With most recent operations taking place in arid climates, people tend to focus on desert conditions, and the immediate assumption is it’s going to be hot. That’s not always the case though. In the Afghan mountains, it can get very, very cold in winter, and even in the Middle East, temperatures can plunge alarmingly without much warning – in the 1991 Gulf war an experienced SAS Sergeant died of hypothermia after being caught in an unexpected blizzard. As well as deployed locations, there are plenty places in the USA that suffer severe cold weather, and as many potential trouble spots have cold weather.
To keep operating effectively in cold conditions you’ll need the right gear; without it, wind and evaporation will quickly rob you of body warmth and leave you unable to function at peak performance. Lose too much heat and it will kill. The good news is that modern cold weather apparel is effective and adaptable, keeping you comfortable and effective at well below freezing.
Layering is Key
The key to modern cold weather equipment is the layer principle. Just bundling up warm isn’t good enough – you need to really focus on temperature management. Overheating during exertion is dangerous because you’ll sweat, then as you cool down, evaporation can drop your core temperature at a dangerous speed. Layers let you easily adjust so you’re constantly at the right temperature.
Your base layer should be a good quality thermal shirt or long-sleeve T made from a wicking fabric; that will help keep sweat away from your skin. The outer layer will be your field jacket or waterproof. In between is the space you have to play with for temperature control. When you’re working hard, these two will usually be enough, even in the chilliest conditions – Antarctic explorers usually wear a T-shirt and a light windproof jacket when pulling sleds, and that place is cold.
If you’re doing more moderate work or staying still when it’s above zero, though, you’ll need a bit more insulation. A quality fleece is ideal here. The latest ones are light and roll up small, but give fantastic insulation. Look for one made to military specification GL/PD-06-03 for robustness; the Propper Gen III is a good choice.
When your fleece isn’t quite warm enough, an insulated softshell jacket is your next line of defense. With a showerproof, windproof shell and either a quilted filling or fleece liner, these are highly versatile layers that can be worn as protection against summer showers or in the evenings when it’s cool, and also in place of, or as well as, your fleece when it’s very cold. They pack up small for easy stowage, too.
Lastly don’t forget your extremities. It’s often said that 80% of body heat escapes through the head. That’s only true of you’re fully clothed and bare headed, but a good fleece watch cap will make a big difference. A ski mask or face wrap and neck gaiter help protect your ears and nose from frostbite in extreme cold, and good gloves are essential to preserve hand movement and avoid cold injuries to fingers. It’s also sensible to have a pair of lightweight gloves if you need to work on vehicles or other equipment outside. A lot of people have lost skin – and even fingers – through touching cold metal. If you’re handling fuel, look for gloves that will keep spillages away from your skin – subzero gasoline can cause nasty injuries too.
Cold weather can be a challenge, but with the right gear you can stay warm and keep working in almost any conditions. The cold is no exception – it’s just a matter of knowing how to use your clothing to best effect.