It was opening weekend of firearm deer season in Minnesota, and I was out deer hunting for the first time. I was beyond excited and planned to sit out in the stand all day, rain or shine, regardless of whether I saw anything. The problem was, “rain or shine” didn’t account for wet, driving snow. Any given November day in Minnesota can be as cold as single digits or as warm as sixty-five, but this one hovered just below the freezing mark with gusty winds and lots of precipitation. Over the course of the day they wet snow had accumulated on me and started soaking through my “waterproof” deer hunting jacket, and by late afternoon, I was so cold I was shaking uncontrollably. I had to leave and get warm. Had I been better prepared for the cold, who knows what monster buck I might have seen that evening?
When you tell someone to prepare for the cold, they typically think of buying warmer boots or a nicer jacket. While these are nice things to consider – and we’ll discuss them more in a bit – there are a number of ways you can prepare your body to not just tolerate cold, but thrive in the cold.
The first thing you can do to up your cold tolerance is to improve your cardiovascular conditioning. Generally speaking, the better shape your cardiovascular system is in, the more efficiently you can get blood flow you your extremities, keeping your fingers and toes warm, and the more effectively you will be able to regulate your body temperature more generally. So at the very last, statr going for walks, and if you are able, regularly going for runs – or best of all running wind sprints – will significantly increase your cold tolerance.
It also turns out, the human body is remarkably good at adapting to temperature variation. This why in the fall you start putting on a light jacket when the temperature dips into the 50’s, but in the spring you are wearing a t-shirt as soon as the temp reaches 40. This “getting used to” to a changing environment is known as hormetic adaptation. Stated simply, if your body is regularly exposed to a stressor, like cold, over time you will become better at dealing with that stressor. So to prepare for the cold, we need to expose ourselves to cold, and we want to gradually increase the intensity of that cold as we become better adapted to dealing with it. There are three simple ways to expose yourself to cold:
- Wear a jacket less often
- Cold showers
- Ice baths
As the temperature drops this fall, make a concerted effort to wear a jacket or sweatshirt less often. When you are out and about running errands, it’s really only a matter of a minute or two in the chill air going to or from your car, but the time adds up and your body starts to adapt. Better yet, when you are out for a walk or run like we discussed above, go without a jacket, or even shirtless. Your core temperature will be up from the exercise, so you won’t feel cold, but your body will still be exposed to the cooler temperatures and will adapt.
While going about your business without a jacket is easy and relatively painless, it requires that the weather leading up to hunting season be cool. A more reliable – and more effective – way to increase your cold tolerance is cold water exposure. Start out with a cold shower at the end of your normal hot shower. Turn the water all the way to cold and stand under it for as long as you can tolerate. Focus on controlling your breathing and relaxing into the cold – don’t fight it. You may even find it extremely refreshing and begin to look forward to your cold showers.
Eventually, you will get to the point where you can stand under the cold shower basically indefinitely. At this point, it will be time to graduate to full on ice baths. These sound miserable, but not only will you come to enjoy them, they are good for your overall health. Get some sort of big tub you can fit your whole body into – I use a 100 gallon livestock water tub – and dump a couple large bags of ice into it, then fill it up with water. Be sure to dump the ice in first so the water will be the same temp from top to bottom. Climb in and just sit there, again focusing on your breathing and relaxing into the cold. Start with 2 minutes and slowly work your way up to 8 minutes with a couple ice baths per week. After a month or two of consistent ice baths, you will be amazed at how well your body tolerates the cold.
Finally, it’s often cold fingers or toes that sends hunters running to the warmth of their truck. Give your hands and feet some extra attention by giving them their own ice baths in a small wastebasket on days you don’t take a full body ice bath.
Dress in layers
No matter how well you train for the cold, there will be days that it’s just downright frigid and no number of ice baths will have you feeling warm, so it’s still important to dress in layers. I prefer natural fibers because they are generally more breathable than synthetic fibers so I can stay warm when it’s cold, but I don’t overheat when I have to be active – like dragging a carcass out at the end of a successful hunt. Look for a wool base layer, down for an insulating layer, and a waterproof shell.
Between training for the cold and dressing appropriately, you will barely even notice the cold, allowing you to stay out all day. The longer you are in the field, the more encounters you will have, making for the most memorable and successful hunting season you’ve ever had.