September 6, 2022

The Best Way to Layer for Cold Weather Hunting

While cold weather hunting, a hunter snaps a photo of a white-tailed deer in a bare field.

A bitter breeze ruffles your hair and slips through your jacket. You shiver on your way to the stand as the wind chills your body. 

During late-season hunts, you may face cool temperatures and sharp winds, making it imperative to choose suitable clothing. For cool weather, layering is the key. You want to select the proper fabrics and layer them according to the climate and activity. 

Take a crash course in layering for cold weather hunts. After finishing this article, you’ll be ready for crisp mornings in the woods.  

Jump to: 

How the Body Regulates Temperature  

Two ways the human body regulates its temperature are sweating and shivering. A normal body temperature ranges from 97℉ to 99℉, though 98.6℉ is considered the average. You shiver when your body needs to raise its temperature, and you sweat when it needs to lower its temperature. 

If you hike long distances, your body temperature will increase, causing you to sweat. The middle layer of your skin stores water. When sweat glands activate, they bring that water to the skin’s surface, where it evaporates and cools the body. 

What does this have to do with your hunting gear? 

Sweat dampens your skin. In cool weather, damp skin makes you feel colder. You want clothing that keeps your skin dry, so you can retain heat and avoid feeling clammy. 

Fabrics Available for Hunting Layers

Winter hunting gear comes in many materials. Some are better than others for base layers or protective outerwear. For cold weather hunting, you should steer clear of cotton because it traps moisture against your skin.

Synthetic materials are moisture-wicking. They use capillary action to move liquid through spaces in the fabric. They are better for clothing that’s close to the skin or as outerwear to protect you from wind and precipitation. Clothing made from natural fibers may serve you well as middle layers.

  • Polyester. As a synthetic fabric, polyester is effective for water-wicking. It resists water penetration while remaining lightweight and breathable. Polyester dries quickly and is a durable choice for many adventurers. 
  • Nylon. Another hydrophobic synthetic material is nylon. Since nylon doesn’t absorb much moisture, it is often used as an outer lining on jackets and coats. Nylon, polyester and other synthetics offer wearers the driest feeling. 
  • Wool. With its overlapping, crimped fibers, wool absorbs moisture and keeps it on the surface. Wool can absorb more than 30% of its weight in liquid before feeling damp. Unlike other natural fibers, wool remains warm when wet. However, wet wool feels heavier than wet polyester or nylon. 
  • Merino Wool. This type of wool is more breathable—and less itchy! Merino wool absorbs moisture and releases it outside the garment, wicking it away through openings between fibers. Most wool athletic or hunting gear is merino wool.
  • Silk. Though it may not come to mind initially, silk is incredibly soft and does an OK job wicking moisture for very light activities. Silk’s lightweight nature makes it easy to layer over, but it is not durable. A silk base layer won’t be enough to keep your skin dry if you plan to do moderate activities. 
  • Cotton. AKA the moisture trapper! Cotton absorbs a lot of moisture and keeps sweat against your skin. Wearing cotton can make you feel cold because it takes forever to dry. 

Look for Details: Water-Resistant vs. Waterproof

When shopping for winter hunting gear, you will see clothing marked as “water-resistant” and “waterproof.” These descriptors are not the same. 

Water-resistant clothes are best for drizzles. They will protect you from a light level of moisture but won’t do much in a downpour. On the other hand, waterproof items are ideal for rainy and windy conditions. 

Look for outerwear with a durable water repellent (DWR) finish. Water beads on the fabric’s surface and rolls off with this finish. Both water-resistant and waterproof jackets use DWR coatings, increasing their ability to keep you dry.  

3 Steps to Proper Layering for Cold Weather Hunting

If you’re headed into chilly weather, you want to stay warm but avoid overheating as you move around. Proper layering for cold weather hunting and other activities includes a base, middle and outer layer. 

Each hunting layer serves a unique purpose to keep you dry, warm and protected from the elements. 

1. The Base Layer 

A base layer’s duty: wick sweat off your skin. 

Base layers are the clothes closest to your skin—or the first items you throw on. They help regulate your body temperature by taking moisture (sweat) from your skin and allowing it to evaporate. 

As sweat evaporates, your body cools and your skin dries. Keeping your skin dry is essential for staying warm in cold conditions. Long underwear-style base layers, for example, are perfect for chilly mornings. 

These are the best fabric choices for top and bottom base layers:

  • Polyester
  • Nylon 
  • Merino Wool

Never use a cotton t-shirt as a base layer. Cotton will absorb moisture without releasing it, leaving you feeling damp and chilled. 

2. The Middle Layer

A middle layer’s role is to keep you warm.

Middle layers are your insulation. They help you retain heat by trapping it against your core. The thicker the material, the warmer you will be. Natural and synthetic materials can make great middle layers. 

  • Polyester fleece. Soft polyester fleece is breathable, and it dries quickly when damp. While it’s cozy, you’ll want a protective outer layer because the wind will blow through the fleece.
  • Down. A down-insulated jacket or vest will keep you toasty in cold climates. Down is lightweight and easy to pack into a bag as you adjust layers throughout the day. Since down requires a shell, you’ll gain water and wind resistance from the shell’s material. 
  • Wool. As a middle layer, wool does a fine job keeping you warm. However, it doesn’t dry as fast as fleece in damp conditions. 

3. The Outer Layer 

The last layer’s goal: protect you from the elements. 

Outer layers shield you from wind, rain and snow. Your outer layer should be a synthetic material, like polyester or nylon. These fabrics repel water and may also be treated with a DWR finish. 

Good outer hunting layers may have vents or adjustable hemlines and sleeves. Depending on the elements, you may need a regular coat, bib, or rain slicker and waterproof pants. 

Types of Outerwear Shells

Waterproof/breathable shells are the best options for cold climates. They protect you from the weather without causing you to overheat. Often, these clothing items are the most expensive. 

A water-resistant/breathable shell may work if you need something for morning drizzles but not winter snow. These shells are better for light rain and breezes. You’ll find that water-resistant/breathable outerwear is more affordable than waterproof/breathable options. 

A soft shell is a lightly insulated layer. Soft shells are often two-layer jackets: one layer for insulation and one for light weather protection. 

Lastly, you should save waterproof/non-breathable shells for rainy days with no hunting plans. Since they focus solely on protecting you from the rain, you’re likely to work up a sweat while wearing one. 

Time for a Cold Weather Adventure 

With this advice, you’ll stay warm and dry on your next hunting trip. Don’t forget to bring gloves, wool socks, stocking caps and hand warmers! If you’re trekking through snow, a good pair of sunglasses will help reduce glare. 

Once you’re layered up, you’re ready for winter elements out West or a cool fall morning at your family farm. 

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