Cold-weather hunting is not for the faint of heart. I've seen guys throw in the towel after only a day or two, canceling their trip of a lifetime because Mother Nature dropped the mercury into the toilet. Sub-zero temperatures can make the outdoors a miserable place to be. Add wind and humidity to the equation, and things get nasty. Sure you can always hunt a heated blind, but if you need to brave the elements, some planning is in order. Gear up properly and the cold can be manageable. Venture out unprepared and you may as well write off your hunt.
Across the continent outdoorsmen hunt under a variety of conditions. In the southern states heat and humidity present a different challenge. Hunt the far northern states and provinces the snow and cold is a different story altogether. Spending much of my hunting time in Alberta, I've learned what works and what doesn't through trial and error. The coldest conditions I've hunted involved nearly two feet of snow and temperatures that hovered around minus … yes, I said minus 34 degrees Celsius. Trust me when I say that's cold! The only way I survived was by layering with the proper clothing, understanding my limitations, and persevering.
Query anyone who has hunted Canadian whitetails during the November rut and you'll be mesmerized with tales of frosty days on stand. For those with the right gear, plenty of perseverance and most importantly an insatiable desire to conquer the elements, hunting out in the cold can not only produce trophy-class deer, but also an immense sense of accomplishment.
Coping with the Cold
Going on 25 seasons now, I've learned that most of us have a tolerance for cold. Some can handle more; others can't (or won't) handle the cold at all. No doubt, most are capable of pushing the envelope, but unfortunately that's when errors in judgment and shot placement prevail. Learning to identify limits and strategies to cope with the cold can mean the difference between success and a dismally uncomfortable hunt
Whether you are a stand hunter or you like to hunt on the move, the key to staying warm is maintaining blood flow. With many sub-zero days on stand to my credit, I can say from first-hand experience that staying limber is the biggest challenge confronting hunters. The problem with stand hunting is dormancy. It's an ongoing problem; to stay warm, a body must move. Sitting or standing motionless for hours on end inevitably results in the body's core temperature lowering. When the body's core temperature falls below a certain point, involuntary shivering is inevitable. And, as we all know, once the shivering begins, it's all over. No longer are we as focused, let alone able to aim and shoot accurately.
To stay limber and sharp on stand, experienced hunters carefully and cautiously execute subtle, but beneficial exercises. The worst thing you can do is stay motionless for hours on end. By standing up, slowly bending and flexing all joints and tensing then releasing muscles, one can literally generate and retain warmth. Remember, by staying warm and comfortable, other senses are heightened and focus can be directed toward scanning for deer.
Gearing Up & Common Sense
As a professional outfitter & guide I've seen the best and the worst in cold-weather hunting. Despite more than fair warning, I've seen hunters arrive unprepared and suffer the consequences. On the other, I've watched those well-equipped reap the benefits of acknowledging nature's unforgiving chill. Understandably, many first-time cold weather hunters simply don't understand what cold weather does to the body. Let's face it if you've only ever hunted in balmy Florida, chances are you've never experienced extreme cold.
With a reasonable amount of clothing most hunters are able to endure an all day sit simply by applying mind-over-matter. But just surviving the cold isn't what it's all about. We all want to be comfortable and we want to enjoy the hunt. Even in extreme cold, most hunters can cope with a three to four-hour sit. The first step to conquering the cold is to dress properly. With the many commercial super-fibers available today, it comes down to choice and application. As an Alberta resident accustomed to coping with dramatic temperature extremes, experience has proven the best way to beat the cold is to layer up. Beginning with the layer closest to the skin, in my opinion one of the best insulating liners on the market today is Underarmour (www.underarmour.com ). Another favorite is Capilene® underwear made exclusively by Patagonia (www.patagonia.com ). Alternatively, still very effective is polypropylene. These and other hi-tech alternatives serve to insulate and wick moisture away from the skin. As most of us can attest to, overheating on the way to our stand or as we still-hunt our way through the woods can be a big problem regardless of how cold it is. So, it stands to reason, that we should use common sense both while we're moving and sitting dormant. For instance, the right long underwear will help wick perspiration, but it can't perform miracles. Don't allow your body to generate too much heat too quickly. If you have a long way to walk to your stand site, it may be best to minimize your clothing and carry a pack containing proper garb to put on when you arrive. Logic dictates that more insulation is required when dormant than is needed when we're mobile.
As a second layer next to the long underwear, I recommend wearing either fiber pile or Polartec® fleece. It was on a trip to the Northwest Territories a few years back when an outfitter took me into a supply store and introduced me to Helly Hansen garments (www.hellyhansen.com ). Bar none, their line of fiber pile has revolutionized my cold-weather hunting. Rare is the day, that I don't wear this product to insulate my torso. Again, while there are many good alternatives on the market, for me no other sweater or jacket has proven as effective in retaining body heat.
When temperatures are really low and the weatherman is forecasting wind, I add another layer of tight woven wool pants as added insulation. Then for the final touch, I wear a full camouflage suit complete with hooded parka and insulated coveralls. Raven Wear (www.ravenwear.ca ) and King of the Mountain (www.kingofthemountain.com ) are my all-time favorite late fall and winter insulated clothing. Any time Gore-tex® is available, it can be a real lifesaver for blocking the bitter cold wind.
Gloves, mittens or a muff are critical in cold weather. I favor wool mitts almost exclusively, particularly the kind with the flip-open fingertips. Accessibility to shooting fingers is very important when using a bow or a firearm. If severe temperatures are immanent and the wind chill high, then using the wool as a liner and adding a ThinsulateTM or leather cover mitt can be just the ticket.
With the majority of body heat lost through your head, a wool hat and, if necessary, a balaclava are a must. Although not camouflaged, Helly Hansen makes an exceptional product that many folks in the far north swear by; it has thick pile insulation and a heavy nylon outer shell for blocking the wind. Any time I've worn this piece of clothing, I've remained warm for long periods of time without any problem at all.
Aside from headgear, footwear too, is critical. Through trial and error, I've discovered two different boots for stand hunting in cold weather. The first and most versatile, in my opinion, is Sorel's Hi Arctic boot (www.sorel.com ) designed for double-digit lows. But, for the ultimate in cold weather gear, Cabela's Trans-Alaska II boot (www.cabelas.com ), designed with 500-gram ThinsulateTM Ultra, is my personal choice for extreme cold conditions. I've tried a lot of different boots over the years and this is the one that works wonders for me in extreme cold conditions. Wearing a liner sock and wool in either of these keeps me my feet warm even on the coldest days.
Thermal heat pads, while cumbersome to pack and place properly, can also add some comfort to a hunter's time on stand. Available through most commercial outdoor outfitters, these battery-powered or chemical-reacting hand and foot warmers, placed strategically in boots, gloves and throughout one's clothing, can literally warm up your world. With heat loss being the stand hunter's number one enemy, these accessories can help retain body heat and help you stay comfortable and alert for longer periods of time.
Regardless of how well you're geared up, there is no denying that cold weather hunting requires perseverance and determination. Few would argue that it's only the committed who endure such conditions all for a shot of a lifetime. Northern whitetail hunters know this scenario all-too-well. As a rule cold-weather hunting often equates to exercising willpower. I don't know any hunter that likes the extreme cold.
To put it bluntly, we cope with the elements as a means to an end. Remember, dressing properly can take the edge off the cold and add extra comfort, but nature shows no mercy.
The bottom line - hi tech clothing has its limitations, and that means you need to employ other strategies to help you stay focused in the cold. One strategy that works well for me, especially when I'm sitting dormant is working on two hour windows and rewarding myself for meeting that short-term goal. For instance, if I can sit from 7:00 am to 9:00 am I'll reward myself with a high-energy snack like a candy bar. Extreme cold causes your body to burn more calories, so eating regularly can help deflect the discomfort. Likewise, lunch is a reward for making it until noon, and so on. A hot thermos with coffee or hot chocolate can make all the difference in the world when it comes to toughing it out.
No one ever said hunting in the extreme cold was a cake walk. In fact, if you can tag the animal you're after by enduring the elements, you've accomplished something. Only by persevering and putting in your time will you get the job done.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com .
Member of OWAA & OWC.