Ryan Lisson grew up in a hunting family, but he has taken on the task of ushering new hunters to share our satisfaction of hunting our own food, and the enjoyment of the great outdoors. When Ryan offered to share his knowledge of cold weather hunting gear and apparel, a topic in which I lack expertise with hunting mostly in Florida, I jumped at it. This information will help new hunters get started, and veteran hunters reassess their current setup. I’ve added some comments with links in italics, to help you find deals on the suggested hunting gear. –Mike
Hunting Gear You (Actually) Need for Cold Weather
By Ryan Lisson
Depending on the setting and who you’re with, hunting gear can be a really controversial subject. Opposite ends of the spectrum like to bicker about what gear is truly necessary.
- The traditional hunting purist will tell you that you only need a weapon, a knife, and a few pieces of wool clothing. Anything more than that would be unnecessary to carry around with you.
- The gear fanatic will say you need one of everything at the sporting goods store (and two or three of some things). It’s best to be prepared for any potential outcome, and modern hunting gear is more efficient.
Hearing both of these arguments can be confusing when you are trying to decide what you need. It’s especially confusing if you’re a new hunter. While everyone has their own opinion, and it’s a really subjective topic, there are some basic things I believe everyone should take with them on a cold weather hunting trip.
As you might guess, my position falls somewhere between the two camps above.
Essential Hunting Gear
For a long time, I subscribed to the second gear category. I routinely brought everything I could find at the store with me on each hunt. I used most of it, but maybe only once or twice per season. Eventually I got sick of carrying a Mary Poppins type bag with me, “just in case.” I kept paring it down, until I had only what I believe is essential.
Remember, you can always start with basic hunting gear, and work your way up to more expensive items over time. If you are the gear fanatic, there are some great deals on hunting gear if you look in the right places!
Here are the items you definitely need to include in your hunting pack, when you leave for the woods. Let’s assume it’s a typical cold-weather, winter hunt for the purposes of this list.
If your feet are cold, your whole body will be cold, and a cold or distracted hunter doesn’t last long. Don’t get cheap about boots if you want to make a hunting trip count. Try to get a pair with lots of insulation (i.e., 800 to 1,000 grams insulation at least) and one size up from your normal street shoes. This will allow you to wear a couple pairs of wool socks and still have room to wiggle your toes. If your feet are cramped, the blood flow will be constricted and they will feel cold faster. Make sure to break these in before going hunting too! Many blisters have been born, and hunts ruined, from not doing so beforehand.
- Cabela’s has a great selection of cold-weather boots, and is known for their private labeled expedition gear. They also frequently have discount codes for footwear.
- Rocky Boots makes quality hunting boots with up to 2000-grams of insulation.
- Amazon has great prices on boots, and is full of helpful reviews. Make sure to check out the Muck Arctic Pro.
Hunting clothing will really vary a lot depending on where you hunt and what season it is. Having the right hunting clothes and boots for your conditions will keep you comfortable longer, which increases your chance of success. As always with outdoor clothing, you should avoid cotton at all costs. It’s basically worthless for keeping you comfortable outside because it doesn’t wick the sweat away from your skin and doesn’t hold heat if it gets wet. Wool is the tried and true material, but modern polyester or similar performance materials work great too.
With a few exceptions, cheap hunting clothes usually indicate poor quality. That’s where special sales and deals really make a difference. Here is the three-part clothing system you need to use.
Part 1: Base Layers
The first layer next to your skin is the base layer. For this one, especially, it’s critical to have moisture-wicking material. Sweaty clothes stuck against your skin will chill you in the winter as your body cools down. A good base layer of merino wool or synthetic polyester material should be a priority for any outdoor activity. This includes underwear, a tight-fitting bottom and top, and socks.
- Field Supply always has some of the best deals on hunting base layers.
- One great thing about base layers is that they go on first, so they don’t have to be camo. Sierra Trading Post, Backcountry, and Moosejaw have solid color discounted base layers.
- Under Armour is well-known for their signature base layers. The UA Outlet has some great options for hunting.
Part 2: Insulation
The clothing layers you wear over the base layer will help actually insulate your body from the cold. Sweatshirts, jackets, and vests made of polyester, fleece, or wool are great. It’s important to wear layers so that you can adjust your clothing as the conditions dictate. If you wear one bulky insulating layer, you can’t adjust as you get warm. For example, you’ll often start to sweat as you walk into your tree stand, even if it’s freezing out. Stripping layers off to keep your body cooler will prevent any issues later.
- It’s nice to have options when it comes to layering, so using low-cost choices won’t eat up your hunting budget.
- Check Amazon, eBay, and Field Supply for bulking layers.
- Try searching fleece, merino wool, or even alpaca!
Part 3: Outer Shell
The outer layer of your hunting clothing should be water- and wind-resistant, which will help seal in your body warmth and keep the elements out. Aim for slightly larger sizes instead of too small because the dead air space helps hold heat better than if your hunting clothing is tightly constricted. Also, the material should be very silent when rustling it together in the store. If not, it will probably alert every animal around when you move in the woods.
- This is one area where quality can really stand out. Kuiu makes premium hunting apparel designed for hardcore hunters.
- Sitka Gear is another premium brand. Black Ovis is a good place to find it, along with other top manufacturers, like First Lite.
- Camofire.com has rotating deals on hunting gear. It’s one of the best places to get huge discounts on high dollar items.
Other Clothing Accessories
Don’t forget other accessories like hats, gloves, scarves, or face masks. Face masks and scarves probably aren’t necessary unless it’s going to be very cold, but everyone has their own tolerance. A facemask can also be used just for camouflage purposes. It’s nice to have a thin pair of gloves that allow you to still operate your weapon, and a larger set of mittens or choppers to wear over the top in the meantime. Wool works the best for all of these items since it is warm and silent. Just find versions with a fleeced interior if you find wool too itchy.
- I love my cheap fleece facemask and it makes a huge difference on cold hunts.
- Inexpensive fleece or wool hats and gloves can be found at Wal-Mart and Field Supply.
- You can find affordable expedition quality accessories at Cabela’s , especially in the Bargain Cave.
You’ll have to make a choice when starting out if you’d rather hunt with a bow or a firearm. There are advantages and drawbacks to both. Archery gear is silent and can allow you to hunt closer to civilization where there is often an abundance of deer. On the other hand, rifles or shotguns are easier to practice and get proficient with.
Hunting with a Firearm
Depending on your state’s hunting regulations, you’ll need to decide if you should get a shotgun or rifle.
If you choose the shotgun route, you can’t beat either the 12 or 20 gauges. The 12 gauge is more powerful than the 20 gauge, and the 20 gauge is a little better for smaller-statured people. But they are both very adaptable firearms that can be used on small game animals or deer alike (if you’re using the right shells).
If you use a rifle, some solid calibers include the .22, .243, .270, or .30-06 (listed in increasing power). The .22 is mostly used for small game animals (squirrels, rabbits, etc.). The remaining calibers can all be used on a variety of wild game, from varmint animals to elk.
You’ll obviously also need ammunition, which will depend on what species you’re hunting. You can find shells or cartridges specific to just about any animal. Finally, you should buy a case to transport and protect your firearm, and a caliber- or gauge-specific cleaning kit.
- You need to handle a gun before you make a purchase. Once you know what you want, auction sites like Gun Broker or Guns America are great places to compare pricing and get a bargain.
- There are lots of places to shop for ammo. Gander Mountain, Natchez, Sportsman’s Guide, Brownell’s, Cabela’s, and Academy are some popular choices.
- If you purchase a rifle, you might want to add a scope. Euro Optic, Optics Planet, and Amazon have some of the best prices on hunting scopes.
Hunting with a Bow
While they do take more effort to master, modern compound bows are absolutely deadly in a practiced hand. Brand new bows from reputable companies can be pretty pricey, depending on the model you choose. Buying a lightly-used version will probably be more cost effective for a new hunter.
Before you buy one, you should get fitted at a sporting goods store or archery shop for the best bow performance. They can measure the ideal draw length and axle-to-axle distance for your stature. Shooting a bow that is too big or small for you will produce sloppy form no matter how hard you practice.
You will also need a release, which is a device that attaches to your wrist to release the string when you shoot. It would be hard to hunt without a few arrows to shoot (stored in a durable quiver) and a case to transport it all. Good broadheads are essential, and the style will depend on what animal you hunt.
- As Ryan stated, you need to get fitted at a local shop. If you don’t have a good local Mom & Pop, you may be able to save money buying online and picking up at your local Cabela’s, Gander Mountain, or Bass Pro.
- Deals on archery accessories are scattered everywhere. Amazon, eBay, and Red’s Gear are consistently near the top.
Hunting Pack and Miscellaneous Gear
To be a very efficient hunter, you’ll need a hunting pack to carry your hunting gear with you. It doesn’t have to be too fancy, but it should be fairly silent in the cold weather and be a drab color.
Hunting Knife and Other Necessary Gear
You’ll definitely need a fixed-blade or folding hunting knife with you. Shorter blades (about 3 to 4 inches) tend to work best for field dressing or skinning your animal. The bigger the knife, the more complicated they can be to use.
You don’t want to get caught in the dark, whether you’re entering or leaving the woods. A hands-free headlamp works so much better than having to carry a flashlight. Just make sure to have fresh batteries each season. A 20 to 30 foot length of rope or cord is useful for dragging a deer out of the woods or safely pulling an unloaded firearm up into your tree stand. Also, make sure to pack a few pairs of latex gloves in case you get to field dress an animal. You can likely avoid any potential infections from diseases or parasites, so use them!
Hunting Safety and First Aid
Finally, grab a few other hunting equipment essentials that never leave your hunting pack. These might include a compass and map for your area, small first aid kit, matches and tinder, and toilet paper. All of these should be stored in secure plastic zipper bags so they don’t get wet. You may not need them on a given hunt, but when you do, you’ll be thrilled to have them with (and they take up very little room).
- To get started, a cheap pack from Wal-Mart or Field Supply will work fine. When you are ready to step up, you should consider a hunting pack brand with a lifetime warranty. Sierra Trading Post, Camofire, or Optics Planet carry premium brands at discounted prices.
- I used an Outdoor Edge Razor Lite EDC as my skinning and cleaning knife this year and it was a huge success. Best of all, a razor-sharp edge is just a click away.
Tree Stands and Gear
If you plan on deer hunting much, you should also think about investing in a tree stand or ground blind system. While they’re not strictly necessary to be a successful deer hunter, they will definitely help you see more deer and stay undetected.
If you do get a tree stand, you absolutely need a hunting safety harness. They are designed to keep you safe if your tree stand fails or you fall out of it. This is a piece of hunting equipment that could truly save your life in the right situation, so invest in a quality brand. Your life is worth it.
- Sportsman’s Guide has tons of low price options to get you into a treestand. Until you know the style of hunting you prefer, it might be a good idea to get a cheap hunting stand, and upgrade when you are ready for a big commitment.
- Amazon, eBay, and Jet are very competitive for high ticket items, like hunting blinds and treestands.
- My first treestand came from a dude on Craigslist. Garage sales are another place you can find a super deal.
Hunting Gear You Might Not Need
As far as all the other hunting gear you find at the store (e.g., animal calls, scents, scent elimination, decoys, binoculars, range finders, etc.), it’s really your call. They can definitely make a difference to your hunt by attracting more animals or making you more efficient.
But some hunters are very successful despite not using any of them. Sometimes absolute stealth and simplicity is a better option.
Of all the items I’ve tried, some worked out better than I could have hoped and others were far more gimmick than useful.
But were any of them absolutely necessary? Nope.
Start with the hunting gear mentioned above as your first step. If you want to branch out, experiment with some of the other stuff you’ll find at the store and see what works best for you.
Ryan Lisson is an outdoors author, biologist, and the founder of Zero to Hunt. His passion is to help new adult hunters learn to hunt and succeed in getting their own wild game dinner. His hope is to teach specific hunting skills to get you from the very first step through your first few hunts.
Please visit Ryan’s blog and check out his other great articles for new hunters. Follow him on social media @rjlisson and join his e-mail list. Comment below and let Ryan know if this has been helpful or if you have any questions. -Mike