Layering Tips Part 1: Early Season Hunts

Layering Tips Part 1: Early Season Hunts

Author Ryan McSparran

Who’s ready to start preparing for the fall big game hunts?! We are already champing at the bit. If the hunting seasons seem a ways off, don’t worry. There is plenty to do between now and then. One of the first things on our list is do define our clothing and layering systems. 

Why plan out your layering systems well in advance of the season? There are several reasons to get started as soon as possible. First and foremost is availability. The later you wait into the summer, the greater likelihood there is of items being out of stock. 

The second big reason is functionality. From your face mask to your boots, it helps to get into your clothing systems now. If there are any issues with fit or functionality, it’s better to discover those sooner rather than later. Over the summer months, spend time hiking and shooting your bow or rifle while wearing your layering system. Make sure nothing interferes with your draw or movement in any way.

Keep in mind, there are many ways to approach layering. Have your own tips? Leave them in the comments below! Here are a few of our ideas and how we like to tackle the process. In this article, we’ll start with early season layering. Then, check out Part 2: Mid Season Layering Tips and Part 3: Late Season Layering Tips.

Layering for Early Season Hunts

Here in our home state of Colorado, and throughout the mountain west, early season hunts can present some of the strangest weather. Mild temperatures can often be expected, but there are no guarantees. The higher you go in elevation, the greater the possibility for wild temperature swings. I’ve had archery elk hunts with highs near 80. But I’ve also been snowed on in early September on more than one occasion. In fact, one specific archery elk hunt stands out. In 2013 we were hunting the second week in September – in that one week, we were snowed on twice!

All that to say, it can be difficult to plan a layering system for those early season hunts. As you get started, here are a few ideas to keep in mind…

Pack Lightweight Base Layers

When it comes to your base layers, keep it light. Even though temperatures can get cold early in the season – especially at high elevations – a lightweight base layer will be much more versatile than heavy, thermal long underwear.

If you’re hunting out of the truck and you can bring both – great. But even so, a lightweight set of long johns will work in a much wider range of temperatures, from the cold early mornings to the mild afternoons. If you get that early season snowstorm and you need some more insulation, come prepared with a versatile mid-layer (we’ll get to that next). But going with a lighter-weight set of base layers will keep your overall system lighter and more compact, which is great for those archery hunts when you’re on the move.

When it comes to base layer materials, merino wool, synthetics, or a merino-synthetic blend will all work.

Mid Layers: Synthetic Fleece & Quality Down

During those early season hunts, your mid-layers give you that ultimate versatility between cold mornings and hot afternoons. Or in some cases, 70-degrees one day and snow the next! If I had to bring just two mid-layer items on an early season hunt in the high country, I’d bring a synthetic fleece jacket or pullover, and an ultralight puffy jacket filled with quality goose down. Here’s why…

Both of these items offer a very high warmth-to-weight ratio. They also serve very different purposes, allowing me to mix and match depending on the conditions.

A synthetic fleece jacket or pullover is very warm for its weight, but it’s also highly breathable. It has no wind resistance, but that’s ok. In fact, that breathability is exactly what I want. If I need wind resistance, I’ll add either the puffy or my rain shell (more on those below). A lightweight fleece layer is perfect when conditions are chilly but you’re on the move chasing bugling bulls. Later in the season when conditions are more extreme, I might trade this fleece for a heavier soft-shell jacket. But in September, I’ll take the versatility.

Next, an ultralight puffy down jacket filled with quality goose down weighs next to nothing, and it packs down extremely small when not in use. Yet, it offers a ton of warmth. Down jackets usually have a nylon face, which means they’re not very breathable. That gives them some wind resistance – and you probably can’t hike around in one for very long before you work up a sweat. This is a great layer anytime you’re stationary, whether that’s glassing or just hanging out at camp at night. If you’re sitting on a cold morning glassing, throw on that puffy and it will make a huge difference. When you’re ready to move or as soon as the temps get warm, stuff it in your pack and you’ll hardly know it’s there.

Outer Layers: Lightweight Rain Gear

Unless you’re hunting Alaska, British Columbia or the Pacific Northwest, the early season is not the time to bring your heavy-duty expedition weight rain gear. Especially here in the central Rockies where rain gear spends most of the day in your backpack, a lightweight set of rain gear is the ticket. My early season rain jacket weighs about 12oz. and my pants with full side zippers weigh in at about 19oz. Even if there’s no precipitation in the forecast, these are always a part of my early season layering system. Here’s why…

Even on dry hunts, early mornings in the high country can be cold. When you find yourself sitting up on a windy ridge glassing first thing in the morning, throw on that rain shell and it will completely block the wind. Convective heat loss takes a major toll on your body temperature. It can be amazing the difference it makes having lightweight rain gear to stop the wind. Plus, afternoon thunderstorms are a common occurrence early in the season. Whether it’s for rain or to serve as a wind-breaking layer, it’s worth bringing a set of lightweight rain gear on every early season hunt. Combined with your fleece, your puffy jacket or both, you can remain comfortable through a wide range of conditions.

Your rain gear is probably one of the most expensive pieces in your early season layering kit. Save up and get good ones. Lightweight, breathable rain gear that will last for many seasons isn’t cheap. But in terms of both pack weight and functionality, it makes a big difference.

Don’t forget the Extremities

Hats, gloves, socks, and boots are all other critical pieces to your early season layering kit. In fact, boots might be one of the most important purchases you make. We highly recommend Kenetrek boots for hunting in rugged mountain terrain. And don’t forget the importance of quality socks – the best boots in the world won’t function properly if you’re not wearing a quality sock underneath. Just like the rest of your base layers, look for quality synthetic or merino materials. Cotton has no place in the backcountry.

Gear For the Adventure

As you gear up for the season ahead, check out the camping and hunting gear that we have in stock in the Caribou Gear store. If you have questions or need help finding the right items for your next adventure, please don’t hesitate to reach out. Caribou Gear is a family-owned company headquartered in Colorado. We certainly appreciate your business and we look forward to helping you prepare for that next big adventure!

By Ryan McSparran

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