Hunting is unpredictable. But that’s what we love about it. How you can go from being bummed and not seeing a thing one minute, to harvesting your largest buck the next. It’s amazing! 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 and feel I have even more odds stacked against me when it comes to the weather, and as a bowhunter, staying warm but still flexible enough to pull back a bow is yet another challenge. Over the years, I have just had to learn from trial and error what works to stay warm enough to keep myself in the game. The main thing I have learned during these 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 and properly concentrate on the tasks at hand.
Starting out as a bowhunter, it didn’t take long to learn that bulk was my enemy. A slap of the bowstring on the arm of your coat is plenty to either warn a deer enough to react to your arrow or enough to throw off the correct path of your shot. How do you stay warm without the bulk? When preparing for cold weather hunting, there are two main key 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 type of undergarment that will wick sweat away, while at the same time keep 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 tighter 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 or hunting position. 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 and able to hunt in as your outer layer, even though it is not the last layer. The reason is to avoid overheating and sweating during walks to your hunting position, you might need to carry your outerwear. For this layer, I wear my lightweight hunting clothes that I use for warmer temps of 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 any arm movement, such as for 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 it. I love my hunting vests; I wear them throughout the hunting seasons and not just during colder weather.
Final Layer: After these layers, the next thing is to apply the outer layer. Wear a hunting coat that provides sufficient insulation and reflects your body heat back to you as well as look for materials with properties such as waterproof and windproof 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 more so that cold wind can’t reach the small of your back between your top and bottom layers.
Remember with all this insulation, 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 straps across the front 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. I chose bibs with this feature as not only does it allow you to easily zip up the bottom for pulling over boots, but also so you can unzip them from the top of the leg down while walking so you can allow airflow to your legs.
Another tip for not sweating is to be prepared and 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, spray 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- Lots of body heat escapes from your head if 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 windburn. 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 gator.
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 feel 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 a hand pouch. Hand pouches attach around your waist and have holes on each end so you can put your hands inside with the warm fleece and heat of added chemical hand warmers. This way you keep your hands ready until a deer approaches and can still feel your release and not torque your bow once ready for a shot.
Even with the gloves and pouch working for my hands, one of the problems I always had was from the metal on the front of my bow handle. The chill from the metal seemed to immediately go through my thin gloves and freeze my hands when I was standing and ready with deer around. If you have this problem, there are insulator strips you can buy and they really make a huge difference. 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. For 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 feet. Then I like to stick a chemical foot warmer to the bottom of these socks. Next, add a second pair of socks solely for insulation, such as thick wool socks, and then your insulated hunting boots.
Another good idea to help your feet out is by using 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 piece of shallow 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
There are other things that can be done to help ensure your body stays warm in cold weather. Although they may seem small and unimportant, they really do make a difference.
Eat Right- Eating a calorie-rich meal right before your hunt is a good idea for helping your metabolism digest food to keep 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. The reasons are fiber is digested slower and will stick with you for the next few hours of hunting as well as the colder your body gets, the more dehydrated you will get.
Protect Skin- Here me out guys! During cold temperatures, moisture is robbed from our skin and to protect it, put a layer of scentless hunting lotion on after a shower and again on your hands and face after a particularly harsh weather hunt. Skin is actually an organ, and just like all of our other organs, it has needs to properly function. Just like a coat, skin is our body’s way of having an outer shield of protection to keep us healthy and dry, and cracked skin allows foreign things to get into our body. When overly exposed, hands can especially dry out, crack and bleed as well as your face can become windburn and inflamed. Having these problems in the field and avoiding to prevent/take care of them will only make your skin even more sensitive to cold and windburn, making you even colder and letting them worsen even more.
Flexing- As crazy as it may sound, I actually do exercises in the stand! However, I do so that you can’t tell or see much movement because I just flex specific muscles. After just 15 minutes of sitting still, your body actually starts to shut itself “off”. So during slow times of your hunt and when you could use a warm boost, stand up, stretch a bit and concentrate on working on your body from head to toe through flexing. These small movements can help provide circulation and keep the blood flowing. It also helps to take your mind off the cold while you’re doing it.
Learn to Sew- Knowing how to sew as a hunter is definitely a plus as you can modify and improve your clothes and gear to any of 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 top of my thighs. To tackle this, I made fleece pockets and sewed them inside my hunting clothes in these trouble spots. Then when needed, I add chemical hand warmers and those areas are no longer a problem… just warm and cozy.
No Straps- With all my layers, a problem arose with my binocular harness and rangefinder strap going over my clothing and around my shoulders. Not only did they like to bunch up my top layers, these took too much noise and movement to put on and take off anytime I needed to add a layer. I conquered this problem by trying some binocular straps that have a clip on them and can clamp to any clothing. I was very skeptical that these clamps would be strong enough but I have yet to have a problem with them, they solved my dilemma and I actually ended up loving them. For my rangefinder strap, I replaced it with a retractable rangefinder tether that I could attach to a belt loop. Not only do I like this, it also keeps my rangefinder out of the way but even handier than my previous shoulder strap.
Trying Something New
My system of staying warm is something I developed over years and hours upon hours of hunting. However, I think it’s important that I never stop trying to improve my system. Today’s technology and hunting gear is outstanding and continuously improving, so each year, I try to buy at least one piece of gear that can help me even more. Last year, I upgraded my seat pad. I’d been using a thinner foam pad and my new seat is not only thicker, but a combination of gel and foam. The thickness of the pad helps keep me warmer since my skin is farther from the cold metal stand, and the gel cushion has expanded the time it takes for my rear to fall asleep and get restless.
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. And I think how this effort is going to eventually pay off.
Taking these steps and finding what works best for you will make time these cold hunts more pleasant and worth your while. Remember, a warm hunter is quieter, mentally focused, on the hunt longer and more likely to be successful. Also, don’t forget about safety while hunting in these conditions. Know your limits and always let someone know where you are. Good luck and stay safe this winter!
This article was also featured in Quality Whitetails magazine by Quality Deer Management Association (QDMA) and qdma.com