This post was originally posted in Jan of 2018 by the Author at Mason Dixon Tactical.
The recent extreme cold weather has made Survivalists all over the US realize that whether they’re in a “Warm Weather” state or not, having the gear and “know how” to operate in extreme cold weather is a necessary reality. I laughed when I got an alert that Tallahassee FL. had 21 deg. Fahrenheit (all temps listed in this post are Fahrenheit) and snow the other day. Why did I laugh? I laughed because I knew a guy in that area years ago who told me he didn’t have to worry about cold weather gear in the area he lived, as they never got real cold weather.
Cold weather has a number of categories that have to be addressed within their own niche. I usually just go through them as such: “Cold/No Precip”, “Extreme Cold/No Precip”, “Cold/Wet”, “Extreme Cold/Wet”.
“Cold/No Precip” is your normal Fall/Winter weather in the top half of the US. The range starts at the “vulnerable to hypothermia” temp (usually 60 deg.) and goes down to the average low of 20 degrees in most places except maybe the most Northern of States.
“Extreme Cold/No Precip” starts at 19 degrees and goes down as far as it might get in your area.
“Cold/Wet” starts at the same “vulnerable to hypothermia” level and goes down to 20 degrees, but it has the added measure of precipitation involved that is either in the form of rain, ice, or snow, and if it’s snow, it’s usually what we call a “wet” snow.
“Extreme Cold/Wet” starts at the 19 degree mark, and is usually snow. When it is snow in that temp range, it is usually what we call a “Dry” snow. Al that means is that it is fluffy and can be brushed off as opposed to the “Wet” snow wanting to stick and soak into everything.
Staying warm starts with understanding what takes the warmth away when you are in any of the above environments. This starts with doing what you can to stay dry. Not sweating or staying out of the precipitation is your best bet to accomplishing that. Barring the ability to stay dry, having an outer layer that is windproof, relatively waterproof and breathable (and with the ability to vent as much heat as possible) is your best bet. This is used in conjunction with under layers of clothing that either wicks away the moisture (like polypro and fleece) or retains its insulative qualities when wet (like wool). When you are wet, wind and cold are what will rob you of the warmth that can kill you. Your ability to dry out quickly, or keep that moisture warm through insulation and body heat (similar to a diver’s wetsuit) is what will save you if you do get wet.
For “Cold/No Precip” I use what the army used to call “summer weight” BDU’s (cotton ripstop) or the more common 65/35 poly cotton BDU’s. Along with them, depending on the temp, I use either the issue lightweight or heavy weight polypro longjohns (over underarmor briefs and t shirt) and these Fox River socks. Over the BDU’s I wear my SAS style smock. In the lower range in this category, I forego the BDU top, and replace it with a wool “Commando” sweater (get a real one not the lightweight cheap knockoff. It’s worth it).
If it’s in the 35 degree or lower range and I’m sitting sedentary in a tree stand (also good if you are pulling a security shift), I usually wear heavy weight polypro bottoms with the old style issue field pants (no liner), a lightweight polypro top with the commando sweater, and the SAS smock. Along with that I use the Danner “Ft Lewis” boots, or Matterhorn boots (both 200 grain thinsulate) in combination with Ice Breaker “Boot blankets” (I run hot, so my feet stay warm in the 200 gram insulated boots as long as I’m moving. I put the boot blankets on when I stop to keep that warmth in while sitting, and you can walk in them if necessary).
The neck gaiter, wool (or fleece) watch cap, and gloves (light and heavy aviator gloves) shown in the Smock post are also used, depending on the temperature. My basic rule of thumb is to under dress if I’m doing a lot of exercise (ruck march, heavy work like dragging a deer, etc.), and overdress if I’ll be sitting for a while. If you layer up properly, you can always take a layer or two off if you start to get too warm.
“Extreme Cold/No Precip”. Take what I used in the “Cold/No Precip” category for sedentary activities, and add in the liner for the field pants, a field jacket liner for the smock or for an actual field jacket (slightly heavier/warmer). At the lower temps mittens come into their own. The two types I use are the Mil issue trigger finger mittens (had a pair since I was twelve) with wool liners, or if it’s extremely cold, the N-4B arctic mittens with the liner (same material as a field jacket liner).
With those N-4B arctic mittens I wear the thin acrylic glove liners (they are for the leather goretex glove the mil issued back in the late 90’s and early 2000’s). I use these because they breathe better than the thin flight gloves, and you need the hand covered by something. The last thing you want to do at that temperature is pull your hand out of a warm glove and grab something metal with bare skin. Make sure if you have gloves that use liners, you have extra liners to change out when they get wet. Older Mil issue gloves, whether it’s the D3A leather gloves or the trigger finger mittens, use wool liners, so get a few extra.
Along with mittens, I use the combat vehicle crewman’s hood/balaclava. I was actually issued this when I acquired my first cold weather gear of goretex, polypro, and mountain boots. That balaclava is as warm as a balaclava can get. BTW, when we were issued this stuff, we were told to wear the “summer weight” BDU’s because they dried out quicker that the “Heavyweights” did. Other headgear would be the old “Pile” cap (helmet liner). It makes a good cold weather hat, and it will roll down to protect your ears when it get’s really cold, and it’s also more windproof than wool or fleece watch caps. Besides the boots I listed above, the only other cold weather boots I have experience with are the “Mickey Mouse” boots, the Chippewa S.F. Mountain Boots, and the N-1B Mukluks.
The “Mickey Mouse” boots are better for sedentary tasks than highly active ones, but they will do the job of keeping your feet warm, even if you are filling them with sweat (have lots of socks to change into if you are seriously active in these boots to avoid trenchfoot. The S.F. Mountain boots are the highest quality boots I’ve ever owned. They are made to old school standards, and do the job they were designed to do. Downsides: You need to have more than one wool felt insole, since they need to dry out. They are heavy. They take a while to break in due to the stiffness inherent to a boot designed for skiing and mountain warfare. The Mukluks are great for emergency cold weather boots (keep in your vehicle trunk), and for use around camp.
“Cold/Wet”. Starting in the warmer temps in this range, a good, old fashioned poncho can’t be beat for staying dry, especially if you are ruck marching. The downside to a poncho is that it catches on things and can sometimes get in the way of certain activities, like using your rifle. Goretex is great, but any amount of exertion, and you will start to sweat. Although they say goretex “Breathes”, it is very limited, and most of the time, you will be as soaked under your goretex (while doing strenuous activity), as you would have been without it. The main advantage you have with wearing goretex is it’s ability to block the wind and cold air from stealing the warmth you’ve built up under the goretex, especially if it’s used along with clothing like polypro long johns and fleece mid layers which will eventually dry out when you stop sweating.
Knowing how to use the ventilation system most mil issue goretex jackets has is very important. Armpit zips used in conjunction with the front zipper can negate some of the heat and moisture you build up inside it while conducting strenuous activities. Although I very rarely ever use goretex pants, they do have their place. They are great if you are sitting sedentary, or if you are doing work around camp that requires a lot of kneeling or sitting on wet ground. Also, a drawback to Mil issue goretex clothing is that it is noisy. I use gaiters more than goretex pants because they protect the lower legs from moisture and don’t cause the heat build up that the pants do.
If you are using a goretex top, my suggestion is to replace the smock mentioned above with it if it’s the heavy duty jacket, or wear it under the smock if you are using a lightweight rain jacket. The primary goal of what you wear in the “Cold/Wet” environment is to keep your core from getting wet to begin with, or if you are gonna get wet from exertion (sweat), keeping the heat from escaping, thus chilling the moisture you’ve already built up and eventually freezing your core. The point of moisture wicking materials like polypro and fleece is they pull (wick) the moisture away from your skin and gradually wick that moisture to the outer layer, and the goretex outerwear let’s you stay warm while the fabric does that.
“Extreme Cold/Wet”. Even though this is listed as “Wet”, generally, this is considered a “Dry cold” type of “wet”. The consistency of the snow in this environment is usually of a powdery consistency, and the need for waterproof clothing in this environment is not as necessary as that of the “Cold/Wet” environment talked about above. Generally, snow that collects on you and your gear can be brushed off without leaving the item wet.
One of the best uniform items the military ever issued and used in this environment was the 1951 wool shirt (very hard to find now unless you wear a small size). Barring that and the system that was used with it, the mil uses the ECWC System ( I used the GenII system in the mil, and that’s what I own) which combines lightweight or heavy weight polypro longjohns (first layer) with a fleece jacket and bibs (2nd layer), the field pants discussed earlier with their liner, the earlier discussed field jacket liner (pants and jacket liner are the third layer), and the goretex top and bottom (fourth layer).
Typically, you can use the ECWCS system without the goretex top and bottom, and you can substitute the goretex top with the SAS style smock. Your outer garments would then be the smock and the field pants. Obviously, you will probably need to get the field pants in a size bigger than you normally would if you’re gonna wear the complete ECWC System under them. Your smock should already be big enough to go over the ECWCS garments on the upper body.
This category is generally the coldest of all the categories. Extreme low temps are usually in an area that has snow cover so the overwhites (no insulation, just camo) go over the whole set up. Hopefully, you are never in an environment that is so cold that you need to wear the whole ECWC System, but better to have and not need…..right?
Although I own and have used the mil issue Intermediate and Mountain bags, The way to go these days is the US Issue Modular Sleep System. You ask any vet that has used both types, and they will tell you the MSS is the best thing going for sleeping gear, and it’s relatively cheap. Considering that I bought a Wiggy’s Ultralight with the goretex bivvy cover (about $350) back in the early 90’s, and I bought (or have been issued) a few of those MSS’s in the last 15 years for between $75 and $125 a piece. It’s a “no brainer” which one is the better deal. I like the Wiggy’s bag, but the MSS is the way to go and along with a good sleep pad (whether foam or Themarest). They will keep you warm down to the extremes you might have to sleep in. Use a balaclava in the lower temp extremes, and you can use your field jacket liner as a pillow. Whatever you do, don’t stick your head in the bag and let your breath condense and build up on the inside surface.
These are just some suggestions concerning cold weather gear THAT I HAVE USED. If you mileage was different great, I’m happy for you. I have used both wool and synthetics and have determined that there is a place for both in combination. In a number of areas, I’m not spending the money on most wool products because it’s outrageously overpriced, but synthetics have a flammability issue (newer mil issue ones are flame retardant). Figure out what works for you.
With all that being said here’s something to keep in mind. I use mil surplus not only because it is usually cheaper than a civilian equivalent, but it is generally a lot more durable and available in colors that help me blend in in the woods, not stand out. I’ll take the extra weight every time if it means it’s more durable.
"Parata Vivere"-Live Prepared.