The Best Hunting Jackets for Braving the Elements
Hunting jackets have evolved significantly since the 1990s when Realtree camo patterns first started to become popular and most hunting gear was still made from cotton blends. (I wore Army surplus BDU camo pants for my first deer hunt.) Today, hunting outerwear has caught up with advances in materials and treatments borrowed from other outdoor pursuits such as skiing, and hunting coats get every bit as techy as those for mountaineers. They also deliver lots of features created especially for hunters that go well beyond just camouflage patterns.
You can still shoot a trophy buck wearing jeans and a Carhartt jacket, and there’s still no substitute for woodsmanship in the field, but the right hunting jacket can offer performance and features that help keep you in the outdoors longer and make the hunt a little more enjoyable. Using smart layering systems and advanced materials, you can actually wear a lot less clothing than in years past to stay warm but also remain mobile for hiking and moving unrestricted when it’s time to take a shot.
What to Look For
Hunting jackets should be considered in the broader context of a layering system. That sounds more scientific than it actually is. Layering—basically an approach to clothing that uses a base layer, various insulation mid-layers, and a weatherproof shell—is essential for hunters because they can deal with a wide range of extremes in a single morning. Even the common experience of hunting whitetail from a treestand can require a diverse array of clothing to be comfortable for situations ranging from that pre-dawn walk into the woods to sitting for hours in a treestand exposed to wind and weather.
A good layering system starts with a simple breathable, moisture-wicking base layer of merino wool or synthetic fabric. (In the earliest seasons in warmer areas, that may be all you wear.) Thicker wool, down, or synthetic mid-layers add warmth. Jackets, or shells, come last (hence outerwear) and are meant to block wind and resist precipitation—and provide more insulation if needed.
If you hate the idea of having to figure out your own layering system or if you hunt in a narrow portion of the year with fairly predictable weather, you may want to sacrifice the flexibility of a layering system and look for a middle-of-the-road jacket that fits your hunting season. Still, consider erring on the side of lighter because you can always add a layer under a lighter jacket, but you can’t make a hot, heavy jacket lighter.
Shell jackets come in two broad categories: hardshell and softshell. Hardshell jackets are typically fully waterproof or close to it, with a waterproof-breathable membrane sandwiched between layers of face fabric. Some have insulated liners (sewn-in or zip-in). Softshells are windproof and water-resistant, but typically not fully waterproof. They’re more breathable, and have some insulation properties, although it may be light. A softshell is a versatile piece that can also be used as a mid-layer in some situations.
Patterns and Colors
An in-depth discussion of camouflage patterns and colors is outside the scope of this article, but suffice it to say there is no shortage of options these days when it comes to patterns. Thankfully, most of the bigger hunting outerwear brands offer at least a few options catered to your location and style of hunting, whether marshland waterfowl hunting or woods-oriented patterns for other game.
If concealment is really important to you, consider searching first for the pattern you prefer and seeing what options are available with that particular pattern. Look for a brand that makes pants as well so you can be consistent in your camo.
Some hunters don’t sweat camo and prefer to rely on concealment and other means of going unnoticed. And for disciplines like upland bird hunting, where you’re on the move trying to flush birds out of brush, you’re not exactly trying to stay invisible. If you fall into these categories, there are a much broader range of garments available to you, including general outdoor jackets.
Most modern hunting jackets use modern materials in their outerwear these days, which means multilayer exterior fabrics that have a breathable weatherproofing membrane such as Gore-Tex. Whether it’s Gore-Tex or another system, waterproof-breathable membranes exist on a continuum, with different levels of breathability and water protection. You may not need a fully waterproof jacket if you’re unlikely to stay out hunting in the rain. Many hunting jackets utilize Gore-Tex’s Infinium, which is less waterproof than normal Gore-Tex but is more breathable, soft, and quiet. Christy Haywood, Applications Engineer at W.L. Gore, explained to me that “Gore-Tex Infinium products are for use when waterproof is not as important, but softness, comfort, and stretch are a priority. They offer water resistance and wind protection but are not fully waterproof like [other Gore-Tex products].”
Since many hunters carry separate rain gear and prefer quiet, more breathable fabrics when actively hunting, hunters can opt for less-waterproof layers and bust out the rain gear when weather really turns bad. If you hunt in the Pacific Northwest or another particularly wet area, you may want to prioritize waterproofing. In addition to full waterproofing, look for outerwear with a durable water repellent (DWR) coating that helps water bead and roll off rather than soak the exterior fabric, which will limit breathability. Because it’s a coating, a DWR finish will wear off over time and need to be refreshed with products like Nikwax’s TX Direct.
The only material to avoid is cotton. As the saying goes, “cotton kills,” and that’s because it absorbs water readily, and moisture transmits temperature faster and more efficiently than air. Staying dry means staying warm.
How We Selected
My selections here are based on conversations with other hunters, brand reps, and from my own firsthand experience testing several different jackets throughout several hunting seasons. I have worn a wide range of jackets from cheap and flimsy to technical and expensive and have found that the best jacket is the one that you’re comfortable in and that’s appropriate for your particular type of hunting and climate. A comfortable hunter stays in the field longer and is more likely to be ready in critical moments.
I focused my selections on the more common brands that show up in outdoors stores such as Cabela’s and local outdoor shops in North America, as well as online. Our category picks offer guidance if you’ve already narrowed down your search.
These expert-recommended hunting jackets offer the performance and features you need to stay outdoors longer and make the hunt more enjoyable.