Fight the Freeze
September 30, 2011
Cold weather can have numerous adverse effects on Soldiers in combat. While cold injuries such as hypothermia and frostbite are serious medical problems, a Soldier's performance can be affected well before he or she is taken out of the fight. For instance, numb skin and heavy clothes hinder Soldier task performance. Soldiers also might become emotionally detached, lose motivation or be reluctant to leave their tents or sleeping bags. Fortunately, many of these problems are avoidable if Soldiers dress properly for the weather conditions.
The Army has greatly improved issued clothing and, with proper wear, Soldiers can be generally comfortable in all climates. The key is proper layering, which allows Soldiers to stay warm and dry while avoiding overheating. Any cold weather clothing ensemble consists of three layers: the base layer, insulating layer and shell. Soldiers who understand these layers can tailor their clothing to specific conditions and missions.
The Base Layer
The base layer is closest to the skin and designed to wick moisture away from the body so the wearer stays dry, warm and comfortable. The base layer's fabric and weight are very important. Cotton performs poorly in the cold because it holds moisture against the skin. Soldiers will sweat even in the cold, so cotton should be avoided at all costs.
Polypropylene, polyester and merino wool are good base layer fabrics. Issue items that work well as base layers include the Army Combat Shirt (ACS), the Fire Resistant Environmental Ensemble (FREE) Underlayer and Base Layer, and the Extended Cold Weather Clothing System (ECWCS) Light-weight and Mid-weight top and bottom. The T-shirt issued with the Army Combat Uniform is made of a wicking fabric and is also a good base layer. Many Soldiers use a wicking base layer but still wear a cotton T-shirt and drawers underneath, defeating the base layer's purpose.
Soldiers should tailor the base layer's weight to their activities and the outside temperature. For instance, they should wear a thinner base layer during high-aerobic activities and a heavier base layer during stationary activities.
The Insulating Layer
The insulating layer traps warm air against the body. Soldiers can use multiple insulating layers, depending on their activity level and the outside temperature. Light, bulky fabrics such as wool, down, polyester fleece or synthetic pile fabrics that trap air make the best insulating layers.
Army-issued items used as insulating layers include the FREE Mid-weight Layer and Extreme Weather Removable Liner, field jacket liner and ECWCS Fleece. Soldiers should be slightly cold when they start out on a patrol or other strenuous activity to keep them from overheating and sweating. These Soldiers should carry their insulating layer in their rucksack and put it on when they make a stop.
The shell protects the body and the other two layers from elements such as wind, rain, snow and dirt. A good shell is the best defense against wind and water. (Unless combined with a shell, most insulating layers do not protect against wind and rain.) Waterproof breathable fabrics, called hardshells, such as Gore-Tex are the standard by which most shells are compared.
A new category in shells has been gaining momentum recently in outdoor sports and the military. Called softshells, they are highly breathable, windproof and water resistant, but not waterproof. Softshells are designed for use in dryer climates during more aerobic activities where breathability is more important than water resistance.
Army-issued hardshells include the FREE Extreme Weather Outer Layer and ECWCS Extreme Cold/Wet Weather Jacket and Trousers. Issued softshells include the FREE Light Outer Layer and Intermediate Outer Layer, the Army Elements Fleece and the ECWCS Wind Jacket and Soft Shell Jacket and Trousers. Remember, a good shell not only protects against wind and water, it also breathes to let perspiration escape.
These layering principles also apply to boots, gloves, headgear and sleeping systems. The Army Modular Sleep System has three parts that generally follow the three-layer system and should be tailored to specific sleeping conditions.
Soldiers don't have to wear a lot of clothes at night to stay warm. Physical training shorts and a wicking T-shirt (not cotton) will be sufficient in most conditions if the sleep system is used properly. Additionally, use of a sleeping pad is very important to insulate the body from the cold air or ground beneath.
A word of caution when selecting layers for combat vehicle crews and aviation crews: Many issue items are not fire resistant. When performing duty outside the wire, stick to approved fire-resistant garments (e.g., ACS, FREE and AEF).
Individual Soldiers' backgrounds and physical attributes also greatly influence their cold weather tolerance. While one Soldier might be comfortable wearing light layers during a mission, another might need heavier layers for the same conditions. Leaders need to take this into consideration before deciding on a one-size-fits-all approach to duty uniforms and allow for some flexibility.
The Army will continue to work and fight in cold weather. Remember the principles above and keep in mind they work not only for combat, but also for off-duty outdoor activities such as hiking, skiing, hunting, running or sitting in the bleachers at a football game. Cold weather doesn't have to be a hindrance. Take advantage of Army-issued equipment and stay ready for the fight.
Have you ever heard of COLD -- the catchy acronym that describes dressing correctly for cold weather? Here's a refresher:
•Keep clothing Clean
•Wear clothing Loose and Layered
•Keep clothing Dry