Because chasing whitetails is a popular pursuit, deer hunting has become a big business. Hunters spend $6.4 billion on hunting gear yearly, not counting trip expenses, guide fees, tags, or licenses. Manufacturers understandably clamor to grab a slice of that lucrative pie. This means new hunters are bombarded with persistent advice, advertising, and “essential” deer hunting gear guides from companies that are often more interested in dollars than they are in hunting success.
Deer hunting isn’t nearly as complicated as the industry commotion would lead you to believe. However, cutting through the fuss and boiling it down to the vital equipment you need in the field can be challenging, even for seasoned deer hunters.
If you’re new to the sport, walking into a big-box sporting goods store or scrolling through gear online can be overwhelming. Rookie hunters can’t help but feel like they have to throw a ton of cash, a few credit cards, and maybe even an arm and leg at their new hobby. Although sweet, the flashy hunting stuff isn’t crucial to filling tags or freezers.
A good bit of the supplies manufacturers pimp to consumers isn’t practical and will likely end up collecting dust, but with just a few pieces of bread-and-butter gear, you can go hunting and succeed.
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Essential Deer Hunting Gear: What to Wear
The clothing you wear when you’re deer hunting affects every element of the hunt, from how well you stay hidden to how long you’re willing to stay in the field. Because whitetails have such diverse habitats, the type of gear you need for the hunt isn’t universal. However, finding high-quality clothing that fits comfortably should be the goal of hunters across the board.
Brand-new gear wasn’t in the cards when I went on my first deer hunt more than three decades ago. Even if my dad could have afforded it, there were no top-notch layering systems like Sitka Gear or KUIU back in the day. He didn’t think I would stick with it anyway, so I wore a hodgepodge of my dad’s cheap, old hand-me-downs for years instead of clothes that fit me.
I didn’t even understand the hunting discomfort I endured until I went into the woods in high-quality clothes that fit. There is admittedly a level of suck you must be willing to take in deer hunting. However, you don’t get any merit badges for unnecessary suffering.
Sure, you could pinch pennies and thrift your way into some hunting gear, but having experienced both sides of the coin, I highly recommend splurging a few extra bucks on comfortable items that fit your body. The more comfort you have in the field, the more hours you’ll be willing to log in a deer stand. And the more minutes you spend in the woods, the more likely you are to be in the right place at the right time.
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Whitetail deer constantly live on the edge of death from both natural predators and the swarm of deer hunters who hit the woods every season. Fortunately, deer have keen eyes, ears, and noses that help swing the survival odds in their favor.
Whitetails have pretty freakin’ extraordinary eyesight. Hunting gear in a high-quality camo pattern may be the best way to fool those big brown eyes.
Camouflage patterns trick deer and other animals by breaking up the body’s outline so the hunter can blend into the surrounding environment. Stick-and-leaf patterns mimic real-life fauna, while digital prints use pixels to trick the eye.
Nowadays, every clothing line has its own camo pattern, and hunters will defend the effectiveness of their favorite to the grave. Despite the undying devotion of specific camo fan clubs, the design probably matters less than the fact that you’re wearing it — especially if you can sit still.
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Dress for the Weather
Because whitetails live in diverse habitats, deer hunting occurs in all types of weather. Early-season bowhunters in the Southeast could see temperatures in the 90s with high humidity, while hunters toting muzzleloaders in Minnesota’s late-season could be shivering in the teens.
Deer hunters can face both hyperthermia and hypothermia in a single season, although cold temperatures are much more prevalent through deer season in most of the country.
Being overdressed can be just as bad as being underdressed. Dressing appropriately for the weather is crucial to both hunter safety and success. If you’re comfortable, you’ll be motivated to stay in the field longer, plus you’ll be better able to sit still with less fidgeting, which is one key element of whitetail hunting success.
Comfort starts from the bottom, and a breathable, moisture-wicking baselayer is a boon in warm weather or on physically active hunts. Not only will it keep you from getting sweatier than in a high school gym class, but it will also keep the bacteria that causes that nasty locker room smell from taking up residence in your hunting gear.
In cold weather, deer hunters need heavyweight, insulating long johns that stay dry and trap air efficiently, so you stay warm during those extra frigid sits.
Piecing together random items of camo clothing will absolutely work. However, brands like Sitka Gear have created systems with items that work together to maximize your comfort in the field. Sitka’s Whitetail line was created with deer hunting demands in mind and even features camo optimized for elevated hunting from a treestand.
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Essential Deer Hunting Gear for Staying Dry
Avoid cotton at all costs. There’s a reason backcountry hikers live by the motto “Cotton kills,” and the sentiment is just as true for deer hunters.
Although cotton is super soft and oh-so-comfy, it soaks up water faster than a sponge. Cotton can absorb up to 27 times its weight in water.
Wet layers are heavy and uncomfortable in hot weather and downright dangerous when it’s cold.
Instead, choose layers made from merino wool or synthetic materials like fleece that are breathable and keep you warm even if you get wet.
Weather can be unpredictable during deer season, and nothing will wash the joy out of a hunt quite as fast as an unexpected rain shower. Even when temperatures are warm, wet clothing rapidly steals body heat. High-quality rain gear will help prevent dangerous hypothermia caused by saturated garb but will also help keep your spirits up when the weather is less than stellar.
Keep a rain jacket and bottoms stowed in your hunting pack just in case unexpected precipitation rolls in during your hunt.
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Bet Your Boots
Many deer hunters swear by rubber boots, mainly because rubber traps human scent. If you don’t want to leave a trail of human stink from the truck to your treestand, rubber boots are the way to go.
Rubber also does a mighty fine job of keeping your feet from getting wet. In galoshes, you can wade through creek water, slog through muddy river bottoms, and trudge through dew-soaked grass without your toes getting wet from the outside.
The downside to rubber is that it doesn’t breathe at all. If you hike to your favorite hunting spot, your feet will undoubtedly sweat on the walk-in. Sweaty socks can be pretty freakin’ unpleasant, particularly when the mercury drops.
Synthetic or leather hunting boots are usually a better option if you need to cover multiple miles or rugged terrain during your hunt.
As the interface between your feet and the cold, hard ground, boots are not the place to cut corners in your hunting budget. When it comes to footwear, the old adage of “Buy once, cry once” couldn’t be more true. Quality will cost you in dollars, but you’ll pay for cheap boots with frustration.
LaCrosse makes sturdy, dependable rubber hunting boots. Their products cost more than the cheap crap they sell at discount stores, but your feet will thank you in the long run.
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Light It Up
Aside from high-quality hunting clothing, there are only a few pieces of gear every deer hunter should carry into the woods. One of the most important is a flashlight or headlamp.
Whitetail deer are primarily crepuscular, which means they like to do their grocery shopping at dawn and dusk. To be in the woods when deer are moving, hunters often travel in the dark.
Even if you hunt near your truck, there’s a good chance you’ll need to see at night. It’s easy to get turned around and lose your bearings while following a blood trail after nightfall. And field dressing a deer in pitch-black conditions isn’t easy or safe. Darkness and sharp objects don’t play well together.
While a handheld flashlight will work in a pinch, I’m a huge headlamp aficionado. Headlamps allow you to work with both hands, which is nice if you need to push through the brush, field dress a buck, or drag out a deer in the dark.
A headlamp doesn’t have to be fancy or expensive; it just needs to work when you need it. An affordable option like the Black Diamond Spot 350 will provide plenty of light for most deer hunting tasks and will only set you back about $30.
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Cutting Edge Deer Hunting Gear
It takes skill, patience, and a sprinkling of luck to fill your deer tags. Once that buck is down, you’ll need a knife to get that meat from the field to the freezer.
Buck knives have been trusted by generations of hunters to gut, skin, quarter, and process their deer. While the brand name is a hat-tip to the company’s founder, Hoyt Buck, it seems ironic and appropriate to use a Buck knife for deer hunting.
Folding knives make handy hunting blades. They conveniently slip into a pocket, and you can whip them out when you need to notch a tag, cut a length of cord, chop off a hunk of deer-stand salami, or field dress a recent kill.
The biggest drawback to a folding knife is that blood, fat, and other assorted varieties of gore can quickly gunk up the folding mechanism. If you don’t carefully clean the nooks and crannies of your knife after each use, things get unsanitary in a hurry.
A fixed-blade knife will be easier to keep clean, is super sturdy, and looks cool hanging from a hunting belt.
The type of knife you need is primarily a matter of opinion (although some hunters have firm ideas on the subject). The essential qualities of a hunting knife are a sharp edge and a nonslip handle (your hands will get bloody).
Field dressing a deer isn’t tricky, but it does take some know-how. Going into the process blind could have you ruining your meat, so study up on the subject before you’re faced with the task.
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Accessorizing the Hunt
You don’t need cover scents, deer calls, ground blinds, or camo seat cushions to hunt whitetails. If you want to take a minimalist approach, you only need a gun or bow, your hunting license, decent camo, a reliable headlamp, and a sharp knife. Everything else is gravy.
Of course, sometimes gravy can really spruce up a meal.