When burning three hours and 3,000 calories hiking to the top of a 10,000-foot peak for a big buck, you need to arrive prepared for whatever Mother Nature might throw at you. If you’re not, you might be risking your hunt, or even your life. A good layering system is the key component to staying safe and comfortable in the backcountry during the unpredictable fall months.
Layering is the method by which you use various layers of clothing to regulate your body’s core temperature and manage the moisture your body creates during physical exertion. In a nutshell, it’s all about temperature, moisture and weight management.
When planning for my hunts, I have been using a six-layer clothing system for my upper torso or "core” and a fourlayer system for my lower body. Different combinations of these basic layers will accommodate all of my hunting needs from August into December.
The six critical layers for my core are categorized as follows: the "againstthe- skin layer”, the "base layer”, the "intermediate layer”, the "universal layer”, the "insulating layer”, and the ever-important "protective layer.” The four layers for my lower body are: the "against-the-skin layer”, the "base layer”, the "universal layer” and the "protective layer.” We can drop out the "insulating” layer for our lower extremities because the human body doesn’t lose as much heat through the legs as it does through the upper torso. Keep in mind, if you’re sitting in one spot for several hours you might want to incorporate an ultrainsulating layer on your lower half.
1) The Against-the-Skin Layer (top and bottom)- The "against-the-skin layer” is probably the most simple and straight forward of the layers. It consists of your underwear. In the old days, we were pretty much stuck with cotton as our only option for this layer, but thanks to companies like First Lite, we now have better options. I prefer the First Lite merino wool t-shirt and a pair of the First Lite Red Desert merino wool briefs. This layer needs to be comfortable, moisture wicking, and odor resistant. Nothing seems to do all of this like merino wool does.
2) The Base Layer (top and bottom)- The "base layer” is one of the most important layers in the system. The base layer can sit against your skin and is responsible for the majority of the moisture management of your body’s perspiration. Most backcountry hunters use an ultra-lightweight merino base layer. This multipurpose layer remains warm when wet, dries very quickly in a slight breeze, has a natural resistance to human odor, and can even keep you cool on warm days. However, keep in mind the wool base layer will give you very little protection against the wind.
When shopping for a base layer you want to make sure the material is designed to properly handle moisture (sweat) and fits properly. The merino wool base layer is probably the most used on the market today. This is the layer of clothing you will be "living in” for four or five straight days, typically.
3) The Intermediate Layer (top only)- The "intermediate” layer is a multipurpose layer that is capable of wicking moisture, is very breathable, and has inherent insulating properties. This is often a mid-weight synthetic-type pullover or something comparable. This is the layer you put on to tackle a mild chill, but you can still hike in and it will handle perspiration effectively. A hightech microfleece pullover is a very solid choice for this layer. The intermediate layer, combined with a light or midweight merino wool base layer, should keep you plenty warm down to the 50-degree ambient temperature range while inactive, and into the near freezing temperatures while active.
4) The Universal Layer (top and bottom)- The "universal” layer is a formal term for my jacket. A good universal layer should be water resistant, resistant to wind, very breathable, and can insulate your core into the below freezing temperatures. When combined with a proper base and intermediate layer, the universal layer should keep you comfortable below the point of frost (32 degrees Fahrenheit). This is the piece of clothing you will be putting on and taking off the most in the backcountry. I’m constantly taking off my jacket as I hike, in and am putting it back on when I sit down to glass. With this in mind, have a system in place to attach it easily to, or place inside of, your pack. Since this is most likely your camo/ concealment layer, make sure you can get to it quickly and easily.
When shopping for a universal layer keep in mind there is no single solution that will fit all of your needs. Plain and simple, there’s no single jacket that is versatile enough to act as a good insulating layer for every climate, elevation, and condition you may encounter. I use two or three different solutions for this layer depending on when, where, and how I’m hunting. These range from a simple single-layer fleece jacket, to a multi-layer fleece jacket with a high-tech protective shell, up to a heavy wool sweater with a wind stopper liner. This will probably be your heaviest layer of the six, so keep that in mind when you transition from the early hunts to the late-fall hunts.
When it comes to pants, this universal layer is your main set of hunting pants. I look for a very well rounded pant that has good durability, is very breathable, is somewhat water and wind resistant, and most importantly has a very comfortable fit. You will live in these pants, so do yourself a favor and shop wisely. No two hunters are built the exact same, and neither are any two manufacturer’s pants. I honestly believe you can shop for your layering system simply by the fit of their pants. I highly suggest you try them on before you buy them.
5) The Insulating Layer (top only)- This is the "life and death” layer of your system. When the weather gets beyond nasty and the temperatures plummet below zero, this is the layer that can save your life. The best product I have found for this particular layer is a good down or PrimaLoft coat or vest. Down and PrimaLoft (synthetic down) without a doubt have the best insulating properties of any materials available on the market today. They are ultra-lightweight, and have the unique ability to be temporarily stuffed into a very small space, making them very packable. The one challenge with down is that you cannot get it wet, where PrimaLoft can still maintain some of its insulation properties when wet. However, it’s critical that you cover both down or PrimaLoft garments with a high quality protective layer of rain gear when encountering wet, damp conditions. When shopping for this layer, find the lightest, warmest, most packable coat or vest possible with very few pockets and excess frills. Go for a very minimalist approach here. On an early season hunt I reduce this layer to a vest to save weight and then change it up for a coat on my later hunts. One thing is certain…never leave for the backcountry without this layer no matter what the weatherman says.
6) The Protective Layer (top and bottom)- The protective layer is basically high-quality rain gear. We have a saying in Wyoming, "If you don’t like the weather, just wait ten minutes.” The converse is also true, "If you do like the weather, just wait ten minutes…it will get worse.” The moral of the story is, never leave the truck or camp without rain gear in your pack. There is no worse feeling in the outdoors than getting thoroughly drenched because you came unprepared. I don’t use this layer very often, but when I do I’m glad I packed it. A good quality set of rain gear will also act as a great barrier against extreme wind conditions.
For this layer, we want to find a solution that is very lightweight, breathable, 100% waterproof, not bulky, easily compressed, and easy to get on and off. Some other factors to keep in mind are that your raingear should have sealed seems, waterproof zippers, and is somewhat "over-sized” in order to accommodate several layers underneath. This could be one of your most expensive layers, but well worth the money. Don’t scrimp here. If properly taken care of, this layer should last quite a few years.
Odds and Ends- Hats- I always keep a wool stocking hat or a fleece beanie in my pack, even during my early fall hunts. You would be amazed at how much heat is lost out of the top of your head. As the fall wears on I often trade in my standard Eastman issue baseball cap for an insulated Stormy Kromer cap.
Gloves- You can generally find me hunting in a pair of leather gloves and sometimes a pair of cotton gloves in the morning before the frost melts off. I also carry a pair of heavy wool/Thinsulate gloves in my pack at all times. I never leave home without them.
Socks- Good hunting socks are critical to foot comfort. During the early season I wear a pair of lightweight merino wool performance socks. As the temperatures drop later in the fall, I cover these up with a set of mid- or heavyweight wool socks to ensure my feet are comfortable and warm. Also, carry an extra pair of socks in your pack…just in case.
This layering system should keep you warm, dry, and relatively comfortable under some very extreme circumstances in the backcountry. These layers can be switched out and interchanged based on the weather, elevation, and time of year/ season. During my early fall hunts I can often pare this system down to only four layers and save some serious, unnecessary weight. This should only be done after some thorough research and experience. Even during mid-August I have encountered some brutal weather in the high basins of the Wyoming wilderness. Be prepared and pack accordingly.
Something to keep in mind: if you’re headed up North to Canada or Alaska, you may want to modify this system a little due to the extremely wet environment that can be encountered. We have tested the very best gear on the market from what I call the "big four” hard-core mountain clothing manufacturers that cater directly to these needs, and the needs of those hunting in the lower 48. The following are the results we found while putting the best to the test.
In the past six years the quality of backcountry clothing has improved leaps and bounds from what it used to be. Today’s mountain hunter has options that eclipse those of our father’s and grandfather’s eras. In my opinion, there are four top companies at this point that are producing clothing of the quality that I would head deep into the hills with. Those companies are Kryptek, Kuiu, Russell, and of course the originators of this market segment, Sitka Gear. The Eastmans’ team and I were able to personally test each of these product lines and here is what we found.
Note: I poured through these clothing company’s complete gear line-ups in an effort to match up the best product to each of my layering criteria. Keep in mind, at times this can be a bit like putting a square peg into a round hole, and the options seem to be nearly endless with some of these manufacturers. We tested an XL top and L bottom and the weights are actual measured weights of the products as tested in these sizes.
1) Kryptek- Kryptek is a relative newcomer to the clothing marketplace, but don’t let that fool you. This company and their gear are the real deal. Designed by a pair of hard-core hunters and U.S. military Special Forces operatives, this gear might be the perfect blend of function and value. The first thing I noticed about the Kryptek gear was the design and function of the product. You can tell guys that have been there and done it designed this clothing. The Kryptek gear has plenty of whistles and bells, but is not over-done. This clothing has just the right amount of pockets in the right places, ventilated panels, reinforced and articulated elbows and knees, and a very athletic cut and fit for someone who is in fairly good mountain shape. The new L.E.A.F. camo patterns appeared to be extremely effective in the Western landscape when we did our photo shoots. Priced very reasonably and the lightest of the bunch, this gear is a proven winner in the marketplace.
2) Kuiu- Kuiu’s founder and president, Jason Hairston, was one of the original founders of Sitka Gear, and has now ventured out on his own to develop a high-quality line of backcountry lightweight mountain hunting clothing. The Kuiu clothing arrived on my desk in a surprisingly small and very neatly packed box, with each layer eloquently folded and paper banded in Kuiu-labeled wrap. Less than two seconds into the opening process, I knew the small box was no indication of things to come…this was some very serious clothing. The fabric and cut of this gear is, without a doubt, made for the most serious backcountry hunters among us. The design takes somewhat of a minimalist approach, with weight savings being taken advantage of at almost every opportunity. Being six foot three inches and 210 pounds, this gear fit nearly perfect thanks to its founder who has a very similar build.
3) Russell- Russell Outdoors has been making hunting clothing longer than any of the other companies on this list. The APX clothing line was introduced almost ten years ago and was one of the first to raise the bar on hunting clothing that could be used for a Western hunting application. The APXg2 line of clothing is a high quality, yet somewhat economical option for the Western hunter.
I have the most personal experience with this clothing (in full disclosure: I built their TV commercial and they sponsor the Eastmans’ TV show) out of the four, and it has performed very well for me in some less-than-ideal circumstances. On a price versus function level, this clothing is an excellent value. This gear will do everything you ask of mountain hunting gear and keep you in comfort in the process. The fit for this gear is a touch on the "big” side. I size myself down almost a full size to fit properly into the Russell gear.
4) Sitka- The Sitka line is extremely broad, and the layering options are almost endless. As the quintessential pioneer in mountain hunting clothing, this line of gear is extremely well engineered and refined. The thing that impressed me the most about the Sitka gear right off the bat when I opened the box was the overall feel of the clothing. You can tell you have a very, very high-quality piece of gear in your hands. The Sitka designers have spared no expense in the quality of the fabrics, zippers, and options on this clothing and the price reflects it. If you can afford the Sitka product, the quality and performance of this gear will not disappoint you. The Sitka clothing is absolutely loaded with bells and whistles. If you like pockets, belts, and zippers, this gear is for you. The Sitka product fit a touch on the small end of the sizing scale, so you may consider sizing up a little.