I approached the whitetail dodge 20-some years ago as a decided Western desert rat. Weaned on spot-and-stalk ploys plied while chasing southern New Mexico’s desert mule deer and Southwestern elk, sitting treestands was as foreign to me as sail boating. I knew cold well enough, but hiking and stalking in cold and sitting in cold are two entirely different things. Remembering those early days on stand still induces involuntary shivers.
Fast-forward two decades. I’m now living and bowhunting whitetails in the northern reaches of Idaho’s Panhandle, where fall weather can involve anything from freezing rain to blowing snow to temperatures below zero. Despite that, I honestly can’t remember the last time I was truly cold, in a teeth-chattering, hypothermic sense. A lot of this has to do with a better understanding of how diet affects my ability to stay warm. More importantly, it’s a testament to how smart layering and modern bowhunting attire can keep me comfortable in the nastiest atmospheric conditions.
Dieting For Warmth
One of the biggest mistakes bowhunters make before venturing into cold conditions is ingesting diuretics. Diuretics — nicotine, alcohol and caffeine — can temporarily make you feel warmer, but in fact they constrict blood vessels that facilitate circulation and deliver warmth-giving blood to fingers and toes. Even without the cold, smoking and whitetails is a bad combination, and I just can’t imagine drinking booze before climbing into a stand. Yet coffee is a standard beginning to most Americans’ day. Caffeine certainly helps you remain alert, but it will leave you colder with time. The chilling effects of tea, and especially hot cocoa, are negligible by comparison. Interestingly, electrolytes found in sports drinks (Gator-Aid, for instance) help the body remain warmer (and cooler) in extreme conditions.
Lately, energy-boosting drinks have become all the rage, especially with the younger set. My friend David Faiello, who served as an Army field medic in Vietnam and has years of experience as a military health care provider, said he’s highly suspicious of these products. “The energy you feel is caused by a blood-pressure spike, a direct result of the drink’s ingredients essentially squeezing down blood vessels and even the kidneys,” Faiello said. “This makes you feel temporarily better but leaves you more vulnerable to cold, shutting down peripheral circulation which feeds extremities.”
What you eat also makes a difference when facing cold weather. Carbohydrates (starches and simple sugars) provide quick fuel to keep your core burning hot, while proteins and fats serve to keep you in the game longer. Carbs provide efficient short-term energy, while fat and proteins require energy to break down, so their warming calories don’t become available until hours later. Consequently, the bowhunter investing in short morning or evening hunts, before and after work, say, is best served by carbs found in pastries, pancakes or toast. The bowhunter facing all-day waits during the rut is better served by a breakfast including a healthy mix of carbohydrates (pancakes and toast) and proteins/fats (bacon and eggs).
Although many hunters simply aren’t interested in eating prior to climbing into a stand at four or five in the morning, this is the biggest mistake you can make when facing bitter cold. With no fuel to stoke the furnace, hypothermia is nearly guaranteed.
Dressing for success in cold weather is all about maintaining your core body temperature and eliminating easy channels for heat loss. When core body temperature drops below a certain level (only a degree or so below 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit), the body shuts down circulation to extremities to protect internal organs. The result is numb fingers and toes, and shivering.
The vest — worn beneath outerwear — provides value-added insulation without restricting range of motion like added layers of sleeved clothing can. Think in terms of goose down, wool or high-loft synthetics that trap warm air against the body. Even better, temperature-adjustable, battery-operated heat vests (such as Browning’s AddHeat) have proven a Godsend in northern latitudes, keeping you comfortable on stand even when temperatures plummet below zero.
Channels for heat loss are normally points where heat flows from your body most quickly, giving away hard-earned warmth and bringing on chills. Your head, face and neck are first priority. Since heat rises, up to 75 percent of lost heat escapes from this area. A warm hat is a must. My favorite is fleece-shelled, wind-stop-laminated (more later) and pile-lined. When temperatures really dip, I pull on a full-coverage micro-fleece balaclava, covering head, face and neck, snuggling an insulated hat over this. Insulated hats with earflaps are also a great idea, provided flaps and chinstraps don’t interfere with anchoring and shooting. Be sure and practice with your hunting clothes. For those who wear eyeglasses, lenses fogging up can be a problem when wearing a facemask. A good tip is to not cover your nose so air is blown down and away from lenses.
Another obvious focus point is your feet, which any whitetail hunter knows quickly turn numb without proper cold-weather boots. When contemplating a pack-boot purchase, seek “comfort ratings” off the charts. For example, to remain comfortable in 20 degrees, look to ratings of -30. In sub-zero weather, look to numbers in the -100 range. Or, wear standard insulated hiking boots (800-gram) and don heavily insulated boot blankets (such as Icebreakers) after climbing on stand. Boot soles can prove surprising heat sinks. A piece of carpet or felt padding placed on the stand platform assures heat isn’t sucked through soles by cold metal.
Of course, the catch phrase of the ages is LAYERING. The idea’s to trap warm air pockets against your body like insulation in your home’s walls. Staying warm also includes thinking in terms of moisture management. Even when cold, your body perspires, and cold moisture kills. This makes cotton the worst possible cold-weather choice. Wool and synthetic base layers that move moisture away from the skin are the foundation of an efficient layering system.
Wind is another real warmth sapper. Even moderate breezes can feel like knives in freezing weather. W.L. Gore’s Wind Stopper fabric was the first to
address this issue, cutting wind to help you stay warmer. Many imitations followed. Wind-blocking garments make excellent outer layers, effectively doubling insulating qualities of any insulated outfit. Atmospheric moisture is another heat thief on the coldest days, even when it’s slightly above freezing. Remaining dry and bowhunting silently in wet weather used to prove nearly impossible. Most raingear of old was as noisy as a garbage bag. For the most part, this has changed, but before you make an expensive purchase, make sure a manufacturer’s “quiet” label will pass close-range muster.
Extreme conditions sometimes call for extreme measures. Parkas with zip-in liner jackets of fleece or down, and heavily insulated bibs, are standard issue during late seasons or all-day vigils even in moderately cold weather. When conditions turn really rough, products such as the Heater Body Suit and Warmbag really come into their own. These are essentially modified sleeping bags spacious enough to accommodate your gear and insulated pack boots. In the coldest weather, they simply can’t be beat.
Shooting a bow well requires a high degree of dexterity, something hard to come by in extreme cold. Shooting with fingers in cold weather is extremely challenging, and even employing a release aid can make numb fingers a bane to rut and late-season whitetail dates. As a long-time finger shooter, I’ve tried every possible avenue to keep fingers functioning in freezing weather; including flip-back mitt/gloves and liner gloves slipped inside “chopper” mittens tethered to my waist. All had glaring drawbacks.
In recent years, I’ve learned to depend on simple hand muffs. Strapped around the waist, with a charcoal warmer pouch tossed in before the hunt, I’m able to wear thin, standard-issue camouflage gloves tucked inside the muff to remain warm. When a buck arrives, my hands are always ready to perform, no matter how cold it is or how I’m releasing my string. Of course, a release allows shooting with heavier gloves, adjusting trigger tension and travel as insurance against a premature release due to lost sensitivity. Still, the waist-mounted muff represents the most efficient answer.
Despite the challenges, bowhunting in extreme cold can prove fantastic, as bucks must forage and move to survive when brutal weather arrives. I once approached cold whitetail hunts with undiluted dread. No more. The suffering has largely been eliminated from the equation, at least for the bowhunter properly prepared and attired in the latest high-tech insulated hunting clothes. The modern bowhunter has never had it better. We can now laugh at cold, and kill bigger bucks, by remaining comfortable and in the game during the harshest weather.