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Why breathable waders are good for winter fishing and why you may freeze in your trusty neoprenes.
If you—like me—fish all year round, or you just like to get out early or late in the season, you need to dress properly in order to be comfortable and stay warm.
If you don't get out while it is cold, it might be because you don't dress for the situation. A cold day is not an indoors day.
Cold days are often great fishing days—not least because all the other anglers tend to stay home. Probably because they don't know how to dress for winter fishing.
I wear breathables!
I used to think like most other anglers: neoprenes are for winter fishing and those skinny Goretex waders are summer waders.
Well, I don't do that any more.
I haven't worn a pair of neoprenes in more than five years.
And it's not because I don't fish in the winter. On the contrary! I love fishing in cold weather and cold water, and still I wear those thin breathing waders.
I actually remember freezing a lot more back then. I still freeze occasionally, but it's only on rare occasions, and mostly because the air is cold—not the water.
Breathable waders are as warm and warmer than neoprenes if worn over the proper clothes, and the reason is exactly that they are breathable. They stay dry on the inside. Simple as that!
Goretex was the first fabric, which could hold out water and breathe vapor at the same time. The principle is having a membrane, which is waterproof, but with small holes punched in it—small enough for steam to evaporate through them, but too small for fluid water to enter. A simple principle, but probably not that simple to turn into a real-life product. The price of Goretex reflected that—and to some extent still does.
Since the introduction of Goretex a lot of similar products have seen the light of day, and breathable membranes can be found everywhere today and at fair prices.
The breathable myth
When I first heard of breathable waders they were talked about as "Summer-waders". Since they were thin and had no insulation at all and could let your sweat escape, everybody assumed that they were useless in cold water. Many people still think so.
This is not true!
Breathable waders can be worn all year round and will keep you warm even in freezing water. And in many cases they will keep you even warmer than thick neoprenes.
Insulation is air—air is insulation
Conserving heat is the main objective if you want to stay warm. Freezing is the same as loosing heat to the surroundings.
Heat is conserved by keeping it in and close to the body, and that is obtained by insulation.
Insulation is basically air, which is trapped and cannot move. It can also be some sort of gas or other substance, but for practical reasons we anglers stick to air.
Trapped air will stay warm close to a heat source and cold further away from it closer to the cold surroundings. Since air is a bad conductor of heat, the inner layer stays warm, and little energy escapes to the outer layer and further out—if the air in the layers just don't mix.
Firm and thick
Trapping air in a fabric or foam is a good way of keeping it from moving, and this fabric or foam must be firm and thick.
Thick because the sheer distance between warm little you and cold big outside will make the insulation more effective.
Firm because we don't want the layer to become thinner under pressure—like when waders are underwater and submitted to the pressure from the outside.
Foam is a very good insulator. It has these two main traits: air trapped in a firm material. That would make neoprene a perfect insulator, which in itself is true enough. But as we shall see later in this article, neoprene has its downsides.
Fleece is another example on a good insulator: it's a light, fluffy and often thick material with some sturdiness. Good fleece is quite firm, but most fleece will be compressed a bit when worn under waders. The same goes for certain types of wool.
Fleece has another advantage: it doesn't suck up moisture. And that is good because moisture is the enemy of good insulation.
Any insulating material will become a worse insulator if it's wet or even just moist. Soggy socks will transport heat much better than dry ones. A sweaty wet cotton T-Shirt will willingly draw heat energy away from your skin.
So keeping dry is essential in order to stay warm.
The primary source of moisture is you—unless your waders are leaking of course. The transpiration from your body is moist and unless this moisture can escape, there is only one place for it to be: between you and your waders. In the clothes in other words, exactly where we don't want it.
10% inspiration and 90% transpiration
At room temperature a body actually evaporates about 2 liters or close to half a gallon of fluid per 24 hours.
If the same body performs a workload of some kind, this number will increase. The same thing will happen if the temperature rises. The warmer it is, the more we sweat. We all know that.
But even in low temps we sweat. Particularly if we are physically active, like if we wade or hike.
Certain combinations of outside temperatures and physical activity can bring out one liter of sweat per hour. Sweat, which will be caught between your skin and your waders. Unless, of course, your waders can breathe.
So we're back at the breathable waders. Since they let the moisture escape, they will let the inner layers stay dry and because of that let them remain good insulators.
Neoperenes and good insulating clothing will be as warm or even warmer. But as sweat condensates on the inside, the insulation will slowly moisten up and eventually fail, and during the day, heat will escape and you will most likely freeze.
So wearing breathable waders will keep you dry and warm provided you wear proper clothing underneath.
Good clothing these days is generally the same as modern so called technical clothes. The term technical is mostly used for synthetic clothing, which is made to fill certain tasks. There are basically two types: sweat-transporting and isolating.
The names say it all. The inner, sweat-transporting layer has the job of getting moisture away from the skin and keeping you dry. The outer insulating layer has the job of trapping air and keeping you warm.
Some people will argue that certain woolly products are as good or better than the synthetics. I don't doubt it, but my experience with Alpaca and Merino is limited to some hefty price tags. I own one pair of Merino wool socks and while they are very warm, they are also extremely expensive. A pair of my many inexpensive synthetic socks has served me just as well.
My winter fishing wardrobe
I personally wear the following under my breathable warders on a cold winter's day:
- My usual briefs, cotton or microfibre
- A cotton T-shirt (I know, but I like the feeling of cotton!)
- Synthetic liner socks, thin and sweat transporting
- Very thick and firm socks, Merino wool or synthetic
- Long sweat transporting underpants, semi-thick
- Fleece pants, very thick
- Fleece jacket, either plain or with a windbreaking layer
- Breathable waders
- Short, heavy (and breathable) wading jacket
- GFF cap or woolly stocking cap with windbreaking layer
On sunny and calm winter days I often strip the jacket. On very cold days I may have a pair of woolly, fingerless gloves in my pockets. On extremely cold days I stay home and tie flies...
I put it on in the sequence mentioned by the way, in order to get the layers to cover each other completely.
One thing, which is also important if you want to stay warm, is to be clean. I know this sounds odd, but sweaty residues on your body, particularly on your feet, seems to attract moisture and stimulate further sweating. Clean feet in particular can save the day. So shower or at least wash your feet before you get into those warm clothes if you have the option.
And then select a nice sunny, frosty day and go winter fishing!