I have mentioned before that clothes are the worst thing that a hunter can shop for. The options are limitless, and there’s plenty of different brands to choose from, but this great selection also makes it difficult to cut through the marketing and tech-speak, and determine what is actually necessary and effective.
The reason for this article is to share some what I’ve gone through as I’ve assessed a wide variety of hunting and outdoor clothing. The purpose isn’t to tell you what you need, or what you should buy – although in the next article I will talking about the system that I’ve chosen to invest in. (And I use the word “invest” for a specific reason – there is potentially a LOT of money to be spent.) But, for now, I want to address some of my clothing strategy, research, and testing for my upcoming elk hunts.
The Necessity of a System
Clothing choices become increasingly important (and difficult) when hunting the mountains – you never know what the high country will throw at you. Spending time at elevation during archery season could mean anything from dry and 80-degrees, to sleeting and 30-degrees. You can’t just pick one top, one pant, and call it good. You’re going to have to put together a system that is versatile enough to perform in a wide variety of conditions.
To successfully outfit yourself for the demands of mountain hunting, you must take a layered approach with your clothing. But this doesn’t mean that you can just throw any garment on top of another. Smart, effective layering means building a system where the layers work together to support one another; where the sum is greater than it’s parts.
For example, let’s say that you have a base layer that is great at wicking moisture away from your skin. That’s good. But what if the layer on top of that isn’t breathable? The moisture gets pulled from your skin via the base layer, but it cannot escape your next layer. The moisture gets trapped, you get wet, and if its cool out you will be wet and shivering in no time. That’s not good.
Assessing Your Options
When I’m evaluating clothing systems for hunting, the last thing that I’m looking at is the camouflage pattern, pocket placement, or what “features” the item may have. Those things aren’t bad, in fact they are good, but the more important things I ask myself are…
- How would this item work with other layers?
- How does this item manage moisture?
- Does this item help control or reduce scent?
- How versatile will this item be in a variety of conditions?
- If this item won’t be worn at all times, how easily does it pack-down, and how accessible is it to put on or remove?
- Will the fit of this item allow me to draw my bow without interference?
If you are serious about getting the best clothing for hunting, then look at performance over features.
Foundation | Base Layer
Good base layers are the foundation of an effective layering system. These layers, which are closest to your skin, have the most impact in terms of moisture management, thermal regulation, and scent control. Synthetics have become really popular; have you ever heard of this little company called Under Armor? Synthetic base layers are pretty effective at wicking moisture from the skin, and they dry fast, but they often make me feel clammy and smell funky.
A few years ago I tried a merino wool base layer, and I haven’t looked back since. Back then, my idea of wool was heavy, itchy, and altogether uncomfortable – but quality merino wool is very comfortable and performs exceptionally well in a variety of conditions. Merino wool is a 100% natural fiber that transports moisture, resists bacteria that lead to odors, breathes well, and performs even when wet.
You can read all kinds of facts about merino, but what really matters is how it performs in real life. When I started testing merino wool base layers a few years ago, I began by using a long-sleeve merino top to cut grass in the dead of summer. After about a month of cutting grass, and not one washing, I handed the shirt to my wife and said, “Smell that.” She couldn’t smell a thing. And even though I was cutting grass in a long-sleeve shirt in the middle of summer, I was quite comfortable. There are scientific reasons why merino keep you cool in warm weather, and warm in cool weather; I can’t say that I understand it all, but I do know from experience that it works.
Insulation | Mid-Layer
After your base layer, the mid-layer is often an insulation piece. This piece should obviously be warm, but as we discussed earlier – breathability is important so that your insulation layer isn’t negating the performance benefits of your base layer.
When it comes to mounting hunting – specifically archery elk season – I am looking for insulation that is extremely packable, and easy to put on, or take off. The mountain will be cool in the morning and evening, but you’ll quickly warm up as soon as you start hiking.
I rely on two “levels” of insulation. For mid-weight insulation I use a second, heavier merino wool layer. For active hunting, even in cold weather, a combination of light-weight and mid-weight tops are usually all I need. I anticipate that this combo will be effective for at least 75% of my Colorado elk hunt.
When the weather turns much cooler, or when my physical activity decreases, I turn to a synthetic “puffy”-type jacket for a heavier insulation piece. This piece is great for keeping warm around camp, stopping to glass on a windy ridge, or even used to boost the effectiveness of your sleeping bag at night.
Protection | Outer Layer
Finally, you have your “protection” layer, or your shell. This layer is what protects you from the nastiest elements of wind, rain, or winter precipitation. Honestly, for archery elk seasons, this may be the least used layer – but if you need it, you’ll be glad you had it. It also matters where you are hunting; some parts of the country are much drier than others during hunting season.
There are all kinds of shells and rain layers on the market. If you want solid protection and breathability, your are going to pay a pretty penny for it. Many inexpensive shells keep water out, but they don’t let your body heat and moisture escape, so you’ll get just as wet from the inside as you would have gotten if the shell didn’t keep the water out.
When it comes to picking a shell, or rain gear, assess your budget and your needs. Are you going to actively hunt with this shell, or are you just looking for something to keep you dry as you “hunker down” while a storm passes over? Answering that question will help you narrow doing what type of shell you’re looking for, and how much you’ll need to spend.
Putting it All Together
As you can see, the best way to approach hunting clothing is to think in terms of a “system”. When all the layers come together, they will either complement and enhance one another, or the “weak link” in the chain will bring the overall performance down. This post has been theoretical and strategic, but next up I will cover the system that I am using. Stay tuned!