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Equipment For Work In Cold Weather Environments – A Primer

By: Orvar Bäcklin

With winter having finally arrived I’ve been seeing a trend of posts in the Facebook groups, primarily in P&S – Gear/Equipment about clothing and gear suitable for working in cold weather. With that in mind I had the idea of doing a series of posts discussing my experiences in how to deal working in winter environments.

I’m not really a winter SME. I just happen to live in a place (Sweden) where winters are long and fairly cold and I have chosen a profession (military) that regularly forces me to work for extended periods of time in austere winter conditions. Also please keep in mind that English isn’t my first language, so bear with me if some of the wording seems weird.

The winter environment

Winter is defined as a periods of time with 24 hour average temperature below 0ºC/32ºF. Depending on your geographical location, the length of winter varies but one thing remains constant – winter provides increased stress for you as an individual and even more so for you as a leader.

For the individual having to work in cold winter weather that stress is mainly about maintaining your body and physical readiness as well as your equipment, adding to that are winter-specific skillsets such as skiing, snowshoes, snowmobile, bivouac and so forth. Soldiering as a whole requires tremendous discipline, with the added factor of winter discipline becomes vital.

Just surviving standing around during winter is one thing – but for most of the audience of P&S comes the added requirement of also completing tasks/missions while reducing winter from a limiting factor to a speedbump.

As a leader you not only have to accomplish all of the above but also – despite being frozen to the bone, wet, hungry and tired manage to make sure your troops are taking the necessary steps to avoid becoming cold casualties while simultaneously making sure the mission gets accomplished.

Key components of winter leadership are:

  • Setting the example
  • Taking care of your subordinates
  • Making the right decisions at the right time – Success during winter requires advance planning as everything will take longer.

During the warmer seasons you could get by just “toughing it out” right? Travel light, freeze by night and all. That’s fine down to certain temperature level. Once it gets cold enough “toughing it out” will lead to permanent painful injuries or even death.

Img 01. Hands with severe frostbite. Don’t let it happen to you.

Learning to manage winter conditions takes time, experience and training, it’s not something you can read about in a book and then be good to go – Winter is a needy bitch so you have to read that book and then head out and start building experience by experimenting and training with your layers, equipment, weapons or what have you. Start out slow with just short strolls or maybe a run and keep building it up to a level where you are comfortable spending nights under the stars in winter.

Your body and winter

 “There are only two reasons as to why you are freezing – you are either lazy or dumb”

-Old Swedish Military proverb

The human body is designed to thrive in warmer weather. It’s said that around 27ºC/80ºF external temperature is optimal for the naked body. Colder than that and we have to start taking steps to maintain core temperature, such as putting on more and more clothes or staying in motion. It is important to remember both for yourself and as a leader that dealing with cold weather is an individual endeavor – what YOU think is a refreshing mild drop in temperature might make the next guy shiver. Factors that come into play are gender, geographical- and ethnic origin, body constitution and level of acclimatization. Even your mindset comes into play with how you’ll be able to tackle the cold. Preparation and precaution are key elements for success with cold weather – training, planning, PCIs will be more important than ever. Do spot checks of yourself and your  team before heading out – Do you have the right sets of gloves with you? Have you eaten properly? Are your extra socks packed? Are your skis properly maintained? You can’t put a blank firing adapter on cold weather, you can’t say “okay we’re done with this exercise, turn the cold off”, it’s always there and without proper preparations a trivial outing can quickly turn into a shitty day out. This is also a leadership issue – do not be afraid to nag your subordinates and remind them to hydrate, change socks and generally take care of themselves.

Your body is dependent on maintaining a constant temperature of 37ºC/98.6ºF in your internal organs. It does this by regulating blood flow to everything that isn’t your core internal organs and brain (if equipped with one). When the mercury drops your body contracts the blood vessels in your extremities, thus limiting the amount of blood flowing into them. This is nice and all for your core since it stays warm, but it sucks for your hands and feet. Once the skin temperature on your hands descends below ~15ºC/59ºF they become useless and unable to manipulate stuff like your weapon or zipper on your jacket.

On the other end of the spectrum, when your core starts overheating, blood vessels open up and blood flows into your extremities and out to your skin to be cooled off. If this measure isn’t enough you will start to sweat. Water will evaporate from your body even when idle at a rate of 0,5-1 liter per 24 hours, with hard physical activity that number goes up to in excess of 1,5 liter per HOUR. Sweating during winter is dangerous – being wet increases your heatloss from conduction up to 25 times that of air. This makes working with your layers crucial during winter, if you are about to embark on a strenuous physical activity, make sure you undress before setting of. You should be slightly cold when static before starting physical activity. Once you get moving and feel your temperature rising, vent excess heat by opening up your jacket, remove your hat, open the fly on your pants, roll your sleeves up a bit, work your pit zips or whatever else you can open up.

Keeping how your blood vessels work in mind, don’t be afraid of using long johns or other warmer base layer bottoms. A lot of people often say “I don’t use them as my legs don’t get cold” – first of all, legs do get cold. Secondly, see them as “blood warmers”. Huge amounts of blood travel near your skin through you quads and groin, adding a warming layer there prevents your blood from cooling off which in turn can help raise your overall temperature, that way, you can go further with just a thin base layer under your over-whites or shell without having to rock a mid-layer.

If your body’s automatic vessel-contraction-cold-counter measure isn’t sufficient, it will activate it’s second layer of defense – shivering. Shivering is involuntary muscle spasm that your body does to heat itself – see them as a signal that you have to get moving, put more clothes on or eat/drink something warm.

Hydrate.

 Your normal fluid needs are about 3 liters. When it’s cold outside the air is often dry, causing you to lose more fluid through your exhales. When your core starts heating up as a result of blood being pushed from your extremities your kidneys will work harder, making you pee more. As a rule of thumb you should drink 2,5 liters of water each day on top of whatever fluid you get through your food.  Fluid demand increases with perspiration and hard work, making you lose in excess of 1,5 liters/hour. To counter this, strive towards drinking 1,5-3,5dl of water every 15-20 minutes or so, and in general even when idle drink smaller quantities often rather than large amounts seldom.

As a small tip for learning proper hydration, in my household we have what we call the “5 bottle rule” (5BR) between me and my girlfriend. We have these small 0,5L Nalgenes and the idea is to drink at least five of them per day of straight water, when we go to bed we tally it up and make it a sort of competition. These five bottles are on top of any soda, energy drinks, coffee or other bullshit we fill our systems with. If you are having a hard time staying hydrated (you probably are without knowing it) or just want to train yourself in how to spred your water intake, try the 5BR.

When out in the cold, you should also try to add some sweetener such as Gatorade, soups or such to your fluid intake as that will make it easier for your body to process it.

Also try to avoid drinking cold water. If you are out for extended periods make sure you keep a thermos of warm water and use your stove to keep it filled. Smaller bottles, such as the excellent 0.5L Nalgene can be fitted with a paracord necklace and hung around your neck under your layers, this will keep it warm. If it’s really cold outside you could even fill it with boiling water and just like that you have a little radiator under your jacket. If it’s cold enough outside any bottles you have on your kit will freeze as well. A handy trick to circumvent this is to stow your bottles upside down. Water tends to freeze top down, by stowing the bottles upside down any ice that forms will be at the bottom of your bottle instead of at the top. Keep in mind that this water will be very cold and drinking cold water will not only cool your core even more, it may also cause stomach cramps.

Keep in mind that when it’s cold outside, your body for some magical reason suppresses your natural “I’m thirsty” signals, so make sure you keep sipping. A camelback or similar bladder is nice for this, just remember that every time after drinking you have to blow into the mouthpiece to rid the hose of any water (it’ll freeze), I also like to keep the mouthpiece routed into my jacket to keep it from freezing.

Just as with water your body will require more energy to thrive in cold weather. Load up on extra fats and carbohydrates as temperatures drop to make sure that your body has sufficient energy to burn for heat.

The combat leader – bullet points to consider

  • Pay close attention to or demand weather briefs for the duration you will be out, also make sure to spread those briefs among your subordinates. This is vital both for your mission planning and their preparation. The weather might affect your modus of travel, speed or endurance. Knowing what type of temperatures and weather to expect will also help keep morale up as it’s easier to deal with being cold when you know you’ll be cold.
  • Winter has to be factored into your mission planning. Everything takes longer in winter – plan accordingly.
  • Set the example – you will be just as (probably more) tired, cold, hungry than your subordinates, this cannot be allowed to prevent you from employing cold counter measures as needed. Both to help yourself but also to show your troops how it’s done.
  • Brief your troops both on the operational and tactical level. This should be standard as is, but in winter especially it helps to brief your troops before every movement you undertake on expected tempo and duration, this is done in order to help them make the right decisions as to how to dress for the occasion
  • The more experienced troops you have the less you’ll have to control them. With inexperienced troops you might have to give detailed orders on how they should dress and prepare, as they become more experienced telling them what you will be doing will be sufficient.
  • No matter your subordinates experience level, never be afraid of doing spot checks, PCIs or gear inspections. Cold affects people differently, but once they start freezing they’ll start cutting corners, stop taking care of themselves and just become apathetic.
  • If possible, give your troops time to become acclimatized to you AoR. In the best of worlds you’ll be able to spend a few days in the area prior to hitting the field or rolling out on ops, use this time to just be outdoors and preferably go for a few runs or similar in the cold.
  • Know how the cold affects your equipment. The most apparent issue is batteries – if possibly try to keep them warm, however with the typically large battery packs for military radio systems you can’t exactly keep them all close to your body. Recognize that batteries drain faster and plan accordingly.
  • Recognize that cold affects everyone differently.
  • Read up on frost injury patterns, how to recognize them and how to treat them.

I’ll let those points finish up this primer. This is in no way all encompassing, just a very basic crash course in how the cold affects us.

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