[How-To] Dress for Cold Weather Hunts: Layering 101

As hunters, we often endure extreme conditions that would cause normal people to just throw in the towel. 

I mean, it’s hard to fill your big game tags from the warm, cozy comforts of home.

Colorado Elk Hunt
Yeah, this was fun….NOT

How do we manage to hike over rough terrain, sit for hours in wet conditions, and suffer the freezing cold? 

It’s all in how you dress. A good layering system can save you some severe agony in the field. 

Dress SNL
I mean…that’s one example of layers.

So, let’s talk layers! 

We’re going to cover what layers work best and how to plan so you can stay dry, comfortable, and incognito.

Why Layers Work

For years, I suffered through awful hunting conditions using a hodgepodge pile of sweatshirts, flannels, long johns, and hand-me-down camo jackets.

Not only was my hunting gear so bulky that it hindered my mobility, but it also did a terrible job of keeping me warm and dry. 

Colorado Elk Hunt Layers
Layering is the KEY to comfort while hunting or hiking.

I’ll admit I was skeptical of those fancy “layering systems” at first. I figured they were just another gimmicky way to part hunters from our hard-earned dollars. 

The truth of the matter is…layering actually works.

The trick? 

Choose pieces that work together as a team.

Colonia Teamwork

If you do it right, you can narrow down your hunting wardrobe to about half a dozen pieces that will get you through anything the weather throws your way. 

(Even if you get an unexpected curveball like this year’s Colorado elk hunt that had me hiking in 92-degree weather one day and shivering in 10-inches of snow the next. Read more about that HERE.)

Start at the Base

Think of your base layer as the foundation of a house. 

It doesn’t matter how fancy you build your dwelling; if the foundation sucks, the house will crumble. The same is true of your layering system. 

House Collapse
We call that a bad day.

It doesn’t matter how much you spend on fancy coats and overalls. When the base layer is mediocre, you’re going to be pretty miserable.

So, what fabrics should you be on the lookout for when selecting a base layer? 

The best base layers are made from either merino wool or synthetic fabrics. 

69
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Merino Wool

If the thought of wearing wool skivvies makes you feel itchy, don’t worry. Merino wool is much softer and finer than the traditional wool used to knit those awful, prickly Christmas sweaters. 

Not only is merino super soft and oh-so-comfy, but it also regulates body temperature better than any other natural material. Merino wool is also breathable, trapping heat to keep you warm on cold days.

20
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

You want something like merino to wick away sweat when the temps get warm. Wool also retains its insulating ability when it’s soaking wet.

Another bonus: you can wear merino wool for days, and it won’t stink. 

Colorado Elk Hunt Boots
Those wool socks aren’t the prettiest but they do keep your toes nice and warm.

Nasty bacteria have a hard time growing on fine, lanolin-coated wool fibers. Your armpits will stink up faster than any merino base layer.

Synthetics

Synthetic base layers have superb wicking qualities. They dry super fast and are incredibly durable. If you need to stay cool and dry, a synthetic base layer is a major asset.

This is especially true during warmer weather or physically demanding hunts. 

69
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Worth noting, synthetics can smell frighteningly rank, especially the cheap, discount options. These pieces can be a breeding ground for smelly B.O.

Not good when you’re trying to fool those keen animal noses. 

Ew David Schitt's Creek

Most high-end hunting brands incorporate carbon, silver salt, or other antimicrobial components to help keep human smells at bay. 

Fork out the extra cash. It’s totally worth it. 

Cotton Kills

Word to the wise, avoid hunting clothes made from cotton.  

Cotton may be “the fabric of our lives” and incredibly cheap; however, it’s one of the most absorbent materials on the planet.

(There’s a reason cotton and bath towels go together like PB&J.)

White Cotton Outfit
Maybe don’t wear this…

Cotton can actually hold up to 27 times its weight in water, so it’s no surprise that it also soaks up sweat like a sponge. Not to mention, cotton also absorbs moisture from the environment. 

Once it gets wet, it takes FOREVER to dry.

Wearing wet cotton, especially against your skin, makes it hard for your body to maintain a healthy core temperature. This can lead to not only discomfort but also send you spiraling into hypothermia. 

Shining Olaf Frozen
Don’t be this guy.

Let’s make this simple. Leave the cotton at home. That goes for jeans, socks, flannel shirts…and traditional cotton long johns.

Caught in the Middle

After the base layer, we move to the mid-layer. These pieces need to offer some insulation while also moving water away from your base layer to keep it dry. 

The mid-layer should also be easy to pull on/take off as the weather changes. 

189
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Fleece is a great mid-layer material. It’s comfy, breathable, dries quickly, and helps with moisture management. 

A hood is an excellent addition to a fleece mid-layer top for colder conditions, and a ¾ zipper makes for a nice feature as well since it gives you a little ventilation.

Step Outside

Last on the list, let’s take a look at the benefits of an insulated outer layer

Sporting a thick heavy jacket while hiking through the backcountry or while you’re hoofing it to your treestand will only end with you hot, sweaty, and overheated. 

Airplane Sweaty Ted
You don’t want to be this guy in the woods.

However, if you need to do any sitting or waiting, a lightweight, packable insulated outer layer will be your new best friend. 

Down is super warm, super compressible, and super lightweight, but it gets super heavy when wet. It also loses its insulating properties when wet. 

289
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Thankfully, some manufacturers coat natural down so that it becomes more water-resistant.

Synthetic insulation is also a good option that also resists water. Additionally, it does a good job of retaining body heat while providing breathability when you need to expend some energy. 

Colorado Elk Hunt Sitka
An outer jacket that can be taken off and stored is a great way to keep the sweatiness at bay.

The shell of your outer layer interfaces with the atmosphere. No matter what type of insulation your outer layer uses, the outer shell needs to protect you and your other layers from wind and water. 

It should do that while also being breathable and silent.

When the buck of a lifetime turns broadside, the last thing you want is your jacket to make a raspy screech when you raise your rifle. 

249
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Let it Rain

All of your layers will be utterly worthless if you end up soaked to the bone. Mother Nature can be an unpredictable wench, so it’s best to prepare for the worst. 

This means packing some reliable rain gear

Cat Rain Coat
Stay dry, my friends.

Lightweight gear that rolls down to a compact package is an asset, especially for backcountry hunters who need to carry all their gear on their backs.

Your rain gear will likely spend most of its life in your pack, only making occasional appearances when the weather turns nasty.

Waterproof Vs. Water-Resistant

Some brands tout the “breathability” of their rain gear. This sounds like a great selling point.

On the surface, “breathability” lets moisture pass to the outside instead of trapping it in a sweaty pool inside your gear.

The problem is that “breathable” rain gear isn’t 100 percent waterproof. 

Colorado Elk Hunt Camo
Might be nice and pretty now, but just wait…

It may be water-resistant, but it is NOT waterproof

Pelted with enough rain, water-resistant gear will eventually saturate, letting rain inside. If there is even a slight chance you may wind up in monsoon conditions, you’ll be thankful for waterproof rain gear.

329
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Waterproof is your best chance at staying dry in the wettest conditions, but it’s not fun to hike in.

Zero breathability translates to swimming in warm sweat when you’re on the move.

Sweaty
Ewww…

Full-on waterproof gear tends to be noisier than soft-shell water-resistant gear.

When everything around you is being pelted by rain, a little extra noise from your raincoat probably isn’t going to make or break your hunt. 

However, staying dry and comfortable probably will.

215
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

My advice? 

Go for waterproof. 

I’ve never once wished I had opted for something more breathable in a downpour. 

Accessories

Elk Hunting 5.11 Backpack
Any girl knows, accessories can make or break an outfit.

There’s more to building a comfortable layering system than pants and tops. Accessories can add tons of comfort to your hunting system. 

Here are a few key pieces to add.

Hat

A good hat will help break up your silhouette, keep your head warm, and shield your eyes from the sun. 

30
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

For early bow season, I love Sitka’s Ascent Cap. It is lightweight, dries fast, and features Sitka’s patented Polygiene Odor Control technology. 

When the weather gets colder, it’s hard to beat a quality fleece-lined beanie. Sitka has a great quick-dry version in camo and blaze orange (which is perfect for the late rifle season). 

30
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Gloves, Mitts, and Muffs

Gloves are essential for keeping hands warm and hidden in the field. The downside is they are also easy to lose.

For that reason, I always keep a spare pair stashed in the pocket of my hunting jacket. 

I prefer lightweight gloves for archery season and am a particular fan of fingerless gloves, like the Sitka Fanatic Glove. These free up my digits for my release trigger and my phone’s touchscreen.

40
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

For still-hunting in freezing weather, it’s hard to beat a comfy flip glove. These combine the cozy warmth of a mitten with the dexterity of a fingered glove.

For even more warmth on those long, cold hunts, you can stuff your gloved hands in a muff like the Sitka Gear Incinerator Insulated Hand Muff.

149
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Neck Gaiter

A neck gaiter is another tool you can use for warmth and concealment.

Opt for something breathable and lightweight in warm weather, like the Sitka Core Lightweight Neck Gaiter.

Fleece options are perfect for keeping your face warm during long cold hours in a treestand. 

40
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Socks

If your feet are cold, the rest of you will be cold too. Socks are a crucial yet often overlooked layering component.

Quality socks will keep your feet dry, provide a layer of insulation inside your boots, and bring some cushioning for tired feet. 

20
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

There are tons of specialized stockings supposedly optimized for hunting and other outdoor sports. Many feature proprietary fabric blends, a special structure for arch support, and unique cushioning patterns. 

While many of these high-tech socks are fantastic, don’t underestimate the value of good old-fashioned wool socks. 

What About Camo Patterns?

Hunting is a pretty diverse sport.

Whether you’re hunting big bucks from a treestand or calling early spring gobblers from the ground, all require the same thing — a camo pattern that breaks up the human outline. 

Who doesn’t want to disappear like a ninja? 

Ninja
Ninja!!

Conventional camo patterns mimic branches, leaves, and grass. Though they look pretty cool, I prefer generic designs that muddle silhouettes rather than mimic the environment. 

Sitka’s patented Optifade confuse an animal’s vision, making it hard for them to focus.

Colorado Elk Hunt Sitka
Sitka Optifade gives you disappearing skills.

As a result, you can theoretically wear the same camo pattern to hunt big bulls, big bucks, or big gobblers. 

Honestly, your ability to sit still or move stealthily is your best camouflage. 

187
at Amazon

Prices accurate at time of writing

Prices accurate at time of writing

Game animals have adapted over generations to detect the slightest movement of a lurking predator. Our grandfathers hunted successfully in red plaid. 

Even in this modern age, a patient hunter draped in olive green will be more successful than a hunter moving around in top-of-the-line, high-tech camo. 

My Layering System

Elk Hunting 5.11 Backpack
Need inspo? Keep reading.

In case you’re looking for inspiration, here is a rundown of my basic layering system.

This system has worked for me in the hot, sticky humidity of the South’s early bow season, as well as a snow-driven backcountry elk hunt out West. 

Base Layers

Mid Layers

Outer Layers

Rain Gear

Conclusion

A good layering system keeps you in the field longer and ultimately puts more meat on the table. Using a combination of base layers, a mid-layer, and a well-made outer layer ensures you stay toasty in chilly weather without getting too sweaty if temperatures rise.

Colorado Elk Hunt Face Mask
Toasty warm…

Don’t be afraid to invest some cash in your layering system.

Quality is rarely cheap. 

Do you have a favorite layering system? Tell us all about it in the comments. If you’re a hunter and a lady, check out our article on the Best Hunting Gear & Clothing for Women for more tips! Also, check out our review on Sitka’s Hunting Gear.

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  • J Money

    So in other words you're telling me that Sitka gave you a bunch of free crap for writing this article and that I should take out a loan and buy Sitka everything?

    1 second ago
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