It may be cold, but winter is still the time when a lot of folks go fly fishing. It isn’t always fun to continually break the ice out of the guides on your fly rod, or have your legs get numb because they’ve stood in the water for hours while you cast, but the rewards of a gorgeous Steelhead, a late-run Salmon, spawning Char or big, migrating Arctic Grayling sure can make it worthwhile.
Most winter anglers know how important it is to do what is called “layer-up” before heading outside. However, they get dressed for the cold by just loading one garment on top of another without really considering if they have the right mix or the right fabrics. They figure that they can keep warm by taking along a thermos of coffee or hot chocolate and some hand and feet warmers. Ice-fishing anglers usually have a tent or shelter with a heater in it, and a vehicle parked nearby, so they figure they’ll be okay. I’m not saying that these extras don’t make a difference, because they can, but starting out with the right clothing is still the smartest thing to do. So, let’s take a look at what the skill of layering the right apparel entails and what it can do for you and your outdoor comfort.
Layering is really done for the purpose of letting us adjust our comfort level to changes in the weather and to different endeavors we’re engaged in. For instance, let’s say that our angler started out the day hiking into her favorite Steelhead stream and was perfectly comfortable while walking along. Now, after an hour or so in the water and using energy for casting, but not moving around much otherwise, a breeze has come up and she is getting chilled. Let’s suppose that she has a down vest and a wind-proof jacket in her day pack that she can put on to break the wind and provide some warmth. Maybe or maybe not, these garments have the right fabrics and insulators to get and keep her warm so she can continue to fish. When it’s time to head back to the car, she finds herself taking off both the jacket and the vest as she hikes. She’s just layered-up and then layered-down to maintain a comfort level that matched her activity. Maybe she could have layered up to avoid getting chilled in the first place, if she’d had some different clothes. Let’s go through the drill so you can see what she might have done differently.
A Base Layer
The first piece of layering clothing is the one that is right next to your skin. It’s called your base layer. Its primary use is to wick or move perspiration away from your skin so that the moisture can evaporate, which allows your body to stay dry and warm.
In days past, outdoor enthusiasts kept warm with garments predominately made with wool because its warmth prevailed, even when wet. Scratchy, heavy and sweaty, it wasn’t the most comfortable against the skin whether used for socks, underwear, or other garments. Silk was used by those who could afford it, but its warmth level couldn’t top wool.
They figure that they can keep warm by taking along a thermos of coffee or hot chocolate and some hand and feet warmers.
Now, we are lucky to have a number of excellent fabrics on the market that perform the warmth and wicking process effectively. They run from various synthetics, to silk, to merino wool. Merino wool comes from a breed of sheep esteemed for its wool. They are considered to have the finest and softest wool of any sheep and the lanolin content, which has antibacterial properties, results in reduced human body odor. Merino has become the premier wool product for base clothing because of its “no-scratchy” properties.
You’ve all heard the saying “cotton kills.” It’s true.
Patagonia’s Capilene®, a synthetic material, was one of the early moisture management fabrics on the market, and it is still one of the best non-wool wicking products. Patagonia now also blends capilene® with merino wool for their Merino-Air Silkweight product and, in addition, they also make completely merino wool base layer clothing.
Other merino wool base garments come from companies like Smart Wool, Icebreaker, REI and Ibex, among others. Merino wool does not absorb the moisture from your skin, which can leave you chilled. Instead it traps and moves it away into your other layers where it can evaporate.
Unfortunately, down has one major drawback, it doesn't keep you warm once it gets wet.
Most manufacturers of base layer clothing make their merchandise for both top and bottom warmth in different thicknesses or weights so that you can mix and match them and choose the warmth-level that you need for the outdoor activity you are going to be engaged in. Most likely our fly fishing person didn’t start with a good base layer to anchor the rest of her layering system. It’s likely that she had on a cotton t-shirt, which provides no warmth at all. You’ve all heard the saying “cotton kills.” It’s true.
An Insulating Layer
What comes next is the insulating layer. That’s the one that helps you preserve your body heat by holding the warm air close to the body.
There are several good insulator products on the market for you to choose from, depending on your needs. The natural insulator, down, is the warmest and also the lightest weight and least bulky of the choices. Unfortunately, down has one major drawback. It won’t insulate if it gets wet. It also dries slowly. It is usually the most expensive of the various products, as well. It is still used by many outdoor enthusiasts, however, because it can be covered by a shell to guard it from rain or snow. Some down products are made with water-repellent down, but they are only effective in light rain and they, too, are expensive.
Don’t forget the hand and feet warmers
Synthetic materials can also be good insulators in most situations. They are usually water repellent and quick to dry, as well as being less expensive than down. Sometimes the synthetic fabrics can be bulkier than and not as durable as down, but they can be used in virtually all conditions, except those where extreme activity is required. Many of these garments will also have wind-stopper characteristics and good breathability.
One of the most popular synthetic materials is Prima Loft®. You’ll see it advertised as the polyester in use on many non-down insulated garments. These days we’re also seeing products like Prima Loft® Silver, which retains 85% of its warmth when wet and Prima Loft® Gold that is even warmer. There is also Bluesign® approved recycled polyester.
Fleece is one of the most popular insulators because it is soft and breathable and is good for high activity situations. It is also less expensive than the others. It is best for cool conditions, but it doesn’t hold the body warmth as well as either wool or synthetics. Polartec is a well-known brand, as well as WINDSTOPPER® Technical Fleece, Thermal Pro and Thermal Pro High Loft products, which usually have less bulk and often are wind resistant.
Insulation Under Your Waders
Let’s not leave the discussion of insulation until we talk about insulation under your waders. I hope that you didn’t get rid of your neoprene waders. I recommend that you layer-up as we are discussing and use them for cold-water fishing.
It is possible, however that you did get rid of your neoprene waders, as almost everyone now wears breathable waders year round. Regrettably, they have no insulating value at all while you are standing in the water all day long. So, your bottom layering is going to need some reinforcing. Follow the rules of layering and start with merino wool or Capilene®, underwear next to your skin, but on top of that it is wise to also wear a down or fleece bottom layer based on the temperature of the water you’ll be fishing and the weather you can expect in your fishing location. You’ll see below that Patagonia® makes a one-piece garment that even has a drop-seat to make relieving yourself easier.
Never, ever wear jeans under your waders
Never, ever wear jeans under your waders. Jeans are made of cotton and when they are damp with your perspiration, you will never get warm and your chances of becoming hypothermic increase.
The Shell Layer
The last item on the layering clothing list is your shell layer, the one you wear on the top to protect from rain, wind and snow. Our angler must have had a pretty good one because it enabled her to keep fishing. Unless she had followed the correct layering process, either rain or wind would have been able to infiltrate the inner layers of her clothing and she would have begun to feel cold again.
Almost all weather protection garments are treated with water repellent these days, so, if you are counting on a down or fleece jacket to ward off the elements, you better be sure that it has such protection. If not, then cover your insulating layer with a waterproof shell.
Your shell layer also needs ventilation to make sure that it isn’t holding perspiration inside and preventing it from evaporating. That is what you’re trying to avoid with the layering system in the first place. You may have had a raincoat years ago that was made mostly of rubber or another non-wicking fabric that was notorious for doing just that. Your shell’s fabric should have breathability from materials like Gore-tex to make sure that doesn’t happen now.
We haven’t covered all aspects of layering until we talk about covering your head, hands and feet. There are lots and lots of merino wool hats, socks and gloves on the market for cool or cold days. They’ll serve the same function as your other clothes do and you can even layer them over each other for better insulation. The same principles apply here with a base layer for wicking moisture, an insulating layer and a shell to keep it all dry and warm. Keep in mind that while you’re fishing your feet are virtually always in the cold water, so one layer of socks is seldom is adequate. Many people think that the neoprene booties on their waders will keep their feet warm, but don’t be fooled. I always wear both light and heavy-weight socks. Be careful, however, because two warm layers can take up considerable room inside the footie making your wading boots feel tight. If your boots are too tight and they keep your feet from moving around a bit, you’ll be just as cold or colder. Try on waders with two pair of socks (no cotton) so you can make sure that your feet will be comfortable.
Lots of gloves these days combine the insulating and shell layers, even though that can be a bit bulky. The new Buff neck gaiters can be insulating as well as decorative, and good old-fashioned face guards or balaclava are also worth having with you. And don’t forget the hand and feet warmers, but make sure you never put them against your bare skin.
It may seem expensive to gear-up with all of these recommendations, but if you suggest some of these things as gifts from significant others or family members, you’ll probably reach your goal of being “layered-up” faster than you think. And, the good news is that these high-quality garments are all highly durable as well. You’ll have them for a long time!
Okay, there you have it. Just follow these steps to drier and warmer outdoor adventures.