Winter can be a very productive and enjoyable time to hunt in New Zealand. With all the animals feeding up after the rut and roar there can be a lot of exciting activity. However, hunting in winter also comes with unique challenges and risks. In this article, Bushbuck Test Team member Max Watson shares five tips for winter hunting safety and success.
  • 1. Follow the Sun - Image 1

1. Follow the Sun

Kicking things off with a pretty simple winter hunting tip. Obviously, hunting in winter can be cold, wet, and pretty darn miserable sometimes - with the exception of those beautiful, crisp bluebird days, of course. Keep in mind that the animals you're hunting are experiencing the same conditions as you and they typically behave accordingly. So when your first instinct after waking up in your tent on a freezing cold morning is to seek some sunshine to warm yourself up, the animals around you are probably going to do the same.

Therefore, when hunting in winter, a general rule of thumb is to start with the faces with the most sun activity. The sunny side of the valley is going to be easier to navigate because they have less snow and ice and, in my experience, it's the best place to find animals. However, I have to say not all animals tend to hug the warm sides, but I reckon it's still the best place to start. Interestingly, the opposite is often true in summer.

  • 2. Have a Layering System - Image 1

2. Have a Layering System

When hunting in winter it's extremely important to have appropriate clothing and an effective layering system. Not being able to keep cool enough when climbing and then struggling to keep the heat in when glassing can make for a very unpleasant experience. Failing to prepare for winter conditions is a recipe disaster.

My go-to is a merino base layer for a decent climb before daybreak. This will prevent you from over heating. It will also keep you warm when you stop to glass by minimising the amount of sweat cooling on your skin. I run the Bushbuck Combat Merino 200 base layer system and I’m well impressed.

Once I’ve stopped walking I will pull out my laying system and wear what is desired. Obviously, a good base layer, mid layer, outer layer and a wind/rain layer is a must in winter, along with the extra warmth of hats and gloves.

Bushbuck has a great article about how to build an effective layering system for the outdoors.

Seriously, if there's any tip you follow, make it this one. It will make your winter hunting so much more enjoyable and may even save your life.

  • 3. More Glassing the Better - Image 1

3. More Glassing the Better

Glassing is probably one of the main aspects of hunting, especially in highly populated hunting areas. I'm the first to admit I'm am a bad one for not sitting and glassing a face for as long as I should, My feet get itchy and I want to walk. I sometimes tend to think that the “more country we walk, the more animals we will see“ and, being young and naive, this has paid off in the past, but I don’t exactly recommend it.

Looking back at my father and his hunting companions, they would sit down and glass the area for much longer than me, only climbing the hill once they'd found something worthwhile. It paid off rather well for them and I'm now trying to apply this strategy during my winter hunts. 

So I would highly recommend the more glassing the better, especially when we all know for a fact you can’t see everything on a face in one morning. Winter is a time for conserving energy and efficiency and glassing for longer periods is a surefire way to achieve that. Lastly, I would recommend a little foam pad to carry around with you to sit on. This makes glassing for long periods of time much more comfortable, especially when the ground is cold and frosty in winter.

  • 4. Prepare for Ice - Image 1

4. Prepare for Ice

When you're hunting in winter it's possible you'll encounter ice and snow, especially if you're heading into alpine or sub-alpine environments. I genuinely try to avoid it at all costs. It’s just cold and not fun stuff to play in. With that being said, you should always be prepared for the possibility of snow and ice in winter in New Zealand, especially in the South Island and at elevation.

In winter, I always carry an ice axe and a pair of pull-over crampons, also known as “stickys“. I carry these only for "just in case" situations as they tend to get you in more trouble than you do. The pull-over crampons are wicked for navigating mildly icy slopes and even frozen tussock faces, which can be more dangerous than they look. They're great to have for whenever I find myself in a niggly situation.

The ice axe is more for cutting steps on icy slips to navigate my way across. Also, to self arrest if it came to that. If you are not familiar with this stuff, I'd highly recommend staying away from ice and snow in winter, especially in the hills. If you know what you're doing, it's always better to be prepared than to find yourself in a situation that you can't get out of. And remember, no animal is worth risking your life for.

If you're keen to learn more winter hiking skills, there are various courses around New Zealand you can take where they'll teach you how to navigate ice and snow and use crampons and ice axes properly. 

  • 5. Wear-in Your Boots - Image 1

5. Wear-in Your Boots

Having appropriate footwear for winter hunting is just as important as your clothing. If your feet are not use to being in the boots for a few days you are going to hate life on the hill. Make sure your boots are moulded to your feet well. I like to get my boots wet and then go for a few walks around the block or even up a hill so that they're more fitted to my feet by the time I'm ready to for my next hunting mission.

Choosing a good boot is a never ending story for hunters. I personally prefer a Scarpa boot because it’s a narrow fit and seems to wear well. At the end of the day, use whatever boot suits you as long as they are well worn-in first.

Let’s be honest, if you get wet boots in winter it’s pretty much game over, especially if you don’t have the luxury of a fire to dry them. I personally try avoid wet boots at all costs, but if they do end up getting wet I always carry a pair of Bushbuck Dry Toes Waterproof Merino Socks, which tend to make the boots bearable to wear.

Redoing the waterproof coating on your boots before winter is also important for keeping your feet dry and warm in wet, frosty conditions. One other thing, I've learned the hard way that laces can snap on you in the middle of nowhere so I recommend always carrying an extra pair of laces with you. 

These 5 tips sum up my insight, knowledge and experience of winter hunting over the last few years. Yes, everyone has their own takes on things but, I feel like these tips I’ve picked up and followed over the last few years have pointed me in the right direction.