We all know the drill. Dress in layers. Hike hard in your lightest gear. Then let the sweat dry out and add the insulation and outer layers while glassing on the mountain. The basic principles of layering work very well in most big game hunting situations. But what happens when the weather turns really cold? Duck hunters who spend their mornings wading in icy marshes know the drill. Some gear is absolutely critical for hunting through the coldest conditions.
Warm the Core
The first step in any cold weather situation is warming up your core. When your core temperature drops to critical levels, your primary organs will consolidate blood flow. This is the beginning of hyperthermia and potential frostbite as the body protects its most critical elements while essentially sacrificing other extremities.
Warm up your core well before any issues arise and the body will continue to distribute blood and function normally. In many cases, stripping off a sweaty shirt and replacing it with a dry layer will do the trick. Make sure your base layers are either merino wool or synthetic – there’s no place for cotton on a cold weather hunt.
When it comes to your insulating layers, synthetics like PrimaLoft are great. Yet nothing beats the warmth-to-weight ratio of high quality down (800-fill or higher). Complete your layering system with a waterproof-breathable set of rain gear. Even if the weather isn’t wet, a quality rain shell also blocks wind while still allowing your body’s moisture to escape through the breathable membrane. This will help keep you warm and dry from the inside-out.
Bring along a few instant hand warmers and tuck them into your inside chest pockets. This will actually warm up the entire body by increasing circulation. If necessary, get on your feet and take a hike to re-warm your core.
Protect Your Feet
After the core is covered, your feet are next. Keep them dry and warm to trek through the worst conditions mother nature throws your way. Waterproofing, insulation and coverage above the ankles creates an excellent foundation. But don’t forget the importance of high quality socks.
Bring multiple pairs of socks, and don’t even think about bringing cotton. Your socks should be merino wool or a wool-synthetic blend. Don’t hesitate to switch them out when one pair becomes wet with sweat. Replacing wet socks with a dry pair makes an incredible difference for comfort. Keep them in your sleeping bag at night to dry them out and have a warm pair ready the next morning.
A solid pair of gaiters will also keep snow and moisture out of your boots. Plenty of great boot brands are available on the market but Kenetrek really stands out in terms of both quality and variety. They also have gaiters and high quality socks to go along with the right pair of men’s or women’s boots.
Fuel Is Fire
Food is very important and can almost fall into the gear category when it comes to cold weather hunting. A calorie-rich snack gives your body fuel to burn and can help warm you up. Bring an all-weather backpacking stove and take things a step further with hot chocolate or soup to warm yourself up quickly. In addition to warming your core, few things are more comforting when you’re on the mountain, than a hot drink or a hot cup of soup.
Continue snacking on calorie-rich foods throughout the day. Rather than eating one big meal at noon, stoke your body in small doses throughout the day. Foods like peanut butter and chocolate bars are great treats that will provide your body with fuel to burn.
Protect the Extremities
A few other items that make a big difference in cold weather are gloves and headwear. Invest in a high quality pair of gloves or mittens that are designed for extremely cold conditions. Always carry a backup pair of gloves. Otherwise, you could be out of luck if one gets wet. Cover up with a neck gaiter, a beanie, and hood. You may even bring a full balaclava in extreme conditions.
When you’re about to start a big climb or do any strenuous work, take off your beanie and put on a ball cap. This will prevent you from sweating and keep your beanie dry. When you reach the top, put on your beanie to help retain that heat.
Keep a fire starting kit handy with dry tinder and don’t hesitate to build a warming fire while you glass snow-covered mountains for game. Just don’t forget to completely extinguish the fire in the excitement after spotting animals.
Bring a pad to sit on. This will insulate you from the cold ground while you spend time glassing. The Thermarest Z Seat is a great ultralight option. Alternatively, you can pick up a foam plumber’s pad or gardening pad at the local hardware store. If it’s too long, just cut it in half. When you’re spending long periods of time sitting or glassing in cold weather, a pad will make a tremendous difference!
Finally, don’t forget your game bags! We sometimes hear people say that they leave the hide on the quarters during cold weather to keep the meat clean. Don’t underestimate the powerful insulating properties of a big game hide. Even in cold weather, leaving a highly insulative winter coat on your meat is a bad idea. Get the hide off and get it in game bags immediately. Begin that cooling process as soon as possible to come home with the best tasting wild game meat.