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Clothing Choices for Frigid Conditions

PhotoBy John M. Moschella

-- Hunting in frigid conditions does not have to be an exercise in survival, providing the hunter is equipped with the right gear to make that all-day sit more comfortable.

In the quest for a trophy, the name of the game is spending as many hours in the woods as possible. The more time you sit, the better the opportunity to catch a glimpse at that monster buck. One of the keys to taking a big buck in the cold is preserving body heat, which is a challenge in itself, considering the sedentary aspect of hunting out of a stand.
It is important to understand what causes heat loss:
-- Body temperature
-- Outside air temperature and wind speed
-- Fiber size of clothing
-- Thickness of insulation
-- Distance between the insulation fibers

Regardless of the temperature and wind chill factor, a person's body temperature must be as close to normal (98.6 F) to ensure safety as well as comfort. When the core body temperature drops, problems arise. The simple formula for keeping the torso warm is to layer with the proper clothing. When making the choice for the best garments you should take into consideration the type of material, its thickness, and density.

Furthermore, wearing the appropriate layers of clothing, which will serve a specific purpose when used in combination, will provide the necessary warmth for those extended stays in the woods. These aspects must be considered when dressing for that all-day hunt.

The most important part of keeping warm in cold temperatures is choosing the appropriate apparel best suited for expected or unexpected weather conditions and activity. Most clothing will serve its purpose when the hunter is still-hunting through the woods. However, the true test occurs when sitting for long hours. Here, body heat is lost and typically not regained. 

The word to remember is layering. Multiple layers of clothing will trap body heat and retain warmth for those long hours on stand. However, it is not as simple as just adding layers of clothes to stay warm. Bulk can be a problem for a hunter. Too many layers and the hunter may not be able to pull a bow or shoulder a rifle. Excessive bulk will cause the hunter to sweat just getting to the stand. The proper combination of appropriate layering will provide warmth while allowing for unrestricted movement.

The first tip to remember in layering is that there is more than finding the warmest and most comfortable underwear. The ability to shed moisture is equally important when looking for a suitable garment.

From the early days of scratchy woolen johns to the super advanced technology of synthetics, this base layer might be the most important article of clothing. Polypropylene and silk are proven materials intended to be used closest to the skin. Also, the traditional woolen underwear, now scratchproof, is also a worthy choice. 

A few years ago, I experimented with Under Armour. Having watched NFL players wear it, I figured that it must be topnotch wear. Of course it would be put to the test in the deer woods and not on the gridiron. 

Its moisture transport system is designed to separate sweat from a person's skin, which in turn keeps the torso dry and helps to regulate body temperature. This snug fit may call for an adjustment period, but after getting used to its constrictive nature, the benefits are outstanding. Another advantage of the garment is its lack of bulk. Because of its form fit and thickness, it wears like a second skin. Even when the hunter is stationary, the clothing will conserve a fair amount of body heat.

Under Armour is not without one minor concern, so to speak. For some reason, the garment has the tendency to absorb and retain body odors. Even during stationary activities, a hunter will produce enough scent to warrant several changes of underwear for a trip. For those of us who are scent conscious, it would be advisable to bring several changes.

Selecting the best "in between" layer(s) is the most challenging to a hunter who wishes to remain in the elements for long durations. These layers must provide warmth but not be too bulky as to restrict one from being able to pull a bow or trigger. As usual, wool provides superior warmth, but it is thick. As one would expect, the warmer the wool, the thicker the material. Besides warmth, wool possess an insulating effect, so even when wet, it remains warmer than other materials. It has been the choice of hunters, trappers, and other outdoorsmen for generations and remains an excellent choice in layering for warmth as well as comfort.

Fleece has made great advances in the business of keeping people warm. For example, Polarfleece is the original synthetic fleece fabric that changed the way hunters dress for cold weather. This fabric is soft, comfortable, warm, quick-drying, and durable. It provides a fair degree of warmth and is thinner, as well as lighter, than its woolen counterpart.

Just remember to avoid any garment made of cotton. Cotton is designed to keep a person cool and it is proficient in doing so. It is not intended for warmth. Eliminate cotton sweatshirts, sweatpants, and similar garments as layers. They just cannot provide enough warmth. Save them for warm weather hunts.

The formula for the outer layer is simple. It must be waterproof, windproof, and provide warmth. This is the garment that has to protect the hunter from snow, rain, and wind. Moreover, it must trap a person's body heat. Wool has been the hunter's friend for literally centuries. It is extremely warm, even when wet and its bulk contributes to its wind-breaking feature. It is still the choice of many hunters. Tradition aside, research and technology have produced synthetic materials that surpass their organic predecessors.

One name stands out - Gore-Tex. This revolutionary material is created by laminating the Gore-Tex membrane to other textiles and then sealing them together to produce a breathable, waterproof, composite material. The result is probably the best friend of any outdoors enthusiast. 

As a bonus, many of these jackets now come with detachable sections, for warmth and for protection from the elements. The outer shell, made of Gore-Tex, provides the wind and water proofing, while the inner layer supplies warmth. When looking at warmth, Thinsulate is one option. It provides about 1 1/2 times the warmth of down and nearly twice the warmth of other high-loft insulations when equal thicknesses are compared. It is hypoallergenic, odorless, breathable, durable and easily dried - all important features to hunters. When combined with Gore-Tex, Thinsulate provides the hunter with the perfect combination of warmth and protection from the elements.

Some mention must be made regarding footwear, the first point of which may not be a welcomed reality. Regardless of the quality of the boots, your feet and toes are going to get cold if you sit in sub-frigid temperatures all day. It is a fact that the capillaries cannot supply enough blood to your extremities to ensure warmth regardless how often you wiggle your toes. Fortunately, there are ways to help address this age old dilemma: the appropriate socks matched with the proper boots.

Start with a thin polypropylene sock. This will help to whisk away the sweat your feet will produce throughout the day. Just the walk to your stand will produce enough moisture in your boots to dampen socks. Remember, water is the enemy of feet. A wet foot will not be able to retain enough heat and will make for an uncomfortable sit.

Cover this inner layer with some type of woolen sock. The higher the wool content, the warmer the sock. I suggest a sock that is at least 85 percent wool or a combination of wool and nylon, the rest being some form of acrylic material (usually Spandex) to ensure elasticity. One-hundred-percent wool socks, although warm, will not retain their shape.

The number of pairs of socks is determined by the size of the boot. Choose a boot size a bit larger than your normal shoe size to make room for that extra layer, not to mention the opportunity to insert a heat pack, if necessary.

Speaking of boots, here are some facts to consider. Rubber boots are waterproof but not breathable; Gore-Tex is both waterproof and it breathes; and leather is somewhere in between. Also, be careful of "water resistant" labels. Water resistant is not water proof. It can absorb water. You want waterproof boots, whatever the material. A wet boot is a recipe for disaster.

Look for boots with replaceable liners, usually felt material. It is imperative that you replace your liners after each day's hunt with dry ones. Remember, sometimes liners do not dry out overnight and putting on damp liners in the morning will do more damage to your heat retention than anything. Purchase at least one extra pair of liners.

Loose fitting, high boots will cover more of the leg area, prevent pants from becoming wet from snow, and provide more warmth to the lower leg. So, try on different pairs of boots with different sock combinations until you feel comfortable.

Next to keeping feet warm, a day's hunt will certainly be cut short if one's hands and fingers are cold. Ensuring that these two extremities are warm and comfortable will help determine how long one can sit in the elements.

The argument between mittens and gloves is somewhat overblown. Mittens are warmer but must be pulled off to shoot. Gloves provide greater dexterity at the cost of warmth. The problem can be solved with one item: the muff.

Look for the thickest and largest muff available that can accommodate perhaps a heat pack or two. It is amazing how much warmth can be conserved with this item. In fact, you will be surprised how you can wear a thin glove in the most intolerable conditions and remain warm. Plus, you can sit quietly and comfortably and pick up your weapon at a moment's notice.
The bottom line is that spending all day in frigid conditions is a challenge to the human spirit and the body, but presented with an opportunity to harvest a trophy animal, should make it all worthwhile. Quite simply, there is no reason why a hunter should have to face these extreme conditions unprepared. The technology of clothing material is more than adequate to keep a person sufficiently warm for a long sit. The real challenge is the mental preparation for this type of hunting environment, and that, unfortunately, cannot be purchased in a store.

By Kentuckian @ Thursday, December 13, 2007 11:28 PM
An excellent article, however three additional points that are very important.
1. Head protection, most body heat is lost through the head. Head protection should also be layered.
2. Breathing protection is also a must to prevent loss of heat and moisture. Breathing cold dry air can result in dehydration and heat loss caused by evaporation of internal body moisture.
3. Sitting protection is a must, just as a good closed cell pad is required for a sleeping bag. When an insulated garment is compressed, the insulation value goes to practically zero. Get a good "heat seat", that is, an insulated cushion.

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