Late season layering system for hunting elk
Hunting elk late in the late season can bring many unique challenges whether it’s heavy amounts of snowfall, extremely cold temperatures or reclusive old bulls/cows that can be difficult to locate. No matter what your hunting style is or where your hunting area is located, one thing is generally consistent: winter weather. Whether you favor run and gun style tactics or prefer to glass from a vantage point, a solid clothing system can make or break your hunt. Having improper clothing this time of the year can lead to unnecessarily heavy packs, hunts ending early and can be just plain dangerous.
Building an effective and efficient clothing system not only makes you more comfortable in the mountains but can also drop your pack weight and enable you to stay out longer, increasing your chances of punching a tag.
To begin building a clothing system, first, it is important to understand what layers you will need and how they work alone and together. I can generally break my western hunting system down into four basic categories: base layer, active layer, insulation layer and outer/waterproof layer.
The base layer is your next-to-skin garment. These pieces are generally made of synthetic materials, such as polypropylene or natural materials like wool. For being such a small and light piece of your system, this layer is arguably one of the most important as its core duties consist of moisture management and body heat regulation. As we hike, we perspire, which, during cold temperatures, can lead to an early onset of hypothermia. A good base layer will wick your body’s moisture away from the skin and deliver it to the outside of the garment. Along with keeping you dry, a good base layer will also work overtime to regulate your body's core temperature, keeping you cool while hiking and warm while resting. There is much debate as to whether synthetic or merino layers are the best; both have their respective pros and cons. Everyone should do their research to make the best decision based on their hunting style.
For my western hunts, I usually have one long-sleeved and one short-sleeved merino. This allows for quick adaptability on the go and a greater range of temperature control. These are my go-to layers when hiking into an area or burning up a ridge to reach a new vantage point.
In the active layer category, you will find mid-weight garments that will provide some protection from the elements as well as keep your warmth levels high. These pieces are perfect for light to moderate activity and occasional stops to glass. For me, this layer is best used when moving from one glassing point to another or when still hunting through the timber. With a good base layer and my active layer, I feel comfortable sitting and glassing in temperatures down into the 40s and am comfortable hiking wel into the teens.
There are many clothing options within this category with many different features that range from hoods to quarter zips to full zips, etc. Personally speaking, I like to use pieces that use a quarter zip design as they offer quick ventilation when I get warm, but I also like a light hood for quick snowstorms and to keep the wind off my neck.
Items found in the insulating layer can often be referenced as “puffy jackets.” Puffies are extremely lightweight jackets filled with either down or synthetic fills that can be packed down to the size of a coke can. Think about this as a jacket that works like a sleeping bag. In recent years, this layer has increased in popularity due to its extreme warmth to weight ratio and is something many hunters have adopted.
Generally speaking, this layer will not be something you can hike in with the exception of extremely cold days; however, it is unrivaled for periods of glassing or food breaks. Garments in this category can be found with or without hoods and in jacket or vest variations. For more information on the differences between synthetic and down fill check out this article by Stefan Wilson.
The outer layer is essentially your protective shell. This is the layer that will shield all other layers from the elements and provide additional warmth. Garments found in this class, for me, rarely get used with the exception of some very particular circumstances. The outer jackets tend to be heavier than the rest of your layers—for obvious reasons—but they do have some added benefits like windstopper fabrics and water resistance. Now, the reason behind why this layer gets used so sporadically during my late season hunts boils down to weight. With late-season hunting, we are obviously packing more clothes and even, sometimes, a stove and other essentials. Packs are heavier this time of the year and I’ll do anything I can to minimize the weight gain. In place of an outer jacket, I like to use a good puffy in conjunction with a good waterproof layer. This provides a system that is completely waterproof, provides more adaptability and warmth and comes with little to no weight penalties. Essentially, two birds with one stone. The cons? Generally speaking, you need to spend a decent chunk of change to get a waterproof layer that will be even remotely comfortable to hike in and they tend to be loud when hiking through brush. On days when little to no precipitation is anticipated, but high winds are expected, I will forgo the puffy/waterproof combo and use a good windproof outer shell. This can minimize bulk and maximize warmth.
What about your legs?
When it comes to layering on your legs I have found that there is a great variation among hunters when discussing the topic. Personally, I heat up very quickly when hiking and feel it first in my legs. I generally wear uninsulated, lightweight pants from the beginning of September through my late season January hunts here in Montana. If the temperatures are dropping into the teens or lower and I anticipate some downtime behind the glass, I may add a lightweight merino base layer. If you’re a person that gets cold very easily you may even consider packable puffy pants filled with either down or synthetic fibers. This is an area that may require some testing on your part to find the perfect system for your hunting style.
Along with your normal clothing layers, it also pays to put some serious thought into your other accessories: gloves, hats, facemask, etc. This is another product category that can become completely saturated with options; however, thinking subjectively about your needs and hunting style can lead you to garments that work with you as much as for you.
When it comes to headwear I keep things pretty simple and wear a simple ball cap for nearly every hunt. This is primarily based on the fact that, to me, they are the most comfortable option and they tend to breathe the best. One major hitch in this plan, however, lies in extremely cold weather when my ears are likely to freeze off. For this, I like to use a lightweight beanie over my hat for some quick warmth and will even go to a heavier weight windproof hat for when the mercury really drops.
Another great option is the goHUNT orange beanie. This beanie is warm and also adds some extra orange to your hunting kit for safety reasons.
When it comes to gloves, each year it seems that I am constantly exploring new options. The need for warmth and dexterity has led me to several systems of which I feel like my current setup is about perfect for my needs. While hiking, I find that my hands can heat up quite quickly and, often, I’m comfortable hiking with no gloves in temperatures in the teens. Because of this, I like to carry a lightweight pair of gloves to add some protection from the elements and a little warmth for quick glassing sessions or when it’s just plain nasty. When we have a lot of snow I may also add a second pair to my pack in case my first pair gets wet.
Another glove option that I’ve recently started using is down mittens for glassing. While dexterity is virtually non-existent, I find that I can glass in downright miserable conditions and my hands will stay toasty warm. At less than 4 oz. for the pair, these are a no-brainer on cold late-season hunts.
Again, footwear can be another area of hot debate and, ultimately, the best system for every individual will vary greatly. I hunt in uninsulated boots year round while some of my hunting partners can hunt in 800-gram boots during the first week of September and still be comfortable!
I like to make sure I have a medium weight, well-cushioned sock that will allow for great airflow, wick moisture and keep my feet in decent condition after pounding some hard miles. As with my base layers, merino wool is the best option I’ve found here. Be careful not to go too warm with your boots or socks when hiking in because wet and sweaty feet will only lead to some major issues down the road during frigid temperatures.
Another must for my clothing when the snow begins to pile up is a good set of gaiters. These will keep your pants dry from your knees down and prevent the opportunity for your socks to get wet from the top down leading to wet boots. Gaiters do add some warmth to your legs so it is important to plan accordingly with your socks or boots so you stay comfortable throughout all activity levels.
The matching game
One of the biggest mistakes I commonly see is when other hunters put on their blinders and only buy clothing from one company. While we all have our favorite brands, the fact is that competition is high on this side of the industry and everyone is producing some incredible pieces. Take the time to shop around and you may be surprised at what you might find. If matching your colors and patterns is something that interests you (this can kick my OCD into overdrive) then consider purchasing garment pieces in solid colors. This not only gives you greater flexibility but also gives you something you can wear during the off-season without drawing too much attention to yourself. Tunnel vision can be the enemy!
Stay flexible and do your research
At the end of the day, there are no exact answers when it comes to finding the best clothing system for chasing bulls in the late season. Researching different pieces and applying knowledge from your previous experiences can lead you to a much more comfortable and fulfilling season. Reaching out to hunting partners, online forums and social media hunting groups can lead to some great discussions and some great new products for your future adventures.