Staying warm and dry might be the most important thing you can do in the outdoors.
Mother Nature can be a cruel bitch, and hypothermia is just waiting to put the hurt on you—or even kill. But with a little planning and the proper clothing in your pack, you’ll be able to stay safe no matter the weather.
When it comes to layering, I keep things pretty simple: base layer, mid layer, and shell. These three layers are all you need for almost any situation. The exception to this is extreme cold. I’m talking below zero degrees Fahrenheit. Then, a fourth layer or specialized base layers will likely be in order. But for everything else, the basic three-layer system will have you covered.
Here’s how it works.
First, I like a long-sleeve, mid-weight merino- or aero-wool base layer (more on the importance of selecting the right fabrics later). This keeps me pretty comfortable in all but the very hottest conditions and at least serves to keep me warm in all but the very coldest situations. It’s by far the best bang for your buck.
Next is your mid layer. The mid layer is your main insulating layer. This is the layer for all-day tree-stand sits in chilly weather, glassing on an exposed ridge, and even while hanging around camp at night. If you get cold, you put on your mid layer, and if you get too warm, you take it off. Pretty simple. For my mid layer I like a puffy down jacket. They are lightweight and warm, but breathable enough to be versatile.
Finally comes the shell. This is your waterproof/windproof layer, and it can also bridge the gap when it’s too cold for just a base layer, but too warm for a down jacket—especially during physical activity. Make sure your shell is able to fit over your mid layer. This means you may need to buy a shell specifically for hunting if your everyday rain jacket fits you well with just a T-shirt on underneath. But it will be worth it. One of the most dangerous weather situations for hypothermia is when temperatures are in the mid to high ’30s and rainy. If you can’t wear both your mid layer and your shell at the same time in such a situation, you’re in big trouble. The body loses heat to water about 25 times faster than it does to air. And in this case, the air temperature alone would be enough to cause hypothermia rather quickly. Add in the cold rain water and you could become hypothermic in a matter of minutes.
Choosing the right materials
Selecting the right materials for your layers can be as important as the layers themselves. Get the wrong materials and your garment may not function properly in adverse conditions. The most prominent example of this is cotton. Cotton is a light, comfortable, and affordable fabric. But it will absorb 25 times its own weight in moisture and loses all of its insulating qualities when wet. This makes cotton downright dangerous in wet conditions or if you are sweating. We already covered the hazards of being wet earlier. Combine the two and you can see why cotton is known as the death fabric in the outdoor industry. With that said, there are tons of great options out there, each with positives and negatives. Here, I will cover just a few of the more mainstream options.
The two fabrics you will find most often when looking at base layers are wool and polyester/acrylic. Wool and polyester are both great for base layers because they both maintain some of their insulating properties when wet and they dry quickly. Basic wool is the most affordable and it is more breathable than polyester, but some people are allergic and wool can be itchy. Polyester blends can be very comfortable but don’t breathe as well, so the weight of your base layer can be a more important decision. If you are willing to pay a premium, merino and aero-wool provide the comfort of polyester blends with the breathability of wool.
You might also run into base layers made of fleece. While these are generally very comfortable, fleece does not breathe well, so avoid these in all but the coldest environments, especially if you plan to be active.
Mid layer insulation breaks down into two main categories: down and synthetics like 3M Thinsulate. In this area, there is no doubt that down is the superior option. It’s lighter, packs smaller, and is far more breathable than synthetic insulation. If you are going to be actively hunting or packing into the backcountry, down is far and away the best choice. But it’s much more expensive and it doesn’t do well if it gets wet.
With that said, synthetic insulation has its place. It is plenty warm and withstands water better at a much more affordable price. If all you are going to do is sit in a blind or if you are on a tight budget, synthetic insulation can be a great option.
Quick tip: When buying just about anything filled with down you will see things described as 600-fill down or 750-fill down. Those numbers refer to a system for rating the loft of down. The more loft down has, the warmer and more compressible it is. The higher the “fill” number is, the more loft the down has. For example, one ounce of 750-fill down will provide more warmth and pack down smaller than one ounce of 600-fill down.
When it comes to waterproof/windproof material, the industry standard is Gore-Tex. Gore-Tex rainware comes in all different levels of waterproofness and breathability. When browsing these garments you will often see a number for both the waterproofness and breathability, such as 30k. The higher the number, the more waterproof or breathable the garment. Generally speaking, there is an inverse relationship between waterproofness and breathability: The more waterproof, the less breathable and vice versa. However, technology has rapidly improved, making it possible to buy a shell that is more waterproof and more breathable than was possible just a few years ago.
Example Layering Kit
For those wondering what I use, here goes:
Mid layer: Under Armour Alpine Ops down jacket and pants
These layers are my go-to for almost any situation—late season deer hunting in Minnesota, backcountry elk hunting in Idaho, and cous deer hunting in Arizona. The only change I’ll make is to replace the down mid layer with a wool sweater if I’m absolutely certain the nighttime temps won’t dip below 45 degrees.