Hunting in the mountains can teach us hard lessons, and serve as the ultimate proving ground for hunting gear. I’m not referring to a short afternoon jaunt, but the sometime weeks-long expedition-style hunts that sheep and mountain goat hunters often subject themselves to. They are unforgiving hunts in unforgiving country, and your gear—clothing, in particular—is critical to both your survival and your success. Although good gear is often expensive, this doesn’t mean that it’s always the best.
In my 17 years of hunting sheep here in Alaska, I’ve learned almost all gear falls into one of three categories:
2. You can get away with it most of the time.
3. It doesn’t belong on the mountain.
Clothing plays a vital role for all hunters, but especially for those who backpack hunt in the mountains. Clothing’s job is to keep us comfortable, but more importantly, to protect us from the elements. Ideally it does both, and allows us to be less affected by harsh conditions, which in turn makes us more effective hunters. Mountain hunters typically find themselves carrying everything they need on their backs, so naturally that coincides with a demand for the lightest, most compact version of every thinkable piece of gear and clothing. Less weight means more food you can carry or, at the very least, less bulk to travel with. Outdoor companies have naturally worked to provide for these demands and make fantastic innovations in fabric and technology. But nothing comes without a trade-off. And you need to know exactly what compromises you’re making when selecting gear.
There are two specific clothing items that play an important functional role in keeping you warm and safe on the mountain: rain gear, and heavy insulating layers (i.e. parkas and pants). Yes, these are supposed to keep you comfortable and hunting effectively, but their most important role is as a survival item: to keep you as warm and dry as possible, or to re-heat you if you are wet, cold, or hypothermic. Each clothing item acts as an additional layer of protection. It needs to function and pick up the slack if a different component of the system fails, because eventually something will break.
For decades, down-feather insulating fill has been the most effective and lightweight insulation available. Most decent sleeping bags were down-filled for many years. Down is a fantastic insulation, unbeatable for its weight-to-warmth ratio and packability, but it has one major weakness: water. When down gets wet, it loses its loft and becomes utterly useless. These days, down is often given a hydrophobic treatment, to prevent water from soaking it, and it’s much better than untreated down. But it’s still down, and if subjected to enough moisture, it will still lose some or all of its insulating properties.
Synthetic insulations have also come a long way in recent years, and although they cannot compete with the weight and compactness of down garments and sleeping bags, they are more forgiving and reliable. Synthetic insulation in puffy jackets, pants, and sleeping bags is mostly unaffected by moisture and won’t lose its insulating properties when wet. In dry conditions, it might not make sense to choose synthetics over down, but all it takes is one good soaking for the differences to be laid bare. Many of these insulations are so good that your body heat will actively dry your inner layers of clothes while wearing the synthetics, pushing moisture out through the insulation. You can, in fact, crawl in a good synthetic sleeping bag in soaking wet clothes, and although you may feel and smell like a wet dog, you will be warm, and your clothes will be mostly or totally dry in the morning. Try this with any down bag and you’re going to be freezing your ass off for a long time. And since you are usually crawling into your sleeping bag soaked to the bone at 1 a.m. after a hard pack back to camp in the rain, you’ll be in no condition to fight off hypothermia in a useless sleeping bag.
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Breathable is Not Waterproof
Rain gear is another critical item if you’re in relatively wet country, and breathable rain gear is all the rage in the backpacking world. This is for two main reasons: It’s lighter than rubberized rain gear, and it’s “breathable,” meaning that it allows for some perspiration moisture to pass through to the outside. That helps to keep you from swimming in clam soup inside your jacket and pants. Like treated down, breathable rain gear is popular among the mountain hunting crowd. It’s comfortable and can be depended on to work most of the time—which is to say, it falls into the second of my three categories. The problem lies in the fact that breathable rain gear (of any brand) isn’t actually 100 percent waterproof. A clothing company will say that it’s waterproof, they’ll even guarantee it’s waterproof—but it’s not. It’s highly water-resistant.
A fabric that water or air can pass through in any direction is not waterproof. Subjected to enough moisture, the fabric will eventually saturate and lose its ability to keep water out. Sometimes this is slow (over days), sometimes it’s fast. A year ago, I was forced to hike out of the mountains in the worst storm I’ve ever experienced—at 2 a.m. no less—after the wind had destroyed my tent. It felt like being hit with a pressure washer, and within 45 minutes, water was running down my body on the windy side, and shortly thereafter, the entire $1,200 rain suit I was wearing might as well have been made of parchment paper. This is my most dramatic example of breathable rain gear failure. But it was a dangerous enough experience that I will never rely on breathable rain gear again. You may get lucky and it may work fine for you for years. But knowing that it can fail, and if it does it’s likely to be when you desperately need it to work, negates any slight advantages of comfort and packability it affords.
Real Rain Gear
Non-breathable rain gear options like Grundens Neptune and Helly Hansen Impertech are still relatively lightweight and reasonably packable, at a fraction of the price (around $200 total) of any reputable breathable option. They aren’t very comfortable to hike in, and although you may be hot and sweaty, you can rest assured that they will prevent fresh, cold rainwater from continually sucking away your body heat. If you can’t stop that cold rain from stealing your heat, you aren’t rewarming anything. Each person has to make his or her own choice about the gear they trust, and for some, it may be worth the risks. The important thing is being aware of exactly what risks you are taking when trusting any piece of gear or equipment. Just know, I can think of many times I was glad I chose real rain gear as the water ran off the ends of my sleeves. But I can’t think of a single time that I wished I had invested in a more expensive, breathable outer shell.