Eric W. Pfleger
Suarez International Staff Instructor
Are you prepared to operate on this battle field?
Cold weather operations pose difficulties to the fighting man that can determine both mission success, as well as survival. Frigid environments take a toll on the body quickly, effecting ability to physically perform tasks, maintain health, and mental focus. Efforts become increasingly labored and fatigue may occur quickly while performing common tasks in extreme conditions requiring heavy clothing. Equipment and weapons must endure the elements in what can be a mechanically challenging environment. Travel is greatly affected by frozen and snow covered terrain, and areas usable in warmer seasons may be unavailable to the winter operator. The effects of wind, precipitation, temperature, visibility, and available assets can grind things to halt faster than any enemy. Knowledge, training, and proper equipment are a must for the winter warrior.
Heat loss and exposure is the number one killer that must be confronted when the mercury drops and they can be most detrimental to your combat effectiveness. We must have a thorough understanding of this threat to deal with it successfully, less you end up an exposure casualty. Heat loss occurs by the mechanisms known as radiation, respiration/ evaporation, convection, and conduction.
Radiation is the loss of heat from the body to the surrounding atmosphere. The rate of heat loss is roughly proportional to the temperature of the surrounding air versus that of the body. We can best manage this loss through proper use of insulated clothing and understanding of how to maintain the body’s ‘thermostat’ by ensuring we are properly fueled.
Respiration and evaporation are the body’s way of controlling core temperature, a thermostat for shedding excess heat. These mechanisms are of course desirable and we do not want to find ourselves without them. They are at work at both rest and while engaged in vigorous activity, releasing heat in the form of moisture through our pores and exhalation of breath. We must be careful to monitor them at all times however, as the byproduct they can create is wet clothing when sweat and vaporizing water infiltrates and saturates our insulation layers decreasing the effectiveness. The exhalation of water vapor can cause fogging of eyewear, optic lenses, and can solidify on facial hair and eye lashes causing irritation.
Convection occurs when forced air (wind) passes over the skin, clothing, and gear that we are outfitted with, robbing heat and cooling surfaces. This effect is significant and with low temperature environments combined with extreme wind velocity, it can be deadly. The term ‘wind chill’ is used to describe and measure the effect of forced air convection. Wind speeds of 20MPH at zero degrees Fahrenheit can place one in considerable danger and the addition of ten more MPH creates very dangerous circumstances. Even slight winds render a significant cooling equivalent of lower temperature in still air. The minimizing of exposed skin is critical to combat wind chill. A single layer of wind proof clothing can greatly reduce the effects of Convection and the proper use of terrain and structure to shield against direct wind exposure is most important.
Conduction is the transfer of heat from one surface (the operator in this instance) to another surface making a physical contact. The rate at which this loss in heat occurs depends on the thermal conductivity of the materials involved as well as their respective temperatures. Taking up a position on a cold rock or frozen pond will rob heat through conduction at much increased rate as opposed to taking position atop a stack of hay bales. Managing the contacts with surfaces through use of insulators (such as a thermarest pad or a section of foam rubber cut to sit on) is the best defense.
Proper clothing selection is critical. We must balance our uniform needs, keeping in mind insulation properties, protective abilities, breathability, and thermal control. For practical purposes- thickness equals warmth. Most fabrics have a similar thermal conductivity when dry. It is the captured air between fibers and layers of material that insulates. Cotton, wool, down, or the various synthetics all conduct heat at a similar rate, there for thickness of material, and subsequent contained air are key. Increasing thickness provides more insulation properties than differing material. The criteria in which we choose our clothing material must be based on some important considerations. How well does the material allow passage of water vapor? Does the material continue to maintain its insulating properties when wet? Compression of the fabric is important, as you must be able to move and function in it as well as store it when not it is not being worn. How does the fabric perform when exposed to windy or wet conditions, and is it rugged enough to stand up to wear and abuse?
For insulation layers I am a proponent of Merino wool. Wool maintains 80% of its insulating properties when saturation occurs with sweat, water, or snow. It dries relatively quickly and tends to not retain body odor like many of the ultra-modern wicking fabrics. Down, although the greatest insulator per weight when dry, fails to insulate when it is wet. Cotton holds moisture, becomes heavy, and takes forever to dry. Polar fleece and similar material wicks excellently and has some good properties, particularly the ability to shed water and maintain light weight. Having multiple, thin, layers of your inner garments so that one can take advantage of adjusting the insulation to the activity and conditions present is best. Stay away from the extremely thick ‘all or nothing’ option as it leaves you with no option. It is my choice to use mid weight merino wool socks and long underwear as the layer against my skin, and place Polar fleece or other high loft synthetics on top of that. A wool sweater or button up shirt is desirable in the middle layers as well. Wear clothing in loose layers to create air pockets. Have you ever wondered how snow can gather on the back of a bedded deer? It is because the combination of hollow hairs and the layering of them against the body create such an efficient insulator to retain heat that the core temperature is maintained while the surface temperature is what the environment is. They suffer very minimal loss of core temp.We must seek to emulate this.
Your outer clothing needs to withstand a certain amount of moisture yet allow for the escape of water vapor. It should shield against light wind, and be of rugged enough construction to allow for the wear and tear of daily activity. When choosing BDU type trousers or blouses stick with the 65/35 Poly or go with NYCO fabrics. Again avoid cotton. The neoprene type stretch fabrics available provide an excellent outer layer and are very functional for intense activity. They should be equipped with plenty of ventilation options, such as zippered arm pits and or removable sleeves allowing moisture to escape. Some of the anorak type ‘wind shirts’ are an option that allows excellent ‘pack ability’ and can be stowed in cargo pockets.
Your storm layer or foul weather gear must be waterproof and wind proof. Gore Tex is king. Parkas should be equipped with hoods, elastic cuffs and waists to keep water out and zippered underarms to ventilate are ideal. Trousers should be set up with suspenders or a belt. I do not care for waistbands that have elastic and pull cords as the only means of keeping the pant in place. Zippered calf’s allow for ventilation and easy placement/ removal over boots. Leg gaiters constructed of a heavy material and possessing water proof properties are invaluable. Outer and foul weather clothing should be selected in camouflage patterns that are applicable to the environment. Over whites or a Tyvek suit may be carried in conditions that fluctuate between barren, snow covered, and timbered topography. Insulation layers that are worn as an outer layer such as the quilted hollofill pants and over boots are easy to climb in and out of, but are best suited to around camp or in inactive positions.
Headgear is essential. Your head is a chimney and being able to control the heat out your top side is a must. I utilize a balaclava type face mask of thinner nylon material that can be rolled up as a light duty cap. Topped with a polar fleece or wool watch cap or ‘mad bomber’ type of rabbit fur lined hat is next on the list. A short scarf or shemagh is good to wrap the neck and face. Gloves are crucial and several are needed. A thick, insulated ,water proof pair is a must, as well as a light pair that allows dexterity and manipulation of small equipment and weapons. Gore-Tex, thinsulate, ballistic nylon shell for the ‘heavy’ glove and thin poly wicking gloves with good traction on the palms are my choice. Heavy insulated mittens for extreme cold, with a gloved hand inside are a good option. With gloves and hats, I carry secondary of everything. Having the ability to wear one set while another is drying is critical, not to mention simply having them in the event of loss or separation from gear. Tethering gloves to your coat sleeves is a good idea.
Eye protection for the winter warrior is a must. Ski or TAC goggles provide protection from wind and blowing snow and keep your eyes and bridge of your nose from exposure. Treat them with an anti- fog agent. Snow blindness is a serious problem and can debilitate. It occurs from exposure to ultra violet and blue rays reflected off snow and surprisingly is worse in cloudy conditions. Carry sunglasses at all times and shaded lenses for the goggles are recommended.
I cannot stress the importance of proper footwear. Water proof, insulated boots, providing good traction, and compatibility with snow shoes, skis, or crampons are essential. Heavy duty snow boots with two pair of removable felt wool liners (one is worn/ one is drying) are highly recommended. A pair of Gore- tex socks are good insurance if your boots become wet and an extra pair of lighter duty boots for around camp is often welcomed. Don’t hesitate to tape off the intersection between boot and pant to avoid introduction of snow. Footwear should fit properly and not be laced to tight, so that circulation is compromised. Chemical heat pads such as Hot Hands can be quite effective at combating cold feet as well as placed in gloves. Feet are far farthest from the core and closest to the cold ground. Take care of them or you may find that your toes are rolling around in the bottom of your boots
Maintaining the dryness (effectiveness) of your clothing preemptively is sure better than trying to dry it out after compromise. I carry a 3” nylon bristle paint brush as part of my winter kit. I use the brush to remove snow from my clothing and gear at every opportunity, especially prior to entering warmer environments. I keep inner layers tucked neatly under the outer layers and I roll up hoods and tuck them in if I’m not wearing them to avoid the collection of snow. Adjust layers prior to activity/inactivity. Rotating your ‘skin layer’ to allow drying and having ‘sleep’ clothing is a fine idea. It all boils down to staying warm and keeping dry. Wet will lead to cold and that leads to becoming a casualty.
Remember the word C.O.L.D. Which stands for Clean (keep it that way), Overheating (avoid it), Loose (layers), Dry (stay that way).
Temperature can be managed quite well by exposing and/or insulating the head, ears, hands, armpits, and lower abdominal area allowing heat to escape or be retained. As well as maintaining movement to generate circulation and heat. Collectling wood for a fire often warms you as well as standing around the fire.
Hygiene is critical to maintaining health and heat in cold theaters . Utilizing Goldbond powder on the body and in footwear to keep excess oil from skin and hair clogging materials, and keeping up with hygiene will help keep your clothing operational. In extreme cold environments you may find that the need to ‘oil’ dry skin is necessary (vitamin E oil). Preventing cracking of the skin on hands and knuckles is important. Use lip balm or Carmex often on both your lips and around the nostrils.
Hydration and dietary needs in the extreme cold are massive. To keep the core temperature maintained a constant intake of calories is needed. Six to eight thousand calories a day is not unheard of in extremely cold, activity intense situations. Food is fuel, thus energy, thus heat. Oatmeal, with olive or peanut oil, and coconut milk powder is excellent! Constant intake of carbs is a must. Your body will need as much H20 in the cold as it does in the heat- so drink up often. A gallon a day should be consumed. Introduce food and beverage to the body at close to body temperature as possible. Much like drinking ice cold beverages in the scorching desert, ingesting steaming hot liquids in the arctic, although maybe refreshing, can trick the thermostat and be less effective. On the flip side of the example- ice water should be warmed to body temp if possible. Don’t interpret this too mean not partaking of a nice hot meal, just do so intelligently.
Recognizing the signs and symptoms of exposure early on is critical. Self-checks as well as’ Buddy checks’ need to be conducted often. When the body loses core heat faster than it can produce it you have the condition known as Hypothermia. Until normal body temperature is restored and maintained, you are most definitely in threat of life. Faint or undetectable pulse, shallow respiration, loss of dexterity, coordination and feeling in the extremities, rapid shivering that ceases, impaired speech, confusion, and a glassy stare, are signs of trouble. Victims of hypothermia must be immediately sheltered and wet garments removed. Insulate the patient and apply heat packs, warm water bottles, or your own body heat to the neck, armpits, groin, and sides of chest. Placement of the casualty in a sleeping bag near a source of heat and slowly introducing warm liquids (no alcohol), particularly high caloric ones, if they are conscious is advised. Mylar space blankets are effective for retaining heat in the victim. The most effective way to rapidly and safely heat a hypothermic patient in the field remains to climb into a sleeping bag with the victim and let conduction do the work. Yes,I realize the horror of it and don’t want to snuggle up with any of the comrades I lurk with either, so focus on prevention. It is recommended NOT to rub, massage, or apply friction to the victim in an attempt to generate heat. Alcohol or tobacco should not be administered to the victim, and be cautious of medications that result in vascular constriction.
When body tissues freeze from exposure (sub 32 degrees Fahrenheit) you have the condition known as Frostbite. Superficial frostbite is recognizable by redness and tingling, aching, stinging sensations such as in the toes or fingers. It results in redness followed sometimes by gray flaking powdery skin, and blistering formation in approximately 24 hours. Deep frostbite results in loss of feeling and a pale waxy appearance to the affected area. Frozen tissue may feel solid or ‘petrified’ with blistering appearing in 12 hours. Extreme pain often accompanies the thawing of the exposure and purple and red discoloration will appear with in several days, often concluding in Gangrene. Amputation of limbs as a result of severe frost bite is common.
Forced air convection combined with extreme low temperature can freeze skin within 30 seconds of exposure. Prevention of frost bite is best accomplished by maintaining circulation, avoiding exposure, proper hydration and food consumption. Generally frost bite doesn’t occur when core temperature is maintained well and feet, hands, face, ears, and limbs are protected from the elements. Temperature, wind chill factor, and exposure time will affect the degree of frostbite if it does occur and it is often magnified in individuals who have suffered cold exposure injuries in the past. Patients should be evacuated to a sheltered area as in the case of hypothermia. Rewarming of exposed face, ears, nose,etc. is best accomplished by placing warm hands on the affected area. Frostbitten hands and fingers can be placed against the victim’s body under clothing or a sleeping bag to prevent further heat loss. Protect any frozen tissue from further exposure. Removing rings from fingers and loosening restrictive clothing to promote circulation is advisable. Frozen toes and feet are most common and can be rewarmed by placing them under insulated clothing or a sleeping bag and against the warm body of a buddy or K9. Have the casualty ‘exercise’ the digits to promote warmth. Exposure to direct heat, the rubbing of snow on effected areas, and massaging the area to produce heat are NOT recommended. Gradual warming of the effected limb is best. In case of deep frost bite, extreme pain, infection, and damage often occur. In these cases attempts to thaw the subject should be left to doctors. Stabilize and evacuate the victim.
Medical kits should be tailored to the cold weather environment and the associated exposure injuries that occur. Mylar reflective blankets, heat packs, lip balm, additional sinus, cough, and cold medications, etc. are advised as breathing cold air causes its own flavor of issues. Training in evacuation of casualties by sled and ski litters over snow and ice rescue, as well as recognition of exposure symptoms is a must for the team. Be avalanche aware and no how to ‘read’ ice.
Your gear must be selected for suitability in the winter environment. Load bearing equipment with flaps that cover pouches are superior in every way to the ‘exposed’ pouch kit available. Everything seems to break easier in the cold and this phenomenon isn’t lost on fastex buckles and plastic hardware. I lace paracord through all critical junctions of webbing and buckles. Metal hardware can even become brittle in extreme low temps, so harden your kit. Methods of carrying water must be addressed in freezing temperature. Routing hydration tubes inside of clothing to prevent freezing and the use of insulating sleeves (with a Chemical heating pad) around hydration bladders is effort well spent. Metal canteens that can be introduced to direct flame or heat sources to accomplish thawing are highly recommended. Sleeping and shelter gear should be selected with the operating environment in mind. Shelters with ultra-lite man portable stoves or small compressed gas stove or heater are not only comfortable, but allow one to dry equipment. In emergency conditions a poncho placed over a trioxin heat tablet will dry you out remarkably well. The previously mentioned paint brush, a can of keyboard air (useful for man tracking in a dusting of snow), and a can of De-Icer from NAPA can help maintain equipment and weapons. Shovels and ice axes distributed with in the team are useful.
Lubricant for weapons can become sluggish and should be carefully selected or replaced with dry lube or even left dry. Muzzles taped in snow covered environments is good policy. Take great care to keep magazines and linked ammunition clean and dry. A solid take down cleaning rod is a must and a small can of Gun scrubber can free up frozen actions. I once utilized a can of lock de-icer to free up the frozen firing pin in a buddy’s bolt action rifle. How accomodating of a gloved finger is your trigger guard? Batteries for optical sights, rangefinders, navigation, or communication equipment should be insulated and kept close to the body. Do not allow batteries to freeze whenever you can avoid it. Extreme cold can affect the zero of weapons, so a preoperational check is good measure. Maintain a steady temperature of your optics as condensation fogging lenses is a problem. Exhale air prior to mounting binoculars to your eyes, and learn to route your breath away from the scope ocular lens when mounting optically equipped rifles. Placing some insulation on the cheek rest of a stock can prove worth your effort.
Learning how to shoot from compromised positions such as ‘snow shoe prone’ are skills that the winter warrior must drill to perfection. Raising the firing platform above the snow is critical. Creating a foot print for a bipod on a snow shoe or utilizing a ski pole to stabilize a rifle are methods best practiced ahead of time. Keeping a Thermarest pad handy to deploy on top of snow or learning to eject your backpack to work off the top of are advised techniques to elevate you above or float atop the white stuff.
Land Nav in the winter environment, although no different than any other time, can be difficult. ‘White outs’, blizzard conditions, and fog can often make terrain association impossible. Even in clear weather, snowscapes tend to display less graphic features. Atmospheric conditions known as an inversion can be difficult to negotiate in the high range. Pace counting on snow shoes and skis is all but impossible in my experience. GPS technology has helped the winter pathfinder greatly. Practicing in this environment is key!
Transportation issues in snow covered environments are a concern that must be addressed. As individual operators everyone should be equipped with snow shoes or skies and sometimes both. Snow shoes are slow and require more work on your part, however they are easy to learn and depending on design can float quite a load on top of the snow. Skis are a much faster, stealthier mode of travel and are less fatiguing; they do however take some time to perfect. Having the option of both modes of travel depending on mission, conditions, and terrain is best. Utilizing a sled towed behind to haul gear, support a heavy weapon, and use as a working platform is handy. Sliding a load over snow is much easier than carrying it over. Crampons and Yaktraks attached to boots or ice studs in the lugs are a huge aid on frozen surfaces.
Winter modes of vehicle transportation available for the winter operator are many and varied. Equipping the four wheel drive vehicles with studded tires, chains, or even tracks can be effective. Snow mobiles are an excellent mode of travel for the winter warrior. Equipped with a sled in tow, they will deliver gear and personnel quickly and efficiently. Equipped with a tow rope, a snow mobile will haul many ski equipped infantrymen behind- just don’t try this if your men are outfitted in snow shoes- unless you share my sense of humor!
Animals have been used to haul men and equipment in many theaters. A horse drawn sleigh is a very effective mode of travel. K9 teams equipped with a dog sled are very effective as well. The use of animals for transportation does of course create its own logistics problems, however should be seriously examined by the winter operator. These ‘antiquated’ skills are alive and well in my corner of the world, and can be acquired if you have the desire.
Counter tracking measures in the snow when travelling by the various means we have discussed are difficult to employ at best. Avoiding the laying of track in easily observed areas such as open fields and not displacing snow from tree limbs and brush is about all one can do. Keep in mind the most inept tracker on the planet will have little trouble following the trail of the team operating in the snow, until a substantial additional coverage of snow or severe winds delete the track. Counter measures are best employed by traveling routes traveled by others and blending in with what is expected to be present. Watch your back trail and observe caution for pursuers at all times.
Water crossings are inherently problematic with partially frozen water ways, frigid water, and sometimes swollen rivers as a result of thawing in the high country or dislodged ice dams create major hazards. My suggestion is to avoid them when possible to do so and perform crossings by appropriate water craft when you must. If you can ‘bridge’ small water ways fine. If you must float gear across it can be done on some sleds, however the potential for catastrophe is high. Going into the drink yourself is highly discouraged. If you suspect that you may have to resort to such activity, an appropriate rated wet suit and dry bags are a must and everything must be made buoyant.
As we have discovered, winter operations require a tremendous amount of gear, logistics, and supply line. Knowledge and ability are a must. Slight difficulties any other time of year can be debilitating in the snow and cold. The dangers to life and limb are great. Even when things are going well, they are doing so at a greater effort and overall cost to operator and team. The skills needed to fight, function, and survive in these environments are many. But if you live in areas that enjoy these conditions you owe it to yourself to develop the talents of the winter war fighter. To be able to make war effectively where others are not capable sounds like my definition of a good idea.