Why Breathable Waders
by | February 5th, 2014by Fly Fisherman Magazine
In 1969 the first issue of Fly Fisherman was on newsstands, disciples of Isaak Walton wore rubber hip boots and rubberized rain jackets, and W. L. Gore and Associates was a quiet little company making Teflon housings for electrical wires. Teflon is DuPont’s trade name for polytetrafluoroethylene or PTFE, a fluorocarbon solid that makes “stick free” frying pans, and is impervious to both water and ultraviolet light.
Bill Gore was a former Dupont engineer who at the time probably never imagined that his 11-year-old cable-coating company would one day revolutionize the outdoor industry. His son, Bob Gore was experimenting with PTFE at home one weekend in his Newark, New Jersey basement, when he discovered that with the right application of force, PTFE could be stretched into a nearly weightless, translucent film.
Expanded polytetrafluoroethylene (ePTFE) had other virtues. To the untrained eye, it looked like ultrathin plastic, but under a microscope it looked more like Swiss cheese, with millions of microscopic, uniformly sized fissures. These tiny pores were too small for liquid H2O to pass through, so despite millions of tiny holes, the membrane was waterproof.
However, the younger Gore soon realized that gaseous water contained in moist vapor—such as the warm air coming off your body during periods of exertion—did pass through the membrane, and the world’s first waterproof, breathable membrane was discovered.
It took some time for the outdoor world to reap the benefits of this discovery. In the lab, the first iteration of Gore-Tex outerwear was wonderful—its breathable, waterproof properties were bound to keep people drier, and more comfortable. And as an extra bonus, Gore-Tex jackets, for instance, were lighter and more packable than older rubberized nylon products.
For backpackers, mountaineers, and other weekend warriors it seemed like a dream come true. But seams in the first generation of Gore-Tex products leaked, and more problematic, sweat isn’t just water vapor. It contains body oils and other chemical compounds that tainted the ePTFE, causing it to leak.
W. L. Gore soon fixed these problems by laminating a thin layer of polyurethane to the inside of the ePTFE. This made the membrane less breathable, but acted as a barrier against body oils and sweat and in the long run made the fabric package more effective.
Gore also solved the problem of leaky seams by enforcing a strict construction regimen on its licensees. Gore-Tex doesn’t make finished products like jackets, boots, or rain pants, but if a manufacturer uses the Gore-Tex fabric in a product, it must also carry the Gore brand name on it, and the manufacturer is required to use Gore-Tex seam tape, have its factory certified by Gore, and meet stringent design requirements. In other words, Gore became a not-so-silent partner with a strong say in the quality-control department.
The Simms Connection
Through the 1980s, W. L. Gore with its patented miracle membrane became a superpower in the outdoor industry, partnering with manufacturers to produce outerwear for backpackers, skiers, and alpinists. But its usefulness in the fly-fishing world wasn’t truly realized until 1993 when K. C. Walsh bought the neoprene wader company Simms (from John Simms) and in the same year introduced breathable, waterproof waders made with the Gore-Tex fabric.
The popular neoprene waders of the early 1990s were naturally buoyant, and comfortably stretchy so you could high-step over logs and rocks, and nimbly hop in and out of drift boats. But they were tight like sausage skin, and in the summer, unbearably hot. Dangerously hot, in fact, to the point where dehydration was a problem. And the damp, sweaty interior became a Petri dish for bacteria that regularly produced “neoprene stink” that simply could not be washed away.
Although the first generation of Simms Gore-Tex waders had some problems, it was nothing Gore-Tex had not experienced before, and Simms breathable waders quickly became the most dominant wader brand in the fly-fishing space. Within just a few years, neoprene waders didn’t exist, and competitors were scrambling to find alternatives to the Gore-Tex fabric.
In 1997, Gore-Tex’s primary ePTFE patent expired, and the fabric industry soon offered dozens of alternatives, made by companies such as Formosa Mills (China) and Toray (Japan). Using these suppliers and others, competitors could offer breathable waterproof waders (and other products) with their own house-brand fabrics.
Unlike Gore-Tex, these fabric suppliers do not require their brand name to be used, and they are not involved in the design and construction process. They merely supply the breathable fabric packages.
Not only did these newer products lack the marketing clout of Gore-Tex, initially they also lacked the experience and expertise in building and designing breathable, waterproof products. In short, they had to make the same mistakes all over again, and learn from them. And for a few years, everyone else was trying to play catch-up in terms of both function and brand recognition.
But now, many retailers agree that the playing field has finally been leveled to the point that it’s at least a fair fight, and the Gore-Tex brand faces serious competition from other breathable brands that aren’t merely cheaper, they are comparable.
Most Gore-Tex competitors claim their products are more breathable than Gore-Tex, a claim they back up with myriad tests to quantify the moisture vapor transmisison rate (MVTR). Gore-Tex refutes these claims of course with a battery of its own independent tests to leave consumers scratching their collective heads and wondering which brands truly are the most breathable.
Gore-Tex products were lambasted by a 2011 advertising campaign sponsored by NeoShell (a breathable fabric used by companies like Marmot and North Face). The adscarried photos of weather-beaten, dejected outdoor professionals captioned with slogans such as “Survived 11 years of confinement with limited access to air.” The ads insinuated that the Gore-Tex products are less breathable than NeoShell, but like most advertising, it’s a “he said, she said” proposition.”
It’s impossible to determine what effect that 2011 ad campaign had on sales of Neoshell versus sales of Gore-Tex products, but in the following year, Gore-Tex brought to market a new version of its 5-layer Gore-Tex fabric it says is 25% more breathable than the 2011 version. That newer, more breathable fabric is in the leg panels of Simms flagship G4 waders beginning in 2013.
In the end, breathability is going to be a subjective experience based on how you use the product, the temperatures of both the air and water, and how much you perspire. It’s important to remember that the heat inside the waders is the driver that forces the moisture vapor from the inside of the wader to the outside. For this transportation to occur, there must be a significant temperature difference between the interior and the exterior of the wader.
If you are fishing the Madison on a cold autumn morning, the warm moisture vapor on the inside of your wader is easily forced outward, and the waders seem incredibly breathable. If, however, it is 95 degrees F. and you are hiking in your waders up to the First Meadow of Slough Creek, you will likely curse whatever wader brand you happen to be wearing, and may even come to believe breathability is a myth. And to a certain extent it is, as the hottest weather—when you perspire the most—will produce the worst outcomes in terms of breathability. (The good news is that once you stop hiking, and stand in cold water, moisture will once against start moving toward the outside and you’ll “dry off” inside the waders.)
Also, if you want the waders to breathe, you must wear wicking layers under the waders and especially next to your skin. The waders can only pass moisture through the membrane if that moisture reaches the wader liner. If you wear cotton briefs (i.e., tighty whities) and wonder why your rear end feels damp, don’t complain to the
wader manufacturer. Cotton absorbs and retains moisture, so if you wear jeans, cotton underwear, or other nonwicking products under your waders, don’t expect to feel dry.
Merino wool, polyester, and various other synthetic combinations are hydrophobic, which means they carry moisture away from your skin, and toward the breathable wader material. It’s a little-heeded fact that what you wear next to your skin is more important to how you feel—damp or dry—than the breathability of the wader brand itself.
While breathability is measured by a moisture vapor transmission rate (MVTR), waterproofness is a yes/no proposition. And all wader fabric is waterproof right out of the box. The only question is how long will it stay waterproof under strenuous use?
Patagonia subjects its waders to a “killer wash” lasting 24 hours to simulate the abrasion and constant flexing of years of wear, and then its lab attempts to force water (under pressure) through the fabric. Gore and other brands take similar steps to make sure their products stand up to rigorous use.
While continuous swatches of fabric hold up very well in these kinds of testing procedures, what’s really important is how the seams hold up to wear and tear. In fact, while the “membrane wars” rage on in the general outdoors market, seam construction has taken a front seat in the fly-fishing community.
Orvis owns a patent for the construction of its SonicSeam waders that uses sound waves to weld swatches of fabric together and trims off the excess material for a flat, no-bulk seam.
The seam by itself is waterproof, but sonic-welded seams are also taped for extra strength. Bulkier seams sewn with thread produce weightier waders overall that are also less packable.
Redington licenses the Orvis patent for its Sonic-Pro waders of which it makes several different variations, including its Ultra Packable Waders, which tip the scales at 30 ounces.
More important than the bulk/weight issue, proponents of welded seams maintain that they are more durable in the long run because they don’t have the associated needle holes, and they don’t have a raised profile that increases the frequency and severity of abrasion against wader fabric, boat seats, rocks, fences, etc.
Beyond their construction, placement of the seams is also an important issue. Breathable waders used to have the seams on the inside and outside of the pant legs, just like a pair of jeans. But manufacturers found out that seams on the inside of the thigh are prone to constant chafing, and while that’s fine for jeans with a worn and well-used look, it’s not fine for waders that are intended to be waterproof.
Most manufacturers today take great pains to put the seams in the front or back of the leg, so areas that are most likely to rub are seam-free. Waders with fewer seams are also less likely to leak, and taped seams with multiple layers (and adhesive) are not breathable so beware of waders with excessive seamwork. It’s not a quilt.
How They Stack Up
Gore-Tex membrane is a laminate of ePTFE and polyurethane, with an exterior face fabric of polyester and an interior liner of tricot. This is the 3-layer construction in the legs of the Simms classic Guide Wader. In the 5-layer version, there is a second membrane and another layer of exterior face fabric.
The durable 5-layer product is used just on the legs of the most expensive Simms waders like the G4 and G4Z (zippered) waders. For consumers, there is a trade-off, as the thicker leg panels are much tougher but also less breathable than the 3-layer fabric, as you’ve doubled the number of significant barriers to moisture transfer (the liner fabric is not waterproof, and not a significant barrier). If durability is most important, get the 5-layer waders, but if you frequently fish in hot weather, and you don’t normally do much bushwhacking, then choose less expensive and more breathable 3-layer Simms waders like the Headwaters.
Diane Bristol, director of marketing at Simms, says that one of the most important characteristics of the Gore-Tex fabric is that the membrane is chemically inert. As a result, you can spill gasoline, insect repellent, or sunscreen on it, and you’ll still have a breathable, waterproof product. She says competitive brands that use a coating are affected by chemicals that can act as solvents, and cause the wader to leak.
Patagonia was an early adopter of Gore-Tex fabric when the product first hit the market, and today the company is a Gore-Tex licensee with Gore-Tex products for skiing, ice climbing, and alpine mountaineering. But they don’t use it in their fishing apparel. I asked founder/owner Yvon Chouinard about this apparent discontinuity and he said simply: “We found something that works better for waders.”
Patagonia’s H2No 4-layer fabric has a micro-denier polyester face fabric, and a breathable waterproof membrane made of a monolithic hydrophilic laminate with an exterior microporous hydrophobic coating. The next-to-skin layer is a tricot knit.
According to Patagonia’s Bill Klyn, the flexible, elastic coating is what sets H2No apart from the Gore-Tex laminate. He says the stretchier material can sustain a puncture from a small thorn or thistle and still not leak because it is self-healing.
All waders come with an exterior treatment of a durable water repellent (DWR) that causes water droplets to bead and roll off the fabric as though they were mercury. This treatment keeps the face fabric from becoming saturated with water, and therefore promotes breathability. Saturated or “wetted out” fabrics are also heavier, colder, and less comfortable.
Most DWRs are fluorinated chemical compounds containing perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA). PFOAs are bioaccumulative persistent chemicals which do not break down, and studies have shown levels of PFOAs are on the rise in humans, fish, and the environment. The EPA has requested a voluntary industry-wide phase-out of PFOAs by 2015, and Patagonia has already adopted Scholler’s Nanosphere DWR which is PFOA-free, and potentially better for humans and better for the environment, but less “persistent” and therefore less durable than other PFOAs.
The other thing that Patagonia does differently is change the weight of its wader fabrics for different products, and for different areas of the waders that receive different levels of abuse. Instead of adding extra layers of similar material to high-wear areas, Patagonia uses a heavyweight 9.1-ounce per square yard polyester face fabric for the lower portion of its Rio Gallegos waders and maintains exactly the same breathable membrane. By way of comparison it uses a 5.8-ounce per square yard polyester face fabric for the lower portion of its new Skeena River waders, and a 5.4-ounce per square yard fabric for the upper portion. The number of layers always stays the same.
Orvis uses a 4-layer design for its SonicSeam and new Silver Sonic waders. The inside layer is a tricot knit and the membrane is a monolithic breathable waterproof membrane coated with waterproof, breathable polyurethane. The exterior is where Orvis waders vary significantly—the exterior face fabric is tough, abrasion-
resistant nylon, while most other waders have a softer polyester face fabric, which feels softer and is a little quieter while walking. Tom Rosenbauer of Orvis has worn the same pair of SonicSeam waders for four years, and is convinced that the tighter weave of the nylon face fabric makes the waders more durable and more resistant to puncturing.
The Right Size
While the membrane and fabric packages that go into your waders are important factors, it’s not the only purchasing consideration. As noted above, wearing the appropriate layers under your waders will help you feel drier and more comfortable in any (nonleaking) waders.
Also important is wader sizing. S-M-L just doesn’t fit everyone and “large” varies significantly from manufacturer to manufacturer. If the waders don’t fit right, not only will they look funny, but they’ll be significantly less functional. Waders that are too small restrict your mobility and can become dangerous hazards when stepping over rocks, fallen trees, and getting in/out of boats. I recently fished with a person whose waders were so tight he couldn’t properly tie the laces. And when his boots came off in the mud, he couldn’t bend over to pull them out!
If the waders are loose and baggy you end up with “crotch sag” and “elephant legs” with extra folds and creases that significantly (and needlessly) increase abrasion and wear. Those extra folds and creases can also trap and hold pockets of moisture.
Before you buy a rod, you cast it to see if it fits your casting style. To get the most out of today’s best breathable, waterproof fabrics, you should try on as many waders as possible to find the brand that fits your body shape, height, and the length of your legs.