We rarely get freezing weather in the South, compared to up North and out West, but when we do I’ve seen it cripple a persons ability to perform outdoors. Cold makes you shiver when you need to place that once in a lifetime shot, dulls your senses when sitting and waiting for an overhead flight of duck, and can make you “mildly stupid” according to the symptoms list for hypothermia. In my case, I love the cold and regularly go into the back country for days at a time at elevations above 6000′ and temps hovering around zero; and through all of it stay warm and dry in the notorious wet and slushy snow we get down here. This isn’t by accident, and whether shooting a 3 gun competition in early spring, hunting elk in the early winter of Montana, or just trying to enjoy a day at the range in February, an understanding of what combination of clothes to wear makes the difference between success or failure.
How cold is it?
If the highs will be in the mid 20’s, I start thinking about what clothing will keep me warm while I’m moving but won’t be so hot I would sweat. Not sweating is important because if you sweat while moving, the moment you stop the water begins to cool and condense, sapping heat away from your body. The Inuit (Eskimo) have a saying: “Walk faster than the ice is cracking, but not so fast you sweat”. How much clothing that takes varies from person to person, and you shouldn’t believe the temperature ratings you see on clothing. I’ve seen plenty of jackets “rated” for 0° but unless you were running the entire time you’d be as frozen as water once it got below 32°.
Keep in mind factors like windchill, elevation, shade, proximity to large bodies of water (or ice), and whether it’s a sunny day or overcast. Activity level is also very important for how you’re going to feel the cold; hiking for hours scouting for a hunt in 0 degree weather is generally less miserable than sitting in a hunting blind when it’s 20 degrees. Stop and go activity, like shooting an outdoor competition that requires a lot of movement and then stopping for long periods of time, presents a unique challenge as you are going to work up a sweat while running the course but afterwards will begin to cool down and get cold.
20 degrees is fairly cold for around here, and assuming a person is of the average temperature tolerance and doesn’t wear shorts when it’s below freezing like I do, let’s look at what material you should wear. Cotton, should never be worn if you’re actually planning on being out in the cold for more than 15 minutes. Cotton traps water and does not allow it to evaporate, which only increases the heat loss from your body. The only benefit to cotton is that it’s cheap, everyone has tons of it in their closets, and it soaks up blood better in case of an emergency first aid bandage.
Wool is a personal favorite of mine, and it has experienced a resurgence with new Merino blends that are soft and smooth unlike the older itchy wool that grandpa used to wear. Wool is great because it’s warm when wet and is a thermo-regulating material: when you’re cold it bunches together at the microscopic level to trap warmth and when you get hot it opens up to breathe and let the excess heat out. Think about it; you’ve never seen a sweaty sheep have you? In addition to helping prevent sweating somewhat, wool is a naturally anti-microbial material and doesn’t build up a “funk” like synthetic materials do. This could be a big help when on a multi-day hunting trip if you’re worried about your prey catching a scent…or a big help for your wife when she’s having to unpack your bags after that same hunting trip.
Silk is a great option as a base layer because it’s cheaper than wool, breathes well, and is fairly warm. It’s also smooth and, um, silky, so it’s not uncomfortable to wear at all. It’s not the warmest option, but if you’re going to be very active, it’s a great choice to be next to your skin. The Terramar Thermasilk line is a killer value for what you get.
Down is the warmest per weight of all insulators, but to get a jacket that doesn’t make you look like the Michelin man costs about the same as a well-functioning kidney. Down is measured in “fill” which is how much space does 1 oz. of feathers from a goose fill? A young duck may only fill 550 ccs with 1 oz., while the top rated down you can get is around 1000 ccs. All that these numbers mean is that you can get the same amount of warmth, with only half the bulk…but at twice the price. Funny how that works isn’t it? The biggest drawback of down is when it’s wet it’s basically useless, but some companies now use a DWR (Durable Water Repellent) material like in The North Face’s Quince Jacket to keep everything short of a down pour from soaking into the feathers.
All other options boil down to synthetic materials: polyester, fleece, lycra, etc. These are great options because they dry faster than cotton, stay warm when wet, are fairly inexpensive, and easy to find. More than likely, you’ve got a few athletic shirts by Under Armor or Nike in your closet, and even if they have your college team on the front they’ll still keep you warm and get the job done. The only drawbacks with synthetic materials is overtime you’ll accumulate the “funk”, the aggregate stench from being worn repeatedly while sweaty, and synthetic materials have zero chill. They were built to make you warm so that’s all they do; unlike natural materials they don’t try to regulate your temperature, they only try to make you as warm as possible.
What kind of layers?
Now in the clothing pyramid, there are 3 layers : base layers, mid layers, and outer layers. Each layer has a specific job, and your job is to pick what clothes do the job the best. The base layer is there to wick away moisture from your body and to add some warmth. Mid layers only insulate and do not protect you from the elements. Perfect examples of this are those cheap fleece jackets that are warm in the store, but the wind cuts through them like you’re not wearing anything at all. Outer layers are there to protect you from wind and rain, but if they add some warmth that’s not a bad thing. Some fleece jackets have a wind proof layer such as Gore-Tex Windstopper which is great if you want one jacket to serve multiple purposes. For all around use, a rain jacket is the perfect outer layer because it blocks both wind and rain completely. It adds some insulation as well, but at the cost of breathability, so be careful not to sweat too much inside that rain jacket or at least find one with good ventilation in the armpits and in the pockets preferably.
All of the advice above holds true for your extremities. Wear a hat and a scarf too. You lose a lot of heat from your head and neck so if you can trap that warmth you’re in better shape. Feet need liners, warm fuzzy socks, and water proof shoes. Hands need gloves that are warm and waterproof, but depending on the activity either need to be easily removed for making the shot or dexterous enough to manipulate the firearm; whether that is a thin pair of gloves or a 3/4 arrangement depends mostly on personal preference. The Outdoor Research PL150 gloves for me have always given the best balance of great dexterity but also good enough warmth for most situations short of skiing or intense snowball fights.
If I’m doing some scouting in the early fall at elevation, with highs in the 30s, I know that a light weight wool base layer (top and bottom), wool shirt, and a pair of hiking pants are all I need to stay warm as long as I’m moving. I’ll have a wool beanie and a rain jacket in my pack in case the wind gets bad or if I stop moving for lunch.
Sitting in a tree-stand at the butt-crack of dawn when it’s in the low teens is another story. Up top I’d have a mid-weight base layer, a wool shirt, a fleece jacket, and then my heavy outer camo jacket. Balaclava, feet and hand liners, heavy wool socks, insulated boots, and insulated gloves should keep my extremities warm enough.
Every person is different and their temperature tolerances are unique. What works for me may not work great for you, but you’re only going to find that out by experimenting. So even if your wife thinks your crazy, the next time it gets cold go sit in the backyard bushes for an hour and see how your new clothing combination works out. You may feel goofy, but not as goofy when that 12pt buck you’ve had your eyes on all season runs off when he hears your teeth chattering.