Over the years Mother Nature has shown her wrath in more than one of our courses. We have seen a lot and trained through most of it. There were those times where common sense and safety prevailed and we called it a day earlier than normal. While we are typically prepared for the ill effects not all of our students respect the dangers of foul weather. In one class last year the weather was pretty bad, but pretty common for that area and time of year. I was surprised that as the weather deteriorated we had a couple of students drop out of class, a few who showed signs of hyperthermia and the rest were adequately prepared and while still miserable were able to stay in the game. I have come to the conclusion that there really is no such thing as bad weather, just bad choices in clothing. In this article we are going to talk about microclimates, some clothing strategies and clothing suggestions as it pertains to tactical training and operations.
The key to weathering the storm is not a single piece of gear or clothing, but a layering system. In particular a microclimate strategy, which basically means you use a layering system of zoned garments that work together to regulate your body temperature to maintain thermal neutrality while protecting you from the elements. The zone garments are somewhat broken down into a base layer worn against your bare skin to reduce evaporation, an insulating layer worn on top of the base layer to reduce conduction and an outer layer worn on top of everything that protects you from the elements such as wind and moisture and reduces convection. Each of these layers has a common performance attributes called “wicking”. Basically, warm air is trapped between the layers, as your body heats up the trapped warm air pressure increases. The moisture then vaporizes from the warmth and the pressure forces the vapor through each layer. The problem of selecting the best garments is made difficult due to the changing conditions of the weather and your activity level. When choosing your garments try to break the weather down into extreme cold, cold and wet and just wet. While the other extremes such as hot and humid and extremely hot are considerations for the purpose of this article we are just going to discuss the first three. Your activity level must be factored into the equation or you could choose really good gear, but either overheat from the high activity or freeze from the accumulation of sweat. Activity level should be broken down into sedentary, active and extremely active. Now put them all together and you might be in extreme cold while sedentary or cold and wet when highly active or any number of combinations. This knowledge will assist the consumer when they are bombarded by the boatload of choices facing them.
It should come as no surprise that some of the best cold weather clothing have their roots in high altitude mountaineering. The demands of these activities push the limits of human endurance and require the clothing to keep pace. This race to the top has created a race of innovation in design, materials and production in order to be successful. As our armed forces continue to pursue our nation’s enemies into the harsh mountainous regions in places like Afghanistan their needs will deviate somewhat from traditional expedition wear. A few companies have stepped up to meet this challenge, no longer are the armed forces “making do” with what was available; they now have “made for” options. One such company is Arc’Teryx, headquartered out of Vancouver British Colombia, who recognized that some of the hardest users of gear are the Armed Forces. They started LEAF, which stands for Law Enforcement Armed Forces program, a collection of hard use clothing designed for those at the tip of the spear.
Having been at extreme altitudes for extended periods I am very critical of the clothing I wear. While most of our courses have mild weather comparatively, occasionally we get smacked with just some really bad stuff. When the weather turns bad, I turn to gear that will allow me to continue my job even in extreme conditions. That means I need gear that is minimalist, tough, well designed and surpasses its intended purpose. I don’t need a lot of extra bells and whistles that just add weight and potentially weaken the product. The very nature of my job is going to abuse the gear so I need it to have a decent shelf life and if necessary easily repairable. I hate wearing something that constricts my movement or hinders my ability to do my job so it is better be well articulated and give me freedom of movement. If I buy a piece of gear because it is supposed to do an excellent job at a specific task, I expect it to be awesome at that task. Our policy has always been the same; “train like you fight so you fight like you train” and this includes your environment. So, plan accordingly because we stand ready to train despite how high the suck factor may get.
I have been very fortunate to have used some of the best cold weather gear while in some unforgiving locations. Pretty much all the big names and I had the chance to use gear from Arc’Teryx. I held them in high regard, but when I started playing with this new line of gear I was very impressed. So, let’s take a look at some of the gear that I have been using during this winter season and talk about why it works well. The weather during our winter season varied quite a bit, but it did give me the opportunity to use the gear in a variety of conditions. My goal was to be able to keep the same loadout for all the courses, I had small bag it all fit into and here are my comments on four of the major pieces.
The base layer as I mentioned earlier is your first layer. It must do an excellent job of quickly wicking moisture away from your skin so you do not waist precious energy. In addition to high wicking properties you want it to be form fitting and hypoallergenic. Form fitting will allow the moisture to transfer more efficiently and since it is against your skin the hypoallergenic properties means it retains less of odor and other impurities, which could degrade its wicking duties. I wore the Rho LTW Zip top and bottoms and was very impressed. The Rho LTW is made of MAPP Merino wool and constructed with flat locked seems that lie flat for greater comfort. The top weighed 9.6 ounces with a half zip for venting, gusseted underarm design and laminated chest pocket. The bottoms weighed 8.6 ounces with a gusseted crotch and thigh laminated pocket. I much prefer the wool or natural fibers as you are in the base layer a lot and it can get a little stinky after a while, but the fibers offer minimal odor retention. I hardly knew I had them on except for being toasty warm and occasionally I would zip up the half zip when it got a bit chillier. Unlike a few of the zippers on other gear my neck didn’t get chaffed. The sleeves were nice and long so I didn’t have to worry about the chill running up my arms and fit nicely under my gloves.
Since I was wearing a chest rig most of the time I wore on top of the first base layer the Chimera LS Shirt. The Chimera LS Shirt is made up of two fabrics that each complement one another and show the innovation in design and materials from Arc’Teryx. The yoke and shoulders are made with a stretch woven material for greater freedom of movement and the torso is made with an advance moisture transferring fabric to really assist in wicking. The shirt weighed in at 8.2 ounces, had gusseted underarm construction, stretch woven cuffs for greater seal around the wrists, bicep pockets with IFF patches. One additional feature I really liked was a longer torso so I could tuck in without it being pulled out when performing high output activities or assuming shooting positions. When I wore my chest rig and armor on top of the shirt the freedom of movement was impressive. I typically see designs fail once you start adding things like armor or heavy packs, but not this shirt.
For those mornings when it was downright cold and the sun was slow to crest the horizon I needed some insulation to keep warm and for that I wore the Fusion Jacket. The Fusion jacket weighed in at 24 ounces and was packed with lots of great features and nothing else. It starts with a WINDSTOPPER® windproof shell with a generous cut to wear on top of your other layers. The insulation was made up of the high loft Therma-Tek™, which has a high warmth to weight ration, highly compressible and the laminated constructions eliminates cold spots you typically see in other insulated items. I would put this thing on and with temperatures in the low to mid 30° and the wind chill kicking and found myself toasty warm. Another problem I see with high loft insulation is the “puffy” bulk and this jacket doesn’t have any of that. It is streamlined, well articulated for natural freedom of movement and breathable. I found that as my activity level increased it managed to keep up until about late morning and by the temperatures and activity forced me to strip down. Being highly compressible was nice as I just rolled it up, locked it off with heavy-duty rubber band and threw it in my bag.
I saved the best for last; once the temperatures reached around the high 40° the Fusion Jacket was too much. Had I been more sedentary it would have rocked, but with the modest activity and rising temperatures I broke out the soft-shell Combat Jacket. The Combat Jacket weighs in at 18 ounces is constructed of Tweave® Durastretch® and is designed as a high performance alternative to a BDU top when breathability and freedom of movement are critical. It worked great when it heated up, but the wind chill was still a factor with the base layer and shirt. I wore it underneath and on top of my chest rig very comfortably. When worn underneath the pit zips, drawstring hem and adjustable cuffs allowed me to moderate my core temperature without taking the jacket and all my gear off. When I wore it on top of my gear I wasn’t able to zip it up, but I really have no need to do that in the first place. As I would increased my activity in the afternoon the breathability was able to keep up for quite a while and on a few days in the late afternoon my base layer was more than adequate so I eventually stripped it off as well. I found this jacket to be my go to piece of gear; I would wear it the most regardless of the base or insulating layers.
The mission drives the gear and as we continue to pursue our nation’s enemies all over the world cold weather gear needs to support the warfighter. Arc’Teryx’s LEAF line of clothing has defiantly impressed me and I see the advantages for end users across the board; from the outdoor enthusiast, law enforcement professional or member of our armed services. The best gear if used improperly may not meet your expectations, but if you understand the microclimate theory and layering strategies you can take advantage of these excellent pieces of gear. With Arc’Teryx ‘s innovated designs, use of new material and excellent construction I am sure we will see them keeping warm those who keep us safe for years to come.