It’s 20 degrees out right now at Write on the River. I know, nothing to people in the north; I remember lying on a poncho on top of several feet of snow, sunning in 25 degrees during winter warfare training. Still, for these here parts, it’s cold. Always weird how you forget how being extremely cold can physically hurt. Here’s some info from my latest opus, Prepare Now-Survive Later about dealing with the cold.

Cold Weather

winter-warfare-2I commanded an A-Team in the 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne). 10th Group had the distinction of being the ‘cold weather’ Group, since it was oriented toward high altitude environments. We often sent teams to Finland, Norway, Denmark and other cold regions for training. An annual event was Winter Warfare Training, where each battalion deployed for almost two months. We learned to ski, then survive and operate in high altitude and cold weather. My first winter warfare was an eye-opening experience for me– the image to the right is on a recon way up in the mountains. There were many tricks of the trade learned, but several key lessons:

1) Everything takes at least twice as long to achieve in cold weather.

2) Fire is eventually an essential. Whether for melting snow and ice into water, cooking meals, drying out clothing and gear, or just warming people up.

3) Moving on snow with equipment is extraordinarily hard.

4) Cold weather affects equipment in different ways. One key to remember is that any exposed water container will freeze. We quickly learned to keep our water source inside our clothing, allowing our body to keep it from freezing. The same with thawing out our next meal. On the positive side batteries keep their charge longer in the cold; in the bad side, they expend power faster when used.

The key, like everything else, is to be properly prepared at all times. Not just at home, but especially when traveling in your car. Also, at work.

There are two types of cold weather environments: wet or dry. New England, for example, is wet cold. The Rocky Mountains are dry cold. We took more cold weather casualties when we trained in the Adirondacks at low elevation than when we trained in Utah at high altitude based on the difference between wet cold and dry cold.

When we conducted a security test of the Alaskan pipeline in November, we ran into wet cold conditions. I ended up having to medevac one of my weapons sergeants because he’d been a previous cold weather casualty and walking through the Alaskan tundra (frozen at night, thawing in the day) took him down. This is something else to consider with team members: who has had previous cold or hot weather injuries.

Wind chill is the effect of moving air on exposed flesh. Wind always exacerbates the situation, which is why your outer garment should not only be water resistant, but wind resistant. A key in building shelter is to get out of the wind. Wind multiplies the effect of low temperatures.

Here is a handy chart showing the effect of wind chill.


Remember, even when there is no wind, you will create the equivalent wind by skiing, running, being towed on skis behind a vehicle, working around aircraft that produce wind blasts. One of my coldest experiences where I almost suffered instant frostbite was loading an injured soldier on board a Blackhawk helicopter at altitude in a cold environment. I made the mistake of briefly taking my gloves off and almost paid for it.

Which proves that clothing is critical in cold weather environments. You must not only have enough clothing to protect you from the cold, you must also know how to maximize the warmth you get from it.

Always keep your head covered. You lose 40 to 45 percent of body heat from an unprotected head and even more from the unprotected neck, wrist, and ankles. These areas of the body are good radiators of heat and have very little insulating fat. The brain is very susceptible to cold and can stand the least amount of cooling. Because there is much blood circulation in the head, most of which is on the surface, you can lose heat quickly if you do not cover your head. This is also why scalp wounds tend to bleed profusely.

There are four basic principles to follow to keep warm. An easy way to remember these basic principles is to use the word COLD—

C Keep clothing clean. This principle is always important for sanitation and comfort. In winter, it is also important from the standpoint of warmth. Clothes matted with dirt and grease lose much of their insulation value. Heat can escape more easily from the body through the clothing’s crushed or filled up air pockets.

O Avoid overheating. When you get too hot, you sweat and your clothing absorbs the moisture. This affects your warmth in two ways: dampness decreases the insulation quality of clothing, and as sweat evaporates, your body cools. Adjust your clothing so that you do not sweat. Do this by partially opening your parka or jacket, by removing an inner layer of clothing, by removing heavy outer mittens, or by throwing back your parka hood or changing to lighter headgear. The head and hands act as efficient heat dissipaters when overheated.

L Wear your clothing loose and in layers. Wearing tight clothing and footgear restricts blood circulation and invites cold injury. It also decreases the volume of air trapped between the layers, reducing its insulating value. Several layers of lightweight clothing are better than one equally thick layer of clothing, because the layers have dead-air space between them. The dead-air space provides extra insulation. Also, layers of clothing allow you to take off or add clothing layers to prevent excessive sweating or to increase warmth.

D Keep clothing dry. In cold temperatures, your inner layers of clothing can become wet from sweat and your outer layer, if not water repellent, can become wet from snow and frost melted by body heat. Wear water repellent outer clothing, if available. It will shed most of the water collected from melting snow and frost. Before entering a heated shelter, brush off the snow and frost. Despite the precautions you take, there will be times when you cannot keep from getting wet. At such times, drying your clothing may become a major problem. On the march, hang your damp mittens and socks on your rucksack. Sometimes in freezing temperatures, the wind and sun will dry this clothing. You can also place damp socks or mittens, unfolded, near your body so that your body heat can dry them. In a campsite, hang damp clothing inside the shelter near the top, using drying lines or improvised racks. You may even be able to dry each item by holding it before an open fire. Dry leather items slowly. If no other means are available for drying your boots, put them between your sleeping bag shell and liner. Your body heat will help to dry the leather.

I remember near the end of one Winter Warfare exercise, we were so acclimated, that on a sunny day where it warmed up to around 30, we were lying on top of eight feet of snow on our ponchos catching rays in our t-shirts and fatigue pants. You do become acclimated to your environment, much more than most people believe.

A heavy, down-lined sleeping bag is a valuable piece of survival gear in cold weather. Ensure the down remains dry. If wet, it loses a lot of its insulation value. If you do not have a sleeping bag, you can make one out of parachute cloth or similar material and natural dry material, such as leaves, pine needles, or moss. Place the dry material between two layers of the material.

Cold Injuries

The best way to deal with injuries and sicknesses is to take measures to prevent them from happening in the first place. Treat any injury or sickness that occurs as soon as possible to prevent it from worsening.

The knowledge of signs and symptoms and the use of the buddy system are critical in maintaining health. Following are cold injuries that can occur.


Hypothermia is the lowering of the body temperature at a rate faster than the body can produce heat. Causes of hypothermia may be general exposure or the sudden wetting of the body by falling into a lake or spraying with fuel or other liquids.

The initial symptom is shivering. This shivering may progress to the point that it is uncontrollable and interferes with an individual’s ability to care for himself. This begins when the body’s core (rectal) temperature falls to about 96 degrees. When the core temperature reaches 95 to 90 degrees F, sluggish thinking, irrational reasoning, and a false feeling of warmth may occur. Core temperatures 90 to 86 degrees F and below result in muscle rigidity, unconsciousness, and barely detectable signs of life. If the victim’s core temperature falls below 25 degrees C (77 degrees F), death is almost certain.

Treatment for this and other cold weather injuries are in Survive Now-Thrive Later. Our goal in this book is to have the correct gear and knowledge so that they don’t occur.


This injury is the result of frozen tissues. Light frostbite involves only the skin that takes on a dull whitish pallor. Deep frostbite extends to a depth below the skin. The tissues become solid and immovable. Your feet, hands, and exposed facial areas are particularly vulnerable to frostbite.

The best frostbite prevention, when you are with others, is to use the buddy system. Check your buddy’s face often and make sure that he checks yours. If you are alone, periodically cover your nose and lower part of your face with your mittened hand.

The following pointers will aid you in keeping warm and preventing frostbite when it is extremely cold or when you have less than adequate clothing:

Face. Maintain circulation by twitching and wrinkling the skin on your face making faces. Warm with your hands.

Ears. Wiggle and move your ears. Warm with your hands.

Hands. Move your hands inside your gloves. Warm by placing your hands close to your body.

Feet. Move your feet and wiggle your toes inside your boots.

A loss of feeling in your hands and feet is a sign of frostbite. If you have lost feeling for only a short time, the frostbite is probably light. Otherwise, assume the frostbite is deep.


When bundled up in many layers of clothing during cold weather, you may be unaware that you are losing body moisture. Your heavy clothing absorbs the moisture that normally evaporates in the air. You must drink water to replace this loss of fluid. Your need for water is as great in a cold environment as it is in a warm environment even though you don’t feel as thirsty. In fact, we often don’t want to drink water when we’re cold.

One way to tell if you are becoming dehydrated is to check the color of your urine on snow. If your urine makes the snow dark yellow, you are becoming dehydrated and you need to replace body fluids. If it makes the snow light yellow to no color, your body fluids have a more normal balance. You can also smell the sharp odor of the urine when someone is dehydrated. It’s very hard to make people drink water in a cold environment, which makes dehydration a particular danger. A team leader must keep track to make sure every person stays hydrated.