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5 Tips for Staying Warm on Winter Hunts

James Paine,
November 23, 2022

Anyone who has spent at least a winter here in our great state of Alaska knows full well the harsh feeling of icy wind on your cheeks, the numbing feeling creeping up from your fingertips or the deep shivers that seem to come from the very bone. Winters in the arctic can seem like a long and arduous time to endure, and while some may choose to hibernate in the safety of a warm home until spring returns, the true outdoorsman heads out into those bitter temperatures in pursuit of the next adventure. But when temperatures drop well below 0 Celsius, staying warm can be a challenge, and one you best be sure you are prepared to face. Here are a few tips to help you stay comfortable and safe.

While many people see hunting season as being restricted to a spring and fall venture, there are many opportunities to get outside and chase game all over the state through the winter months. The first that may come to many minds and my personal favorite for this time of year is predator hunting. While many people may prefer to set out a trapline for the smaller furbearing critters, given the correct kind of licensing and seasons you can hunt for them with rifle and predator calls. Though getting to some of the areas for good predator hunting can be hard work, this style of hunting typically involves long sits in the snow where staying warm without heat building movement can be especially challenging. There are also many opportunities at winter ungulate hunts for those who didn’t fare so well in the fall. Additional caribou and moose hunts are available at varying times all throughout the winter in units all over Alaska. Many of these involve long travel in harsh conditions when staying warm is not only important to achieving success in the field, but vital to your survival.

Dress in Layers

          My first introduction to Alaska’s cold climate was in 2009 when Uncle Sam sent me to live at my new home at Fort Wainwright bordering the city of Fairbanks. I arrived in November and was quickly pushed through the cold weather and winter survival training and issued a standard 7 layer Gen III ECWCS (Extended Climate Warfighter Clothing System) and to this day I still base my system on that model. The system consists of a thin, synthetic base layer for wicking moisture away from the skin underneath a thicker “waffle” insulating base layer. This is followed up by a warm fleece top, windproof top, insulated soft shell top and bottom, extreme cold weather top and bottom, and finally a puffy down parka and pants set. Now while in the modern day of outdoors gear and clothing it is easy to combine many of these pieces into one, it is important to always keep your system to at least 5 separate layers. This allow you to maximize insulation value as well as flexibility to ever changing conditions.

Whether you’re out looking for moose in the late season, chasing caribou on the winter hunts or looking for predators in the late hours of the day, you want to be prepared for the shift in temperatures both outside your clothing system and inside of it. Building up sweat underneath your insulating layers is nearly as dangerous as not having the layers at all, and for this reason your layers should be easy to swap out and store when not needed. Sweating is your body’s natural cooling system, and cooling is the opposite of what you want to achieve with your cold weather system. You don’t want to be wearing your heavy winter coat as you hike to the top of a glassing knob or any other times of high physical excursion because you will likely soak your base layers and this will create problems when you finally sit still to glass or run a predator set. Instead, you can dress down to just your base layers and a windproof shell while storing the other layers in your pack to reapply when you stop moving. It may take a few extra moments of effort, but it could make all the difference for both success and survival.

Wear Proper Footwear

Equally important to your winter gear system is proper footwear for the season. While this may seem straight forward, it can be harder to get it right than it seems and letting your feet freeze can have lifelong consequences. Choosing the proper footwear involves the right socks as well as the right boots. The choice of boot will depend on the time of year and what conditions you will be facing. While some Alaskans love throwing on their bunny boots the second the snow falls, this can cause the same problems as not layering properly: sweaty feet = cold feet. Instead, use insulated Muck style boots for the early season where temperatures are typically above zero and save the heavier insulation boots for the sub-zero temperatures. Combine this with the proper choice of insulated sock and you can easily layer your footwear similar to your outerwear and adjust accordingly with shifting conditions. Remember to never wear cotton socks when out in extreme cold scenarios. Cotton not only has no insulation value to offer but also retains moisture and holds it against the skin, causing pruning and cooling of the foot. Instead use a pair of thin, synthetic dress socks as your base layer as this will wick any moisture away from your feet. This allows you to rely solely on the insulation of the boot if temperatures or physical activity rise, while still being able to layer wool or any insulated sock directly over these to retain the barrier between it and your skin.

Author James Paine in Arctic Sport Muck boots on a caribou hunt

Protect Your Extremities

An area that many people seem to neglect when it comes to protection from the elements is their outer extremities, and for the sake of space on this article I’m going to include the head as a part of that. It is easy to throw your hands in your pockets or flip up your hood when it gets windy. This may work fine if all you were trying to do was survive the cold weather, but we are hunters, and these parts of our bodies are vital to success in the pursuit of game. It is very hard to concentrate on glassing a hillside when you’re distracted by your ears feeling like they’re on fire, or the tip of your nose going numb; and when you finally reach that moment of truth and line up your shot, you want to make sure you have full dexterity of your trigger finger. My recommendation is once again, layering. The set up I like for my head involves just a simple fleece cap that covers my ears, followed by a full face balaclava for breaking the wind and protecting my nose and cheeks from risk of frostbite. I have run this set up for years and never had a problem with frozen ears, but for situations where you’ll be sitting for long periods of time without building body heat, something heavier like a trapper’s hat may be more appropriate. For your hands use a thin pair of synthetic “contact” gloves as your base, followed by a heavy insulated winter glove, and lastly a pair of extreme cold weather fingerless mittens. This allows you to keep your hands protected in your mittens while on the move, keep your fingers warm in thick gloves while glassing and maneuvering, and have high dexterity when needed while maintaining a barrier between your skin and the metal components of your weapon.

Author James Paine in open mountain country, temperature -20F with high winds

Don't Forget to Hydrate

Keeping your body covered in the proper winter gear for the season is important, but you also can’t neglect keeping the inside of your body prepared for the arctic challenge as well. The cold has a way of messing with your bodies thirst response for a couple of reasons: first is the typical lack of sweat and loss of fluids that normally triggers thirst during physical excursion, and second is the constricting of the blood vessels to keep blood closer to the core. It is easy to get yourself into a dangerous situation with dehydration if you do not consciously stay on top of your water intake, and a dehydrated body will not function properly. These disfunctions include lack of focus, early muscle fatigue and lack of body temperature regulation. Additionally, foods that are high in carbohydrates help the body to build heat, while proteins and fats which digest slowly help to maintain regulated body temperature. So, be sure to keep some good snacks close at hand and keep your body producing as much heat as possible.

The Northern Hunter's Dalton Gray and Moriah Humphries and friends glassing on a winter caribou hunt

Alternative Heat Sources

I really struggled with whether to include this paragraph on this article because while it is a viable and potentially lifesaving option, robbing outside heat sources is not something I would ever recommend a person rely on for survival but rather to use as a backup, or better yet a convenience tool in your winter hunting arsenal. But what do I mean by this? Outside heat sources can provide a much-needed boost to your body temperature when out in the field, whether this is a battery heated article of clothing, heated handlebars on your sled, hand/foot warmers, or a mini buddy heater, etc. All of these options can be extremely beneficial to adding comfort and longevity to your hunt if used correctly, but carry with them the danger of complacency. Beware of heated clothing that sacrifices insulation value because of the heated factor, because with a battery life of 2.5 - 8 hours you’re likely to run them dead before returning to the truck. Hand and foot warmers are a fantastic tool for those long sits, but your gloves and boots need to be warm enough to keep your hands and feet comfortable and safe without relying on extra heating implements.

          As Alaskans, we spend almost half our lives in harsh winter conditions. Knowing the proper way to deal with this climate is the difference between an active outdoors lifestyle all year-round and seasonal hibernation. However, these cold weather tips apply to all hunters in all northern climates. There will always be a level of discomfort when hunting in these types of conditions, but if you follow these steps and face the challenge with the proper gear and preparation, winter hunting can be a very exciting and beneficial season.

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