Winter Hunting: Small Game, Big Adventure


When I first began to hunt years ago, I considered it a fall, big game rifle thing and nothing else.  Little did I know how much fun I missed after the general season ended and the forest slept under its white winter blanket.

I like to think I'm smarter now.  Now I hunt in the winter, too.  It's a terrific time to get out and about in the wilds.  I've always enjoyed winter, but hunting has added so much more to the experience.
Snowshoe hare
What's there to hunt in winter, you ask?  Most states' big game seasons end by December and spring bear or turkey are months away, but you can still find a challenging meal or two during this time.  Around here, both cotton tail rabbit and snowshoe hare are in abundance, as are several squirrel species.  I admit I have yet to actually eat squirrel, but southern hunters consider it a delicacy.  It's also a great way to see where all the bigger animals go.  Their tracks in the snow reveal amazing things you'd never find out in other seasons.  Plus, now is the time to put a dent in the coyote population and save a few new-born deer come next spring.

What You'll Need to Stay Warm

Winter hunting takes a bit more equipment and know how than other seasons.  Here are my suggestions for the basics.
  • Moisture-wicking base layer (underwear, socks), usually polypropylene or silk.  Leave the cotton t-shirts at home.  Cotton can get you killed in low temperatures because it holds moisture, like sweat, next to your skin.  Your body expends critical energy heating all the moisture.
  • Breathable mid-layers, usually polar fleece or wool.
  • Water-proof, wind-proof outer layer, usually Gore-Tex.  If you get wet, you can die--fast.
  • Water-proof, insulated boots with thick wool or fleece socks (wool cushions better, FYI).
  • A warm hat
  • Light-weight contact gloves.  Helps if you have to touch bare metal but need more dexterity than insulated gloves provide.
  • Water-proof, insulated gloves or mittens.  Mittens are better in Arctic level cold.
  • You my have to add synthetic or down insulation based on the temperatures you'll face.
  • Don't forget a winter survival kit, cell-phone, GPS, compass, and maps.

What You'll Need to Get Around

Mobility is the key to success on the battlefield, as the military would say.  Winter hunting in no exception.  You have to leave the tree stand behind; get out there and move around.  If you live and hunt in the snow belt, you know the challenge this presents.  Once you get to your hunting area, you'll have three basic choices for transportation: snow machine, snowshoes, or skis.

Snow Machine

Also known as a snowmobile.  This vehicle will get you almost anywhere, including stuck in a drift miles from help, so you have to understand their capabilities and limits.  A snow machine's biggest advantages are speed and cargo capacity.  You can cover large areas in a short time on one and carry more than you could otherwise.

This is an expensive option, not just to purchase but maintain, register, and insure.  While you can cover more country, you also may miss animals you would spot if you traveled at a slower pace.  You're out here to get dinner, remember?  Plus, they are noisy and pollute the air.  While you ride, you must obey all the laws in your area and not act like a knuckle head.

For hunting, avoid the zoomy, high-speed racing machines.  You want one designed for backcountry travel in deep snow.  In many cases, just use it to get to a remote area you want to hunt, dismount and proceed by other means, which we'll look at now.

Snowshoes

Snowshoes are great for winter hunting.  They don't require special boots and you can learn to use them in about an hour.  The good news is snowshoeing is now a popular winter activity and there are many types to choose from.  There are traditional bent wood and rawhide shoes, modern metal framed ones, and newer hybrid designs such as those made by MSR.  Each has advantages and disadvantages.

Traditional wood-framed shoes are best for deep, new snow.  They are also quiet.  If you happen to knock them together while walking, they sound a lot like two tree branches which disturbs animals less than the distinctive "clang" from metal framed shoes.  Traditional shoes can slide around on packed snow and ice, although there are now attachable crampons available for them which help in these conditions.
Traditional snowshoes
Modern shoes with metal frames and synthetic decks or webbing are more versatile than traditional shoes and the better choice if you face mixed snow conditions.  They do tend to sink more in new snow, but they are also more maneuverable.
Modern, metal frame snowshoes
MSR hybrid snowshoes in action
If you face difficult alpine conditions, the hybrid shoe made by MSR is a good choice.  It is, in essence, a climbing ice crampon which also provides flotation on snow.  They are also the easiest to attach to a backpack in case you have to traverse bare ground patches.  They provide the least flotation on deep snow, however.

Skis

Cross country skis are a great way to get around on the snow.  They are faster and quieter than snowshoes.  They have significant downsides though.  They are more expensive than snowshoes and require special boots.  They are less maneuverable than snowshoes in thick timber and brush.  It takes much more time to learn to use them without breaking a leg.  Plus, you have to manage poles as well as your rifle or shotgun.

Skijoring.  Yee-Haw!
One fun option is skijoring.  If you have one or two large northern breed dogs, teach them to pull you on the skis.  Yes, this is as exciting and sometimes scary as you might imagine.  If you use Malamutes, you might also have to fend them off from any critters you shoot--just sayin'.
Northern breeds, like this Malamute, are great winter hunting buddies.
Like snow machines, you want skis made for backcountry travel in deep snow.  Avoid the skinny skis designed for groomed trails.

What Gun You'll Need

Gun choices are straightforward.  Since you're after small critters, small caliber rifles are best such as .17 or .22 rim-fire.  Other choices include .30 Carbine, a pistol caliber carbine, 6.5x55 Swedish, or even .223 Remington.  You can also use handguns, either pistols or revolvers, rim-fire or center-fire.  Regardless which you choose, use non-expanding bullets, either full metal jacket or solid lead.  I like the FMJ option better since you get less lead transfer to the meat.
.22 rim-fire or pistol caliber carbines are perfect for winter hunting
Shotguns are another great option.  Lean toward the smaller gauges such as .410, 28, and 20, although if all you have is a 12 gauge don't worry.  The key here is to select the right shot size.  Nothing larger than No. 6 is best, and if you're after squirrel, best keep it at No. 8, or smaller.
Rugged pump shotguns, like this Mossberg 500, are great for winter hunting
Make sure you use a gun lubricant rated for extreme low temperatures.  I like synthetic motor oil.  It's available everywhere and works down to -40F, or lower.  Also, keep snow away from the action and safety, and cover the muzzle with vinyl electric tape to keep it snow free as well.  If you take a handgun, carry it either in a flap-type holster or under you clothing (where legal).  I once had wet snow get into a revolver's crane.  It locked the weapon up solid and rendered it useless until I got home and thawed it.

Those are the basics for winter hunting.  Now, get out there, have fun, and keep those hunting skill sharp for next fall.


Other useful stories:
Best Guns and Loads for Montana Upland Bird Hunting

LocaCarnivore Expert: Best Backup Guns for Hunters

Death in the Long Grass (and Elderberries)