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Cold Weather Bow Hunting
Anyone can bow hunt in warm weather, but when the mercury drops, the snow and cold impose immense challenges for even the most committed hunting archers
As the calendar flips from October to November, hardcore deer hunters pray for snow and cold. When the temperature drops and snow covers the ground, find the food and you will find the deer. Seems simple, right?
Then there’s the added bonus of the rut. While warm weather suppresses visible daytime rut activity, at the other end of the spectrum, cold weather turns it on.
For bow hunters willing to brave the elements, overcoming a whole new set of limitations becomes a top priority. From added layers, to burning more calories, to maintaining flexibility on the stand, braving the extreme cold with a bow in hand is what separates the truly committed from the fair weather archers.
I’ve seen bow hunters throw in the towel after only a day or two on stand, all because Mother Nature dropped the mercury bomb. I can say with absolute confidence that 90 per cent of all archers trade in their bow for a rifle by the time November arrives. Sub-zero temperatures can make the outdoors a miserable place to be. Add wind and humidity to the equation, and things can get real nasty. A heated blind may or may not be an option, but for committed archers willing to endure the elements, planning is in order. Gear up properly and the cold can be manageable. Venture out unprepared and you may as well write off your hunt. For those with the right gear, plenty of perseverance and, most importantly, an insatiable desire to conquer the elements and tag a buck, bow hunting out in the cold can not only produce trophy-class deer, but also an immense sense of accomplishment.
Spending much of November and December hunting in Alberta and Saskatchewan, I’ve learned what works and what doesn’t. The coldest days I’ve bow hunted involved nearly two feet of snow and temperatures hovering around -34 degrees Celsius. Trust me when I say that’s beyond cold for sitting in a tree stand! The only way I was able to endure this insane discomfort was by layering with the proper clothing, understanding my limitations and pushing through.
With a reasonable amount of clothing, most hunters are able to endure the cold by applying mind over matter. But just surviving the cold isn’t what it’s all about. We want to be comfortable and we want to enjoy the hunt. The first step to conquering the cold is to dress properly. Beginning with the layer closest to the skin, wear something that retains heat but most importantly wicks moisture away from the skin. Polypropylene is still considered a standard by many.
As most of us can attest, overheating on the way to our stand or as we still-hunt our way through the woods can be a big problem, regardless of how cold it is. The right base layer will help wick perspiration, but it can’t perform miracles. Don’t allow your body to generate too much heat too quickly. If you have a long way to walk to your stand or blind, or you are working hard to hike through deep snow or up steep hills, it may be best to minimize your clothing and carry a pack containing proper garb to put on when you arrive at your destination.
As a second or insulating layer, wear either fibre pile or Polartec fleece.
For an outer layer, I wear either fleece or wool garments when I’m bow hunting. Any time Gore-tex is available, it can be a real lifesaver for blocking the bitter cold wind.
Gloves, mittens or a muff are also critical in cold weather. I favour wool mitts almost exclusively, particularly the kind with the flip-open fingertips. With the majority of your body heat lost through your head, a wool hat and, if necessary, a balaclava, are a must – when you can keep your head and face warm, you will buy yourself hours on stand.
Footwear, too, is critical. In my experience, nothing beats the Cabela’s Trans-Alaska II boot. Designed with 500-gram Thinsulate Ultra, this is my personal choice for extreme cold conditions. I’ve tried a lot of different boots over the years and this is the one that works wonders for me in extreme cold conditions. Wearing a liner sock and wool keeps my feet warm even on the coldest days.
Thermal heat pads, while cumbersome to pack and place properly, can also add some comfort to a bow hunter’s time on the stand. Available through most commercial outdoor outfitters, these battery-powered or chemical-reacting hand and foot warmers, placed strategically in boots, gloves and throughout one’s clothing, can literally warm up your world. My newest acquisition is Thermacell’s rechargeable heated boot insoles. With heat loss being the stand hunter’s number one enemy, these accessories can help retain body heat and help you stay comfortable and alert for longer periods of time.
Going on 27 archery seasons now, I’ve learned that most of us have a tolerance for cold. Unfortunately, when our core temperature drops and involuntary shaking occurs, that’s when errors in judgment and shot placement prevail. Learning to identify limits and strategies to cope with the cold can mean the difference between success and a dismally uncomfortable hunt.
Whether you are a stand hunter or you like to bow hunt on the move, the key to staying warm is maintaining blood flow. With many sub-zero days on the stand to my credit, I can say from first-hand experience that staying limber is the biggest challenge I face. The problem with stand hunting is dormancy. It’s an ongoing problem, because to stay warm a body must move. Sitting or standing motionless for hours on end inevitably results in the body’s core temperature lowering. When your core temperature falls below a certain point, involuntary shivering is inevitable. And, as we all know, once the shivering begins, it’s all over. Drawing and holding at full draw when you’re shaking is next to impossible. No longer are we as focused, let alone able to comfortably draw our bow, aim and shoot accurately.
To stay limber and sharp on the stand, every half hour or so do a series of subtle, but beneficial, exercises to keep your fingers and toes flexible. Contrary to popular opinion, the worst thing you can do is stay motionless for hours on end. By standing up, slowly bending and flexing all joints and tensing then releasing muscles, you can generate and retain warmth. Remember, by staying warm and comfortable, other senses are heightened and focus can be directed toward scanning for deer. Second, but equally as important, is to ingest calories. Energy bars, or even chocolate bars, can help fuel your body and keep your internal furnace going.
Regardless of how well you’re geared up, there is no denying that cold weather hunting requires mind over matter and sheer determination. Few would argue that it’s only the committed that endure such conditions all for a single shot, maybe even the shot of a lifetime. Northern whitetail hunters know this scenario all too well.
Bow hunters cope with the extreme cold as a means to an end. If the target species is whitetails, we all know that the pre- and peak rut offers up the finest opportunity for a bow hunter to take a trophy buck. In order to capitalize on this window of opportunity, we usually don’t have any choice but to bow hunt in the cold.
The bottom line is, hi-tech clothing has its limitations, and that means you need to employ other strategies to help you stay focused. One strategy that works well for me, especially when I’m sitting dormant, is working on two-hour windows and rewarding myself for meeting each short-term goal. For instance, for sitting from 7 a.m. to 9 a.m., I’ll reward myself with a high-energy snack like a candy bar. Extreme cold causes your body to burn more calories, so eating regularly can help deflect the discomfort. Likewise, lunch is a reward for making it until noon, and so on. A hot thermos with coffee or hot chocolate can make all the difference in the world when it comes to toughing it out.
No matter how you look at it, arrowing an animal in the extreme cold is a true accomplishment. If you can tag the animal you’re after by enduring the elements, you’ve accomplished something that very few other bow hunters the world over have done. Only by preparing properly, persevering and putting in your time will you get the job done.
Cold weather apparel attributes
What one bow hunter considers ideal, another might not. In a similar manner, preference often depends on whether you are moving or sitting still. For our purposes, the following suggests attributes most relevant for stand hunting, or sitting dormant, for extended periods in sub-zero temperatures. When looking for extreme cold weather gear, consider the following:
Boots: Insulation is the name of the game with boots. In the extreme cold, lightweight field boots simply won’t provide sufficient warmth for extended periods of time. A cold-weather rating of at least -25 degrees Celcius is preferred and warmer if possible. The sole must be designed in layers and provide sufficient insulation to retain keep the cold out and the heat in. The best cold weather boots use either wool, felt, or a combination of both to provide insulation value in the liner. A rubber or equivalent sole and waterproof upper is a necessity.
Outerwear: For extreme cold weather, avoid most of the high tech fabrics from which a lot of the newer, more fashionable apparel items are made. Multi-layered fleece and/or tight knit woven wool garments are most ideal for sub-zero temperatures, largely because they are both warm and quiet.
Thermal/base layer: The layer closest to your skin should provide some warmth and odor suppression but the most important attribute with any base layer is the ability to wick moisture away from the skin and dry quickly. Without this ability, it is impossible to stay warm.
Insulating layer: Whether you choose to wear one or multiple insulating layers, the priorities for bow hunters include heat retention and the ability to block wind. Heavy fleece, wool, or a combination of these should be a priority.
Head and hand coverings: In the extreme cold, a great deal of heat is lost from head and hands. Hats and gloves should be made of wool and or fleece. A full face covering, such as a balaclava, is most ideal for maximizing heat retention in the head, face and neck.
Cold weather products worth considering
Boots: Extreme Cold Vapour Barrier Boots (Type II), used by the United States Armed Forces, are designed for use in extreme cold weather from −53.8 degrees Celsius. Irish Setter makes four varieties of extreme cold weather hunting boots, all waterproof and equipped with Thinsulate, and Rocky Boots has also developed several insulated boots, such as the BearClaw 3D Insulated GORE-TEX hunting boot and the BlizzardStalker PRO waterproof and insulated boot.
Clothing: Alberta-based Ravenwear makes fleece and pile outerwear, designed specifically for hunting the extreme cold weather. Likewise, Silent Predator designed tight knit, woven wool outerwear suitable for the extreme cold. Sitka and Browning also have extensive lines of outerwear, base layers and insulating layers of hunting clothes. Underarmour and Helly Hanson also make some of the best base layers. If you’re looking for insulating layers, Helly Hanson, particularly their work wear line, continues to provide excellent insulator value and Avery makes a line of thermal underwear for hunters.
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