It’s that time of the year when we start getting cold and need to figure out how to stay warm. A fitting time for this Retro WON. ~MC
My first experience with frostbite was during a late-season duck hunt on the Kenai River in South Central Alaska. The boat’s motor stopped, and three of us were faced with paddling 2 miles upriver or a 6-hour float down. There weren’t any other boats on the water, given the minus-11 degree temperature. There’re more ducks down river, I thought, and we had plenty of clothes, gear, and even a propane heater. Since that trip, I still lose feeling in my fingers at the slightest cold.
I chase ducks in extreme weather. Here are 5 tricks I’ve learned, as well as a few tips from women who hunt and fish in some of Alaska’s most severe cold-weather environments, on how to stay warm.
Fake heat for real warmth
Chemical hand warmers like HotHands or Grabber at first seem like a concession to the gods. Am I such a fragile human that I really need 5 packages of hand warmers to stay warm? Yes, I do. I may open them in the privacy of my own vehicle and no one may know I’m padded down with chemical warmth, but guaranteed, if it’s below freezing, I’ve got these little gifts from the gods in my pockets. They are a light-weight and inexpensive instant warmth option with the caveats that activation is delayed at higher altitudes, they cool off in sweaty palms and can cause a rash if placed against sensitive skin (this I know from putting them in a bra).
Alaska big game hunter and fly-fisherman extraordinaire Rene Russ suggests putting them in a sleeping bag. Others put them in hats, gloves and inside pockets. They use the toe-warmer variety, made with adhesive on one side, between layers of clothing. Warmers work great when strategically placed between the base layer and an outer layer. Smart outdoor apparel companies, such as Próis Hunting and Field Apparel include drop pockets for hand warmers, like the ones located between the shoulder blades in the Sherpa Fleece Jacket and Pro-Edition Jacket. When I look at outdoor apparel, I look at the possibilities for secret hand warmer compartments.
My fingers have been frost-bitten, but my feet are usually kept warm by movement. In Alaska, many of us wear Bunny Boots for extreme cold. There is nothing lightweight about them, but I snowshoe into the mountains wearing these blocks of concrete in the winter and figure that I can skip going to the gym. Andrea Lowe Radford, owner of AK’s Adventures ‘n Taxidermy, recommends ThermaCELL heated insoles. Due to a medical condition that causes her circulation issues, staying warm is essential to her health and safety when she hunts in extreme cold. “Don’t expect to feel like your feet are in a hot tub,” she says. The battery powered and remotely operated insoles keep feet at a normal temperature.
There’s nothing like real heat. One of my favorite movie scenes is in the Frisco Kid when Harrison Ford and Gene Wilder cuddle together under a blanket during a blizzard. Wilder’s character asks, “We are doing this to keep warm, aren’t we?” And Ford’s character says, “Uh-huh.” To which Wilder says, “In that case, you can put your arms around me.”
If creating external heat isn’t possible with technology, there’s nothing like old-fashioned heat making. Burning calories generates heat internally. There have been times I’ve sprinted to keep warm, but most often I just do some chore that requires movement of the major muscle groups. I’ll get out of the blind and rearrange the decoys or move to another blind. I think the reason so many good stories get told in a duck blind is because both laughter and lying are proven to make us warm. So does anger, but my stories are seldom so lame as to create hostility. And, if all else fails, I’m not above turning to my hunting partner with a , “Come here, darling.”
Drink and eat for heat
Creating heat takes calories, and even the act of eating provides a slight increase in temperature. My favorite hunting snack is duck pepperoni sticks. As it turns out, there’s science behind me on this. Spicy foods, like those that include cayenne or chili pepper, have thermogenic properties: they produce heat in the body. Ginger is another food that generates warmth. Hot food and hot water (a thermos of coffee is worth its weight in warmth), if the calories are equal, won’t take heat away and add warmth.
Being hydrated also is critical to staying warm. The theory is that water retains heat. This goes against my personal experience in below-freezing weather when I am often stationary for extended periods of time. If I have to pee, I’m usually colder. My theory is that I’m having to work to keep the water warm rather than it keeping me warm. So much of what works in creating a slight increase in warmth depends on the individual, given our food preferences and level of overall health and fitness.
Alaska hunter Ruth Cusack hunts remote wilderness areas where staying warm means staying alive. “Basically all I do is have great layers,” she said. I couldn’t agree more. Ruth uses merino wool base layers, a waterproof outer layer, and fleece and down in-between. She recommends quality liner gloves underneath waterproof mittens and turned me on to Darn Tough Vermont socks. Melinda Shore, a recreational dog musher living in Two Rivers, Alaska, uses a Primaloft middle layer and, if she’s expending a lot of effort and sweating, she removes layers. She recommends Wristies, which are fleece tubes with a slit for the thumb similar to fingerless gloves.
My layering system depends on my level of activity. No matter the temperature, my next-to-skin layer is always merino wool. My mid-layers include pile fabric and/or a thin down vest. Often, I will opt out of the wind-or-rain blocking layer by wearing a dual-action mid-layer. Skin exposure at the wrists and ankles is an important consideration, and I wear thin stretch gloves with mittens and leg warmers, like Ruth and Melinda do. One trick I’ve learned is to tie my oversized beaver-lined mittens together with a long cord and drape them around my neck. When I need my hands I can easily bring them out of the gloves.
‘Start cold, work cold, chill warm’
I’m not sure where I first heard the phrase, “Start cold, work cold, chill warm,” (SCWCCW) but it makes sense. It’s not as severe as “If you sweat, you die” – an oft-repeated axiom of the cold-weather survivalist. Even though I like SCWCCW, I have found ways to cheat. For instance, some hunters will drive to their hunting grounds in a cold vehicle to avoid sweating (Start Cold). Most of my trips require 100-mile road trips, and I like a toasty car. So, I change into my hunting clothes, including socks, at the actual start of the trip. On a hike or climb to, I pace myself so as not to get too warm. As for chilling warm, I follow all of the above tips!
This Retro WON first appeared November 17, 2014.
Christine Cunningham is a lifelong Alaskan, author and outdoor columnist known for her contributions to outdoor magazines and her commitment to creating opportunities for women to connect and share their stories. Her first book, “Women Hunting Alaska,” profiles some of Alaska’s most outstanding female hunters. View all posts by Christine Cunningham