost-effective compromise is to buy a good pair of fly-fishing waders. For about $100 you can purchase a mid-level set of waders with shoulder straps, a breathable nylon shell, and sewn-in, 3 mm neoprene booties. I purchased just such a set (Stearns brand) in an effort to find a more comfortable way to paddle the shallow Upper Iowa River during the cool weather of October.

If you're not familiar with the Upper Iowa River, it is considered to be the premier paddling destination in Iowa, with spectacular limestone bluffs, spirited Class-I and Class-II riffles, and clear water. It is also famously shallow along much of its course, so at low water levels, most paddlers can expect to walk their canoes or kayaks through several sections, sometimes as far as a quarter mile at a time. I prefer to run the river in late September or early October, when the bluffs explode with the best fall colors the Midwest has to offer, but the wet trek through the lows can leave you downright hypothermic. So, during my recent two-day, 40-mile trek down the Upper Iowa, I experimented with waders and learned what a tremendous improvement they can make to your comfort.

With fully-waterproof construction and neoprene insulation in the feet (exactly where you want it), waders add just the right measure of warmth to your existing paddling apparel. Think of waders as leakproof rainpants. You can wear as much or as little underneath as you need to adjust to the outdoor temperature. Even better, when you wake up each morning of your expedition, you don't need to trade your warm clothes for a damp wetsuit or appropriate paddle-wear before you take to the water. You just climb directly into your waders, throw on a rainjacket, and set out paddling as warm and dry as you woke up. Whenever you come to a shallow or jam in the river that needs portaging, you'll be happy to jump out of the boat into the water with no fear of getting wet. In mud, the benefits are even greater: No more clumps of clay and sand stuck between your toes, wedged inside your sandals, or caked onto your feet. Since the waders are slick on the outside, you can shake your legs and feet off in the water before you take to your seat, keeping dirt and water inside your canoe or kayak to a minimum. And if you happen to stop to eat or rest during (or after) a rain shower, you can sit down wherever you want with no fear of getting wet, muddy, or cold. Now that's comfort!

Potential Wader Woes

Of course, waders do have one noticeable drawback—but in my opinion, it's milder than the comparable drawbacks of wetsuits and drysuits. The drawback is this: If you wear too many layers under your waders and you don't watch your body temperature closely throughout the day, the waders (like all "breathable" fabrics) can end up trapping a substantial amount of body sweat inside your clothes—so much so, that you'll be surprised how damp and smelly your clothes come out afterward. To this extent, they require a bit of proactivity on your part. Keep yourself comfortable, but don't let yourself get too warm. If you start to feel hot, remove your rainjacket and roll down the top of the waders to let your body heat escape. If you're still hot, stop and reduce layers accordingly. Otherwise, your damp, sweat-ridden clothes will leave you just as susceptible to the cold weather as a wetsuit or a ventless dry-suit. Regardless, the sweaty effect of waders is neither as stinky as a wetsuit, nor as dramatic as the sweat-suit effect of most full-body drysuits.

Another consideration—which I have yet to experience, but which deserves serious discussion—involves the issue of what would happen if you capsize in deep water while wearing waders. With an open chest and sealed feet, the waders would almost certainly turn into a giant bucket, letting water pour in and fill up any interior space. A good waistbelt might slow the filling process by restricting the size of the opening, but it certainly would not stop it. Consequently, the intruding water would cause you to sink until the entire set of waders became submerged, at which point the weight of the water inside the waders should equalize with the pressure of the water outside the waders, effectively leaving you floating neck-deep with only your head still above the surface. The added buoyancy of a lifejacket might raise you perhaps an inch higher, but regardless, you can see why this could become a potentially dangerous situation. Before you could even begin to re-enter your kayak, you would unquestionably need to climb out of the waders. For that reason, I highly recommend that you buy waders equipped with large, easily-accessible "quick-disconnect" buckles on the shoulder straps, and make sure the waders are large enough to wear over (not under) your lifejacket. That way, in a capsize scenario, you can shed your waders in a hurry—without needing to remove your lifejacket first.

The Verdict on Waders

Waders can dramatically improve your paddling comfort for relatively little expense and minimal effort on your part. As for me, I'll never again paddle a shallow river or stream in cold weather without taking my waders along.

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© 2006, Wesley Kisting

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