If you are comfortable, you can forget about how you feel and concentrate on what you’re doing. You’ll stay focused longer and put in more hours if your clothes and the best hunting boots that make the experience fun. When the day becomes an exercise in survival, you might as well unload your rifle because any chance for a shot becomes incidental. You’ve shifted your attention from the hunt to yourself.
To hunt well, you must not only look into surrounding cover; you must step outside yourself and become your quarry’s shadow. That mental commitment follows physical preparedness. Part of the prep you’ll complete before the season, conditioning your body. Part happens at camp when you dress by lantern-light. Dress wrong, and the environment, not you, will control the outcome of your hunt.
Layering for Cold Weather
Layering has long been preached as the best way to dress for cold weather. Rather than crawl into bulky overalls or don a parka as thick and constraining as a space-suit, start with a thin base layer–what we used to call underwear–then add insulation to suit conditions. Traditionally, that was a flannel or wool shirt, and wool trousers of appropriate weight. The coat might be wool or insulated canvas or down-filled shell. Deep cold meant bib-style pants for stump sitters.
I don’t sit still for long. No matter what I wear, a chill eventually sets in as my heart slows and circulation becomes a memory. Besides, I typically hunt where the terrain runs from flat to precipitous, and weather can almost instantly change from beach-balmy to November-in-Nome. Still hunting in dark timber, where night’s cold has pooled, I may trail elk into the high rock at midday after the sun has burned the ice slick and turned shivers into a sweat. Coveralls aren’t an option, no matter how good they feel before first light because I can’t stuff them into a pack. Still, I need an outer layer that stops the wind, plus inner layers that provide loft to trap air. Tiny air pockets hold heat and they enable body moisture to leave your skin.
All layers must be easy to shed on the trail, and lightweight and “stuffable” I don’t demand the outer shell be waterproof because the truly waterproof material does not breathe. Outerwear that repels moisture and holds body heat when damp does make sense. That’s why wool cruisers, despite their great weight, remain popular with people who make their living out-of-doors or who must often stray far from civilization.
Shopping for outdoors clothing has become complicated. In my youth, the choice was pretty much cotton and wool. Now there are myriad synthetics, with proprietary names that tell almost nothing about the material. Columbia Sportswear, which catalogs a host of field-worthy garments, lists Omni-Dry, Techlite, Omni-Tech, WaterWidgeon and other catch-words it hopes you’ll remember. Gore-Tex has caught on, but most such monikers are eminently forgettable. Even if Rentex and Hypalon don’t become icons, the firm that fielded them should still prosper. Sitka Gear markets high-quality clothes for outdoors enthusiasts. It’s a new company, established by a couple of hunters who reportedly spent a miserable night on a mountain in clothes that didn’t measure up to conditions.
“We keep refining our designs and materials,” says Sue Melus, who represents Sitka Gear. She’s marched me through the latest line, from foundation layers to cold-weather shells and rain suits. I’ve given up on the names, but I like the clothes. “These base layers wick moisture from your body so you stay dry on a hard climb. And you won’t freeze when you stop” She points out that they stretch easily, that Sitka uses silver in their construction to kill body odor. “Then you pull on the Traverse shirt.” Call it the modern version of the wool shirts my mother-in-law once sewed for me. The Sitka Celsius vest also qualifies as insulation.
Combining a soft shell with high-pile fleece, it and matching pants (with a gusseted crotch) incorporate stretch panels and plenty of intelligently designed pockets. The surface is quiet when brushing branches, and smooth to let you slip easily into a jacket. ”We like the 90-percent jacket,” Sue says. I can’t recall what 90 percent is 90 percent of, but the material is soft, with superior insulating properties. Pit zips let you vent on climbs; internal sleeve cuffs keep you warm in the saddle. You can get this Sitka jacket in solid colors as well as camouflage. I like that.
Camouflage isn’t Everywhere Appropriate
I try one on; it envelops me like a warm cloud. For stormy days, there’s the Nimbus jacket and pants, with a water-repellent finish and taped seams. Sitka Gear also markets bib overalls for stump sitters, and rain gear for all of us. I’m sold on the new base layers because they wick moisture away from your skin. Cotton, which I’ve worn for decades, is mighty comfortable when dry; but wet cotton quickly drains heat from your body. What makes cotton wonderful on a hot day can make it lethal in cold weather, when sweat, rain or melting snow soaks it.
My primary beef with synthetic materials is that they retain body odor as effectively as they trap body heat. Sweat into a shirt of poly fibers, and within hours you won’t tolerate your own company. Cotton is less offensive. It’s also much cheaper. And it’s not as flammable. Still, if you hunt often in cold places, or where temperatures vary widely or wind and rain can reach your skin, the fast-drying moisture-wicking synthetics excel.
As for mid-layers, I still like wool shirts. They’re lightweight and comfortable over a wide range of temperatures. They retain body heat when they’re wet. They stuff easily and don’t pick up body odor as readily as synthetics. They work well over just about any base layer and under any jacket, albeit wool isn’t as “slippery” as Columbia’s synthetic mid-layer shirts–part of the firm’s “Interchange System” designed to make layering easy. In warm weather, outer clothes often stay in the pack, so I choose mid-layers with the idea they’ll serve at least part of the time outside. Wool is quiet in the brush, and non-reflective.
On early-season hunts, my favorite jacket is a Filson, no longer made. I’ve owned three and wish I could order another. The lightweight whipcord wool keeps the jacket thin so it moves easily with my body and will roll up to fit in a lumbar pack. The wool’s smooth finish allows me to slide my Latigo sling up my arm without a hitch; still, it is quiet cloth. Sitka Gear’s 90-percent jacket will likely succeed it in my closet. In frigid weather, I don a heavy coat by King of the Mountain Sports. It’s not easy to stow. It stops the wind better and traps lots of air. I always pack my Browning rain suit pants and jacket. While rubber suits by Helly Hansen, Goodyear and others have the allegiance of commercial fishermen and the like, I prefer the Browning and similar Sitka materials for their lighter weight and softer finish.
As for trousers, I give up my safari shorts (Cabela’s) reluctantly, wearing them until heavy frost or saddle time makes them impractical. Then it’s on to lightweight, loose-fitting pants. Freedom of movement matters; I keep the cuffs high to clear wet grass. Cold weather brings out the wool pants (also high-cuffed) and gaiters. I never wear long underwear; it seems too restrictive, especially in steep places.
Socks: Layer These too
In early season, I wear cotton under jogging shoes. In cold weather, cotton under wool works well. You’re smart to buy hunting boots a half-size too big so you can comfortably wear two pairs of socks. If the fit is tight, those insulating air spaces will be compressed, your circulation impaired. You’ll soon have cold feet.
Oversize mitts also make sense. I wear fleece-lined leather, which I can pull quickly to fire a rifle or draw a bow. Another option: thick wool mitts with a finger slot ahead of the palm. In cold weather you want to keep those fingers together; gloves just won’t keep you as warm. You’re smart to stow both extra socks and mittens in your pack.
The cheapest but arguably the most important clothing item is your hat. On early-season hunts, I like a ball cap. A short bill helps it clear scope and bowstring. As it’s the first thing visible when you poke your head over a hill or around a bush, make sure the cap is neutral in color. In cold weather, I substitute a wool-blend stocking cap or balaclava. I always have this in my pack, where it doubles as a camera wrap.
A personal note on camouflage: Color and pattern don’t seem to matter as much as do the shade or intensity of color and openness of the pattern. I find most camo too dark, too detailed. Mothwing camo on Sitka Gear is lighter and more open than many kinds of wood patterns, and especially useful in the West. If you don’t wear camo at all, you can still blend into the scenery. Choose dull finishes in medium hues of khaki, gray and green. Motionless, you’ll escape notice which is how a deer becomes invisible without camo.
Many new fabrics hawked as waterproof or water-resistant are treated to repel water. A vigorous washing routine can strip this film. Wash gently in cold or warm water and mild non-deodorant soap. Once a year, renew the waterproofing with products like Nikwax, recommended by the folks at Sitka t Gear. Keep clothes as clean as you can; if you’ll be dealing with horses in the field, take an extra jacket and gloves for packing in and wrangling chores. If you get pine pitch on a coat, don’t rub it. Freeze the sap, then scrape it off. Dissolve residue with warm water and white vinegar, then wash.
Rifles and optics, bows and arrows get much more press than clothing. however, you won’t have a shot until you find an animal, and you’ll have to commit time a field to do that. Clothes that keep you in the field–and comfortable–improve your odds on any hunt!
Tony Lohman is an expert in hunting and outdoor activities. You can go to his resource to read many tips, tricks that can help you enjoy your adventure in the wildness.