Building a clothing system for a September elk hunt

Trail Kreitzer with his 2017 New Mexico archery elk

Trail Kreitzer with his 2017 New Mexico archery elk. You can check out the film from this hunt, Through The Burn here. Photo credit: Lorenzo Sartini

After a long offseason of planning, scouting, and daydreaming we can finally answer the age-old question that is on the minds of every elk hunter: Is it September yet? By now, most of us will have our bows dialed, arrows fletched, and have likely packed and repacked our backpacks 15 times. This is the time of the year where new gear is tested and ready to be used and where nothing can be put to chance. Historically, the time between seasons would see a lot of new gear purchases for my pack though this has definitely slowed down recently—not because of a change in financials or lack of interest, but because I have finally honed my system down to a point where I feel like every piece of gear is working towards the end goal of filling a tag. I really do not have a need for any additional items; however, I’m always thinking about pieces of gear that can be improved or made lighter.

One of the most prolific areas of my gear that I have drastically simplified while also improving efficiency has been in my clothing. With my body type, I heat up very quickly during strenuous activity and cool down almost instantly when I stop. Combine that fact with the ever-fluctuating temperatures of September and it’s fairly easy to understand why I, among many other people, absolutely loathe stopping to add or remove layers every 30 minutes. Now, the key thing to keep in mind here is that my particular clothing system may not work for you and vice versa. Today’s technical clothing can get extremely expensive and not everyone is going to have the money to try everything that is on the market. Fortunately, with a little understanding of some of the pieces and materials offered by manufacturers, anyone can make solid choices sight unseen.

Base layers

Sitka base layers while hunting

Base layers are everything. Photo credit: Chris Neville

The foundation to your entire clothing system will start with the base layers. Base layers can be found in several materials with the unofficial king of all options being merino wool. Merino wool contains all of the same properties of traditional wool with much less smell, no itch for next to skin comfort, and is made of much lighter materials. Many synthetic base layers are also available and are typically much faster drying than wool though they are far less efficient when it comes to wicking moisture. Additionally, after a hard day of hunting, a synthetic layer will begin to smell as bacteria produced from our sweat begins to grow.

For my own personal use, I much prefer wool over synthetics due to its ability to wick moisture, control body temperature over a large range, and control body odor. When first shopping for merino base layers it will be important to pay close attention to weight or thickness of each garment. Merino wool is measured by the grams per meter squared (g/m²) or by the thickness of each individual fiber in microns. Essentially, a lower number will mean a softer and lighter material; whereas, a higher number will be rougher and heavier. Typically, most base layers will be weighted between 90g/m² and 220g/m² or 17.5 micron and 24 microns.

For early September hunts, it’s not uncommon for the air temperatures to get down into the 30s, but things generally heat up very quickly once the sun is out and lightweight layers are necessary. One of my favorite pieces for this time of the year is a very lightweight T-shirt-style merino base. This will give me a nice bump in insulation for the morning, but also allow for a lightweight a breathable option for mid-morning when temperatures begin to climb. I'm obviously losing any camouflage on my arms with the T-shirt route, but have not found any ill effects to this route when in range on a bull. On top of my merino T-shirt, I will also throw on a lightweight merino long sleeve or quarter zip. These pieces will work together on the hike in by drawing any moisture off of my skin and pulling it to the outside of each garment. The second layer will work in conjunction with the first and can leave me with an almost dry next to skin layer once it’s time to shed some clothing. I pack these two tops on every one of my September hunts.

When it comes to September hunting—and even October and November—I very rarely wear base layer bottoms. For me, any insulation on my legs will heat my body temperature up almost instantly, leaving for very uncomfortable hiking conditions. My legs do get cold from time to time when stopping to glass or listen for bugles, but this is one area of my body where a little chill doesn't bother me. My biggest gripe with base layer bottoms is that taking them off while in the field can be a huge chore although some companies have begun manufacturing layers with full-length zippers that run top to bottom, which can make the task easier.

The best route to go when selecting base layers is to look at your own body. If you’re like me and heat up extremely easily, then a few lightweight layers will be necessary. On the other hand, if your body is great at regulating heat you can always simplify things even more and go with a single medium weight top.

Mid layers

Beyond the base layer, the mid layer is really my favorite. These are the pieces that will keep you warm when sitting on a ridge top, waiting on daylight, stalking through the timber, or waiting on a wallow. Beyond archery season these are also my go to active layers for rifle hunting. This section of the market is probably the heaviest in options and can leave hunters spinning with decisions. With today's technologies, weight can be a big deal breaker and there are many garments that can provide great warmth and versatility at nearly half the weight of other traditional options. Personally speaking, I like a mid layer that has a good weight to warmth ratio, can provide decent protection against light rains, and fits like an active layer. Additionally, a hood is always a major plus as they can also keep cold winds off your neck and head.

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For the past few seasons, I have been using midweight quarter zip hoodies. These not only give me great warmth, but also fit like a base layer and weigh next to nothing. The quarter zip design allows for quick venting when facing small climbs and the hood provides a ton of heat retention when the temperatures start dropping. Soft shell jackets can also be a good route at times because they shed rain and snow much better; however, they also weigh considerably more than other options. For 95% of my September elk hunting, my mid layer will be my outermost layer.

Insulation layers

Insulation layers while hunting

Brady Miller snapping photos in the shade while wearing a Sitka Kelvin Lite Hoody. Photo credit: Chris Neville

Often, in Montana during September, we will see early snow. The air temperatures aren’t extremely cold, but are still cold nonetheless. Usually, my aforementioned system of a few good base layers and a mid layer will keep me plenty comfortable during this time, but a good insulating layer is never a bad idea to carry when you plan on glassing or sitting for periods of time. Because this layer will get used so little, in the grand scheme of things, I tend to focus almost entirely on puffy jackets due to their extreme weight to warmth ratio. Puffy jackets are generally constructed of down or synthetic fill and almost act like a sleeping bag. The large baffles of insulation fill work to trap body heat and keep you warm during even the coldest temperatures.

Synthetic versions of these jackets will generally be far lighter, but don’t quite compare to down when it comes to warmth. You do have to watch getting the down jackets wet; however, most of the modern options will utilize treated down that is highly water resistant. These layers can be expensive, but their usefulness for every season and their extreme weight to warmth ratio make them a must-have in my book.

Other options do exist in softshell jackets and even bulked up versions of your favorite base layer. While these will accomplish the same task of keeping you warm, none of them will come close to the effectiveness of a puffy; they are just that good.


Sitka Ascent pants for early season hunts

Sitka Ascent pant for an early season hunt. Photo credit: Brady Miller

Pants can really be as simple or as complicated as you want to make them. For my hunts, I have a few key areas of criteria I am looking for a pant to meet: lightweight, quick drying and articulate. Nearly every hunting clothing company will produce a pant under this category as well as many backcountry pants such as the Prana Zioneer or Zion pant. Additionally, some companies will offer different options in each pant, ranging from fleece-backed insulation to waterproof knees and seats. Nearly all of the quality pants will have forgiving two or four-way stretch fabrics and be tough enough to handle crawling around in the rocks while stalking.

Personally, I prefer to stay away from insulated pants as these will see very little use during archery season. Instead, I focus on very lightweight options. With these, I can hunt comfortably through any season or climate with the aide for a good base layer for colder temperatures and can save on buying a pant for each season.

Miscellaneous items

Sitka layering accessories for September elk hunts

Layering accessories to keep you comfortable on elk hunts. Photo credit: Chris Neville

Beyond my main clothing layers, I also spend some time thinking about options for gloves, headwear, and footwear. These items can all be found in a multitude of materials and configurations.

I like having a light pair of gloves with me on all of my hunts as simply covering your hands can provide an incredible amount of heat retention and can help camouflage your bow hand. Gloves will generally be found in merino wool or synthetic materials. The merino options can be great for liners during colder season hunts, but will easily get destroyed in a season since merino is such a fragile fabric. Instead, I prefer to carry synthetic gloves as these will be just as light and far tougher when it comes to wear and tear.

With headwear, you will also find quite a few options. I like to keep things pretty simple. Beyond my lucky goHUNT hat, I also like to carry a lightweight beanie and a merino neck gaiter. The beanie can easily be thrown on over the hat and neck gaiters can really boost the temperature rating of any garment by blocking any escaping heat.

As I mentioned before, my body heats up extremely fast while hiking and my feet are just as bad. In fact, I hunt with uninsulated boots year round with no problem. Because of this, I really focus on good lightweight socks that are made of merino wool. Merino socks will control food odor much better than other options all the while wicking any moisture off my skin. There are many great brands to choose from on the market and a quality set of merino socks can run you anywhere from $20 to $30 a pair. If possible, visit your favorite retailer to try different options and see what works best with you and your boots.

In closing

Dave Barnett with his Montana archery elk

The author Dave Barnett with a Montana elk.

Like I mentioned at the beginning of this article, this is the system I have found to work best for my needs and it may not necessarily be the best for you, your hunting style, or your body. After reading all of this, you might be asking youself, "What about rain gear?", well... I personally can't stand wearing rain gear, so I avoid it on most of my hunts. With the number of options on the market, hunters can find a good clothing system that can work from early September through late season hunts in December. Spend the time talking with buddies, reading forums, or doing your own research. Take notes on your next outing and take considerations on what areas of your clothing are really performing and which are not. There are too many good options in this day and age to hunt uncomfortably!

My personal clothing list for September elk

Layer typeProductRetail costWeight
Base layerFirst Lite Wick Short Sleeve Crew$706.0 oz
Base layerFirst Lite Fuse Crew$908.0 oz
Mid layerSitka Core Heavyweight Hoody$14913.13 oz
Insulating layerSitka Kelvin Lite Hoody*$24916.90 oz
PantsSitka Mountain Pant$19927.50 oz
HeadwearLucky goHUNT hat$252.0 oz
HeadwearSitka Merino Beanie$401.6 oz
HeadwearFirst Lite Aerowool Neck Gaiter$302.0 oz
GlovesSitka Ascent Glove$791.25 oz
SocksFarm to Feet Ely Lightweight$233.0 oz
Totals$95464.48 oz/81.38 oz*

*Only carried during extremely cold weather during the latter half of September.

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