Cold Weather Patrol Tactics and Techniques

5 02 2011

HM Armed Forces Arctic Skidoo With Figure - Toys R Us

This post is originally from produced by Mr. James Wesley, Rawles. This article was written by B.P. from Colorado, USA.


With the onset of widespread severe winter weather over most of the continental United States, I thought it prudent to share my experiences with cold-weather small unit tactical operations.

A little about me: As part of my active duty Army career, I spent three years stationed in Alaska in a leadership position in an Airborne Infantry battalion.  During those three years, we spent a significant amount of field time in sub-Arctic conditions, my longest deployment being two weeks in a tactical field environment in the frigid interior at temperatures pushing -40 degrees.  Through these exercises, I learned a lot about what works for small units operations in snow and cold conditions (and a few very cold lessons learned about what doesn’t work!).

As an aside, a lot of these techniques are discussed in the following military publications: U.S. Army Field Manuals FM 31-70 (Basic Cold Weather Manual), FM 31-71 (Northern Operations), and FM 90-6 (now 3-97.6) (Mountain Operations); U.S. Army Training Circular TC 21-3 (Individual Operations and Survival in Cold-Weather Areas); Marine Corps Warfighting Publication MCWP 3-35.1 (Cold Weather Operations); and Marine Corps Reference Publication MCRP 3-35.1a (Small Unit Leader’s Guide to Cold Weather Operations).  The Army manuals are very outdated; the Marine Corps versions less so.  My lessons will emphasize use of modern military clothing and equipment I have experience with.

For the purposes of this article, I’ve divided my discussion into three areas of emphasis: clothing yourself for cold-weather tactical operations, shooting in the cold, and small-unit movement in cold and snow.  Pull up next to your wood stove and let’s get started!

Staying warm when it isn’t

The principle way to stay warm in any environment is to stay DRY.  This doesn’t change when things go “tactical”.  A number of thinner base layers that can be donned and shed as conditions and exertion change work infinitely better than one heavily insulated garment.  The acronym to remember is “COLD”:

  • Keep clothing Clean
  • Avoid Overheating
  • Wear clothing Loose and in Layers
  • Keep yourself and your clothing Dry.

The civilian outdoors market has come a long way from cotton long johns and wool sweaters; the military finally has too.  Modern military cold –weather clothing consists of a variety of synthetic long underwear base layers (light-, mid-, and heavy-weight depending on conditions), synthetic fleece and loose-filled (“puffy”) insulating layers, and several variations of Gore-Tex type shell layers.

Let’s start with your moisture-wicking base layer, which is the one touching your skin.  Find thin (active-weight or silk-weight) synthetic long underwear tops and bottoms of a style that suits you.  Don’t wear cotton underwear under this or you’ve defeated the purpose of this wicking layer.  If you must wear underwear, find synthetic types.  Don’t forget to add thin synthetic sock liners to wick that funky moisture away from your feet too.  I’ve had good luck using antiperspirant (stick kind or a tin of antiperspirant cream if you can find it) on my feet to help keep them dry and therefore warm.

Socks are worn over the sock liners and are dependent on the type of footwear.  They can be synthetic or wool (Merino wool is very cozy and not itchy) but not cotton.  I would wear thinner socks in my insulated leather boots on warmer deployments for better tactile feel with my feet.  For really cold conditions requiring movement in pack boots (Sorels or equivalent) or the ubiquitous white vapor-barrier or “bunny” boots, a thicker insulating sock was required.  The key here is to change socks often when they become wet, and make sure your sock and boot combination is not too tight or you will restrict blood flow and get cold feet.

You may or may not need to add additional base layers on top of your wicking layer depending on conditions.  If you are sedentary or it is extremely cold (well below zero) you may want to add thicker long underwear on top of your moisture-wicking layer.  The key is to make sure you can get this layer on and off quickly as conditions and tactics change.  I would usually wear additional base layers on my legs since they don’t contribute as much to overheating, and had a ¼ zip pullover heavier long underwear top that I could add when my patrol was stopped and then lose quickly when it was time to move again.

Insulating layers consist of synthetic fleece jackets and pant or fiber-fill garments.  The fleece garments are pretty basic: jackets and pants of varying fleece weights depending on conditions.  I had best success with full-zip jackets and pants with full-length side leg zippers so they could be easily put on and removed again based on exertion and conditions.  I rarely used the pants unless we were in our patrol base or otherwise halted for the evening, and never wore them on a movement.  The jacket would come on and off frequently throughout the day.  Fiber-fill (puffy) garments pack smaller than fleece but in my experience are not as durable.  They do seem to be a bit warmer though.  They are the newest rage in the civilian and military markets, but in this case the military got there first: there’s nothing wrong with the old M1950-style quilted field jacket and field pant liners!  Down has the ultimate insulating qualities, but I shy away from it for tactical uses because it has to be kept absolutely dry or it will not insulate at all.  This cannot be guaranteed in a tactical environment.

Last but certainly not least is the shell layer.  This layer should be non-insulated for maximum temperature flexibility and because all of your other layers are doing the insulating for you.  Fabric should be synthetic, with some sort of moisture barrier product such as Gore-Tex to let sweat escape but keep out precipitation and wind.  For the jacket a hood is a must and some sort of snow skirt to keep the white stuff out is a plus.  Pants are best with a full-length leg side zip to make layering changes easier.  You may also want to consider leg gaiters to keep snow out of your pants and boots.

Keeping your head and appendages warm and dry is just as important.  Most of your body heat is lost through your head.  I’ve used anywhere from a ball cap on warmer sunny days to beanies to full-face balaclavas (double layered!).  The key is to have them with you and easily accessible.  Again, no cotton allowed (the ball cap is okay).  Don’t forget sunglasses and/or goggles as conditions warrant.

Gloves almost deserve their own discussion.  For dry warmer conditions, a simple pair of fleece gloves will often suffice.  As the mercury plummets, add thin synthetic glove liners and a waterproof/breathable (Gore-Tex) synthetic shell.  Make sure you can fit your trigger finger into the trigger guard of your weapons with this combination!  As it gets really cold, it’s time to transition to a mitten system.  I say “system” because you still need to shoot and be able to use your hands when necessary.  Keep the glove liners on, perhaps a thicker liner glove.  Add loose-fitting thick insulated mittens with a long gauntlet to cover your wrists and lower arms, and make sure they slide on and off easily over your glove liners.  To shoot without losing your gloves, you’ll need to make a neck cord tied to the mittens; when you need to shoot (or otherwise use your hands), shake the mittens free and let them hang from your neck.  Be sure to shake any snow out of them before you put them back on!

Last but not least is your footwear.  In mild and cold conditions where there is little or no snow, tall leather boots with insulation and a Goretex type liner are best.  They need to have a good lug sole and make sure they are compatible with your sock system as discussed above.  If it’s icy, look for strap-on ice traction aids such as Yaktrax cleats or any other variation now on the market.  For cold conditions and deeper snow, pack boots like Sorels will be necessary.  Invest in an extra set of felt liners to allow them to dry.  Again make sure they work with your socks.  Vapor-barrier (VB or “bunny”) boots from military surplus do have a place in extreme cold conditions.  These heavily insulated rubber boots do not let any heat out nor any moisture in; the flip side is the sweat from your feet has nowhere to go.  I’ve had good success using these in extreme cold, but you must change your socks often or your feet will get cold and wet to the point of causing trench foot.

Two final notes on clothing: first, notice I emphasized in several places not to use cotton.  Simply put, cotton kills. Once cotton gets wet through perspiration or precipitation, it loses almost all of its insulating qualities and can actually conduct cold to your body.  Never wear cotton in the cold.  Second, in my experience I’ve actually seen more heat injuries such as heat exhaustion in cold weather than I’ve seen typical cold injuries such as frostbite and hypothermia.  People tend to be afraid of the cold and will overdress for it, particularly at the start of a long movement.  Individuals and leaders must understand that it is better to be a little cold before starting out than it is to be sweating during it.  Remember to stay dry!  Once a movement is underway, stop after about ten minutes or so to let people lose layers if necessary.  Conversely, once a movement is halted allow people to throw on that extra jacket or base layer to keep their temperature up.  You’ll still need to drink plenty of water too.  A last rule of thumb: once you’re wet it is hard to get dry, and once you’re cold and wet it is hard to get warm.

Putting rounds down range

ARCTIC CIRCLE, Norway — A Navy SEAL Chief discusses simultaneously skiing and shooting with a German Kommando Spezialkrafte (KSK) special operator during Cold Response 2010.

In its most basic sense, shooting in the cold is just like shooting in any other weather.  But just like any other weather, there are certain tricks of the trade to make it reliable and effective.

The number one problem with cold-weather shooting is simply weapon handling.  Gloves significantly change things like trigger feel (again, make sure you can get a gloved hand in the trigger guard), and bulky layers change sight picture through iron sights and optics.  The best way around this obstacle is to – get ready – practice shooting in the cold.  Know the feel of your weapons in the cold as well as you do in the warmer months.  Know what gloves you can and can’t use, and practice doffing your mittens on cords as mentioned earlier.  Weapons may need modifications for cold-weather use; M16/M4-type weapons have the hinged trigger guard specifically to allow bulky gloves to reach the trigger (someone thought that one through)!  You can also buy oversized trigger guards for many weapon models.  Also practice getting a good sight picture while wearing winter clothing.  I have to shorten my M4gery’s stock one click in the winter and move my scope back a notch on the rail of my rifle to account for extra shoulder bulk, for instance.  Make sure to re-zero!

Petroleum products and metals behave differently in the cold, and your weapons are susceptible to this.  I have never had to change a part on a weapon in preparation for the cold, but you will see more failures (especially extraction) and a higher rate of parts breakage (small springs and firing pins don’t like -35 temperatures).  Conventional lubricants such as gun oil and Cleaner, Lubricant, Protectant, CLP a.k.a. Break-Free) can gum or gel as the temperatures head south.  This can lead to malfunctions as parts in your weapons’ actions move at different speeds than they’re supposed to.  Before winter weather sets in, disassemble your weapons and strip them completely of any greases and oils.  Then re-lubricate with lighter-weight products.  In the military, we’d replace CLP with a mil-spec lubricant product called Lubricant, Arctic Weight (LAW) that is much thinner than CLP.  For extreme cold weather, even this may not work.  I’ve seen success by completely stripping a weapon of all petroleum lubricants, making sure there is no moisture, and re-lubricating with a dry moly coating.

Moisture is the bane of modern weapons, especially when it gets below freezing.  Imagine an ice-frozen trigger or bolt when you really need to get a round off!  At best you have a failure to fire, and worst case you can destroy your weapon.  Of course we all make sure our weapons are dry before taking them out.  The biggest enemy of a dry weapon is changes in temperature and humidity.  Once a weapon is taken outside and allowed to get to ambient temperature, the metals are at a balance with the outside air and it’s moisture-carrying ability (i.e. relative humidity).  Barring getting precipitation in the weapon, they will not normally get moisture into the actions as the metal is the same temperature as ambient air and there is no collection of moisture on the components.

The trick is to keep your weapon at ambient temperature.  If you warm your weapon (in a coat, tent, building, vehicle, etc.) the cold metal “sweats” or collects moisture from the air because it is colder than the indoor ambient air – think of a glass with an iced beverage in it on a hot summer day.  Once the metal “sweats”, it is highly susceptible to rust; if taken back into the outside cold without a thorough drying and re-lubricating, ice forms on the metal surfaces and will quickly freeze components together.  Believe it or not, the best way to prevent this from happening is to leave your weapons outside (covered and guarded, of course).  This is a hard habit to get into, but once your weapons are at outside ambient temperature, keep them there.

Shooting positions can also be modified for winter use.  Standing and kneeling positions can take advantage of walking or ski poles if snowshoes or skis are being used.  Hold the poles with your hand forming an “X” with the poles, and adjust the height of the pole intersection to rest the fore end of your weapon in the notch.  Voila, adjustable bipod for standing and kneeling shooting!  Prone shooting is a bit more difficult.  Bipods are useless and you can’t see much if you lay in the prone in 30 inches of snow.  This takes some thought and planning depending on your tactical situation and the amount of snow on the ground.  If the snow is fairly shallow, you may be able to prop your torso up on a pack to get your barrel over the snow.  This also works if you rest your elbows on a snowshoe perpendicular to your body.  Deeper snow requires some ingenuity: our snipers and machine gun crews used various lengths of sleds to achieve a shooting platform.  Either the individual shooter would lay in the sled to get in the prone, or a machine gun bipod or tripod would be placed on the sled along with belts of ammo to keep them out of the snow, and the crew would be in the snow next to the sled laying on packs or even sitting to get their proper height behind the gun sights.

If you use some sort of battery-powered optic, keep in mind that their use is severely limited in the cold.  First, battery life is very greatly reduced in the cold – sometimes 90% or more of their life is gone in extreme temperatures.  Extra batteries are a must, and re-warming frozen batteries can sometimes extend life.  Second, optics are very prone to freezing and fogging in the cold.  Regardless of how many batteries you carry or steps you take to prevent optics fogging, back-up iron sights are an absolute must.

The last pearl of wisdom regarding cold-weather shooting is a phenomenon known as ice fogging.  At extreme cold temperatures, air has a very low moisture saturation point.  That is, the same amount of water vapor in a given volume of warm air that would only saturate 10% of that air’s moisture-carrying capacity (10% humidity) can lead to up to 100% saturation in the same volume of very cold air (100% humidity) because of cold air’s reduced moisture carrying capacity.  For example, on a clear and cold night with no clouds, you can often see snow or ice crystals falling out of clear sky because the air’s moisture-carrying capacity has been exceeded, and excess moisture must precipitate out of the air to bring the relative humidity back to or below 100%.

Why is this important in a tactical situation?  Because two things occur during these situations: people breathe and perspire, and firing weapons creates moisture as a byproduct of cartridge propellant combustion.  As a group of people moves through very cold air, they can leave behind a “trail” of ice fog that can be spotted miles away.  Similarly, people in firing positions can create a cloud of frozen vapor around them, giving away their positions and causing reduced visibility for them because they are trying to acquire targets through their own human-produced fog.  Firing weapons produces this same effect due to the inability of moisture and smoke to dissipate in the cold air.  There’s not a whole lot that can be done about creating a cloud during movement.  Spreading out and moving through trees will help conceal and dissipate it some.  When shooting, it will be important to relocate people after firing every few shots to prevent a distinct cloud from forming around them.  Shoot a few rounds, move a few yards – almost like a battle drill.  In heavy firing with a lot of people, the cumulative low fog and haze may end the battle because neither side will be able to see anything!

On tactical movement

Small-unit tactics also need some adjustment when the ground turns white.  The intent here is not to discuss cold-weather survival and bivouac routine, as this has been covered before; rather, this is how to move tactically and use cover and concealment in the winter.

Let’s start with the individual: walking is walking, but it’s going to take more effort and make more noise because you have more stuff.  This should be taken into consideration when you need to be silently sneaking through the woods.  Camouflage is also a little trickier.  We wore woodland pattern Gore-Tex parkas and pants under cotton overwhite parkas and pants (that were not intended to provide any insulating value).  If it was snowing or there was freshly-fallen snow on the ground and sticking to the trees, both the overwhite parka and pants were used.  If there was snow on the ground but it had disappeared from the trees, we kept the overwhite pants on but removed the tops to expose the woodland parkas.  If moving through thick brush or on rocky or barren terrain, we’d go with just the woodland parkas and pants.  Sometimes this would vary throughout the day as we moved from one type of concealment to another – you have to be flexible.

It is important to note the difference between concealment (hiding) and cover (behind protective barriers to incoming fire).  This has been often discussed here on SurvivalBlog but it bears pointing out a few key features about winter terrains.  Concealment via camouflage is primarily addressed above.  A final note on that is that a properly camouflaged person laying still in the snow is very difficult to spot.  However, snow is not cover!  Snow will not stop bullets, and ice is only marginally better.  A look at some of the ice fortification engineering data in the military manuals I listed bear this out: it is amazing how many feet of ice are needed to provide adequate cover from small arms fire.  Just as in the warmer months, your best cover are BFTs (Big Fat Trees) and BFRs (Big Fat Rocks).

Snow depth and skill will dictate if you decide to use snowshoes or skis for over-snow movement.  Skis require great skill and are beyond the scope of this article, but snowshoes are easy to use and greatly ease movement in deep snow.  Individuals will need to size them based on their complete loaded weight, including pack and weapon, and practice using them before it’s truly a needed skill.  Some people use walking poles when snowshoeing; I do not as I prefer to keep my weapon at the ready.  If you are carrying a heavy pack in a relatively safe tactical condition, poles can be very useful.

Small-unit tactics have to be adjusted for winter conditions.  As discussed previously, shooting and moving create ice fog situations that have to be planned for, and methods for shooting prone in the snow have to be addressed.  A unique aspect of units moving over snow is the trails they leave, providing ample evidence of their whereabouts.  As such, traditionally spread-out movement techniques such as the fire team wedge, squad wedge, platoon wedge or vee, etc. are actually detrimental, as it is fairly easy to determine the size of your force from the snow tracks.  In snow movements, good old Ranger files are actually the preferred method.  Once a trail is made, any number of people can be following in the same trail and it is very difficult to determine whether the trail was made by two people or twenty.  By my experience, fire teams and squads would walk in a single Ranger file, a platoon would walk in three files (one per squad), and a company would often just follow platoon after platoon.  In other words, no more than three trails in the snow for up to 130 people.  This assumes contact is not imminent, because if it was we were not likely trying to hide our location or strength and were deploying into assault positions almost as we normally would.

One other fine detail to be considered if movement is being made on snowshoes: what do you do with them during an ambush, assault, etc.?  Moving to your objective rally point (ORP) on snowshoes is often necessary, as is to break trail to your ambush or assault positions.  Once at these positions and during an assault or ambush, snowshoes are often a hindrance to ease of movement in a zone or built up area – try to move tactically between vehicles or buildings on snowshoes and you’ll see what I mean.  Part of the planning process will be to decide where to drop snowshoes (ORP?  Final assault or ambush position?) and who will keep theirs (Gun crews?  A single trail-breaking team with snowshoes that everyone else can follow without them?).  Another planning point to be considered in planning an over-snow tactical movement is warmth and rest.  It is one thing in warmer climates to chug some water and drive on the objective.  In the winter, it takes longer to move, period.  Stops during movement must be planned to adjust layers and socks, hydrate, fuel your body to keep warm, and generally just survive in the cold.  Further, during long periods of inactivity such as watch duty and laying in assault positions, provisions must be made for people to get up and move around lest they become too cold to do their assigned tasks effectively once that time comes.

In conclusion

Operating in the cold is difficult, but not impossible with proper clothing and practice.  It is a challenge to the individual and to leadership, but is not insurmountable and may be a key component of continuing to function and survive in a hostile or dangerous situation.  A study of winter warfare operations (Napoleon’s march on Russia, the Finnish holding off the Russians in World War II, The Germans in Russia – also in World War II) show that combat against an overwhelming force can be highly successful if cold weather is used as a tactical advantage.




Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: