Can You Wear Wading Boots Without Waders? Fly Fishing Guide

It’s summer, the fishing is excellent, but wearing waders is madness. It’s just too hot! So what should you wear with your wading boots? 

When not wearing waders, the most popular choice is neoprene socks that replace the space taken by wader booties. Neoprene socks keep your feet warm and comfortable inside wading boots while fly fishing or other freshwater angling. This combination is ideal in summer and is called wet wading.

Here’s my take on switching to wet wading using neoprene socks.

What to wear with wading boots instead of waders?

Most fly fishers wear breathable waders with neoprene booties attached, paired with wading boots.

But when it’s too hot to wear breathable waders, the best option is neoprene wading socks.

Neoprene wading socks take up the same volume as the neoprene booties and provide an excellent thermal barrier in cold water.

Also, many neoprene wading socks have gravel guards, which are a great option for keeping the stones out of your boots.  

But there are other options.

Some people wear woolen socks inside wading boots. Much like you wear when hiking. However, you won’t achieve the same protection against the cold water temperature.

My early experiences of wearing wading boots without waders

Last summer was my first summer of fishing for some years, and all I had was a pair of Keen water shoes.  

They got me out fishing, but the result was lots of stones in my shoes and cold feet!

So for the colder months of winter, I invested in a pair of women’s Redington breathable chest waders, which I luckily was able to buy second-hand though they had never been worn!

They are a wonderfully comfortable pair of stockingfoot waders with neoprene booties.

But now I needed to buy a quality pair of wading boots. More expense!

My choice after a lot of research was the Orvis UltraLight wading boots, which for me was critical as I had little choice but to purchase online. (There is not much choice of fishing gear for women in New Zealand tackle shops.)

Here’s a full piece I wrote about selecting the correct size wading boots.

So as I moved into summer, I had a pair of good wading boots.  The next question was, what do I need to replace the booties from my waders for the warmer months?

That’s when I invested in a pair of neoprene wading socks.

Since then,  I’ve enjoyed some great summer fishing days while wet wading in cool rivers and streams.

Neoprene wading socks explained

Neoprene wading socks are good because:

  • Your feet get wet, but the water that enters the socks heats quickly to body temperature.
  • Some models come with gravel guards to keep the stones out of your boots. The gravel guard folds down over the top of the wading boot.
  • Neoprene wading socks fill the volume in your wading boots, which is necessary when wearing wader booties. (Most breathable waders have waterproof neoprene booties.) You must purchase wading boots large enough to allow for the extra space required by the neoprene fabric.

Here’s my guide to selecting the right size when purchasing women’s wading boots.

  • The neoprene cushions your feet, especially in response to the pressure created by the water when submerged. (I also recommend wearing thin merino socks inside wading socks to help keep your feet fresh and to stop rubbing. You can read about what to wear inside your neoprene wading socks here.)
  • Air is trapped within the neoprene fabric, creating a thermal barrier. Neoprene wading socks are made from the same material used to make wetsuits.

Here’s my full guide to buying women’s neoprene wading socks.

Wading boots explained

Wading boots differ from normal hiking boots in several ways.

  • Wading boots are designed to get wet. In fact, some manufacturers use materials that assist you to move through the water.  
  • Wading boots are manufactured to allow the water to drain out quickly after being submerged. This prevents you from having to walk around in heavy boots laden with water.
  • Wading boots come with a wide variety of soles designed to grip well on wet rocks and slippery surfaces. The soles are stiff, which helps with maintaining traction and better balance, but less good for walking long distances. 
  • Screw-in studs can be added to assist with maintaining excellent traction on extra slippery riverbeds. These can be added to most boots at any time.

Some boots have felt soles, which are a great non-slip solution. However, wading boots with felt soles are banned in some US states and Yellowstone National Park (full details here), and also across New Zealand. Felt soles wading boots contribute to the spread of invasive aquatic pests like didymo. 

My Orvis UltraLight wading boots have Vibram® rubber soles, which are great at helping me stick to slippery rocks. I found these to be the best boots for me as they are very light and comfortable.

Check out my easy 7-step guide to cleaning your wading boots.

Cleaning and drying your boots between river systems prevent the spread of invasive species and extend the life of the boots.

Fun Fact
Here in New Zealand, where backcountry fishing is popular, we often hike long distances into fishing locations. Here you need boots that work well on long days in the water and when walking to explore the more remote locations of our fabulous trout fisheries.

Waders explained

Waders come in a range of options. Here’s a quick explanation.

Neoprene chest waders

Neoprene chest waders are great for winter angling in cold conditions providing maximum body warmth. The entire wader is manufactured from neoprene fabric and is usually booted foot waders, with the boots attached to the neoprene, making them fully waterproof.

Breathable chest waders

Breathable chest waders are fishing waders made from multi-layers hi-tech breathable fabrics with neoprene stocking foot booties. These are the best bet for most seasons as they maintain your body heat while allowing relative ease of movement.  These can also come as waist-high breathable waders.

Hip waders

Hip waders (or hip boots) come in both breathable and other waterproof fabrics. Boot foot waders are a good option for shallow water, come at a good price point, and can be worn with wool socks.

Then there is wet wading

Wet wading is wading without waders. Instead, you wear a good wading boot and neoprene wading socks. This is a comfortable way to fly fish in warm weather when you want to cover a lot of ground.

What clothing to wear with wading boots without waders

When wet wading in summer, you will get wet feet, and also wet legs (and potentially your lower body) when you wade in deep water or happen to slip and fall in.

Choosing clothing that is quick-drying is important for staying warm and comfortable.

Also, you risk injury from:

  • Biting insect
  • Sunburn
  • Prickly bushes

Many freshwater anglers wear leggings or quick-dry long pants.

Fun Fact
There is a tradition here in New Zealand for guys to wear shorts over the top of lightweight merino or polypropylene thermal underwear when wet wading. It’s not a top fashion statement but very effective for keeping warm after getting your lower half wet.

My choice is a lightweight pair of Icebreaker pants. They are warm on cold days, cool on hot days because they have a synthetic outer and a very thin merino wool layer to the fabric.  

Alternatively, many lightweight synthetic fabrics will dry in no time, many of which you can purchase from local outdoor stores. 

But you don’t need to purchase expensive fishing brands. Here’s what to look for:

  • Muted colors will blend into the background, so the fish don’t spot you.
  • Breathable fabrics that dry quickly and wick away the sweat.
  • Your clothing must protect you from the sun, insects and prickly bushes.

I prefer natural fabrics. In hot weather, I prefer to wear a silk or lightweight merino singlet top, over which I put a long-sleeved light cotton shirt. I team this with my quick-drying Icebreaker pants. 

The last thing, don’t forget to take a rain jacket, a wide-brimmed hat for sun protection, and polaroid sunglasses on your next fishing trip. Oh, and your fly rod!

Fun Fact
Merino wool has great thermal properties for keeping your body at a stable temperature. When cold the air trapped in the wool’s crimp insulates you from the cold. And when it’s hot, your sweat quickly wicks away from your body, keeping you cool and dry.

My recommendations

Buying a pair of quality wading boots and a good pair of neoprene wading socks with gravel guards is a popular choice for the summer months.

If you can’t find them at a local fly shop, then you’ll find them online.

Buy what you can afford, but buy the best you can get in wading boots and a good pair of waders. They should last you a long time.

I bought the vast majority of my gear online after careful research. Now, I am sharing my experiences on this website.

I particularly want to help other women enjoy this amazing pastime.