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A Backcountry Hunters Layering Guide--Part 1-The Basics

By Brad Brooks

I have seen my fair share of guys in wranglers and cotton flannels packing out big bulls. But I’ve seen way more people fleeing the mountains after a sustained rain or snow storm due to improper clothing layering and the misery that follows. Clothing is important when hunting, and no matter what brand or camo pattern you decide to use (or not to use), understanding proper layering will allow you to hunt in any condition mother nature can throw at you.

At its core, layering is about efficiency, comfort and body temperature regulation.  Those are all code words for keeping you comfortable, particularly when hunting in remote places. Even more importantly, layering helps keep you from getting too hot or too cold, which keeps your brain functioning properly and your attitude in the right place so you keep hunting longer instead of bailing back to the truck because you’re miserable. And when done well, layering reduces the weight and bulk of your pack.

First Lite, Argali, western hunting mule deer hunting

Hard to beat that rocky mountain sunset…pictured are the obsidian pants on the right, corrugate pants on the left, chama hoody mid-layer on the right and llano qz short sleeve on the left, all from First Lite.

This layering piece is meant for hunters that take efficiency, weight and clothing seriously.  If done properly, you should be wearing all your clothes when temperatures are lowest.  Not *most* of your clothes. All of them. But figuring out the minimum amount of clothing to take, particularly on a backcountry or backpack hunt when weight and space are at a premium can be complicated.  If you don’t pack properly, you end up having an extra piece of clothing that does nothing but add weight and take up space in your bag.

I’ve structured this layering series into two parts.  Rather than just jump to telling you what pieces of clothing work best, you’ll be better off in the long run by understanding why layering matters, and how to do it properly. Part 1 of this guide explains the fundamentals of proper layering and also covers the relative merits of down vs. synthetic insulation.  Part II gets into “what to wear” more specifically, so feel free to skip to that if you’re already a layering pro.

Layering Basics

Layering is typically comprised of baselayers, midlayers and insulating or outerlayers.  Simple enough, but the reason multiple layers is advantageous over a couple heavy insulating layers has to do with temperature regulation under a greater variety of conditions.

To exaggerated the point, if you took a long sleeve shirt and a Mount-Everest sized full down suit on a hunting trip as your only clothes you will likely be too hot or too cold.  If you have 5-6 layers, you can add or subtract pieces to as needed to find the ideal amount of clothing to wear in the morning, when it warms up in the day and at night.

First lite early season mule deer archery hunt

The author on an early September archery mule deer hunt with First Lite Llano short sleeve top and Corrugate guide pants.

Air and Moisture

Still air is one of the best insulators out there.  Still air does not transfer heat very well (it traps heat), so the more still air you can trap between your body and the elements, the more body heat you will retain.  We could get into a physics lesson on how heat is transferred, but let’s not do that.

Moisture against your body is the opposite of air when it comes to thermal regulation. Moving moisture away from the skin is critical to maintaining body temperature.  Moisture trapped against your skin will keep you colder by drawing heat away from your body.  Proper layering, and using a quality material like merino wool, will literally pull moisture away from your body.  That wicking effect of clothing is important, and you have to have multiple layers of clothing that can “breath” or else that moisture will get trapped.

To conclude: moisture bad, air good when it comes to insulation, layering and thermal regulation.

Merino wool vs. Polypro

For years I used standard polypro for all of my active outdoor pursuits, but when the merino wool started hitting the market I slowly made the switch and I’ll never go back, particularly for base layers.  Merino wool is in nearly every way a superior material for hunters, and in particular backcountry or backpack hunters.  The two most important factors for me are 1) Heat retention when wet, and 2) Natural scent protection.  Merino will retain nearly 60% of its heat retention properties when wet, which is important when you are sweating heavily or the weather turns on you.  Unlike cotton, merino wool can still trap air against your body when wet due to the intrinsic properties of the fabric.  Merino will also keep you smelling semi-normal, even after a week-long trip, whereas a poly layer will smell like a high school locker room within hours (or maybe its just me?).

That said, I do use some polypro layers, just not for my first two next to skin layers.  Polypro is warm, and it holds up to abuse better than most merino wool I’ve worn.

To summarize, merino wool is preferred for baselayers, but polypro is still great, especially for midlayers.

Down Vs. Synthetic insulation

Both Down and synthetic insulation work well.  I use both, and will continue to use both in the future.  The problem with down is that if it gets wet, it is useless.  The upside is it seems to be slightly more efficient for the weight compared to a quality synthetic insulation.  In reality, if you carry a rain jacket, you should be able to avoid having your down get drenched, but it is something you have to pay attention to.  If you hunt in really wet weather, synthetic insulation is the way to go.

I’ve been using more synthetic insulating jackets over the past few years, and really liking them.  Some of the insulating jackets I get into in part II are efficient, light, layer well and have the added benefit of keeping me somewhat warm when wet.

Bottom line: You can’t go wrong with either, so find a jacket that fits you well and layers over your other clothing without making you look like a marshmallow so you can still draw your bow back when you need to.

Baselayers

A baselayer’s primary job is to keep moisture away from your skin.  A quality merino wool or polypro material will help remove moisture from you body and push it into the atmoshpere, making it easier for your body to regulate its temperature. A quality baselayer might not leave your body for a week long trip if you are backpacking, which is why I use merino wool since it has superior scent protection.  Even in warm weather, a long sleeve shirt can have the counter-intuitive effect of keeping you cooler and protected from the sun.

Midlayers

These layers need to wick moister and be able to trap air.  A good quality midlayer should fit snuggly over your baselayer(s), and ideally is heavy enough to serve as an outlerlayer during the early hunting season (August and early September) and as an insulating layer as the season progresses.

Outerlayers

First Lite uncompahgre Insulated jacket Argali

The First Lite Uncompahgre Insulated Jacket is one of my favorite insulating outerlayer jackets of all time. Packable, lightweight and incredibly warm.

Insulating jackets and rain jackets provide the finishing touch on your kit as outerlayers.  Insulating jackets come in all shapes and sizes, so you’ll have to play around to figure out what size or sizes you need without over-doing it and bringing in a 3 pound jacket.  Down and synthetic jackets will cap off your upper body layering system, as can rain jackets.

Don’t underestimate the value a rain jacket can play in insulation.  While the jacket itself doesn’t offer insulation, it keeps the wind from pulling warm, trapped air away from your body.

Check out Part II

Now that you have the basics down, be sure to check out Part II in this series and get my favorite layering systems in detail for different hunts throughout the year.