I write a lot about budget hunting gear, and I’m a big believer in saving a buck wherever possible. I know that hunting can be an extremely expensive sport, and I never want the cost of gear to be the thing that holds a guy back from giving it a shot (no pun intended). However, the more I get the chance to try top of the line gear, the more I realize that (MOST of the time) there’s a reason some companies can charge so much more for their gear than Walmart can. Quality gear won’t make animals walk out and surrender to you like the French in WWII, but it can mean the difference between staying out another day, riding out a rainstorm so you can hunt those magical moments after it passes, or heading back to the truck early because you’re just too cold, wet, and miserable to keep going. More time in the field = more opportunities with animals = greater chance of success…it’s math.
One piece of gear that I never spent much time thinking about were the clothes I wore while hunting. I mean, as long as it’s camouflage and keeps me semi-warm when I need it, who cares, right? So, for years I would slowly acquire a new shirt or pair of pants when they hit mega-clearance, and I had a very cheap and mismatched selection of no-frills hunting gear…mostly cotton or some poly-blend, and absolutely ZERO merino wool. When I got wet, I stayed wet. When I got sweaty, I smelled like a locker room. And when it got cold, I was never really able to get or stay warm. But, what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, right? (If you say you’re not singing Kelly Clarkson in your head right now, you’re a liar!)
After years of that setup, I started planning my Colorado OTC Archery Elk Hunt (get caught up on that saga here). As I did more research, I couldn’t deny the fact that this was going to be the wettest and coldest place I’ve ever hunted. I’m an AZ guy, and even my late season stuff usually happens in the desert where it’s in the 70s or 80s in the middle of the day…and we just don’t have water…ever. I knew that if I got wet crossing a stream, riding out a thunderstorm, or just walking through the moisture-rich undergrowth in those woods (all of which did happen, by the way), I would STAY wet for a long time and become increasingly cold and miserable.
So, I bit the bullet and finally invested in a full set of legit, top of the line hunting gear from First Lite. A couple of merino base-layers for different temps, some light and breathable pants, and a synthetic down puffy jacket rounded out my kit. I spent six days straight in these clothes, putting in about 40 miles and more elevation gain/descent than I even want to think about. I rode out several thunderstorms and endured temps that dropped into the low 30s. So, the big question: IS FIRST LITE CLOTHING WORTH THE MONEY???
Okay, I get that when you’re looking at the prospect of a week-long backcountry hunt, you’ve already pretty much given up on comfort. But, one of the first things you’ll notice when stepping into these clothes is how insanely comfortable they are. When I first got the Corrugate Guide Pant, I instantly wanted to wear them every day of my life (honestly, they’d make great pajama pants…they’re THAT comfortable). They’re light and flexible, and I’ve never had a pant that moved with me through squatting, stooping, or climbing over blow-down the way these do…you forget they’re there no matter what you’re doing. Pair that with First Lite’s Suspenders, and your pants will never be an issue (I know, suspenders are pretty old school, but they eliminate any discomfort or pinching around your waist/hips when wearing a heavy pack, and your pants still get to stay up…everybody wins).
The shirts and jackets were the same…super comfortable…no complaints. But, the other standout in the lineup were the socks! I’d been having trouble with hot spots on my heels all through preseason as I broke in my new boots, and I was just about to give up on them when someone suggested that I try a different pair of high quality socks. I opted for the Mercury Lightweight Crew Sock (since I’m usually more worried about my feet overheating than freezing here in the desert), and they INSTANTLY solved my problem. Six days and 40 miles later, I never had a blister or a problem. I LOVE these socks!!!
I don’t know how merino wool works from a scientific perspective, but I cannot believe how much it DOESN’T stink. I wore my Wick Hoody as the base layer against my skin every second of every day out there, and you can imagine with all those miles and all those steep mountains climbed just how much sweat I dumped into that thing. Except for a couple of baby wipe baths that I took when my own scent was disgusting me, I was shower-free that whole week. I could clearly smell myself for most of the week (and it wasn’t pretty), but if I took that hoody off and buried my nose in it, there was not even a trace of man-stink…literally, none! I don’t know how they do it, but it’s no joke! Now, I don’t know if the non-stinky layer over the stinky skin actually blocks your hunter-B.O. from wafting over to the animal you’re chasing, but it certainly can’t hurt anything to have one less piece of stanky stuff on your body while you’re trying to sneak into bow range.
Okay, I’m usually worried about staying cool (and the pants and that wick hoody do a great job of airing out quickly and keeping you cool). But, at night in the desert and definitely at 10,000+ feet in the Rockies, cold is a real factor! Once the sun would go down, it would instantly become uncomfortably cold out there! The last couple mornings, I woke up to my watch telling me it was 35 degrees INSIDE my tent (meaning it was even colder outside). A couple of other layers from the First Lite line absolutely saved my bacon out there (as a desert rat like myself is not terribly familiar with freezing temps like that).
First, my new favorite jacket of all time, the Uncompahgre Puffy Jacket. If I lived somewhere colder, I would buy one in every color and wear it every day. It weighs virtually nothing, warms you up within seconds of putting it on, and (this is genius) it stuffs down into it’s own pocket making it roughly the size of a football. This makes it take up very little room in your pack, and also makes for a highly effective pillow in the backcountry. It’s not billed as being waterproof or a rain jacket, but I rode out several rainstorms in it and the water just beads up and wipes off. I’m sure given enough time and water, you could get some soaking through, but I haven’t found that limit yet.
I also picked up the Kiln Quarter Zip as a middle layer to add some versatility. This can be a stand-alone base layer on colder days, or I use it as a second layer with the Wick Hoody always as my base layer. Those desert mornings can be bone-chilling at dawn and then be 75-degrees just a couple hours later, so having a super-warm layer that can be shed in a matter of seconds is invaluable to me. It also became a second sleeping layer once the nights turned cold at the end of my CO elk hunt, and it’s possible it literally saved my life. It’s also a merino wool piece, so you’ll get the same anti-stink benefits as the Wick Hoody (and it’s remarkably warmer than any “base layer” I’ve ever worn before).
So, should I shell out the cold, hard cash for this stuff?
Again, I hunted successfully in absolute bargain-basement camo for years, so it can be done. If you’re torn between buying some nice hunting clothes or buying your tag/gas to actually go on the hunt, it’s a no-brainer…go hunting in what you’ve got and make the best of it. But, if you’re looking to upgrade some piece of your hunting setup this year and you haven’t ever tried merino wool or some more advanced clothing yet, I’ve been amazed at the significant difference it’s made in both comfort and functionality. Yes, the price tag can seem steep, but I have ZERO buyer’s remorse after thoroughly putting each piece through the paces this fall. If you have the money to spare, I’d say the answer is YES, First Lite is absolutely worth the price!