Field-Test: The Latest In Waders

Field-Test: The Latest In Waders

FR&R puts the top 20 pairs of new breathables through their paces

  • By: Ted Leeson
Here's a not-terribly bold statement: breathable waders represent the single most useful and successful product development in the recent history of fly-fishing. Certainly rods and reels have improved as well, but while I have 20-year-old tackle I still fish, I'd rather spend an afternoon with a colonoscope than wearing a pair of waders made two decades ago. Breathable waders are hardly perfect, but innovations in designs and materials have marched steadily in the direction of greater utility, durability and affordability.The new wader crop is in, and broadly speaking, here's what you can look forward to: The High End - More features, as manufacturers have finally stumbled on to the fact that there might be more to wader pockets than a limp little pouch that will scarcely hold a credit card; they've headed in the direction of more technical pocket designs, inside and out. - Multi-fabric construction that uses different weights or types of material that address different durability or breathability requirements in different portions of the waders. - Look for more waders with zip fronts. Half-a-dozen models were introduced this year, though too close to deadline for field testing. - More players, as a few new combatants have entered a fairly full arena. The Middle Range - More for your money, as waders at this price level now routinely offer articulated knees, reinforced lower legs, built-in gravel guards, better booties and other extras formerly found primarily on top-end products. As designs have moved ahead, these features have trickled down. The Economy Level - Less money, as the price of a basic breathable shell has fallen. A basic pair of waders is more affordable now than ever before. It won't be state-of-the-art stuff, but it will be serviceable and practical. Albright TriTech The three-layer shell fabric on these waders provide a comfortably flexible foundation for details that improve durability. Front leg reinforcements are long enough for useful protection, though water can drain slowly from the smallish bottom vents. I particularly like the big seat patch here, a nice plus for boaters and tubers, and a textured "tread" on the Hypalon sole resists abrasion. A mesh facing over fleece handwarmer pockets promotes drying, though it can admit rain if not covered by a jacket. Three vertical back belt loops allow belt positioning for optimum fit and comfort. A roomy cut offers good freedom of movement, though thinner anglers may find these a little baggy. In fact, larger anglers should give these a look, since seven of the ten size options run from Large to 2XLKing. Nothing revolutionary here, just a solid and serviceable piece of equipment. $195. Trinity These were a pleasant surprise in both materials and construction detail. The three-layer shell fabric is stout and tough, and five-layer lower-leg panels extend usefully from bootie tops to mid-thigh for additional protection. Articulated knees and integral elasticized gravel guards are nice features on a wader in this price class, and side cinch-straps make for practical waist-high conversion. Overall mobility is good, partially owing to the fuller cut--a consequence of limited size options--and excess fabric does add to drag in the water and weight. And in my experience, breathabilty here is only moderate. But I like these for the balance of toughness and price--a workmanlike product for anglers who want a more rugged wader without dropping a bundle. Eight sizes, $139. Chota Tellico II This new version of the first Tellico waders preserves the most practical design features of the original--reinforced, articulated knees; waist-high conversion; zippered flip-out chest pocket. But there are lots of changes, beginning with the shell fabric; it's lighter, softer, more supple and quieter. And the booties are tougher and more durably built. The elasticized fabric gravel guards have--hallelujah!--sturdy, well-anchored plastic bootlace clips rather than the tiny metal type that I always seem to bend or break. Leg fronts are reinforced with an external fabric layer running nearly from knee to ankle rather than skimpy knee-cap patches. The reinforcement panel, however, is left open on the bottom for water drainage, and the loose flap can snag on brush and branches when bushwhacking. But the extra protection adds welcome ruggedness to a wader that is light, comfortably flexible and great in hot weather. One of the best changes of all: the price has dropped. Ten sizes, $219.95. Cabela's Guide Tech Dry-Plus These are a nice package, with four-layer Dry-Plus uppers and five layer Dry-Plus facing the legs, front and back, and running up the seat--usefully tough for brushy hikes or guys who spend time on their butts kicking fins or rowing. Features here--articulated knees, elasticized fabric gaiters, right/left feet, flip-out chest pocket--are functionally done. The external chest pocket has a built-in retractor and mesh pockets outside; it flips open to a fold-down tray, much like a chest pack with a similar interior array of tool sleeves, tippet pockets, and so on, which seem to me somewhat overengineered. This whole exterior pocket zips off, though I'm not sure why. The tradeoff in all this is some increase in shell weight and stiffness and a decrease in breathability. But the balance here among toughness, features and cost is appealing. Over the years I've tested all of Cabela's currently available waders; these are the ones I'd buy. Eleven sizes, $189.95. Bluestream Ever wonder what kind of waders $80 will buy? Me too. The answer is--not bad. Not bad at all, actually, provided you keep things in perspective. What you get here is a basic shell with, surprisingly, reinforced lower-leg fronts--a useful addition since this lightweight fabric isn't particularly high in puncture resistance. But it's hardly tissue paper either and is certainly up to the demands of everyday, open-water fishing. The 3mm booties here have a density sole--another surprise--and the choice of 8 sizes (unusual in an economy wader) promotes both mobility and longevity. What you give up here is some toughness and, it seemed to me, a little breathability; what you get is a very serviceable pair of waders. A good choice for entry-level fishermen, those on a budget or traveling anglers who want back-up waders. Used within their limits, these are a good buy. $79.95, including slip-on gravel guards. L.L. Bean Flyweight Breathable This year, L.L. Bean introduced the entry-level Flyweights, with a single-layer nylon shell and polyurethane coating. In most respects, these are as simple as they come--no fabric reinforcements, articulated knees or clever pockets--though they do incorporate a couple of nice touches: integral gravel guards and left/right feet on the 3.5mm neoprene booties. The shell is lightweight, flexible and quite comfortable, though less suited to bramble-crashing than the Wicked Toughs, but fine for ordinary, open-water use. While nothing to write home about, breathability is acceptable, though the exposed PU coating can feel a little clammy against bare skin in extremely hot weather. The surprise here is the price--$59--which to my mind more than compensates for any small shortcomings. These are a very good value for beginning anglers who have not yet learned to torture their waders, for backup waders when traveling and for economy-minded fishermen in general. With only four available sizes, you may not get that custom fit, but they will keep you dry and comfortable for remarkably little money. Wicked Tough I'm not sure about "wicked," but "tough" is pretty much on the money. Three-layer uppers and five-layer legs are built of Gore-Tex Immersion Technology fabric with a hard, almost slick finish that tends to shed, rather than snag, potential punctures. The result is a rugged, abrasion-resistant shell, but also one that is a little stiffer and heavier than the norm. Durability extends to the booties--3.5mm neoprene with 4mm soles. The fairly roomy cut means creases and folds in the fabric that produce some drag in wading, but also gives easy freedom of movement, aided by a cushy neoprene harness in lieu of ordinary suspenders. Not heavy on "features," the few here are well chosen--integral gravel guards and belt loops, drawstring top, handwarmers and a useable (if rather small) interior pocket. A fine all-purpose wader, but particularly well suited to brush-busters who like to go where no man has gone before, and a good value in Gore-Tex waders. Fourteen sizes, $299-$329. Breathable Emerger I don't think I've used a pair of stockingfoots that better illustrate how much, over the years, the price of breathable waders has dropped while the quality has risen. These have a reasonably tough, reasonably breathable shell and features formerly associated with more expensive products: articulated knees for mobility; full knee-length front reinforcement panels; integral elasticized gravel guards; mateable suspender ends for waist-high conversion. There's solid service here for your money. There are some inevitable tradeoffs however. The chest pocket is not very secure and almost uselessly small. Water becomes trapped between the shell and reinforcement material and can be slow to drain. And they only come in five sizes (S-2XL), one of which may not be yours. If you can get a decent fit, though, these are a very good buy and rugged for waders in this price class. Affordable enough to pack as backup waders when traveling. $99. Dan Bailey Yellowstone Guide Dan Bailey has redesigned this wader to the point of being a new product. The microfiber shell and the fabric reinforcement encircling the lower legs remain the same, but a double-layer seat (nice for tubers and boaters) has been added. A divided exterior zipping front pocket holds two medium fly boxes, and a piggyback mesh pocket holds tippet spools and accessories. Behind this front storage are fleece-lined handwarmers, and a zip-closing inside pocket holds additional fly boxes. Side cinch-straps serve in lieu of a belt and are among the most useful I've seen--wide enough to hold securely and long enough to put the hook-and-loop-closing tabs at your back, out of the way of fly line. And in conjunction with the snap-off suspenders, the cinch straps make for excellent waist-high conversion. Integral gravel cuffs secure around boot tops with hook-and-loop straps--the one small weak spot. Once fastened, the tab end of the strap is difficult to peel away from its mate. These are sturdily built and usefully designed. Twelve sizes, $349.95. Cloudveil 8X Already a player in the ski industry, Cloudveil is the new kid on the fly-fishing block, looking to carve out a presence in the high end of the market. These are the premium model: five-layer Gore-Tex Immersion Technology fabric on leg fronts, three-layer Immersion Technology in the remainder of the lowers, and highly breathable Gore-Tex XCR on the uppers. The materials strike a very functional balance between toughness and breathability. An external chest pocket, piggybacked on big handwarmers--all with waterproof zippers--have enough capacity to carry the vitals for those who prefer traveling light and keep it all dry for those who wade deep. These are well designed and well made, with elasticized fabric gravel guards and waist-high conversion. Top-grade materials, strategically used, make these light and comfortable. Designed for serious, performance-oriented anglers. Let the wader wars begin. Thirteen sizes, $425. Crystal Creek These are essentially a simplified version of the 8X, with three-layer Gore-Tex Immersion Technology fabric on lowers, reinforced leg fronts, and Gore-Tex XCR uppers. The 4mm neoprene booties, gaiters and waist-high conversion option are also identical. What you give up in this model are the handwarmer pockets and the use of five-layer Immersion Technology fabric in the lower leg reinforcement panels. The five-layer panels are somewhat less breathable, but in my field testing seemed rugged enough to withstand the usual indignities. What you gain is some weight savings--these are nicely light--and some change back in your pocket. To be honest, I liked these just as well as the 8X from the performance standpoint. Though these aren't exactly inexpensive, the tradeoffs made to lower the cost seem well chosen since they preserve high-quality shell materials. Thirteen sizes, $345. Orvis Clearwater Endura The approach in these price-point waders is appropriately straightforward--three-layer uppers with five-layer leg-front panels; high-density booties; internal chest pocket; and mating suspender ends for waist-high conversion. Performance is equally utilitarian; though not for extreme brush-busting, the wader shell, even in its three-layer portion, has a pleasing toughness for the money. The five-layer reinforcements are quite stout, though I wish they extended up the leg a little higher. Flexibility and freedom of motion are good; you don't have to fight this fabric when walking or wading, and size selection should accommodate just about everyone (including women's sizes). These are testimony to just how far prices have fallen on solid, workmanlike waders that promise reasonable durability. I'd happily wear these for everyday fishing. In fact, I did. Twelve sizes, $129. Pro Guide2 I like the idea here--a four-layer No Sweat shell with five layers on leg fronts for going cross country and, smartly, on the seat for added abrasion resistance when sitting in boats or float tubes. A thoughtful, all-purpose design. Lots of overlays here--legs, seat, chest pocket over handwarmers on the front add some stiffness and diminish breathability a bit. But I'll take the tradeoff. Left/right booties are always a good idea, but sole outline is rather small and places some seams underfoot, and overall seam length is high. But I must say they haven't been a problem so far. Features here are useful--front pockets, flip-out chest pocket, integral gravel guards, and double belt loops, one above the other, for optimum belt placement, which is particularly handy in the waist-high mode. In my opinion, these are best waders ever to come from Orvis--good shell fabric in a useful design and features not typically found in this price class. Twelve sizes, $289. Tailwaters XT The four-layer No Sweat chassis, with an additional reinforcement layer on leg fronts and seat, give these waders a serviceably rugged shell, and the peached microfiber exterior eliminates that rough, tarp-like feel of some heavier fabrics. The tradeoff is some stiffness, though the articulated knees help compensate so that you're not fighting the fabric in walking and bending. These seem designed primarily as a waist-high wader, with long belt loops placed high enough on the torso to be useful and, properly adjusted, the belt carries the weight. The wader tops are a light stretch fabric, held in place by narrow, hook-and-loop adjusting straps, and both are easily folded down inside the shell, again with waist-high use in mind. The straps, however, offer less than two inches of length adjustability--not crucial since the belt actually holds the waders up--but a nuisance if the straps are too loose and tend to slip off your shoulder or too tight for comfort. Though certainly practical for all-around use, these seem to me a good choice for anglers primarily seeking a waist-high wader that can convert to chest high for occasional deeper wading, rather than the reverse. Built-in fabric gravel guards and an inside waist-level pocket complete the package. Twelve sizes, $329. Patagonia Watermaster Light This lightweight version of the Watermaster is constructed entirely of Hydrostorm HB Light fabric, a thinner and lighter material, in a simplified design that has no lower-leg reinforcement. What you lose is some puncture and abrasion resistance. What you gain is comfort. The shell is very light and flexible and, aided by articulated knees, offers excellent freedom of motion. The uppers also roll down with very little bulk for waist-high use. Features are minimum--elasticized fabric gaiters; flip down, zippered chest pocket. Weight and breathability make these comfortable in hot weather, but I found them unexpectedly good in cold temperatures; you can layer up warm clothes underneath without feeling added bulk or restrictiveness from the waders themselves. If you spend most of your time under ordinary fishing conditions, wading and casting in open water, trading away some puncture resistance for improved mobility and comfort makes a good deal of sense. Seventeen sizes (women's also available), $200. A good value in its class. Watermaster II This redesign of the Watermaster preserves the Hydrostorm HB shell fabric and the useful approach to waist-high conversion: suspenders attach inside the wader at the waist; the top edge of the waders then snap to the suspenders. Convert to waist high by unsnapping the wader top, rolling it down, and securing it with the belt. Because the waders are still supported by the suspenders, they don't ride down like most waist-highs that secure only with a belt. Elasticized gravel guards are also unchanged. The reinforcing fabric, though, is new--Hydrostorm HB Heavyweight 3L, a much tougher, but quite breathable, three-layer fabric is used in the leg fronts and seat, extending up the back to add durability for float-tubers and pontoon people. This new heavyweight material is more puncture resistant, softer and noticeably more supple than the previous version. Seam contours have been redesigned as well, and the upshot is a wader with greater mobility and comfort than its predecessor. Bootie soles of high-density neoprene are cut left/right for better fit and less abrasion. Nice flip-out, piggyback chest pocket as well. Versatility make these a good choice for anglers who do it all--crash the brush, float tube, fish the heat in waist-highs and wade deep. Seventeen sizes (women's also available), $335. Simms G3 The three-layer uppers combined with five-layer legs and seat, all constructed of Gore-Tex Immersion Technology fabric, give a highly useful balance of breathability and toughness. These sport the usual Simms booties--left/right feet to reduce seam stress and abrasion, and heavy-duty seam tape. These suckers are nicely built. Details here are equally well done--cushy, comfortable suspenders and stretchy integral gravel guards. And the features up top are generally practical--an internal pocket flips out to give access to a fly-box-size zip-closing compartment, a built in retractor, and two tippet spool pockets (which I like better for storing split-shot and flotant). On the outside, a pleasingly large compartment hides behind handwarmer pockets. You might not notice one of the best features at first--20 stock sizes (also in women's sizes) to give a close fit that reduces water resistance in wading but still allow full mobility. This is top-of-the-line stuff--possibly the best waders that have been made to date--for anglers whose gear sees unremitting use and who'd rather pay top dollar once than buy new waders every year or two. $449. RiverTek Most convertible waders are designed as chest-highs, with waist-high conversion a secondary concern. These take the opposite approach. The lowers, of three-layer Gore-Tex Immersion Technology fabric, secure at the waist with a comfortably wide, integral belt that cinches up with two hook-and-loop-adjusting side tabs. The lightweight uppers and low-profile suspenders simply fold down, out of the way, inside the waders. The suspenders detach easily, but if you leave them in place, you can convert to chest-high mode in an instant. The suspenders, however, can detach a little too easily; they can come unhooked during waist-high use and be an annoyance to refasten, especially in the back. And I'd like to see articulated knees, de rigeur these days on waders in this price class. But these are very usefully designed--waist-high waders that actually stay up--and a smart choice for anglers whose first priority is a waist-high wader that converts for occasional deep wading; for those who fish a lot in hot weather; and for those who like to row a drift boat or raft without the encumbrance of tugging, binding suspenders. With integral gravel guards and zip-closing chest pocket. Fifteen sizes, $299.95. L2 Stockingfoots These waders are simplicity itself. From the waist down, they're Gore-Tex Immersion Technology Fabric; above that, a supple microfiber top. Add a usefully sized, flip-out, zippered chest pocket and integral neoprene gravel guards, and you've got the package. The virtues? Extremely light in weight, low in bulk, highly breathable and packable. Supple and unencumbering, these are about as close as you can to wet wading and still stay dry. The tradeoff is in toughness. Though plenty rugged enough for straight wading, I'd go with something stouter for crashing through the puckerbrush. And again, articulated knees, virtually standard equipment these days, would improve mobility, though I should add that Simms waders tend to run long in the leg, which helps compensate. These are a good choice for anglers who'd rather put their money into top-flight materials than into features of dubious utility and who value a simple, lightweight, cool and comfortable shell. Twelve sizes, $249.95. William Joseph Drynamic This is WJ's second season in the wader market, and the Drynamic typifies some of the new thinking about design details. The Supplex shell is faced with extra fabric on the leg fronts, and thigh seams are taped inside and out for durability. Hypalon-sole booties are articulated at the instep for a tailored, stress-free fit and protected by integral fabric gravel guards. The real innovations are in the details. A 10-inch waterproof zipper at the top (with a fabric bellows behind for additional water protection) greatly simplifies getting in and out of the waders. Two stretch-fabric, external front pockets are accessed with vertical waterproof zippers--a highly useable design that I quickly came to prefer over horizontally opening pockets. I was skeptical of the stretchy pocket on the back of the wader tops, but in fact you can operate the horizontal zipper and access contents without much trouble; the pocket improves capacity and helps balance the load. Minimalist anglers could eschew vest or chestpack and fish right out of the wader pockets. Drawbacks? A wader in this price category should have articulated knees for better mobility, and waist-high conversion is not a strong suit. But nicely useable storage in a good basic shell is the story here. Five sizes, $289. Wade Deeper Albright 866-359-7355 albrighttackle.com Cabela's 800-237-4444 cabelas.com Chota 877-462-4682 chotaoutdoorgear.com Cloudveil 877-255-8345 cloudveilfishing.com Dan Bailey 800-356-4052 dan-bailey.com L.L. Bean 800-441-5713 llbean.com Orvis 888-235-9763 orvis.com Patagonia 800-638-6464 patagonia.com Simms 406-585-3557 simmsfishing.com William Joseph 800-269-1875 williamjoseph.net