Hiding in Plain Sight
The evolution of hunting attire
Thousands of South Carolinians every year enjoy the pastime of pursuing the elusive trophy buck, the cunning wild turkey, or the quick-winged duck. While the love for the sport is intense, so is the careful attention paid to selecting the right apparel before heading out for a day of stalking prey. In the minds of novices, the word camouflage simply defines green and khaki clothing worn for disguise. But ask an experienced hunter, and camouflage means so much more. Today, the category of clothing is distinguished by technology, comfort, breathability, movability, warmth, and survival.
Camouflage dates back to the 1890s but gained traction when armies across the world realized they needed to conceal soldiers, locations, and weapons from attacks. The onslaught of aerial assaults hastened efforts to hide and protect armed forces. Gone were the days of the bright red jackets of the British, the red pants of the French, and the blue coats of the Americans. While wearing color was considered a sign of prestige, it soon became apparent that the art of disguise was much more important. Originally, camouflage was designed to cancel out shadows, disrupt colors, and blur edges. This strategy is still in place today regarding military uniforms, but camouflage continues to evolve with the changing landscape of war.
That progression is also found in the design and development of clothing for hunters of all kinds. “Hunting apparel has greatly evolved in the past 40 years from military cotton battle dress uniform styles and camouflage purchased from the local Army/Navy store, or wool work wear, to a multi-billion-dollar industry with constant innovations in fabrics, styles, and camouflages,” says Jason Hart, vice president of business development for Marolina Outdoor, Inc., provider of innovative and technologically focused outdoor apparel, including the popular Huk brand, headquartered in the Midlands.
Performance synthetic fabrics that were developed for the athletic and mountaineering/ski markets began to cross over into the hunting market about 15 years ago. Prior to this, cotton was the primary fabric. Today, all major hunting brand manufacturers concentrate on creating better performance fabrics that can effectively wick moisture while also providing insulation; however, no one fabric covers all applications.
“All hunting apparel starts with the need for correct fabrics, depending upon the time of the year, as well as the landscape and territory where you are hunting game,” says Rusty Sellers, founder and CEO of TrueTimber, one of the fastest-growing camouflage manufacturers in the United States, which is also headquartered in South Carolina.
A South Carolina hunter will dress differently pursuing whitetails in August than Midwest hunters after the same game in November.
“With our brand NOMAD, we are focusing on big game in the fall and turkey hunting in the spring,” says Jason. “Even focusing on these pursuits, we have to tailor our fabrics and designs for consumers’ applications. Big game rifle hunting in the West may require a more technical fabric that offers water resistance and has a stretchy fabric that is lightweight for miles of walking, whereas a bow hunter in the East may require more insulation for long sits in a tree stand and ultra-quiet fabrics.”
For Catlin Brewer, who has been hunting most of his life, finding the appropriate gear is critical for success. Catlin’s primary focus these days is whitetails and turkeys. As a traditional bow hunter, he prefers to shoot his target game within 15 to 20 yards. Because of the close proximity to his target, he truly must find the right camouflage and control his scent. “There are many purists out there who may tell you that scent is not important if you hunt the wind. While I agree with that and only sit in stands in which I feel the wind is in my favor, how many times does the wind change or your intended game come from the opposite direction of where you are anticipating? With all of these factors in play, I do my best to control my scent and blend into my surroundings to the best of my ability.”
Catlin avoids cotton, canvas, and heavy “scentlock” materials when it comes to big game hunting. Instead, he prefers more modern materials such as Merino wool, polyester, down, and Primaloft and Toray fabrics. Finding a layering system is equally important to Catlin. Base layers consisting of Merino wool are ideal for wicking moisture and odor from the skin and directing it into the air so that it does not stay trapped on the body. Catlin’s preferred brand is Kuiu, which he has been wearing since 2010 because of its effective layering system for year-round use.
The need for comfort-oriented apparel for an hours-long hunt has led to many types of advancements. “Gear evolution has revolutionized the way we hunt,” says Lucy Mahon, a passionate hunter who began dove hunting at age 4 and turkey hunting by the time she was 8. Lucy believes that progress in camo has made the most difference in her success. “The patterns we use now turkey hunting are insanely good, and that’s where camo is so important.”
Turkeys are able to see the human eye move or blink from more than 60 yards away, so the camo design must be effective in concealing the hunter, whether sitting, standing, or moving. In addition to the right apparel, turkey hunters often wear caps and toned face paint to cut down on glare but also to provide additional camouflage. “It’s so easy to get busted by the turkey,” says Lucy. Turkey season also begins in the early spring when it is cold, so layering is another important component.
High-performance gear was not always an option for Lucy, or any hunter for that matter. Lucy vividly remembers how poor the clothing options for hunting were when she was a child. “I remember one occasion when we went to Beaufort to deer hunt,” says Lucy. “It was very cold. I had on long underwear, an old pair of sweatpants, and a pair of corduroy pants my dad had gotten altered for me. Every time I walked, my legs made a ‘zip, zip, zip’ sound from the corduroy. My toes couldn’t wiggle in my boots because I had on too many socks and no foot warmers. There were no base layer socks made out of Smartwool back then. We went stalking a deer, and they made me walk bow-legged because you could hear me coming from a mile away, but back then, Dad did the best he could for his 10-year-old girl.”
Fast forward 15 years, and Lucy found that the most annoying aspects of past hunting experiences were gone. In fact, high-performance clothing and hunting apparel are now actually designed for women. “As a woman, I now have clothing that allows me to move and function. I don’t mind wet or cold, but I won’t do both,” she continues. “And now I don’t have to worry about that.”
The challenge of wading through a swamp and stepping over logs in men’s baggy, bulky waders would frustrate any female hunter. But today’s waders can be custom-made for women.
Several hunting brands even cater exclusively to women, while all of the major brands are now designing products for women. “I believe ladies make up the fastest-growing segment of new hunting licenses sold,” says Rusty. “Women are demanding more clothing made to fit them with the same performance as the men’s. They have made it clear –– they no longer want the pink and blue trims; they want the same clothes designed for men but tailored to fit a woman.”
In the past, the difficulty in finding hunting apparel to fit women was so great that Jane Perry McFadden, an avid hunter, had to have her favorite items tailored to fit her. “Years ago, I had trouble finding hunting pants that fit, were flattering, and had enough stretch to be able to get on and off horses and quail wagons,” says Jane Perry. “I found a pair of tan jeans and then had a tailor deconstruct them and then reconstruct them with the briar-proof material Cordura. After I had the first pair made, I then had more made for my daughters-in-law and for me. Barbour, Orvis, Eddie Bauer, and Beretta have some good products for women but not nearly the same depth they carry for men.”
Jane Perry also inherited an Inverness Cloak, which she had resized to fit her, and she added suede where the collar touched her neck to combat the scratchy Scottish wool. She bought another lighter Scottish wool cape that she wears over her Barbour jacket if the weather is very cold. Without question, Jane Perry’s hunting fashion may be rugged to fit the need, but it certainly is elegant!
A hunter’s desire to be increasingly more fashionable has had a significant impact on the hunting apparel industry as well. Older hunters tend to be traditional in their choice of attire, while the younger generation is looking for more cutting edge styles. “Camo has become a huge lifestyle expression,” says Jason. “Hunters started wearing hunting-specific camo in the 1980s when Jim Crumley developed the first hunting pattern, Trebark. More than 30 years later, the camo market is huge. Many hunters have major brand loyalty towards a camo, and the competition amongst these brands is fierce. Hunters tend to be a proud group, and wearing a certain brand or pattern is a way to express that they are in a hunting brotherhood.”
This brotherhood transcends geographics as is evident for Martin McWilliams, who has been hunting for 60 years not only in the United States, but also in England, where it is technically called “shooting.” (Hunting in England means pursuing game with hounds and often on horseback without guns.) While the styles are different, the demands on the clothing are not.
“Overall, clothing must be comfortable and oriented to the weather. It must provide safety for yourself, your companions –– and the dogs! And it must allow for the convenience of using a weapon,” says Martin. “I go to a lot of trouble to outfit myself for plenty of movement.”
When hunting in South Carolina, Martin wears heavy briar protectant trousers. Sometimes this protection is built into the clothing; other times he will wear buckle-on chaps. He also dons a brown or green briar-resistant shirt and, depending upon the weather, may layer a vest or sweater over that. The formality is taken up a notch when he is in England, as he often wears a cotton-checked shirt with a plain collar and a tie. Martin is fastidious in his hunting apparel selection whether in South Carolina or abroad, always suited in the finest attire.
There is no question Drew Robb has his favorite hunting attire. Drew has been hunting for more than 50 years and, on occasion, also adds a formal touch to his wardrobe. He is a member of an established hunt club in Kershaw County where each New Year’s Day, everyone is required to wear a tie for the hunt.
“New Year’s Day is the last day of the South Carolina deer season, and we only hunt in the morning. We have a traditional community lunch afterward with our spouses, children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren,” says Drew. On other days, Drew can be found hunting in exceptionally manufactured gear, complete with the highest waterproof resiliency and insulation.
While the quality and technology of today’s hunting gear continues to evolve, so too does the camo pattern itself. The movement toward lighter, digital-type camo patterns is proving to offer better concealment. “With the digital age, it’s much easier to build a camo pattern,” says Jason. “Thirty-five years ago, it was artwork, but as technology got better, so did the camo companies. On today’s fabrics, camo can be printed with more definition than ever before.”
Also, camo patterns vary with the type of hunt. “The camo pattern depends on the season and territory,” adds Rusty. “You want to blend in with your specific landscape.”
The design of the camo is almost a science, created for the variety of different hunts. Many camo companies will have a flagship pattern that markets strongest to the eastern whitetail deer hunter, for example, but which can also be adapted for western hunting, turkey hunting, and dove hunting. Western regional patterns are typically lighter and more open, whereas patterns specific to turkey hunting tend to have brighter spring greens; waterfowl-specific patterns often feature dead marsh or field-grass imagery. “All camo patterns are designed for effectiveness to fool a certain critter’s eye, but are also built with shelf appeal to catch the consumer’s eye,” says Jason. “Many hunters look at camo as their uniform. Wearing camo has become a major lifestyle indicator for hunters.”
But while the newest trends and technologically advanced fabrics are transforming the hunt, old-school camo is also undergoing a resurgence. “That’s where the style comes in,” says Lucy. “There is still a little bit of middle-school mentality of who has the coolest gear. And to me, old-school camo is still my favorite.”
Drew agrees that sometimes he finds it hard to let go of the old favorites.
“I have an old guide jacket that I’ve had for more than 20 years,” he says. “There is only one button left at the top, and one pocket on the side is partially torn off. It has frayed cuffs, and it has a unique but non-offensive smell from an accumulation of years of hunting, getting rained on, and being stored in my truck for months at a time. My dogs lie on it; I’ve had ducks, doves, squirrels, and rabbits in the game pouch every year. It is a smell most hunters know that really means success. It’s the reward of putting forth the effort to get up early enough to get to the duck blind or deer stand before daylight. It smells of having to go back at night in the rain to help a friend recover a deer that is a long way from any road. It’s the jacket I’ve worn almost every time I have gone turkey hunting, so all of my pictures look the same. I plan to continue wearing my old jacket as it carries a world of great memories and great hunts … and has accumulated a lot of luck.”
The right hunting apparel is definitely critical to the sport, providing an ease and comfort that allows the hunter to truly focus on the love of a favorite pastime, time with friends and family, and the quiet moments and memories that can never be forgotten. And if it brings good luck, that special piece of apparel will stick with a hunter for many years to come.
Editor’s Note: For the latest in hunting fashion, visit Barron’s Outfitters on Harden Street.