We all hunt a little differently. This is due to our varying ages, levels of fitness, where we live and the terrain we hunt in.
Some of us will routinely climb 1000m vertical when we go hunting, others view the truck or quad bike as more of a “mobile hunting blind”. Whatever your approach, having a versatile yet simple layering system means you will be more comfortable and you will also be able to do more with less.
It’s a crisp May morning high in tahr country and you’ve spent the last 3 hours sweating your way up hill to get in position to get at that big bull you saw last night just on dark.
You’re cursing the last few beers and ports you had in the comfort of your heated MIA tent the night before.
You’re a gasping swampy mess of cheap fleece by the time you reach the knoll you were aiming for, wishing you had carried more water and gotten out of bed that little bit earlier. Then, right on que and not surprisingly given the time of year, the clouds roll in and you’re sitting in a light but steady drizzle.
Soaked with sweat and forced to just sit and wait for a clearance, it soon becomes pretty apparent to you that - yes it’s May - and it’s bloody cold in the New Zealand mountains. This is when having super breathable gear makes the difference between sitting out the weather, and heading back to camp shivering cold.
These days we have more apparel options than ever before, with hunting specific base, mid, insulation and outer layers designed to work on their own or as part of a system. A skier, mountaineer or even a serious tramper wouldn’t dream of using gear with substandard breathability, so why should the hunter?. Especially given we will sweat and then stop to glass repetitively the whole time we are out, which is exactly the situation it’s most important for.
Those of us more inclined to use that “mobile hunting blind” will also be better off; you’re going to sweat retrieving that deer you just shot on the other side of the gully. A good layering system, particularly with merino, means you can be comfortable in a much wider temperature range for packing that deer back to the track, and the inevitable cooling down on the ride home.
The Base Layer
As the foundation, the base layer needs to achieve a few things. It must breath harder than you do when sweating your way up to that glassing spot. It needs to be versatile over a wide temperature range, feeling comfortable in the midday summer sun while also have some warmth as a good wicking layer in autumn through to winter. A quality New Zealand merino blend is simply unmatched for this purpose, and the major bonus is that you won’t stink out the hut or tent, even after days of sweating on the hill. Synthetics can be a touch more durable and generally easier on the wallet but they have a much narrower range of comfort when it comes to temperature, not to mention that they simply stink with sweat and bacteria build up. They can be a good option though as a mid-layer to give your base layer some protection if you’re the type of hunter who’s always pushing through scrub of some sort.
Check out First Lite's New Zealand merino base layer > HERE
Image @Sam Martin & Ben Cambell
The Mid Layer
This is that buffer for the cooler mornings and evenings, and for me, it’s the layer that inadvertently ends up living unwashed in my pack, causing me to keep thinking I can smell a deer.
With modern fabrics, this layer doesn’t need to be a hinderance on a climb up the hill; you should be able to get away with keeping your mid layer on for those shorter climbs between glassing spots. A heavier weight merino blend is ideal, but this is also where synthetics like an anti-microbial grid fleece or a dura-flex nylon can be great. Your choice will depend on the scrub you’re pushing through and the durability you need.
Check out First Lite's Mid Layer range > HERE
Image @ Ben Campbell
The Outer Layer
This is an essential piece of clothing. We all need to have a good outer layer in the pack no matter what the forecast or time of year. I often find myself putting on this layer just to cut the wind.
This is where most people will really notice the difference in breathability, as it will quickly become apparent whether you are getting wet from your own perspiration or from the elements.
Image @Shaun Monk
This is true for pants as well as jackets. You can wear shorts/long johns and accept being wet, or be dry and comfortable in some rain paints that are actually cut to be pants and designed to be walked in all day.
There are generally two schools of thought with regards to outer layers:
The Hard Shell
Typically, a 2.5 or 3.5 layer fabric depending on the weight and packability you’re looking for, these fabrics can be a touch less comfortable to wear as they have less stretch, and they also create a little more noise. They are by far and away superior when it comes to water resistance and breathability - and let’s face it if the conditions are bad enough for you to be wearing your hardshell, then you’re really not going to care about a little extra noise from the fabric.
Don’t be fooled by marketing terms such as ‘100% waterproof’ and ’highly breathable’ as these two items don’t really go hand-in-hand, or obvious attempts to confuse consumers by giving maximum and minimum ratings. If something is actually 100% waterproof then basically it’s a plastic bag, and no matter how much rain it keeps out, you’ll be soaked from your own perspiration even on low activity hunts. Pay attention to the actual ratings of the fabric: these days a high end shell will typically have a water resistance rating of 30-40,000mm and a breathability rating of 35-40,000mm and should weigh between 350 and 700 grams, which is extremely breathable and packable by anyone’s standard.
Image @Sean Powell
The Soft Shell
This tends to be more comfortable to wear and a bit quieter due to the soft face fabric and stretch, but you do sacrifice a few things. Soft shell garments are heavier and bulkier, usually weighing twice that of a high end hard shells, and even more when wet. They don’t breath nearly as well, with the soft shells often relying on just a DWR treatment of the face fabric to achieve water resistance, as opposed to having a membrane like a hard shell. No matter the weather though, you’ll notice the increased comfort when you’re cruising around in the “mobile hunting blind”.
Ultimately, the suitability of your outer layer really comes down to how you hunt and in what conditions.
Check out the First Lite Catalyst Soft Shell Jacket > HERE
Image @Jase Van Beers
South Island hunters in particular will always have an insulation layer in their pack. This is actually a safety measure as who knows when you’re going to get caught out - even the summer nights are cold down south at 1600m. Try to get the fit right so that you can happily wear this piece on its own, or comfortably wear it under your outer layer. There are a couple of insulation types available:
Synthetic insulation doesn’t quite have the warmth to packability ratio that a quality down has, but they do have the benefit of still being warm when wet as the sythentic fibres won’t glob together like down can.
Image @ Sean Powell
High loft down (800+) is now the benchmark and manufacturers will each have their own marketing guff about what they use. These days down is often treated with DWR to make it more water resistant, but in doing so the lofting properties of the down are reduced, making it less warm. The latest solution to this is to blend down with small amounts of high end synthetic, meaning you can slightly wet it out or sweat it out and the down clusters wont all glob up and become useless.
Construction is key and a jacket with box-cut baffles through the body as opposed to stitched-through baffles, will retain much more heat where you need it most. But they do cost substantially more to make, however.
Check out the First Lite range of insulation > HERE
Image @Hunters Journal
Head and Hands
We all know that our head is the one place where we lose a lot of heat, so it makes sense to have a quality merino beanie that isn’t scratchy to wear and won’t instantly get so hot that your pulling it off on a short climb. Your head tends to sweat quite a lot, especially during activity, so a beanie that can transfer perspiration really well (like merino) is the key to your head not constantly overheating as soon as you are on the move.
If your hands are cold, it’s impossible to do a good job glassing let alone get confidently set up behind a rifle. My approach is to use a thin leather palmed gloves with mid-weight merino uppers. These don’t get too hot too quickly and are durable enough that your hill stick won’t wear them out.
When it’s really cold, I have a pair of down glassing mitts to pull straight over the top, or just wear on their own. These don’t have a lot of durability, but then they don’t need to - and are really just for sitting and glassing for long periods. The big bonus is that they pack up to and weight virtually nothing at 100grams.
Putting a bit more thought into your layering system and investing in more breathable gear will ultimately make you more comfortable in the mountains. It will also enable you to carry less, giving you a much more comfortable wait for that big bull you just climbed your guts out for. But then again, investing in a 12v pie warmer for the buggy will make you pretty comfortable too.
Image @ First LiteOriginally produced for NZHunter Magazine - Get the latest issue here