LJ Bonham is a semi-subsistence hunter, hunting magazine editor, and firearms enthusiast who lives in the Rocky Mountains.
North America offers epic winter big game hunting. While most people think hunting is just for autumn, the truth is there are many places to chase deer, moose, elk, wolf, and bears when the snow flies. Here’s where to go and what you need to bring for a winter big game hunt.
Location, Location, Location
Winter’s official run is from the winter solstice on December 21st through the vernal equinox on March 20th. For argument’s sake, we’ll include early December as well. Several states, such as Vermont, stretch their traditional fall deer season into late December. For the past several years, Montana has allowed limited elk hunting through mid-February. Chances are good this will continue for the foreseeable future. In addition, Montana’s wolf season runs into mid-March. The farther north you go, the more winter hunting opportunities exist, as you’d expect. In Canada, Alberta has a trifecta for moose, deer, and elk through late December as does Saskatchewan for deer. The musk ox season in the North West Territories runs from September through April. Alaska invites you to give their moose dirt naps through December. There’s no solid reason to not hunt big game during the winter if you are prepared to travel a bit, or if you live in winter hunting areas. If you are unsure a particular location offers winter hunting, just check with the appropriate game management authorities.
Here’s what to expect on a winter big game hunt and the gear you’ll need.
More so than any other season, winter’s weather is in ultimate control. Hunters accustomed to even late fall hunts in more temperate climates often don’t grasp just how serious a concern weather is during a winter hunt up north. In short, winter there can, and will, kill you if you are the least bit unprepared.
Take Montana, for instance. The coldest temperature on record for the lower 48 states occurred in January, 1954 at Roger’s Pass (-70F). This unique event aside, it is quite common to see temps throughout the state in the low-teens down to twenty or thirty below zero, Fahrenheit. Big Sky Country’s eastern two-thirds has frequent blizzards driven by 30 – 80 mph winds. The state’s western third is a bit milder, but sees dense fog, freezing rain, heavy snow, and ice brought in by intense Pacific cold fronts. The place is not for the tenderfoot. Alaska and Canada have similar conditions but with colder averages, white-outs, and fewer temperature swings. If Montana’s winter has a thousand ways to kill you, the Arctic has a million. You can expect just as harsh conditions around the Great Lakes and the far north-eastern U.S.
In these conditions optics fog over, guns freeze shut, ammunition loses power, engines refuse to start, untreated diesel fuel turns to Jell-O. Your unprotected skin begins to freeze within minutes and turn to frostbite, your mental faculties slow down, and hypothermia lurks, ready to strike. Every task takes longer to accomplish and is just plain harder. In short, the environment does its best to kill your every minute of every day.
What to Wear
An old Norse truism states, "There is no bad weather, only bad clothes." Proper clothes are essential for a successful winter big game hunt. While the market is saturated with choices, from the most basic to the ultra-sophisticated, there are a few core principles you should adhere to when you select your winter hunting wardrobe.
- Dress in layers; at a minimum, wear a base, a middle, and an outer layer. Extreme Arctic conditions may require multiple mid and outer layers. The base layer rests against your skin. Never wear cotton undergarments. Repeat, never wear cotton undergarments! Cotton absorbs the water contained in perspiration, it does not wick it away from your skin and transport into the mid-layer. This causes your body to spend precious energy to heat said water and your core body temperature will drop fast. Wear synthetic, silk, or fine Merino or Kashmir wool. The mid layer should breathe well and insulate when wet—synthetics or wool work best. Again, no cotton. The outer layer must also breathe, but it has to keep outside water (snow, rain, etc.) out and stop the wind. Outer layers for sub-zero conditions need much less breathability, though. Wear down insulation if you are certain it will not snow or rain in temperatures above freezing. Wet down is useless.
- Bring multiple hats in light, medium, and heavy flavors which you can remove or add as conditions change. Your outer layer parka should have a hood. The human body loses the most heat from the head and the rump. Proper insulation for these parts is essential.
- Out layer pants must also deflect water and wind. In sub-zero cold, insulated bibs are a great choice, but remember, unless you will sit for hours in a blind, pants have to permit easy movement. Make sure they are easy to put on and take off, too.
- Wear synthetic or silk liner socks under your insulated socks to wick sweat away. Boots must both breathe and stop water impingement. For sub-zero conditions, consider either extreme weather pack boots or U.S. military-issue bunny boots. Oh, don’t forget gators to seal the gap around your boot tops.
- Gloves also need to breathe. Have thin, synthetic contact gloves in case you need to handle cold metal but need maximum dexterity. Outer gloves need to shed water and also breathe. Consider expedition weight mittens for sub-zero weather.
- Select outer layers made from soft, quiet fabrics and test your entire clothing system to determine if it makes noise when you move.
By far, the most popular and prevalent hunting rifle in the north is the bolt-action. They provide the needed mechanical leverage to break the bolt loose if it freezes shut. Most other action types—semi-autos, in particular—lack this ability. There are custom and semi-custom bolt-actions available designed for winter operations—those offered by Accuracy International, for example. These have relief cuts in the bolt body which channel ice and snow away when the bolt is operated. Lever and pump-actions also provide some mechanical leverage, but they often lack the turning action for the bolt head which improves cartridge case extraction. This can make all the difference between a successful hunt and a locked-up gun.
Headspace and chamber size needs some attention in a rifle destined for winter conditions. The current trend is to make rifles as tight as possible to enhance accuracy. A winter rifle should have looser tolerances, much as a military rifle does. The cartridge case needs some “wiggle room” to allow for frost or snow/ice which might either adhere to the rounds or get into the action when it is operated. The floating bolt heads found on Savage brand rifles are a good feature for winter ops which other makers should emulate. It makes small adjustments for case imperfections and or debris in the chamber and allows the round to fine its own optimum headspace. Regardless the means, a rifle needs features which allow moisture to leave the action or at least move away from the moving bits.
Rifles with Mauser-style controlled round feed are also great winter big game hunting choices. Their massive extractors, designed for rough military use, excel at extracting stubborn, snow-fouled cases. Also, cartridges which feature more tapered, shallow shouldered cases, such as the .30-06, 8mm Mauser, 6.5x55mm, and .375 H&H, tend to feed better than their sharp shouldered, straight wall cousins in harsh winter conditions.
Winter Gun Maintenance
Rifle lubrication is one area many hunters don’t take into account in winter. Many gun oils and greases will freeze solid in sub-zero temperatures. Use military grade lube which is specifically designed for cold weather. Synthetic motor oil also great. It embeds itself into metal parts to form a deep film layer and it has a wide operational range; from -40F to +140F, in many cases. It is also available at any auto parts store.
Last, give your gun ample time to dry out when you’re not in the field. Moisture gets into a gun when it sits in a warm tent or cabin. When you take it outside into the cold, this moisture condenses and forms either dew or, most likely, frost. When you bring the weapon back inside, this frost liquefies and adheres to the gun’s parts. Unload the gun and take a good look at it after each hunt, even if it is made from stainless steel, and wipe off any excess moisture, then leave the action open overnight so it can breathe. Dry off your ammo after it warms up, too.
Cold weather can have a significant effect on ammunition performance. Unless it is loaded with the newest, temperature-stable powders, it loses as much as 300 – 400 feet per second in the cold. It is vital you test fire your hunting ammo in the temperature range you plan to hunt. This allows you to revise your drop and drift tables to account for any velocity loss.
In addition, make sure winter hunting ammunition is crimped and the primers are sealed. This reduces the chance moisture will get past either the bullet or the primer and foul the powder. The last thing you want to hear from your rifle when you’ve got a bead on a fine animal is “click.”
Severe cold plays havoc with optical equipment. Even though most modern scopes and binoculars are sealed against internal fogging, the lenses can still mist over on the outside. This is caused either by taking warm optics into sudden cold in which case moisture in the atmosphere condenses on the optic, or you breath impinges on the device and condenses. This can become a major frustration.
There are several things you can do about this. Carry a soft, optical quality cleaning cloth to wipe frost off lenses (make sure you don’t transfer gun oil or dirt onto the cloth from your hands). Don’t keep optics in a case once you bring them out into the cold. This traps moisture around the optic. Let the glass breathe so the moisture either evaporates or sublimates off the lenses. Whenever you get your face within a few feet from an optic, hold your breath, or at least breathe shallow, and redirect it away from the lenses.
Perhaps the biggest challenge a hunter faces in winter conditions is mobility. If you can’t get to where the critters are, you might as well stay home by the fire. There are two winter transportation types: mechanical and human/animal powered.
Mechanical includes four-wheel drive trucks, ATVs, and snow machines. Among these, the snow machine is the most useful. It can get you far into the backcountry, haul your camping supplies, and assist with game retrieval. It has one drawback, though. In many locations it is not possible to ride a snow machine from your front door to a hunting area which means you’ll need a 4x4 truck and a trailer to haul the snow machine to the operational area.
Trucks, SUVs, and ATVs are also useful but require existing roads designated for wheeled, motor vehicle traffic. They are not for cross-country travel (unlike snow machines) and they have difficulty in deep snow.
Human powered transport comes in two flavors, skis and snow shoes. Snow shoes are the better choice here for most hunters. They are more compact than skis, don’t require additional equipment such as specialized boots, are easy to use (just start walking), and better support a person with a heavy pack if you get the right size. For mountainous terrain with mixed conditions which can vary from deep snow to packed snow, ice, and occasional bare ground, modern mountaineering snow shoes, such as those made by MSR, are best. Traditional wooden snow shoes offer the best floatation on deep, fresh snow, but are better suited to level terrain.
When it comes to animal power, nothing beats a well-trained sled dog team for winter transport. Hunting guides offer this service in some places. If you’re already a musher, why not take your pals out for a hunt? Unlike a snow machine, a sled dog will always start at twenty below.
Don't have 10 - 20 crack sled dogs? No worries, if you have between one and three medium to large size dogs who like to pull, you train them to skijor—drag you around on cross-country skis. As always, before you take your dogs into the field, check your local game regulations and make sure the animal(s) have hunter orange dog coats or capes to help keep them safe.
Winter big game hunting is not easy. Most game species are no longer in their breeding cycle, so standard rut tactics have little effect. While some calls, such as cow elk and distressed fawn, may bring in curious cows or does, for the most part a hunter has two choices. In thick cover, the best play is to find an active game trail and set up either a ground blind or tree stand. In open country, get ready to move a lot, glass a lot, and shoot a bit farther than normal, say 200 – 500 yards as opposed to 50 – 150 yards. The good news is, you can spot tracks in the snow even from far away. Once you find a fresh track, follow it. It will lead you to dinner on the hoof in many cases. Don’t forget, once you get a critter down, you’ll also work three times as hard to get it back to camp or the truck. You want easy? Go to the super market.
How it's Done: Winter, Thick Brush, Tree Stand on Game Trail
Winter big game hunting offers spectacular adventure and the chance to get more meat for the freezer. With the proper equipment, training, and mind set, there is no reason not to hunt during winter. Now, get out there and hunt!
© 2019 LJ Bonham