Chill Pill

I’ll never forget the hunt. It was in Kansas, mid-November and the weather was changing. The morning before I’d seen several bucks cruise a gap in the woods out of bow range, so during midday I climbed down and moved my treestand into the sweet spot.

That evening I had a few encounters with young bucks chasing, but no slammers. During the night, the wind turned westerly at 20 mph, the temperature plummeted and it snowed. Excited that my new stand would produce, I bundled up and headed out.

I remember walking to the stand and noticed the wind was biting. Under my leafy-camo outer garment, I was wearing long underwear and a heavy sweater. Once on stand, I realized I might be underdressed for the wind-chill. As the sun began to climb, I was already cold. There was no sign of deer movement, and all I could think about was warming up. Then I spotted the cruiser—a heavy 10-pointer.

His head was low, and he was moving slow, likely following the remnants of some estrous doe that was chased through the night before. He was moving toward the gap. You’d think that I would’ve abandoned my cold feelings, but it was quite the opposite. As adrenaline shot through my veins, the cold and shivering I was experiencing amplified. My right leg tapped the treestand uncontrollably, my torso shivered and my teeth chattered. As the buck got closer, I was growing colder, and my body was out of control. The buck finally came through the gap.

Drawing my bow was a chore, and once back I was shaking and thinking, I’m going to miss this buck at 20 yards. Well, the arrow flew true and I got the buck, but I never forgot that mix of freezing cold and buck fever. I vowed to overdress for the weather from then on.

Cold temperatures often attack the body in key places. Fingers and toes are usually the first to succumb, yet cold attacks the natural gaps of protection at the neck and head, as well as the lower back where pants and jackets layer. Keeping your core temperature above 95 degrees is one of the secrets to staying warm and sitting on stand, but it’s not easy. Hunters complain of cold feet more than any other type of cold. Typically, boots that are bought for fall are worn during winter, and these boots often restrict circulation.

Many whitetail hunters wear warm knee-high rubber boots, yet these boots trap sweat, which can soak even the best wicking wool socks. Water on the skin in cold weather means frozen feet. Sorel-type boots with leather uppers and thick felt liners are the ticket. I prefer to wear thin, wicking polypropylene or even silk socks to increase circulation. Cold fingers are easily cured with a hand-warming muff. I use a muff and add heater packs on cold hunts.

The metal of a release aid touching skin, or gripping a cold aluminum bow riser, can quickly bite through the thin leather gloves I prefer, so a hand-warming muff is a great addition. Large pockets on a parka can serve this same purpose. A large fleece balaclava is always in my pack for neck and head protection. During late summer and early fall it can become cool as the sun sets, and keeping your neck and head warm will help ward off signs of chill.

Slipping on a balaclava is usually all it takes. Many hunters wear bibs to protect their kidney area from cold. Bibs are too restrictive for me, so the answer is oversized long underwear. I like my long underwear baggy and often buy size XXL that will give me a high-riding waistband and long shirt-tail to guard against drafts.

All hunters know that layering clothing is required to accommodate the huge weather swings common during fall hunts. My Canmore, Alberta, bighorn sheep hunt took place the last 2 weeks of November, and most of the hunting took place at 9,000-10,000 feet. We experienced temps from plus 20 to minus 40. There’s no flat ground anywhere close to Banff Park, making it grueling to climb in heavy cold-weather clothes.

My sweat often turned to ice. Many times while climbing, my upper body was covered in only a long underwear shirt, and I’d change to a dry one and add layers after reaching the top. I packed dry socks with me every day on the mountain and would change into them if my feet got cold. The exertion of mountain climbing/hunting kept me warm during most of the trip, yet it took planning to stay comfortable.

Shedding layers when necessary, and then adding them for warmth when needed, was the rule of thumb. I wore Susan Hinbo’s Raven Wear exclusively on that hunt, and it performed flawlessly. I could hang a snow caked pair of fleece pants and jacket in my frozen-cold tent, and by morning it was dry to the touch. I think Raven Wear is the best cold-weather hunting gear available—period.

The trick to successful layering is wearing breathable undergarments, then fleece, then Windstopper garments and finally your outer garments. New materials are always being invented that are light, often breathable mand comfortably warm. Of course, bowhunters must also think of noise as well as freedom of movement, so gear designed for mountaineering often doesn’t apply to us.

Heavy clothes and archery don’t mix well. The act of holding a bow, drawing, anchoring, sighting and shooting an be difficult in heavy clothing. Typically, bowhunting has been a fall and early winter sport, yet more and more of us are on stand in brutal winter conditions, or chasing big game in frozen alpine or across Arctic ice. The issues are the clearance with bowstring and cables at full draw and during release. Most of these problems can be corrected with arm guards or elastic bands to hold clothing in place, yet shooting form is often compromised with heavy clothing.

The fact is most hunters shoot poorly in heavy gear. Practice shooting in heavy clothing, and don’t consider changing anchor points or draw length to accommodate for it. Instead, be prepared to remove a garment before the shot or, better yet, modify clothing that interferes so there’s no clearance problem at the chin and face. Also, address the chest area where bulky coats can intrude at full draw.

Scrutinize large buttons, zipper pulls and draw strings that could get caught in a bowstring or cable during the moment of truth. Any such item can cause an arrant arrow or injury to the shooter. The weight of clothing on the arms also limits accuracy because of fatigue. Consider stripping your bow down to minimum weight by using a smaller stabilizer and moving arrows to a backpack quiver. Many bowhunters quickly shed the top jacket layer in the final stages of a stalk to ensure a comfortable draw and shot.

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