Chest waders as an alternative

-- Last Updated: Feb-06-12 3:17 PM EST --

I'm looking to get out on the water as early as possible. I live in Chicago and would be looking solely at paddling the quiet flat water lakes in the forest preserves for starters, moving to the streams and rivers when the weather really warms up. My boat (which is on the way), is one of these:
I'll be installing a transom-mount trolling motor to aid in getting upstream on some rivers, but for the most part will be paddling with my kayak paddle or the included oars, depending on where I'm going and how tight the area is. I believe the boat is very stable from all the videos I've seen. Also, I've owned a few other inflatable boats, kayaks specifically, that were narrower and they were very stable as well. So, I guess I'm saying a dunking is unlikely, but I'd like to be safe of course. I'm wondering how safe it would be to get out when it's still kind of cold. I've read a lot about cold weather paddling and the whole cold shock thing. I'm wondering if chest waders with warm layers underneath would be a good alternative to going full out with a paddling drysuit, which I'd like to add is completely out of my price range. I know you can get chest belts to go with chest waders to help keep water out in case you take a dunking. Any thoughts, suggestions? Should I just wait until late April or early May, or can I reasonably, safely get out some time in March?

I wouldn’t do it
I surf in my waders quite a bit. But they are neoprene waders so they are tight like a wetsuit. I only have room underneath for thin layers but after a long swim some water still gets in. I think it is very cold in Chicago but I haven’t swum there since I was a small child. Big waders that you can wear clothes under are not going to be fun in a swim.

I wear the neoprene waders like others wear a farmer john wet suit with booties. I wear splash top over it and often wear a hood as well.

If you do wear waders like many duck hunters and fisherman, please wear a life vest over them, bring a dry bag of spare warm clothes, and stay near the shore.

not waders
My understanding has always been that chest waders can be deadly for immersion in water you can’t stand up in because they rapidly fill with water and sink you, or at the very least, render swimming nearly impossible. I think that would be a dangerous choice considering where you plan to kayak.

Don’t be so quick to dismiss a dry suit as beyond your budget. IF you have the patience to search for used ones on line you can get good deals. I got a first rate used Goretex Kokatat suit that would have been over $1000 new for $400 (it needed a small repair to a tear in the neck gasket but was otherwise in perfect shape.) I have seen them sell for as little as $200.

Wetsuits can also be had reasonably on line if that is still more than you can afford. The full length 3/4 mm or 4/5 mm surfing suits seem to be best for paddling as they offer good upper body flexibility. I got a like new one in my size on Ebay a couple of years ago for $30 (including shipping!) A wetsuit with windproof paddle jacket and pants over it, neoprene booties, hood and gloves would be safer and more protective than insulating clothing under waders.

Not much good
The belt is mainly to cinch-in what would otherwise be a very billowy fit. For a fisherman stepping over the tops for just a moment, the belt will keep the waders from flooding instantly. The belt will not keep you dry if you get dunked. Get dunked and they’ll still fill up in 15 seconds or so.

Heavy-duty waders like hunters and trappers usually use are bad news for swimming. Super-lightweight waders with sock feet (no boots) like those worn by fishermen in hot climates are no more bulky than rain pants, and won’t interfere much with swimming, but again, they won’t keep you dry if over-topped with water.

I’ve never met a person who’s fallen out of a utilitarian boat, and have never heard of such a boat flipping. I wouldn’t expect your boat to be less stable than a tiny Jon boat or similar craft, so maybe you’d want the waders just to make it safer to get in and out in shallow water. Just don’t count on them for any other purpose.

Stay near shore, carry dry clothes
You’d probably have to work to flip that boat, assuming you are not talking about any of the white stuff including class II, and the waders would allow you to wade into the water to get in and out of the boat. (with warm layers underneath)

But - if buying the waders means that you can’t stash the bucks for something like at least a semi-dry suit, probably better to hold off on anything and wait for warmer weather. The water will still be there.

Stability of the boat is more key
I think. If we were talking about a kayak or canoe which would be more tippy or less stable then I wouldn’t feel comfortable at all considering this. However, we all know freak accidents can happen and there’s nothing saying a moment of inattention won’t place you where your boat can get hung up and capsize even on calm flat water. I was thinking of the waders first as a means of keeping my legs dry getting in and out of the boat, secondly as a means of keeping dry should I become inadvertently dunked. I’ve seen some Youtube videos where guys tested how much water can get into waders cinched with a belt and worn with a pfd. In all the videos the guys doing the testing did get some water inside the waders but not enough to actually fill them up or flood them. Mind you, I’m talking about getting some of the more closely fitting breathable type waders versus the super baggy rubber type. I’m just trying to gauge whether I can get out on the water in the Chicago area in late March or whether I’d be better off waiting until later April or early May. Wet suits of course have been suggested but seem to be of little use except for a narrow period of time of maybe a couple months out of the year.

Can you swim in it ?
Other people than yourself are out there as well.

Power boaters have buzzed me extremely close by

creating massive wakes as well as Jet skiers.

Foreign Debris in the water has lifted my boat as well.

People love to throw crap in the water, rebar, concrete, etc.

If you can’t swim with it - don’t wear it.

The waders I was looking for
were the lightweight breathable variety which appear to conform to the legs a bit better than the billowy rubber types. I did some searching and it turns out I can get one of the sleeveless farmer-john style of 3mm neoprene wetsuits from NRS for about the same price as a pair of the breathable waders. Question is, at what point does a wetsuit get too hot and uncomfortable to wear? Also, since the wetsuit is sleeveless, what do you wear on your torso? Can you wear a tight-fitting wool baselayer under it and maybe a wool sweater and wind/water proof shell over it? Does one select warmer neoprene booties for cold weather conditions or does something like a four-season pair of booties exist? Still just trying to figure out the best thing to wear in a what is a highly stable boat in order to stay warm and dry when getting out on the water in cold weather.

Don’t care…
Don’t care what/where the paddling venue would be.

If I had to choose between wearing chest waders, or not paddling; I’d choose not paddling.

Sounds like a scenario for a drysuit to me; most especially this time of year.

Any guesses on how many gallons of water a pair of chest waders for an average sized guy would hold?


I paddle the Chicagoland area on a regular basis. You need to ignore the idea that you might not swim and accept the fact that you might.

A full wetsuit should be the minimum considered until the water temps get up above 60F. Even a cheap wetsuit that fits properly can save your life. Throw a jacket on over the top of it as a wind breaker and have a drybag with dry clothes you can change into ASAP.

Would this wetsuit be okay?
I see that NRS has some wetsuits on clearance

or, do I need something more like a scuba diver wetsuit, with full length arms?

I’ve done it
There’s sometimes a difference between what I would advise and what I do. It’s prudent to advise someone else to wear a drysuit or wetsuit in cold water and never use chest waders.

However, I have done the functional equivalent many times. I have a two piece Goretex drysuit. The bottom is really just a farmer john chest wader. In shoulder seasons I sometimes wear just this bottom. In certain climate/water conditions I wear a thin wetsuit under the chest wader.

I only wear this configuration in flatwater and don’t go too far from shore. I have tested it and swum in it with a PFD. I don’t sink.

There is one difference between my drysuit feet and boot waders. The boot waders have big boots on the foot. My drysuit feet are thin latex booties, which I know I can easily slit open with my knife.

As the OP has mentioned, there are videos on YouTube that debunk the “instant sinking” chest wader fear – even the ones with big boots. The testers float a lot better in neoprene waders than nylon ones, and they take on less water with a cinch belt around the waist.

I wouldn’t recommend OR actually use my drysuit bottoms alone on a river or in the cold ocean.

Chest waders as an alternative

per cold shock. do you know how cold the actually is there? generally that’s not an issue unless the water is in the 30’s. we have 45F here in the PNW, but 20-30 min is enough to do ya in if you’re not wearing the proper gear. that said, there’s tons of great options for paddling clothing on the market. i use a full surfing wetsuit (4/3mm) and moved from drysuits as they’re warmer and cheaper. but… a few options that i’d look into…

  • there are paddling waders or rather chest high drysuits. put a paddling jacket on top, wear fleece or similar under.
  • dry pants with a dry top, again with fleece or similar under
  • farmer john armles wetsuit with a dry top or rain/winter coat.
  • some of the surfing companies have neoprene hoodies, super warm.
  • check out a great company in idaho with lots of options.


You think that the NRS farmer john wetsuit, I linked to above would be a good option? Ideally I want something to keep me safe and dry, or at least safe and warmer, and if I could wear it longer into Spring that would be better.

Don’t know until you try
My advice - get the farmer john wetsuit.

Try some various synthetic sweatshirts on top of it.

Maybe use a “spray jacket” on top to cut the wind.

Get In - literally.

Leave the boat home, and walk out into the water.

Walk until it’s over your head and the PFD floats you.

Flop around for a good 10 minutes or so.

Then stand on land as the wind whips over you.

A few of us have done ““experiments”” with gear to see

what works and what won’t, comfort level , etc.

Survival is different from being comfortable.

I’ve dunked in the winter with a wetsuit on.

Personally it sucked. Muscles cramped, hyperventilated.

Very, very hard to swim. But I did survive.

Highly recommended

This is not the usual paddling situation
People are giving you the good, conservative advice that we give to new canoeists and kayakers. But I looked at the video of that inflatable, and it’s not anything like the typical tippy paddle boat. It looks to be just as stable as the motorboats or john boats that a fisherman would use.

Do fishermen use wetsuits in those boats? I don’t really know, not being one. I do think your chances of dumping are far less than in a typical canoe or kayak. It also looks fairly easy to climb back on, self-rescue, with little bailing necessary. All this goes into the calculation of risk.

That is a very good price on the NRS wetsuit. It’s also one of the thicker models, which means it will be warmer and more restrictive than the thinner models or the much thinner Hydroskin model I use for kayaking in spring and fall.

Wetsuits don’t keep you dry if you dump. The water gets inside but warms up quickly and the rubber acts as an insulator. Only a drysuit will keep water out. Waders will keep water out unless you submerge over your chest. Wetsuits and drysuits will both cause you to perspire and get damp if the air gets warm.

I’d get the wetsuit and some cheap waders, preferably with from a store with liberal returns – and carry a towel and change of clothes in a waterproof bag --before I sprang for an uber-pricey Goretex drysuit for the type of watercraft you will be in. Unless you have the dough to spend.

dry pants / boots
You seem to be concerned about getting out of the boat and wading in.

Considering the boat, I would think dry pants and Chota boots would be a good combo.–PPP_NSBDP-Black-M

ALWAYS WEAR the PFD and have a dry bag with dry clothes on the boat.

Unless you normally sink (which I’ve seen), you will not sink when waders fill with water. This doesn’t mean that it is by any means safe to wear the classic billowy waders. When filled, they are likely to “parachute” when you try to swim and create more resistance than even a competitive swimmer can overcome. This is bad, but not the worst possible feature of such gear.

Worse, if filled with cold water, they will provide no thermal protection whatsoever. If the waters in Michigan are as cold as I believe they are in winter, this would be life-threatening.

As for the worst feature, try getting back into the boat should you capsize bearing an extra hundred or so pounds of water in the rubber waders. It might be possible to wiggle your way back into the boat, but I have my doubts.

In any case, conditions for testing a new piece of gear should be controlled. You don’t want to find that the gear doesn’t perform as you wish when you are in an emergency situation. You want to test it first in safe conditions and learn how to use said gear safely and find it’s performance envelope. So, at least until the conditions are warm enough for safe swimming, don’t wear waders on the water.


If you were to take a swim…
…wearing waders you’d be much better off without them. As people said, at best they are going to make capsize a wet and miserable experience, at worst they might kill you. From personal perspective , I did try swimming in fisherman’s waders once, just to show my stubborn friend that is a bad idea to wear them in a boat. I’m a decent swimmer, but I came close to panicking (water was cold too). So definitely no waders. Just listen to folk’s advice, think for yourself and after finding a solution you think will work for you test in on the water (in a safe place).

Invest in life insurance or any other one. Your family will appreciate it.