The performance hunting clothing world has blown up in recent years, allowing hunters to create the ultimate system or systems for their unique needs. We are in an exciting time, but it can be tough to distinguish what you truly need and how you should spend your money. With a surplus of options out there, how do you know what is right for you?
Before dropping cash on a full apparel system, you need to ask yourself a few questions. It’s important to start with being honest with yourself about what you are going to be asking of your system. Performance clothing should be specific to each hunter. Someone hunting bears or blacktails on Prince of Wales in AK is going to need a drastically different system than for desert sheep in New Mexico. Being a dealer for Sitka Gear, I’ve been through their SHED program for retailers that teaches us how each piece fits with one another. Each textile is designed to perform in different environments.
Before getting started, I want you to think about the following questions and how they pertain to you.
- Are you a backpack hunter that spends 7-14 days in the field?
- Do you hunt from the truck and sleep in a bed every night?
- Is it going to be wet and cold most of the time?
- Will you be hunting early season or late season?
- Will you be covering many miles in elk country, glassing on a windy ridge, or both?
Each system is broken down into a base layer, mid-layer, insulation layer, outer layer, and rain gear. Although they’re important, I’m going to keep the accessories (hats, gloves, socks, etc.) out of this conversation. Some of these categories can overlap and pieces can be used to cover multiple categories in different seasons. A well-built system is supposed to operate as just that: a system.
Merino or Synthetic?
This is one of the most debated topics within the mountain hunting community. It’s similar to the fixed vs. expandable broadhead debate. I’m not going to give you biased information, based on my preference, but rather give you the facts and results of real world field testing.
Merino Wool Base Layers
Merino wool is an amazing material, known for its temperature regulation and natural odor resistance. Merino fibers are much finer than typical sheep wool, making it soft and with little to no “itch.” Although much better than cotton, merino wool can take longer to dry than its synthetic counterparts. Merino wool is best suited for longer backpack hunts that do not occur in extremely wet climates. I used merino wool base layers for my seven-day backpack elk hunt in Colorado last year. The area in Colorado that I was hunting had unpredictable weather with rain, sleet, and snow every day. Although there was an abundance of precipitation, the overall humidity was low. The merino wool worked great for the wide variety of temperature ranges, from 25-60 degrees F, and remained odor resistant for the longevity of the hunt.
Synthetic Base Layers
Synthetic layers have come a long way in the hunting and backpacking space. Synthetics are best known for their moisture wicking properties, as well as being lightweight, quick-drying, and comfortable. In the past, merino seemed to trump synthetic base layers in odor resistance. Sitka Gear treats their entire synthetic base layers in Polygiene, which neutralizes odors using a naturally antimicrobial silver salt. This has been a game-changer for the synthetic world. I have done some extensive testing of the moisture wicking and odor resistant properties with Sitka’s new Core Lightweight Hoody. I decided to test out an entire synthetic system, by completing the Rewarming Drill after some influence from Sitka’s Big Game Product Manager, John Barklow. For more information on the Rewarming Drill, check out the latest video produced by The Journal of Mountain Hunting and the short film the Bucks & Bows Archery team produced on YouTube.
Base Layers Takeaway
If you asked me a couple of years ago, I would’ve responded that merino is without a doubt the route to go for backpacking trips. With the advancement of synthetic layers, it makes it a tough call. It all boils down to what kind of weather you are going to encounter on a longer trip. If it’s going to be constantly wet, synthetic has properties that may suit you better. In my experience, I’ve found that using a lightweight base layer against your skin is great for warm weather throughout the coldest temperatures. My reason for this statement is that it’s designed to move moisture, and lightweight base layers do this more effectively. So, whether it’s hot or cold, I recommend a next-to-skin base layer. Not to mention, it gives you more bang for your buck. If one thing is for sure, it’s that you can’t build an effective system without a good base layer.
Mid-layers will be the next piece of clothing that you put on in your system. Even though I suggested that everyone use a lightweight base layer in all conditions, your mid-layer will drastically change depending on the activity level and weather. My mid-layer is usually the piece that I swap out for different hunting scenarios. During high-exertion hunts, I need my mid-layer to be able to dump heat rapidly while keeping me insulated during glassing and calling sits. Depending on the weather conditions, I use the Sitka Gear Core Heavyweight Hoody, Traverse Zip-T and most recently, the Kelvin Active Jacket as my mid-layer pieces. Your mid-layer will continue to pull moisture away from your base layer, throughout your system, but can be used as an outer layer in mild conditions.
Almost all of the elements of your layering system have some sort of insulation within it; however, the layer that I’m going to discuss here is strictly for insulation. For most, this means a down or synthetic “puffy” jacket/pants. The insulation layer is a key piece for mountain hunting when the thermometer may drop lower than expected. There are a few components that make up any great insulation layer.
- Warmth to weight ratio – You want this piece to have the most insulation per ounce of weight.
- Packability – For backpack hunting scenarios, the smaller you can make that jacket or pants in your pack, the better.
- Durability – Typically, insulation layers are thought to go under your outer shell and a lot of times, that is the case. However, I have found that I like to use that insulation piece almost like a sleeping bag, which I can throw over my other layers while glassing, on cold mornings, etc. Since I like to throw it over everything, it still needs to be durable enough to rub against rocks and brush.
The argument between down and synthetic is akin to the merino vs. synthetic or Chevy vs. Ford debates. There are pros and cons to using both, so this will be another preference piece. Down insulation layers are comprised of duck or goose down. These pieces are extremely packable, lightweight and have a great warmth-to-weight ratio, but tend to not work well when wet. The reason for this is the down feathers clump up and compress, which create gaps for heat to exit your body. Synthetic insulation, such as PrimaLoft, is not as packable or light as down, but the upside to synthetic insulation is that it tends to be more durable and still insulates when wet. For wetter climates, synthetic insulation pieces are the best bet.
Now that the foundations are in place, it’s time to think about your outer layers. These are your workhorse pieces that take the most abuse in the field. Your outer layers will consist of your pants and jacket/vest.
The key components I look for in a mountain hunting pant are:
- Quick drying – For your entire system to work properly, you need to make sure that all layers are working in synch with each other to move moisture effectively.
- Four-way stretch – This was one of the biggest things I noticed when switching to performance hunting pants. It makes a huge difference being able to maneuver without feeling restricted.
- Durability – These pants will be the most battle-tested of all of your pieces. They will almost always be on the outermost part of your body while hunting. The level of durability will depend on the hunting terrain. For example, you may want to consider having nylon ripstop knees and seat for very rocky environments, though this may not be needed during an early season elk hunt.
The key components I look for in an outer layer jacket/vest are:
- Wind-breaking – An outer shell’s main purpose is to protect you from Mother Nature. Wind-breaking technologies such as GORE Windstopper is meant to keep you protected from the wind, while still being lightweight. Even ultra-light, wind-breaking outer layers will have a huge impact on your comfort.
- Insulation – As I mentioned before, insulation is dependent on the season. Even on late-season hunts, I don’t like my outer layers to have a lot of insulation, because I can control that with layering. That doesn’t mean that insulation isn’t important, though. Insulation in the right places can be crucial, while only using light material in higher body heat zones. I strive for an outer layer that can trap body heat, but also dump heat during high levels of exertion. Body-mapped insulation in an outer layer jacket achieves both outcomes.
- Water repellent – Durable Water Repellent finishes, or DWR, is an important feature that I look for in an outer layer. This isn’t completely waterproof, but will shed water for an amount of time that will usually get you through a quick shower. Taped seams greatly improve water repellency. DWR layers can also be much more breathable than waterproof rain gear.
I’ve liked using a lightweight, wind-breaking vest as my outer layer in mild weather conditions, and a wind-breaking jacket with light micro grid fleece liner in colder conditions.
The last layer of your system should be comprised of rain gear. Rain gear can be that component of your layering system that can literally make or break a hunt. If you’re trying to cut costs on a part of your system, don’t do it here. Instead of getting into the key components that make up quality rain gear in bullet form, I’d rather explain what makes the rain gear “quality.”
It’s pretty simple that it needs to be waterproof, right? Well, that’s not always as simple as it sounds. The problem with some cheap rain gear is that you’ll then be sweating profusely with no method to dry. The waterproofing technology in high-end fabrics allows you to breathe. For example, a Gore-Tex membrane is composed of 9 billion pores that are 20,000 times smaller than a water droplet, making it impossible for rain, sleet, and snow to pass through. The Gore-Tex membrane is 700 times larger than a water vapor molecule, which is what allows your sweat vapor to move through and keep you dry on the inside. Something important to note is that the membrane works best when it’s closer to your body, where it doesn’t have as many layers to pass through. John Barklow digs into this concept in detail on the Beyond the Kill podcast.
To make the membrane durable and protect it from dirt, companies use an outer layer over top of the waterproof fabric. This layer is usually what makes rain gear noisy. Whenever you then add another fabric to the outside for noise reduction, you risk giving the water molecules a place to soak in and make your rain gear stay wet longer. This doesn’t mean that you’ll be wet, but it’ll get everything in your bag wet. This outer layer is needed, though, because the waterproof membrane functions are drastically reduced when clogged with dirt.
On day hunts, I rarely keep rain gear in my pack unless I’m anticipating an abundance of precipitation. On overnight and multi-day trips, you won’t catch me without at least my rain jacket in my pack. On early season backpack hunts, you can cut weight (and cost) by using your rain jacket as your outer layer, since it’s windproof, too.
A complete performance hunting system can be costly and is, without a doubt, an investment. With that said, for new mountain hunters, I think it is an investment worth saving for. I say “new” mountain hunters; because I’m sure it didn’t take long for the experienced hunters to figure this out after some uncomfortable situations. Each hunter is different, and will have different opinions on individual pieces. It is important to experiment and get to know how your body reacts in different weather conditions and exertion levels prior to the hunting season. A good clothing system can not only help make your hunt successful, but can save your life in the event of extreme weather. When you’re going on your once-in-a-lifetime dream hunt, you don’t want to be under prepared because you skimped on your clothing system.
Beau’s 7-Day Backpack Elk Hunt System for Colorado:
Base Layer – Top: Sitka Gear Core Lightweight Hoody. The performance of the Core Lightweight pieces in wet conditions have led me to choose synthetic base layers for my upcoming hunt this September.
Base Layer – Bottom: Sitka Gear merino boxers and merino Core bottoms. I haven’t been able to convince myself to use the Core synthetic boxers since I like using the merino boxers so much.
Mid-Layer: Sitka Gear Kelvin Active jacket. Through my experience using different mid-layers, I’ve been impressed with Sitka Gear’s new Kelvin Active Jacket. This piece feels similar to a puffy jacket and is breathable due to its Polartec Alpha insulation. In addition, it has a quiet nylon face with a Durable Water Repellent finish that makes it good as an outer layer in mild/cool conditions.
Outer Layer – Top: Sitka Gear Mountain Jacket. This is kind of a comfort item for me. I could use my rain gear as my wind breaking layer as well. I like to carry it with me because it weighs virtually nothing and is quieter than my rain shell.
Outer Layer – Bottom: Sitka Gear Mountain Pants. Quick drying, four-way stretch, durable, and with removable knee pads. I put these pants through the ringer last year and they’ve held up great.
Insulation: Kelvin Lite Hoody. I throw it on over top of everything while glassing or taking a mid-day nap. This piece is never left in the truck. Period.
Rain Gear: Sitka Gear Dewpoint Jacket and Cloudburst Pants. Lightweight, packable, and Gore-Tex. On this hunt, I use the rain pants for a windproof layer while glassing. The Mountain Pants dry out quick enough that I don’t necessarily need the Cloudburst for rain.