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Dressing for the elements

Birders at sunrise
Birders at sunrise. Photo by Bill Schmoker

Increasingly, we live in a society estranged from the outdoors. In this age of passive indoor climate control and dual-passenger automobile climate settings, basic principles relating to staying dry, warm, or cool are no longer part of our cultural DNA.

The result is that many new birders go afield without field skills pertaining to even basic dress.

An old axiom in the outdoor recreation community goes like this: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad equipment.” To this, I will add “and poor preparation.”

So, in this article, in place of my usual “Birder at Large” column, I offer advice on what to wear when you’re birding, especially in cold and wet weather but also in hot areas. And to reduce birders’ discomfort, I also give tips for avoiding mosquitos and other biting insects.

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Before setting out on a day’s outing or a two-week birding tour, learn about the terrain you will face and what climate and weather you are likely to encounter. Gearing up for a trip to the Aleutians is unlike packing for a river cruise in the Amazon Basin.

Whether or not Alaska is in your plans, here are tips for dressing for cold climates.

It begins with the base layer: a good set of moisture-wicking underwear that keeps you warm and dry when exertion makes you sweat. Undergarments (tops and bottoms) are typically made of synthetic fiber and come in different grades or weights (“heavy” or “military grade,” medium, and light). Me? I always go for the industrial-strength material. My thinking: If it’s cold enough for long undies, it’s cold enough for the warmest stuff available. I prefer zip-neck turtleneck uppers so I can thermo-regulate easily, i.e., unzip to expose my neck when overheated.


Socks? Smart wool is hard to beat. Soft, pliant, warm, durable.

On top of the undies, wear a good wool sweater or fleece jacket (or both).

Pants? There are lots of ways to go here. Wool is warm but heavy. I still prefer jeans even though cotton is a poor insulator when wet. That is one reason I rely on the military-grade undies and carry (or wear) a set of light wind pants or rain pants.

As for jackets or outerwear, I like goose down. Even though it loses its insulating properties when wet, down is light, warm, and easy to stuff in a day pack if temperatures climb or you do. Fleece works fine, too. In very cold temperatures (single digits), I often wear a down sweater under a heavy-duty down jacket. If your down jacket is not at least water-resistant, pack a good waterproof rain jacket cut large enough to fit loosely over the down jacket. Compressed down doesn’t insulate.

Speaking of rain gear: Buy the best stuff you can afford. Rain gear is the wrong place to be budget-minded. When you are walking through a cold pouring rain and are still two miles from shelter, you will thank me for encouraging you to buy the best.


Gortex works fine when it’s new. Consider buying tops and bottoms a size larger than your street size. Ponchos? Fine in the tropics, but in cold climates I want to be hermetically sealed.

As I noted in a recent issue of BirdWatching, I hate being cold and wet, and I’ve been cold and wet more than anybody I know who hates being cold and wet. As a result, in really wet conditions I often double-bag, wearing a light stretchy rock climber’s rain suit under a heavy-duty rain jacket and pants.

On winter pelagic birding trips, it’s hard to beat the good ol’ rubberized Helly Hansen-type bibs and hooded jacket combination. Yes, it’s stiff and can be hot, but it keeps you dry. Add rubber Welly-type knee boots, and you are virtually wave proof.

Note that rain gear loses its water-shedding properties over time. Expect to replace it, and do so before that expensive trip to the Alaskan Arctic. Seams need
constant resealing.


Headgear? A nice stretchy synthetic fiber hat works well in most conditions. Neck warmers that can be pulled up over your face when the wind kicks up are always nice to have in a pocket. As for hands, mittens are warmer than gloves, but it’s hard to focus binoculars with a mittened hand, unless you buy mittens that permit index fingers to poke through at need.

I typically carry both down mittens and synthetic-pile gloves. They fit easily in pockets.

Balaclava hoods are great in cold, windy conditions.


This is probably a good place to bring up disposable heat-generating hand warmers and toe warmers. I know disposable is not green, but these things really work. They’ve made aching toes a thing of the past. Speaking of which…


There is no universal answer here, and it seems no matter what you wear is wrong.

Sandals? Great for walking on beaches but stupid in rocky or cactus-studded terrain.

Running shoes? They are a good versatile choice. Cheap, with good traction, and the mostly fabric-type are fairly quick drying. I prefer the kind with the low heel counter because my Achilles tendon doesn’t like to be constricted.

READY FOR ANYTHING: Whether hiking in mountains or birding on a lakeshore preparation is key. Photo by Bizi88/Shutterstock

Wellies? Love ‘em, but they are hot and in rocky terrain prone to rip. They also don’t offer much traction on uphill climbs and little ankle support.


Hiking shoes or boots? Fine for rugged terrain or if you are backpacking. Some are pretty water resistant. The L.L. Bean hunting boots with leather uppers and rubber bottoms are splendid on dewy mornings in flat terrain, but in my experience, the bottoms lack traction for uphill walking.

Whatever you buy, make sure your shoes are well broken in before your outing. Carry an extra set of socks if you are doing an extensive hike, and exchange them for your sweat-soaked pair at lunch. Blisters are a sure way to ruin your walk back and tomorrow’s outing, too. Don’t forget the moleskin. If you don’t need it, someone else will, and you’ll be the hero. Also, duct tape can be used to repair ripped fabric and torn rubber.

When buying foot gear, fit matters. When trying on boots at the store, slip them on and then kick back hard on the heels before lacing. Now walk. If your heel slides in the heel counter, the boot’s too wide or too large. Now head for the nearest set of stairs. Walk down balancing the ball of your foot on the edge of the step. Use the hand rail for stability. If your toes get crammed against the toe box, the shoe is too small. Buy a half-size up. Hiking boots are the one piece of apparel I never
buy online.


Neo-Tech boots? This splendid, waterproof over-boot is a 21st-century version of the hated old rubber galoshes mom used to send you off to school in. Made with waterproof fabric uppers coupled with a terrain-gripping lower shoe section, Neos slip over your running shoes and come in a knee-length and calf-length version. They’re light, pack well, and deserve a place in every birder’s travel bag.


Increasingly, birders are going to warm (often tropical) locations. The old standard was baggy cotton shorts and a cotton T-shirt. These still work, but more than ever, birders are favoring the light synthetic travel pants and long-sleeve synthetic “safari” shirts. They dry quickly, so can be rinsed out after a sweaty day afield, hung up to dry, and worn the next day. And they offer better protection from biting insects and thorn-bearing plants that have a vendetta against humans.

Whatever you wear, make sure it is color neutral. When birding, cryptic colors like green, tan, and brown are preferable to bright colors. Never wear white. In the universal language of wild things, it means: “danger, seek cover.” It is not the message you want to send. Camo is fine, but be prepared to take some good-natured ribbing from your companions and know that in some conflict-plagued countries, camo patterns are actually illegal.


It is especially important in warm climates to stay hydrated, so drink water frequently. Sweating is the body’s heat-regulating mechanism. In open country, a wide-brimmed sun-shading hat will keep you cooler than
going hatless.



The outdoors is replete with critters that consider humans their means to a meal or reproductive success. These include mosquitos, a host of ticks, biting flies, gnats, some ants, and chiggers. What’s a chigger? How fortunate for you that you have to ask. A chigger is a near-microscopic mite that flourishes in hot vegetated areas (forests and grasslands). Their taste for human flesh results in an itch so unbearable it undermines the whole concept of a benign god. Sorry if this offends you, but, frankly, there was no excuse for chiggers. Never solitary, chiggers work fast: By the time the first raised red spot appears on your hide, typically where some elastic bolstered piece of apparel constricts, the damage is done. Nothing to do now but wait to determine the extent of the damage.

My first infestation of chiggers occurred in Patagonia-Sonoita Creek Preserve, in Arizona, where Linda and I were enjoying (up to that point) our honeymoon. By nightfall, both of us looked like we’d been hit with two barrels of bird shot. But my worst case of chiggers was contracted in Cumberland County, New Jersey, where a single, thoughtless stroll through a tetherball-court-sized patch of grass led to two weeks of itching, burning misery and a trip to my G.P. for industrial-strength Prednisone.

Contrary to popular belief, chiggers do not burrow into the skin. What they do is upchuck a bit of flesh-melting enzyme onto the skin’s surface, then lick. Your body’s immune system does the rest.


I hate chiggers. Hate ’em, hate ’em, hate ’em. If given a choice between walking through chigger-infested grass and lighting myself on fire, I would ask for five minutes to consider my options. The only sure way I know of avoiding chiggers is to stay out of tall grass and never, ever leave the trail when birding in a rain forest, even when your in-country guide assures you there are no chiggers. They lie.

Avoid brushing any vegetation along the trail, and that evening shower up and do not wear your clothes again until they are washed.

But when it comes to an itch, enzyme for enzyme, nothing beats the level of torment that is doled out by your garden-variety deer tick. These pinhead-sized disease-transmitting vampires have made whole forest tracts off limits. But at least you can see them. After a day afield in tick country, do a thorough tick check before going to bed. It makes a great bonding experience for birding couples.


Mosquitoes? I find over-the-counter repellants to be adequate. But know that DEET melts rubber and plastic, including the stuff that coats binocular barrels. In places like the Arctic, Florida, or coastal Texas, where mosquito numbers may be life threatening, head nets or commercial “bug shirts” that are fitted with head nets can make the difference between a good day afield and a miserable one. Biting flies? Jeans and a long-sleeve shirt work for most varieties. Only a fool wears shorts in greenhead-fly country, and jeans that are washed thin offer little protection.

Ants? They’re generally not a problem as long as you are attentive. Where fire ants flourish, never climb atop a raised dirt mound for a better view. In the tropics, when birding in the midst of an ant swarm, don’t get so wrapped up in your tanager appreciation that you fail to note that the swarm has forked and that you are being flanked. Ignore this advice, and you’ll be disrobing and swatting so frantically that even Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man would be about three arms short of need.

Always use your head. The best way to treat discomfort is to avoid it. Several years ago, while birding Alaska’s Attu Island with a tour group, we got caught in a rain squall. While it was not unexpected, I could not help but note that while most of us simply turned our backs to the wind and near-horizontal rain, my friend Terry Moore of Leica Sport Optics moved to be on the lee side of a handy telephone pole, which offered at least partial protection. Terry went on to tally his 700th North American life bird on that outing, a Baikal Teal.


Preparation, common sense, outdoor smarts, and quality gear: The secret ingredients of successful birders.

This article, from Pete Dunne’s “Birder at Large” column, appeared in the November/December 2018 issue of BirdWatching.

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Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne

Pete Dunne is the author of over a dozen books about birds and birding and the founder of the World Series of Birding. In 2001, in recognition of a lifetime of achievements in promoting the cause of birding, he received the Roger Tory Peterson Award from the American Birding Association. Until 2013, he served as director of the Cape May Bird Observatory and vice president for natural history for New Jersey Audubon. His column “Birder at Large” appears in every issue of BirdWatching.

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