What About Waders In Swiftwater?

“Can I wear my waders in swiftwater?”


First, let’s dispel a myth: Waders full of water make you sink – true or false?


“Companies will tell you that waders are dangerous and that they will fill with water and you will sink,” says Rescue 3 International UK provider Spartan Rescue.

“This is nonsense.

“Water has the same density inside the waders as the water outside. Waders full of water are largely neutral when it comes to the buoyancy of the swimmer.”

If you won’t sink just because your waders fill with water, then why isn’t the answer straightforward? Why can’t we just say, “heck yes, go ahead and wear your waders”?

Here’s The Train of Thought…

Our Rescue 3 International colleagues at Spartan Rescue have pointed out that the following issues crop up if you choose to wear waders in swiftwater:

  • Buoyancy: “If the wearer falls in past the horizontal, there is a potential to trap air in the bottom of the waders” which makes the legs very buoyant, says Spartan. In this situation, the swimmer will have an incredibly difficult time keeping their head above the water.  Mitigate this by wearing a proper PFD with your waders (and we just want to be 100% clear – PFDs are still mandatory if you are wearing waders.)
  • Exiting the water: The moment you try to exit the river with waders full of water, you’ll notice a bit of a problem.  “All the water trapped inside the waders becomes cumbersome and heavy as you climb out,” Spartan describes.  Chest waders will certainly hold more water than hip waters, but both are going to deter your efforts to exit the water safely.  
  • Entrapments: Entrapments are bad enough, but if you get snagged while wearing waders, your legs will balloon out as they fill with the water flowing from behind you. Untangling from this scenario will be nearly impossible.

To add to that list, here’s a fourth point to consider:

  • Working from a boat: Pulling yourself back into a boat after going overboard will be challenging in waders, just like exiting a steep river bank as we mentioned above. If you’re working in a boat, you need to be prepared for a man-overboard, and to be properly prepared for a man-overboard, we recommend against waders.

What’s Our Final Answer?

So “Can I wear my waders in swiftwater?”

What you decide depends on where you land on this spectrum:

Warmer water + lower flow + easier egress = less risk >> Colder water + faster flows + harder egress = more risk

Run a thorough risk assessment of your site prior to beginning work. Take into account water temperatures, egress, flow levels, and, of course, whether or not you are working from a boat, and choose the PPE that will keep you on the low end of the risk spectrum. 

Resources: Spartan Rescue, a Rescue 3 International training partner