Dress for the Backcountry Winter

By Ben Long

Bad weather makes for good hunting, but only if you’re prepared for it.

In the backcountry, clothing choice is not only a matter of comfort, it can be la matter of life and death. But at very least, poor clothing will drive you back to town when the hunting is heating up.

I’m no expert on the latest technological innovations when it comes to outdoor clothing, but here is what I’ve learned from more than three decades of toughing out squalls in the northern Rockies.

Dress in layers. Your clothing needs will change over the day as the temperature rises and falls, winds kick in, and depending on whether you are climbing a mountain, or waiting patiently along a game trail. Don’t pack a big, bulky coat. Instead, wear layers. Then, change your clothes to fit conditions.

Cotton kills. Cotton is great in the right place and time – in the summer or the desert when odds are nil of getting more precipitation than a rain shower. Cotton is cool, protects you from the sun, and dries quickly. Unfortunately, it retains nearly zero of its insulation value when it’s wet. When the weather dips below 50 and rain or snow is even the slightest possibility, I won’t even use cotton socks and underwear. Hypothermia is the greatest threat in the mountains, and cotton has contributed to many deaths.

Wool rules. If not cotton, what? It used to be a simple, one-word answer: wool. Wool has withstood the test of time. It’s durable, warm, it breathes and retains its insulation value when wet. It’s also quiet when sneaking though the brush and doesn’t hold your body odor. Wool does have some down sides: it can itch, it holds moisture and becomes heavier when wet and takes longer to dry. As for the itch, try some of the finer Merino wool fabrics. They are well worth paying the premium.

Synthetics: Some of the new synthetics are great, too. Fabrics like pile (Polarfleece is a popular brand) are good insulators, even when wet, and don’t weigh down like wet wool does. Synthetic underwear fabrics, like Capeline, are a world better than cotton and better for folks with sensitive skin that dislikes wool. A warning about synthetics and fire, however. These fabrics are petrochemicals and burn easily. Sitting close to a fire can leave your pricy new duds pockmarked with spark holes.

Shell: A shell is your outer layer, such as a parka and maybe rain pants. Great advances have been made in the shell layer. If you are hunting above timberline, when wind is a constant thief of warmth and energy, invest in a good shell. However, shells can be noisy for quiet stalking. Plus, in spite of advances in design and fabric, you can still get as wet or even wetter from sweating inside a shell than you might get from the rain or wet brush. I quit wearing rain gear years ago when I am still-hunting in timber. I simply wear wool and get wet. But that’s a matter of taste and the climate in which you hunt. A good, lightweight and high quality shell can be worth its weight in gold.

Hat: Your brain uses an enormous quantity of blood and energy, so your head key to maintaining a healthy body temperature. I pack two stocking caps: one is a thin nylon layer that athletes wear when exercising outside. The other is thicker, made of Polarfleece. One is for hiking, the other for sitting. And when it gets really cold, I wear them both. A scarf or neck gaiter is important for keeping your neck and head warm.

Gloves: it’s hard to nock an arrow or flip the safety if your fingers are frozen stiff, so gloves are important. I’ve played around with mittens and muffs, but go back to two layers of gloves unless it’s bitterly cold. One is a thin, nylon “liner” gloves and the others are form-fitting wool and nylon blend, with plastic on the palms and fingers to improve grip. Both insulate fairly well when wet and I can wear both pair in deep cold. Forget cotton gloves.

About Caitlin Thompson