Editors Note: The Following article has been generously contributed by Colorado Pete.
Sooner or later, some of us will be faced with the prospect of being outside in winter, for extended periods of time, without artificial heat sources, or perhaps even without shelter. Winter can be a lethal adversary in and of itself, so it can save your toes, fingers, nose, or life to be capable of handling it.
My qualifications and experience for writing the following are 14 winters (Xmas/New Yearís time frame) backpacking trips of 2-4 day duration in the northeast (from NJ to the Catskill and Adirondack Mountains of NY, and the Green Mountains of VT) and 14 multi-day May ñ November hikes up Mt. Washington NH, highest peak in New England, home of the world’s worst average weather, and until recently world record holder for highest recorded land wind speed (231 mph before the anemometer blew away), cause of well over 110 deaths, killer even in summer. My last trip there was the first weekend of June ’94, and during my hike up to the summit, a girl from Maine was killed by ice falling off a cliff above her (there were warnings not to be at that spot – heed warnings). Also numerous snowshoeing/cross-country skiing/hunting/hiking day trips. My coldest backpacking trip was my first, 13-14 below overnight for a one-nighter on the Appalachian trail on Kittatinny Mtn. in northwest NJ with my cousin. We were ill-prepared in clothing and had not enough ground pad insulation but barely enough sleeping bags to survive. We built a fire, and later suffered a little in the bags even after eating two hot dinners, but I fell in love with it. While my cousin said once is enough as a survival exercise, I managed to get my hiking/hunting/backpacking buddy to go out with me on 13 more trips. Never been in the service, but from what I’ve seen of their procedures, it’s the same as what I learned. What I write below has worked well for me in some pretty bitter conditions, overnight and without a fire.
How Does Cold Hurt You?
There are two ways cold can kill or hurt you. The lethal one is hypothermia. This is your body losing enough internal heat that your internal body temperature starts dropping below 98.6 degrees F. Only a two or three degrees of the drop can make you sluggish, disoriented, and weak. At about under 95 degrees you start to get in real trouble, as your mind is no longer capable of making intelligent decisions about your situation. At 93 or below your brain and internal organs can start to shut down. Death follows. Symptoms are uncontrollable shivering, slurred speech, and being fuzzy-minded. Watch for these for yourself and others. When the shivering stage stops, the person is in a very dangerous stage. Hypothermia can happen in temps as high as the 50s if you get wet wearing cotton in windy conditions. I’ve seen several people on Mt. Washington goes hypothermic enough to need immediate attention, from conditions of low 40s temps, mid-40s wind, and wearing cotton in the rain without any outer shell rain/wind protection. Do not underestimate this effect, as its conclusion is death.
Also read: 7 Things Our Ancestors Stockpiled To Survive The Winter. Basically, if you weren’t ready for winter, you didn’t survive
Treatment is to re-warm, preferably from both the inside and out. Hot sweet liquid intake will get your furnace going again, followed by high-carb sweet foods. Having a warm buddy snuggle up to you in a sleeping bag works also if you can’t get back inside a heated building or build a hot fire. The person must be brought back up to normal temperature, preferably by a combination of inner and outer heating. Hypothermia prevention is to stay dry, well insulated, protected from the wind, and well fed. The adequate diet I’ve covered above, clothes I’ll cover below.
Frostbite is the freezing of the water in your flesh, producing ice crystals. This is very damaging to the flesh. The affected area will appear white and waxy and lose feeling. Treatment is to slowly and gently re-warm, by immersion in cool to lukewarm (not hot!) water. The frozen area may turn black upon rewarming, and useful things like fingers, toes, and bits of your nose and ears may go bye-bye as a result. If a person has frozen toes or feet and has to walk out to safety on their own feet, do not attempt to thaw the affected foot area until they have walked out to where they can be treated and transported in a wheelchair. Otherwise, they may not be able to walk after thawing. Frostbite prevention is to prevent exposed flesh and keep extremities such as fingers and toes well-protected, well-insulated, and freely moving, so warmth-transporting blood circulation is not cut off by tight-fitting boots, gloves, etc.
Cold can hinder you without actually hurting you. It will sap your physical and mental energy, slowing down your movements and your thinking. The clothing layers you’ll wear hinder and slow your movements. The simple act of taking a crap in the woods becomes a major undertaking. Water freezes and has to be thawed. Food turns to stone. Everything becomes slower and more difficult. This effect must not be under-rated. It is a good reason why you should test your gear and procedures for recreational winter camping/backpacking/day hiking. You need to work up your methods and gain confidence before some sudden event evicts you out into the wind and snow before you’re ready.
There are two ways your body creates heat: food digestion and physical activity. We all know staying active means staying warm, but what if you have to stay still for extended periods of time in the cold? The diet you eat can go a long way to help. High-calorie, fatty foods like butter, peanut butter, and beef sausage take a little longer to digest and yield more energy. They will keep you going in the cold. Your body will need extra calories just to maintain its normal temperature. Cold produces stress and fatigue on your body all by itself, so you need to eat more to stay warm. If you plan on doing work in the cold as well, you’ll need even more calories. 3000 to 4000 calories daily should be the least you eat. If you plan on snowshoeing a 70-lb. pack into some steep hills in shin-deep snow, or building a log cabin in the dead of winter with an axe and a bow-saw, you’ll need to plan your meals accordingly. My old winter backpacking partner used to bring along butter sandwiches. Be aware that things like butter, peanut butter, and anything gooey/pasty at room temperature, will be pretty much rock-solid below freezing, so give some thought as to how you will prepare it (at home, or on the trail?), and how you’ll eat it cold, if you have to. If you are operating tactically, a fire will be out, and you might only be able to risk a fuel tab under a canteen cup. Snacking on high-calorie food throughout the day is a must.
Small mountaineering stoves that run on white gas or the new ‘rocket stove’ design gadgets that burn forest floor litter with little or no smoke can save your life. Be aware that cold can kill the effectiveness of the canned-pressurized-liquid-fuel types. This can be overcome by enough altitude (cold reduces the ability of the liquid gas to vaporize as it’s released into the stove, but a lower atmospheric pressure of high altitude offsets this). Always have with you some effective way to create heat, whether it’s a fire-starting kit, a stove, or just some heat tabs and a metal cup (don’t forget the lighter and matches!)
How Your Body Circulates Heat
Blood circulation moves heat from your body core (digestive system) to everywhere else. You basically run on hot-water baseboard heating. Tight boots, gloves, clothes, whatever restricts blood circulation, and will make you cold. Since your brain requires high blood flow, keeping your noggin covered will go a long way to preserve body heat and prevent hypothermia (hence the old saying, “if your feet are cold, put on your hat’). Ears and back/sides of the neck especially like being covered. Be advised that when your body starts getting cold, it will restrict blood circulation to your extremities to conserve heat in your body core. Watch for these warning signs of cold hands/feet. Also be advised that alcohol, and perhaps nicotine, open up circulation to the extremities. This can be good or bad. If you are getting colder, booze and smoking are out. Conversely, you may want to deliberately ‘fine-tune’ your extremity circulation if you are already eating well and drinking hot liquids, and you don’t want to risk your fingers or toes getting too cold, as long as you can keep making heat in your digestive system, and are generally well-clothed.
Stay away from tight boots. Cramming too many socks into your boots can make your feet colder or freeze. If you can’t wiggle your toes freely, you need thinner socks or bigger boots.
How Your Body Loses Heat
There are four main ways your body loses heat:
– Convection (wind).
Wind will put you in hypothermia territory in no time, even in mild temps as I described above. Having a wind-proof outer shell top and bottom is a must if youíre not wearing a thick coat. Wind also can cause frostbite on exposed skin. Donít be careless about exposing yourself, even for a short time.
– Conduction (cold contact/wetness).
Sitting in the snow or on a cold rock sucks the heat out of you. So does wetness in your clothing. Staying dry, and having a dry clothing layer next to your skin, is paramount.
– Transpiration/evaporation (breathing/sweating).
The evaporation of perspiration is a cooling effect. The last thing you want to do in winter is sweat profusely. Wet clothes are cold clothes. There are certain fabrics to avoid at all costs, and others to use as next-to-skin layers. If you know you will be exerting yourself, plan ahead and dress lightly. Bundling up in heavy multiple layers is for sitting still. Hiking with a pack, chopping wood, digging holes, etc. can be done with just a couple of layers.
My winter backpacking partner and I wound up wearing heavy (‘expedition weight’) long underwear bottoms and summer cotton hiking shorts under Gore-Tex shell pants. He wore a heavy underwear zip t-neck top, while I wore a lightweight top and a wool or pile shirt, under Gore-Tex parkas. Hiking through a foot or more of snow, in heavy Sorel boots on snowshoes, humping a 55-65 lb. pack, and having a warm hat and/or warm headband, this was more than enough to keep us warm without over-heating or sweating too much. We carried fleece pants and down parkas with us for when we stopped and made camp. Think about your activities and dress accordingly. I prefer full-zip-open layers rather than pull-overs when moving, so I can fully vent if I overheat. Having to stop and add/take off layers can be a pain, especially if youíre carrying a pack or wearing LBE kit. If in doubt, go light on layers, and accept that you’ll be a little chilly at the start of your activity (wear the hat at first), but also that you’ll soon be warming up nicely (then take off the hat). Better that than overheating, sweating your inner layer wet, then having to stop and strip off an extra layer, and still be stuck with the wet, conductive layer against your skin. Once you learn how your body works, fine-tuning your perspiration can be as simple as adding or removing a hat.
Transpiration is heat and moisture going out of your body when you exhale. When you inhale, cold and dry goes in. Can’t do much about the heat loss, but be aware that this will make you dehydrate faster in winter than you might imagine.
Drink more water. More than you might think. Monitor the color of your urine. Intense yellow or dark yellow means you’re dehydrating. When it starts looking brown you’re in real trouble. Stop what you’re doing and hydrate!
This is simply heat given off at your body surface and what your clothing traps. My advice is simple: don’t go naked in the cold.
One other consideration: everyone is different in their heat production, blood circulation, and cold tolerance. You have to spend enough time out in the cold to learn where you stand for each. Another thing to learn is just how much you perspire when being active in the cold. That may sound strange, but knowing how easily you heat up, and how much you sweat in different levels of physical activity, will have a major bearing on your deciding how to dress and what extra clothes to carry. Wet clothes are cold and dangerous clothes, and you’ll always want to control and fine-tune your combination of activity, heat generation, perspiration, and clothing layers to prevent over-heating and over-sweating while staying warm and dry. This is the result and capability you will need to really master winter. Knowing how to dress for the anticipated activity before you start will prevent the time-consuming annoyance of having to peel off your pack and kit to re-adjust. With experience, you’ll get it right the first time. When going light on layers in anticipation of heat-producing activity, keep a hat, gloves, and one warm outer layer (as simple as a down or fleece vest) in handy locations so fine-tuning is easily done. Just the difference between a bare head, a warm headband, and a warm hat can make a big difference in getting things ‘just right’ for your specific condition.
This last point cannot be overstressed: avoid overheating and sweating
Clothing Considerations for Cold
Ah, the fun part. Used to be that everyone wore wool from the skin outwards, except for those few rich folks that could afford silk underwear. Wool is still one of the best and most useful materials around, but the clothing technology explosion that started around 35 years ago has given us some fascinating and useful options. Keep in mind that the layer worn next to the skin should be one that wicks sweat moisture outwards to the outer layers while drying quickly. This is your foundation to stay dry. So, starting from the skin out:
Cotton: Rule 1 of winter is: COTTON KILLS IN WINTER. Stay away from cotton. Once it gets wet, it loses all insulating ability, and the wetness will suck the heat right out of you. Yes, I know I say below I used cotton summer hiking shorts. Worn over heavy synthetic long underwear, and under a shell, they still got sweat-damp and even froze after I took them off. Had to bring them into the sleeping bag overnight to dry them. And yes, I know soldiers wear cotton/poly BDUís in winter (the light summer-weight rip-stop ones dry quickly). Usually over long underwear or bear suit pile bibs. Thin cotton does dry out quickly if you have some heat source. But cotton t-shirts or flannel shirts are suicide in winter. Even cotton undershorts will feel soggy when youíre sweating your way up a hill (though they’ll dry fairly quickly from body heat). Cotton socks? Frostbite! Jeans? How do frozen pants over freezing legs sound? So yeah you can get away with the very limited use of cotton, but stay away from it all you can, and NONE NEXT TO YOUR SKIN (except maybe briefs, and you can get synthetic wicking briefs – handy if you piss yourself when rounds start incoming!). The Duofold type cotton inner/wool outer is comfy, but I wouldnít use it except for short day-trip recreational stuff where you are not far from the car, nor for long.
Rule 2 of winter is: don’t forget Rule 1.
Long underwear (next to skin):
-Polypropylene & Polyester: Synthetic long underwear material designed to wick
perspiration away from your skin to the next layer outwards, and dry quickly. The former is the old original, mostly superseded by specially treated polyester. Comes in about four different thicknesses depending on the manufacturer. You should be considering a light layer and a heavy (the heaviest available) layer. Light for movement and activity, heavy for sitting still or sleeping. This stuff works as advertised and is your first line of defense against hypothermia. Also useful as a thin wicking sock layer under the woolies, to keep your toes dry. NO COTTON!
-Silk: Yes, you can still get this stuff. I’ve never had any, but it has a great reputation for comfort, warmth, and staying dry.
Mid layers (shirt/pants/vest/jacket)
-Wool: A natural insulating fiber. It will still insulate to some extent even when wet. Wool with its natural oils left intact is almost waterproof, but most oils are washed out during processing. Still, great for hats, gloves, sweaters, pants, shirts, long underwear (if very soft wool) and especially socks. Stands up to wear and if lit on fire, will smolder and burn, but not melt into a plastic blob that attaches to your charred flesh. Ouch. You can get Army 1951 Korean War OD green wool pants and shirts for about $20 apiece, new condition. Awesome stuff, I heartily recommend them. Wool con: usually itchy next to the skin, heavy and bulky in sweaters, or when wet. Loves me my wool pants, shirts, and socks. You can’t go wrong with wool.
-Fleece: Light, extremely warm, and soft, relatively warm when wet. A fleece vest and jacket make for great warm layering options, especially where bulk and weight are issues (backpacking). My choice for warm layers underneath shell parkas or oversize BDU blouses. Your local Goodwill, ARC, or other thrift stores will have green, brown, and tan items by the truckload for $6-8 apiece. Stock up. Good for hats, scarves, balaclavas, bib overalls (latest black Army issue) and leg warmers as well. Very warm in shirts and your sweat dries out fast. I have a good collection of jackets, vests, hats, and shirts in earth tones. Con, the wind tends to go through it easily, and you don’t want to catch fire in it.
-Pile: This is the thick stuff that is loose and fluffy fiber on one side, with a medium weave cloth surface on the other. The old brown Army bear suit stuff, jacket, and bibs. Very warm. Thick and bulky too, but not too heavy. Probably too bulky for carrying backpacking but great for home/base camp. You can still get this from surplus stores on the web. A great layer set over wool pants/shirt and under Gore-Tex shells, especially for staying still.
Outer Layer (coat/parka)
-Down: The warmest and lightest. Also the most fragile and high maintenance. DO NOT GET IT WET. Turns to sodden lumps and takes a while to dry. Down is great for a vest or light jacket to provide a backpacker with great warmth and almost non-existent weight. It compresses to almost nothing in space. A big puffy down coat weighs little, packs small, and is pretty much necessary if youíre going to hang out on cold winter nights without a fire. Cons are the wet factor, and that most backpacking type coats have very thin and delicate shells. For heavy use, get a polyester/cotton (not thin nylon) shelled version. Again, when we stopped for the night, the Gore-Tex shell parka came off, a wool sweater or fleece jacket and then a hooded down coat went on. We rarely had a fire (maybe four out of 14 trips) and stayed warm just fine. For weight/space reduction when packing, a light down jacket or down ìsweaterî under a shell parka will work well.
-Gore-Tex (and similar) shells: Wind and waterproof shell parka and pants. Shell, meaning no insulation, maybe just a thin nylon liner. A life-saver in foul weather and high winds, it keeps the wind, rain, and snow off your insulating layers. Best bought oversize enough to wear over heavy long underwear top and bottom, wool pants, wool shirt, fleece/pile jacket or wool sweater, and a down vest, and still have enough room to move arms and legs comfortably and easily. I consider this a necessity. With the above layering, one can do without a down coat in temps above about 20 degrees, maybe lower if you are one of those polar bear types. Again, while carrying a 55-65 lb. pack snowshoeing in deep powder, shells over heavy long underwear and a shirt/shorts was enough. On Mt. Washington, these kept me alive (though still scared!) in hurricane-force winds (steady 70s with a 95 mph gust) at 28 degrees F. You do the math for the wind chill. Your best bet is Gen II Army issue (not the lightweight newer Army stuff). It’s heavy-duty, lots of pockets, and you can crawl over sharp rocks without hurting it much. Remember: buy BIG, at least for the parka. Try it on over the layers you’ll be wearing. If you won’t have a coat to switch over to when you stop moving, that means lots of upper body layers have to fit under the parka, and it should fit baggy over your few pack-humping layers. Keep a thick balaclava, glove liners, and a GI fleece hat or knit wool jeep cap in its pockets, and maybe a neck gaiter, or even an arctic type wind mask, especially if you’ll be operating in open high-wind areas.
Socks: thin silk or polysynthetic wicking liners (dry = warm), then wool. Wool/nylon blend (70% wool/30% nylon at least), or all wool. Period. Lower wool content is OK for spring/fall seasons though. Carry enough extra pairs to swap out at least once a day, or whenever your feet start feeling damp. My schedule was to change socks when we stopped hiking and made camp, to sleep in the new pair (they’re dry), and then to hike in them the next day. Having one or even two sets more than you think you will need can be a big help. If taking very long hikes, you’ll want to wash and dry them as you use them. There is no such thing as owning too many pairs of good, properly-fitting socks. The thickness of the wool sock should be such that you don’t create a tight fit in your boots. Don’t skimp on quality or quantity. NO COTTON!
Boots: Lots of choices here. GI Mickey Mouse rubber boots are the warmest (and wettest – all rubber, no breathability). Mickey Mouse boots are for arctic guard duty, standing still or short walk patrolling in extreme cold, not for hiking. They will fill with water from your foot perspiration, so be prepared to take them off, wipe them out with a cotton cloth or paper towel, and swap in dry socks regularly, or you’ll get the old World War I affliction of trench foot, which will take you out of action. Sorel rubber bottom/leather upper shoe-pacs with removable thick felt liners (what I used winter backpacking) are probably the next warmest, and the liners absorb a lot of moisture, helping keep your socks dry (take them out of the boots overnight to dry or wear as slippers inside the sleeping bag). GI insulated black leather boots with or without extra GI liners, or the un-insulated tan leather boots with GI liners, or commercial Thinsulate insulated hunting boots are the next best. You can get commercial hunting boots with up to 1000 or more gram Thinsulate. Beyond these, custom backpacking boots (made to support extra weight) with insulation…tons of choices based on your need for temperature, application, and cost. If your feet sweat a lot, Gore-Tex boots may not breathe fast enough and make your socks a bit more soggy than youíd like (gotta love those wicking liners and wool!). In very cold temps, you probably wonít need the waterproofing of Gore-Tex anyway, unless your foot breaks through ice into water, in which case the short duration before you yank it back out shouldnít get through well-waxed leather anyway.
I suggest sizing your boots to fit easily over a sock combo of one thin synthetic wicking liner, and one medium to thick wool sock, depending upon how easily your feet get cold and how much insulation your chosen boot will have. For boots with little or no insulation, or if your feet are always cold even in summer (like me), you’ll want to size them to fit over the liner, a thin or medium wool sock, and another medium or thick wool sock. For boots, you already own and want to adapt to cold, wear a thin wicking liner and whatever thickness of wool that keeps a comfortable easy fit. In any event, you must be able to wiggle your toes easily and have no sense of a tight fit. You must maintain free blood circulation on your feet and toes. Better to buy too loose of a boot, and use socks to get the fit right, than to buy too snug. The latter will freeze your feet. I learned this the hard way on my first winter trip, which also happened to be my coldest (about 13-14 below, wearing basic leather 3-season backpacking boots). Too loose of a fit will have your foot sliding around which causes blisters. Too tight means cold – or freezing – toes and feet.
Also, adding insulating insoles can snug-up the fit of a loose boot, while adding more insulation between the soles of your feet and the cold ground. This is a useful trick.
People, I cannot stress this enough: proper boot fit is absolutely critical to maintain warmth and avoid terrible things happening to your feet. It may be even more critical than the total amount of boot insulation and socks around your feet.
Gloves: thin poly liners, Thinsulate gloves with tough shells, GI trigger finger mittens, either insulated or shells with matching warm liners and GI wool glove liners. At the very least, thin liners (so you can do fine manipulation of very cold metal objects) plus either very warm gloves OR warm trigger finger mittens. Not a good category for skimping on cost or weight. Extra spare pairs stuffed in pack and parka/coat pockets can save you much grief.
Pants: Mild spring/fall chilly weather which probably won’t kill you, GI poly/cotton over lightweight long underwear. Winter, light to heavy long underwear, then wool pants, then Gore-Tex GI shells of appropriate camo pattern. If you are wearing overwrites, if they are stout and it’s too cold to rain, you may do without the Gore-Tex shells, since they’ll make for a decent windbreaker.
A very nice leg-warmth addition I use is leg warmers (mine are Swedish military knit wool from Sportsman’s Guide, but fleece/knit acrylic may be available). You can don or doff them without taking off your pants, a nice feature for the field, and they are WARM! Fleece pants, worn under shells, are great for hanging out in camp if you won’t need anything heavier-duty. I found that wool pants were a bit too warm to backpack in, so switched to light cotton hiking shorts. They did get a bit sweat-soggy, and they got swapped out for fleece pants when I made camp. Wool knickers as worn by Europeans would be a better, though warmer, choice. Sportsman’s Guide usually has them in stock.
Shirts: as mentioned above, wool or fleece. Simple. NO COTTON!
Head coverings: These are extremely important. Your head, face, ears, and all around your neck need all the protection you can give them under conditions of intense cold and/or wind. You can prevent face frostbite and really fine-tune your warmth retention and perspiration with these. The good news is this can be done with three to five small, light, and inexpensive bits and pieces that can combine as layers.
My own choices are:
Fleece or knit (wool/acrylic) headband for hard work to keep from over-heating, but keep ears warm and soak up forehead sweat. I wear only this when hiking, unless the wind is up or temps are extremely cold, or both.
Balaclava: the fleece or thick heavy-weight expedition long underwear type (dense weave outside, fuzzy inside) for being still or sleeping, and the thin lightweight kind too, especially for a light facial wind-block when moving, that isnít so warm you start sweating too much. The GI helmet liner is useable but does NOT cover your face – something that needs attention to prevent frostbite.
Neck gaiter: Fleece or expedition type, these things are GREAT. Seals off your neck and covers up to your nose. Will fill in the face gap of the GI helmet liner and overlaps nicely over/under the other pieces.
Warm hat. Fleece or knit wool/acrylic beanie or short-billed ‘Radar O’Reilly’ jeep cap (con-these are not very wind-proof), nylon shelled pile or fleece lined the bomber hat with big ear flaps, or similar. Hats with a bill let you keep the wind-driven rain, sleet, and snow out of your eyes. This is more important than you might realize, believe me! Loves me my wool jeep caps.
Wind mask of some sort. Commercial and military examples abound. If you have the foregoing list of stuff you may not need the really long large military types. Nice when operating in open, high-wind areas like the prairie or high mountains. That frostbite prevention thing again.
Scarf – wool or fleece.
You don’t need all the above. The chest pockets of my M65 field coat contain the following: expedition balaclava, expedition neck gaiter, and knit wool jeep cap (the lower pockets contain thin poly liner gloves & either Thinsulate gloves OR trigger finger insulated mittens). This, all layered under the very thin hideaway hood, will provide considerable head warmth. Keep a set of this stuff in the pockets of your Gore-Tex parka, AND whatever warm coat you’ll use. That way you wonít have to go looking for them; whatever coat/parka you grab, you’ll be fully equipped. Thrift and surplus stores will abound with inexpensive examples.
I prefer full-zip jackets to pull-over quarter-zips or sweaters because I can fully open and vent heat out of the former when exerting myself, and avoid overheating and sweating. Otherwise, I would have to peel off gear and outer layers to layer-down, then again to layer-up when activity ceases. This is not a small point.
A consideration in all the above is that all clothing must be comfortably loose, especially the outerwear. The skin wicking layer should not be too loose, as it must maintain skin contact to wick, but it should not bind. Nothing should bind. Specifically, you must be able to easily assume every rifle shooting position without too much struggle (trust me, there will be some).
Functioning in the Cold
OK, you have all your high-speed clothes and gear, and now you want to spend a day or a weekend outdoors. What can you expect?
PHYSICAL FITNESS: If you are out of shape winter will kick your ass and then eat it alive, even if you own all the best gear. Aerobic fitness and endurance first, power strength in legs and body core (torso) second. Winter gear is heavy.
MENTAL TOUGHNESS: There will be times when you are pushed to, or beyond, your limits. There will be times when you’ll want to just sit down, close your eyes, and drift off to frozen dirt-nap sleep. Naturally, you’ll want to avoid putting yourself in such a situation when training or recreating, EXCEPT for carefully planned outings with friends who can help each other when things get too bad for whoever starts flagging first. You will want to eventually test yourselves, but CAREFULLY! When things get real, you may be forced into coping with environmental conditions worse than you’d like, alongside the additional fear-of-death the situation brings.This a combination that can also eat you alive mentally and emotionally. You will need to bring mental toughness with you to this activity. You will find, in turn, that toughing out some rough conditions will improve your level of mental toughness. You have to keep going and stay positive, no matter what. This stuff does have its rewards.
You always need to pay attention to yourself, in the ways mentioned above. Learn how your body deals with cold. Hike for a while, sit still for a while. Monitor yourself. Note your perspiration rate in moderate and intense activity. Note what parts get cold first when sitting still. By learning your body’s responses you will learn how best to dress for warmth and dryness under all circumstances. Expect things to be uncomfortable at first.
Remember what I said about dressing lightly at first for activity (even just walking). Be willing to be a bit cool at first, knowing you’ll soon warm up. If you start right off into hot & sweaty mode, you’ve gone too heavy on insulation to start with. One heavy or two light warmth layers, under a shell, with a fleece or knit hat or just headband, will keep you warm while cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or backpacking. For less strenuous movement, like still-hunting or a slow stroll in little or no snow with little or no weight, youíll need another layer. Keep a hat, fleece vest, neck gaiter or scarf, gloves, headband, and balaclava handy for adjustments. Unless you start out way off the mark, these should be all you need. When you stop moving, you will start cooling down right away. If you will be stopped for more than a few minutes, take the time to add a layer, even if it’s just swapping the headband for a warm hat or balaclava.
Also, whenever you stop to take five or ten in your movement, make a point of drinking water and eating something. This is very important. VERY important.
Expect everything to slow down and become more difficult. Working your way through the layers to take a leak will require patience, and perhaps a map. Taking a dump will be, umm, a bracing experience. Expect your endurance to be much, much less than in mild weather. Speed and range of body movement will be constricted to some extent by clothes. Almost everything will take more effort, so lower your performance expectations accordingly.
Here is what I settled on, for a 2-night 3-day backpack, after many trips:
Boots: Sorel Shoe-pacs.
Socks: synthetic liner, then wool.
Skin layer: Patagonia expedition weight bottoms, lightweight zip t-neck top
Next layer: Wool or fleece shirt, cotton hiking shorts (wool knickers would be a good substitute for the shorts).
Mid-layer: Fleece jacket and/or vest. Former for the camp layer, latter for extra warmth if needed while hiking. No down while moving; it will get flattened and soaked with sweat on your back under the pack.
Head: knit or fleece headband for hiking, pile bomber cap or thick wool knit balaclava for camp.
Outer layer: Gore-Tex shell parka and pants for hiking, down coat and fleece pants (under shell pants) and pile bomber cap for camp.
Extra: heavy long underwear top for a dry sleeping layer, down vest, expedition balaclava or ski mask for sleeping, light long underwear bottoms as spare.
Now for hunting or day patrol in the cold, pack weight is not a consideration beyond your basic kit, and movement will be slower (less heat/sweat generated).
Wool pants over heavy or light long underwear.
Wool legwarmers between underwear and pants, if necessary; they can go on/off just by removing your boots. Very handy.
600 gram or higher Thinsulate boots, GI insulated boots, or Sorels for the really intense cold.
Wool or fleece shirt over heavy or light wicking zip t-neck top.
Mid layer: Fleece vest or fleece/pile jacket, if necessary.
Outer layer: depending on level of cold and activity, either civvy green/tan down/polarguard coat or GI M65 field coat with liner (an oversize M65 leaves room for adding another liner or fleece jacket); or in milder weather, oversize BDU blouse/orange hunting jacket/GI Gore-Tex parka over the mid layer.
Warm knit or fleece hat.
Gloves/mittens of varying types.
Appropriate boots for the temperature with wicking liner/wool outer socks.
The level of physical activity and cold you expect will guide your choice of the foregoing. You’ll need to prevent overheating while moving, but carry enough to stay warm while motionless. Use your imagination to mix and match layers while keeping weight and bulk to a minimum, especially if packing a load.
Movement Through Snow
I’ve used both X-C skis and snowshoes, though only the latter with a pack. Skis require a bit of familiarity and skill, especially if you’re going to carry any weight. Stay away from the skinny type meant for groomed trails. You’ll want the mountaineering type, with full or partial steel edges. Waxable or fish-scale traction is up to you.
On snowshoes, you just trudge along, and while a bit slower and less ‘cool’ than skis, they’ll take you anywhere, and you’re less likely to fall over while humping a pack. I advise ski poles or at least a walking stick when snowshoeing with a pack. You can’t judge the ground surface under a foot of powder and carry weight introduces balance issues.
Sleeping Bag Types, and Sleeping
Synthetic batting like Polarguard or Hollofill, along with down, are the two main types of insulation. Down is the warmest, lightest, and most compressible, but also most susceptible to moisture. If you use a down bag in winter, I advise adding something called a Vapor Barrier Liner. Basically, it’s just a lightweight waterproof nylon bag you sleep in, inside the sleeping bag. It traps your body’s ‘insensible perspiration’ (moisture vapor that is always given off by your skin). By preventing this evaporation, it adds about 8-10 degrees of warmth to the bag. It also helps keep your bag dry. You’ll feel quite clammy in the morning, so you’ll probably want to change out your sleeping clothes for a dry set to start the day. You’ll want to take great care to keep your down bag dry. The VBL inside the bag and the GI Gore-Tex bivy sack outside the bag should be considered musts. Wet down is a useless disaster and trying to dry it in the field is a nearly hopeless task. Synthetics are much less affected by moisture but are heavier, less warm, and less compressible.
One way of getting your bag soggy you should avoid: pulling your head into the bag. Your exhalation will condense in the chest area of the bag and get it quite soggy. On my first (and coldest) winter trip, the air was so cold it burned my face, so I pulled my head inside the bag until it felt like I had a hard time breathing, then pushed my head back out into the hood until my face felt too cold, then back inside. Porpoising like that all night long, the down in the bag’s chest area became sodden and useless for warmth, even freezing a little. The outer shell of the bag there was ice-coated. Also, the inside walls and ceiling of the tent were covered with fine ice crystals condensed from our exhalations, and the slightest nudge sent it falling down the backs of our necks.
My tried-and-true old sleeping bag is a tapered mummy-shape down bag, but having acquired the GI 3-bag sets (to include the Gore-Tex waterproof/breathable camo bivy sack that goes over the outside) I see nothing wrong with going that way. You’d never carry both the patrol bag (40 degrees) and the cold bag (-10) simultaneously while backpacking anyway – too heavy. Both used together at a base camp supposedly are rated down to -40 for a few hours. Backpacking with the cold bag, plenty thick ground pad under it, a VBL inside it, the bivy sack outside it, and a Space Blanket & poncho liner draped over the top, should be enough to get you through a -20 night. Only one way to find out. The tighter the bag shapes to your body (mummy shape), the lighter and warmer it will be, and vice-versa. Some people like to spread out a bit when sleeping, so give this some thought. I am one of those, and my bag is very tight, so I tend to feel a bit sore in the muscles by morning from being cramped up all night.
I advise not wearing too much clothing in the bag. For some reason the more heat your clothing traps, the less gets into the bag insulation, and the latter is much more efficient. I tend to wear heavy long underwear top and bottom, and I use a shirt or fleece jacket wrapped around my neck and shoulders to block any cold drafts that come in the hood opening. This is usually enough. In extreme cold that tests the limit of my bag, I pull in the down vest as well, usually around my legs. If you are using a VBL, this extra stuff goes outside the liner, to keep them dry.
If you are going to change into fresh long underwear in the morning, bring them into the bag with you at night, so theyíll be toasty warm when you put them on in the morning. Changing into zero degrees underwear first thing in the morning is no fun.
I found that trying to breathe through a balaclava was difficult enough to repeatedly wake me during the night. Pulling it down under my chin clamped my jaw shut and gave me sore jaw muscles by morning, from trying to keep my mouth open enough to breathe (my sinuses get plugged by the cold air). I settled on a knit ski mask to solve that problem.
The warmest bag in the world will still feel cold if you havenít got good insulation underneath it. The inflatable Thermarest type sleeping pads are probably the best things going. The closed-cell foam of the black, blue, or Army green models also works pretty well. You’ll want at leaíst a 1″ thick or more Thermarest, or at least two layers of the closed-cell foam pads, to stay warm. I used to run a Thermarest over a 3/8″ black foam pad. My buddy used a 1″ Thermarest. When we pulled up the tent and ground tarp, we could see the bare ground spots in the snow made by our escaped body heat. Mine was bigger than his, so I could have used more insulation.
One really good trick I learned long ago was to place a Space Blanket tarp on the tent floor. These are the heavy-duty kind with bound edges and grommets in the corners. Silver on one side and O.D. green, red, or blue on the other, this will stop a lot of heat from going out the bottom. Red on the tent floor is supposed to have some psychological heating effect too. Blue is supposed to make you feel cooler, so I advise against that. Just putting my hand on the bare tent floor, vs. on the Space Blanket, I could feel a huge difference.
If you are going to travel super-light and skip the tent, you can make a ‘Ranger Taco’ from an O.D. green Space Blanket tarp folded over your sleeping bag (the silver side in) and stake down through the grommet holes. Adding extra grommets midway on the long sides will help keep the wind from billowing it open. With your sleeping bag in an Army Gore-Tex bivy sack over a thick sleeping pad, it should be a workable combination up to a certain point. A poncho can be rigged over it for a roof or windbreak.
A GI poncho liner might be a very useful bit of kit. Warm and light (though fairly bulky), used as a blanket or sleeping bag liner it may make the difference between simply surviving and being comfy. This, layered inside a Space Blanket tarp, will make a decent blanket if you are spending any time motionless (or as part of your Ranger Taco). Making an over-white out of a sheet that attaches to the green side of the Space Blanket, with the poncho liner on the inside, might be a very useful piece of gear for an observation post or patrol in the snow where youíll be hunkered down more than moving, or for sleeping out light without a tent. Conversely, you can spend the day glassing your AO from inside your sleeping bag, though this gets a bit claustrophobic and you’ll need to get out and move around once in a while.
Tips and Tricks to Make Life Easier
Whatever liquid water you have should come into the bag with you if you have room. If you wake up in the middle of the night with cotton mouth, youíll be glad you did. And it wouldn’t hurt anything to heat up some of the water first! If you donít have room for it all, wrap full canteens/water bladders in a jacket, shirt, hat, or sweater, and keep them right next to your bag, inside the bivy sack. You’ll want to keep it from freezing. Thawing it takes time and fuel.
Keeping water liquid is a challenge. Melting snow and ice is fuel and time intensive. If you run a Camelbak type bladder, try to keep it and its hose under your outer layer. Canteens hanging off your web gear will freeze quickly. The older ALICE-type green canteen pouches had an insulated lining, so youíll want the water you put in them to start out hot. A quart flask hanging around your neck inside your jacket or a couple of pint-sized ones in your inner pockets are a very good idea. Keeping yourself in liquid water over several days will require continuous snow-melting and monitoring of your liquid supply. Make sure you have plenty of fuel available.
Before you turn in for the night, arrange your gear so as to make getting going in the morning easy. Lay out whatever you need in fresh clothing, stove, cooking utensils, boots, etc., so you won’t have to go digging in your pack in the morning when youíre stiff, cold, and groggy. If you are in a tent, put this stuff inside right by the door. If you have no tent, put everything inside the pack but right on top. Seal up your pack well against hungry little critters. Make sure no loose gear is lying about on the ground, in case you get snow overnight, or youíll never find it. Put your boots in the tent; if no tent, wrap them up in your shell parka. Plan this out at night before turning in, and your morning will go quickly and easily. Keep yourself organized. Have a high-fat snack like a Slim Jim in the tent or bivy with you, in case you wake up in the middle of the night cold. You shouldnít have to worry about bears nosing around in the dead of winter.
Keep items you don’t want to be frozen inside your clothes during the day. A pint or quart plastic water flask inside your shirt will help keep the ‘brown piss blues’ away. Butane lighters will be much happier kept warm in an inner pocket. Food staples like peanut butter and honey (well sealed!) will stay spreadable. Ditto things like energy bars that become teeth-breaking bricks below freezing. Use your imagination, and carry a full day’s supply.
Use a sub-zero lube on your firearms. Go out on a very cold day, let your firearm get to ambient temperature, and see if it still works. ‘Nuff said.
Check your rifle zero on a very cold day. Let the ammo get to ambient temp first. You may find your trajectory has dropped a little (cold lowers pressure and hence velocity).
Eat a lot and drink a lot, all the time. Keep track of your own physical and mental states, as well as that of your companions. If one shows signs of hypothermia, treat immediately, whether they agree with you or not (remember, loss of clear thinking is one of the early symptoms).
Above all, have fun. Once you get yourself figured out, there are few outdoor activities more fun than staying warm and dry in the snow-covered woods.
Editors Note: The Following article has been generously contributed by Colorado Pete.