Training: Comfortably Cool The outdoors is difficult enough without kicking your own ass. This fact has led me to control what I can and then adapt to the dynamic conditions and minimize struggles. One of the biggest mistakes people make in the backcountry is over-dressing. This unforced error makes you sweat profusely, making you stop or change clothing, which is often inconvenient. Sweating dehydrates you, which, if not managed in a hot environment, can lead to issues like heat exhaustion. Sweating in a cold environment makes you chilled, which can cause you to lose focus and possibly become hypothermic. Dehydration at higher elevations makes you more prone to altitude sickness, and all of these self-imposed issues can lead to both poor judgment and decision-making in remote areas. The best way to set yourself up for success is to start your movement comfortably cool. It doesn’t matter if you’re in a spike camp 8 miles deep in the mountains or walking to a tree stand 400 meters across a woodlot; you should start moving cooler than is comfortable. If you’re standing around the truck on a brisk day, shivering slightly and anxious to get moving while your buddy dicks around with his pack, you’re probably dressed comfortably cool. If you arrive at your tree in the pre-dawn, dripping with sweat and standing around needing to dump heat and change your base layer, you overdressed for the movement and didn’t manage your pace appropriately. But let’s be honest, most of us don’t start our hikes comfortably cool because we don’t like being cold. I get it, and struggle with this mental hurdle as well. I’ve found it’s best to be dressed for the hike while driving to the trailhead or parking area. Before exiting the truck and embracing the suck of the cold morning, crank the heater and get ready to begin moving once you exit. If you’re standing around waiting on your buddy, put on your puffy jacket to trap body heat and keep warm while stationary. When you’re ready to head out, shed the jacket, stow it at the top of your pack, and begin hiking. Once moving, you can moderate your pace to generate or reduce body heat as required. If, after 5-10 minutes, you’re too hot or cold, then you’ll have to consider stopping to modify your clothing system. A few tips for regulating body heat on the move are donning and doffing your beanie, which dumps heat through your exposed head. Another quick and efficient way to regulate body heat while moving is to remove gloves and roll up your sleeves to expose your wrists. Finally, venting your clothing through zippers is another quick, efficient, and obvious way to stay comfortably cool on the trail. Arriving at your tree or glassing point warm and dry, focused and ready to hunt is the goal. After a few brutally cold mornings, you’ll refine your clothing system and have your system dialed. Dressing for the hike and not the destination is the unlock to better efficiency when you’re outdoors. Gear Locker: Inflatable Ground Pads Inflatable ground pads have become standard in gear load-outs and are a good choice for most trips. The main reason is that air is a great insulator, which is one reason why NASA created aerogel insulations for use in space suits. This is also the reason why an inflatable ground pad is warmer than a foam pad. The more air captured inside a ground pad, the higher its R-value or warmth rating. The R-value is how ground pads are rated for warmth and refers to the measure of the thermal resistance of the pad to heat loss. The R-value of a pad is then calculated to a temperature rating or time of year. I use a 3-season pad most of the year until I head out on ski tours in the middle of winter. When winter camping, I want the most insulation I can get to help support my sleeping bag and clothing system. Here are the general warmth ratings of ground pads you’ll find when shopping. Summer – R1-2 Three Season – R2-4 All Season (winter) – R4-6 There are a few things to consider when choosing an inflatable ground pad. First, inflating a pad by mouth can be exhausting, especially at higher altitudes. Most pads nowadays come with an inflation bag to combat those woes. However, this solution comes with a weight penalty, and I often opt out of carrying one. Second, in cold temperatures, inflating a pad by mouth can not only make the inflation valve freeze from the condensation of your warm breath but also, the pad will need to be topped off several times as the warm air cools and loses volume. You can always choose to roll out the pad to slowly self-inflate on its own, then top it off as needed, but I never have that much patience. Third, inflatable ground pads used to be delicate, and it wasn’t uncommon to have holes and leaks develop on a trip or during a hard season of use. They’re far more durable nowadays, but it’s good practice to inflate the pad before a trip and see if it holds air for a day. If not, then a repair job may be required before departing. Inflatable pads are reliable, but you still should carry a patch kit or have the ability to repair the pad in the field. I’ve had a few pads develop leaks on winter trips over the years. I could repair one pad without much issue, but another one I couldn’t fix and had to rely on the thin foam inside the pad for some modest warmth for the remainder of the trip. Inflatable pads come with a patch kit, and it’s recommended you carry it, but Super Glue, Aqua Seal, Gorilla, or Leuko tape can all work in a pinch. If using tape, I find that warming it with a lighter helps melt the glue, getting it to stick much better, but it may be difficult to remove. It’s a good practice when you get back home to lay out the pad, inflate it, check for leaks, and then roll it up for storage. Although inflatable ground pads are as durable as ever, I don’t recommend carrying them on the outside of your pack. I usually take the deflated pad and fold it up, then place it inside the pack near the bottom with the sleeping bag. I’ve seen people who chose to carry their pad outside their pack, discover, when it’s time to set up camp, their pad is shredded by aggressive brush in Alaska. I’ve also seen folks roll into camp, missing their entire pad. There are pros and cons to every choice we make with our kit. The goal is to understand them and then choose the best gear for the job. Pros – comfortable & lightweight with numerous R-ratings & sizes. Cons – expensive, not as durable as a foam pad, can be noisy, easy to roll off of while sleeping, and can’t be cut up in an emergency for splitting broken bones. Remember, a ground pad’s primary job is to keep you warm and protected from conductive cooling. But they also have the added benefit of being comfortable to help get a good night’s rest. www.thermarest.com www.bigagnes.com Courses Backcountry Mission Planning Backcountry Mission Planning has 16 chapters and draws on my 30+ years of experience hunting the wilderness. It focuses on preparing you for the upcoming big game seasons and all other backcountry travel, making you a more knowledgeable Student of the Game. Use code BARKLOW to get 20% off an annual Outdoor Class membership and unlock all the knowledge on the platform. www.outdoorclass.com Media: Cleared Hot Podcast Andy Stump, John Dudley, and I are back together for some usual Jack-Assery but also an in-depth discussion on how fundamentals and mastering the basics in whatever endeavor you pursue is the key to unlocking your potential. https://youtu.be/De4FIMnuOsc?si=FyGyqv3HGDmFCo6L The Closet: Cold Weather Handwear Systems Hands are difficult to keep warm in cold weather. One reason is that the body prioritizes the brain and vital organs for sustaining life and basic bodily functions at the expense of its appendages. Keeping your hands warm and dry is crucial because, without properly functioning hands, you can’t perform even the simplest tasks like striking a lighter or match to build a fire, feed yourself, shoot a weapon, communicate, or ultimately survive outdoors. A proper clothing system helps keep hands and feet warm by insulating the torso, allowing warm blood to flow to the ends of arms and legs, but by itself is not sufficient. Handwear systems require the same thoughtful approach for the best performance, just like the attention you’ve paid to your clothing system. After decades of ice climbing, ski touring, winter hunting in Alaska, and teaching thousands to survive in the wilderness, I’ve come to rely on handwear systems, not just random gloves, to provide versatility, warmth, and easy layering to keep my hands functioning in dynamic cold-weather conditions. Let’s review the components of a well-constructed handwear system and discuss the part each plays. Liner Gloves Liner gloves are the foundational base layer of a cold-weather handwear system. Like its clothing equivalent, liner gloves should manage moisture, dry quickly, and provide a bit of warmth. It’s a best practice to carry two or three pairs of liner gloves so that as one gets damp, you can swap them out for a dry pair. Synthetic or wool are both great options for liner gloves, but ensure they dry efficiently in the pockets of a puffy jacket or at night in your sleeping bag. Technical liner gloves are more expensive but often feature touch tech fingers to run phones and GPS units without the need to expose bare hands to the elements. This performance becomes critical in temps well below freezing where contact frostbite can occur merely by grabbing the barrel of a rifle, fuel canister, or any other metal objects. Technical Liner Gloves www.sitkagear.com Sitka Merino 330 Glove – $49.00 www.truckgloves.com Truck Stealth Liner – $25.00 Simple Liner Gloves www.amazon.com Rothco GI Wool Liner Wool Glove – $10.90 Work Gloves Active insulated work gloves should breathe well, manage moisture, be durable with good dexterity, and provide enough warmth for your hands while moving. These gloves should have a palm that won’t absorb water and then freeze, light fleece insulation, and the best have Windstopper. These cold-weather work gloves allow you to drive ATVs & other machines, grip ropes, climb rocks, and carry things while providing weather protection and warmth. www.sitkagear.com Sitka Mountain WS Glove – $129.00 www.truckgloves.com Truck Tour Glove – $38.00 Water-Proof Shell Gloves Waterproof shell gloves are rain gear for your hands, protecting from both wind and precipitation. Look for shell gloves featuring a quality waterproof membrane like Gore-Tex for long-lasting performance. I prefer waterproof shell gloves with a warm removable liner for maximum versatility in layering. When sized properly, this allows you to run the glove as a stand-alone shell or with a liner glove inside for moderate conditions or with the fully insulated liner in extreme conditions. The removable liner also allows you to dry it at night in the sleeping bag for continued comfort throughout the trip. www.sitkagear.com Sitka Stormfront GTX Glove – $209.00 www.outdoorresearch.com Highcamp GTX Glove – $99.00 Mittens Mittens are a static puffy layer for your hands, providing warmth while stationary but also when hiking or riding in extremely cold conditions. Look for mittens with a waterproof shell and insulated removable liner for versatility. This design allows you to take the entire mitten system on trips where you’ll be glassing long hours for moose and bears in the worst conditions or carry just the insulated liner as a backup on a cold-weather backpack hunt. If someone in your group gets frostbitten hands, which can swell and develop painful blisters, mittens are the only handwear that will protect them from further injury. I’ve also seen my partner’s primary gloves blown off ridgelines and given them my pair of spare mittens. These experiences have taught me to carry at least a pair of mitten liners as a backup during winter trips as insurance. www.outdoorresearch.com Alti 2 GTX Mitts – $209.00 www.northerntoboggan.com NTco Choppers w/ Wool liner – $60.00 Hands are critical to your survival, and extra attention needs to be applied to building an effective handwear system. Cold, stiff hands become useless for all but gross motor functions, and wet hands in cold conditions become ineffective within minutes. A well-built handwear system can adapt to ever-changing weather and keep your hands functioning properly. The Word: Hire a Guide I was in Colorado on my first Rocky Mountain elk hunt, and the situation was getting desperate as we went into the last morning. The weather had been brutally hot, so the elk were moving to bed in the pre-dawn, which wasn’t giving us any time to maneuver on them. They were also as quiet as church mice once bedded, making the odds of slipping in during the day a low-odds tactic, so my guide and I decided to brush in some ground blinds at pinch points that were pounded with elk signs. My wife and I had traveled down from Kodiak for this adventure. I wanted to experience “real” elk hunting in the mountains, hear bugles, and hopefully slip an arrow into a nice bull. I had experience hunting Roosevelt elk in the rain forests of Alaska, but the arid, higher-elevation environment and the behaviors of these elk were completely foreign to me. I had the odds against me for sure, but to help balance things out, I put my ego aside, opened the checkbook, and hired an outfitter & guide for the first time. I was hesitant at first to spend the extra money, knowing I was competent in the mountains, but I only had a week to learn a new animal’s behaviors, get a lay of the land, and kill a bull. I knew this was only the start of my elk hunting life, so I took the perspective that this was an investment in my hunting future and the beginning of my elk apprenticeship. Some of the best hunters I know are guides. They spend a ton of time outdoors, hunting and observing wildlife. The outfitters & guides you’ll hire likely live in the hunting area, scout animals year-round, and know where to begin when you arrive, maximizing your time afield and odds of success. If you want to learn how to hunt a certain species of animal or hunt them in a new environment like the desert vice the mountains, guides can be a tremendous resource. If you have a dream tag for a species you’ve never hunted and probably never will again, a guide can help tip the odds in your favor. Guides also likely field judge animals more accurately than you, especially sheep and goats, to help ensure you shoot the caliber of animal you’re after. Don’t approach hunting with a guide as having a babysitter or be concerned with having your handheld throughout the hunt. Sure, that happens, but most guides would prefer having clients who are capable hunters and deadly shots who want to participate fully in the experience. If you aspire to hunt in iconic destinations around the world, like Alaska, Canada, Africa, and Asia, they all require you to hire an outfitter & guide. On that first hunt to Colorado, I started learning the Rockie’s Mountain elk’s behaviors and observed a magnificent animal that thrives in incredibly diverse terrain, from the high country occupied by Mule deer to Ag fields on the plains. The biggest lesson I learned, though, from my guide was to be flexible in my approach to hunting these animals and take what the hunt gives you. Weather conditions made the best tactic for success, sitting at funnels coming out of fields in the early mornings and water holes in the heat of the day. It wasn’t a tactic I had envisioned when I booked the hunt, but the guide explained it was our best chance of notching my tag. As the last elk jumped the fence out of the field onto public land heading in the opposite direction of our ambush, I thought the morning and my hunt were over until we heard a subtle sound, like a wooden fence post being kicked by an animal’s hoof. Checking my arrow and verifying ranges, I anxiously waited. In the dawning light, a lone bull slipped into the dry wash and, with a well-timed cow mew from my guide, stopped quartering away. Focusing hard on the off-side leg, I put a lethal arrow into my first archery bull. That week of elk hunting provided me with more than a tremendous amount of meat and a respectable 5×5 bull. It provided me with exciting new experiences many lessons learned, and helped set the course of my deep learning and passion for Western big game hunting. Vacation days, time away from family, and hunting seasons are finite. Don’t squander a limited entry tag and come home empty-handed after years, even decades, and probably thousands of dollars applying for the tag you’ve finally drawn. Guides get a bad rap, and some deserve it, but most of them are hard-working, passionate hunters. Investing in their help at times may pay huge dividends in your hunting success.