The Case Against Cotton: Cold Weather Wading

Cotton bud detailBy G. Chambers,  SFBCA member

Awhile back, while I was fishing the Ganaraska River, I took a header into the water. On a hot summer day, this unexpected dunking might have been a refreshing welcome, but in late Fall in Ontario, the long trek back to the car was bone numbingly unpleasant. One of the reasons for my discomfort was due, in part, to my choice of clothing – I was dressed head to toe in cotton; cotton socks, denim jeans (made of cotton), cotton long-johns, cotton shirt and cotton sweatshirt.

Wet Cotton Keeps you Cold
Cotton is one of the most absorbent fabrics around (it can absorb up to 27 times its own weight) which is why it’s a great material for bath towels, but a dangerous material for cold weather activity. When cotton gets wet through sweat, rain etc, it becomes heavy and loses about 95% of its insulating properties. Even worse, since the thermal conductivity of water is 240 times that of air, wet clothing quickly robs your body of heat through evaporation. Why then would anyone want to wear a fabric that absorbs water like a sponge and chills you down faster?

Synthetic Beats Cotton for Cold Weather
Growing up, I was always taught to wear a base layer of cotton, then wool and then a waterproof jacket. Back in the day, synthetic fabrics were a “no-no” because they tended to be hot and trapped moisture. Today, with advances in engineered fabrics you’re better off ditching the cotton clothing for faster-drying polyester and polyester blends that include nylon, polypropylene, spandex or rayon – the kind of material found in most athletic wear brands like Nike, Adidas, etc. For a lost less money though, you can get pretty good synthetic tops, socks, underwear and long underwear at Mark’s Work Wear House (T Max, DriWear brands) and Walmart (Athletic Works brand – make sure you check the label for 100% synthetic…some of the Athletic Works clothing is  a blend of cotton and synthetic)

My Basic Cold Weather Wading Outfit
I don’t do a lot of cold water wading so having a set of Neoprene waders, in addition to my breathable waders, doesn’t make sense. If you dress properly you can easily stay warm and comfortable in your breathable summertime waders. The key to staying warm while wading on cold water is layering, because being too hot can be just as uncomfortable as being too cold. Here’s how I do it:


  • 1st layer: 100% polyester dress socks to wick away moisture (remember no cotton. Cotton socks get wet as you sweat and wet feet lead to blisters). Also, I like dress socks because they are thin and don’t take up a lot of room in your wading boots.
  • 2nd layer: thicker merino wool sock (unlike cotton, wool keeps most of its insulating qualities even if it gets wet)

Lower body:

  • 1st layer: Denver Hayes Driwear fitted boxer briefs (Mark’s Work Wear House). Some to the Driwear underwear is 100% synthetic and is  anti-microbial and anti-odour (good for obvious reasons). Some of the Driwear  underwear has cotton in it…just try to find some with at least 50% synthetic material.
  • 2nd layer: Polyester long underwear (Polyester/merino wool blend if it’s going to be really cold – Costco usually carries these for $20)
  • 3rd layer: Adidas ClimaCool tapered leg track pants (National Sport, The Bay) or a pair of Polar Fleece track pants if it’s really cold. Tapered leg makes it easier to tuck into your socks.

Upper Body:

  • 1st layer: Long sleeve Athletic Works base layer (Walmart)
  • 2nd layer: lightweight Merino wool long sleeve jersey (Costco)|
  • 3rd layer: wool or wool polyester blend sweater
  • 4th layer: lightweight rain jacket (the kind runner’s wear – with lots of zippered vents in case you get too hot)


Glacier Glove Alaska River Windproof Flip Mitt (Bass Pro). I like these because they are made of waterproof and warm neoprene and the mitten top flips back (and is secured by Velcro) when you need to use your bare fingers to control ine, change a lure, etc.)


  • wool or polyester toque
  • if rain is called for, a wide brimmed Gore-tex rain hat and a wool head band.


Flask of Canadian Club Chairman’s Select 100% Rye Whiskey…it may not keep you warm but it sure feels that way going down

About adminsfbca

Scarborough Fly and Bait Casting Association.
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1 Response to The Case Against Cotton: Cold Weather Wading

  1. Eden says:

    will sweat, even though it’s five degrees out), cotton will hang onto all that moisture and hold it right up against your body where it will make you feel cold and clammy. This is the reason that you never want to wear cotton socks while skiing — your feet will sweat (since they’re encased in non-breathable plastic boots and you’re exerting yourself), and cotton will soak up all that water and hold it right up against your feet. While cotton sheets are lovely in the warm summers, cotton is evil in the winter and is out to kill you and steal your iPhone. If you wear a cotton layer, just remember that it’s not going to help keep you warm (and you


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