Hunting is unpredictable, but that’s what we love about it. You can go from being bummed and not seeing a thing one minute, to harvesting your biggest buck ever the next! Unfortunately, weather can be just as unpredictable, and sometimes half the challenge is just being able to stay out in the field.
As a typical woman, I am always cold. I’m also a bowhunter, so staying warm while still being able to draw a bow is yet another challenge. Over the years hunting in my home state of Iowa, I have had to learn from trial and error what works to keep me warm enough to stay in the game, especially in the late season. The main thing I have learned during cold hunts is that you must have a complete system. One simple thing forgotten, whether it is a major or minor component to your system, can leave you too cold to function, enjoy the hunt, and properly concentrate on the tasks at hand.
Starting out as a bowhunter, it didn’t take me long to learn that bulk was my enemy. A slap of the bowstring on the arm of your coat is enough to warn a deer enough to react to your arrow or to affect the accuracy of your shot. How do you stay warm without the bulk? When preparing for cold-weather hunting, there are two main points to remember: wearing layers and staying dry. These go hand-in-hand.
Under Layer 1: The first thing you need to start with is the clothing that will be closest to your body. Wear a medium-weight thermal undergarment that will wick sweat away while keeping the heat close to your body. These need to be a snugger-fitting long-sleeved shirt and leggings. This is the only layer that should fit tight and be touching the skin; the rest should move freely and allow you freedom of movement. A sweat-wicking layer against your body is so important because it is easy to work up a sweat while walking to your stand. This layer will help keep you dry so you can stay warm, otherwise you will get colder and colder as soon as your body rests.
Under Layer 2: For the next layer, wear a lightweight set of “long-john” top and bottoms that are slightly loose. This is another thing to keep you warm, without adding any bulk yet.
Middle Layer: The material for this layer needs to be camouflaged, even though it is not the last layer (To avoid overheating and sweating during walks to your hunting location, you might need to carry your outerwear). For this layer, I wear my lightweight hunting clothes that I use for warmer temps in early season. Dressing in layers is also important to be able to add or take off clothing so that as you walk or sit throughout the day as temperatures rise and fall, you will be prepared for all the temperatures and be able to keep yourself more comfortable. If you need yet another layer, I’ll add fleece top and bottoms between the under and middle layers.
Extra Layer: I think one of the most overlooked pieces of hunting clothes is a vest. Vests are bowhunters’ best friends as they help keep your core, the trunk of your body, even warmer without restricting arm movement when pulling back a bow. Keeping the core of your body warm is important because if it gets cold, you will start shivering and it will be hard to stop. I love my hunting vests; I wear them throughout the hunting season and not just during colder weather.
Final Layer: Wear a top (coat) and bottom (bibs) that provide sufficient insulation and reflect your body heat back to you. Also look for waterproof or windproof materials to help protect you from the elements. However, make sure you practice shooting in your hunting coat to ensure you don’t have problems with your string hitting any part of it. For bottoms, I prefer to wear bibs in colder temps instead of regular pants as bibs also protect your core so that cold wind can’t reach the small of your back between your top and bottom layers.
Remember, it is important to carry some of the bulk of your outer layers while walking to your hunting spot if you tend to work up a sweat. This is where a good backpack can benefit you. I like backpacks with outer straps so you can just strap in your layers on the outside and not worry about trying to fit them inside the zipper pouch. Sometimes you can get away with wearing bibs and still not overheating if they have a full-length zipper along the legs. This feature allows you to easily unzip the legs for pulling over boots, but also while walking so you can allow airflow to reach your legs.
Another tip for not sweating is to allow plenty of time to get to where you are walking, as a slower-moving hunter is less likely to get overheated. If you do arrive overheated or close to it, mist your face, neck and wrists with scentless spray to help cool down quickly. I carry a travel-size bottle in my hunting bag and do this each time I reach the stand. It works really well for me. Then, as your hunt continues, you can add your outer layers as needed.
Head, Hands & Feet
Head – A lot of body heat escapes from your head if it is not covered properly. This is why it is important to have warm headgear as well as to protect your ears and face from the cold and wind. Wear a warm facemask that is extra long and will tuck into the front and back of your coat. Add a stocking cap or regular ball cap. If you need even more, once you reach the hunting spot, you could also add a warm neck gaiter.
Hands – Hands are definitely one of the first body parts that scream at you once cold. It can be especially hard to keep your hands warm while bowhunting since you can’t wear thick gloves, as you must be able to trigger your release. The best way I have found is to wear a thin pair of gloves, a second thin glove on my bow-holding hand only, and use a fleece-lined hand muffler. Hand mufflers attach around your waist and have holes on each end so you can put your hands inside. I also add a disposable “hand warmer” pouch. This way you keep your hands warm and ready until a deer approaches, and you can still feel your release and not torque your bow.
Despite the gloves and muffler, I always had a problem with the metal bow grip. The chill from the metal seemed to immediately go through my thin gloves and freeze my hand when I was standing and ready with deer around. I solved the problem with insulator strips. This product has an adhesive backing and attaches to the front of the grip directly to the riser, insulating your hand from the cold as well as allowing you to carry your bow more comfortably. As a bonus, it even helps to reduce hand shock and absorbs bow recoil, too.
Feet – Just like the rest of your body, your feet need to stay dry to stay warm. For your first layer of socks, choose a pair with the ability to wick away moisture from your skin. Then I like to stick a disposable foot warmer to the bottom of these socks (these warmers have a peel-off adhesive strip). Next, add a second pair of socks solely for insulation, such as thick wool socks, and then your insulated hunting boots.
Another good idea is to use boot covers. These covers slip over your boots and help to give you even more insulation as well as get your feet off the metal stand, frozen ground or snow. An alternative is using a scrap of carpet to put under your feet to avoid direct contact. Although it doesn’t seem like much, just keeping your feet off the stand or ground will help keep the chill away.
The Little Things
Eat Right – Eating a calorie-rich meal right before your hunt keeps your body working so you have energy and warmth. However, I usually don’t have time to eat a big breakfast that early in the morning, and I usually head to the woods a couple hours after lunch, so what I have found that works for me is to eat one or two fiber-rich granola bars and have a small drink while driving to the hunting property. Fiber is digested more slowly and will stick with you for the next few hours of hunting. And while you may not associate drinking water with warmth, staying hydrated keeps your blood volume up, maintaining good circulation and helping your core stay warm longer.
Protect Your Skin – Hear me out, guys! Cold and wind rob moisture from our skin. To protect it, put on a layer of scentless hunting lotion after a shower and again on your hands and face after a harsh-weather hunt. When exposed, your hands especially can dry out, crack and bleed. Your face can become windburned and inflamed. This will only make your skin even more sensitive to cold and windburn on your next outing, making you uncomfortable when you need to be focused!
Flexing – As crazy as it may sound, I actually do exercises in the stand! However, I do them so that you can’t see much movement, because I flex specific muscles or muscle groups one at a time. After just 15 minutes of sitting still, your blood flow and metabolism start to decrease. During slow times or when you start to feel cold, stand up, stretch a bit, and concentrate on warming your body from head to toe through flexing. These small movements can generate body heat and keep the blood flowing without catching the attention of deer.
Learn to Sew – Knowing how to sew is definitely a plus as you can modify and improve your clothes and gear to meet your needs. Every hunter tends to have a trouble spot when it comes to the cold affecting your body. My problem areas are my lower back and tops of my thighs. I made fleece pockets and sewed them inside my hunting clothes in these trouble spots. Then, when needed, I place hand warmers in the pockets and those areas are no longer a problem!
No Straps – With all my layers, I had a hard time getting my binocular harness and rangefinder strap over my clothing and around my shoulders, and they liked to bunch up my top layers. I conquered this problem by trying some binocular straps that have clips on them that can clamp to any clothing. I was very skeptical these clips would be strong enough, but I actually ended up loving them. I replaced my rangefinder strap with a retractable rangefinder tether that I could attach to a belt loop. This keeps my rangefinder out of the way but even handier than my previous shoulder strap.
Now Get Out There!
Dressing for the cold is definitely a lot of work. It takes planning ahead, extra time and more effort. However, anytime I’m not wanting to roll out of my warm bed or take the extra time, I just have to think about the fact that I’m not going to shoot something if I’m not out there.
Taking these steps and finding what works best for you will make these cold hunts more enjoyable. A warm hunter is quieter, mentally focused, on the hunt longer and more likely to be successful. Good luck and stay safe this winter!