Duck hunting waders are the most important gear for a duck hunter other than a gun and shells. Ducks are waterfowl and to hunt them you need to be in, or near the water. Unless you want to get wet and risk hypothermia, you need a good pair of waders that will be comfortable in terms of fit, and keep you dry and warm.
There are different kinds of waders: hip waders, pants waders, or chest waders. Hip waders come up to the top of your thighs, and you secure them with straps to your belt or belt loops. Pants waders are like a pair of pants that fasten in the front. Chest waders come up to just below the armpits and fasten with suspenders or over-the-shoulder straps of some kind.
Camo pants waders fit at the waist like a regular pair of pants.
Waders are also made from different kinds of materials: vinyl, rubber, microfiber/rubber, and neoprene. Vinyl waders are flimsy and not worth the trouble for duck hunting, so we won’t be discussing them here. For waterfowl hunting purposes, rubber or neoprene will be the best choice. In some situations, lightweight microfiber often used for fishing can work for duck hunting as well.
The main thing to consider when choosing a pair of waders is how cold it gets where you hunt. In south Texas where I mostly hunt, we start teal season in shorts and t-shirts, so I use a pair of ultralight, breathable stocking foot fishing waders on those early hunts to keep from suffocating in my clothes. They fit loosely so I don’t get so hot, and they also are great to keep me from getting eaten alive by mosquitoes.
Breathable waders like these are good for light duty, warm hunting conditions. Mostly they are used for summertime fishing. I use them during teal season in Texas when it's still hot.
By New Year’s Day, the winter weather has come and I switch to a 3mm pair of neoprene, stocking foot waders. They are thicker, hug my body more, and keep me more comfortable in the colder weather. I usually wear a pair of longjohns or fleece pants under them, as well as wool socks (one or two pairs). I can wear a wool sweater under the straps and chest part, and a jacket over the top – and stay warm for hours and hours even standing knee or thigh deep in cold water.
If you hunt in colder climates, you will be will be better served with a pair of neoprene chest waders at a 5mm thickness. You can wear longjohns, wool or fleece underneath them for warmth, and a waterproof jacket for outerwear – and you’ll be fine. You may get cold here and there, but you can move around to warm up.
Neoprene waders (in camo or solid color) like these are good for cold weather. These are boot foot, but they come also in stockingfoot.
Form-fitting neoprene waders work on a similar principle as drysuits for scuba diving. They hug your body so that there is only a thin layer of air between your body and the suit. Your body heat keeps that layer of air warm. So, if you get cold from sitting still to long, just get up and move around a bit and you’ll warm up inside your waders.
What about heavy duty rubber waders? They can work well for duck hunting, too, especially for folks on a budget since they are less expensive than neoprene waders – sometimes substantially so. They are rugged and can stand up to the rigors of an entire hunting season, or more, when they are used properly and stored with care. They are also easier to get on and off than neoprene. And you can wear a lot of extra clothes under them and still get them on and off fairly easily, unlike with neoprene (which are like a men’s version of panty hose in some instances!!).
They have drawbacks, though. They don’t tend to keep you as warm as neoprene, despite how many extra layers you can wear under them, because they aren’t as form-fitting. Because of the looser fit, they feel more bulky in terms of wear and comfort than neoprene. Some people don’t feel as safe in them in the water because of the danger of water coming in over the open tops if you fall down in water over thigh deep. Therefore, many folks who use rubber waders advise cinching a tight wading belt around your waist to slow the flow of water down into the legs in case of a fall. Not only is that water cold, it’s also heavy: once your waders fill with water, you’ll have a hard time standing up again with all that weight. If the water is thigh or hip deep, you risk drowning if you can’t stand up because of the weight.
A basic pair of rubber waders can serve you in many different situations.
However, don’t get scared off of rubber waders. They may be perfect for your hunting situation and your budget, so don’t hesitate to consider them when making a choice. I know people who mainly hunt flooded grain fields in water that’s never over a foot deep, and they wear rubber waders all season and love them. I first started out duck hunting with rubber waders mainly because of their affordability. I hunted in them for years and never had a problem. I always wore a cinched belt, and even fell down a few times putting out and picking up decoys. I got a cold water chest bath, but the belt worked well to keep too much water from going down in to the legs.
Rubber hip waders are a great choice for people who hunt exclusively in shallow water conditions, or who go on guided hunts where the guides do all the deeper water work and the hunters mainly step on and off a boat and/or a blind. Hip waders are easy to pack, easy to take on and off, and easy to store. And they’re less expensive than chest waders. I have a pair of hip waders that I carry in the truck with me as back-up waders in case I need them. I end up using them several times a year when hunting shallow water, when I don’t feel like tugging on a pair of neoprenes, or when I’m driving around on my hunting lease and find some reason to walk off into a muddy field or watery ditch. (You never know when you might need to do such a thing.)
Every hunter needs a pair of rubber hip waders, just in case . . .
So, analyze your situation and choose based on what's going to work for you and what you'll be most comfortable with. If your budget can support it, get more than one pair. That way, you'll always have an extra pair of duck hunting waders if your main pair spring a leak or get wet and don't have time to dry for the next hunt.