The Gear Chain Pt 3 - Layering Systems for Hunters

The apparel link of the Gear Chain is all about building a simple, dynamic layering system that enables you to hunt in spite of less than desirable weather.  Getting the system right goes a long way to improve your performance in the field and covers some critical bases:


  • Comfort or ease of movement
  • Temperature regulation
  • Moisture management
  • Even as added insulation inside the sleeping bag at night.
  • Pack Weight


In a general sense, what we are looking for are base layer, mid layer, insulation layer, shell, and in some cases a second insulation layer; how we use those components changes when we are addressing the upper and lower body.   We’ll dig into the base functions of each then look at how we put them together to maximize their performance.  


Base layer

The base layer is the foundational element in the layering system because it starts working with moisture at its source – the skin.  When we get control of moisture early we can more effectively use it to our advantage, to cool us when we need it, or get it away from the skin to retain warmth and comfort.  For most serious hunting the textiles of choice are typically polyester or Merino wool.  They each have their proponents, poly retains very little moisture but works best when that moisture is in a liquid state; Merino works well with moisture in both vapor and liquid forms, is absorbent, and insulates when wet. Using those traits to your advantage is the trick.  I personally prefer to use a synthetic, specifically in this location, because when it gives me both the warming and cooling traits I want.


Using a shirt as an example, when I get hot on a big uphill grind or chasing rutting bulls I want the evaporative cooling that perspiration provides.  In a synthetic piece moisture quickly reaches the surface and spreads out to evaporate, giving it a great cooling effect.  Then it dries quickly so I get the cooling I need, when I need it, then I’m back to dry.  In a Merino piece, If I get saturated, that evaporative process takes longer because the piece can hold significantly more moisture (between 15 and 30 times more).  On the other hand, if it is cold I want to get moisture off my skin and into the next layer to ensure I retain my warmth – with my thermostat I find myself more comfortable and more dry in the Synthetic offering. 


Mid Layer

Our mid layer is a very dynamic piece and serves several critical purposes, some simultaneously and some individually. It serves to continue the movement of moisture and add a little warmth and can replace a base layer in cold weather or when the base becomes saturated.  It’s a layer a lot of hunters don’t have in their quiver, but contributes more comfort than any other single layer.  When I get really saturated I will ditch the base layer and pull on the soft, absorbent mid layer to quickly get my temperature under control.  I’ll use it as an insulating piece when I am glassing in August and September at higher elevations, or as an insulator at night in warmer weather hunts.  It stays on all day as the leaves start to change and stays on well into spring.  They help mitigate the effects of wind, add a little warmth, and a lot of comfort.  For an upper layer, they deliver a similar level of comfort as a hoody, but with a significant improvement in moisture management.  For material, I like to let the conditions dictate the route I will take.  If conditions lend themselves to fast evaporation I like a synthetic piece, but if I know I will be dealing with really humid conditions or an expected backlog in moisture transport through a shell I will go with Merino to take advantage of its storage abilities.




Our insulation layer is geared to address the retention of warmth – and there are two levels of insulation.  At the outset, we want to have a light or mid-weight insulation piece because they are very dynamic and have a place on almost every hunt, even warm weather trips.  When you are making tracks scouting desert sheep in 100+ temps, then the night time falls upon you that 75-degree evening feels significantly cooler than it does in Spring after a long Winter. Early season hunts the pre-dawn pause before everything starts can be uncomfortably cold, this piece fights off that pre-dawn shiver and leaves you comfortable and composed for go-time.  And, on late hunts, as the mercury drops you need that piece to keep you comfortable the whole day long.  Depending on the conditions you may elect a synthetic or down insulation layer – down offers more warmth for weight and synthetics give incredible reliability in wet conditions. 


If I am dealing primarily with snow and extreme cold I want down, for both its warmth and limited pack volume when compressed.  On the other hand, if I am dealing with rain or sleet, I would rather use a synthetic piece to ensure reliable insulation, let me explain.


Un-treated down has an inverse relationship with moisture.  The higher the humidity the less loft and warmth the down provides and it gets worse with prolonged exposure.   This is more exaggerated in high fill power down than low fill power, so a premium lightweight piece actually performs worse in wet weather than a less expensive 650 fill piece.  When down has a DWR treatment though, it tends to fight up in weight– down that was 750 prior to treatment lofts more like 800 or 850 fill afterwards.  This hydrophobic down provides a good combination of compressibility and warmth in inclement weather.  If you want to get a more in depth understanding of down, you can go to this Red Paper and get the full scoop.


There are two insulation components in a highly complete layering system, one going on every hunt the other on really cold hunts; but, we should also consider the sleeping bag selection at this point too.  I try to select the materials for each at the same juncture because they play off of one another and add another layer of protection and flexibility to the system. I personally hedge my insulation bets between these components to ensure maximum safety in the most extreme conditions.  The two pieces which go on every hunt are my sleeping bag and primary insulation layer.


Sleeping bag choice has a major influence on pack volume so I run a Hydrophobic Down sleeping bag for its light weight and compressibility.  For that reason, my primary insulation layer is a synthetic piece, it harkens back to the times when DWR/Hydrophobic down was not a thing, but it’s never done me wrong.  The logic I use is that in the event everything goes to hell and my bag becomes saturated, I can survive the night in my synthetic layer.  For the extreme cold insulation layer, a down insulation piece with a Windstopper membrane adds mega-warmth and durability without killing pack volume.



The first shell selection we make should be driven by the worst weather conditions we could encounter. There are 3 primary types, hard shells, wind-proof soft shells, and wind resistant soft shells. The hard shell provides the highest level of protection, they are waterproof which also means they are windproof, a DWR on the exterior and a membrane sandwiched between the inner and outer textiles prevents atmospheric moisture from coming in the piece.  The only downside to hard shells is that excess heat and moisture can accumulate quickly.  A windproof softshell is highly water resistant, particularly when the seams are taped and a membrane is employed.  These use a more porous membrane and still have DWR finish on the exterior to allow precipitation to bead up and roll off the combination makes them more efficient at passing water vapor out.  The wind resistant soft shell once again employs a DWR, but then it relies on a tightly woven face fabric to mitigate the effect of wind. 


Getting wet is a major issue, so matching the layer to conditions is critical.  If you are hunting the backcountry all season long, a hard shell should be the first shell acquisition you make, because it does the job provides reliable year-round protection.  Soft shells are often a little warmer and work very well for front country hunters who are making a machine based commute or will be dealing with cool to cold temps regularly, and are sufficient for snow but not optimal for heavy rain.  In high output hunts in cold weather they are great, because they let that excess heat off so efficiently. A wind-resistant shell is great for high thermal activities, where a little moisture protection helps but isn’t critical.  For snow shoeing or cross country skiing they are great, or for day hunting in the late fall when conditions are good; however, I wouldn’t put this at the top of my list until a more dynamic solution has been added to the quiver.   


Layers have an exponential effect on temperature regulation and moisture management when they are used to complement of one another. Now we can dig into the more specific upper and lower body components.


Upper body

My upper body layering system is comprised of a lightweight base layer, synthetic mid layer, synthetic insulation layer, and a hard shell on every single hunt I go on, and I occasionally take a secondary down insulation layer for miserable cold hunts.  I always start my system with a base layer; if it’s hot outside the layering system I am wearing may stop with that one piece.  As weather cools off I begin keeping my mid layer on throughout the day or using it to add a little warmth when my output declines and I being to cool off. 


If I am putting out extreme effort in cool weather, I may make my approach in the base layer top knowing I will sweat it out, then take it off and replace it with my mid layer to stop the evaporative cooling I may have needed moments before.  The layer change allows most of the excess heat to blow away and being the drying process, and the last of it serves to quickly warm the mid layer, making near instant comfort.  Then I get my base layer over a branch to dry while I glass (the synthetic piece dries that fast). 


As my activities slow in cold weather for glassing, still hunting through heavy timber, or sneaking along the edge of canyon, I will add either my shell of my insulation layer to retain the right amount of warmth; if it gets really cold, I will run them both.  In rain, snow, or abrasive country the shell goes over the top; in a no-precipitation environment and less abrasive I’ll run insulation over the shell. 



Lower Body 


The Lower Body needs consideration because adding and subtracting layers can be, frankly, a pain in the ass.  It’s true that we have access to more lower pieces with zippers that allow boots-on layer changes, but the zippers add up into more weight and volume.  I prefer to set my lower body system around what midday is going to be like, I prefer to start cool to cold on my legs as I know I am likely to go on a monster hike at some point and don’t want to create a swampy environment in the process. I am comfortable in mid-output activities in a light base layer up to around 60-degrees, if it’s going to be warmer than that I skip the base all together. Some instances may dictate the need to make the approach in base layer leggings only. Admittedly, it gives a pretty European trekking aesthetic to hunting camp, but works well for controlling moisture and friction on long hikes. But I try to avoid having warm legs before I start to hike, it’s a bad recipe. 


The mid layer component I take for my lower body is a mid-weight base layer. In cool weather, I go with the light layer; cold I run the mid-weight; really cold I then stack them and only then employ it as a mid-layer. 


Lower Body insulation components are specialized. For a foot-based hunter, a lower body insulation piece is geared to extreme cold while moving, cool to cold weather glassing, or in the saddle on a long horse based approach. When you need to break them out you will appreciate having them at your disposal, and your buddies will be envious. 


For shells, technical pants are essentially a soft shell; tightly woven and treated with a DWR. For most hunters one weight of pants is sufficient for every hunting opportunity they are likely to see over the course of the year. But, they are neither waterproof nor windproof, so I always take a hard shell.  My hard shell gets a lot of use, to cut wind on motorcycle based scouting or sitting on a glassing point, when the rain or snow dumps, or when the grass and underbrush are saturated.


The ultimate goal is to be able to is to experiment with your layering system in varying conditions and to always remember a few lighter layers provide more functionality than overly purpose-driven pieces.  Highly specialized pieces become important only when you are getting into very special conditions.  A basic layering system works very well to moderate temperature and control moisture over almost all Western hunts.  As you build your system, cover the bases then add the more specialized pieces to suit specific hunts.  You will be surprised at the wild array of conditions you will find to be comfortable and huntable.