My grandfather was a master outdoorsman, but above all else, he loved hunting white tailed deer. Grandpa was raised in the upper peninsula of Michigan with three brothers. His parents had immigrated from Sweden, so my great grandfather could work as a logger cutting the big white pines of the north woods.
In those days, hunting wasn’t a sport. It was a necessary way to get food for your family. In every photo of my grandpa with a big buck hanging and ready for butchering, he’s standing there in a plaid wool shirt, gray wool pants, and a goofy wool hat he had worn forever. There wasn’t a piece of camo clothing in sight.
When I first started hunting, my budget was so tight, it squeaked. So I took a look at grandpa’s photos again and set out to get clothes that were obviously successful for him. At the time, there was an Army Surplus store about an hour away, and that seemed like a good place to start building my hunting wardrobe.
The day I shopped there, I was lucky: a shipment of new, heavy, gray wool infantry pants from Germany, of all places, had arrived. These pants had great pockets closed with buttons, solid loops for a belt, and buttons on the fly instead of a zipper, which could jam. In fact, they were perfect and only $5.
My heavy wool shirt came out of my dad’s closet and was big enough for me to layer long underwear and another shirt as well. With an extra piece of fabric over the shoulders and part way down my back, that shirt kept me warm in the coldest weather and still hangs in my closet. It’s hard to wear out a really good wool garment.
I killed my first bull elk in those clothes and my first mule deer buck as well. None of the animals seemed to see my gray wool ensemble, despite my lack of camo. In fact, I’ve come to believe that camo is highly overrated. Skill still trumps camo in my book, and always will.
Today, I see lots of camo as I meet other hunters in the woods: a whole lot of it looks brand new, showing no wear or tear from hours spent in scouting the country. My two 40-year-old neighbors have all the latest camo clothes made from high-tech fabrics designed to give the hunter an edge out in the field. Oh, and they all have GPS maps on apps in their phones.
Many hunters now also have super long-range rifles that substitute for actual skill built slowly over time. A thousand-yard shot doesn’t require the hunter to figure out the best stalk, know which way the wind is moving, or determine where an animal might run when hit.
For many, hunting is crammed in between work and family commitments, and they hope gadgets and gear will make up for time missed learning the ground they hunt or the habits of the animals that live there.
And despite all the camo and gear, they often don’t fill their tags.
I do have camo clothing, but not any I bought. Years ago, the editor at Bugle Magazine asked me to field test women’s hunting clothing. Companies were just waking up to the fact that most women had to make do with men’s clothing, and a new, untapped market was waiting. So I dutifully tried the pants, shirts, jackets, vests, boots, and rain gear from several manufacturers throughout a variety of hunting exploits.
One full set obviously wasn’t the right camo for Idaho, so I tried it out in Texas. I hated it. Who thought women hunters should wear hip-hugger pants? Most of the clothing was constricting, making it hard for me to climb on my horse, and none of it was as warm as my old wool outfit.
I was rather impressed with some Gor-Tex pants that were quiet: I’d been wearing an old pair of my husband’s that I was able to wear sucked in by a belt. At least that one item was better than my wool pants.
Anyone who’s worn wool knows that, when it gets wet, it gets heavy—like really heavy. And it’s hard to dry out in the tent at night. But the good news about wool is it keeps you warm, even when wet. You just weigh about 10 pounds more.
But still, I think camo is overrated, although some of the high-tech fabrics are certainly much lighter than wool. And the price tag matches all that innovation.
In the end, it’s not what you wear that matters. It’s the skill, knowledge of the land, and patience developed over time that helps a hunter fill a tag.
Surely, there must still be a $5 pair of hunting pants out there—maybe at the local thrift shop or Salvation Army? Hope you find a pair. I’m hanging onto mine! ISI