The months of October and November are synonymous with the heart of hunting season. For much of the western U.S. these are the months when thousands of hunters head to the high country, chasing their wapiti dreams amongst dark pines and carpets of fallen aspen leaves and early snows. Cold mornings, warm afternoons and freezing nights are predictable conditions that allow for a reliable layering regimen that is heavy on the blaze orange. However, these two months also mark the peak of hunting season in the high plains or low country. Indeed, many hunters suppress their backcountry urges and head downslope to stalk treeless sage flats, hay meadows, wheat fields, creek bottoms, coulees and draws.
While the lack of grade and elevation may make it appear more forgiving than its higher counterpart, don’t let the low country fool you – it will kick your ass in a hurry. Not only is the terrain deceivingly difficult, but fall weather and temperature swings on the prairies and plains can be drastic and unpredictable. As with the high country, you can hunt longer and more efficiently in the low country with proper clothing and layering.
First off, there is a simple hunting clothing and layering mantra to live and hunt by:
Cotton Kills and Synthetics Stink.
Seriously, wet cotton clothing can lead to hypothermia which leads to big trouble. Not only will it try to kill you if it gets wet, but cotton clothing is bulky and uncomfortable.
Hike around and sweat in synthetic hunting gear for a day and you too will be able to locate yourself with your nose. That lightweight “alpine” sheep hunting gear may not weigh much, but it is guaranteed to reek after a day or two of hard use.
The bottom line for any hunter is to wear merino wool. It keeps you cool when you’re hot and keeps you warm when it’s cold – even when it gets wet. Better yet, you can hunt your ass off in it without smelling like an ass. Throw in a quality outer layer and you’re wearing the perfect clothing for every hunt.
My high plains layering system is based on a method for effectively covering and hunting as much open country as possible on foot. This entails periods of vigorous hiking and sweating followed by hours of sitting and glassing – otherwise known as the perfect storm of peeling and adding layers from sun up to sun down. In short, when hunting open prairie lands I’m exposed to a constantly changing spectrum of sun, heat, precipitation, wind and cold. As such, I’ve found that the best way to protect myself when there is little natural cover is to take cover in a quality layering system. Quality gear that is properly layered will allow you to adjust to fast-changing weather and safely hunt through nearly anything the high prairies will throw at you.
The first level of my prairie layering system is the base layer. An extremely lightweight base layer is ideal for the fall months due to the constant need to be mobile. Bachelor groups of mule deer bucks are scattered during the pre or early rut periods of October and early November and will typically bed in thick sage or hidden draws more than a mile from their nightly feeding and watering sources. Colorado’s pronghorn are rut-crazed in early October and will cover miles of country in minutes as they chase does. Locating and staying on the bucks of both species under these conditions requires putting on serious miles. A quality merino wool base layer system will work to keep you dry and cool when you are sweating your way through the miles and heat of a mid-afternoon stalk. My base layer hinges on three core merino articles: merino boxers, a short sleeve merino shirt and a long sleeved merino shirt with a hood.
Full-length insulated bottoms are simply too warm for 98% of my fall prairie hunting scenarios. Merino boxers are ideal in that they keep your crotch insulated but are breathable when on the move. Remember, a damp crotch is an unhappy crotch and unhappy crotches typically stink in more ways than one. Additionally, form-fitting boxers are less likely to ride and cause discomfort. One of my two all-time favorite and most-used pieces of hunting gear is my Llano short sleeve shirt from First Lite. This merino shirt is lightweight and comfortable, yet unbelievably rugged (thrash any merino shirt in the field and throw it in the washer 100 times or so and see if it will stand up like the Llano – it won’t). The Llano keeps my upper core at a comfortable temperature no matter how hot or cold it may be and keeps my stink factor to a minimum even after it has been worn for a week straight. My next base layer is a mid-weight long sleeve and hooded merino layer. My go to here is the Chama Hoody by First Lite. It’s perfect for cool mornings and evenings as well as for keeping your arms, neck and head shaded in the sun when there is zero cover. If I’m heading out into a particularly windy and cold day I will also throw my Springer Vest into the mix. It keeps my core warm and dovetails perfectly with my outerwear.
The next layer in my prairie get-up is the outerwear. For these hunts I prefer a lightweight pant that is both breathable and gnarly enough to numerous fence crossings, long-distance crawls and belly-stalks without blowing out. The Kanab Lightweight Pant soaks up hefty amounts of abuse and withstands wash after wash without compromising its color or durability. It also happens to be the only non-itch merino pant that I’ve ever worn. My other all-time favorite piece of hunting gear is my Uncompahgre Puffy jacket by First Lite. This jacket is my guardian angel. It is constantly at my side and protects me from any of the nasty temps, winds and weather the prairie can throw my way. When I’m not wearing it, this jacket is in my pack and ready to go no matter where I’m hunting. The Uncompahgre makes glassing in awful weather a pleasurable experience and rounds out my outerwear layer on every hunt.
My final layer of sorts is for extremities. Specifically, I like to take care of my hands, feet and head. I use a two sock system with a compression sock as a core layer followed by a second padded merino sock as a liner. I started using compression socks two years ago and firmly believe that they keep me going longer and mitigate soreness during and after days where I crank out serious mileage. I always recommend hunting in a lucky hat. Not only will your lucky hat keep your head covered and the sun out of your eyes, but its magical powers help put more meat in the freezer. I also recommend hunting in a lucky hat that has a good brim to it, as you will need all of the protection from the sun you can get – no matter where you are. The sun on the high plains is intense and will burn you. Gloves are also a must when chasing low country deer and pronghorn. If the cold mornings and storms don’t freeze your hands, the sun will bake them if they are not covered. Bring a pair of leather gloves when hunting sparse country. Odds are that you will be crawling on your hands and knees through sand, rocks, cactus or cut farmlands – all of which will shred unprotected human hands. I carry a pair of lightweight merinos and a pair of leather gloves when hunting deer and antelope.
The bottom line is that while layering for low country conditions may seem unnecessary, failure to do so can jeopardize your safety as well as that hard-earned opportunity at a mature pronghorn or deer.
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