Battle Humidity to Avoid Cold Feet

23 10 2012

By Major Per Kristian Dahl, Centre of Excellence for Cold Weather Operations (Norway)

Throughout the centuries battles and wars have been lost because of bad weather conditions. One of the most famous ones is Napoleon’s campaign against Russia in 1812. You have most certainly heard stories from World War I and the problem the soldiers faced in the trenches getting immersion foot (trench foot). This is for many a distant problem ignorant to the fact that this also was a problem for soldiers during the Falklands War and still is especially for units operating in littoral waters. This short introduction in history points out some lessons to be learned. First of all; cold weather is more than low temperatures and includes humidity as well.Secondly; the weather conditions will recur and affect future operations as well.

Cold feet feels devastating for many soldiers since it creates more concern, reduces the motivation and combat readiness more than anything else. I have taught some lessons throughout the years, which I will share with you in this article. I will bring you through a short introduction to the multilayer system. Then the article will focus on three faces; preparations before operations, routines during activity and routines in bivouac.

Multilayer System

The multilayer system does also apply with regard to your feet. The system or starting point we normally have in the Norwegian Army during winter conditions is two pair of socks, one thin and one thick pair, boots and insulated waterproof over-boots.


The more you prepare the less you will freeze. The following subjects include some advices you should consider before leaving the barracks.

Personal Hygiene

Spend some time taking care of your feet. Wash them properly, cut nails and remove old/ dead skin. Removal of dead skin should be done days in advance since some will experience sore feet immediately after. This will help prevent getting blisters during the operation and blisters are more exposed to frost injuries.


1. Types of socks.
Cotton socks or socks of only synthetic fibres should be abandoned when operating in a cold weather climate. Cotton absorbs and accumulates moisture next to the skin during strenuous activity. It also reduces moisture penetration through layers and to the outside. The alternatives are wool and a blend of wool and synthetic fibres. Synthetic fibres in general absorb very little vapour and transport it away from the body, but have poor insulating properties when wet. Wool is less durable but can absorb a great amount of vapour equal to its own weight, transport moisture away from the body and maintains its insulating properties even when wet.

Some state that Gore-Tex boots need special socks of synthetic fibres in order to maintain the full breathing effect. But remember when the moisture is transported to the outside it can freeze to ice depending on the weather conditions. Icy boots has a similarity to rubber boots keeping all the moisture inside. You will definitely freeze without proper socks.

2. Number of socks.
Always carry two different types of socks, one thick type of pure wool and another thin type of a blend of wool and synthetic fibres. The pair of thin socks should at least consist of 60% wool. This set of two different types of socks enables you to keep warm and gives you the possibility to vary depending of the weather conditions. Carry (minimum) one set to wear, one set of socks for sleeping and one set for emergency. Spare socks can be used as emergency gloves or scarf if required. Remember to waterproof your spare socks inside your backpack.

3. Laundry.
Wash the socks regularly to ensure that the garment is able to function properly. This should also be done during lasting operations if the situation allows it and you have the possibility to dry them in a heated room. It is best to wash the socks by hand. If they are washed by machine the loop stitch will lie flat very quickly, which results in the garment life and efficiency being shortened. Wash socks inside out to ensure that you get rid of dead skin and dirt.


1. Type of boots
I will not go into a discussion about the different types of boots and to debate what the better might be. Every kind of boots has its advantages and disadvantages depending on the climate and weather conditions. More important is to know the limitations of your boots and use this knowledge to solve the problem you might face. Another reason for not debating is that most soldiers do not have a choice but use the standard equipment issued. I normally use our standard issued military leather boots. These boots do fit well into our insulated overboots giving me the possibility to make the full use of the multilayer system. Not all boots manufactured do fit into the overboot and is something you must consider if purchasing your own boots.

2. Size.
What many do wrong is that they have chosen too small sized boots. The size of your boots must be large enough to fit using two pair of socks including insoles. If your boots feel uncomfortable small or are so tight that the garment are under pressure it indicate that the layers of air is reduced and the result could be cold feet. Most people have to increase their boot size with one number (or even two) when operating in a cold weather climate. Remember that brand new boots can cause blisters indicating that you need time to get them well used before operations.

3. Waxing.
Wax your boots and gaiter straps to prevent them from freezing up and to prevent moisture from forming. This should not be done every day as wax tends to penetrate the leather and makes it loose some of its insulation property. It is best to do this when you see the leather is worn.

4. Insoles.
One thing that is of equal importance to the chose of socks is the insoles. To my shock I have noticed that some doesn’t wear insoles and still wonder why their feet are freezing. I prefer pure wool or felt insoles. There are different types of chooses but I have ended up using a relatively thick wool insole with very short hair. Do always check to see if your insoles are worn out and change if needed. This should be easy to remember as your insoles should be removed everyday to be dried. For lasting operations bring a spare set of wool or felt insoles water proofed inside your backpack.

The Insulated Overboot

Check to see if your overboots are without damage. If damaged in any way make sure to change or repair if possible. In most cases the overboots do not need insoles. However, if you are in a position with no or little activity i.e. while on guard duty you might consider to wear insoles to your overboots as well. This can easily be made by cutting up an old and thin insulated groundsheet for camping and shape it to fit your overboots creating an extra insulated layer to stand on. Remember to test this concept in advance since this might require larger sized overboots. In addition it might cause some inconvenience if used during walking for longer distances and should be tested in advance as well. When not in use, these homemade insoles should be placed easy to access and be used as extra insulation when seated in snow or on frozen ground.


One trick of the trade is to always carry with you a couple of newspapers. I always carry mine waterproofed in the back pocket of the field uniform easy to access. Newspaper is brought with me for two main purposes, as emergency or spare insoles and to soak up water from the boots and overboots.

As mentioned earlier our body will continuously produce moisture or sweat which in turn will cool down your feet. In order to reduce the humidity inside my boots during activity I normally rip off two to three sheets of newspaper equal to the size of the insoles. These sheets are then placed inside the boots under the insoles and will soak up a lot of the humidity that are produced during the day. But this require some self-discipline as you will have to check these newspaper-insoles whenever you have the possibility and swap to dry ones when they turn too humid. The same principal is used if you have to replace worn out or wet wool insoles, but in this case you should increase the thickness of the newspaper-insoles. I do also use newspaper to remove humidity from my boots and overboots during rest or sleep. Take off your boots and remove the insoles. Crush some sheets of newspaper and wipe out the humidity inside your boots. Place new and dry crushed newspaper sheets inside your boots and overboots, and leave them there to soak out the humidity absorbed by the boots.

Routines during Activity

The preparation is half the job. Self-discipline is needed during the operation by continuously working the details in order to avoid cold feet. The advices listed below should be followed whenever possible.

1. Technical break.
In the Norwegian Army there is a routine to carry out a so called technical break. This break is initiated every day and just after 10 minutes of activity (10 minutes after the march have started) and will only last for 10 minutes. This allows the soldiers to adjust their equipment if needed. Since the greatest challenge in winter is heat regulation, this break should be spent to regulate clothing and footwear according to temperature and work load. Dress as economically as possible if there is a risk of becoming damp or wet.

Think the operation through. If you know your men will become wet during insertion, plan to conduct another technical break just before the action starts in order to prevent soldiers to freeze during lasting periods on target (combat).

2. Buddy system.
Pair up and take responsibility for each other. Check each others equipment, clothes and look for frost injuries etc. Whenever you have the chance let your buddy check your feet for blisters, touch toes to check for reduced feeling and give advices for improvement etc. Blisters must be treated at once.

Talk together and remind each other of important details. Be honest and tell each other if you do not feel warm any longer. This goes not only for pauses, but also during activity.

3. Nutrition.
Your body needs energy and water. Be aware that you not will feel as thirsty in cold weather as in hot weather. But your body still needs the same amount of fluid to function properly. Reduced intake of energy and fluid will affect your body’s blood circulation and heat regulation. This can result in shivering, headache, cold hands and feet. Establish good and regular routines!

4. Evaporation.
Whenever possible untie your shoes and open up to allow the humidity to evaporate. Consider to walk with your shoes untied during periods of low activity. If practical take off your boots for better evaporation. This allows the moisture to escape into free air and will result in drier socks and boots. Some say that a minute or so will reduce the moisture with up to 40% by evaporation.

5. Newspaper.
If using newspaper inside boots check and change if wet. Use the opportunity to dry out as much as possible of the moisture with paper inside your boots and overboots.

6. Dress code.
The moisture and dampness will be absorbed by the clothing and will make you cold when the physical effort is reduced. Get rid of this heat and moisture by ventilation when you stop, then close ”the chimney” in order to trap the warm air. During longer breaks put on more clothes (change to dry clothes) and cover your head thoroughly. This will affect your feet temperature as well. Damp socks can be dried using your body heat. Do so when performing light work. Use pockets inside the field uniform to dry socks, insoles etc. Change back to the damp clothes after the rest. Always have a set of dry socks in case of emergency.

7. Circulation.
Make it a routine to move your toes when low or no activity. This will increase the blood circulation and increase the heat. If you are still cold even with all your warm layers on, generate your own heat by continually moving around. Do not sit on the ground as it will drain heat from your body.

8. Insulation.
If you have to stand still for a longer period of time i.e. during guard duty, place the homemade insoles cut out of groundsheet for camping into your overboots. Do also consider to place your insulated groundsheet for sleeping on the ground to stand on. This will reduce the cooling effect from the ground to your benefit. If you still feel cold place your feet inside a bag (emergency blanket, backpack or the cover to your sleeping bag etc.) in order to create additional insulation by layers of air.

Remember that your body is a complex system and will reduce blood circulation to feet and hands in order to keep the main body parts warm. In other words, cold feet can have it’s origin in an exhausted, underfed or cold body. If the temperature in rectum drops 2C the surface temperature in hands and feet will be reduced with up to 8C. It is important to make sure that your stomach, chest and head are warm in order to ensure sufficient blood circulation warming up your hands and feet. The fact that a lot of heat is radiated from your head emphasizes the importance to cover your head properly. Change to better headwear if your feet are cold.

Routines in Bivouac

Good and appropriate routines are vital to maintain combat readiness in a unit. This chapter will discuss some routines to be conducted before going to sleep.

1. Remove snow.
Remove snow and ice from the uniform and equipment before entering a heated tent, building, vehicle etc. to avoid melting snow being absorbed by your equipment and to avoid unnecessary dampness. A tool everybody should possess is a clothes or “snow” brush easy to access.

2. Reduce moisture.
Take off your boots and overboots, and remove the insoles. Wipe out the humidity. Place crushed newspaper inside your boots to soak up moisture.

3. Foot inspection.
Team leaders and NCOs must make sure that their units have good routines and step up their inspections. Foot inspection must be held according to the situation, but at least once a day. This should not be left to the individual. Use the “buddy-system”, and make sure there is time enough to check their condition. Don’t forget, to check officers and NCOs, they get frostbite too. Clean your feet by carefully rubbing them with water, snow or a moist cloth before the inspection. This will remove dead skin and sweat. Dry your feet properly.

4. Change socks.
Put on dry socks after the foot inspection. Take off dry clothes in the morning and put on your wet clothes, they will dry out during the day. Yes, putting on wet clothes is not very pleasant and requires self-discipline. Always have a set of dry socks in case of emergency.

5. Drying.
Wet clothes should be dried in a heated room, tent, building etc. Use your time well during the night shift to do so.
A lot of soldiers have been taught to dry clothes in their sleeping bag. It works but you need to think it trough in order to prevent moisture being absorbed by the sleeping bag. Try only to dry underwear, socks, insoles and gloves inside the bag, and make sure to wring it before you put it in your sleeping bag. Boots should be kept outside the bag, under your knees. This way they will not freeze and remain supple. Generally you should not sleep with your boots on, unless you absolutely have to. If you do; change your insoles, use newspaper and put on dry socks. Dry your damp insoles/socks by placing them under your armpits.

6. Sleep.
Warm feet and a warm head/ neck makes you sleep better. Fill your water bottle with hot water and place it inside your sleeping bag, make sure that its not leaking. Use your field jacket as a blanket covering the sleeping bag. This will create an extra insulated layer of air.

It is vital that each soldier and particularly each NCO and officer has been taught proper use of cold weather clothing in various conditions and enforces good routines. This requires knowledge of how the human body produces heat and how the choice of correct clothing can regulate and maintain the heat according to the activity taking place.

There are no short cuts. It is not possible to buy your way past the problem. There is no equipment that will keep you warm if you don’t use it properly or take the right precautions. Such equipment isn’t invented. More important than equipment is self-discipline. The struggle to avoid cold feet is a battle against humidity!




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