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Hunting During the Off-Season: Your Guide to Winter Hunting from Gear to Prey

by Ben Jimenez

hunting during off season guide

Hunting is a great sport to indulge in during the winter for a variety of reasons. If you are willing to tough it out, you can have a highly successful season.

This guide will provide you with all you need to know about winter hunting, from how to stay warm to the best gear to use and what prey you can expect to encounter in the colder months.

Benefits of Winter Hunting

It might be exceptionally cold across most of the country, but many hunters feel the freezing temperatures are worth enduring for the benefits that winter hunting can offer over other times of the year. Here is a list of reasons why the colder weather can make hunting in the winter easier.

1. Tracking is easier in the snow.

Animals roaming through the snow leave pristine tracks, especially if the snow is fresh, allowing you not only to follow their trail but often also identify the species of animal you’re tracking by examining the footprints it has left behind. You’ll be able to follow blood trails much easier, too, because they are highly visible against the blanket of snow.

2. Dangerous creepy crawlies are minimal.

Hunting in warmer weather poses a risk of encountering dangerous insects and reptiles. These animals hibernate during winter, so you won’t have any biting mosquitos, scary spiders, or poisonous snakes to contend with out in the woods during the winter months.

3. Less foliage provides a better line of sight.

Spring is a beautiful time of year with blooming flowers, lush grasses, and full trees, but all that foliage can obstruct your line of sight. You can see much farther into the distance during the winter when the trees and bushes are relatively bare.

benefits of winter hunting graphic

4. Calm skies are good for calls.

Game calls that mimic animal noises are useful for any hunter. Except for a few sporadic snow or ice storms, winter is relatively calm compared to other seasons. Most animals bed down for the winter. They forage for food very infrequently, and mating rituals are non-existent.

Without those ambient noises to interfere with your calls, the sounds you generate can travel farther, and animals can hear them more clearly at greater distances.

On the other hand, it is even more critical during the winter season for you to move as silently as possible. The calm means other sounds—like your footsteps, zippers, and the crinkling of food wrappers—are also far more audible.

5. There is less competition, and there are fewer distractions.

If you still need some convincing that winter hunting is a viable option, consider that many other hunters feel the same. That’s why those who hunt in the winter encounter very few other hunters in the wild. That means more opportunities for them—and more game.

There are also fewer non-hunting visitors out and about in the colder months like campers, anglers, or hikers who might enter your prey’s territory and frighten it away.

6. It is easier to keep game chilled.

When hunting, you need to gut and cool your game as soon as possible to prevent the meat from spoiling before you can get it home. This is a far easier and quicker process in the winter.

Strategies for Keeping Warm While Hunting in the Winter

Staying warm is the most important aspect of hunting during winter. If you don’t wrap up sufficiently, you run the risk of developing frostbite or hypothermia. In cold weather, your heart will also be working overtime to pump blood around your body and keep you warm, so staying as warm as you can is crucial for your safety.

hunter in winter forest

From a more practical perspective, you can't effectively track or dress game if you're shivering from the cold. Cold weather makes it more difficult to concentrate and causes you to move slower than normal. Maintaining your body temperature by using the proper gear and keeping active is important.

Follow these simple rules:

Keep dry.

Wet clothing and gear exacerbate the cold and prevent heat insulation. Avoid traveling through bodies of water and melted snow and ice, and avoid excessive sweating.

Wear proper clothing.

Your activity level and the precise weather conditions will determine what clothing to wear. Generally, layering is the key to staying warm. Make sure you keep your fingers and toes warm but still mobile, with gear that preserves their temperature but also allows you to maintain your dexterity for things like hiking, tying knots, handling a knife, or firing your gun.

Whether you are hunting in Alaska or the brutal winters of upstate New York, there is no substitute for warm winter hunting apparel, such as Cabela’s Stand Hunter Extreme Overalls. These overalls are engineered to keep you warm while still allowing you room to move. They come with a removable hand muff, a hood, and hand warmer pockets.   

Keep moving.

Moving generates body heat. In the woods, keep a steady pace whenever possible. Vigorously swing your arms when moving around to help keep your temperature up.

group hunters walking on outdoor path

Essential Winter Gear

Base Layers

Wool base layers are soft, comfortable, and superb at maintaining temperature, but they can take a while to dry if they get wet. Synthetic materials dry quicker but tend to be cooler than wool. Under Armour produces a great line of wicking garments that also keep you warm. Avoid cotton because it retains moisture and won’t keep you dry.

Mid Layers

Mid-layer garments for extremely cold weather usually contain down. Unfortunately, down garments dry slowly and lose their insulating abilities when they get wet.

Thick fleece or polyester fill are materials commonly used in synthetic mid layers. Fleece is soft and relatively thin. It’s neither wind- nor water-resistant, but it retains much of its insulating properties when damp. Polyester fill also has excellent moisture-wicking capabilities.

Outer Shell

The purpose of your outer shell is to protect you from the environment and provide you with camouflage. Although some outer-layer garments include insulation, it's not required. What is important is that your outer layer is durable, as well as being wind- and water-resistant.

Camouflage is vital for hunters who don’t want to be detected by their prey. White may work for areas with heavy snow, but many other patterns are also available. Most companies refer to their winter patterns as snow camouflage, though they may contain shades of gray, green, or brown.

pair boots in snow

Hunting Boots

Proper hunting boots protect your feet and allow you to move safely through the terrain. Without them, trekking can become uncomfortable or even dangerous. Consider your terrain when comparing the tread pattern, lug pattern, and thickness of the boots available.

A soft, rubber sole with large lugs is appropriate for rugged terrain or climbing, while soles with a thin tread pattern are suitable for flat terrain. Winter boots usually need to be a size or two larger than your regular footwear to make room for insulation for the feet and toes.

Other Accessories

It’s vital that you wear the correct clothing for hunting in the winter, but don't forget all the other small items you need like gloves, mittens, hats, and masks. Gloves allow more dexterity than mittens but generally provide less warmth. There are 2-in-1 glove and mitten sets available, allowing you to remove the mitten without dropping it on the ground. Under Armour’s Scent Control Fleece Gloves use infrared linings to keep your fingers toasty, and the scent control eliminates your natural body odors.   

Hunters typically only wear face masks in extremely cold weather, but some do use them as camouflage, too. Many find it easier to breathe through a mask because it warms the air.

gun holsters quote

Gun Holsters

Gun holsters are a vitally important part of your hunting equipment. Kydex holsters are especially appealing to hunters who want to carry a handgun around with them in addition to a rifle. They are highly durable and withstand temperature changes better than most plastic-molded holsters, perfect for hunting in harsh conditions.

Tuckable IWB holsters are also popular because you can easily wear them under your clothing. These holsters are also available in a range of camouflage patterns to match your other gear.

Game You Can Hunt During Winter

Wildlife management officials state that winter hunting helps to sustain a healthy animal population. Food is scarce during the colder months and thinning the herds prevents starvation. However, before heading out this winter, make sure to check your local wildlife management restrictions. Hunting outside of the proper location or season could result in steep fines.

Here is a list of some of the animals you’re likely to see in the winter:

Antelope

Antelope harvests result in a fair amount of meat, as well as a great trophy. The Great Plains offers the best antelope hunting opportunities in the winter time. States like Wyoming and Colorado are also good places for winter antelope hunts.

Boar

The boar is a destructive species responsible for thousands of dollars’ worth of damage. They tend to be aggressive and breed easily. You can hunt boar in places like Tennessee and Florida, usually without a bag limit.

Coyote

Like boars, many people consider coyotes a nuisance. These medium-sized animals feed on small endangered species, livestock, and even cherished family pets. Many states don't require a license to hunt coyote. They're known for being cunning and make challenging prey.

ducks flying over water

Duck

If hunting birds is more your idea of fun, rather than trekking through the woods in search of larger mammals, then consider hunting duck this winter. The state of Louisiana offers winter duck hunts at reasonable prices.

Elk

The elk is a robust member of the deer family. They are smaller than moose but larger than white-tailed deer. Alaska and Wyoming both work on a lottery system, so you need to start the process early to secure a spot for the winter.

Harvest reports from Alaska’s 2017 season resulted in about a 30% success rate. The typical elk harvest provides 450 lbs. of useable meat.

Fox

Fox hunting has changed since the traditional fox chases of yore. Hunting foxes for sport still exists but focuses on the chase rather than the capture. Modern fox hunting is more of an individual pursuit, like that of any other prey. Restrictions vary by location. Bag limits usually don't apply, although the hunting area is usually small.

Geese

Waterfowl are usually in season during late fall, but states like Tennessee have some extensions. Many different species are available, and tag limits depend on species and season. Waterfowl hunters shoot the birds out of the air and use dogs to retrieve kills from the water.

Lynx

The lynx isn't common throughout most of the United States, but Alaska's population is large enough to support regular hunting. Some states have private, guided hunts that include lynx. Like other species of wild cat, hunting the lynx takes time and patience. They're mostly only active at night, making daylight sightings exceedingly rare.

young mountain lion in snow

Mountain Lion

This elusive cat offers a one-of-a-kind experience for advanced hunters who enjoy tracking their prey. Montana offers both resident and non-resident tags during the winter. Many states also offer private mountain lion hunts.

Other Birds

Migratory birds usually require a special stamp endorsement. Regardless, pheasant and quail are available from December through February in states like Texas. The chachalaca, a small woodland bird, is an especially rare hunt.

Wild turkey is also available from November through February in Kentucky and Texas.

Rabbit

Rabbits are abundant in many states and aren't usually subject to a bag limit. Rabbit hunts are a good introduction for younger hunters because the prey is small, relatively harmless, and easy to handle. Rabbits are experts at hiding. Finding them usually requires climbing through brush, berry patches, or tall grasses, so make sure you’re wearing protective gear.

Raccoon

Hunters have targeted raccoons for centuries for their meat and fur. They're a popular harvest near urban areas where food is abundant. Most states consider them small game or varmints. You can hunt raccoons in states like Washington, Texas, and Louisiana without a bag limit.

If hunting for sport appeals to you, raccoon-hunting competitions—where participants hunt raccoons with dogs—are available through the United Kennel Club.

Squirrel

Squirrels are small, quick rodents that are another excellent introductory game for a young or beginner hunter. They're also easy to cook at camp. This prey has excellent stealth, and its quick gait poses a challenge to even the most advanced hunters.

Children use this game to learn patience and accurate shooting and how to skin and clean a carcass.

Last Words

Winter hunting has a lot to offer the community. Not only is there a wealth of different animal species that you can find in the colder weather, tracking prey can be much easier. The icy temperatures also keep other hunters and visitors away, meaning you’ll have very little in the way of competition and distractions between you and your next kill.

As with any other kind of hunting, your safety must be your top priority, even more so in the chilly winter season. Make sure you have sufficient insulating clothing and all the right gear to keep you warm on your thrilling winter hunt.

Ben Jimenez
Ben Jimenez


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