I knew I was in trouble when I curled my fingers around the string and realized the bow’s 65-pound draw felt more like 100 pounds. Things went from bad to worse as I struggled to pull the string back and ice popped loose from the bow’s wheels and cable guard. The big 9-point Montana whitetail below my treestand was immediately alerted and disappeared in the blink of an eye. I was left shaking my head in frustration.
That was my first experience with genuine cold-weather archery hunting. Since then I’ve learned from my mistakes, and now, several decades later, I’m comfortable and confident whenever the mercury dips below zero.
Dealing With The Cold
Thankfully, modern bows and arrows are incredibly impervious to cold. All-fiberglass bow limbs don’t change poundage or break when temperatures plummet. Flex rates for aluminum and carbon arrows remain constant, which means bow tune doesn’t suffer.
The hidden culprit when shooting equipment becomes cold is moisture. If even a little water seeps into moving parts like the cable guard assembly, compound wheel bearings or arrow rest springs, it can freeze and ruin shooting. Ice can also accumulate on the bowstring and when broken, makes enough noise to scare even a half-deaf deer.
Using the wrong oil or grease can also compromise cold-weather bow parts because some lubricants become stiff or hard as a rock when temperatures fall below zero. To guard against freeze-up, lubricate all moving bow parts with powdered graphite or a known freeze-resistant lube such as Hoppe’s gun oil. More important, you should never take a very cold bow into a warm tent, cabin, motel room or automobile. Cold metal and fiberglass will instantly “sweat” when they touch warm air, and this layer of moisture can seep into a bow’s moving parts.
Once a bow is cold, you should keep it cold throughout your hunt. Put it in your car trunk or under the unheated camper shell of your pickup. Or leave it outside your tent or cabin in a case or under a tarp. As long as the bow remains cold, it won’t gather moisture and freeze up.
Outdoor catalogs and sporting goods stores are packed with wonderful cold-weather garments. From high-tech underwear to wind-stopping and waterproof-laminated fabrics, a modern bowhunter has no excuse for being cold as he or she walks to or sits on a stand.
Unlike gun hunting, bowhunting requires quiet-surfaced and snug-fitting clothes. Bulky garments trap body heat and keep a hunter warm, but these often “reach out” and brush nearby limbs and leaves as you move. Even if clothing surfaces are loosely knit wool, soft cotton or top-grade fleece, such contact can spook a nearby deer.
If the bowstring touches loose clothing along your chest or bow arm during a shot, the result can sound like a gun shot. And no self-respecting buck will stand for that. Equally alarming is that even mild contact between winter clothes and the string will absolutely ruin arrow flight. Your well-aimed arrow will veer left or right (to the left for a right-handed shooter). Bulky upper-body garments might be warm, but they’re very bad for bowhunting.
I dress in layers to stay warm. It’s better to slip on snug thermal underwear topped by wool, fleece or cotton. Insulated, fleece-covered bibs are terrific because they leave your bow arm free for the shot. In truly cold weather, I always wear bibs and an insulated vest. The vest keeps my torso warm without bulking up my arms. I also wear one or more turtleneck sweaters to trap upper-body heat. Most heat escapes upward past the neck, and it’s crucial to bottle this off.
One final tip: Be sure to flatten the fabric along your bow arm and chest for better accuracy. Wear an armguard or elastic forearm and bicep band designed specifically for bowhunters. Buy an archery chest guard like the ones Olympic competitors use, and wear it faithfully in freezing weather.
When it comes to choosing boots for cold-weather hunts, I like to go overboard to ensure warmth when I sit. In fact, my favorite late-fall treestand boots are rated at minus 100 degrees. I’ve never had a chilly toe!
To keep your hands comfortable, learn to grip your bow with a thin wool or fleece glove, and also learn to manipulate your release aid or finger tab with a glove on your hand. On truly frigid hunts, I wear heavy mittens over my gloves until the time to shoot draws near. I stuff scent-free toe warmers in my boots and mitts to ensure total hunting comfort. On stand, I place full-sized 20-hour handwarmers in my pockets or in a double-hand muff to prevent the slightest chill.
Be sure to cover your upper head, ears, nose and neck. I usually wear two wool stocking caps when temperatures drop below freezing, pulling them down over my ears and neck to ensure toasty sits on stand. For really severe weather, a full-sized ski mask with nose guard cannot be beat.
Every experienced bowhunter I know carries a reduced-draw bow for severe weather. Freezing temperatures can rob muscle strength and ruin steady aiming unless you’re holding less at full draw. As a general rule, you should set up a cold-weather bow/arrow combo 5-7 pounds lighter than you normally shoot. With modern archery gear, you’ll still have plenty of power to drive an arrow completely through a buck.
Heavy clothes, bulky gloves and hats, and lighter shooting equipment require practice before the archery season. Even if you break a sweat, you should wear all your late-fall duds and practice shooting under realistic conditions because there will almost certainly be surprises. Your clothes might rustle or scrape, and the bowstring might hit your chest or arm. Your broadheads might veer left or right due to slight changes in your shooting style. It also might not feel comfortable anchoring to your face while wearing a ski mask.
The time to solve these problems is at the range. Don’t pile on clothes, grab an untested bow and hope you’ll hit an animal. If things can go wrong in bowhunting, they probably will. When truly cold weather sets in, the potential for problems increases dramatically. Solve these problems ahead of time, and you’ll enjoy a toasty, successful day in the woods.