By David Cronenwett
As autumn rolls around, backcountry hunters look forward to our journeys into the mountains. We should take care to prepare ourselves for rapid weather changes, since fall frequently morphs into winter and back again from day to day.
Being prepared makes outings more comfortable and more successful, as well as safer.
The biggest threat that autumn and early winter pose to hunters is hypothermia – the insidious and potentially deadly lowering of the body's core temperature. Ironically, hypothermia is less likely to be a problem in winter because most people expect cold then and dress accordingly. Danger is greater during the other seasons.
In autumn, sitting through a night or two in frigid cold without a sleeping bag, could easily push your body into a precariously cold state. The body loses heat four ways: convection (wind action drawing heat away); conduction (direct contact with a cold object); radiation (an un-insulated body in a cold environment); and evaporation (moist skin conducts heat away 240 times faster than dry skin).
The importance of clothing must never be underestimated. People who otherwise would have perished in the wilderness have been known to squeak by because they were adequately dressed. Always wear or carry enough clothing for the worst conditions to be expected.
The layering system, one that emphasizes several thin layers over fewer heavy ones, is well known. However, in the past twenty years or so, the clothing material of choice, namely polypropylene, fleece and other synthetic fabrics, has supplanted the traditional option of wool. This is due almost exclusively to fashion and advertising, since these products are simply not withstanding the test of time. Recently however, more people are rediscovering the amazing qualities of wool and more companies are manufacturing excellent, high-performance wool products.
First, wool is a natural, renewable fiber that can be sustainably produced and will eventually biodegrade. Compare this to the petroleum-intensive nature of fleece products that will last for centuries in the landfill. In my opinion, most synthetic outdoor garments are vastly inferior to their traditional wool or cotton counterparts. When working and living around open fires and woodstoves, having a wardrobe of plastic clothes can be simply dangerous. I have seen expensive parkas and fleece pullovers riddled with "spark holes" and witnessed the gruesome melting and outright combustion of gloves, hats, pants and other items.
Wool and canvas are much less flammable and easier to repair. Wool does not hold on to body odor forever, as do some synthetics. Most hunters appreciate that wool is quiet. Companies like Ibex have a line of excellent, durable and non-itchy garments. Their Merino wool long underwear line is particularly fine.
The so-called waterproof/breathable fabrics that comprise the bulk of raingear today will never live up to their own advertising. Hard, sustained use in the wilderness (as opposed to weekend outings) will soon destroy these products. Though they may technically breathe, they cannot prevent moisture buildup from perspiration, especially when you are working strenuously. A good wool coat may keep you as dry and more comfortable than a Gore-tex parka. If you want to truly stay dry, buy impermeable rain gear, seek shelter and wait out the weather, since physical activity in any rainwear will soak you from within.
Having said all this, I recognize that many people use synthetic clothing and there is a place for it. I only recommend that individuals who spend a lot of time in the wilderness to give wool a try. You may be surprised by the results.
Clothing alone isn't enough to keep you warm. Remember to drink plenty of water or warm tea throughout the day. Eat well. Be prepared to build a fire before your hands get clumsy and trembling with the effects of hypothermia. If you suspect you or your partner is becoming incapacitated by hypothermia, try this simple test: touch the thumb to the little finger. If there is any difficulty whatsoever, take immediate steps to warm up. Either exercise vigorously or immediately light a fire, the latter being more desirable. If you are alone, you may quickly become unable to revive yourself.
But if you are dressed adequately and mentally prepared, even stormy autumn days can be some of your finest days afield.
David Cronenwett is a BHA member and a wilderness skills and survival instructor. He and his family live in Dillon, Montana.