How to Stay Warm
Staying warm on a winter hunt depends on what you wear and what you do.
My brother and I once got stuck on top of an Alaskan mountainside. We stashed most of our gear and fought our way up through the alders to find a black bear we spotted above the tree line in the Resurrection River valley. The snow was melting on the hillsides, but melting snow doesn’t mean the air was warm. It wasn’t. The cold air and the wind bit through us and we shivered uncontrollably through the night.
We were prepared, or so we thought. We had space blankets, those shiny foil-like sheets that are advertised to save lives in emergencies. Maybe they’re effective if you’re lying in the front yard where the grass is soft and the ground is level, but there were no flat spots up there and spruce needles covered the ground. Those needles shredded our space blankets and in minutes they were useless. It would be seven long hours until the sun rose. I was as close as I ever want to be to hypothermia and I actually wondered if I might freeze to death. Believe me when I say I don’t want to trust a space blanket again.
Spending the night up on that Alaskan mountainside was an adventure, but it was no fun at all. A space blanket did nothing to keep us warm. (Steve Sorensen photo)
I’ve battled the cold on other occasions. Most hunters have never hunted with the temperature at 26 degrees below zero. I have. I was far from Alaska this time — only 75 miles from my home in Pennsylvania and I was hunting deer. Despite the deep negative reading on the thermometer I stayed warm, and unlike the Alaska bear hunt, this hunt was successful.
You might think if I can do that I would never get cold, but you’d be wrong. On the opening day of the 2019 New York firearms season I wasn’t prepared. The temperature was a brisk 25 — on the positive side of zero — and I sat in a treestand with the wind (at only 13 mph) cutting through my clothing.
My clothing would have been enough insulation if I had also been wearing a light rain jacket to block the wind. I also could have put the hood up to keep the cold off the back of my neck. Instead, the old North wind blew through my clothing, robbed me of my precious heat, and made it a lousy day.
These experiences and others have taught me a lot about staying warm, and the key is not those hyped-up advertisements that tell us this jacket or that coat will keep us warm. Any old-timer will tell you the real secret is layered clothing, but you need the right layers.
What You Wear:
Clothing is only the starting point to keeping warm, and without the right clothing you can’t possibly beat the cold. Consider carefully what you will wear because conditions don’t always call for the same clothing.
Deer are built to survive winter, and do amazingly well in frigid temps. You aren’t built for winter, so the better you can adapt to it, the better your chances of bringing home the venison. (Steve Sorensen photo)
1. Undergarments. Underwear is your foundation, and a foundation is always critically important. Proper underwear will immediately trap warm air your body generates. Make sure your underwear is close-fitting (not too tight and not too loose) so when you move the fabric moves against your skin. It causes a little friction, and friction produces heat. Here, a warning is in order. Do not wear cotton. Cotton traps moisture and once it’s wet won’t dry out. I learned that the hard way. On another Alaskan mountainside my boxers were sweat-soaked, and the only way for me to stop shivering was to cut them off. Modern polyester fabrics transport moisture from your skin to outer layers where it can evaporate.
2. Layers. Your layers should be porous to trap air heated by your body. Air pockets in the fabric and between two, three or four layers of fabric slows the transfer and loss of heat. It’s better to layer loose, light garments than thick, heavy ones. Glove liners work on the same principle. One or two thin layers under a thicker outer glove will help keep your hands warm. Do not layer-up like the Pillsbury doughboy or your movement will be inhibited, you’ll get tired, and being tired will make you cold. I prefer button-front shirts and zip necks. Use them like thermostats — open the neck to let excess heat escape. Close to keep heat from escaping.
3. Windbreaker. Your layers might be enough if the wind isn’t blowing, especially when you’re moving. But if the air is cold even a mild wind may nullify your layering effort. So wear a rain jacket when it’s windy. They’re not just for rain; high quality, breathable raingear makes an effective windbreaker. Without a wind barrier the wind will blow your heat away.
If any of your Christmas gifts came wrapped in sheets of closed-cell foam, save it. Remove your boot insoles and use them as patterns to cut extra insoles for your boots. Your boot insoles are shaped and designed to be next to your feet, so put the homemade insoles under your boot insoles to add extra insulation between you and the cold, cruel ground. (Steve Sorensen photo)
What You Do:
While clothing is the starting point, it can’t do the whole job of keeping you warm. You also need to produce heat. Everyone knows walking generates heat, but what if you’re on a stand, and not walking? Here are some limited activities that can produce heat for you.
1. Standing — Many deer hunters hunt from treestands. They have a harder time staying warm than the guys on the ground. They’re up where the wind blows, they can’t use the protection of ground contours and terrain features, and moving to produce heat is difficult. Modern treestands encourage you to sit, but you produce less heat energy while sitting. And with your knees bent the path your blood follows to and from your lower legs and feet is not as direct. If you’re sitting in a treestand, stand up every fifteen to twenty minutes so your blood circulates through your legs unconstricted.
2. Increasing your heart rate — An uptick to your heartbeat will help keep you warm. Caffeine will help so if you’re a coffee drinker, carry a small thermos. Chocolate also has caffeine. Resistance exercises will also increase your heart rate. Do push-pull isometric exercises with your hands. Shrug your shoulders. Stretch your legs. Twist at the waist. Stand on your tip toes. Muscle movement from resistance exercises helps keep your blood flowing and creates friction.
3. Generating fiction — You can discover many ways to create friction with barely any movement. Rub your hands together. Put them between your knees and rub them. Wiggle your toes. Shake your boots to rub your feet against your socks. Rub your arms, your legs, your backside. Friction releases energy and more friction releases more energy.
4. Eating — Eating generates heat by putting your stomach to work. Nibbling on snacks when it’s very cold can help keep your stomach active. Nuts, jerky, raisins, granola bars — These complex carbohydrates give your stomach more work to do than refined sugars. Anything that keeps your mouth going will help — even chewing gum because the act of chewing also generates heat. Drinking hot liquids helps warm your body core. Water is important in cold weather because you can become dehydrated without realizing it. You’ll feel tired if you become dehydrated, and your body will work against itself by becoming less active in order to conserve water.
5. Breathing — Your nose is built to warm the air you breathe. Your mouth lets heat escape. When we’re overheated we often pant from our mouths in order to cool our bodies. Even if you don’t have a big yapper, that oral cavity is cavernous compared to nasal passages and you lose a lot of heat from it, so breathe through your nose, not your mouth. Keeping your mouth closed while chewing also forces you to breathe through your nose.
6. Conserving — Cover exposed skin. Button the top button of your shirt or jacket, or use a neck gaiter. Cover your ears, your nose, your lips. Exposed wrists will cool the blood heading for your fingers, so cover them. Your fingers will help keep each other warm if you curl them into fists. Insulated insoles are underused, and their cold-weather benefit is unadvertised. You don’t have to pay a lot. Just cut thin sheets of closed-cell foam (as thick as your boots allow) into foot-sized insoles. Felt works even better. That extra layer between the soles of your feet and the cold, merciless ground will conserve warmth. (You can also purchase high quality insulated insoles at a reasonable price.) Finally, those air-activated hand and foot warmers will help. Some of them have a sticky side so you can position them at strategic places. When it comes to staying in the deer woods all day, knowledge is warmth.
Your body is working hard to produce heat, so conserve it any way you can. Whether you’re stranded on an Alaskan mountaintop, or deep in an eastern forest, whether you’re hunting during an unusually cold November or a frigid January muzzleloader hunt, you’re not playing a home game. You’re on the deer’s turf, and you’ll enjoy it much more and be able to keep at it longer if you learn how to stay warm.
When “The Everyday Hunter” isn’t hunting, he’s thinking about hunting, talking about hunting, dreaming about hunting, writing about hunting, or wishing he were hunting. If you want to tell Steve exactly where your favorite hunting spot is, contact him through his website, www.EverydayHunter.com. He writes for top outdoor magazines, and won the 2015 and 2018 national “Pinnacle Award” for outdoor writing.
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