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Overland movement considerations during cold weather operations

Overland movement will be affected by winter conditions, especially affecting mobility and tempo. One of the main reasons for this is that a lot of the usable terrain will be covered in snow and/or be covered in ice. For a military unit, overland movement is often conducted away from main supply routes, and we use the terrain to move in.

The key to mitigating the below issues is to get the correct information about the weather and the terrain you will be moving into, during the planning phase. Doing this will greatly reduce the risk of surprises during movement.

This segment will not cover vehicles in depth and will mostly focus on traveling on foot.

Wheeled vehicles will as a main rule be limited to established roads, but some off-road capable vehicles with the right capabilities can conduct some movement off road depending on the terrain. Tracked vehicles are fully able to move in the snow, as long as they are designed for it – some models perform better than others, utilizing special “snowshoes” for the tracks.

If you are moving along main roads with either of these vehicle types, you will need to take measures to ensure proper traction in order to avoid mobility issues – traffic accidents are a real risk and must be mitigated, and are further compounded during winter due to snow, ice or freezing rain. Typical measures include studded tires and chains.

For a military unit utilizing the terrain for conducting tactical movement on foot, you have two main options; skis or snow shoes. Both are fully functional but have their own benefits and disadvantages.

Skis are very good for overland movement during winter. You can cover ground reasonably fast, but they do require some training. They are reasonably quiet and traveling single column will help hide numbers and only make one track. You will also need a universal binding system, or a separate pair of boots dedicated for use with skis. The major downside to using skis is that you are very vulnerable to being attacked during movement, as skis will hamper your mobility. You can practice battle drills on skis, but IMT’ing is quite difficult with skis on, and it is difficult to properly use cover and concealment. As such, skis should be reserved for approach marches or infils in low-risk areas, where you can move faster without great risk of surprise contact with the enemy.

In today’s market, a modern glass fiber ski, with a good width, with skins is the recommended type.

Snowshoes are also a good option for conducting overland movement but are slower than skis. Depending on the size and material used, noise can be an issue. A model with a universal binding is ideal, to avoid logistics issues with separate boots. Snowshoes must also be chosen based on the mission and load out of the unit. Smaller, nimbler snowshoes are good for infantry units who will only conduct short movements and then conduct fire and movement, as they are not carrying a lot of weight. If you are a unit moving under a heavier load, you need a larger snowshoe in order to distribute the load better, and not sink down into the snow. You will need to practice IMT and battle drills using snowshoes, as they will affect your mobility to a degree – but way better than skis. And never neglect to bring them along. Many an infantry unit on a flanking march have only considered snow levels where they start from, and soon found themselves waist deep in snow with no snowshoes. Not a good situation.

There are many good options in today’s market, select a type that fits your unit’s mission and role.

One piece of equipment that you can take advantage of is a “pulk”. A pulk is a covered sled that is pulled behind the one assigned it and is used for load carriage. Packing equipment in a pulk will take some weight off of the soldiers’ shoulders, to reduce fatigue. It can hamper mobility and tempo, as they require more effort to get up hills, and down slopes safely. They are strongly recommended as long as the terrain is suitable, and the mission allows for it.

Some units will also use snow mobiles. They require a bit of training to use properly but will offer very good terrain mobility, as well as movement speed. They can carry extra gear, and some models can also be combined with a sled in order to transport more gear for the unit. They are limited by the amount of fuel you can bring with you, and do make a bit more noise so it can increase detection risk unless you are skilled at employing them.

One of the biggest challenges with overland movement is that the terrain can be covered in snow, and this means that a lot of the terrain references you find on your map will no longer be visible. This can affect your route planning, so make sure to maintain awareness of where you are in order to avoid moving into danger areas.

Danger areas are the following:

  • Avalanche danger zones
  • “Blue” terrain on the map (water, wetlands)
  • Terrain “traps”

The first step to avoiding avalanches is to plan your route around these areas. This requires getting information about the terrain, weather and precipitation reports for the area you are moving into. Get proper avalanche maps so you know where the danger zones are and get the updated avalanche risk assessment.  I will not cover avalanche mitigation or rescue principles, as that is a specialized skillset in and of itself, and not my lane. Just understand that if you are moving in mountainous or hilly terrain during winter, that you plan accordingly. Avalanches are usually started by people, and mostly in areas where people think that the incline is too shallow. The biggest accident in Norwegian military history is the Vassdalen-accident, an avalanche that took the life of 16 soldiers of the Norwegian Engineer Battalion, on 5 March 1986.

Avoiding blue terrain is very important, as it can often be difficult to know how solid the ice, if any, is. Movement over ice is associated with some risk. Most accidents happen during late fall, as ice is forming or during spring, when ice is slowly melting. There is also a big difference between the ice on lakes and ice on flowing water. Water freezes from the edges and in, so the ice can be thick and handle your weight where you step out but can be thin further out. As such, you always go back the way you came if an accident occurs or if the ice starts breaking.

If your unit is expecting to move across blue terrain during missions, it is important to practice “ice breaking drills” – this is a drill that teaches you which preparations you must make before crossing, and how to get yourself out of the water if you break through the ice, and how to take care of yourself after the fact. Always a highlight during winter training.

Another challenge with ice is surface water. This is caused when the ice is “drowned” due to the weight of the amount of snow on top, and water starts to leak out of cracks in the ice making the lower layer of snow wet. The wet snow adds to the buoyancy of the ice, and the free water surface is higher than the surface of the ice. This is surface water. If the snow layer is thick, it will insulate the water and prevent it from freezing. As such it is possible to wade in water even it if is quite cold.

One key feature identifying blue terrain during winter, is a large flat area with no vegetation – that should be a clue.

This is important to consider during planning and maintain awareness of, as there have been accidents, some with a deadly outcome.

However, if you have the correct equipment you can utilize ice covered terrain to your advantage, to significantly cut down on movement time. This will require ice analysis, so you will need equipment to cut through the ice in order to measure thickness.

Terrain traps are issues caused by snow and weather, and examples of these are wind holes, open marsh holes, snow cornices, surface ice and small open streams under thick snow. Some of these can present an immediate danger if not considered. One concern with these is that they need to be discovered by you, so you need to maintain awareness while moving.

Moving in snow also causes some issues with tempo and fatigue, as you need to switch out the person in front of the column responsible for creating the track or trail. It is heavy work, especially if the snow is wet and heavy, and you are carrying a heavy load. Your loads will be heavier in winter, due to the requirements for warmer clothing, warmer sleeping bags, more consumables for mission essential equipment etc.

With much of the ground covered by snow, finding cover or a good firing position during fire and movement will be more challenging, and you need experience in doing so. Therefore, practicing IMT and battle drills in this environment is key in learning to read and utilize the terrain to the best of your ability.

Tore Haugli
Competitive shooter and currently working in the Defence industry in Norway.

I served for 11 years on active duty as an NCO in the Norwegian Army, in infantry and recon units at the platoon level. My main experience is combined arms operations, small unit tactics and cold weather operations and training.

Three tours overseas, totaling 20 months.

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