A good set of base layers is essential to every hunter. And by “good” I mean lightweight, comfortable, warm, and as odor free as possible. If you are as budget conscious as I am and can only afford one set, I suggest your solution be made of merino wool.
Traditional bowhunters are a fickle lot. We expect quality, but at the right price. Many of us prefer to layer ourselves in thrift store wool than camouflage and find great pride hunting for it. My Dad is a great example. Having sold quality wool in the family clothing store for decades there is nothing he enjoys more than scowering Etsy, Ebay, or Goodwill for treasures of wooly plaid. That’s great, but you have to layer something beneath them.
Many of us simply make do. Until recently I had been hunting in a polypropylene top I was issued while playing college football in 2002. It wicked sweat well (to a point), but that was it. I had never found it comfortable or all that warm and would have to layer several wool tops to avoid getting chilled. It also left a nasty rash on my skin in moist weather and I would get cold within minutes of breaking a sweat. From there I moved to garden-variety long underwear, which didn’t have the effect I was looking for either. They were a bit warmer, but I couldn’t get the scent out of them. It took three seasons of freezing and stinking to realize budget base layers were not the way to go.
I needed better to fight the cold Michigan moisture and wanted to go merino – something 185 – 230g. You can’t hunt if you can’t sit still on a cold November morning. That was all the justification I needed and shopped for quite awhile until a friend told me about his Icebreaker Everyday base layers, which were 200g merino, breathable, and naturally odor resistant. He’s also a big guy of similar build and extremely active, so I took his recommendation seriously and ordered a set. I’ve run them through a gamut of tests since and wanted to share the results with you with the following criteria.
The set was extremely comfortable out of the box, enough to lounge around in when you get back to camp, which was my first concern. If I can’t sit in the woods all morning and spend the afternoon in them without getting irritated, I’m not interested. The Everydays are soft on the skin and could double as sleep wear if you wanted them to. They are that comfortable.
I’m also not a big fan of chaffing and rashes, which is something I can’t seem to avoid with synthetic base layers. I’ve never experienced this with merino, even after an hour of soaking wet activity, which for the sake of this review included pulling my daughter around the house on a sled as fast as possible in the deep snow and then shoveling my driveway in a blizzard. Upon finishing both (several hours later) I thought I would be miserable, but remained warm and comfortable in spite of the added moisture.
The flatlock stitching is also a nice feature. Nothing snags, itches, or rubs you the wrong way during activity no matter how sweaty you are or how much you move.
It was eight degrees and snowing the first time I wore these outside. I layered them under a Dickies snow suit and remained toasty the entire time — once again shoveling. I probably could’ve done the job in a hooded sweatshirt and pair of jeans. They were that warm. Thankfully, the shirt unzipped at the neck for quick ventilation. I’m a big fan of this feature. A zipper is a must with a base layer this warm. I would rather be too warm than not warm enough and this can be avoided if you layer accordingly. The fabric also breathes very well. “Warm without suffocating” would be the best way to define them.
I decided to simulate a hunting situation for my next test and headed out on a chilly Sunday morning to do a bit of stumping with my longbow. Aside from the base layers I wore a pair of cotton camouflage hunting pants and my Asbell wool pullover, which was a little light for Michigan roving in February. I would normally wear a pair of polypropolene bottoms, long underwear, calf-high wool sox, and a pair of wool pants, so I was fairly skeptical when I hit the woods with only two layers between me and a biting February wind. I had nothing to worry about. After two hours in the woods, I was just as warm going out as I was coming in, even after a good sweat.
I was ecstatic. I had never worn so little in the woods this time of year and I couldn’t wait to try them in the Fall.
Freedom of Movement
I addressed several aspects of movement in the comfort section, but would like to add shooting to the equation. To begin, I can’t stand wearing jackets or coats while hunting. Drawing a longbow with any real length is very difficult with the confinement of a jacket or even one layer to many. Once you get beyond two, the added bulk becomes very cumbersome. Plus, the more you add, the more restricted your shoulder movement becomes. The Icebreakers make it possible to wear less and they are extremely lightweight, granting you the kind of freedom you need to make the shot when it counts. I shot from a variety of different positions wearing the Everydays and have never shot that well in my winter hunting garb.
Icebreakers are odor resistant, machine washable, and fast drying, which is fantastic for a base layer. I am a big guy who sweats a lot and odor control is often a struggle for me. These do not stink. I wore them on several hiking trips and shoveled snow with them two weekends in a row without a single washing and they hardly smelled. Anything else I’ve hunted in would have been unbearable and required several washings in baking soda to alleviate the stench. If you work hard, play hard, and hunt hard, I can’t think of a better first step to not smelling like hockey equipment after every hunt.
I’m sure many of you are wondering why a traditional bowhunting blog is reviewing base layers. Well, in my opinion, nothing is more traditional than wool. What better fit for traditional bowhunters than a wool base layer? Plus, traditional bowhunters are about quality and longevity and I am fairly confident these are going to hold up well. If they don’t, you’ll be hearing from me again. Their practices are also sustainable in many ways (learn more here), which is a component of what is “traditional” in my opinion.
Prior to owning these I wouldn’t have dreamed of paying $69.99 a piece for a base layer top and bottom, but I’ve never been warmer or more comfortable in the woods and am looking forward to late season deer hunting as a result. Having tried these, I can confidently say I’ll never buy a synthetic layer again. In fact, I’m contemplating another set to have a spare.
If you are one of those people who would rather spend the money on a new shooting glove, your second wool pullover, or maybe another quiver, consider this: if you can’t shoot or hunt comfortably, you will not hunt often. A base layer is the foundation of your hunting attire and should therefore be the most solid component. Don’t buy cheap, buy effective.
For more information about Icebreakers and their Everyday line of base layers, check out their website.