With the recent polar vortex in the US, I thought now would be an appropriate time to give some tips to combat the cold when you’re in the elements for extended periods. Keep in mind, these are viewed through a tactical lens, not long-term survival. We’re talking about sustaining for a couple of days to a couple of weeks in non-permissive environments, not months or years in the wilderness. Also keep in mind this advice is for temperate zones, not polar ones.
These are things I’ve learned over the years on my own and in training. As someone who really hates the cold, these tips have become invaluable to me. Hopefully you’ll find this to be nuanced and interesting, instead of the typical, “Dress warm, bring food, and start a fire.” The information is vast, so to be more concise I’ve divided it into sections, rather than adding fluffy transitions for the sake of flow and continuity.
When dealing with the cold, the number one priority should be staying dry. I cannot stress this enough. Being cold sucks as is. Being wet and cold is enough to break even the most hardened individuals. At face value, this may seem obvious but I’ve found that the majority of people have never truly braved the elements long enough to fully appreciate this. If they happen to be avid campers, they’ve probably experienced the cold but it’s different sitting around bundled up like Randy in A Christmas Story next a fire. Actually moving and operating in the cold is a different animal. It’s one thing to be uncomfortable for an hour and then go back to a campsite to bed down with all the creature comforts. It’s another thing to be uncomfortable for hours or days and live out of just your ruck. Your supplies are precious and limited to what you can carry, so you need to ensure everything stays dry.
Have a way to waterproof whatever supplies you have. No backpack or ruck is completely waterproof. View them as more of a comfortable bucket to carry your things in, nothing more. Put everything in waterproof bags. If you’re on a budget, contractor trash bags and zip lock bags can work. If you’re leaving your ruck somewhere for a while, wrap it in a camo tarp. Simply throw a tarp over it and tuck the excess underneath, making sure not to leave pockets that will act as a bowl to collect water or snow. Not only does this preserve your supplies, it prevents your ruck from getting waterlogged. Nothing is worse than putting on a wet ruck, knowing all your supplies are ruined, and then carrying around an extra 10 lbs. of water for no reason.
On the topic of waterproofing, clothing definitely needs to be addressed. An otherwise manageable 40°F day can turn into complete misery if it starts to rain and you aren’t prepared. Body heat is lost exponentially more through water than air, so waterproofing is key. Most clothing is either waterproof or warm but rarely both. If it is, it’s mediocre at both, bulky, expensive, or all of the above. In my experience, most clothing is more water resistant than proof. I recommend layering with warm clothing but ultimately relying on a waterproof jacket and pants. I’m also a proponent of having a large poncho for your waterproof outer layer. They work much better, provide more coverage than a regular jacket, cover you and your ruck simultaneously, and are affordable. They are also lightweight, don’t take up much space when folded, and can be stowed in a pouch when you don’t need them. (As a side note, I make nothing from these links. These items are close to what I’ve been issued and are simply examples to point you in the right direction.)
The priority after that is obviously staying warm. This is a surprisingly delicate balancing act when choosing your clothing. You want to stay warm enough to not succumb to the effects of hypothermia, but you also want to stay cold enough to not sweat under exertion. Sweating in the cold is a recipe for disaster. Once you stop and your sweat freezes, it’s over. There are two rules of thumb when trying to balance this. First, dress to feel brisk. You should feel a little cold but not to the point of shivering. This gives you wiggle room when you start doing more physically demanding things. You’ll rely on movement to keep you warm. It will be uncomfortable at first but there isn’t a way around this, unfortunately. Second, you need to dress in layers. This isn’t necessarily because it’s warmer. It’s more about the fact that it’s scalable, enabling you to add or remove layers as necessary. Add for warmth or remove to prevent sweating. Remember to wear something for your head and your hands too. Frostbite usually affects the hands, ears, and nose the most. No, you don’t lose 50% of your body heat from your head or whatever they say the percentage is. However, your head still needs to be covered and your ears are really susceptible to the cold. If it’s cold enough, you’ll need to cover your face too. If your hands are cold, it’s miserable and painful. More importantly, you’ll lose dexterity, which is important for pretty much everything. Gloves are another balancing act. You want them thin enough to provide decent dexterity but also some degree of warmth.
Personally, I hate shooting with gloves and remove them any chance I get, but when it’s cold you have to use them. Some find this problematic because some thicker gloves have a hard time fitting in trigger guards. Most don’t know this but some rifles have ways to hinge or remove the trigger guard from the factory so thicker gloves can fit. Standard M16’s and M4’s have hinge mechanisms that can be depressed using a bullet, opening up the trigger guard. Is this safer? No. It would be ideal to simply have a bigger trigger guard but you work with what you have.
We can’t finish the clothing section without mentioning camouflage. Entire books have been written on this topic. We aren’t getting into the weeds of the subject, just providing general advice for colder environments.
It goes without saying that in urban environments the best camouflage isn’t camouflage at all. Blending in would be the best bet. However, rural environments are often absent of all of the escape routes a city provides. Additionally, if you’re found somewhere out in the wilderness, suspicion is generally higher, as you have less excuses to be there. Because of this, avoiding detection altogether is a better plan. Many think that camouflaging for snowy environments is easy. They assume you can wear a white top and white bottoms. It isn’t that simple most of the time, short of being in the artic circle. Vegetation that doesn’t get completely covered in snow still comprises large parts of landscapes. The sun can also exacerbate this. Since sunlight still melts snow even in subfreezing temps, the shadier areas will still have snow while the more exposed areas will have a mixture of snow and vegetation. This leaves a lot of transitional areas where you would stick out like a sore thumb if you were in all white.
Left: Example of a transitional space with a mixture of snow and vegetation. Right: The author wore multicam, a camouflage not even optimized for this specific environment, to prove its effectiveness versus wearing a white jacket. A good recommendation is usually white bottoms with earthy tones to match the ground, or even accent it in certain areas so it looks like snow, and a camo top of some kind.
The eyes are often neglected. For environments with snow, the glare can be tremendous. You’ll want decent eyepro that are polarized with good UV protection. You aren’t any good if you can’t see. Also, ballistic ratings are preferable. No, you don’t have to spend $300 on Oakley’s to meet these requirements.
Glasses and sunglasses will fog up fast when under exertion, especially if your nose and mouth are covered by something like a balaclava or shemagh. We know this all too well with the pandemic. Other than applying anti-fog, which won’t last very long, the best way to remedy this is to push the glasses further away from your eyes and expose your nose to breathe out of if the weather permits. Ideally, you could wear contact lenses to opt out of glasses, but you may need sunglasses anyway if there is sunlight reflecting off of snow. Like most of these tips, it all depends on your environment.
Feet are so important they get their own section. Wear good boots, not tennis shoes. There are many good ones out there. Get something with good ankle support and that caters to the environment. Regardless of what you choose, the lack of true waterproof properties also applies to boots. Most are resistant up to a point, but even if they were 100% waterproof, there is still a fatal flaw. If your entire foot is submerged, water ingress from the top of the boot cannot be stopped. Even if you aren’t stepping in puddles or crossing streams, snow will melt from your body heat and start to trickle down into your boots. The best strategy is to avoid making your feet unnecessarily wet if possible.
I also highly recommend wool socks versus anything else. They are the most durable and have great wicking properties. Change your socks daily and if you’re running low, cycle through them from least to most recently used. Should you find your feet completely soaked, which happens more often than not, put your boots and your socks between your bivy and your sleeping bag when you bed down. Your body heat will partially dry them and they’ll be nice and warm to slip into when you wake up. Do not leave them outside your sleeping system or your shelter. The morning dew will settle on them. They will be cold, wet, and or frozen. It’s not fun slipping into frozen boots, trust me.
If at all possible and immediate contact isn’t a concern, don’t sleep in your boots. Remove your socks too. Give your feet time to breathe. Take care of them. Your feet are your transportation. In the infantry, we called them our Chevro-Legs and Lambor-Feeties. I’m the only person I’ve known in my units who hasn’t had one blister or fungus on my feet at some point. This is truly an accomplishment, considering all of the rucks (some being 20+ miles) trudging through swamps, deserts, and snow. The secret is letting them breathe, cleaning them off, and changing socks daily. This is especially important in the cold because they’re probably going to get wet and you need to stay on top of drying them off when you can.
Before moving on, I want to dispel some myths about foot care. Some advocate the use of foot powders to keep the feet dry. While it doesn’t hurt, I never used foot powder and didn’t have an issue with fungus. General hygiene will always beat a store-bought solution. And for the love of God, please don’t soak your feet in alcohol to dry them out and “toughen them up.” Some also advocate using mole skin to help with blisters. If your feet are forming blisters, it means they’re rubbing on the inside of your boot, which means they don’t fit. It could be a sizing issue or the actual boot design as it relates to the shape of your foot. Figure out the source of the problem. You should not have to use moleskin every time you walk a few miles. Stop using band aids as a permanent solution.
When preparing for cold weather, one needs to become familiar with the symptoms of hypothermia so you can identify it and hopefully prevent its progress. As someone who has had hypothermia, and having observed others around me succumb to its effects, I can’t stress how crucial it is to recognize the signs. Keep in mind, these are symptoms of a slowly progressing hypothermia over time.
It starts with the typical shivering. Loss of some fine motor control starts to begin at this point. Over time you’ll have slurred speech or start mumbling. After that the real fun sets in with lethargy and confusion. Lips can start to turn bluish and there is a lack of coordination. Walking will have smaller gaits and shuffling may begin. Only gross motor skills remain. As an example, my company once got so desperate we were using our magazines to manipulate our selector switches and push our magazine releases during a qualification. Our hands could barely make fists and we couldn’t feel our fingers. I had to use my thumb as my trigger finger. Some could barely move because their hip flexors were locked up.
Progressing past these stages, people start getting incoherent and not making sense. At this point, the primitive part of the brain kicks in and they operate on instinct. Many will start searching for nooks. In urban environments, this is usually any corner or structure that will block the wind. In rural places, some will search for low lying areas. If there are none, they will start to burrow. Some refer to this as “hide and die.” If shivering begins to stop, there’s usually no turning back. “The muscles contracting peripheral blood vessels become exhausted, leading to a sudden rush of blood to the extremities, causing the person to feel overheated.” In the midst of their confusion, they will begin stripping off their clothes. Once this hot flash kicks in, they will be dead in minutes without serious intervention, and often even that might not work. The irony of hypothermia is that you’ll be the warmest you’ve ever been right before you die.
Next up is weapon maintenance. Use a lubricant that won’t freeze. There are lubes out there that are specifically designed for subfreezing temperatures. Sunshine Shooter had a really good post and video recommendation here. The general rule is to avoid grease and opt for less viscous substitutes in colder climates. The last thing you want happening if you need to take a shot is having your firing pin or safety switch frozen. It’s also not a bad idea to have a lighter specifically for your weapon. If you have an AR for example, your bolt face can freeze, preventing the firing pin from hitting the primer on the round. The bolt can even freeze forward into the star chamber or the charging handle can freeze into the upper receiver. A quick flame to heat these areas up and a mortar malfunction technique will do wonders.
While we’re talking about weapons maintenance, we need to address fog concerns. Nothing is more devastating than pulling up your weapon to take a shot and not being able to see through your optic. This isn’t just a problem with cheaper optics. I’ve had it happen to Aimpoints with anti-fog lens wipes. Mother nature will always beat technology. The best way to combat this is to use flip up or removable lens covers when patrolling. “That’s not tactical. What if you need to take an immediate shot?” While I agree that it isn’t ideal, consider this. What’s better? Pulling your weapon up, seeing that the optic is fogged up, putting it back down to wipe the lenses, and then pulling it back up? Or would simply taking the extra second to flip your lens covers up, knowing your optic won’t be fogged up be more ideal? And while they aren’t the greatest, there are techniques you can learn to superimpose your lens covers over your target to still make hits up close. If you have a red dot, there are clear lens covers that will help in those situations. Obviously if you expect contact, take the lens covers off, but if you expect your rifle to be slung most of the day, keeping them on is a wise choice so ice doesn’t form on the lenses.
I won’t get into specifics of loadouts because they can change drastically depending on the mission. A short duration loadout for direct-action raids looks a lot different than one for sustainment over time. Just keep this in mind. Leave some adjustability in your plate carrier, chest rig, ruck, etc. so you can resize them easier as you add or remove clothing.
Militaries often want you to police all of your adjustment straps so you don’t have a bunch of stuff blowing in the wind or getting tangled on brush with you looking like a bag of ass. But taping down all of the excess in straps is pretty single minded and doesn’t leave room for the variability of nature. My advice is to size your equipment to your heftiest cold weather loadout. Mark where you need and then cut from there. If you need to scale down, you always can. The difference usually isn’t great enough to have straps getting blown around or caught on everything.
Another big consideration is to actually work with the ambient environment itself. Mother nature provides many cues and resources if you know how to work with her and pay attention.
For example, should you find yourself needing to cross a frozen body of water, there are visual cues to determine if it’s feasible. If the ice is clear or whitish, it’s generally not good to cross. You’ll usually want to see a more bluish or darker color. Seeing cracks and air bubbles are generally considered bad too. Ideally, you’ll want to check the thickness (should be 4” minimum), but no one carries a drill to do this and if you can check with a stick, then it’s definitely not frozen enough to cross. There’s always the old rock throwing trick if you can find one that is hefty enough. If you absolutely have to take your chances, then lying down will distribute your weight along a greater surface area. Of course, crawling across ice is a slower and riskier approach. Obviously, not crossing over ice is the best option when available, though.
Tracks are also substantial visual cues. They’re blatantly obvious in the snow. There are techniques to hide them, such as dragging branches behind you but this can be cumbersome and slow you down. It still leaves a signature anyway. An effective but more overt approach is making tracks work for you by creating fox loops when in more wooded areas, which you should be in any way since moving in the open is pretty stupid. Essentially, you make a few wide U-turns and tip-toe back over your tracks to preserve them and get back on your main path. This gives the appearance of forks in your trails, meaning the tracker has a 50% chance of choosing the right path. If they’re experienced, they could think that by seeing a U-turn you’re setting up an ambush for them. If that isn’t enough of a deterrent, the combination of that and setting up traps could make them reconsider. Many traps can be made with fishing line, nails, mousetraps, PVC pipe, and 12-gauge shells and take practically no time to setup as you move through an area. It would get awfully nerve wracking having to guess which paths are right and which ones are leading you into an ambush or trap.
Sound is another prominent cue. Hunters are all too familiar with this. In the wintertime, these cues are magnified. Sound travels further because the cold air toward the ground bounces up into the warmer air above and gets refracted back down again. I don’t know the exact science behind this, but I know firsthand that movement and gunshots are considerably louder in the cold. Knowing this, consider your noise signature when traveling through brush and only take shots when absolutely necessary. Suppressed weapons help but most of them still aren’t that quiet.
Smells also need to be considered. Although the cold slows down odor molecules and causes them to be more localized, there is less vegetation and other smells during winter. This means foreign scents contrast more because there are fewer natural scents. In short, use unscented deodorant and foods that don’t give off strong odors.
Probably the biggest scent you can possibly give off is when using a campfire. For this, I generally don’t recommend their use in a tactical environment. Under the right conditions, people can smell them from hundreds of yards away. They also aren’t as convenient of a source of heat as people think. They need a constant supply of fuel, which isn’t always the easiest to obtain or create. Good luck finding dry brush when it’s frozen or raining. You also have to constantly get up to feed them and move away from the smoke to not burn your eyes every time the wind shifts. Your time could be better spent doing other things.
It also goes without saying that fires give off an immense amount of light. I was once told that light is louder than sound and it stuck with me. Light is immediately detectable and will travel until it’s obstructed by the terrain. Stepping on a twig or making a small sound still gives you the benefit of the doubt. Someone may not hear it or think it’s an animal. Seeing a negligent discharge from a weapon light or the light emitted from a fire is unmistakable in the dark, even over large distances. If you absolutely have to start a fire, then use a Dakota Firehole. Using fire is ill-advised but this technique mitigates these concerns the best.
Food and Water Intake
Generally, people do not hydrate enough in the cold. I myself am guilty of this. It’s understandable. No one wants to drink cold water when they’re already cold and trying to warm up. However, dehydration can happen in cold environments just like it can in hot ones. Ensure your fluid intake is sufficient.
Also remember to eat enough. Your body burns more calories than it normally would by simply being out in the cold. Shivering and maintaining your core temperature burns a lot of calories by itself before even taking vigorous exercise into account. Eat an extra meal’s worth of calories or so.
On the topic of eating, it should be noted to not hold in your waste. The last thing you want to do is get out of your sleeping bag to go piss or poop but do it anyway. You will actually stay cold by holding it. I know some say this isn’t true, but in my experience, I can say that it definitely is.
I won’t get into specifics of shelter types or construction because the are many. Since this is a more tactical context, try to balance disturbing the environment the least amount possible while also having something that provides adequate protection against the elements (your PL will make sure to ignore this if you’re setting up a patrol base). Basically, find somewhere that keeps you dry and blocks the wind so you can lay down your pad and sleeping bag. Make sure there is an insulative barrier between you and the ground. I’ve noticed a lot of people neglect this and regret it by shivering all night. The ground will suck out any body heat you generate. You won’t notice it at first. You’ll fall asleep and wake up a couple hours later feeling like a block of ice, particularly in your feet. The best way to remedy this is by using natural vegetation. Make the bed as thick as you can to create a large pocket of air between you and the ground. Plus, it creates a natural mattress that’s better than sleeping on rocks or the hard ground. Leaves, grass, and pine needles have worked well for me and can be found anywhere.
Lastly, while at your shelter, avoid typical vices like smokes and booze if possible. I say this not from a moral or health standpoint (I don’t care) but from a survival one. Nicotine is a vasoconstrictor, which will decrease blood flow to your extremities and make them colder. Not to mention cigarettes produce a strong smell and the cherry at the end produces light that can be seen decently far at night. Alcohol has the opposite effect as a vasodilator, meaning your blood vessels will open more and move blood from the core toward the surface of the skin, which is not what you want when it’s cold. Alcohol also subdues your body’s shiver response, which is another crucial function the body needs to stay warm.
That’s about my extent of my cold weather survival knowledge for common people. I’m not an expert in primitive survival techniques, although I’m looking to learn more. While some of this was common sense, I hope some less talked about voids were filled with an understanding gained from my misfortune.