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Cold Weather Considerations: Operational Considerations.


Editor’s Note: This is the concluding installment in this article series.

Firearms

No article on prepping would be complete without some discussion on firearms, and using them in winter conditions can present some unique challenges. Firearms are precision machines made from metals and polymers, and cold weather can have some big impacts. The materials themselves can become brittle at extremely low temperatures, so you should avoid sudden sharp impacts if possible. Shooting a firearm can heat up the barrel and other parts pretty quickly and cold temperatures can cool them back down rapidly, which can cause weaknesses in the materials, so you should start off with a slower rate of fire if possible so it warms up more slowly.

The more complex the firearm the more likely it is that it will be impacted by winter conditions. Break-action and bolt-action guns are pretty simple and tend to be reliable under any conditions; lever-action and pump-action guns are slightly more complex but tend to be relatively easy to clear if a problem does occur. Semi-automatic and automatic firearms are precision instruments with tight tolerances, and are the most likely to be impacted by winter conditions. Revolvers tend to be a unique case – I’ve talked to some people that have never had a problem with them in winter conditions, and others that have had jams and freeze-ups frequently. Whatever you plan on using, make sure you practice all aspects of firing and manipulation in cold, wet and snowy conditions.

Any liquid including lubricants can freeze up in a firearm and cause problems. Many common lubricants start to gum up around 0°F, which can cause jams and other malfunctions. You should ensure that every part of your weapon is dry of lubricant by disassembling it and wiping it down before using it in winter conditions, and switch to a low-temperature lubricant like Moly Coat, Slip 2000 or Break Free CLP in the winter. Water can also cause problems, especially with fine blowing snow that can get into everything and melt, then freeze up.

There’s a phenomenon known as ‘spindrift’ snow that consists of very fine snow particles being blown around by wind vortices, and it can get into the tiniest cracks. You should seal up any openings on your firearms including closing dust and optics covers, and cover the end of the barrel using a condom or electrical tape. Don’t forget to cover any openings in muzzle brakes, flash suppressors, etc. as well as the end or the barrel. A note from a friend of mine on using condoms – if you plan on using them to cover the end of your barrel, make sure you tell your spouse about them before they find them in your stash.

Magazines are another potential failure point for firearms. Getting snow or water in your magazine and having it freeze can cause all sorts of failures, so try to avoid pouches with openings in them like the ‘taco’-style ones – they work well in some conditions, but the gaps will allows snow and water through easily. That’s one of the big advantages of the smock I mentioned earlier – they tend to have pockets with button flaps around the waist for magazine, which helps keep the snow out. It does slow down your reload speed, but it increases the chance of the reload actually working.

Condensation is another concern with firearms in cold weather. A cold metal surface exposed to warmer air can cause any moisture in the air to condense onto the surface, which can quickly freeze. You should always keep your firearms at the outdoor temperature if you plan on operating outdoors – don’t bring them into a warm house or tent. If you store them in a tent vestibule or outside the tent you should bring a large garbage bag to store them in so they don’t get covered with falling or blowing snow. If you need to bring a cold gun inside for cleaning you should wait at least one hour before working on it to allow its temperature to stabilize, then wipe it down completely before taking it back out into the cold.

Ballistics can also be impacted – cold air is denser than warmer air, which increases drag on your bullet and hence increases the rate of drop over distance. This is generally only an issue over longer distances, but you should consider re-sighting your optics in colder temperatures. Temperature can also impact the rate of burn of the powder in your ammo, with colder ammo resulting in slightly fewer FPS. As with bullet drop the difference isn’t going to be significant for most shooting scenarios, but it’s worthwhile to get comfortable with the differences before your life depends on it.

Wearing cold weather clothing is something else that will impact your ability to handle firearms effectively. Those big bulky gloves that keep your hands warm will make it harder to manipulate the safety, trigger, magazine eject and all of the other fiddly bits on your guns. The trigger mitt over gloves I mentioned earlier are probably okay for handling the butterfly trigger on an M2 Browning .50, but they’re somewhat clumsy for fine manipulation of an AR-15. I’ve found that the second layer wool gloves I mentioned previously actually work pretty well for handling firearms, and they have a silicone herringbone grip on the fingers and palm, providing a good grip.

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If those are too bulky for you there are several companies that make insulated shooting gloves, including a nice pair from Mechanix Wear. You’ll need to balance staying warm with being able to quickly handle your weapon – that’s why I attach my over gloves to my sleeves with bungie cord. I can pull the trigger of my weapon with my over gloves on if I need to in a hurry, but I can quickly pull the right one (I’m right handed) off with my teeth if I get into a protracted situation involving gunfire. If you find that getting your finger into the trigger guard is a tight fit with gloves on, oversized trigger guard are available for some weapons. As with any other aspect of cold-weather operations you should practice weapons manipulation in the winter with your preferred gloves.

One final point on using firearms in cold weather – a few years ago I was visiting Northern Maine and it was extremely cold outside (around -20°F), and some friends and I challenged each other to go outside and shoot (there was no alcohol involved – just testosterone-fueled stupidity). When we fired our weapons we noticed that a cloud of ice crystals formed around the end of the barrel, blocking our sight picture for a few seconds, and there was a beautiful trail of ice crystals along the path of the bullet, which pointed right back to the person shooting. I’m not sure what the exact conditions are that caused it (other than really cold air temperatures), but if you’re exchanging gunfire with someone and it’s really cold out you need to take shoot’n’scoot to heart.

Electronics

Most preppers include some form of mobile electronics as part of their preparations, with the most commons ones being flashlights, firearm optics, radios and night vision devices. As with everything else these can be impacted by cold and snowy conditions. The first consideration is that all mobile electronic devices require a power source, which in most cases is batteries, which are definitely impacted by cold temperatures. Batteries produce power via a chemical reaction when something connects their positive and negative terminals, and this reaction is slowed down by cold temperatures which results in less current being produced. That’s why car batteries frequently fail to start your car in the winter time – they’re too cold to produce the current required to operate the starter. Warming up batteries will usually allow them to produce more current, so you should store spare batteries somewhere where they’ll stay warm. Out of all battery choices Lithium Ion tend to be the best option for cold-weather operations, since they can remain effective down to around -40°F. The downsides are that rechargeable Lion batteries tend to be more expensive and they’re available in fewer form factors.

You also need to be aware of the limitations of the electronic devices themselves. One common electronic component that impacted by temperature are LCD and LED screens – as they get colder their response time slows down and they may stop working entirely until they’re warmed back up. Most manufacturers provide an operating temperature range as part of their specifications, so you should research that and take it into account when planning operations in cold weather. Here are some examples from devices that I own/use:

  • FLIR TK Scout – -4°F
  • Bushnell Equinox Z – -14°F
  • Garmin handheld GPS – -4°F
  • Modern cell phone – Typically down to around -15°F

If you do need to carry electronics that are sensitive to cold temperatures you can use one of the insulated molle pouches that I mentioned earlier to help keep them from getting too cold.

Radios present an additional problem in cold conditions – speaking into the microphone sends warm moist air from your mouth into the cold electronics, which then condenses and can freeze. Handling a radio with gloves on can also be a challenge. The solution I use when I take a radio on winter hikes is to keep the body of the radio inside my jacket and use a decent-quality throat microphone and finger-mounted PTT switch that I can locate either on the top of the pointer finger on my left hand glove or on my backpack strap. I cover the PTT switch with plastic wrap that’s taped shut to keep snow and moisture out.

Operational Considerations

In a WROL scenario there may come a time where you need to track, watch, engage or avoid people that want to harm you and yours or take what you have. That means you have to understand how operating outdoors in tactical situations can be impacted by winter. The first and arguably the most critical advantage you can have is just being able to operate in cold and snowy environments – most people will be unwilling or unprepared to go outside when the temperature drops and snow begins falling, meaning you’ll be much less likely to encounter other people.

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Winter does present a number of considerations that can be either advantages or disadvantages, depending on your situation. For example, sound travels slower in cold dense air, but it also travels further, meaning you may be able to hear things like gunshots from at a greater distance, but you may have trouble estimating how far away they are. Snow on surfaces will absorb sound, reducing echoes, and falling snow can significantly muffle sounds at any distance.

Movement in some types of snow can produce crunching sounds, depending on the temperature and consistency of the snow, and a layer of ice on top of the snow will make cracking sounds as it’s broken. Outer layers of clothing made from some materials like nylon can make swishing sounds as it rubs together, and as mentioned earlier having your ears covered to stay warm will reduce your ability to hear sounds. The best way to understand and get comfortable with the changes in the sound environment brought on by cold weather is to spend as much time outdoors as possible.

Visual cues will also be impacted in winter. Since the days are shorter in winter you’ll have much less daylight to operate in, so you’ll need to adjust estimates for any activity that relies on daylight. Another obvious issue is that you’ll leave a trail when walking in snow, which is almost impossible to cover up unless snow is falling enough to fill it in; the good news is that anyone you want to follow will also leave a relatively easy-to-follow trail. If you’re out on patrol or other similar activity you should stop more frequently to check your back trail, and make sure you have good security out when you stop to eat or sleep.

Keep in mind that the trail you leave can last for days, so you should plan on following a trail that can minimize the impact to your security if discovered. For example, if you have a secret trail you use in the summer that allows you to sneak unobserved out the back of your property, you may be better off following a more obvious trail out the front that you’re more likely to have under observation if someone does backtrack it.

If you’ve ever been outside in cold temperatures than you’ve probably seen your breath when you exhale. That’s a result of the warm moisture in the breath coming out of your mouth freezing when it comes into contact with very cold air. Depending on wind conditions it may linger for a few seconds or disappear almost immediately. If you’re hiding behind cover or concealment to avoid being seen, having a cloud of exhaled moisture rising up from your location can easily give you away. One way to reduce the amount of moisture you’re expelling is to exhale through your nose.

Clothing such as hoods and goggles can restrict your field of view, so you’ll need to swivel your head or even your entire upper body more often to compensate for the lack of peripheral vision. Snowstorms are another thing that can significantly cut down on your visibility – there are stories from WWII of soldiers patrolling in snowstorms and ending up in the middle of an enemy camp without realizing it due to lack of visibility in heavy snow. One final note on visual observation – since the air is so cold, thermal scopes work very well in winter conditions.

Conclusion

Depending on where you live, cold, wet, snowy and icy conditions may prevail for a significant portion of the year, so you need to be prepared to handle outdoor operations and activities in winter after a TEOTWAWKI event. I realize the idea of hiking and camping in the winter may not sound like fun, but as with anything else if you wait until you’re forced into it in a life-or-death scenario it’ll be too late to find out you’re not prepared. If you have a spouse or family that’s dead-set against these types of activities in the winter try a gradual approach – rent a heated cabin in the woods for a short vacation, try renting snowshoes or cross-country skis, set up a tent in your backyard, join a winter outdoor paintball game, etc. Any experience is better than none at all, and all of you may find that you actually enjoy spending time outdoors in the winter.



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