When the going gets tough…

Will O’Meara reveals the gear he really relies on during the winter when conditions turn against him

Deer hunting season, in my neck of the woods, runs from the start of September to the end of February. September hunting conjures up visions of balmy evenings on the hills admiring a golden sunset.

In early September, flies are the main concern, and the rule of thumb is usually not to leave home without mozzie spray to keep the dreaded midges at bay.

Ticks are number two on the list, and rubber gloves and a post-hunt shower and inspection are good deterrents. I have for the most part avoided any tick attachments, and I put this success down to wearing gaiters and having a healthy dose of paranoia.

I am usually well prepared for the foul weather that hits the Wicklow Mountains, but I have on occasion got caught out, and it’s usually in these wet and cold days that you realise the benefits of your ‘systems’.

One such day was in early September; I and a hunting buddy took a mutual friend of ours out for a hunt on the hill. We started in the late afternoon and split up to make the most of the hours of daylight; the lads headed east and I headed west, which suited the prevailing north wind.

The day had been sunny and calm and as such I wore a light pair of nylon trousers, a merino base layer top, a baseball hat and a light jacket – just in case…

An hour into the hunt, I had located a nice sika stag and was lying off in a good vantage point less than 150 metres above him on a steep mountainside. I rang the lads and explained where I was, where the stags were, and how they could approach with good cover from below.

I watched the hunt unfold, and as the minutes ticked past an hour, I started to feel the chill of that northern wind cutting me. I could see the evening sun warming the far side of the valley but I was lying belly down, wet from crawling through rushes and peat on the dark side.

The stags had actually fed closer to me and were at times less than 80 metres from my position – so moving wasn’t an option.

I waited patiently for the boys to make their stalk. It all worked out and our visiting buddy no sooner had a deer on the ground, at which point I was already feeling warmer with the thoughts of moving. I waited to let the dust settle, then when I saw them approach the downed deer I burst straight into a run to get the blood flowing. 

At times during that wait I was shaking so much from the cold that it was more like a spasm than a shiver. This brought home a point to me – if I had had a pair of gloves, a neck warmer and a beanie, I would have been far better off.

All these would all have fitted in my pocket or bumbag. This small scenario was no case of life or death, but it did occur to me at times that taking a steady shot would have been difficult. I have hunted comfortably in far more arduous conditions – driving rain, sleet and snow – but I had been well equipped or moving or both.

Let’s have a look at some system choices that can help you to remain effective when the conditions turn nasty. From the feet up: Footwear seems like an obvious place to start, and when I think of hunting and footwear, I immediately think of boots, hill boots that is.

I know lots of people hunt in wellies, but it’s never been a good solution for me, not even in the ‘lowlands’. Last year I made the effort to look at a pair of the really well made (and expensive) neoprene and leather-lined options – my try-out was limited to walking around John Lambert’s shop in the heart of Wexford but that was enough to tell me what I needed to know. I’ll stick with the hiking boots

I have long been a Meindl fan and the Island Pro was my go-to boot for quite a while. This year I tried a pair of Zamberlan Hunter GTX. These are pitched as an extreme-level boot for hunting on harsh and difficult terrain. They use a full-grain waxed leather outer – they call it Hydrobloc and this seems to work well and doesn’t soak up water.

The boot is also built on a wide last, which means more room for my feet, which seem to have grown wider and longer over the last 10 years (I’m wondering if this is gravity catching up with me.)

River crossings are inevitable in mountain hunting. Are you prepared?

When I read ‘extreme-level boot’ I think of a rigid full-shank alpine boot that is crampon-compatible – but this is not the case and I am delighted to report that the Zamberlan Hunter is ideal for hunting the mountains and lowlands alike.

I would be more than happy to use these boots anywhere from local fields to the New Zealand Alps – in fact I liked them so much I went and bought a second pair. They were comfortable out of the box and have served me well over the past couple of months.

When I get a new pair of boots I have a couple of tricks I employ to ensure they fit and work well for me. The first is to get the right size and fit – I watch for heel lift and enough room in the toe box. I find that higher boots don’t work for me and cause heel lift, which results in blisters – I think this is because the boots secure around the calf rather than the ankle.

I also play around with lacing and loosen, tighten or skip lace holes to get the right fit. I use a clamp-down lacing style in places (see photo above) to get a good fit. Trimming the length of my laces to the minimum plus knotting and burning the ends prevents fraying and excess lace.

What’s in the boots? Two feet, 10 toes and a good pair of socks. The thickness of my chosen sock depends on the weather. I have had good experiences with merino blends from Smartwool, Bridgedale, Meindl and Firstlite Hunting.

While on the topic of feet, it’s worth mentioning that looking after them will pay you dividends – if your feet go down, you are in trouble. I look after my feet with simple things like good quality socks and footwear every day. When I’m not in boots, my shoes are approach shoe style from companies such as Scarpa and Meindl.

Keep your nails trimmed and powder your feet – Pedamed is a good one. If I start to get a foot issue, I get it sorted as a number one priority. This approach has served me well so far.

The next trick up my sleeve is one to keep those feet dry, regardless of the terrain or weather. This I achieve with what is called a puttee – a low ankle gaiter. It’s not a common offering in this part of the world but is often used in New Zealand – they use it more to keep debris out of boots, whereas I use it as a waterproofing measure.

I am such a believer in this system that I’ve actually gone to the effort of having these putties made in high-performance materials for myself, using a high-stretch neoprene and Goretex. I wear these putties under my trouser-leg and gaiters and the theory is that they stop moisture or water tracking up your boot or down your leg.

Without them your sock acts like a wick and soaks in the water, which in turn saturates your boot. I’ve tested this system in extreme conditions, crossing rivers and on extended trips of up to 11 days in winter mountain environments – they work.

With Gore-Tex boots, my putties, waterproof trousers and gaiters, I am confident in any weather that I will be dry of foot, and have on many occasions crossed mountain streams almost up to my knee.

I am a fan of merino base layers, but when the really nasty weather hits I revert to the synthetic base layers, I find that the stretch-fit sports ones like Underarmour or Nike are good. They do turn smelly but they dry quickly and don’t absorb moisture.

Next in the layering system I use a light sleeveless grid-fleece from Kuiu. The sleeveless option gives me great freedom of movement, it has a full front zip that further aids the venting options from when you are working hard, and the material, being fleece, doesn’t soak water. This is a versatile mid-layer that can keep your core warm but allow you not to overheat when you are climbing.

I have some really good nylon trousers from Firstlite hunting, Kuiu and Stone Glacier. The Stone Glacier has a facility for knee pads, and I am a big fan of the light neoprene kneepad from 5.11 Tactical – these are light enough that they don’t obstruct when walking but also give protection in cases such as stalking through high heather.

This can be especially true in the rut when stags are moving around fighting and gathering hinds. In this scenario you have lots of eyeballs to avoid, and if you are guiding a client who you’d like to get in close for a shot, lots of crawling is required.

If the forecast is wet and wild I will go for a Gore-Tex or similar waterproof outer layer. I have had great luck with Firstlite hunting and Norrona raingear.

It’s worth noting that you need to wash your Gore-Tex regularly to ensure it performs – it’s a technical fabric and if the pores are blocked with mud, blood, fat, dirt, sweat and tears then it won’t breathe as it should. A laminate membrane that can’t breathe will clam up and will feel like it is leaking – sometimes this is just sweat.

I put huge faith in accessories, in particular my fleece beanie and good, warm waterproof gloves. Kuiu are my go-to brand for gloves; the bonded waterproof liner is bombproof. A neck gaiter is not just to keep warm or camo your face – it also acts as a barrier for rain entering via your neck/hood area. 

One of the most frustrating things about hunting in foul weather conditions is dealing with wet optics. I carry a cleaning kit on my bino harness and recently discovered how effective a chammy can be for cleaning your lenses, even when it’s wet. You will find these in your local car accessory shop. 

Another essential for when conditions turn nasty is a torch. I prefer a headtorch and currently have a Petzl Actik, which is lightweight, has good battery life and is rechargeable. I carry a little Goal Zero powerpack to charge this and my phone.

Keeping water, snow, dirt or debris out of your rifle’s action and barrel is important and becomes a real issue when the weather turns. I have used Cordura-style covers, electrical tape, the finger of a rubber glove and other ad hoc solutions to protect my rifle from the elements and I am currently working on another hunting-friendly solution that I’m going to try and get into production. It’s top secret for now – I’ll keep you posted in due course!

Puttees: an old-school idea made with modern materials, and they really do work

The most important tool for adverse conditions on the hunt is preparation and mindset – you cannot buy either of these. Practise hunting in tough conditions by hunting in tough conditions – you will soon figure out what to prioritise and you will learn to value your tools.

Toughing it out will always be rewarded, but sometimes – in extreme situations – the toughest thing to do is make good decisions. The reward of hard work and preparation might be in taking that animal you are pursuing, or it might be the knowledge that when the going got tough you had the mental and physical capacity to stick with it.

A dry set of clothes back at your car or camp is always a good insurance policy, but there are times when you just need to suck it up, remind yourself that difficult is good and embrace the adversity.

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