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Surviving The Cold In Tactical Conditions

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This winter has been particularly harsh.  While I’ve been sitting comfortably in Colombia, I’ve received reports from friends, family, and my property manager.  I’ve also received a lot of questions about surviving the cold as a soldier.  It’s brought back a lot of memories and I thought I’d take the time to share some of these principles with you.

Before I get into the details, it’s important to identify what makes a tactical situation different from the average situation.  Of course, much of this will apply to any cold weather environment.  But the additional requirements of staying hidden and being ready to move or fight at any moment greatly impact the options available for dealing with the cold.

In most real-world survival situations, the last thing you would worry about is hiding.  In fact, you may want to be found.

So unless you’re on the run from the commies, the feds, or your ex, some of this probably won’t apply.  But a lot of it will, and you never know when the commies are coming.

The Wolverines survived extreme cold operations during their resistance.

Red Dawn Wolverines by Charles Fettinger | Creative Commons 2

There are two main considerations when dealing with the extremely cold weather: Equipment and Knowledge.

Being equipped for the cold

Obviously, the best way to survive the cold is to have a well-insolated house with a heating system.   However, in a tactical or survival situation, you have to make do with what you can take with you.

Your key considerations should be the following:

  • Clothing
  • Bedding
  • Shelter
  • Ways to generate heat

Proper clothing is critical to surviving the cold

Anyone who’s lived in a cold weather environment has a pretty good understanding of how to preserve heat with well-insulated clothing.  But in a tactical environment, there are some significant changes.  Primarily, you need to be ready to move quickly.

Shots fired, an incoming mortar or a compromised position can all put you on the run.  And the enemy is going to wait for you to get dressed.

In fact, in a tactical environment, you’re almost as likely to suffer a heat injury in the cold as you are a cold weather injury.  This is because you want to get comfortable while you are stationary, but then when you have to move, your body has no way of transferring the extra heat your body is generating.

There are two ways to effectively overcome this problem.  Ideally, they’ll be used in conjunction.

The first is to always keep yourself a little on the cold side.  It can be tempting to get all cozy in thick layers of clothing.  But this can be dangerous.  Staying cold not only helps keep you alert, but it also gives you some wiggle room if you need to move without warning.

The Army issues a 7-layer cold weather uniform.  Each layer provides unique protection against the cold.

The GEN III ECWCS Army uniform is critical to Surviving The Cold

ECWCS by Program Executive Office Soldier | Public Domain

The uniforms shown above are a set known as the ECWCS (Extended Cold Weather Clothing System).  This is the set that I was issued by the Army for training in Fort Drum, N.Y. as well as combat operations in Afghanistan.

The underwear on the far left (as you look at it) is called Level I.  But they’re affectionately known as “silkies”.  This level is designed not to keep you warm, but to wick moisture off of your skin.  Any moisture on your skin will draw heat from your body.  So this uniform, if applied under other layers, should keep your skin dry with a light sweat.

You can find a similar underwear set here:

Other layers, including the Gortex layer, also have wicking capability/breathability.  In all except the most extreme conditions, these breathable layers will suffice.  You rarely use the 7th level, also known as the “Marshmellow Suit”.  This suit is often used, however, in place of a sleeping bag when sleeping in dry conditions.  This level has no breathability and you will overheat if you do any exercise in it.

You don’t necessarily need the military in order to dress appropriately.  There are plenty of similar products on the civilian market that are just as good.  The important part is that you realize that layers can work together to meet your needs.  You always want a wicking layer on your skin.  After that, you may want insulating layers or protective layers like a windbreaker or raincoat.  In extreme conditions, you may use insulating layers under protective layers.  Just never overdo it in a tactical environment and never use protective layers when they are not necessary.

Bedding is also important in cold environments

Even soldiers have to sleep.  Keeping yourself from direct contact with the ground is critical to conserving body heat in the cold.  The more layers you can put between yourself and the ground the better.  In the Army, you are issued an inflatable sleeping pad.  It’s really great until it isn’t.  The thing always seems to get a hole at the worst possible time.  Overall, I don’t recommend them.  The foam ones work fine.

We often didn’t have our sleeping mats.  Instead, we would find local materials or simply a soft spot on the ground and use our assault packs as pillows.

Our sleeping bags, on the other hand, were incredible.  They were a 3 layer system.  You could often get away with only using one of the three layers, depending on how cold it was.  But on those really cold nights, you’d want all three layers.  The insulating layers are pretty obvious, but the outer Gortex layer was key.  That layer kept you dry and protected you from the worst of the wind.

You can see this bag on Amazon here:

In a pinch, you could always add extra insulating materials between you and the Gortex layer.  In fact, spare uniforms, socks, hats and so on, were often put into this layer below you.  This allowed you to have extra layers between you and the ground, while simultaneously keeping them relatively warm so that you weren’t putting on frozen clothes in the middle of the night.

Shelter is a great commodity

Often, a shelter is simply not an option.  It’s common for soldiers to want to move under the cover of darkness, so you may just get a few hours of sleep at night.  In fact, you may sleep during the day instead of the night in some situations.

However, this isn’t always the case and soldiers are prepared to build a shelter at a moments notice.

Jason Hanson has written about survival shelters in the past, so I’ll keep this short.  You can find it here:

I will say that in a tactical situation, you don’t have time to build these “comfortable” shelters.  Understand that if a squad is setting up shelters for a night, half the squad is still pulling security.  Because security is constant, everything else you do takes twice as much time.

Because of this, the poncho hooch is just about the only shelter one will ever use in tactical field situations.

The exception to this in cold weather is the snow shelter.  This shelter can be built rather quickly with practice.  On top of that, it can be built in such a way that it actually provides cover from enemy fire and is generally very well concealed.  So if there’s a lot of snow, get digging.

To build a snow shelter, simply pile up as much snow as possible and pack it tight.  Then you dig out your hole and you’re good to go.  If you plan to seal the entrance, make sure to poke a few air holes in the top.  Also, if you have rucksacks or other large packs, you can put them at the base of your shelter before you start piling on the snow and dig them out later.  This just saves you from having to gather as much snow.

Generating heat is also an important step to survive the cold

Most people consider fire to be the only option for generating heat in survival situations.  But fire can give away your position and increase your risk in a tactical environment.  You can’t always rule out fires, but surviving the cold means finding creative solutions.

If you’re prepared ahead of time, there are some great tools available to help.  A simple propane stove may be effective for fire.  The small blue flame doesn’t put off a lot of light, and you can use it inside a shelter.  You’ll want to make sure that there is good ventilation, but it’s a great option.

One tool that I’m particularly fond of is hand warmers.  It’s often your extremities that need the most help, and hand warmers can keep you from losing that dexterity required to pull a trigger or tie a knot for a hasty shelter.  They’re also cheap and you can use them as a complete heating source inside of a sleeping bag.  A box of 40 pairs of hand warmers can be found on Amazon here:

Handwarmers you say?


The problem soldiers have with handwarmers is that they are hard to come by.  In the U.S., you can pick them up at Walmart or have them delivered from Amazon.  In Afghanistan, those options weren’t available.  Instead, we’d often use the heaters from MREs.  These a water activated heaters used to “cook” your meals.  The catch is that you have to be careful how much water you use.  Just a few drops is enough to get them hot.  Put too much in and you may burn yourself.

Another way to generate heat is by doing a little exercise.  You may find that there is a lot of work involved in setting up shelters.  That may keep you warm while you set in.  But in a tactical environment, you won’t want to draw attention with a lot of movement.  Small flutter kicks and crunches are a good way to build some heat up in your core without moving from your tactical position.

Knowledge is Survival

No matter your specific situation, knowledge is the key to surviving the cold.  All the cool gadgets in the world won’t save you if you don’t know how to properly use them and what they do.

Clothing needs to be loose and layered.  Tight clothing defeats its own purpose.  Cold weather clothing is designed to create air pockets between layers.  These air pockets will serve as the insulation, not the clothing itself.  So if your clothing is tight, it will squeeze the air out reducing the insulation.  This is why you never use all 7 layers of the ECWCS system at one time.  You need to identify which layers you need based on the weather and your activities.  Some layers protect better from water and wind, while others are strictly for insulation.

There are also creative ways to generate heat.  As a last resort, you can use bushcraft to create a fire.  While this can increase your chances of enemy contact, a proper risk assessment will determine if you are more likely to die from the cold than enemy fire.  If the weather becomes a higher risk, go ahead and make the fire.

It’s also important to know where heat leaves your body.  A significant portion (I’ve been told up to 90%) leaves through your head.  A good cold weather hat is essential.  Not only does it help preserve a lot of heat, but it can be quickly placed or removed depending on the situation.

Rappelling down a snowy mountain in Afghanistan


This is an image of me rappelling down a snowy mountain in Afghanistan

In the image above, you may notice that I was not wearing much cold weather clothing.  The boots were Gortex lined, and I may have had some moisture-wicking underwear on.  During movements like these, it’s important that your body doesn’t overheat.  Once I’d reached the bottom, I more than likely put a skull cap on under my helmet to preserve heat while I waited for the rest of the squad to descend.

Be adaptive and find the combination of solutions that utilize what you have available while minimizing operational risks.

Additional tips

If you have any additional tips for surviving the cold, share them in the comments below.

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