Backcountry Hunting Guide: How to Layer Clothing Effectively

Every seasoned hunter has a trick or two to cut weight and maximize space in their packs. But for those just getting into backcountry hunting, picking the right clothing and gear is paralyzing and often results in carrying far too much weight. Clothing plays a major role in pack weight, and without careful planning, it can eat up space and add unnecessary pounds.

A common mistake is overpacking specific garments to handle variances in temperature and weather conditions. This is inefficient and increases pack weight.

Hunting the backcountry, you're bound to face tough climate and weather conditions - it's beautifully brutal, but not a place for the unprepared. Staying comfortable in shifting weather starts and ends with packing the right clothing; one that adheres to a smart layering system.

Weather is just one part of the equation, the other factor is terrain. Whether you're facing grassy slopes or rugged hillsides, the right gear makes all the difference. Mountain hunters know the importance of not being bogged down by excess weight, especially when navigating treacherous terrain. Everything they have on them, from their pack and gear to the clothes on their backs should be both durable and lightweight, as every ounce counts on inclines and declines. And that's not just for pants and jackets but your hands, feet, and head too.

Some call it packability, but we like to think of it as knowing how to layer properly for hunting in the backcountry. Whatever you'd like to call it, in this guide, we'll walk you through a tried and true approach to getting the most out of your apparel through layering, helping you stay comfortable, pack less, and focus more on the hunt.

Layering Hunting Apparel 101

There's a good chance you already know the basics of layering clothes - or at least the names of each layer. But what you may not know that's important is the role of each layer in creating a system that keeps you comfortable in whatever climate you face.

The key word here is comfortable. Layering clothes as a system isn't meant to always keep you warm per se, it's more about regulating the temperature so that you're never too hot or too cold. If your body is too cold the system is built warm you up, conversely if you begin rigorous activity and sweat, it's meant to cool you down. It's a small nuance, but an important one for making sure the layers operate correctly.

Because of the need to thermoregulate, the system has to accomplish two things rather well - allow moderate airflow to reach your body and pull moisture away from your skin and innermost layer. It accomplishes more than that, but if carried out successfully, these two things ensure your body will maintain an even temperature and stay dry. These two concepts are referred to as moisture wicking and breathability, terms you'll see referenced throughout this guide.

Three layers form the entire system: the base layer, a mid-layer, and an outer shell. Each with a unique purpose to fulfill the goal of the entire system.

Base - The Inner Layer

This is the layer closest to your skin and the fabric used should be moisture-wicking, quick-drying, and breathable. This will keep the skin dry and at homeostasis, preventing chills when the temperatures drop or overheating from too much movement.

Mid - The Insulating Layer

Trapped between the base layer and the outer shell, the main purpose of the midlayer is to insulate body heat. It does this by trapping air between its fibers. Quality mid-layers accomplish this without being too bulky.

Shell - The Outer Layer

The outer shell is meant to stop the most extreme external conditions - think wind and rain. That's why it should block wind and be waterproof. Depending on the thickness and style, it can be used to provide warmth too. The challenging part of this layer is it needs to prevent water and wind from entering, while still being breathable.

Again, the bigger concept of layering isn't necessarily to keep warm (although in some instances it can be) but to keep your body at a generally even temperature, where your clothing helps you cool down if your body gets hot and it helps you warm up when you get cool. In a way, think of it as dressing to make the weather adapt to your temperature instead of adapting your body to the outside temperature.

Base Layer Clothing - Moisture Management

Base layers are the unsung heroes of hunting apparel, they have the dirtiest job albeit critical, of your entire layering system. As the foundation, a base layer regulates your body temperature by wicking sweat away from your skin and then spreading it across the outer surface of the fabric, where it can evaporate more quickly. In other words, this keeps you dry and comfortable.

Wet clothing on the skin for an extended period is not only uncomfortable and the source of skin issues over time, but it can have serious consequences when you're in the backcountry. With the strenuous activity of hiking, sidehilling, and traversing generally difficult terrain, your body will sweat.

Exposed to what's most likely high altitudes and colder climates, this moisture can quickly become cold and lead to hypothermia. In the thick of activity though, if moisture has nowhere to escape and simply sits on your skin, this can boil your body temperature leading to overheating. This is why moisture management and thermal regulation are so closely related. But not all base layers are created equal - different fabrics work better for different conditions.

Base Layer Fabrics to Look For:

For instance, if you're hunting in warm weather, lightweight fabrics like merino wool or synthetic blends will do the trick - think polyester or polypropylene blends. They're breathable and quick-drying, which means you'll stay cool and dry even when the temperature rises. On the other hand, if you're in colder temperatures, heavier fabrics like wool or fleece will keep you warm and cozy.

Never wear cotton as your base layer. While it's soft and has a ton of beneficial features, cotton absorbs moisture and will negate the entire purpose of this innermost layer.

Choosing the right base layer can make all the difference, and it's essential to consider factors like the climate, your activity level, and your personal preferences. A good rule of thumb is to go for a snug fit that allows for maximum mobility and to layer up if needed.

At the end of the day, whether you're a seasoned pro or a first-time hunter, a good base layer is an investment that's well worth making. So, the next time you're out in the wild, remember to gear up with the right base layer and take on the great outdoors with confidence!

Mid-Layer Clothing - Insulation

The mid-layer is like the middle child of the clothing family, the one who's always working hard to please, but never quite gets the recognition they deserve. It's easily the most dynamic part of dressing correctly in the backcountry. A high-performance mid-layer should insulate you from the cold, efficiently trap body heat, wick moisture away from the base layer, dry quickly, and serve as the failsafe for the wind barrier. That's a tall ask.

As part of the entire layer system, the mid-layer is the connective tissue that makes everything work in harmony. Picture your mid-layers as the control center of your hunting apparel. They're responsible for regulating your body temperature, ensuring you stay warm and toasty, but not overheating. Like a thermostat that's constantly adapting to your needs, these versatile layers trap heat when it's chilly and breathe when things heat up. The science behind it all has to do with creating a buffer of air between your skin and the outside world. This trapped air acts as a barrier, preventing heat from escaping and keeping cold air from sneaking in. Essentially, air acts as your insulating layer.

Mid-Layer Fabrics to Look For:

Fleece, merino wool, and synthetic materials like polyester are all great options. They're lightweight, breathable, and quick-drying, which makes them ideal for regulating body temperature in extreme conditions. For a more technical mid-layer that features extra insulation and weather protection, opt for fabrics like Polartec or GORE-TEX.

Mid-Layer Tips:

  1. Fit: Make sure your mid-layer fits comfortably without restricting your movements. You want it to be snug, but not too tight, so you can still layer up or down as needed.
  2. Lightweight: When it comes to mid-layers, weight matters. Look for lightweight materials that won't weigh you down or bulk up your hunting gear. Remember, you're here to stalk your prey, not impersonate the Michelin Man.
  3. Breathability: Seek out breathable fabrics that allow moisture to escape. There's nothing worse than feeling clammy and damp in the middle of a hunt.

Outer Shell - Protection from the Elements

A sturdy outer layer is a real game changer. In other sports, the shell might be a fashion statement, but in this environment, it's purely about staying protected from the harsh elements the mountains will throw your way. This frees you to focus on your hunt, rather than ways to keep warm or dry. And that's the primary role of a shell - to shield the mountain hunter from wind, rain, and snow.

There are a ton of different styles from soft shells that add warmth but lack high ratings for wind and rain, to thin element-busting layers, and everything in between. Whichever you choose, at a minimum you'll want a shell that handles precipitation and blocks the wind. Nothing quite dampens the spirits like being soaked to the bone or shivering while sidehilling - discomfort aside, it's also dangerous.

A good outer shell should also let moisture escape, which means staying comfortable and dry even when breaking a sweat. This is a major factor for comfort. You need a shell that prevents moisture from getting in and pushes any moisture inside to the outer surface.

In other words, the fabric technology is both waterproof or water-resistant and breathable - because what's the point in having a shell that keeps the rain out but traps your sweat in?

Shell Fabrics to Look For:

GORE-TEX is one of the best-known materials for outer shells thanks to its brain meets brawn combination. It's tough enough to withstand the harshest conditions, yet smart enough to let moisture escape. Another great option is eVent fabric, which boasts similar qualities to GORE-TEX, with a slight edge in breathability.

Outer-Layer Tips:

We don't often think of looking at the labels and ratings of our clothing. Who can honestly state what fibers are in their shirts at any given moment? When it comes to your shell, you'll want to take the time to understand three important criteria: Is it waterproof or water-resistant? What is its rating in either area? What is the breathability rating of the shell?

What's the Difference Between Water Resistant and Waterproof?

The difference between water-resistant and waterproofing is the level of protection from moisture. Water-resistant provides limited defense against moisture, while waterproof ensures full protection under a certain pressure. Water-resistant works for light rain, but not heavy downpours.

The two terms are commonly used interchangeably, but there's a big difference between the two. Knowing which is which can help you make an informed decision when it comes to selecting a shell. Nearly every shell on the market will have some form of DWR, which stands for durable water repellant. It's an aftermarket treatment applied to certain fabrics that makes them hydrostatic. As for breathability and waterproofness, here's a quick look at what the ratings mean:

Waterproofness Ratings Breathability Ratings
  • Below 5,000mm: Minimal waterproofing, suitable for light rain - but not heavy rain or extended exposure.
  • 10,000mm: Good resistance to elements, reliable choice for backcountry hunting.
  • 25,000mm+: Top-notch protection, ideal for extreme weather and tough hunting adventures.
  • Below 10,000g/m²/24hrs: Casual use, suitable for light activity but limited breathability.
  • 10,000g/m²-20,000g/m²/24hrs: Functional breathability, adequate moisture management for most hunting scenarios.
  • 20,000g/m²-30,000g/m²/24hrs: High-performance breathability, ideal for strenuous backcountry pursuits.

A good rule of thumb when selecting an outer layer is to make sure that it fits casually around all parts of your body without being too tight or restrictive: tight clothing can cause chafing between layers as well as restrict movement when walking through brushy terrain; loose-fitting garments will allow cold air inside them and may let moisture build up inside them over time as well. It's a delicate balance to get it just right. But this layer needs to fit perfectly.

Head, Hands, and Feet

Don't go cheap on the right apparel for your head, hands, and feet. There's a fine line in doing so that once crossed separates an amazing trip into the backcountry from a miserable one. In terms of a general approach to all three areas, breathability, moisture wicking, and waterproofness are still in play. Specifically, consider a few concepts for each.


The most obvious use here is keeping your head warm. What gets less attention in the hunting arena, even though it's just as important depending on the time of year and altitude, is sun protection. Your hat should support comfort and functionality.

In warmer temps, a good hunting hat should fit snugly on your head, be made from a durable material, and have a brim to protect your face from the sun. In colder weather, you may want to opt for a hat that covers your ears or a balaclava to keep your entire head and face warm.


More than keeping your hands warm, gloves are essential to protect you from cuts, scrapes, and blisters during long days spent tracking game through rough terrain. When choosing gloves, you'll want to consider whether you need insulated or non-insulated gloves.

Insulated gloves are great for colder weather but may be too warm in milder temperatures. Additionally, you may want to look for gloves that are waterproof and breathable to keep your hands dry and comfortable


The all-important footwear. Starting with socks, if your socks get wet or dirty, you could end up with some pretty nasty-looking and painful feet by the end of it all. When choosing socks, consider the purpose: moisture management, insulation, and blister prevention. Look for socks made from a material that will wick away moisture, such as merino wool or a synthetic blend. Nuyarn is another interesting option here too. Additionally, you'll want to choose a weight that is appropriate for the temperature and level of activity.

As for boots, the style will depend on terrain and climate, and choosing between synthetic, leather, or a mix of materials - without leading too much, boot selection is contingent on personal preference and the hunt. If you're new to the process of buying hunting boots, this is a good place to start. And if you end up getting new boots, be sure to properly break them in - it's not an overnight activity either, so play ahead.

Hacks for Packing Hunting Apparel

Up to this point, the entire guide has been about increasing your pack capacity and reducing pack weight by picking your hunting clothes wisely, opting for a system of layers that keeps you comfortable in whatever climate you face. From a more practical application such as packing your clothing into your backpack, there are a few simple hacks to help you reduce the amount of space your clothing takes up.

Borrowed from our article on how to pack for hunting trips, here are three simple ways to make sure your clothing doesn't take more space than it needs from your pack:

1. Roll Your Clothes

Instead of folding, try rolling your clothes to maximize available space and efficiently pack all the items you need - because who wants their bag bursting at the seams? This way, everything will fit snugly with room for extras.

2. Fill Gaps

Imagine a jar of coins filled with water - while the coins may look like they fill the jar entirely, there are a ton of tiny gaps between each. Combined, these little gaps create a large space. This is what you want to avoid in your pack. Filling a bottle or the insides of shoes with socks or base layers is a smart way to maximize dead space.

3. Dual Purpose

Soft casings and packaging can be replaced with clothing items that serve a dual purpose. Not only will they protect your gear when you're not wearing them, but they'll also protect you when you are.

Perhaps the most important hack of them all is to pack lightly. The most important thing you can do when packing for an extended hunt is to pack light. You don't need to bring everything you own, just the essentials.

Wick Moisture, Create Airflow

See, there's more to layering than simply adding or removing layers. While that's a crucial part of the equation, hunting gear is also designed to keep you dry, comfortable, and protected against wind and rain.

When you're packing for your extended hunt, don't confuse wild weather for needing your entire closet. Instead, work on a layered solution that can handle a wide range of temperatures and conditions. You need essentials that serve a specific purpose across each layer. Executed correctly, you'll remain at a comfortable temp without breaking your back with the extra weight of clothing in your pack.