NOTE: The following story appeared in the September issue of Shooting Sports Retailer magazine.

Fall is here and that means a good number of customers will want to upgrade or add to their current hunting clothes. The choices are dizzying, with so many new materials on the market and new camouflage patterns that seem to appear monthly. The choices are made even more difficult with all the new hi-tech clothing “systems” on the market, designed to make hunters invisible and scentless, while keeping them warm and dry — or cool and dry, depending on the weather.

With so many options, what’s a hunter to buy, and a retailer to stock?

The first question will have to be answered by your customers. But by considering the answers to question number two, you can help guide that decision.

First, don’t abandon the basics. With the flood of new hunting apparel options, one trend is easily overlooked: there’s still strong demand for the basics, like the green-and-brown camo t-shirts and pants that have served generations of hunters. Not everyone wants or can afford the newest, most hi-tech products that apparel makers have to offer.

At the same time, there are significant trends at work in the current hunting apparel market. Just as many consumers prefer old school, just as many (if not more) really do want the performance found in the latest hunting garments. With this in mind, some hunting apparel trends to consider.

Poly Leads The Way

It wasn’t that long ago that the term “man-made fibers” carried a stigma because it suggested a cheaply-made garment. Think of those crinkly, plastic-like windbreakers that melted if they touched a hot light bulb.

No more.

“The hunting apparel industry has gone to man-made poly and poly blends like never before,” says Mike Hurt, vice president of marketing for Longleaf Camo, based in West Point, Mississippi. “Poly tends to be less expensive than natural fibers from a manufacturing standpoint. It’s often more durable, and can do many things at the same time — like being waterproof and able tobreathe. I don’t see the industry shifting back to natural fibers any time soon.”

In the apparel industry, “poly” refers to a host of synthetic polymer materials, including polyester and nylon.

For manufacturers, Hurt notes, a camouflage pattern is more readily applied to poly materials, resulting in cleaner lines with much less running or bleeding.

Longleaf began its operations making and selling camo clothing made from cotton twill. It still does (see below). But the company soon added all poly items, too, like their short sleeve Dry Wear Camo T-Shirt, made from a lightweight poly fabric designed to wick moisture away from your skin. To keep a hunter cool and to wick away moisture, the Dry Wear T-Shirt can be worn on its own during early season outings. Later in the year, the t-shirt works as a nice base layer, holding in heat while moving moisture away from the skin.

Likewise, Longleaf’s Bib Camo Overalls are made from 100 percent waterproof and breathable micro brushed Tricot, and insulated with six ounces of polyfill.

Poly blends are very popular, too. In these blends, a larger percentage of the material is of a poly type, while a smaller amount is usually cotton or wool. In this way, for example, a 70/30 poly and cotton blended t-shirt provides the hunter with the feel of cotton and the durability and wicking properties of poly.

Layers And More Layers

“Today, it’s all about lighter and more layers,” says Jim Rauscher, owner of Joe’s Sporting Goods, a large outdoors retailer located in St. Paul, Minnesota.  “Hunters want clothes that perform, that can handle specific environments and changing weather. Very few people want those big, bulky parkas any longer.  So that all means layers.”

With layers, hunters add or subtract clothing as conditions warrant. Because they also tend to be lighter and thinner than natural fibers, polys lend themselves nicely to the layering trend. Rauscher notes that his store sells a good deal of the layering-system clothing made by Browning, Sitka, and Under Armour.

“You start hunters off with a warmer poly base layer,” Rauscher explains. “Then a mid layer. That can be a poly or a wool-poly blend. Then the shirt and pants, and a jacket or coat. It depends on where they’re hunting and how much physical activity they’ll be doing.”

For base layers, the top choices are products made from polypropylene, which has the lowest thermal conductivity of any traditional apparel fiber. Additionally, polypropylene fibers do not absorb moisture, and the material’s unique vapor transfer ability moves moisture away from the skin. Nothing chills a hunter faster than sweat and moisture against the skin.

“Manufacturers like Browning and their Hell’s Canyon line of hunting clothes really designed their garments to be layered,” notes Rauscher. “Their Quarter Zip Top Shirt is a very popular item, and once hunters find out how functional that shirt is, they start looking at the Hell’s Canyon pants, jackets and a really warm PrimaLoft bib, each one  made to work with the other.”

Scent Control

The hi-tech approach doesn’t stop with the poly and layers. More than ever, hunters want scent control built into their clothing. In the 1980’s, the first scent covering and removal products debuted on the hunting market, in the form of sprays that would remove or diminish human scent from clothing.

Then, in the early 1990’s, Scent-Lok Technologies introduced garments that incorporated activated carbon scent control in the very material itself. Hunting apparel would never be the same, and Scent-Lok and many other companies began offering all manner of carbon-activated base layers, shirts, pants, and outerwear.

The number of companies making hunting apparel with carbon scent reduction capabilities is too numerous to list. Certainly, any retailer offering hunting apparel will want some of this on his or her racks and counters. 

The current trend in scent control garments is for apparel companies to develop their own new scent control technologies, technologies that do not necessarily use carbon-activated components.

A couple of years ago, for example, Under Armour introduced its own Under Armour Scent Control. This unique system encases antimicrobial silver in synthetic zeolite (naturally occurring zeolite is a very porous mineral) to help contain human odor and suppress odor-causing bacterial growth.

Under Armour rates Scent Control as corralling human odors up to ten times better than carbon-based technologies. In its hunting apparel line up, Scent Control garments are among the company’s top sellers, and for 2014 Under Armour offers Scent Control in a wide variety of products, from base layers and mid layers, to shirts and pants, outerwear, even socks and boots.

Camo To Match The Landscape

Hunter camouflage is green and brown for a very good reason. The forests, fields and wetlands we hunt in are green and brown!

Yet, different parts of the country have very different landscapes and vegetation patterns. As big game hunting in our Western States expanded over the last two decades, for example, it became apparent that the dark green and earthier brown camo patterns used successfully by spring turkey hunters East of the Mississippi River just weren’t going to work in the drier West. 

This wasn’t exactly news to King’s Camo. Established in 1995 as a graphic arts company, the business expanded into camouflage clothing in the early 2000’s with the introduction of King's Shadow Camo Patterns and King’s Desert Shadow Camo. Both patterns were based on the lighter-colored terrains and vegetation found in Western states.

Antelope, elk and mule deer hunters discovered that they blended in with the sand-and-sage brush landscape much better wearing Kings than they ever would with a traditional dark green and brown pattern. 

Now, a variety of camouflage makers, and camo pattern makers, have crafted what is essentially landscape specific camo. For Western hunters, for example, apparel done in West Realtree Max-1 HD is another good choice.

Hunters from treestands in more northern locales have found that a variety of grey and browns with vertical patterns that mimic the trees they are hunting from can be very effective. Clothing patterened in Scent-Lok’s Vertigo Grey and Vertigo Tan patterns do just this, while the distinctive crossing and horizontal patterns of Mathews’ Lost Camo are extremely effective for archery hunters on the ground and in mid-height stands.

For waterfowler hunters, Avery Outdoors created their BuckBrush pattern, a darker brown and grey that’s more of a flooded timber look, while Realtree MAX-4 wetlands camo incorporated a mix of cattails, millet, milo, cornstalks, sunflowers, oak and maple leaves.

Likewise, if you are hunting Southern pine and palmetto landscapes, Longleaf’s A/T Green and A/T Brown are going to blend much better than a western camo like King’s.

It all depends on your locale as a retailer, as well as where your customers regularly hunt.

The Tactical Edge

Say the word “tactical” and a whole lot of people think of AR rifles and military-style gear. That’s all well and good, but closely related to this larger trend is a growing segment of the hunting market that goes by the label of “tactical hunting.”  And these hunters want “mission specific” clothing.

Among the favorite game animal for tactical hunters is the wild or feral hog, and in this category S.H.W.A.T. leads the pack. Special Hog Weapons and Tactics, or S.H.W.A.T., was launched in 2012 to promote tactical hog hunting, and co-founder Jonathan Owen notes that S.H.W.A.T. members definitely want clothing that goes beyond the traditional.

“Modern camo patterns are a big improvement over grandpa's gear,” says Owen. “They have a lot more science behind them. Just as important is the ability to buy camo that's made of performance fabric, designed and cut to offer better movement. It also needs to have the storage and access capabilities for the kinds of hi tech gear that tactical hog hunters carry.”

Leading the tactical camo wave is Kryptec. Founded in 2007, Kryptec’s owners came from strong military and special operations backgrounds; their camo patterns, and the tactical functionality of the garment designs, reflect those experiences.

“Outdoor Apparel from the Battlefield to the Backcountry,” is the company’s motto, and their various patterns allow hunters to blend in whether they are hunting in various Western State habitats, in snow, or even at night (hogs and coyotes can be hunted at night in many states)

Owen, for example, likes to hunt hogs wearing tactical shirts and pants made by Vertx and done in the Kryptec Nomad pattern.

“It works great in Western Texas where I do a good deal of my hog hunting,” says Owen. “Vertx makes comfortable, durable garments that let you move fast when you need to, and Kryptek’s Nomad really blends in with the mesquite and rocky landscapes of West Texas.”

Ladies Afield, Too!

The population of female hunters keeps growing. Data accumulated by the National Shooting Sports Foundation and the National Sporting Goods Association revealed 3.3 million active female hunters in 2012 (firearms and archery combined). Between 2008 and 2012, female hunting participation surged 10 percent, while hunting participation for males, over the same time period, grew just 1.9 percent — all of which has translated into a growing demand for women’s hunting apparel.

As more and more women began to go afield, clothing manufacturers responded — but often not to the liking of female hunters. Early attempts to provide women with hunting apparel were often little more than taking young adult and boys clothing and repackaging these as “Women Hunter” clothes.

It didn’t work. Women complained because these clothing options simply were not cut to fit the female body, and were uncomfortable. 

Much of that changed in 2008 when Próis Hunting & Field Apparel was launched, making high performance hunting apparel cut and designed exclusively for women. Today, Prois offers a full line-up of clothing, outerwear, footwear, and gear for the female hunter.

Frankly, it took a few years for other hunting apparel makers to catch on. But the fact is there are more clothing options today for female hunters than ever before. Under Armour, for example, has four clothing lines devoted strictly to women hunting wear — Base, CORE, Upland and Women’s Whitetail — plus footwear and other gear. And all the clothing was designed for women, to fit women.

Cotton Still Has Its Fans

Rauscher notes that sales of camouflage cotton apparel have diminished by nearly half in the last decade or so at his St. Paul, Minnesota, establishment. Yet, even with a 50 percent reduction, Rauscher still moves a good deal of cotton hunting clothing, with price often being the deciding factor.

“If you’re going to buy a long sleeve, camo t-shirt in poly, one of the more functional varieties that wicks away moisture, you’re starting with at least a $45 price tag — and that can go up to $70,” Rausher notes. “A long sleeve cotton tee in camo?  That’s probably $15 to $20. A lot of people see that price difference and they automatically grab the cotton.”

It’s not only a price decision. As Longleaf’s Mike Hurt notes, “Cotton still sells because it just feels right to a lot of people. Not everyone likes that silky feel next to their skin of poly and poly blends. Many of us — myself included — think cotton looks better on you, too, lays better on the body. I think there’s always going to be a market for cotton hunting clothes.”

In addition to its poly offerings, Longleaf sells a good number of cotton items, too, like its six-Pocket camo pants, made from eight-ounce, 100 percent cotton camouflage twill.  Similarly, Rauscher moves a steady stream of BDU-style cotton camo pants to local small game and deer hunters, especially early season hunters who will be out in relatively warm weather.Fall is here and that means a good number of customers will want to upgrade or add to their current hunting clothes. The choices are dizzying, with so many new materials on the market and new camouflage patterns that seem to appear monthly. The choices are made even more difficult with all the new hi-tech clothing “systems” on the market, designed to make hunters invisible and scentless, while keeping them warm and dry — or cool and dry, depending on the weather.

With so many options, what’s a hunter to buy, and a retailer to stock?

The first question will have to be answered by your customers. But by considering the answers to question number two, you can help guide that decision.

First, don’t abandon the basics. With the flood of new hunting apparel options, one trend is easily overlooked: there’s still strong demand for the basics, like the green-and-brown camo t-shirts and pants that have served generations of hunters. Not everyone wants or can afford the newest, most hi-tech products that apparel makers have to offer. 

At the same time, there are significant trends at work in the current hunting apparel market. Just as many consumers prefer old school, just as many (if not more) really do want the performance found in the latest hunting garments. With this in mind, some hunting apparel trends to consider.