Sign In
Lesson 6
Lesson 6

​​​​​​​Food and Cold Weather Gear

By Steve Prentice

Hunter Outreach near Lake Granby, Photo by Jim BulgerHave you ever mounted your horse bareback so you could share his body heat because in the saddle you would freeze? Have you tied a bandana over your nose, barely below eye-level and pulled your hat down to nearly rest on the bandana edge, then ridden a zig-zag route into the face of a blizzard for the three miles back to camp? Have you unknowingly snapped off the ends of your ice-hardened, handlebar mustache, then combed icicles from your beard after you warmed up?

Similar experiences may qualify you for the Board of Directors of Cold Weather Campers, LLC, or qualify you as a consultant for The School of Late Winter Hunters at Elk Hunter’s University.

Nothing takes the place of experience in any hunt camp. And therein lies a paradox because years of experience have to lean heavily on good preparation and knowing what to take (and what not to take) with you into the wilderness. When you combine Elk hunting and cold, perhaps inclement weather, you put both experience and preparation to the test.

Cold weather hunting readily brings into play the old soldier’s motto, “Don’t forget nothing.’” And that simple reminder includes attitude, confidence, communications, heightened awareness, and good sense, as well as proper food and gear. It also helps to know in advance what you’re heading into. Terrain, altitude, distance, and weather conditions all need practiced consideration.

You can readily see that cold weather hunting puts an exclamation point on the term essentials! So let’s begin by emphasizing food and sustenance. Then we can work into cold weather gear.

Food and Cooking Gear​

You may want to consider dividing your food requirements into three categories. Primarily, you need your “three squares a day.” Second, you want appropriate “fuel” for the trail. Lastly, you want “emergency rations” for your survival kit. Elk hunting can be defined as a hard-work sport. Add cold—at times severe cold—and it translates to a need for added calories, hydration (plenty of liquid), and added energy. Food is fuel, and you need to eat well and add a little fuel every couple of hours while you hunt, hike at altitude, and carry extra weight such as rifles, full packs, and big game carcasses.

At the grocery store this means buying food that provides an overall balance of approximately 60 percent carbohydrates, 20 to 30 percent protein, and 20 to 30 percent beneficial fat. Oatmeal and whole grain cereals are ideal for breakfast. If you have the right, easy access conditions and the want to, you can opt for bacon, eggs, and pancakes; but don’t forget to warm up the syrup!

Some Elk hunters plan a two or three-hour lunch break back at camp so they can prepare a hot meal. Many, however, prefer to stay in the timber and eat a gourmet meal of summer sausage, cheese, and crackers or a healthy trail mix. 
Hunter Outreach near Lake Granby, Photo by Jim BulgerA few of us still know the value of pemmican which consists of about fifty percent lean, dried meat and the other half fat. There are many variations. Dried fruit can be added for flavor and added food value. Pemmican is ground to near-powder form which makes it easy to carry. A little can go a long way as energy or emergency food. 

Evening meals at base camp should meet the criteria of those who are actively hunting. If you backpack into remote areas, weight can be a major limiting factor. You may want to stock up on dehydrated or freeze-dried offerings and add canned meat (or fresh) to your “add boiling water,” main course.

If you set up base camp in more easily-accessible areas, you can bring in whatever foods make you happy, including eggs, steaks, and all the fixin’s for Dutch oven main courses and deserts. Dutch oven cake or peach cobbler is a heavenly treat half way through a ten-day, cold weather hunt. In addition to the flavor and food value, such a treat can elevate everyone’s mental attitudes. Good staples can also include macaroni, various types of noodles, rice, and other, easy to prepare, energy-providing fare. Remember that hunters need to replace about twice the normal calories. That can mean upwards of 4-thousand calories a day.

Your hunt location as well as weather and site restrictions can help determine whether to plan single-pot meals such as pre-made chili, venison stew, or soups. This reduces cleanup of pots and dishes which is definitely not a favorite hunter’s task. 

Cold weather hunting also prompts you eat a bed-time snack. Believe it or not, if you stay away from, nightmare-creating, exotic foods, a light snack before turning in speeds up your metabolism and helps you generate more night-time body heat and sleeping comfort.

For mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks (eat about every two hours), you can pack trail mix, granola whole-grain bars, and high-energy bars along with the liquids you need for the day. Consider, too, the fact that just the act of eating an energy bar makes you feel little warmer and more comfortable.

For survival, choose carefully. Alas, much to the chagrin of many hunters’, Snickers bars are not true “survival food.” I participated in an exhaustive, six-month study which found-- that, unless it is lost, a Snickers bar almost never survives in the wilderness beyond an hour. You want to carry enough “survival” food to get you through at least one night and morning. However, make it food that has high-energy and food value yet hits the taste bud charts below the rich chocolate and sweet caramel levels. In other words, when you pull it out of your kit, survival food should bring serious thoughts of, “Do I really want to eat this, now???

Stoves, Heaters, and Fuel

Camp stoves can range from a full gas grill to a single-burner, wilderness stove with gas or alcohol fuel. The limitations of your hunting location, hiking time, weight restrictions, number of hunters, etc., will dictate. Propane stoves and heaters are popular. Some are built to serve double-duty as a cooking stove and a tent heater.

Wood stoves may be slow for cooking but provide adequate tent heat. They require plenty of fuel, middle-of-the-night feeding, and caution. Sparks can ruin tents and nearby gear. Liquid fuels including white gas require great caution.

Whatever your choices for heating and cooking, make sure you take plenty of fuel or the capability of cutting your wood and keeping it dry. Plan to take cooking pots, skillets, coffee pots, plates, cups, and utensils. Have access to no less than a gallon of water per day, per hunter. You will greatly increase your hunt party comfort and safety level if each hunter carries a good, unbreakable thermos of hot liquid into the field each day.

Cold Weather Clothing

Nightfall comes early in Elk country; and with nightfall, the cold sets in. Archery season, mid-September, with daytime temperatures close to 80 degrees at 9-thousand feet, can also bring a hard freeze at night. Two, light layers of clothing feel almost too warm at 2:00 p.m., while a three-system, cold-weather sleeping bag seems barely enough come midnight.  And winter, and Late Season Elk, are still two months away—two months of cooling, shorter days, and snowfall. 

Clothing is your first gear consideration for both hunting and survival.  The right clothes, of the right materials are critical for cold weather comfort. That breaks down to warm, dry, light weight, quiet clothes that provide mobility and versatility. You may want to throw in a few added character-istics such as windproof, waterproof, snake proof, scent-blocking, washable, and, of course, invisible to big game.

Layering your clothes (including your sleeping bags and night clothes) provides the best cold weather protection and comfort. Layering creates pockets of air, warmed by your body heat. Insulating qualities slow the escape or exchange of warmth within the layers and allow your body to maintain safe, comfortable, temperature levels. Layering also lets you remove or add one layer at a time for proper temperature control. 

Begin with long underwear that wicks moisture away from your body, into progressive clothing layers. Next, add a wool or fleece layer. (Wool, when soaking wet, retains nearly all of its insulation value while wet cotton fleece retains no insulation value). Follow your second layer with a hooded coat of synthetic down. This can be light weight with little bulk. Top these layers off with a windproof, waterproof, hooded shell to defend against rain, snow, and wind. Polypropylene, polyester, wool, and silk are fabrics of choice for cold weather. Registered brands like Gortex, Primaloft, Underarmour, and Thinsulate incorporate one or more of these wicking, fast-drying, and insulating qualities into clothing and footwear items. 

Synthetic down has become a mainstay for winter hunting and outdoor adventure. Its weight compares very well with goose down and it reportedly retains 95 percent of its loft and insulation value, even when wet. It was developed in the 1980’s for the U.S. military, but manufacturers now use synthetic down in sleeping bags, gloves, parkas, boots, hats, and other gear. Combine that with merino wool and proper layering techniques and you can take your comfort levels into the 30 below zero ranges.

Hunt clothing cannot be complete without headgear, gloves, and boots. There is much truth in the old adage, “If your feet are cold, put on a hat.” Good headgear gives protection and adds 10 to 15 degrees greater comfort level in retained body heat—including better cold-tolerances for fingers and toes. Much of your body heat is lost through your head, face, and neck. It is also the reason a balaclava can be worth more than its weight in platinum when the cold wind blows or the thermometer reading heads south.

Walking Along  A Snow Covered Trail, Photo by CPW​The balaclava is second cousin to a ski mask. According to the on-line dictionary, Wikipedia, the balaclava “covers the whole head, exposing only part of the face.” It also covers the neck and tucks under the collar of a shirt or coat. The balaclava’s versatility allows it to be worn as a stocking cap, a pull-over neck scarf, or an extra layer under your hat or jacket hood. Some have filtered mouthpieces to help warm inhaled air. 

Your balaclavas can vary in weight and thickness and can be silk, wool, polypropylene, neoprene, acrylic, or polar fleece. Carry a couple into the field with you to deal with sudden changes in temperature or windy conditions. In an emergency, use a bandana, scarf, stocking cap, or other substitute that helps protect your face and neck.

For hand warmth, mittens are best. A pair of mittens with patterned in shooting finger and lightweight, insulated inserts keeps out the cold and limits aching digits. For real comfort, add chemical hand warmers. You can also combine lightweight gloves and over-mittens.

Boots complete the clothing and primary shelter category. Pac boots are favored by many because they combine a removable liner and a waterproof outer boot. You will probably want a size that allows you to wear polypropylene sock liners with a wool blend over sock.

Waterproof your boots.  Wet feet are a ticket for disaster in extremely cold weather. For severe cold, place a small, chemical hand-warmer between the sock layers, on top of your toes. As long as you wear waterproofed boots, the chemical warmers will keep your feet “toastie” and pain free. (Personal experience has shown me that such use of these chemical warmers allowed them to produce heat several hours longer than the “up to 10 hours” claimed by the manufacturers. Also, there is no discomfort or chafing as a result of having the small, chemical packets on top of the toes).

Cold Weather Gear, Accessories, and Tips for Use

 By dividing other cold weather gear items into categories, you will be able to determine the items best suited for you and the circumstances of your cold weather outing. Your experiences in the geographic areas you hunt will guide you in personal gear selections.

Clothing Accessories

Snowshoes: Walking in moderate snow can sap your strength rapidly. Heavy, deep snow can be a killer. Check into technologically-advanced, lightweight, easy on and easy off snowshoes for cold weather hunting.

Crampons and ice walkers come in professional ice climber to sidewalk safety models. Research the offerings in stores and on the web before purchase.

Firearms, Ammunition, Scopes, and Optics

Cold weather is hard on all types of gear. Firearms operate differently—more stiffly, in severe conditions. You may want to take along a backup rifle. Oil in the action or around the firing pin may cause problems. Be aware of these possibilities and prepare for them.

Most optics today have built in condensation prevention and lens protection to keep from fogging. However, moving your firearms and other gear into freezing temperatures from a warm tent or cabin (or even a heated truck cab) can cause condensation inside and outside your firearms and on lens covers and outer surfaces of gear. 

Be sure you have extra ammunition, a complete gun cleaning kit, and check slings, barrels, swivels, scopes, and moving parts regularly. 

Communications Gear

Map, compasses (two per hunter), and a GPS if you have one and know how to use it, top the list here. Each hunter should have a good topo map of the hunt area and everyone should be oriented to the terrain, safety considerations, and limitations of the hunt area.

Two-way radios can help save lives during winter hunts. Develop a communications plan and make sure all in your party understand it. Check radios regularly for proper operation.

For base camp you may also want a solar/battery powered, emergency radio that has the National Weather Service bands. Satellite phones and emergency communications transmitters are now available either for sale or for rent. One model attaches to a smart phone and allows texting and tracking communications with the folks at home, without cell service. 

Take plenty of extra batteries for your GPS, your radio, range-finder, flashlights, and any other battery-operated gear.

Field Dressing Gear

Good knives are a necessity for field dressing big game and a multitude of other uses. Carry more than one, and with your knives, carry knife-sharpeners. A pen sized, diamond sharpener is adequate in the field but you may want a larger sharpening kit at camp. A small, pocket saw or hand-operated “chain saw,” is a must for field dressing and survival. You may also want a hand axe. 

A plastic sled can reduce the number of trips and improve transportation speed when hauling Elk quarters over snowy or icy terrain. Some hunters also use these inexpensive sleds to transport gear and backpacks into remote hunting areas.

And, when it comes to backpacks, you may want an external frame backpack available for packing out Elk quarters or boned out meat. Pay attention to weight distribution, however. On snow and ice you want to have a lower center of gravity for stability and safety.

Tents, Shelters, & Accessories

Tent selection will depend on your needs, camp location, and the size of your hunting party. Outfitter tents can give you stand up room, wood stove capabilities, an entry area for gear and wet outer gear, and extra storage. Four-season tents make cold weather camping more tolerable. Remember, even the plains tribes lived in insulated teepees during the winter.

For cold weather hunting you will probably want a tent that can be vented for fresh air and heater safety as well. Carbon monoxide dangers are greatly reduced with today’s heating and cooking stoves but great caution is still required.

Snow and cold, wet weather can make your tent and your sleeping area miserable if your tent seams leak. Waterproof all seams and check your tent for leaks before you leave home. Nothing takes the thrill out of a good hunt like returning to camp near dark and finding your cot and your sleeping bag are soaking wet because of a leaking tent seam.

Cots, Sleeping Bags, Sleeping Comfort, and Sleepwear

If you plan to sleep on the ground, you wi​ll need a double layer of waterproof ground cloth to stop condensation and keep your sleeping bag dry. Preferably your tent floor should offer this protection in cold weather. 

Remember, too, if you don’t want to freeze from the ground up, you need as much or more insulation underneath your body as you have covering you. Cots require much the same protections. A good-quality, instant setup cot can also save a lot of time, energy, and grief over stretching and setting up the old wood or metal-frame styles.

Survival Gear & Tips

When you step into the wilderness, away from your truck or your camp; carry at least minimal survival gear. At a minimum, include a way to start a fire, an emergency shelter, and a way to signal or make contact with others. In winter weather—especially with snow and ice—include a strong dose of extra awareness, communications, and preparation with less risk-taking, and a good, positive attitude. Travel in pairs and take the time to plan where all members of your party plan to be during the day, each day.

Make a list of the things you need and want to take and make sure to check it off, carefully…Oh,………and don’t forget your license!!