Over the past few years we have tested virtually every popular brand of stalking clothing almost to destruction in some of the harshest conditions that the UK weather could throw at us and are now happy to share the findings.
Let’s start with undergarments or the base layer as it is more commonly known. Many manufacturers produce what they think is the best but what we must consider is what we are actually going to be doing whilst wearing it, will we be permanently mobile, will we be static or will it be a combination of the two? This is the fundamental question. If we are going to be largely mobile such as roe doe stalking in the winter then a high wicking garment is going to be best if we are going to be spending long periods sitting in a high seat then insulation is paramount. Unfortunately I have yet to come across one garment that is ideal for both purposes however, about 18 months ago I was introduced to some woolen underwear which the Swedish army use – Woolpower by Ulfrotte. This is as close to ideal as I’ve yet to come across, it is a merino wool product that has a ‘terry towelling loop’ texture next to the skin and a normal fine woven outer surface. It comes in several weights, 200, 400 and 600 and several configurations from a t-shirt to a long sleeved full zip front cardigan style garment with an extra long tail. The beauty of this system is that it can obviously be layered, wicks moisture reasonably well and remains warm even when damp, another plus is that being merino it doesn’t retain odours.
Moving on to a mid layer. It still surprises me when clients come dressed in all sorts of unsuitable mid layers from thin cotton t shirts to office shirts to bulky quilted jackets. With the modern clothing available for todays outdoor enthusiasts it should be relatively simple to find something suitable. Probably the most popular of all is a fleece of some sort with most people selecting different weight products depending on the outside weather rather than their levels of activity. Whilst I have nothing against fleece I have often found it too warm and not breathable enough during periods of heavy exertion, like dragging a 60-70 Kilo fallow 600 yards! Enter once again Woolpower, with the 400 or 600 gram layers proving ideal. At this point it is probably worth pointing out that very few if any products will be able to wick the levels of moisture produced during heavy exertion, I know, I have been there and done it. The beauty of the woolen products over fleece is that even when they are damp, they retain their thermal properties far better than fleece and being Merino are pleasant against the skin. So in effect we have to accept that we have to compromise, we cannot stay completely dry and warm if there is any reasonable level of activity.
The outer layer is probably the most important layer to the UK stalker. We have all read the claims from the manufacturers about waterproofness and breathability and warmth – what a load of tosh! I dare not even think about the money I have spent on products that found themselves woefully lacking in some respect. Yes there are warm products out there, yes there are waterproof products out there and yes there are breathable products out there, but let me put you in a real situation:-
It’s 06.00 in the middle of December, you poke your nose outside whilst the kettle boils for a quick brew before you leave for a full day on the ground, you’re well under way with your cull and you desperately need another 6-10 animals in the larder for venison orders for Christmas and so you can have a few days off over Christmas with the family. Its’s raining, hard, with a moderate South Westerly wind. What should you wear? Well, for a start it’s the middle of winter so you’ve invested in some decent thermal underwear, warm, wicking and breathable it said on the packaging and its made out of God knows what! Next you put on a warm shirt, probably cotton followed by your trusty fleece. Your outer layer is going to be the very latest goretex £350 jacket, it just has to tick all the boxes after all it was £350! For now we’ll just accept that the trousers and boots are equally expensive and of course have the same properties! Right, you’re off, 30 minutes later you arrive at the gates to the estate, jump out and get geared up. You decide that you will walk to a known productive highseat for these conditions, the problem is it’s a 20 minute walk and you want to be in before first light so you need to get a move on. So 20 minutes or so of brisk walking and you arrive as planned before first light and get up into the seat but you are pretty wet from the rain on the outside and decidedly clammy inside from the perspiration from the brisk walk. After an hour or so you begin to feel a decided chill both under your all singing and dancing jacket and in your boots, after another half hour you’re getting fidgety because it’s really quite nippy, after two hours you’re thinking you will have to go for a walk because you’re freezing – but how can this be, the manufacturers said that you would be warm in even the harshest conditions, you have obviously got a faulty jacket and boots, how unlucky to have both! You decide that mobile stalking is the order of the day to restore heat to the system especially as the deer appear to be hiding. After 30 minutes steady walk warmth has returned to such a degree that a level of sweat has developed again, you are into the main body of the woods and spot two fallow does with fawns, with a bit of care you can get yourself into a very stable position – decision time, which one to take? The rest is stable so you decide that as the fawns are in good enough condition to survive orphaning you will take the lead doe first and if the fawn stops long enough you could possibly take that as well. Everything goes to plan and the doe drops to a neck shot, the three remaining run a short distance but the orphaned fawn stops and looks back long enough for a second shot, this time a heart/lung shot, you hear the bullet strike but the animal jumps and makes off. You wait for a while to let the nerves settle and for the animal to hopefully expire. After ten minutes you follow-up after checking for signs of life in the doe and sure enough 30 yards away is the fawn lying dead, you decide that you will drag it to the doe and proceed to deal with the gralloching. By now the jacket is really paying for itself, its boiling and sweat is running down your back, but hang on, your super wicking underwear was developed by NASA and they know a thing or two, you must have got the sets that NASA didn’t want, the none wicking sort. Coupled with this you’ve got to gralloch both these animals then drag them to the point of extraction which would have been a lot closer had you not had to walk so far to get warm in the first place!
Okay this may be a bit extreme, but I’m sure many of you know exactly what I’m getting at – there are no garments that I have yet to come across that do everything, some may disagree, you may be thinking, ” he’s talking rubbish,
last time I was out for a wander in my £350 goretex jacket I was warm and dry,” I agree, I’ve done and experienced the same, but more often it’s more like the scenario above – try spending four days a week out on the ground in all weather conditions getting your cull numbers and you will soon find out what I’m talking about.
So, back to the outer layer, what to choose. Personally, with the woolen underwear that will absorb moisture and remain warmer than sythetic garments, I prefer a jacket that is waterproof above anything else – I have already decided that warmth is the key for me, I can live with damp but not the cold – if you are damp you can still think and function properly, if you’re cold your body can do funny things and you’ll be more inclined to go home early – not good for a deer manager. Warm and breathable are often quoted together as the selling point for a jacket yet physically this is nigh on impossible, if the pores allow water vapour out then heat will go with it, which means that more insulation is needed which will only generate more heat and moisture, genius! By far the most suitable outer layer for UK stalking are the products made by Nomad, it is a fleece like material which is completely waterproof, it is claimed to be breathable but in reality it is so warm during almost any level of activity that it just can’t cope with the moisture produced hence the need for absorbent, warm base and mid layers.
Last November I travelled up to Perthshire on my annual hind culling pilgrimage with the plan of testing both the Nomad products thoroughly as well as some new fangled breathable waterproof kit from Ridgeline and Harkila. Sadly the results were as expected. We travelled up in fine weather but were aware of the change coming, with heavy rain, strong winds and the possibility of snow – at least it would be a good test for the clothing, as well as our shooting. I can honestly say that the shooting conditions were absolutely the worst I have ever been out in with 40-50 mph gusts and torrential rain on nearly every day making shooting almost impossible but ideal for fieldtesting clothing. To cut a long story short, all but one of the man-made fabrics failed dismally, the Harkila kept water out but the outer layer absorbed water like a sponge whilst crawling through wet heather and peat although my legs were’t wringing wet inside , I was damp, very damp which then became cold in the high winds. The Ridgeline was the biggest dissapointment, I honestly couldn’t tell whether I was wetter inside or out, about as breathable as a bin liner and once again decidedly chilly. The best by far was the Nomad, which although allowing a reasonable amount of moisture build up inside, remained warm and waterproof even when sitting in the wet heather.
Because we are faced with so many varied stalking conditions in the UK it is fair to say that there is unlikely to be a do it all clothing brand, however with Woolpower and Nomad I believe that is about as good an all-rounder as possible. As if further evidence were needed, ask Scottish hill stalkers what they wear, if it’s not tweed it will likely be nomad, our Stalker Jason wore a combination of tweed and Nomad with oilskin trousers on top for good measure when it got really nasty, they don’t mind damp but they don’t do cold!
I hope this have given some insight into what clothing we use and why, we’ve spent the money and done the hard work so you don’t have to, we are out in all conditions as deer managers and need stuff we can rely on to keep us out doing our job. Sadly there is no perfect garment so we continue testing until one comes along and when it does you can be sure we will try that as well!