On a recent hunt in Illinois a group of Alabama hunters was sharing the lodge with me. After the first evening one of the hunters remarked, “After about 20 minutes in the stand I had to get down and go buy some electrically heated socks.” As the temperature was in the single digits and the wind was blowing about 15-20 mph., he was being exposed to below 0-degree wind chill in his tree stand and obviously needed more or better clothes.
Those who live in the more Northern states are accustomed to these temperatures as a normal part of Winter life and hunting. In fact, 0 degrees might even be thought warm compared to deep winter temperatures of -20 degrees or colder in the northern states of the U.S., Canada or Alaska. These very cold temps obviously require specialized clothing, but we Southern hunters do not often own severe-weather clothing and have only occasional use for it. From a point of view of practicality, most of us have to somehow make do with what we have when temperatures get around 0. This can occasionally happen even in the deep South. I once did a hunt on Georgia’s Cumberland Island when it was just a few degrees above 0 and portions of the marsh froze. On this hunt there were only six deer taken, and I took two of them with handguns simply because I had the gear to keep me warm. Some hunters never left camp.
One of the things that I learned well when I lived in Alaska was the military admonition to wear your clothing loose and in layers. In dry weather even light-weight cotton hunting clothes will work if you wear enough of them, keep them loose and have a hard-woven shell to break the wind. Cotton does O.K. so long as it is dry, but quickly fails to offer protection if it is wet from rain/wet snow or soaked with sweat. Wool or synthetic fleece is far superior.
Starting from skin out, put on your cotton underwear and on top of this invest in a fleece top and bottom and head-neck covering. Usually these are sold separately and purchase them one at the time if you must. They are now inexpensively priced from Cabelas’ and other mail-order outlets. This will run about $60 for the three-piece outfit. Over this you can put on a set of flannel pajama bottoms or lounge pants and a heavy cotton long sleeved T-shirt. Then put on your cotton camo pants and shirt. On top use what you have for pull-over wool or synthetic sweaters, then your insulated hunting suite, a top camo jacket with a hood, fleece cap, billed cap and finally your hunter orange vest and gloves.
One type of glove that is found in more northern states is a wool, or synthetic fiber, mitten-glove where the front of the mitten pulls back to free the fingers for finer work, such as pulling a trigger. These are excellent when worn with a thinner glove underneath. This provides two layers of protection for the fingers. Further warmth can be gained by pulling the fingers back and balling them up in a fist inside the glove or putting the hands in a pocket.
The above will take care of your body and head, but your feet are likely the first things to give you problems. I am lucky in that I purchased a pair of Sorrels while I lived in Alaska and still have them. These boots have rubber bottoms, felt boot liners and leather tops. These boots with a set of wool or synthetic fleece socks will keep my feet warm even when sitting in a tree stand for five hours or so. Here is one case where you will be well advised to get some specialized cold-weather foot gear. You can adapt somewhat by taking something to wrap your feet in while on stand. This sort of works if you are sitting on the ground, but is dangerous in a tree stand, least you get tangled in your foot-wrap and fall out while making a quick movement to shoot a deer. Your best alternative is to move from a tree stand to the ground, and cover your feet with dry leaves.
Tent and permanent blinds can make hunting much more comfortable and even admit the possibility of having heat in the blind. This will help, but is not always possible. I have hunted in duck blinds with four inches of frozen water in the bottom of the blind which made footing dicey, but the wooden sides of the blind kept the wind off so I stayed put and did not attempt to stand when I shot.
What you wear must also take into account the condition of any snow or rain. The Eskimos have a very large number of words to describe snow/ice conditions. English is not so rich in language, but there is a striking difference between flakes of well crystalized dry snow falling and snow-ball size masses of wet sloppy stuff that melts when it hits you. For conditions where there is dry snow, fur works very well for exterior garments, but for wet snow you also need an exterior rain suite. Fortunately the wet snow is present when the temperatures are around freezing down to about 20 degrees F. Colder that that and the snow is more nearly dry, and the colder it gets the dryer the snow becomes. As I did in Illinois, I can successfully hunt with a flintlock rifle in dry snow, but wet snow presents real problems for flintlocks and other muzzleloaders.
The takeaway here is even us Southern hunters need to accumulate a little bit of cold-weather gear if we are to comfortably hunt in moderately cold conditions. Fleece underwear and good felt-lined Sorrels or L.L. Bean’s Maine Guide Boots are worth putting on your Christmas list. If you can’t get out in the woods, you can’t kill deer.