This topic seems to come up in various fora, every year- whats the best way to stay warm on the rivers in winter? With more and more anglers taking to the rivers in what was the traditional closed season, in pursuit of Grayling, the subject of keeping warm in sub zero temperatures is an important one. Like many things in fishing ask 12 different anglers whats best, you will get 12 different answers.
Here I am going to discuss my set up. I have to be more careful than most having an arthritic condition to cope with so if it works for me, it should work for you. And before anyone says it, yeah I am a bit of a Simms tart, though I have acquired a lot of things as presents along the way as people know I like their gear!
Breathables or Neoprenes?
The first thing most prospective winter anglers ask is what kind of wader to wear? I am in the slightly fortunate position of having both types here, as I bought a pair of neoprenes for my son a few years back and they fit me. They are the wellie boot style rather than the neoprene sock/wading boot type. In terms of absolute warmth, the neoprenes give very, very good thermal resistance to the cold water and I would go so far as to say you won’t feel cold through the neoprene. Even when moderately dressed underneath. However the wellie boot feet are a different matter. They are quite difficult to stay warm in, in my experience, and cold feet soon leads to cold everything else. However if you adopt my strategy for foot warmth in breathables they might be fine. The other down side in neoprenes is they are VERY heavy and hard to walk any distance in. Especially for me with bad knees, the pain in my legs was excruciating walking even just 400 yards cross country. Add to this condensation, as you walk you heat up ( though you might not feel it at the time!) and in neoprenes the heat and moisture has no where to go so it leads to dampness, and that leads to cold. But if your a big fit lad and on a limited budget neoprenes will keep you insulated I have no hesitation in saying will keep you warm if you don’t need to wander far. I would though recommend stretching the budget into the neoprene sock foot waders and getting some wading boots- you will be warmer and more comfortable overall. Wading boots give a degree of foot stability wellies can’t come close too.
So having settled for myself on Breathables, you will realise there is little to retain heat here. When you consider breathable waders, unfortunately thats the start of the equation in costs, as you need to layer up unerneath. If I was to recommend one thing with buying breathables, is plan ahead. Get them mid season when you can basically buy them and go fishing with your normal fishing clothing below, then gradually add to your insulation armoury as the season wears on. Buying it all at once even starting with a cheap pair of breathable waders, is not going to be cheap, the under garments and any wading jacket etc might set you back almost as much again!
My own preference for any but the very ocassional angler, is buy the best you can afford. Fishing gear has a hard life, you don’t consider the costs of your clothing as you are sliding down banks trying to net the fish of a lifetime. Also some of the big brands like Simms or Orvis might be prohibitively expensive for many but consider that they come with a decent guarantee that will be honoured, and some of the cost is effectively a warranty payment. So it’s worth considering. However I am not here to discuss brands in this article and I leave you pay your money and make your choice.
So my set up in winter is this.
A technical base layer
This comprises of a man made fibre long john and under shirt. You need’nt spend a fortune, in fact look around this stuff can be very cheap in outdoor shops. The important property in this gear is that it is man made fibre, and so will wick moisture away from the body. I have Hardy EWS2 under garments but only because they were on sale one day in the local angling store and so I grabbed them, I wouldn’t say they were any better than any other make. In fact I reckon they are all much of a muchness.
A mid layer
Now this is optional for some, but I tend to wear a pair of cheap and cheerful jogging bottoms over my Long Johns. They do bulk you up a bit but I need to stay as warm as possible and I don’t find them restrictive at all. You can buy fleece midlayers in angling stores, but I just use conventional cheap and cheerful “joggers”. Ideally you should stick to man made but I have not found my conventional joggers are a problem though have not looked into what they are made of.
Above I wear a short sleeve teeshirt over my undershirt, it gives a bit extra insulation over my core.
I then have my lightweight and easy to dry outdoor wear fishing trousers. I like the Craghoppers as they are light, stretch material, dry in the breeze, and man made so ideal under a breathable wader in summer or winter. Being stretchy they fit over the bulkier under clothes.
Top half I wear a Craghoppers shirt, much the same properties as the trousers, easy drying and the Nosi-life shirts provide a degree of protection against midges in summer. Again a good all year round shirt. I do have a slightly thicker Craghoppers shirt for especially cold days if I choose. While Craghoppers gear can be pricey if you pay full retail for it, look around som eof the discount outdoor places like Go Outdoors and even Amazon have items on half price or less! And its much cheaper than the fancy fishing shirst by Simms, Orvis or Greys/Hardy even.
Finally we are getting to the outer layers. In dep winter I top it all with a Guideline fleece undersuit, that is a bib and brace style “onesie”. I picked this up in a GAC end of line sale once and there are similar suits about, so keep your eyes open. This has two roles for me. 1) it keeps you warn simply through insulating, but 2) if you are unfortunate to have a wee leak or minor damp ingress in your waders ( and after a few years of use these things are inevitable) they act as a barrier to the moisture getting to your under clothes. Also by filling up the wader in volume their is little room for water to squeeze in or indeed the material to rub together when moving. When you are in water, the thin material of the wader will pinch up with water pressure and seems to allow water to ingress even more, minimising the free space in the wader seems to help in my view and prevents pinched up material rubbing sub surface.
I have not mentioned feet so far. I have tried a few things and so this is my set up. I have tried woollen walking socks, woollen wader socks, Heat Holder socks and Merino wool wading socks. Without a doubt the Merino Wool socks are superior. They are now my only socks I wear summe ror winter under my waders next to my skin. They are unusual as a natural material in being wicking with moisture so I don’t get wet and thus cold feet. Yeas they are pricier than others but I also find they wear better too and after two seasons use they still look like new. I can’t say that for normal wool socks and heat holders just made my feet sweat, and get wet and eventually cold.
If its proper cold winter I add over the top a pair of neoprene socks. These are cheap and can be bought in angling stores. Get as big a pair as you can as too small will cramp your toes. They have two roles.
- extra insulation and
- again if you get wet inside your waders your feet will stay dry- so you won’t feel cold.
If I am going to be out long enough, I sometimes stick a pair of foot warmers inside between the two sock layers. The stick on ones are best if you can get them. A couple of tips. When you open the packet, don’t be too hasty to get thm in your boots. Let them be exposed to air for a good five minutes to let the chemical reaction get under way, then place them under your feet but on the outside of the sock nearest your skin. Never wear them next to your skin. If you wear foot warmers you may think they arent working on very cold days but retire to the bank for a heat up you will feel your feet warm up almost as soon as they exit the water. Great things! You can buy a box of 40 pairs on ebay for about £30, enough for most peoples season and more.
Obviously you have your waders, you can read more about my now getting on a bit Simms Headwaters waders here, really they have been great. I have a wee bit dampness seeping in now but thats after 4 full seasons use, A recent attempt to stem the leaks seems to on the whole have been successful. I would recommend them. The G3 and G4’s should be tougher as they have more Goretex layers. But with more Goretex you need more money to buy them! I have a friend with G3s and they have been somewhat leaky , though not sure if this is through being a bit harsh on them or not. I also like th elook of the Patagonia wader with the Merino wool foot lining- souds the business! I wear a Simms G4 wading jacket now and before I got this had the cheapest Simms jacket, the Freestone, for several years. Its still waterproof if you keep it reproofed though it got a bit worse for wear over the years just through wear and tear, it owes me nothing as I used it all the time. The G4 is much more heavy duty and has been totally waterproof this year though I did have some issues with the pockets and Simms replaced it.
If its very cold I also wear a Simms Primaloft jacket inside my waders this is like an insulating jacket, thats very thin relative to its warmth, and great for keeping the wind out. I was put onto this by none other than Hywel Morgan as they were going cheap in GAC one winter as an end of line item.
Wearing gloves is very much a matter of opinon for anglers. Many will say you can’t but once you find a set up that works for you, it is fine. I have tried the cheap thin neoprene ones- might have been “Stillwater” or “Ron Thomson” ones, but I did not feel any benefit at all with these. I have a pair of the Simms woollen fingerless gloves and these have been brilliant over three or four seasons now. I wear these A LOT! They keep you warm and somewhat surprisingly if they get wet you don’t really get cold in them and they dry out quickly. I also have the sealskinz fingerless gloves but oddly since I got them almost two years ago as a present, its never been cold enough to warrant me wearing them! So I can’t really report on them other than to say they get a good write up.
If you want to get ahead, get a hat
The final essential bit of winter kit is a hat, you absolutely must have one, as lot sof heat is lost through the head and on cold days when there is even a moderate breeze, you will suffer without one. Choice is entirely yours. I generally stick to my fishing cap but have got a Simms Goretex hat that is very warm and shields you from the rain and cold, though I do find that after a while it starts to give me a bit of a sore head. I got this as a present also and these hats are not cheap, and I would say while nice to have, far from necessary, a conventional woolie hat does the job just fine, or a fleece or thinsulate hat from any outdoor store.
The final area to consider is your neck, if you want to wear your jacket fully zipped up round your neck all day thats fine but most people want to be a little less restricted and this usually means leaving the neck a little exposed. If you have a high necked fleece or something on you can get some wartmth round the neck area with this, but my all time favourite bit of kit for winter and one of the cheapest is my Fisheagle Balaclava. You can wear it round your neck as a neck warmer and pull it p over your head when it’s windy or under a hood when it’s wet. It goes everythwere with me in winter and I would not be without it.
When fishing in winter a few final tips. If its been very, very cold, I would advise not fishing alone. I have seen sheet ice the length of a bus coming down the river and it’s not stopping for anyone. You need to have two pairs of eyes on the water. A life preserver is also an essential. I don’t care how good a swimmer you are, your unlikely to be good enough to battle a moderately flowing river just above freezing point while suffering from thermal shock. A wading belt is a must also, in this regard, it stops the water rushing to your feet if you do fall in and gives you a chance of staying afloat. I hate seeing anglers in waders without a belt on, to me it’s like driving without a seat belt. A wading staff is essential too if you are on unfamiliar waters, or where the water is higher than usual and carrying some colour. A seemingly benigh run of water can be seriously pushing along a few feet from the bank and you need extra support. Finally take a spare change of clothes and keep it in your car. If you do take a tumble you can retreat get changed and warmed up and yes, with breathables and man made fibres, an hour in the car with the heater running, you will likely be able to get kitted up and head back into the river again! Have a great winter’s fishing.