During my last deployment we conducted an exercise with the Norwegian Telemark Battalion and the British Special Reconnaissance Squadron. During this exercise we spent over a month north of the Arctic Circle, close to the boarder with Russia. During this time we were subjected to the will of Mother Nature. In the land masses that make up the most northerly parts of Earth, a lack of understanding of layering will cost your life or limb.
Even if you have no intentions of braving the harsh winters of the Arctic Circle these skills are crucial for any outdoorsman. They apply for archery hunting whitetail in the north east, chasing bugling bulls out west, fly fishing in Yellowstone, or even just doing a weekend hiking excursion.
Before we get into the technical details of a good layering setup I will cover some quick pointers for staying warm in general.
- Do not get wet and then become stationary. Being wet and stationary in cold conditions will almost certainly put you in a hypothermia situation.
- Consume more calories than you normally would. Many people will give you a number of exactly how many calories you should consume in a cold weather environment, but the fact is we are all different. Just eat more than normal. Your body needs more fuel to keep you warm.
- Stay hydrated. The British SRS had us melt our snow and then mix it with an electrolyte mix in our thermos. Warm fruit punch Gatorade isn’t exactly appealing, but it keeps you hydrated and gives you a brief warm sensation on the way down.
Okay, now let’s dive into layering.
- Base Layer: The purpose of your base layer is to wick moisture and keep your skin dry. For this you really only have two options. Merino wool or synthetic material usually consisting of a polyester blend. Below are the pros and cons of each.
PRO: Natural antimicrobial qualities, warm when wet, breathes well, softer on skin
CON: Durability, takes longer to dry, heavier than polyester
PRO: Fast drying, less expensive, lighter weight, more durable
CONS: Feels clammy when wet, doesn’t breath as well, no nature antimicrobial qualities
Verdict: In my experience polyester’s quick drying ability is extremely beneficial in a cold weather environment. But, if you are going to be on a longer trip you will want the antimicrobial effects of the merino wool to keep your base layer clean and smelling “fresh”. All in all, if you are going on a multi-day / week journey you will want merino wool. For a day hunt polyester will work great. Some companies even offer polyester base layers infused with silver to give the layer antimicrobial properties. I personally use merino wool in any cold environment and polyester in any warmer environment.
- Mid Layer: The purpose of this layer is to provide insulation to retain your body’s heat. Once again there are a few option when choosing a mid-layer. Back in the day this layer normally consisted of a heavy wool sweater. This would still get the job done but there are better options available today. We will focus on two of those options because they have the best warmth to weight ratio. The first is a polyester fleece, the second is goose down filled. Below are the pros and cons.
Polyester Fleece (Popular fleece fabrics include Polartec and Primaloft)
PRO: Has very little ability to absorb water, fast drying, great moisture wicking to next layer, multiple variations due to the ability of manufactures to shape the material differently for desired affects. (Look into Polartec Classic, High Loft, or Thermal Pro for examples)
CON: Does not compress as well as down, not as good of a warmth to weight ratio
PRO: Best warmth to weight ratio, extremely compressible, light weight
CON: Loses insulation ability when it gets wet
Verdict: Mid layers selection is always dependent on the situation, but in extreme cold conditions it is actually best to use both a polyester fleece and a goose down filled jacket. You would put the polyester fleece directly on your base layer to aid in moisture wicking, your goose down layer would go on top of that. Due to the fact that most goose down jackets and items are treated to be highly water resistant to avoid the material from getting wet this set up also provides some water resistance and acts as a wind barrier.
If you only need one mid layer then choose based off of the probability of it getting wet. In a wet-cold environment it might be smart to use the polyester fleece, however in a dry-cold environment you can’t go wrong with goose down.
For me personally, I usually use a polyester fleece that closely replicates the insulating properties of Goose Down. It fits my budget and typical hunting conditions better.
- Outer Layer: This is the layer that is actually going to protect you from the elements. We need protection from water and wind. A big decision point that needs to be made with this layer is how breathable you want it to be. No matter how much a company advertises that their material is “water proof and breathable” it just isn’t possible. It can be water resistant and breathable, but not waterproof. For 90% of hunting applications if you are moving you will want a Gortex or similar material, this is water resistant, breathable, and dries quickly. If you are planning on being stationary, or at least relatively stationary, then you might choose a water proof jacket typically made out of a treated combination of polyester, nylon, rayon.
Water resistant (Gortex or similar material)
PRO: Durable, breathable, fast drying (usually)
CON: Water resistant not proof, wind resistant not proof, typically heavy (can trade weight for durability)
Waterproof (treated polyester, nylon, rayon material)
PRO: Waterproof, windproof
CON: HIGH weight to durability trade-off, does not breath at all
Verdict: Once again for this layer the situation really dictates the decision. If you are stationary then you can roll with a waterproof layer. If you plan on trudging through the brush in wet conditions you will likely want a Gortex or similar material. The third option in this situation is an extremely light, pack-able, waterproof layer that has next to no durability. Cabelas makes a product called the “Cabelas’ Space Rain Jacket.” It is water proof, light, and packs down to the size of a water bottle. But if you walk through any brush it will rip.
Two additional layers can be added that we will cover in a separate article. These are a dry conditions outer layer and a lightweight camo cover gourmet. Hopefully this article has been useful in helping you plan for your next hunt. With a solid knowledge of how to properly layer you can hunt in any conditions. With extreme cold environments the environment needs to be respected and planned for appropriately. If not, you will be in for a miserable experience or worse yet, you could get hypothermia or frostbite. In a future article I will go through my layering system item by item, brand by brand. Hopefully this will further assist you on your next hunt.