Small-Game Gear Goes Big Time

Your customers who chase squirrel, upland birds and bunnies deep into Eastern woods and far into Western public land are stepping up to better gear.

Small-Game Gear Goes Big Time

Small-game and upland-bird hunters know better than anyone that their gear has to function and be durable. Duck hunters sit in a blind, and deer hunters plant themselves in treestands. Not big-time small-game hunters. Those who pursue things that hide in clumps of grass ad brush piles and scurry from tree to tree need to stay on the move and push through whatever briars, rimrock and creekbottom that stands in the way of a brace of birds, bunnies, or a squirrel-filled Brunswick stew. 

Their clothes don’t simply cover their bodies or just keep them warm. Their apparel is their gear. It will be part of their success or failure. Have you ever willed your way through a wrap of briars in mere blue jeans? Then you know you weren’t at your best when that bird flushed or the rabbit came around the corner in front of the beagles. Ever marched behind mountain curs for three miles in boots that were warm but didn’t fit just right? Then climbing a steep hill for a shot a young-of-the-year fox squirrel probably wasn’t a top priority. 

Better gear makes a better hunters, and that’s especially true for your small-game and upland-bird customers. 

So what exactly are they looking for? First off, believe it or not, style. 

“Any guy 40 years old or under is not going to want to go out to a bar afterwards with dorky brush pants made for overweight old guys,” said Matt Hardinge, an upland bird nut from central Oregon. “It’s just a bad look. You might as well look stylin’ and have effective gear.”

Hardinge said he’s shifted from denim-type cotton that chafes and away from heavy chaps toward products that are more expensive but that can be worn in the lava fields behind your pointer or at a microbrewery in a hometown like his (Bend, Oregon). 

People his age want gear they can wear on a hike or concert as well as for hard-core hunting. There are a lot of new brands that are cooler than Columbia, NorthFace and Patagonia, he said. 

Hardinge said clothing brands like Stone Glacier and other pants take thermoregulation seriously. Hardinge noted that merino wool pants are way more comfortable but much less durable. 

“I hunt in all kinds of brush, and even in Arizona or when hunting pheasant in cattails, I won’t wear traditional brush pants,” he said. “They never fit right, and they look ridiculous. I don’t want to look like Elmer Fudd.” 

His base layer and socks are merino. His vest is fleece, and he’ll carry a waterproof shell. That’s it for all but the coldest weather. After all, he’s on the move. 

When it comes to boots, it’s not your typical small-game kicks. He goes for high-quality sheep-hunter or elk-hunter-style boots. The soles will be much stiffer than say a Danner Gila or Irish Setter VaprTrek, but they’ll last several seasons of walking volcanic rock and steep slopes where he hunts chukar and mountain quail. After all, he’s not weekend warrior. He chases birds 100 days a year.

Lately, he’s springing for White’s Boots, Lathrope or Sones, which are all gaining popularity in his neck of the woods.  They are more expensive, like $300-$400 for a pair, but worth it, he says, to have the right gear for the field and wherever else you’re going. Hardinge and his friends hunt hard and play hard. 

Holler Back

If you head due east, you’ll get into a whole different area of the country where the small game is more likely to have teeth rather than feathers. In the rolling hills and mountains of Kentucky, you’ll find Kevin Murphy and his dogs chasing down rabbits and chasing squirrels up trees. Murphy, who is a bit older than Hardinge but not quite a Boomer, also opts for the lighter, more technical gear. 

“As a kid, we wore Army surplus,” said Murphy. “It’s a wonder we didn’t die in it. It’s amazing what we have now that keeps us out longer and more comfortably.”

Murphy is also a merino fan. He wears wool base layers, as well as pants, shirts and socks. It’s taken over his dresser drawers because they are warm even when wet, and they’re not scratchy. The Smart Wool brand is popular for its socks and base layers. 

But in Kentucky, Murph will hunt areas choked with briars. While he prefers a pair of wool pants, he’ll break out traditional heavy briar pants and even chaps if he has to. Yes, he’ll look like Elmer Fudd (especially with his Jones-style cap), but if you’ve ever hunted bunnies out East, you know they’re worth it. 

All this brings back memories of hunting rabbits with my father on the East Coast farms. We didn’t have beagles, and our pointer had no interest in cottontails. Dad would point to the thickest green briars, where the rabbits were, and say, “If you want to shoot ’em, you have to go get ’em.” I’d push through the thorns and end up with red stripes across my legs that would burn in the shower at home. When I got a little older, I bought myself a pair of L.L. Bean brush pants, and I felt like I could walk anywhere. 

Murphy appreciates a good pair of brush pants now and again. Regarding boots, he is traditionalist and opts for an uninsulated hunting boot with leather uppers and rubber lowers. If he’s got a long slog, maybe following coon dogs all night, he’ll pull on a pair of Danner Pronghorn or something waterproof but breathable. Is a swamp run planned? Then he’ll go for a pair of LaCrosse’s Big Burlys or Xtratufs — not great for long distance hikes, but excellent when you’ll be doing a lot of splashing. Or, if he’s expecting a nasty swamp-briar combo, then he steps into the heavyweights: a pair of chaps with attached rubber boot, like a the heavy-duty Dryshod Knee Hi Boots with Yoder Chaps. 

“It can get hot in the chaps with boots, but it’s worth it when you have to push through the thick stuff and then water through the muck. With these, I can go just about anywhere,” said Murphy. 

And that’s where Murphy finds the big bunnies: in the darkest, dankest swamps of northern Kentucky. 

While he is a traditionalist, he’s also a minimalist. When it comes to upland birds that he hunts in nearby Illinois or Kansas, Murphy takes just a strap vest with few pockets but room for water, shells and a big game pocket for his dead critters.

“If it’s nippy, and the wind is blowing, I’ll have a protective shell outerwear jacket, one that is briar-proof and rain-proof, and that’s about it,” Murph said.

Filson and Tom Beckbe make classic strap-vests that are proven to give years of wear. Becke also has a Quail Belt that is truly minimalist and is a great alternative to a vest or brush jacket. Basically, it’s a classic three-pouch hunting belt, with two shell pockets on either side and a handy large game pocket in the rear on a leather belt. Interestingly, they recently changed their classic design so that it unbuckles in both the front and back, which lets you change the overall length while keeping both of the side shell pockets on the side of your hips. No more awkward adjusting and spilling your shells. 

I wonder how many gray squirrels Murph could stuff in those pockets?

Sidebar: DOG HORN

Well, actually, this isn’t trending as far as we can tell, and it’s anything but high-tech. But we all know small-game hunters carry on a tradition, and Murphy carries something on him that goes way back.  

“I always have an old cow horn with the tip cut off like old fox hunters of Kentucky,” said Murphy. He toots on the horn at the beginning of the hunt, and the dogs come in. He’ll blow it again when he’s the horse or headed to the woods. 

“Everyone knows then that we’d going hunting,” he said. “And batteries never die.” 

SIDEBAR: Trending Accessories 


Garmin is integrating dog e-collars with their popular watches. Oregon’s Matt Hardinge pairs his Alpha 200i with his Garmin Instinct watch. When the dog’s on point, he gets a beep and then can glance at his watching that gives him the direction to walk to catch up with the pup. It also inReach sat phone capabilities that give him peace of mind when he is way off the beaten path 20 miles down a two-track.  


In case he does get stuck, Hardinge has just about everything he needs to suddenly bunk up and survive in truck-deck drawers that slide out and lock. They also keep his hunt gear, like guns, shells, dog stuff neatly organized as well. Hardinge works for Decked drawer systems, and his Ram Power Wagon is decked out for sure. By the way, if you were wondering, these systems will hold up 2,000 pounds of cargo on top of them, so you’re not sacrificing your bed for other stuff. Yes, you can still help your friend move, if you’re not hunting that day.


Tom Beckbe Quail Belt can carry all kinds of small game but is truly proper for Gentleman Bob. The belt and three pouches hold shells on the sides and game in the back. Remove the game pouch, and it’s read for sporting clays. For longer treks, their strap vest is a perennial favorite for bird hunters. 


YETI water bottles are heavy, or at least they once were. Now they’re making one called the Yonder that is super light in two sizes, 1 liter or 750 ml. There’s nothing flashy about them, but they’re practical and will fill a niche for hunters. While YETI products are usually costly, these retail for $25-$28. 


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