Gear Review – My Real World Experience with First Lite Merino Wool and Outerwear

Back in August I reviewed the system of clothing that I was going to use for elk and whitetail hunting this fall. And now that I’ve had a chance to use the First Lite system for hunts in three different states, throughout a wide variety of weather conditions, I thought I would follow-up with my findings. I have received numerous questions and emails from readers, so hopefully this will help publicly answer some of the common question that I’ve received.

Please note that this isn’t a detailed review in the sense that I’m not going to be talking about all of the specific details and technical specifications of each piece. For a more detailed, informational overview, please check out this post.

Here’s a quick look at my thoughts and experiences with each piece that I used this year, followed by a more generalized look at how the system has performed as a whole, and finally the answers to some specific reader questions.

Glassing for elk in the Uncompahgre Puffy

The Uncompahgre Puffy

Really, who likes saving the best for last? Let’s put this jacket at the top of my list, because it has become one of my favorite pieces. This jacket is lightweight, incredibly warm, and packs down extremely small. It was perfect for early, 20-degree mornings at 10,000 in Colorado, and it’s done extremely well for cold November sits in the treestand and ground blind.

The fit is stellar, and the range of motion is perfect – it’s cut athletic (not too baggy), without being too restrictive. Honestly, I like this jacket so much I ordered another in the solid color to be my “everyday” winter jacket.

Many have wondered if this jacket is too noise or “swooshy” for bowhunting. I had the same concern. I’ll tell you upfront that the material itself isn’t silent; after all this isn’t wool or cotton. But I haven’t found the “in the field” noise to be a concern. If it’s dead silent out, and extremely cold (as it was when I hunted in single-digit temps yesterday), then there is a slight noise upon the draw motion, but as long as you are aware of moving slow (and you should be anyway), then you should be fine.

Building a fire in First Lite Gear

The Boundary Stormtight Rain Shell

I haven’t worn this jacket a ton, but when I’ve needed it, I’ve really needed it. The Puffy has a DWR coating and sheds water decent, so the Boundary Stormtight has been reserved for the heavier precipitation, or to shed water in warmer temps. I love the generous pit-zip system and breathable fabric of this piece. There are a lot of marketing claims about “waterproof, breathable” membranes, but this seems to be one of the few items that actually lives up to the hype.

If I’m being picky – and I am – then I would like to see this piece also be a little bit quieter. The noise is fine when its actually raining (i.e. – when you’re using it for its intended purpose), but if it were a bit quieter then it would also make a great shell to cut the wind when it’s dry out, and I could get more use out of this piece. And being able to use the jacket in a wider variety of conditions would make it a better value.

But, considering it’s purpose, performance, and durability – this really is a great rain jacket.

The North Branch Pants

I didn’t use these pants while elk hunting in Colorado or Kentucky, but I have worn them quite a bit for whitetail hunting, and even on some cold turkey hunting last spring. The North Branch have a soft-shell outer face and are lined with micro fleece. They are, in a word, warm. So warm in fact that I almost immediately find myself venting them when I begin to move.

Thankfully, these pants have one of the best venting systems that I have used. The full-length, ankle-to-ankle zipper system is brilliant. I can put the pants on and off over large boots with ease, and vent them while hiking. The fit is perfect (really), the articulation is brilliant, and the stretch and breathability of the material is a great asset. These pants don’t ride-up or bind when seated, and the suspenders keep them in place all of the time. Oh, and the bib-style top to these pants means that you’re back (and crack) is always covered.

The one negative I’ve found is that they don’t break wind as well as I would like. I’ve used these pants down to the single-digits and have been warm with my base layers, but on cold and really windy days I can feel more of a breeze than I would like.

A wet, but dry pair of the North Branch pants

The Kanab Pants

The Kanab pants. 100% merino; 90% perfect. These pants are pretty incredible. I’ve worn them in 80-degree temps, and paired them with a base layer pant down to 20-degrees. They are the only pants that I wore for a couple weeks of elk hunting, in nearly every condition that you can imagine. They breath, they retain warmth when wet, and they are ridiculously comfortable. Once again, the cut, length, and articulation is superb. (Okay, the butt is kind of baggy, but who’s looking?)

The 10% that’s not perfect? Well, I’m not sure that can be fixed. Because these pants are merino (the main reason that they’re awesome!), they’re also not bomb-proof. Well, at least not always.

First Lite has built these pants out of merino, but integrated a rip-stop style to make the fabric more durable. It worked incredibly well for me – I put them through test of steep, tough, thick elk habitat – and my pants came through without a hitch. But my buddy Phil did manage to tear his, and there have been other guys who’ve done the same. The good news is that First Lite will stand behind them and repair/replace them – no questions asked.  But that bad news is that no one likes to have durability issues with any of their gear.

But as someone who’s had great experience with their durability, I personally can’t complain about much of anything on these pants.

The Allegheny EXP Baselayer Pants

The 100% merino Allegheny EXP is First Lite’s heaviest base layer pant. I paired this layer with my Kanab pants when it was in the 20′s and 30′s on my elk hunt, and I’ve paired them with my North Branch when it’s cold for treestand hunts. I won’t re-hash all of the benefits of merino here – so let me just say that these pants are soft, warm, durable, and fit nice. I would like to see them slightly longer, but I also realize not everyone is 6′ 3″, like I am.

Walking the Willows

The Springer Vest

I didn’t take the Springer on my elk hunt, simply because it seemed like a somewhat redundant item, and the warmth-to-weight ratio isn’t all that great when you’re analyzing every ounce for a backpacking trip. I have, however, used it quite a bit for whitetail hunting and it’s been a great piece to keep my core warm in chilly weather.

The Springer is another merino piece, this time in the thickest variety that First Lite offers. It’s warm, silent, comfortable, and I like having the hand pockets, and high-collar to keep the breeze off my neck. It’s also a great piece to keep your core warm and your pits vented when making active pursuits in cold weather. It’s nice, and I use it quite a bit, but it isn’t among the first few essential pieces of First Lite that I would buy, and for the most “warmth for your buck”, the Puffy is a much better deal.

Frosty Morning in Kentucky

The Chama Hoody

The Chama is First Lite’s mid weight merino top. It comes in a standard crew neck, a quarter-zip, and the version that I have – a quarter-zip with a hood. It’s hard not to lump this piece in with the Llano (below), because they make such an unbelievable combination. The Chama and Llano together got me through at least 90% of my high-country Colorado elk hunt in late September.

The Llano QZ

The Llano is a “t-shirt” weight merino top. It’s the base layer that I’m always (and I mean always) wearing when I hunt. (I’ve gone 6-7 days without taking the Llano off even once.) It’s great as a stand-alone top when the temps are in the 60-80′s, and when combined with the Chama it’ll take you much lower. It’s comfortable next to skin, dries fast, and doesn’t get “funky”.

Don’t know where to start with First Lite gear? Get the Llano and Chama, and then thank me later.  These two pieces are absolutely essential in my opinion.

Waiting on an Elk

The Red Desert Boxers

I had my doubts about merino boxers, but the Red Desert boxers proved to be amazing. My biggest concern was that they would stretch or lose shape over the course of several days, but that wasn’t an issue at all. They were comfortable, they kept me dry and feeling “fresh”, and they did an unbelievable job and keeping the “funk” to a minimum – even when I wore the same pair for 3 days straight. These are going to be a year-round item for me. I honestly wouldn’t change a thing about these boxers (except make them cheaper…or even free!) - but really, the fit, cut, length, and performance is superb.

The Merino Neck Gaiter

Of all the First Lite accessories, this is my favorite! The neck gaiter is perfect for chilly mornings, and also breathes well when worn for concealment in warmer temperatures. It isn’t warm enough to replace a heavy-duty facemask when the temps fall well below freezing, but it is great for “cool” days. The gaiter is always around my neck when I’m hunting from the ground because how easy it is to pull up over my face for concealment when the moment of truth arrives. Negatives?…I haven’t found one for this piece.

The Mernio Beanie

The merino beanie is built great, but the cut of the cap just doesn’t fit my head well. I have a Shrek-sized dome though, and often have a hard time with hats and beanies, so there’s not necessarily a bad cut on this cap. It appears the brimmed beanie might be “deeper”, so maybe I should have given that one a try.

First Lite's Lightweight Merino Glove

The Lightweight Merino Gloves

These Lightweight gloves were perfect for elk hunting in September and October. They are warm enough to keep the chill away, and light enough that you can have full dexterity and feeling in your hands and fingers. They are also light enough to provide good concealment in warmer weather, without making your hands overheat. I got a few pin-holes in them, but that’s to be expected when you repeatedly use them to grab and clear briars, thorns, and thistles. The small holes didn’t run or spread, so I still expect to get a few more years out of these gloves. They are ideal for early and mid-season bowhunting.

The Mountain Athlete Compression Sock

I love these socks. It’s weird to get all geeked-out about socks, but these made me do it. They have good cushion on the bottom of the boot, and a lighter, more breathable merino on the top of the foot. The compression panel in the calf of the sock is placed in just the right spot and works by promoting blood flow throughout the leg and keeping your muscles in place to decrease fatigue. After testing and comparing on long hikes with and without these socks, I think the compression benefits do work as claimed. (For more information on the benefits of compression do some searching, and look specifically at the use of compression in endurance athletics like distance running.)

I have two pairs of these socks and changed them every day on my week-long elk hunt. They always kept my feet dry, my legs feeling fresh, and most importantly – they paired perfect with a silk liner sock to keep me blister free. If you have big feet – like size 13 or above – these may not be large enough for you. I’m a size 12 and they fit great, but there’s not a ton more room for larger feet.

Calling on a Bull

The First Lite System for Active Hunting

First Lite is ideal for active, Western hunting. There’s nothing better than merino for this type of hunting; and after trying a lot of merino, I would say that there isn’t a merino better than First Lite. The Kanab, Llano, and Chama will get you through the vast majority of conditions that you’ll face while elk our mule deer hunting in the September bowhunting seasons. You’ll need rain gear, of course, as well as some additional insulation for the cold nights and mornings – and I feel that the Uncompahgre and Boundary Stormtight are great additions for that.

I would love to see First Lite come up with a rain pant, and even more so a gaiter that’s made out of a material similar to the Boundary Stormtight. Gaiters were the one thing I really wish I would have had for my elk hunts this year.

The First Lite System for Stationary, Cold Weather Hunting

Can the First Lite system work for hunting from a treestand or blind in the late season? I’ve gotten that question a lot, and it’s one that I’ve waited to fully answer until now.

The First Lite system isn’t perfect for this (and I haven’t found anything that is), but it does a great job. For example, I hunted yesterday with temps in the low-teens and wind chills down into the single digits. I sat down in my spot 5:30 in the morning, and didn’t move until I left 6 hours later, at 11:30. I was wearing the Allegheny EXP and North Branch on the bottom, and the Llano, Chama, and Uncompahgre up top. The only thing that got cold was my nose and toes – neither of which was the fault of First Lite gear.

However, the day before I hunted in slightly warmer (temps in the mid-20′s), but windier conditions. I was colder that day, but it also could have been because I was sitting on the ground. I have noticed that the North Branch pants, while very warm, do not break wind as well as they maybe could. I’m guessing that’s a trade-off of having a breathable, stretchable pant that moves with you. If you do a lot of cold (20s and below), stationary hunting, then layering an insulation layer under the North Branch might be the ticket.

Other Reader Questions

The previous two points addressed a lot of reader questions, but I did have a couple of other recurring questions that I wanted to address…

How is the fit? I would say that the fit is pretty true across the board, but check First Lite’s sizing chart. For example, a Large pant is for 34-36″ waist, and that probably runs closer to the larger 36″ side. You also don’t need to “size up” to get layers to work together; I have a Large in everything, and I can literally have 5 tops on and everything fits together. I would make note that the Llano may run slightly small for some, and I found the Springer vest to maybe run a tad large. Besides that, everything is very true, and the Shooter’s Cut is provides a somewhat athletic, but non-restrictive fit throughout the line.

Where is First Lite gear made? Everything is designed up in Idaho, but the items are produced overseas. I didn’t look at every tag, but I did note that several of my merino pieces where made in China, and some of my outerwear was made in Thailand. Overseas product is the norm these days, even among the highest end of hunting apparel.

Why is it so expensive? A lot can go into answering that question, but I’ll touch on a few things that I do know. 1) Yes, it is expensive, but its no more expensive than the average of high quality, performance hunting gear. 2) When you look specifically at their merino pieces, you need to compare that to merino across the board. Merino just isn’t a cheap material, no matter where you look (hunting segment or not). And when you do find “cheap” merino pay attention to the quality of the product AND of the merino material itself. Look into the “micron” of that merino and do some reading about the material itself – it’s pretty interesting, actually. Remember that merino is a 100% natural fiber, so it’s not like a company can just “cook up” some more source material to work with 3) This isn’t unique to First Lite, but I will say that quality hunting apparel is more expensive because hunting is still a small niche in the big picture. Could First Lite (and other brands) drive costs down if they were selling in much larger quantities?…You bet. But the hunting segment is still very small compared to the larger outdoors and general apparel markets.

The First Lite Kanab Pants

What Else?

As always, please leave a comment if you have any other questions, and I would be happy to give you my opinion.

The Author

Mark Huelsing is a regular guy with an irregular passion for bowhunting and the outdoors. Learn more about Sole Adventure or get in touch with Mark...

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  • Dalton Smith

    I found ur blog about a month ago. Just wanted to drop a line and say thanks for your reviews and insight. I am 32 and have been bow hunting deer for a long time but western style hunting for elk is new to me and of course is a learning process. Your reviews and truth about the hunting trips really helps me prepare and make decisions on what I am in for. Thanks again. Keep up the good work..

    • SoleAdventure

      I really appreciate that, Dalton! You’ve missed some good stuff if you just found this site a month ago. ;-) I’m no expert, but I’m definitely willing to share what I have learned, and am learning, so let me know if you have any questions.

  • Kyle A

    Definitely answered some questions about stand hunting whitetails. Which is where the apparel will spend most of it’s time. What do you think of the ASAT pattern for Midwest timber?

    • SoleAdventure

      ASAT stands for “All Season, All Terrain”, and the more I use it, the more I believe it. I didn’t have any issues using on the ground in Midwest timber while turkey hunting. And this fall I’ve been on the ground (no blind) and have had deer come within 3 yards of me while wearing all ASAT. It works great from a treestand, too – the high contrast of the pattern blends in well with the natural high contrast of branches over sky.

  • Shane

    I bought a full set of first lite gear prior to this bow season as well…. my opinions and experiences were very similar to yours. Llano, chama, springer vest and puffy jacket were awesome. Knab pants were super comfortable for the day they lasted. If the durability of the pants can be fixed this set would be #1 hands down… for now I would say avoid deadfall in the pants.

    • SoleAdventure

      That’s a bummer, Kyle. You must have had a bad break to have an issue with them on day one. I have dozens of hard hunts on mine, and they’re holding up. But, as I mention, I realize not everyone has been so lucky. You’re right though – that issue aside, they are amazing in terms of comfort and function.

  • Dusty Alexander

    Mark, I love your site man! I am a fellow gear head and tend to go into over-geek when researching. Its an affliction, I’m working on it, but in the meantime I have a gear question or you.
    Kanabs. You said you wore them through your entire CO elk hunt right? Did you ever put on a rain shell over them? If not, how wet did you get? I’m weighing the options for the next piece of FL kit that I want to invest in and the North Branch Pants are on the shortlist but they are a hefty pill to swallow.
    Thanks again for the info on the site, I enjoy all of your posts. I have shared your site with a couple of buddies and we are possibly cooking up a (first for 2 of 3 of us) diy backcountry elk trip for next year. Thanks for the inspiration to actively pursue this bucket list item and not just wait for the possibility of an opportunity. :)

    • SoleAdventure

      Hey Dusty, thanks for the kind words. I’m glad you’re enjoying the site! I didn’t have rain pants on my CO trip. The Kanabs are merino, so they’re obviously not waterproof, but they did manage moisture quite well. I could have used one rain pants on one occasion, but more than that – I wish I would have brought gaiters. We were constantly climbing through, over, or under brush and logs that were covered in snow, or soaked with water – so the bottoms of my pants were constantly wet. I didn’t feel it at the time, but it was so cold at night that instead of drying, my Kanabs would just freeze.

  • mike mellon

    Thanks for another great gear review. I’m sold on the first lite merino base layers but am somewhat up in the air for the outerwear. I went back and read your reviews of the badlands gear most notably the inferno jacket and convection bibs. My question is, do you still go back to these pieces for stand hunting during the cold late season? And.if not are you wearing 100% first lite fore your late season hunting

    • SoleAdventure

      Great questions, Mike. The Badlands gear was good to me, but I haven’t touched since I’ve had the opportunity to use the First Lite system. The Inferno jacket worked pretty well, but First Lite’s puffy is better in every single category (fit, cut, weight, bulk, warmth, etc.). The North Branch pants have been warm enough for me (was just out in 20-degree and sleet with them), so I haven’t used the bibs. That’s not a ding on the bibs though…they’re a great option if the majority of your cold-weather hunting will be stationary/treestand hunting. The North Branch would be better in terms of water-resistance, active movement, and breathability. But if you’re just sitting still in cold (but fair) weather, the bibs are great.