Can you shoot a wooden bow in the winter?

If you live in a colder climate, like me, then you know that long winters can really put a damper on outdoor some outdoor activities.  But what about archery?  Where I live in Alberta, Canada, it can get down to -30 degrees Celsius pretty regularly. 

Since I’m a traditional archer shooting wooden bows, I was wondering, “Can I still shoot my bow in the winter?”  Most winters where I live can last at least 6 months (where the temperature is below 7 degrees Celsius).  My main concern is whether or not there is a danger of the bow breaking if I try to shoot it when it’s -30 C outside.  So I did some research.

I reached out to a couple of industry experts to see what they had to say: Bear Archery and Lancaster Archery Supply.  Both of them said that you can shoot wooden bows in the winter with no danger of breaking your bow as long as you store it properly.  The bow should be kept in a temperature controlled room with relatively low humidity.

Easy enough.  But how will my bow perform in the cold weather?

How cold weather affects your bow

How cold temperatures affect your bow is determined by what material your bow is made form.  Traditional bows can be made from a wide range of materials, but I’m just going to look at wooden bows.

It’s pretty common knowledge that when a thing is heated it expands and when it’s cooled it contracts.  Some materials expand or contract more than other materials.  The amount a thing expands or contracts can be calculated and/or measured using specialized instruments. 

The ratio of expansion or contraction according to temperature changes is called the Coefficient of Thermal Expansion: the higher the coefficient of thermal expansion, the more expansion or contraction as temperature changes.  Since I’m talking about wooden bows, we’ll look at wood.

Traditional wooden bows can either be a single piece or three-piece (take-down) but the parts are generally the same.  All bows will have a riser, limbs and a string.  Single piece bows will generally be made from the same material throughout while take-down bows might have a wooden riser and synthetic or composite limbs.  We’ll consider all-wood for both cases.

The part of the bow that will always be a different material than the riser and limbs is the string.

Different material means different expansion/contraction due to temperature.

For example, if your riser and limbs are mostly made from maple.  The coefficient of thermal expansion of maple on average is 0.003.  Now, let’s say you have a string made from Dacron.  Dacron has a coefficient of thermal expansion of 0.00002 which is much smaller than 0.003.  That means that the riser and limbs will contract more than the string at cold temperatures.

Think about it: if your bow shrinks more than the string, then there will be less tension on the string.  Less tension on the string means a lighter draw weight and a slower moving arrow.  for all intents and purposes, these changes may be negligible.  But if you’re target shooting where inches matter, then this might be a problem.

How cold weather affects your arrow

Everything we’ve just talked about regarding expansion and contraction for the bow also applies to the arrow: it all comes down to the material.

Arrows come in all kinds of materials: wooden, aluminum, carbon, fibreglass and composites of any combination.  The characteristics of an arrow, regardless of material, can generally be determined by its length, spine, weight and centre of gravity.  How does temperature affect these characteristics?

As I’ve said before when things are cooled they contract.  So an arrow will become shorter and fatter in the cold.  This will make it slightly stiffer.  There is also the possibility of the arrow warping.

The cold will have no effect on the weight of the arrow, but changing the length of the arrow will slightly affect the centre of gravity, especially if there are weighted inserts in the arrow.

Changing the length, spine and centre of gravity of the arrow will affect the how the arrows perform when shot from your bow.

How cold weather affects where the arrow impacts

Give what we’ve said about how cold weather affects your bow and your arrow, we can see that performance will be changed from your normal warm-weather shooting conditions.

Cold air is denser than warm air.  That means that there will be more molecules causing more resistance to the arrow as it travels through the air.  More air resistance means the arrow will slow down faster than normal.

To sum up so far: the bow has a slightly lower draw weight, the arrow is flying slightly off and there is more air resistance for the arrow.  We can conclude that the arrow will likely impact lower than normal.  Since each bow is unique and each arrow is unique, how much lower is difficult to say.  You should practice shooting in the cold to get comfortable with the performance of your setup and become confident with your accuracy.

How cold weather affects you

Having lived in Canada all my life, I think I can say that most people don’t like the cold.  And there are good reasons for that: it’s pretty hard to enjoy what you’re doing if you’re freezing!

When you spend an extended amount of time outdoors in the cold, the first thing that happens if you lose the dexterity in your fingers and toes, even if you’re wearing gloves.  For me as an archer, that’s a problem since the accuracy of my shot depends on my ability to execute a smooth release.

The cold also makes your muscles stiffer and easier to cramp up.  This will make it easier to mess up a shot by making it harder to execute a smooth draw and release.

If it’s cold outside, chances are there’s also snow on the ground.  That means you’ll have to account for the glare from the sun reflecting off the snow and making it a lot brighter.  It’s also called snow blindness.

These are just some of the things that archers have to consider when shooting outdoors in the winter.

Tips for cold weather archery

Since 6 months is a long time to go without enjoying the beautiful sport we call archery, we archers are going to shoot in the cold no matter what.  Here are some tips to make it a better experience:

  • Wear warm clothing!  Keeping in mind that physical activity will make you warmer, you can probably get away with a lighter coat than if you just out and about.  This is good for not getting your string hung up on a bulky coat.
  • Get your heart rate up.  Before you head outside, try doing some push-ups or jumping jacks to get your muscles warmed up a bit.  This will make it less likely for you to pull a muscle and make it easier to shoot.
  • Store your bow and arrows inside.  This seems obvious but needs to be said.  Keep your wooden bow stored, unstrung, in a temperature controlled room with relatively low humidity.  This will minimize the effects of temperature fluctuation on your bow and arrows.
  • Practice, practice, practice!  cold weather affects your bow mainly in how it will perform.  Your bow will not perform the same in the cold as it does in warm weather.  Therefore, you should practice in the cold to become confident with your bow’s cold weather performance.