How to Stay Warm in Cold Weather Hunting
December 17, 2013
Getting the most out of late-season hunting means being prepared for ugly weather. Whether you're on stand in Canada, the Gulf Coast or anywhere in between, it's easy to become miserable when things get nasty. And a miserable hunter often finds himself unable to function smoothly at the moment of truthâ€”or bailing out on the hunt altogether.
While cold tolerance varies widely from one person to the next, a few practical tips can help all of us fight off the elements as the season winds down. Develop a system that works for you, and you'll boost your chances of actually being out there, and being able to get it done, when Mr. Big finally arrives.
Fuel Your Body
The better your diet, the warmer you'll be on stand. Some nutritionists recommend what's called the "O-P-P" diet for outdoor activity in cold weather. O stands for oatmeal at breakfast; P is for a peanut butter sandwich at lunch; and the other P is for pasta at dinnertime. These foods all are rich in complex carbohydrates, so they break down slowly in your system to provide sustained fuel.
Along with making it easier for game to smell you, working up a sweat on your way to the stand is a recipe for getting cold after you arrive. So take your time getting there, carrying your outerwear if possible. The better your physical condition, the less you'll perspire. Regardless, do what you can to keep all underlayers dry.
Protect Your Core
Disposable handwarmers that increase in temperature when exposed to air are an inexpensive way to keep your core warm. Slide several into interior pockets before you get cold. And tuck in your jacket if possible, to keep heat from escaping out the bottom. Wearing several quiet, thin layers that don't restrict your movement often is an improvement over a single insulated jacket.
You can crawl into a full-body "container" such as a Heater Body Suit or Warmbag and get away with less clothing. You also can wear a heated vest, such as those made by Milwaukee Tool, Venture Heat, Sitka and others. They use rechargeable batteries to provide several hours of adjustable heat. To save on battery life, turn them on only as needed.
A tastier way to help maintain core temperature is to stick a couple of freshly baked, foil-wrapped potatoes into interior pockets on the way out to hunt. Don't laugh. The spuds will slowly release warmth for several hoursâ€”and then you eat them, generating still more body heat.
Head & Hands
Considerable heat escapes via your head and neck. Wearing a turtleneck or even a scarf, along with tightly closing the collar of your jacket, can make a big difference. A lightweight toboggan that protects against the cold but still let you hear a deer coming also is useful. And electronically amplified shooting muffs with padded earcups not only ward off the cold but let you hear betterâ€”and then protect your ears from gunfire.
Gloves, mittens, handwarmers and/or some type of "fleecy" hand muff all can help you maintain hand comfort and function. If you wear gloves while hunting, always keep a dry pair in your pack, along with extra handwarmers. And if bowhunting, leave the bow hanging until you're pretty sure you need to prepare for a possible shot. Otherwise, your bow hand might turn to ice before you loose that arrow.
Agony of the Feet
The feet often are the first body part to whine about the cold. That's especially true during a long sit in a tree stand. A metal platform seems to magnify cold in the foot as much as a bow does in the hand.
As you walk to your stand and then climb into it, you need boots to fit normally. But once you sit down for your vigil, loosening them a bit can greatly improve blood flow and thus, comfort. You might even find, if hunting in a pop-up or box blind, that your feet feel warmer if you remove your boots entirely. Should you realize this is regularly the case, your boots are likely too small, your socks too thick...or both.
When you're heading out for a cold sit, it's tempting to wear the heaviest socks you can find. Or do something even less advisable. When I was a kid in Texas, we knew so little about cold-weather preparation that we figured the smart move was to add a second pair of socks to ward off the chill. Oh, and they were cotton. Big, big mistakes. We not only suffered from reduced circulation but also a lack of moisture wicking. Our feet would get damp on the walk to the stand and then turn to ice as we sat there.
In any weather, you want socks/liners that wick moisture away from the skin. Some types of fiber are far better at keeping the skin dry and insulated than others are. Various wools are well known to be great for this purpose, but they aren't the only options.
Much of a late-season hunter's focus on staying warm naturally is placed on his or her boots. They're the most obvious barrier between the elements and what for many is the most cold-sensitive part of the body. So some words on boot selection definitely are in order here.
The right boots might not be worth their weight in gold, but they're worth a lot more than the wrong ones are. Make a solid choice and you'll be much more comfortable than if you cut corners. While not all high-end boots are made to ward off the cold, a brand name product with good insulation and waterproofing is the way to go. And if you have electricity in camp, a plug-in boot dryer is a handy way to start every hunting day dry and relatively scent-free.
I learned long ago that you can't simply look at a boot's "thermal rating" and decide if it will keep you warm. That's why not all boot makers bother to advertise such numbers; there are so many variables on the part of the consumer that ratings aren't universally accurate.
For example, in the 1970s, I got a pair of hunting boots touted as being made for use in sub-zero temperatures. Way sub-zero, in fact. The boots were from a reputable maker, and they held up well; in fact, I still have them. But no way could I have worn them in sub-zero conditions. Maybe the next guy could have, but not I.
Luckily, advancements in materials and design have led to progressively better cold-weather footwear for all of us. Of course, if boots don't fit you well (and, more specifically, don't fit you well with your choice of socks), they're a problem waiting to happen. That's really the case if you must walk some distance. And even if a boot fits well, you don't want to wear it in wet weather if it's more porous than Arizona's southern border.
You need not be driven from the field with sore/wet feet to miss out on a chance at that big buck. Just being distracted by the discomfort of frozen extremities can really hurt your chances. And if you're prone to buck fever, as many are, being chilled before the deer steps into range only complicates making a good shot.
In short, "freezing out" takes many forms. It isn't just about letting Jack Frost chase you back to the truck or fireplace. It's also about being able to hunt effectively, and actually enjoy yourself, in the late-season woods.
Play it Safe
As a long year winds down, it's easy to get sloppy. Tree stands are a perfect example. By late in the season you might have been up and down that same trunk 27 times without a slip, so you take it for granted that the next climb also is going to be without incident. But bewareâ€”clunky boots, half-frozen feet and hands, slippery steps, fatigue and complacency can add up to extra danger. Wear your TMA-approved safety harness as faithfully now as you did earlier, and take extra time climbing in or out.
Another risk involves the use of propane heaters. They can make a cold day afield far more comfortableâ€”but be ultra-cautious if using one in a blind. That caution includes making sure you have adequate ventilation to avoid concentrating toxic fumes. And think twice before you light any burner in a pop-up blind. Camo netting and open heat don't mix. Not in a good way, at least.
Finally, while important at any time you go afield, in bad weather it's critical to let someone know where you're hunting and when you plan to get back home or to a rendezvous point. Carry a fully charged cell phone, at least one reliable, waterproof flashlight andâ€”especially if hunting out of sight of a road or your vehicleâ€”a compass or GPS unit. Spending the night in the woods unplanned is never fun, but it can be downright deadly at this time of year.
Late season brings extra challenges. Confidence often wanes; excuses to stay out of the woods are more easily found than they were two months ago. But if you still have an unfilled tag, and some season remains, you still have a chance. Gear up for it, and you just might end your whitetail year on a high note after all.