Today, hunters have more choices than ever when it comes to layering when hunting. How do the classics measure up against todays synthetics? When I went deer hunting with family as a kid, we wore jeans, leather boots (unlined), a flannel shirt, leather jacket and wool gloves, socks and hat. If it was cold, which it often was, we added wool long underwear and wore a wool lined coat instead of an old leather one. I do remember being cold if we held still very long, but being comfortable as long as we were moving on spot and stalk hunts for mountain muleys.
Nowadays, I wear hi-tech long underwear and synthetic fibers. Yet for many years, natural fibers were what we had and no one I knew suffered too much for it. That leads me to the question, which is best? Synthetic or natural clothing? There are purists who believe natural is best, and others who think you can’t beat lightweight synthetics.
Starting at the base layer, I look for two things. Does it keep me warm and does it keep me dry? Wool is a natural fiber and as such absorbs water. If you sweat, it will soak it up and hold it in the interior of the wool fiber. This means that wool feels dry next to your skin. If you get wet (like you fall in a stream) it will absorb water. Wool will take longer to dry and be heavier since the fiber is actually holding water. Synthetic fibers do not absorb water (they are glorified plastic after all), but will hold moisture between fibers. Since they do not absorb water, they dry faster and don’t retain much water weight. This is called ‘wicking’ and is desirable if you are going to sweat a lot, but need to get dry fast.
The next factor is can I bear to wear it under my clothes for a week while I’m out hunting? Years ago I would have said no. I have a low tolerance for wool. It itches and irritates. However, I also recently tried some merino wool base layers and found them very easy to wear. Merino wool has been reworked, by today’s manufacturers, to be more flexible and have smoother fibers. Wool fiber is scaly and stiff, thus the itchiness and irritation that old wools caused. Today’s merino wool is smoother, very comfortable and has all the benefits of wool. However, synthetic fibers are silky soft as well.
Frankly, the truth is that modern wool and modern synthetics are both so good, that it comes down to personal choice. Do you like the idea of natural fibers? Can you tolerate wool? It’s up to you. Personally, though, I’ve moved on to mixed fibers.