Close Search
October 2022
Author: Ryan Callaghan, Director of Conservation at MeatEater

While there is no one perfect clothing system for the wide- ranging conditions that the western hunter faces, there are some key components that every hunter needs to consider when building their own “Do-It-All” kit.
Conditions can go from still and hot to frigid and wet over the course of a single September elk hunt. However, with some careful layering, you can stay comfortable through the roller coaster of conditions that inevitably confront the western hunter. In extreme cold or hot conditions, I will vary this system slightly, but the template below has been my go-to for the Rocky Mountains and its island chains for more than a decade.

I have been running First Lite gear from head to toe since its inception, but this layering overview applies to whatever your chosen apparel brand (or brands) might be. The main thing to remember when tailoring gear for the conditions of the Rockies is that your gear needs to be versatile. A t-shirt can’t just look good or reflect your favorite brand name, it needs to breathe, wick moisture, and ideally not smell like a pubescent high schooler’s gym sock that’s been fermenting in the back of a locker.


  • Lightweight Merino Wool Layer
  • Midweight Synthetic Insulation
  • Puffy Insulated Jacket
  • Lightweight Rain Shell Jacket
  • Lightweight 3/4 Length Long Johns
  • Merino Wool Hunting Pant
  • Lightweight Rain Shell Pant
  • Ball Cap
  • Lightweight Merino Neck Gaiter
  • Warm Knit Hat
  • Merino Wool Fingerless Gloves
  • Merino Wool Blend Socks
Before I dive into the details, here are a few overall pieces of advice. Remember, you are always trying to move moisture away from the skin so it can evaporate. Your mid-layer should aid your base layer in this process. When on the move, get rid of wind or waterproof materials. When it’s time to slow down or sit out that old mule deer buck, put those insulating, wind cutting, weatherproof layers back on. When packing into the backcountry, beware of redundancies as duplicates do you no good and add to the load you have to carry.

Now onto the details. My system starts next-to-skin. The importance of this layer cannot be overstated. Both natural and synthetic garments have their advantages. Wool resists odor, remains warm when wet, and regulates temperature extremely well. Synthetics are durable and dry rapidly. With these factors in mind, I typically reach for something that combines the best of both worlds. First Lite’s Aerowool Wick Hoody features a 65%/35% wool-nylon blend and is my go-to. This layer performs as a standalone piece in hot weather and forms the base of my system when temps cool. As the season progresses, so does the thickness of my next-to-skin base layer. Instead of my lightweight hoody, I might grab something a bit heavier if the forecast calls for nights in the single digits.

A mid-layer needs to provide warmth when static, pull the moisture from the base layer, and dry fast. A grid fleece poly blend will dry fast and provide a high heat-to-weight ratio. I grab First Lite’s Klamath Quarter Zip. This is only a hiking piece when moving slowly, during high winds, or near or below freezing temps.

Next, I reach for my puffy. Perhaps more than any other piece, the puffy jacket is possibly the versatility icon of a backcountry kit. They are light and packable but bring significant warmth to chilly conditions in the mountains. As almost all puffys are treated with a durable, water-resistant finish, they can also help keep you dry in a pinch during a rare high desert rain squall.

Synthetic insulation is known for its ability to insulate even when soaking wet, but natural fibers, like duck and goose down, will also do a passable job of displacing moderate moisture due to the incredible amount of surface area within each individual feather. I make my choice of synthetic vs. down puffys based off of moisture in the forecast. Most of all, I am looking for loft and high warmth to weight. I usually grab First Lite’s Brooks Down Jacket.

On the bottom, I choose a 3/4 length or boot top long John. No, I did not forget the boxers or briefs. As long as I run a merino wool pant, I can skip the skivvies during the heat and move directly to the 3/4 length base layers for sleeping or as the insulating layer for the unforeseen cold snap. As with my next-to-skin top, I choose a merino- nylon blend. Specifically, I run First Lite’s Aerowool Wick Boot Top Bottom.

However, if you prefer synthetic or lined hunting pants, boxers worn under zip-off long johns are the way to go. No matter the number of vents a manufacturer slaps on a pant, you’ll hit a point of swampiness that you can only mitigate by ditching a layer. Zip-off functionality is clutch because you can take them on and off without taking off your boots or even your pants. This specialized feature comes in handy when often frosty September mornings turn to hot early season afternoons.

A versatile pant is a must. I go with a natural temperature regulating, odor-resistant merino wool. This layer may be the key to my backcountry happiness. In my opinion, no other material can mitigate the sun, or lack thereof, the way merino can.

I find that the breathability of wool shines brightest when I am hiking hard. Similarly, I sleep in my pants regularly and don’t fear overheating. Finally, when layered over with rain pants, they insulate far better than synthetic pants of equal weight. My go-to is the First Lite Obsidian Pant.

Finally, rain layers. Though in dry climates these might be left in the truck, I almost always pack waterproof, breathable layers on an extended trip. Backcountry rain gear needs to be light and packable but still burly enough to keep you truly dry in a downpour. This outerwear does double duty cutting wind and keeping snow off. Keep in mind that a rain shell can retain a fair amount of heat no matter how breathable it is, so this layer can also add significant warmth to your kit, especially in a static situation. Overall, I want something that will keep me dry but can stand up to hours under a loaded pack. First Lite’s Vapor Stormlight Jacket and Boundary Stormtight Pant is a solid option for running and gunning in variable conditions.

One modification to this system I will make in exceptionally cold weather is bringing along puffy insulated pants. A puffy jacket for your legs, this packable is well worth its modest wait at camp or on a glassing knob. I run First Lite’s Uncompaghre Puffy Pants.

To cap things off, there are a few accessories that make their way into my pack. I always have a ball cap to keep the sun out of my eyes. For warmth, I usually bring a knit wool hat. However, if I am counting ounces, I’ll ditch this layer and commit to utilizing the hood on my base layer in tandem with the outer layers. I’ll even wear a hood or two in my sleeping bag. For my hands, I usually bring a pair of basic merino wool fingerless gloves. I wear First Lite’s Talus Fingerless Gloves. These cut the chill without compromising dexterity. For socks, I like a thin merino wool blend that regulates temperature, breathes, and wears smoothly. I rock the First Lite Mercury Crew Sock.
Finally, I really like to bring a lightweight merino neck gaiter. This piece can aid in concealment on close-in archery stalks, keep gnats out of your ears and hairline, protect your face from the sun, act as a sleep mask, or add just a bit of extra insulation when worn over the ears. I have even used this gaiter to strain out solids as a first step filtering water. I wear the First Lite Aerowool Neck Gaiter.

I don’t mean to imply that you’ll survive a -20 degree cold snap in western Montana with this system nor that you will need all of these layers on a summer blacktail hunt in California. However, for most mountain hunts across the West, this setup will keep you comfortable. Moreover, I find having this system firmly in my head gives me a mental checklist for each hunt and makes packing easier. All this allows you to better focus on the task at hand – filling your tag. Build on, have fun, and be safe.

Please visit us at