My box bears the words ‘stuff heaved into the eaves’ – or is it just an acronym thereof?
In it are such items as a Venus flytrap rifle cover that never gives up its meal; a pair of gloves that prove a real handful to get on wet hands; a hat that doubles as a blindfold whenever I lie down to shoot; a flame-retardant hand-warmer – the list, sadly, goes on and on.
Good gear is never more important than when the weather gets extreme. And there aren’t many places I’ve come across more extreme than the Scottish Highlands in winter. I’ll have been stalking nigh on every working day since the start of October. In this time I’ll have walked, crawled and slithered hundreds of miles, through boulderfield and bog, in rain, hail, sleet and snow. If my equipment isn’t up to scratch, I soon know about it.
So what does work? It’s taken me years of trial and error to find some of the answers to that question. But it’s a very subjective thing. My solutions won’t suit all of you or the environment you hunt in, but maybe reading this will save you a little loft space.
■ Boots: Long, GoreTex-lined leather boots are what I use. My favourites are Meindl, Diotto (now Auchleeks), and Le Chameau. Unfortunately, the price tag for a pair of these boots is enough to make your eyes water. But then again, so is a broken ankle. Mine go from ‘new pin’ to dustbin in about two years. In an attempt to delay this process I use Urad Mr Jojo waterproofer and conditioner – I reckon it’s the best on the market, and a little goes a long way.
■ Gaiters: I favour army surplus gaiters. The fabric is so thick they’ll stand up by themselves. Cut off the strap or wire that passes under your boot before it snags and sends you over a rock face – it’s not necessary with a long boot anyway.
■ Socks: As I always wear plus-fours, I wear thick, knitted, knee-length socks. To stop them heading south for the winter I use sock ties: a knitted strip 2cm wide and 50cm long that wraps around the top of the sock. My top tip with socks is to bin them before they get threadbare at the heel. Otherwise they act like little cheese graters. A pair of GoreTex socks work well as a back-up when the lining in your boots eventually starts to go. However, if your boots are really on their last legs (har), I find these socks alone aren’t up to the job of keeping your feet dry.
■ Trousers: I’ve yet to experience anything that matches the comfort and performance of tweed plus-fours. If I need to be wind- or waterproof, I put a pair of GoreTex overtrousers on top. I like overtrousers to be roomy, with built-in braces.
■ Top: A cotton shirt and a woolly jumper cover me for most eventualities. When the weather gets colder, I prefer to add another layer on top – usually a bodywarmer. I find thermal ‘base layers’ too hot and clingy when the going gets tough, which it invariably does.
■ Jacket: When the weather is mild, I usually wear a single layer, cotton camouflage jacket. In cold weather I’ll wear a lined tweed shooting jacket. Again, if I need to be wind- or waterproof, I’ll cover up with a GoreTex shell. For their weight, fleeces are really cosy, but I get through them (quite literally) in no time.
■ Gloves: Any old crap you find in your local discount store will do. You’ll only lose them anyway. However, before that, they’ll work fine inside your army surplus GoreTex overmitts. These are the very best thing since sliced bread – especially when crawling in water, slush or snow. If your gloves aren’t waterproof (and you’re not using the overmitts), take them off before a cold, wet crawl. It might be agony, but at least you’ll get the benefit of them afterwards.
■ Neck warmer: I have a thin one and a thick snood-type one for when the winter gets serious. Think two neck warmers is overkill? No way. When I need them, I’m as fond of these bits of equipment as I am of the overmitts.
■ Hat: It’s only when my ears are in danger of snapping off that I’ll abandon my tweed cap. A peak is a great thing for that low winter sun; below -5°C it’s a fleece beanie; when there’s total snow cover I use a white, Russian-style Ushanka hat, comrade.
■ Snowsuit: There’s a photo of me in my army surplus snowsuit in the January issue. Our beloved editor graced it with the caption that it’s ‘not elegant’ – maybe not, but there are hundreds of hinds that would vouch for its efficacy if they could speak English. And weren’t dead.
As a point to remember, take your snowsuit off before you get within ten feet of a downed beast or it won’t stay white for long.
■ Rifle cover: I favour carrying my rifle in a cover. Mine is thick leather, made by a local saddler. It’s heavy but has survived thousands of miles on the hill. I also think it’s quieter to drag than a nylon one. Money well spent.
Some stalkers prefer to do without a cover. I’ll sometimes do this on a fine day and be very glad of the weight saved. However, it does require you to be more aware of the rifle for more of the time. I’ve often heard that fixing masking tape over your muzzle will prevent you from plugging the barrel. I can’t bring myself to trust it.
■ Scope caps: It doesn’t matter whether they are the ones that came with the scope or the latest flip-up jobs, so long as you use them. If they are the original caps, fix them to the scope with an elastic band or cable tie or you will lose them. If you are in driving rain or snow, pick a beast with the binoculars and wait for your chance, leaving the caps on until you’re ready to make the shot.
■ Bipod: These also qualify for the sliced bread trophy. I favour those that tilt and have a telescoping leg length of nine to 13 inches. However, this is often not enough when in deep snow. In this situation, take your rifle cover right to the shooting point and use it as a platform for the bipod.
■ Silencer: A long time ago I decided the extra weight of a silencer was more than offset by the miles it saved me. My T8 is now nine years old and still going strong. However, it is heavy and these hills aren’t getting any smaller, so I’m treating myself to a Hardy moderator – watch this space.
■ Camouflage Tape: I have the stock of my Tikka T3 Lite covered in camouflage fabric tape, and my Remington 700 SPS has a camouflage neoprene stock cover. It certainly helps when staking out crows nests, and keeps the stock protected. The same tape on the moderator makes it less noisy when pinged by heather stems.
On my person
Around my neck will be my Swarovski 8×30 SLC binoculars, but on fine days I’ll save a bit of weight by using Swarovski’s compact 8x20Bs, which are amazingly good for their size. I go nowhere without a Leatherman Multitool in my belt, and a plastic clip of 10 extra bullets always goes in the same jacket pocket. In an emergency, they are no use in a bag left 30 yards behind me. In a breast pocket I always carry a plastic sandwich bag full of kitchen roll. Each square is cut into six, which means each piece is big enough to dry your wet lenses once.
I also carry a set of moulded earplugs, though I suspect I’m shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted – it must have been spooked by yet another guest using an unmoderated .270. My 25-litre Berghaus Dart rucksack goes with me every day and has given sterling service for years. In the side pockets I keep my radio and drag rope; the front pocket holds my gralloching knife and hand gel; the top pocket has my emergency kit. My emergency supplies comprise a spare knife, spare radio battery, lighter, three metres of thin nylon strap (most often pressed into service as a spare drag rope), three metres of high-visibility tape, torch, personal locator beacon and first aid kit.
The main body of the bag holds the important stuff – my lunch and flask. If I think I’ll need them, that’s where the waterproofs/snowsuit/overmitts go too.
So there you have it. I’m aware that I don’t look like I’ve just stepped out of the pages of an American hunting catalogue, but that has never featured on my list of priorities, whereas staying comfortable against the odds always has.