Proper Layering For Cold Weather Hunting
Preparing for cold weather when I was young basically consisted of wearing multiple, cotton, Mickey Mouse Sweatshirts and as many pairs of socks as I could wear and still fit into my rubber boots. As a result, I was usually damp and clammy at the beginning of a hunt, and almost unbearably cold by the end of it. Enough time has passed that I can laugh about it now, but it was no laughing matter at the time. After each frosty morning, I would make a mental note to wear more clothes next time. Surely, one more cotton sweatshirt and one more pair of cotton socks would have to help, right? It wasn’t until college that I started working in an outdoors store and got introduced to technical cold weather gear and the concept of layering for cold weather hunting. Fast forward to now, and I can honestly say that it’s been several years since I’ve been cold enough to be uncomfortable in the woods or on the water. And I hunt temps that my dad would never have taken me out in as a kid.
The Basics Of Layering
The secret to staying warm when the mercury starts to hide in the bottom of the thermometer is good layering. Basically, you want a base layer in contact with your skin to wick away any perspiration; a mid layer with high-loft insulation to create a pocket of “dead air” between your soft, warm body and the rest of the cold, unfeeling world; and a wind and rain-blocking shell to make sure that pocket stays cozy.
If you combine these things intelligently, it’s shocking how warm you can stay with relatively little gear. The gear may seem expensive up front, but good gear lasts, and it will do more than almost anything else to keep you in the woods and on the water longer during peak hunting conditions.
In this article, we’ll go over each component of a good layering for cold weather hunting system in detail. We’ll also devote an entire section to good footwear, since in my experience cold feet are one of the biggest problems hunters face.
A comfortable day out in cold weather starts with a good base layer. Especially if you’re hunting or hiking, you will break a sweat. If you’re wearing cotton blend long johns, that material will lose the little bit of insulation ability it has and keep the moisture trapped against you. The result? Cold, clammy chills once you stop moving that nothing short of a hot meal and shower will cure.
Synthetic long johns are also subpar. They’re a step up from cotton in that they don’t trap moisture, but they feel like garbage on your skin. The more you sweat, the more you feel like you’re wearing a plastic grocery bag.
It’s a tough pill to swallow, but if you’re serious about staying warm there’s no substitute for wool undergarments when layering for cold weather hunting. If you’ve never worn good merino or alpaca wool, it will shock you how much drier and warmer you stay. Wool traps a surprising amount of air thanks to its hollow fibers, even when wet. And good wool, in my experience, is one of the most pleasant fibers to have close to your skin. After I started acquiring a few tops and bottoms, I found myself wearing them year-round, because even in the hot and humid summer the breathability and comfort of wool makes it a fantastic material for outdoor use.
The purpose of the mid-layer is to build a buffer of dead air around your skin. For this, you want loft, or what my wife calls, “poofiness.”
Nothing is quite as poofy as down. Waterfowl are small, fragile animals with high metabolisms that frequently inhabit some of the planet’s wettest and coldest environments, and as a result they possess nature’s finest insulation. When it comes down to warmth-to-weight ratio, nothing beats it, so obviously that’s what you want for your mid-layer right?
Pluck the down off of a duck, and it loses some of its magic. You see, down loses almost all of its insulating abilities if you get it wet. In addition to tiny, fluffy down feathers, ducks also come with built-in waterproofing oil glands that they use to cover their water-resistant outer feathers. If you’ve ever shot a duck and immediately gone to pluck it in the field, you may have noticed that it was bone dry underneath the outer feathers, despite having splashed down into the water.
Over time, down also tends to compact itself, losing even more insulating ability. Ducks are experts in the care and maintenance of down. If you’ve ever watched a flock of ducks, you may have noticed that they are constantly preening themselves. They touch up their outer feathers with oil, rearrange and “fluff” their existing down, and (most impressively) effortlessly make new down to replace the stuff that gets dirty or broken down. All of this is second nature to a duck, but downright impossible for a human.
“So what?” you ask. Well, get down wet or dirty, as you tend to do when playing outside, and it devolves from a super-material to a sack of wet, dead bird parts. Down doesn’t play nearly as well with water as wool does, and wool doesn’t have nearly as much r-value (a measure of insulative ability) as down does. If only there was a way to duplicate the best of both fibers…
It took some great minds and the financial resources of the most powerful human organization the world has ever seen (the US Military) but we eventually got really, really close to that ideal. Created in the 1980s in order to replicate down’s warmth and packability and retain those features in wet environment’s, Primaloft is arguably one of the greatest innovations in the history of garment technology. It’s warm and light like down, but cheaper, easier to maintain, and (most importantly) performs much better when wet.
The first Primaloft garment I ever owned was a Browning puffy (poofy) jacket. Coming from a world of fleece and cotton insulation, it seemed like straight-up witchcraft. I could fit the whole thing inside a cargo pocket, but it was warmer than jackets weighing substantially more. I haven’t bought anything but Primaloft Gold and Primaloft Silver (Primalofts higher-end, more expensive insulation) garments since for insulating layers. It’s that good.
Every outdoorsman is familiar with what meteorologists call “real-feel.” Wind and rain can make a cold morning feel even colder than it really is. A 30 degree morning can be pleasant. A 30 degree morning with a 10mph wind and a light drizzle can be absolutely unbearable.
To combat wind and rain, you need a non-porous outer layer over your insulation. Gore-Tex is the industry standard, and most high-end outdoor clothing companies use some variation of their membrane for their outer-layers.
Gore-Tex is a good product, but in this outdoorsman’s opinion, they fudge the truth a little by claiming to be waterproof, impervious to wind, and breathable. Such an animal just doesn’t exist. If it blocks moisture from getting in, it also blocks it from getting out, no matter what the marketing blurb on the tag says. Every Gore-Tex product I have ever owned has resulted in me getting wet in a hard rain.
Years ago I learned about Rivers West garments from legendary Michigan whitetail hunter John Eberhart. Rivers West garments do not breathe, but when it’s howling wind and pouring rain, that’s not what matters. What matters is that you keep that nastiness off of you. If you choose your base and mid layer right, they’ll handle mitigating the damage trapped moisture produced by your body causes.
Cold Weather Accessories
In addition to good base, mid, and outer layers, a good cold-weather system consists of a few more pieces of equipment. The most important are something to cover your head, neck, and hands. Your brain eats up a disproportionate amount of your body’s energy requirements, and to get those resources up there you have a lot of blood vessels that run close to the surface with little in the way of body fat to protect them. The result? You lose a lot of heat through your neck and noggin.
To combat this, I always pack a wool knit hat and merino wool neck gaiter when the temperatures drop. These items don’t weigh much or take up a lot of space, and they are easy to take off and shove in a pocket if I’m moving and need to shed garments.
While the best way to keep your hands warm is to keep them in your pockets, that’s not always possible. For most outdoor purposes, I like a good pair of fingerless, wool gloves. These provide warmth even if they get damp, and don’t compromise my dexterity.
Cold Weather Footwear
Cold feet have probably ended more cold weather hunts than anything else. Your feet naturally have some circulation difficulties, and many hunters, particularly older or plumper ones, suffer circulation problems in their feet. This means they’re not pumping a lot of warm blood. Feet also have a relatively large amount of sweat glands, and it’s difficult to keep them dry on the walk in.
The solution? First and foremost, good, wool socks. Remember, anytime moisture management is the goal, wool is the solution. Another tip I’ve learned is to wear light socks on the walk in if I’m doing a lot of walking, and change into heavier, drier socks once I’ve stopped moving. Some hunters prefer an insulated overboot that they pack in and deploy once they’re on stand.
On another note, hands and feet often get noticeably cold first because your body has a built in survival instinct. If your core temperature drops even slightly, the vessels in your extremities start to constrict, reducing the amount of warm blood flowing out to them and returning chilled. In the grand scheme of things, it’s better to lose fingers and toes to frostbite than for your vital organs to stop functioning.
With that in mind, if you keep your core temperature up (via good layering) you’ll be doing a lot to keep your toes warm as well.
But the best tip I’ve learned over the years for keeping my feet warm is applying antiperspirant to them the night before and morning of a hunt. I learned this trick from a guy who worked in a walk-in freezer, and it really does wonders for cold feet, particularly if you have to wear rubber boots that trap perspiration. If I know the morning will be particularly cold, I’ll apply a scent free antiperspirant to my feet before I go to bed that night and put on a pair of cotton socks to sleep in. The next morning, I’ll change into light wool socks after reapplying it. Once I’m on stand, I’ll change into fresh socks that are a bit heavier. It’s a bit of work, but I’ve hunted down into the teens with uninsulated rubber boots using this trick, and have enjoyed warm, dry feet the entire time.
More Tips For Cold Weather Layering
So far, we’ve mostly talked about gear, but gear is only half of the equation. Knowing when to add and subtract layers is equally as important if not more important than what materials you wear.
Staying warm starts at the house and in the truck. Whatever you do, do not put your insulating layers on at camp and wear them inside or in your heated truck. Wear your base layer, and keep other garments packed away in your backpack. Sure, you may get a little chilly hooking up trailers, packing gear, pumping gas, or opening gates. Deal with it. It’s only for a few moments, and the discomfort is nothing compared to several hours marinating in your own sweat later on.
If you have a hike into your hunting spot, stay in your base layers. Even in temps as low as the teens, I’ll hike into an area in the dark in nothing but my base layers and maybe a fleece pullover. The first 5-10 minutes aren’t much fun, but after that you warm up and will stay warm until you’re in the blind or on stand. Once you start to notice the chill again, then you can put your insulation on.
As far as your outer shell, if it’s not windy or raining, leave it off. Its job is to block wind and rain, and not to keep you warm. If neither of those conditions apply, all it’s doing is trapping moisture expelled by your skin as you sit there, eventually leaving you clammy.
Final Thoughts On Layering For Cold Weather Hunting
Whether you’re getting ready for an all day whitetail rut sit, a wintertime backcountry backpacking trip, or a morning in the duck blind, understanding how the correct layering for cold weather hunting can be the difference between suffering through vs enjoying a frosty morning. A wise man once told me, “Son, there’s no such thing as bad weather. Just bad clothing.” If you haven’t made the investment in good, cold weather clothing, you’ll be amazed at how much more enjoyable they make outdoor activities.
For an in-depth discussion on layering clothes for cold weather hunting, listen to episode 137 of the Huntin’ Land Podcast below.
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