A treestand in winter is no place to leave a brass monkey. Freezing weather pits the bowhunter not only against the deer, but also against the forces of nature. Bone-chilling cold limits the time most hunters can stay in the field. Even die-hard bowhunters find it difficult to remain motionless for hours.
For hunters who go afield unprepared, bowhunting in frigid weather is more like punishment than recreation. Simply adding more layers isn’t the answer to staying warm. In fact, too many layers restricts blood flow and can make you feel even colder.
Also, the over-stuffed sensation that comes from too many layers restricts mobility and can make drawing a bow a chore in itself. The secret to staying warm in frigid weather is knowing what to wear and how to wear it.
First Layer of Defense
Staying warm in cold weather requires a first layer of defense, namely your long underwear. Cotton or cotton-blend underwear make great winter pajamas, but they are the worst choice to wear outside in freezing weather. Cotton absorbs moisture and holds it next to the skin, where the evaporation process quickly cools the body.
To avoid this evaporation process, the first layer of defense must be a fabric that wicks moisture away from the skin and allows it to evaporate into outer clothing layers. Some excellent choices include Polypropylene, Thermax, Thermastat, MTP, wool, Thermax/wool combinations, or fleece. With the exception of wool, all of these cold-weather undergarments are made from synthetic fabrics that are variations of polyester.
Underwear manufactured from these fabrics is sold in several weights, usually designated as medium, heavy, expedition, and polar. For bitter-cold hunting conditions, I’ve found that a crewneck medium layer next to the skin with a expedition or polar weight turtleneck layered over top doubles up the insulation factor where it’s needed most. Doubling the underwear layer allows me to gain valuable insulation without loosing mobility.
On my feet I start with a pair of wicking socks made from Thermax or Polypropylene, followed by the heaviest possible pair of wool or Thermax socks.
The Middle Layer
What you wear over your underwear must provide excellent insulation value, yet be loose fitting or feature a natural stretch in the fabric so the garment doesn’t bind in the legs, knees, or shoulders. For my money, two fabrics shine best in this department: wool or fleece.
On my upper body I wear a heavyweight wool sweater produced by Woolrich. Sweaters are an excellent middle layer because they are worn outside of the pants, making them less restrictive than shirts that must be tucked in.
On my lower body a pair of loose-fitting wool or fleece pants provides another layer of insulation without a great degree of bulk. These pants are held in place with a pair of suspenders, instead of a belt, so the garment can fit loosely around my waist without restricting circulation.
The outer layer must provide four vital functions. First, it must provide insulation against the cold; second, it must block the chilling effects of the wind; third, it must contain a trusted camouflage pattern; and fourth, it must be quiet.
In extremely cold conditions ordinary wool and fleece garments are poor choices for an outer layer because the wind blows right through them. The exception to this rule are garments that feature a windproof barrier such as Gore-Tex, Dry-Plus, WindStopper, or a similar product.
A coat and bib combination lined with Thinsulate or polyester pile insulation makes an ideal outer layer. Bibs provide that extra layer of insulation around the kidney area, and they are held in place with suspenders that allow the garment to hang loosely but securely in place.
A one-piece insulated coverall is another excellent option. One-piece suits, however, tend to be too warm to walk in. It’s best to carry this garment into the woods and dress at the blind.
The feet and hands are the toughest parts of the anatomy for most hunters to keep warm. The feet pose a special problem because a deer hunter should be wearing tall rubber boots to reduce the scent factor when walking to and from the blind.
A number of tall rubber boots are now available that feature either a wool felt liner or a heavy layer of Thinsulate built right into the boot. I’m currently wearing a pair of Hodgeman rubber boots, which feature a removable wool/polyester liner that provides adequate warmth in all but the coldest conditions. For extremely cold weather, Sorel manufactures an all-rubber boot known as the Ice Fisher that’s rated to -100 degrees Fahrenheit.
Hunters who prefer a boot that’s easy to walk in should consider one of the ankle-fit models produced by LaCrosse, Red Ball, or Cabela’s. Cabela’s Thinsulate Marsh Boots feature 1000 grams of Thinsulate insulation, while the LaCrosse Burly offers 800 grams of Thinsulate.
What to where on your hands is another important issue, because it’s nearly impossible to shoot a bow while wearing bulky mittens or gloves. I’ve solved the problem of cold hands by wearing a thin pair of wool glove-liners, while keeping my hands inside a fleece handwarmer muff equipped with a couple chemical heat packs. Inside the muff my hands stay warm and ready for any shot opportunities.
To top it all off, I’ve become a fan of those thin and snug-fitting polypropylene balaclavas. They’re thin enough that I can wear a baseball cap over the top if I choose, though in extremely cold conditions I wear a stocking cap as an extra layer of insulation.
The clothing outlined here keeps me comfortable in temperatures down into the single digits. If the weather gets much colder you may want to take more drastic measures to stay warm, such as wrapping yourself in an army-surplus wool blanket. One friend of mine uses a sleeping bag to keep him warm in his treestand. He zips himself into the bag, then uses a belt around his waist to hold the bag in place.
It’s also important to stay as dry as possible when hunting in bitter conditions. Carry your outer clothing, including insulated hats, to the blind in a backpack to avoid breaking a sweat. Try wearing just one pair of light socks in your boots for the walk in, then put on a heavy pair once you reach the blind.
A couple chemical heat packs slipped in your boots, gloves, or coat pockets also go a long way toward keeping your fingers and toes toasty.
A treestand in winter is one of the coldest places on Earth, but it doesn’t have to be unbearable. With a little planning and the right equipment, bowhunters can survive and thrive in the late season.