Seems to me, the last piece of gear many anglers think of is the wading belt. Often seen as an add-on, an accessory, or even unnecessary, some guys will tell you to tie a rope around your waist and be done with it. The wading belt provided with your new pair of waders perpetuates this notion. Every fresh box of breathables I’ve opened has a thin, flimsy belt thrown in as an afterthought. It’s good for helping you not drown as you go ass-over-tee-cups into the river, but not much else.
So I propose a rethinking of the wading belt. I treat mine as a utility belt — a place to carry heavier things. It’s an integrated part of my system for having everything I need right and ready at any moment, while keeping the weight and resulting fatigue of that gear to a minimum.
What works for me may not feel right to you. But some of these ideas may meet your own needs and preferences.
My belt system is designed for the wading angler who covers a lot of water, who walks away from the parking lot and hikes in a bit, who spends long hours pushing through heavy river currents and returns at dark. Of course, I don’t have the hours to fish like that all the time, but even on short trips, this wading belt system serves me well.
Let’s get this out of the way. Wear a wading belt if you love your family. To me, most of the risks anglers talk about are negligible: snake bites, lightning, and broken legs in the backcountry are pretty rare. Drowning because you didn’t wear a wading belt seems more awful. But hey, choose your own adventure.
Fall into the flow with a wading belt snugged up, and the water stops at your waist. That’s nice, because the air trapped in your pant legs helps keep you afloat until you reach shallower water. (Yes, I’ve experienced this first hand. And no, there are no pictures documenting the event.)
Fall into the flow without a wading belt, and any water over your waders fills your pant legs, dragging you down and preventing the leg motion you need to swim to safety. Worst case scenario, you drown.
Again, choose your own adventure.
One of the greatest superheroes of all time actually has no superpowers — no bullet immunity, no invisibility, telepathy or even superhuman strength. Batman is just really smart, super rich, and he works out a lot.
He also wears a utility belt to hold a bunch of his gadgets at the ready — because he’s ultra-prepared and obsessed with efficiency.
As a walk and wade fisherman, I treat my wading belt as a utility belt, purposed for holding a few things I want within easy reach, conveniently keeping the weight off my shoulders and on my hips.
Backpackers, law enforcement officers, hikers and scores of others use the concept of carrying weight on your hips rather than your shoulders. The hips carry a heavier load longer than your shoulders ever will, without fatigue.
So instead of carrying heavy items in your vest or fishing pack, attach them to your wading belt. Seriously, the difference is huge.
Attached to my own wading belt are the following items: water bottle, net, wading staff and camera (in a case). All of these things would significantly weigh down my vest, pull down on my shoulders and wear me out faster if they were in my vest. I literally fish longer and harder because I carry the weight of those heavy items on my belt.
I do like my fly boxes, tippet, forceps, nippers, leaders, split shot, and all the other small stuff accessible higher up — in my vest and closed in behind zippers and Velcro.
Incidentally, I’m not a fan of hip packs, because I often wade real deep. And the waterproof zippers required in high-end hip packs are too stiff to be efficient. There’s also never enough room in a hip pack to carry everything I need. So for me, a vest or chest pack for the regular stuff and a utility belt for carrying the heavy things is just the right combination.
The Best Belt
In the next month or so, I’ll publish an article about each of the four things I carry on my wading belt. But first, let’s cover home base — the belt itself.
If you know me, you won’t be surprised when I admit that I bought six belts before I found the right one. But true to my nature, when I did find the best tool for the job, I stopped searching and have been satisfied ever since.
My favorite wading belt is a Blackhawk Two Inch Web Duty Belt. It’s sturdy enough to hold the heavier things I attach, without being overly stiff or uncomfortable (and that’s important).
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The two-inch width and a tight, double-layer nylon web is necessary for a belt to hold its shape when heavier things are mounted. Flimsy, thin or elastic belts simply won’t do.
Blackhawk makes high quality gear designed for law enforcement, fire and EMS personnel. I’ve had the same belt for about five years now, and I suspect I might wear it for the rest of my life. It shows no signs of wear and is pretty much bulletproof.
A sturdy two-inch belt also lends a bit of lower back support, and that’s nice too. It’s not as much support as a wider belt, of course, but anything over about two inches becomes prohibitive for what you can mount on the belt and slide around it.
The Smith Creek Wading Belt is another good option. It’s thinner and more flexible, so if you don’t plan to add many things to the belt, but you do want the utility of a wider belt, it’s a good solution.
The Blackhawk belt is adjusted with Velcro on the inside. And while it allows for a precise fit, adjusting this way is not as easy as a standard belt clasp or one with holes. But there are good reasons for the design. It’s a utility belt. And once you start mounting a few things to it, the features become apparent.
I mount a Smith Creek Net Holster at the back center of the belt. A carabiner holds my Nalgene water bottle next to it on the left, and a Gear Keeper retractor holds my wading staff at the ready, behind me and out of the way. On the right side, I mount my Ape Case camera bag, keeping it behind me until I slide it around to the front when I want the camera.
Because of the sliding camera bag, I’ve cut the extra length from the right side of my belt and permanently stitched it near the clasp. So the occasional adjustments (to accommodate for extra layers) happens only on the left side.
The whole system really works for me. By keeping extra weight off my shoulders and on my hips, I carry all the things that I very well might leave at home because they’re too heavy.
One more thing, if there are belt loops on your waders, just ignore them and place the belt on top. Put the belt when you want it, not where the manufacturer thought it should be.
The bottom line: I’m sure you’ll find your own things to mount to a belt, with a system that matches your needs. But treating a wading belt as a tool, and not a frivolous accessory, can really improve your efficiency and enjoyment of long, wonderful days on the river.
** NOTE ** Throughout the next couple months, I’ll detail each item that hangs off my belt, in a dedicated article for each. Here’s the first one:
Fish hard, friends.
Enjoy the day.
T R O U T B I T T E N