Old Man Winter, I've discovered, is an anti-hunter. And a sly one at that.
The weekend before Christmas I'd had a shot at a nice plump buck, only I couldn't take it. Seems I'd become so cold during my afternoon on stand that by the time he arrived with the evening shadows, I couldn't get my chilled-stiff muscles to wrestle my bow into full draw.
Avoid The "Doughboy" Look
I made up my mind that wouldn't happen again. Now here I stood in my northern Wisconsin treestand, wearing just about every piece of insulated clothing I owned. With my snow camo on the outside of 12 layers, I looked like the Pillsbury Doughboy. Then along came the buck -- the exact same one -- and he stopped right where I wanted him. My cozy warm muscles drew the bow easily and released. And the string brushed hard along my overstuffed chest and arm. The weak, wobbling arrow landed halfway to the deer, and he scampered off mockingly through the snow.
Bowhunting in autumn is challenge enough, but this time of season, it gets downright difficult. Your effectiveness as a hunter drops dramatically as you and your equipment freeze up and related problems arise. It is amazing how many ways there are to fail at winter bowhunting.
Dress For The Conditions
Succeeding at cold weather hunting begins with choosing and using the clothing best suited to the conditions. Your archery gear isn't going to do you a bit of good if you're too cold to use it.
Bowhunters who hunt from stands or blinds need the most effective and efficient clothing possible, to keep them warm and "loose," without restricting their movements or shooting ability.
Let's approach this the way you'd get dressed for a morning stand hunt in, oh, let's say 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
Knowing that a layer of warm, dry air next to the skin is the most important factor in keeping warm, you should choose underwear made of fabric that will trap air with the proven function of wicking, or transporting moisture away from the skin and depositing it in outer layers of clothing. And of course, it must be comfortable next to the skin.
Avoid Cotton Clothing
These conditions immediately disqualify what is ironically the most popular choice in thermal underwear -- cotton. Cotton is a poor insulator and a total failure at keeping you dry. Work up a sweat on your way to your stand, and your cotton underwear will hold it against you all day long. We buy cotton underwear because it is cheap, but pay dearly in the long run.
Wool, warm and wicking, fits the bill best if you can stand it next to your skin. The problem is, many people can't. Silk, traditionally too expensive for the common man, is now cost-competitive. It is probably the best feeling fabric and has good wicking properties. Among the most popular high-tech fabrics in recent years is polypropylene, actually a form of plastic that wins hands-down in the no-absorption department, but places back in the pack in the thermal and comfort departments.
Thermax is a better high-tech warm and wicking fabric used in several manufacturers' underwear. It is made of synthetic, hollow-core fibers that are not only comfortable next to the skin, but resist shrinkage.
Most hunters would choose a heavyweight underwear for a day like today, but the thickness really isn't relevant; it's dependent on how many more layers you'll add. The important thing is that warm, dry layer of air that the fabric provides.
Try High-Tech Insulators
Next come the insulating layers. High-tech insulation entering the market in the last decade have improved the options for hunters. First there was Thinsulate, and it's still among the best high-efficiency insulators. Similar synthetic fills such as Thermolite and others use the air trapped within microscopic fibers to push the envelope on personal insulation.
Over my high-tech underwear, I typically wear a layer of cotton -- typically sweat pants and a turtleneck shirt. I do so under the theory that it will absorb body vapor away from my underwear, assisting its wicking properties, and tend to keep it there. That layer also minimizes the amount of moisture that finds its way through my clothes and evaporates, which is of course a cooling effect. This function also minimizes the amount of my body odor that is released, which may help prevent an animal from scenting me.
Next comes a heavy, high-necked wool sweater. Wool is my favorite insulator because it seems to keep me comfortable under a wider range of temperatures than anything else does. The high neck is important because of the tremendous amount of heat that can be lost through the neck.
Depending on the temperature and the outerwear I plan to employ, I may wear a heavy polypropylene shirt under the sweater or a thin vest of high-tech insulation over it.
Find Versatile Outerwear
A hunter's cold-weather outerwear must perform several functions. For maximum efficiency of your clothing system, it should be a high-performance insulator. If there is wind, the outer shell should be windproof, and if it is raining, it must of course be waterproof. It must fit well with underlying layers so it does not restrict movement, yet not be so loose that it is bulky and interferes with shooting. It has to be quiet enough that movements won't alert animals, and it should be camouflaged to match the surroundings.
That's asking a lot, and hunting clothiers have scrambled to come up with the best answer. Companies such as Columbia, Browning, Walls, Bob Allen and 10x have developed parkas and bibs that give a good balance of warmth, quietness and wind and rain protection through high-tech fabrics and insulation material.
Personally, the degree of wind I'll be exposed to determines the outerwear I choose. If the air is still or I'm hunting in a wind-protected blind or stand, my outer layer is wool or fleece. If the wind can get at me, I wear an insulated parka with windproof shell. They are invariably a bit noisy, but with slow, careful movements and the wind helping cover for me, I've never been detected.
Please read more tips in Part 2.
For a fine selection of hunting clothing, including insulated garments, click here.
For a fine selection of high-tech underwear, click here.