Wader Safety: Lets get it right

I have often been frustrated with the information given to anglers regarding water safety while wearing waders. The little information that makes it’s way to those of us who love to fish is often plainly wrong or built on false assumptions. What needs to be developed is a series of wading scenario tests and practical water safety techniques anglers can use in the case of trouble.

As a qualified swimming teacher, swimming coach and trained lifeguard I have more than a passing interest in how people move, or sometimes don’t move, in the water. After teaching and coaching literally hundreds of kids swimming and water safety I get very angry about typical “wader safety” advice such as this.

Wader Safety
If you fall in the water, the chances of drowning are high if you are wearing waders, as they can quickly flood with water and drag you under. This can not only occur to those anglers who wear waders in a boat, but even shore based anglers can overbalance and end up in the water. [http://www.mast.tas.gov.au]

Swimming educators never mention the “d word”, drowning, to children our objective is to give kids water confidence based on sound science and correct techniques, literally we teach them to save themselves. How constructive is it then to instil fear into anglers by telling them they will probably drown if they fall over while wearing waders?

If we are serious about wader safety the fishing community needs to scientifically conduct a series of tests covering all variety of waders to determine how dangerous they really are. Just as with teaching swimming safety a comprehensive set of techniques could then be developed and taught that would enable anglers to get out of trouble after immersion while wearing waders.

A few myths about waders however are easy to dismiss straight away. The most laughable myth is the idea that waders full of water will “drag you under”. To debunk this myth we need to examine why people actually float in the water.

Why we float.
The reason why people float is very straightforward; generally our density is less than the water. So although gravity is pulling us down the water is actually trying to push us towards the surface. Of course we need to make the right shape in the water to allow buoyancy to have the greatest effect such as floating on your back, front or in a ball.

Having waders full of water will not drag you under because the weight and density of the water inside the waders is exactly the same as the water outside the waders. If you don’t believe this get a plastic bucket half full of water and lower it into a laundry sink full of water. The bucket is heavy out of the water but will float when it is lowered into the sink, the bucket doesn’t get dragged under. End of argument!

Sculling will save your life.
All that said some of us have trouble floating. Women usually float easier than men and perhaps to be politically incorrect fat people float easier than skinny runts. Body fat has a lower density than muscle and bone so some of us need a little help to keep afloat, that help comes in the form of sculling. At this point I’m prepared to give away a trade secret for the greater good.

“Sculling is the most important skill in swimming”.

Sculling is the hand movement we make under the water to give us the maximum propulsion either forward as in swimming or upward when we tread water or float.

Sculling will literally save your life because it can aid you to float. Allow you to steer down a fast flowing stream feet first and to tread water with the least amount of energy. I humbly suggest that sculling techniques should be taught to the fishing community.

To swim or not to swim.
“Why we should wear a wading belt” [March 2008 Red Tag newsletter] alluded to swimming while wearing waders. “I was able to swim as if I was wearing just a swimsuit” and “I then backstroked to the side of the pool…” I have also heard reference to a video produced by a wader manufacturer that reportedly shows someone swimming backstroke down a stream while wearing waders.

Yes swimming can save your life but swimming the wrong stroke in the wrong situation is positively dangerous. Swimming backstroke in a safe and controlled environment like an indoor swimming pool is fine. But swimming backstroke in a lake with an uncertain depth or a river with rocks and snags is potentially risking serious head and spinal injurers.

If we are going to advocate swimming while wearing waders we need to determine two factors. One, what strokes will get the angler safely out of trouble. Two, can those strokes be achieved by anglers with varying swimming abilities using different combinations of waders. Can someone for instance swim freestyle in chest waders with attached boots that restrict ankle movement?

Getting out of the water.
The most thought provoking issue in “Why we should wear a wading belt” was the difficultly in getting out of the water while wearing waders full of water. “It was completely impossible to climb out if I had to urgently get out, I could not have done it.” It appears from the article that the author was wearing chest waders, though I’m not sure if they had attached boots or not. How difficult it would have been exiting the water with thigh or waist waders is open for speculation.

One litre of water weighs one kilogram. If your waders took in 20 litres of water you would have to drag an extra 20 kilograms out of the water. How “life threatening” this really is would have to be determined through rigorous testing. But the point was beautifully made in the article that wearing a belt with chest waders is advisable.

A solution still has to be found for the exiting water with waders full of water. I suggest the issue could be resolved in two ways.

One, wader manufactures could install safety drain-plugs into waders. If the waders fill with water the plug could be opened and the water would drain out as the angler is leaving the water (these could be automatic one way valves). An angler would lift themselves out of the water in stages waiting for the water to drain.

Two, anglers could be shown how to take waders off either as they’re exiting the water or while in the water. This might not be as hard as it seems. With a little practice it is possible to take heavy items of tight fitting clothing off in the water. Also it may not be necessary to take waders fully off. If chest waders could be rolled down to the thighs it would greatly reduce the amount of trapped water and hence the weight.

Testing waders and wader safety.
It’s time to get scientific about wader safety and provide practical lifesaving techniques to the fishing community. A starting point is developing a comprehensive and professionally supervised wader safety test.

A number of things need to be tested.

  • Ability to float while wearing waders
  • Treading water
  • Sculling on back
  • Sculling on back moving feet first
  • Swim: freestyle, breaststroke and side stroke
  • Exiting the water
  • Taking waders off in the water

All of the above would need to be tested using different combinations of wading now on offer.

  • Thigh waders
  • Waist waders
  • Chest waders


  • Breathable
  • Neoprene
  • PVC

Where applicable the wading combinations would be tested with/without wading belt and attached boots/wading boots.

I would also suggest the need for two controls to compare the results. The first would be to conduct the tests for wet wading, just clothes and boots. A second control would be to use participants of varying swimming ability. A novice/moderate swimmer compared to an accomplished swimmer.

Wader safety is undoubtedly an important issue. Debunking some misleading and seriously dangerous myths is a priority. Conducting a comprehensive wading scenario test that once and for all settles some arguments and is a basis for developing survival techniques is not only desirable but achievable. It would not be hard to conduct such a test. Royal Life Saving Society could be approached to supervise the test. A local leisure centre could be the site for the test. Wader manufacturers should be willing to have their products tested and finally the results could be published in the fishing media.

More importantly the results of the wading test would be the basis of developing a set of lifesaving techniques that anglers could use. These techniques could then be taught as a package to fishing clubs, popularised in fishing magazines and distributed whenever waders are sold. It could also result in wading manufacturers installing safety devices into waders.

Every angler needs to develop a skill set to catch a target species of fish. I would suggest we also need a skill set to save ourselves in the advent of trouble while wearing waders, after all to state the obvious fish live in water.

Post Script:
This article was originally printed the Red Tag newsletter during 2008. Unfortunately the importance of wader safety was impressed upon me during trout opening on the Goulburn River September 2009.

When a number of Red Tag members including myself arrived at a popular fishing spot on the river the air ambulance was preparing to land beside the river just upstream of us. An angler had drowned or had a near drowning experience. Reports we received from witnesses suggest he was wearing waders and was retrieved from the bottom of the river.

I can’t speculate here on the exact cause of death that is for the coroner to decide. However it does reinforce the need to systematically research wader safety. If the outcomes of that research saved one life it would be worth it.


3 thoughts on “Wader Safety: Lets get it right

  1. Thanks Chris.

    This is a good article. It talks about big Canadian rivers and a fear of trapped air.


    This seems a concern for North Americans. see below.


    I haven’t heard this concern in Australia most believe the opposite that water in waders will drag you under.


    Interesting Youtube video about Chest waders. I would like to do a more scientific test in a more control enviroment.

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