If you’re on the sunny side of 40, you missed out on some of the more interesting things we used to do to keep warm–things that, in hindsight, were marginally effective at best, but were really mostly wrong. During the winter, piles of black rubber overboots with their cam-over clasps and ubiquitous bread bag liners used to clutter the doorways of our friends’ houses when we were boys. As young men, that combination didn’t keep our feet any warmer in the deer stand because the plastic bags made feet sweat and kept them soggy, and the cold crept in and stayed there no matter how hard you wriggled your toes. Insoles cut from Styrofoam meat trays did little to improve things.
White cotton “long johns” were the thing. Their “waffle cone” design promised to keep you as warm as Grandma’s quilt and, if wearing one pair of long johns was good for keeping you warm, surely two was better. If one of my friends or I were really lucky, our local Gossom’s Hardware store had “heavy weight” drawers in stock that we snatched up before one of the local farmers beat us to the last one on the shelf. Thinking it would keep us warmer, we’d put on every pair we owned before leaving the house, trekking through the neighborhood, hopping Mr. Bullard’s fence and stealing into the woods. We’d bravely splash right through Catharpin Creek on the way to our stands indifferent to the shallow frigid water because we were wearing bread bags, then shiver the morning away, wet, cold and miserable, hoping a buck wouldn’t hear our teeth chattering before coming into range.
It may have been only a rumor, but at one time during my hunting youth I learned that some professional football players were wearing ladies’ pantyhose under their gear to help stay warm when games were held in cold, open stadiums in northern states. Redskins’ superstar kicker Mark Moseley went to our church, but I never had the courage to ask him if he wore pantyhose, and besides, I don’t think any of my hunting buddies ever wore them in the duck blind. Even if any did, I don’t think they’d have told that one. As for me, I’m certain my quick-to-scold mother would not have approved, so I didn’t even try.
We know now that bread bags and cotton drawers were all wrong, but as silly as the pantyhose sounds, it may have actually been a step in the right direction when it comes to staying warm while hunting. The real key to staying warm is staying dry and it’s my understanding that pantyhose wicks the sweat off of our bodies and into our clothes helping at least to keep the surface of our skin a little drier.
When the concept of wicking started to catch on, polypropylene and similar synthetic materials came on the market. They actually worked well—for a hunt or two—but quickly developed a permeating effluvium so resolute that even the late Billy Mays couldn’t hawk an “As Seen On TV” product claiming enough strength to defeat the smell known in many hunting camps simply as “funk.” The “essence of a man,” as my wife calls it, comes from sweat moisture plus bacteria present on your skin building up in the material, and I never found a detergent product that could remove it well enough to stop the stink.
Natural materials such as silk and wool have always worked well to keep you dry and warm without the funk, but their cost and special care made them something my high school buddies and I aspired to wear rather than actually use.
Reminiscing all that silliness from the past came up last fall while some friends and I were telling great lies around a campfire after an awesome day of hunting ducks. We were shooting over sodden rice fields in Arkansas and my previous experience hunting there was that waterfowling weather in “The Natural State” is a wildcard. It could be hot, it could be cold, and it could change significantly from day to day and even in the course of a day. Because of that, and the need to pack lightly on this hunt, I’d planned on using layering as a way to stay comfy no matter where the mercury settled, if it did at all.
The two most important layers when layering are the base and outer layer. The base’s job is to wick sweat away from your skin so you stay dry and, like we learned with our long johns, fabrics such as cotton that hold moisture just won’t do. Wool works great, but I find it scratchy, so for folks like me, modern synthetics with antibacterial fabric are the way to go. The outer layer should be waterproof so rain or snow don’t get you wet from the outside, and the fabric needs to breathe so the water vapor from your sweat can make its way out. Waterproof should also mean windproof to cut the wind from getting inside your clothing and drawing off your body heat. In between those layers, you simply wear more or less clothing depending on the conditions, and take them on or off throughout the day as your activity level and the ambient temperature require.
For Arkansas, I packed Under Armour 3.0 for my base layer, which is the mid-weight base layer Under Armour makes. It wasn’t that I expected it to be that cold in the South, but 3.0 wicks like a champ and I reasoned that the heavier base layer combined with just my outer layer would be fine if days were warmish. I had with me an extra shirt and a sweater if it was chilly. That layering combination with the addition of a polar fleece is essentially the same combination I took on a recent Alberta spring bear hunt where it was cold enough that some places still had as much as three feet of snow on the ground, and the outfitter said he would provide sleeping bags and for us to use the freed-up space in our luggage for warm clothes. Layering really is that versatile.
Light skims of ice yielded easily with crisp crackles over the whine of the electric engine as the treads of the side-by-side four-wheeler turned their way along the dyke to the sunken box blind. As we settled into the damp box, breath visible from the ever-present black lab’s always open mouth panting in my face validated that while it wasn’t exactly frigid, it was nonetheless a cold start to the day. As the cloudless pre-dawn grey gave way to a bluebird day, we could hear distant chatter as an abundance of excited ducks socialized, anxious to stretch their wings to the quickly rising sun.
“There’s a teal,” my guide hissed as hunting partner Ken Perrotte rose to take a poke at the feathered missile rocketing past the blind. At Ken’s shot, the marsh exploded with an impressive roar as quacking, feathered shrapnel took flight in all directions. Very quickly, a lone, high-flying widgeon fell to my shotgun, while swarms of other ducks pitched and flowed reminding me of massive starling flocks that may number in the thousands, but think and move as one fluid body.
As the day warmed, we spent the morning calling smaller groups of ducks back to our spread of blocks. Mallards, redheads, teal and pintail passed by and pitched in as our decoying and calling skills delivered, and our limit tallied up proportionally to our wingshooting ability. We had one of those once-in-a-lifetime hunts with ducks in numbers so great that no amount of money could have bought better. In fact, it was too good, and in all the excitement went by too quickly, but I was warm and dry, and I wasn’t wearing bread bags or pantyhose.– Scott Mayer