The Best Layering System for Hunting

By Hunter Worth

There’s hardly a tool in the hunting game more important than great clothing. Not the best bow nor the sharpest broadheads mean much if you don’t have a really good layering system that is warm, breathable, sweat wicking, and has the ability to dry quickly. That’s what makes up the best layering system for hunting. Because when the critical moment comes, you should be worrying about your shot and not the steam rising up into your face from some subterranean funk factory deep within your clothing.

Back during the early days of our invasion of Afghanistan, U.S. forces were suffering from extreme cold weather conditions. Through a joint effort by the Army and a world-renowned mountaineer named Mark Twight, who helped Patagonia develop its super-popular Regulator series, a layering system called the Protective Combat Uniform (PCU) was born. It consists of seven levels of 16 different garments that are designed to compliment the type of climate and mission troops will undertake. PCU has fundamentally changed the way U.S. forces operate and will enhance your overall experience as a hunter in even the most extreme conditions.

Here’s how it works.

Determining Temperature

Before a hunt, you must determine the climate. So, if you’re heading to say Chama, New Mexico, to hunt elk in mid November, what is the weather generally like that time of year? We know it varies up in the mountains, which makes layering even more important.

Determining Activity

Second, what type of hunting will you be doing? Long, sedentary sits? Or hiking up and down mountains? If you can, purchase your apparel way before the hunt and experiment with various combinations. Climate, altitude, and other factors are different if your home state is Tennessee versus Colorado. But you should get a good idea of the warmth, breathability, and sweat-wicking performance.

Sitka has revolutionized hunting apparel, making them a go-to for the best layering system for hunting.
Sitka has revolutionized hunting apparel, making them a go-to for the best layering system for hunting.

The Best Layering System for Hunting

Take Sitka, for example, a company that has revolutionized the hunter’s layering system. KUIU too. Both of these companies manufacture an array of pants, shirts, jackets, and undergarments that has changed the way we approach a hunt. You no longer have to sweat your tail off in the high heat or bundle up like a Bigfoot in the extreme cold.

PCU Levels

Level 1 - lightweight, next to skin, like boxers and a t-shirt

Level 1A - pretty much the same as Level 1 except these next-to-skin garments are full length and thicker.

Level 2 - midlayers, pullovers and long pants that help usher sweat to the outer layer.

Level 3 - heavyweight fleece jacket that’s warm and dries quickly.

Level 4 - thin, windproof shirt, generally worn under the other layers

Level 5 - soft shell jacket and pants

Level 6 - Gore-Tex hard shell jacket and pants

Level 7 - jacket, vest, and pants to be worn on the outside because they’re extremely water resistant and breathable.

A Hunting Scenario

In Chama, New Mexico, in mid November, the average highs are in the 50s and lows in the teens with strong chances of snow. We will likely spend the week with a mix of long hikes and sedentary glassing. So, that means we’ll need to mix and match garments that fit what PCU identifies as “Mission: Active” and “Mission: Static” that fall within the “cold” range of 0° to 30°.

Of course, the weather forecast is hardly ever correct, so to be able to thrive in mountain conditions, we’re going to need a baselayer system that keeps us warm, and outer layers that breath and dry well.

That said, our clothing set up, based on the levels above, will look like this.

For “Cold/Mission: Active” you’ll need:

  • Level 1 (long underwear base layer)
  • Level 2 (insulation base layer)
  • Level 5 (soft shell jacket)

For “Cold/Mission: Static” you’ll need

  • Level 2 (insulation base layer)
  • Level 3 (insulation layer)
  • Level 5 (soft shell jacket)
  • Level 7 (parka)

To give you an idea of the various options out there, here are some manufacturers worth checking out. Staying comfortable - warm and dry - throughout the hunt is priceless. But the apparel to reach that point sometimes cost a pretty penny. Here are two options for high quality, high dollar, and budget friendly yet super functional clothing.

High Quality – High Dollar

Level 1 Top - Smartwool

Level 1 Bottom - Smartwool

Level 2 Top - Sitka

Level 2 Bottom - Smartwool

Level 3 Top - Tactical Gear

Level 5 Jacket - Sitka

Level 5 Pants - Sitka

Level 7 Jacket - Stone Glacier

Level 7 Vest - Sitka

Level 7 Pants - Stone Glacier

Functional and Budget-Friendly

Level 1 Top - Tactical Gear

Level 1 Bottom - Tactical Gear

Level 2 Top - Tactical Gear

Level 2 Bottom - Tactical Gear

Level 3 Top - Tactical Gear

Level 5 Jacket - McGuire Army Navy

Level 5 Pants - Fort Bragg Surplus

Level 7 Jacket - ECWCS

Level 7 Vest - LL Bean

Level 7 Pants - McGuire Army Navy

Don’t get fooled by some clothing manufacturers that tell you that they’re products will keep you dry all the time. The perfect outer layer is properly balanced between breathability and the ability to dry out quickly. Essentially, sweat is wicked off the skin and dispersed to the outside layer where natural elements like wind and sun eventually take it away. When you’re way out in the mountains, your clothing is your shelter. Stay warm, stay comfortable, enjoy the hunt.

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