Layering for Cold Weather Backpack Hunting
(Author on an elk packout)
Before ever setting foot on a backpack hunt, I’ve done my fair share of cold weather mountain activities. I have read “The Freedom of the Hills”, which many consider the mountaineering Bible, and gobbled up all the mountaineering knowledge and experience I could obtain. My friends and I would purposely camp in the snow covered mountains of Southern California and the Sierras so we could experiment on what gear we could and could not get away with in the colder months. Our goal as backpackers is to keep our pack weight down to the lowest weight possible without sacrificing safety or too much comfort. When I went on my first backpack hunt in Colorado with my good friend, Casey Gorsett, I quickly found out that the hunt can take you from patiently sitting on a frigid hillside while glassing to moving on an unsuspecting herd in the distance within minutes. You will need to keep warm while glassing and not get too warm while moving. You are not leisurely strolling about the woods, you are on a mission, and the success of that mission relies on the efficiency of your equipment and being adaptable to rapidly changing conditions.
You do not get to plan your hunt around the weather. You draw a tag for a specific set of dates and must be ready for what nature has in store for you during that hunting season. You can look at the forecast and have a better idea of what you’re in for, but I wouldn’t make drastic changes to the system on what you predict will happen. Mountain weather can change in an instant and unexpectedly. I’ve been on hunts where there is a wet snowstorm one day and the following day I’m doing a grueling uphill pack-out in 70-degree weather. Through the years Casey and I have come up with a highly effective clothing system, with maybe a few minor differences between the two of us. It has allowed us to save time and be comfortable in all the situations we encounter. The system we use minimizes taking layers off just to put different layers on. This is time consuming and often leads to being colder than necessary. We use a stackable solution, somewhat like the military ECWS (Extreme Cold Weather System), but modified for our needs.
The torso plays the largest part in regulating your overall comfort level and is what everyone thinks of when it comes to layering, so this is a good place to start.
Base Layer Top
The base layer is the garment closest to your skin which wicks moisture away so it can evaporate and keep you dry. It also provides a degree of warmth to your system along with protecting you from the Sun’s harmful UV rays. The material can be a synthetic or merino wool material. There is a great debate of which is better that I will not get into here. The bottom line is that they both work and are suitable materials for a base layer. One caveat, is that if you do use wool, find a brand that mixes the wool with a bit of nylon. This aids in the durability of the garment. The big thing to mention is to avoid cotton at all costs. Cotton will absorb many times its weight in water, has no wicking action, and dries very slowly. There are many scientific and technical sources on why cotton is a bad choice that I will not cover here, but they are worth investigating if you want to know the “why?”.
I choose a light to mid-weight base layer. You do not want to go with a heavy and thick base layer because you may be hiking in warmer temps in only this layer. I usually opt for the base layer shirts with the zipper down the front for ventilation and a collar to cover the neck. I bring one that I wear for the entire hunt, and I keep one in my pack to change into in case my primary gets wet or damaged. You do not need any more than this, but it is always good to keep the one spare. There is a recent trend for “compression fit” base layers on the market. I do not buy into this skin-tight nonsense. My base layer has a semi-loose fit, but not baggy. This will keep you more comfortable throughout your hunt than a garment that is skintight.
The next layer that goes directly over the base layer is your wind shell. This layer should not be windproof or waterproof! A windproof shell will not allow enough air to transfer in and out of the jacket and you will soon overheat during high exertion. Some people only carry a rain shell to block the wind, so they can save weight, but a waterproof/windproof jacket will never be breathable enough to consistently wear during high output activity and you will get wet from sweating inside of it. The wind shell should be wind resistant but still maintain a high degree of breathability. You do not want a lined (fleece or other insulation) softshell for this layer. You will overheat too quickly when it is time to get moving. I consider the wind shell the most overlooked, misunderstood and possibly the most important layer as it is a key piece to maintaining consistent comfort.
The layer I use is the Hill People Gear “Windcheater” jacket. This is a brushed nylon (Cordura) jacket. I was apprehensive about the weight of this jacket as it is not “ultralight”, but its utility has become indispensable to me. The jacket breathes so well that it hardly comes off my body during the duration of the hunt. It takes the bite out of the piercing cold wind and acts as a light warming layer. The durability of then jacket is extensive, and I am not shy about taking it into brush and thorn country. An alternative I have used before the Windcheater is the Outdoor Research Ferrosi Jacket. The Ferrosi is lighter than the windcheater but not nearly as durable. It also uses quite a bit of spandex which tends to stink, where the Windcheater does not. I prefer to have a hood for this layer to keep the wind off my ears. The wind shell should be sized large enough to fit over all other layers even though it is mostly worn over your base layer. The reason is that since it is exceptionally durable it can act as a protective layer to preserve the integrity of the other more fragile layers in certain tasks and situations.
(Casey Gorsett using the windcheater jacket on a mountain goat hunt)
The puffy vest is a more recent addition to my system, but I’ve been using it for a few years with great success. The vest is my “active” insulation. I layer it directly over my wind shell when it is very cold and I have to move, but at a slower pace like stalking. The vest allows me to stop and glass longer without having to take my puffy jacket out of my pack. If there is a reason to move quickly, I do not immediately feel the need to take it off because of overheating. I would not use an “active” insulated jacket, that is too much insulation for this use case. Not having the insulation on your arms makes a big difference when it comes to getting too hot.
(Casey Gorsett wearing a down vest over his windshell)
The vest I currently use is the Mountain Hardwear Kor Strata vest. It is a synthetic vest comprised of 60 grams of Primaloft Gold Active and has a soft and stretchy feel. The Active version of Primaloft combined with the face fabric does breathe better than the standard gold Primaloft. Stay away from vests that have completely windproof face fabrics, as the point of this layer is to keep you moving. The vest I have is a nice olive color. Unfortunately, companies like Mountain Hardwear change their colors and styles every season, so there is no telling when that color or another suitable color would be available. Other vest options I would consider are the Kuiu Kenai and Patagonia Nano Air vests. A light down vest is another option, but I would make sure it used DWR treated down and the face fabric that was not windproof. Casey wears the Kuiu Super Down Ultra Vest. As you can see in the picture, the vest is mostly protected by other gear. The puffy vest is a great layer to wear underneath a rain jacket. When I lived in Oregon, I would encounter freezing rain quite often but still find myself struggling to keep from sweating while moving. A puffy jacket underneath the raincoat was usually too much insulation but I have found the vest to work well for this application.
The puffy jacket should be sized so it can fit over everything you are wearing, including your bino harness. You should not have to take anything off to put this layer on. The insulation should be synthetic or DWR treated down, and the amount of insulation should be substantial enough to get you through the coldest temperatures you could encounter. It is better to go with too much insulation than not enough. You also want this jacket to have a hood. The puffy jacket is meant to be worn while you are static and glassing or static while in camp. It is not meant to be hiked in, except the shortest of distances in frigid weather.
In the last few years, I’ve made the switch to DWR treated down for this layer. The weight savings and compressibility of down make the packing experience much more enjoyable. I am a believer in DWR treated down after having a struggle trying to get my down jacket wet enough just to wash it. If I were in a truly rainy and wet environment, I would opt for a synthetic jacket instead. If I was going to be in a place where I considered the snag and tear hazard to be substantial, I would choose a synthetic jacket as they usually use more durable face fabrics and you don’t have to worry about losing loose fill, like down, if it does tear.
The down puffy jacket I use is the Kuiu Super Down Pro. It uses a substantial amount of 850 fill DWR treated down and is incredibly light for how much warmth it provides. It includes pit zips if you do have to dump some heat. My synthetic option is the OTTE gear HT Insulated Hooded Jacket, which is 200 grams of Primaloft Gold, or the lighter LV Insulated Hooded Jacket which is 100 grams of Primaloft Gold on warmer hunts.
The rain jacket is a standout as it can be entered into multiple parts of the layering stack. Sometimes I feel like the rain jacket is dead weight because I will go an entire hunt without ever using it. Other times, it is a life saver. I always bring a rain jacket regardless of the weather forecast. The rain jacket can be worn over just the base layer in warm rain, over the wind shell in cooler rain, or over the vest, wind shell, and base layer together in cold and windy rain. I usually do not wear the rain shell over the puffy jacket, because at that point it is cold enough to be snowing and the snow in Colorado will just brush off a puffy jacket or wind shell. The rain jacket should fit over the puffy just in case, but it is normally not needed. If the weather is so cold that your puffy is struggling to keep you warm, wear the rain jacket underneath the puffy.
I have also worn the rain jacket underneath the wind shell while processing game. I found my puffy jacket to be too warm and my wind shell to be too cold to get the job done comfortably. Putting the rain jacket underneath my wind shell gave me just the right amount of warmth and the more durable wind shell kept my rain jacket from getting damaged and bloodied.
I used to use an awfully expensive Arc’teryx LEAF Alpha LT rain jacket, but that jacket was too loud and crinkly. I moved on to a much less expensive Kuiu Northridge rain jacket, which is much quieter and delivers great breathability. How expensive a rain jacket is does not equate to how well it works. Make sure the fit is large enough to go over all your other layers without restricting your movement.
(Author wearing rain jacket underneath windshell while processing an animal)
My standard headwear is a structured mesh trucker hat, although many people prefer the unstructured hats. I find the structured hat gives my head more room to breathe. I choose mesh for the back for added ventilation, although this may not be a good choice if you are bald. The sweatband of the hat will keep sweat from running into your eyes and the visor will keep the sun out of your eyes.
The second piece of headwear I use is a lightweight Merino beanie. This beanie is the same thickness as my base layer, and I wear it underneath my hat when I need to keep my ears warm but not overheat while moving. The structured hat allows me to fit this beanie easier than an unstructured hat.
The last piece of headwear I bring is a cuffed watch-cap style beanie that I use when static or in camp. The cuffed style doubles the amount of fabric on your ears to keep them warm.
(Casey and Kevin with structured mesh hats)
Like the upper body, I use a layering system for my gloves. I do not want to take my gloves off just to do a simple task like tie my boot. Many gloves just lack the dexterity and force you to take them off for many tasks. The first glove in in the system is a liner-style glove made of lightweight wind-resistant fleece. These should have excellent dexterity and not be too warm.
The next glove layer are fingerless wool gloves. These keep your palms and back of the hands warm while still retaining the dexterity of the base glove. This is great for shooting as your trigger finger is unobstructed. I have found that I can wear this combo to surprisingly low temps.
The final layer is a DWR treated Down Mitten. I use the Kuiu Super Down Pro Glassing Glomitt. I have them oversized so I can stick my hand in them with the other two layers on and not feel restricted. If the layers are too tight you will restrict blood flow and be cold as a result. The Glomitt is an interesting piece as it keeps the trigger finger separate and even has an opening to completely expose your trigger finger if you need to shoot with them on.
An additional separate layer I would consider is a waterproof shell glove to go over the liner and fingerless gloves in wetter conditions.
. (First two gloves in the layering system in a non-hunting situation)
Covering the legs is similar to covering the upper body but not entirely the same. Your legs can usually tolerate colder temps than your upper body and your legs will usually overheat faster than your upper body.
Base layer Pants
You do not always wear the base layer pants like you do with the upper body. For years I did not even use base layers for my legs because getting them on and off was too much of a hassle. Now there are full-zip base layers that allow you to put them on and take them off without taking your boots off and that is a real game changer for saving time and energy. Choose a lightweight to midweight synthetic or merino wool. A heavyweight base layer will make you too warm when it is time to move.
The main layer for your legs are your hiking pants. They should be a synthetic material with 4-way stretch for comfort and mobility. You do not want them too thick or lined with any kind of insulation. My two favorite pairs are the PrAna Stretch Zion Pants and the Kuiu Attack Pants. The PrAnas are lighter weight and breathe a little better. The Kuius are thicker but handle brush better and do not wet out as easily when kneeling in snow. The attack pants come with a zipper down the side for venting which helps to keep you cool when the temps warm up. I find them too warm for summer, but they have become my go-to hunting pant in the colder months.
(Casey wearing Kuiu Attack Pants and Paige wearing female version of PrAna Stretch Zion Pants)
Like the rain jacket, rain pants are used infrequently, but they do come in handy for certain situations. Also, like the rain jacket, the rain pants should fit over all other layers without restricting movement. You want to make sure the pants are full zip, which means they have zippers running down both sides. This allows you to put them on and take them off without removing your boots. Rain pants are great when you need to block the wind from blasting your legs, but you still need to be able to move. I’ll wear the rain pants over my hiking and base layer pants when the temps are frigid and I still need to move slowly or if it is storming. I currently use the OTTE Gear Patrol Trousers.
Puffy pants are a luxury I learned about a long time ago when my climbing buddy emerged out of his tent wearing some goofy puffed out pants. I proceeded to make fun of him, but he assured me they would “change my life”. I did give them a shot and they did indeed change my life as far backcountry comfort is concerned. Like the puffy jacket, the puffy pants are worn in static situations. I have found I can get away with less insulation than with the jacket. Again, you want either synthetic or DWR treated down and they should be full-zip. I am using the Super Down Ultra pants from Kuiu but will likely switch to a synthetic when find one I like that is light enough and fits right. Puffy pants can be worn over just the hiking pants, over the hiking pants and base layer, and either under or over rain pants. I would wear them under rain pants to keep them from getting wet from the snow-covered ground, but for most cases I hardly wear both at the same time.
(Casey wearing puffy pants and a puffy jacket while at camp)
Gaiters are used to keep debris and moisture from entering your boots. They wrap around your boot and extend onto your calf over your hiking pants. I usually avoid wearing them until I absolutely need them as they will make you a little warmer and make you sweat. If there is snow on the ground or the vegetation is wet, I will always have them on. If it is raining and I need rain pants, the rain pants will go over the gaiters. The gaiters should not go over the rain pants. I have been using Outdoor Research Crocodile gaiters for years, but there are several comparable gaiters on the market.
(OR crocodile gaiters and Kuiu Attack pants on a backcountry ski trip)
Footwear is the most difficult part of this system to figure out and takes the most trial and error. Everyone has a different shaped foot and what may work for one individual may be terribly uncomfortable for another. There are some basic principles I would like to share that hopefully makes life easier.
Some folks will espouse the layering of socks, which means wearing a liner sock and layering a thicker sock over it. I have tried this method many times in different combinations and found that it does not work well for me. I will not say this method is wrong or unsound and I may have not found then right sock combination, and I will leave it at that. What works best for me is a medium cushion boot sock such as the Darn Tough Hiker. I like the socks taller than a crew sock, but not so tall that it’s covering my entire calf. This sock is a mixture of merino wool, nylon, and spandex. I prefer medium cushion over full cushion because it keeps my foot from sweating as much when moving and ultimately keeping my foot drier and more comfortable. I always take a spare set of the medium cushioned socks, but will also bring one pair of full-cushion socks for when temps are frigid and I’m mostly static. This is three pairs of socks total. It may seem excessive, but I have wetted out two pairs of socks before and was thankful for a third dry pair.
Boots will make or break the hunt. Your boots need to be comfortable and take the abuse of many miles under load. They need to protect your feet from the elements and provide stability. They need to be light enough to not slow you down yet robust enough to not fall apart. This is asking a lot from a price of equipment, and I have yet to find the perfect boot, but have found one that comes close for me.
Your boot should be uninsulated. An insulated boot will be too hot to move in and will make your feet sweat. Sweaty feet end up being cold feet. If the temps were to never rise above the teens, and my activity level was low, I would then consider an insulated boot, but this is generally not the case with backpack hunting.
Boot height should be about 8 inches. Any taller and the boot becomes uncomfortable and unwieldy to walk in for miles. If the boots are shorter you will loose ankle stability and have more chances for debris to enter through the opening of the boot. The material can be leather or synthetic. If going with synthetic make sure they are Gore-Tex or equivalent. Leather boots do not need to be Gore-Tex if treated correctly for waterproofness.
Stiffness is probably the most important factor when selecting a boot. The stiffness of the upper should match the stiffness of the sole. Too many boots have a stiff sole yet the upper is allowed to flex to the left or right. This creates problems mostly when side-hilling but can be problematic when encountering minor obstacles as well. The stiff sole will want to stay in place while the upper is allowed to flex which opens you up to potential injury to your ankles and produces overall sloppy mobility. If you prefer a flexible upper, make sure the sole has some flexibility as well. I prefer a stiff sole with a stiff upper. The stiffness makes side-hilling and climbing talus fields much easier than a softer and more flexible sole. I generally find my foot does not get tired as easily.
(Stiffer boots are appreciated when traveling through talus fields)
Weight is a factor that can impede your mobility and dampen the number of miles you can comfortably walk. I have done many hikes with heavy boots that just wear you out after so many steps. Boots with polyurethane midsoles (PU) will be heavier than boots with EVA foam midsoles, but the PU midsoles will be more durable and have more longevity. Unfortunately, I have not found a boot with a PU midsole that feels light enough to me that also checks the other boxes.
The boot that I use is the Crispi Thor II. The upper is made from synthetic materials and has a Gore-Tex liner everywhere except the tongue. These have been the most breathable boots I have used so far. The upper is stiff as well is the sole. The stability is awesome and general walking is a breeze and almost effortless as each boot only weighs 1.25lbs. The one potential downside is the EVA midsoles when it comes to longevity, but this also keeps the weight down.
I like to size my boot up one half-size and use Superfeet Trailblazer insoles. It is important that the boot is not too snug of a fit and I find this matters most on the top of the foot. If the boot is too snug your foot will get sweaty from not being able to breathe and you will get cold feet. The extra room will allow you to wear thicker socks, but there should not be so much room that your foot is sliding around and the heel wants to lift up.
Unfortunately, quality boots are expensive pieces of gear, and you usually don’t find out that a boot won’t work until you have hiked a few miles and can no longer return them. One year a manufacturer will have an awesome boot and the next year they discontinue them or alter them for the worse. It is worth trying on as many boots as you can in the stores to see what works and what doesn’t.
Booties are lightweight puffy boots that are filled with down or synthetic insulation and typically have a soft fleece interior. These are great to wear around camp when you want to take off the boots you've been wearing all day and let them dry off. You can wear booties inside your sleeping bag to increase the warmth of your feet. I usually keep them in my pack the entire hunt. If you run into a situation where your boots get wet on the inside, you can switch to the booties to keep your feet warm while the boots dry out. These will help to dry your socks out as well. Booties have become one of my favorite pieces of gear over time. I still have the same REI brand down booties from 11 years ago. They are light enough that they are a no-brainer to bring along.
That wraps up my layering system for backpack hunting. This is the same system I use for all cold weather backpacking and hiking regardless if I’m hunting or not. This layering system should keep you warm and dry. It will also keep you mobile and work for you instead of wasting time and energy. Efficiency is the key to any quality system. I am not against making changes to the system as new technologies, gear design, or experience provide a lighter and more effective way to stay comfortable in the backcountry, as of 2021, this is the system I find works the best.
. (Paige on a warm November uphill packout)