Allow me to take you to a place where the world is at odds, a place where beauty is cast under a fog of war, a land as diverse and as geographically vast as the United States, but roughly the size of Texas, and nope it ain’t Texas Toto, it’s Afghanistan. Afghanistan, as most of you know has been a country at war for most of its existence, but what most people tend to overlook is the aesthetic beauty and vast diversity of what the vast terra unfolds. I’ve spent many years working in and around Afghanistan, everything from the deserts in the west, to the towering behemoths in the Northeast…it’s a land of tremendous beauty with unrelenting landscapes that wield jaw dropping panoramas, untouched rock-faces, and the unremitting, the implacable, the merciless Noshaq. It’s a place that can result in triumph or deadly defeat if you fail to acknowledge the subtle weather and terrain indicators that could save your life. For the sake of this article let’s put aside the geo-political issues and focus on the terrain, weather, and the one piece of gear that will serve as a savior in the battle of heat retention over heat loss. The windshirt.
I left Afghanistan for my fifth and final time in January of 2015, I have to say during my tenure in that AOR I encountered the wrath of Afghanistan and barely escaped with my life on several occasions. In my years of special operations experience I have encountered weather, terrain, warfare, angry cows, but being trapped by rime ice, freezing fog, and lightning at 11,000 feet was a first and given that I was unprepared to spend 5 days on a mountain, this was truly going to be battle of ingenuity, resources, and emergency planning.
So no shit…there we were, in the thick of a storm, that nobody saw coming, we attempted to hike down to a more manageable altitude for an evacuation, but Mother Nature had other plans that day. After realizing that going down wasn’t an option, we opted to press up, hoping we could rise above this low-pressure system. At this point, wind gusts were hitting around 105 with sustained winds at 65mph. The first rule of shelter in place wasn’t an option, so we went higher, or so we thought. After about 2 hours of trying to move towards the leeward side and up, we realized we hadn’t moved more than a couple of feet and had to take immediate shelter due to fatigue. After digging in, the next step was checking each other over for any cold related injuries and doing a quick inventory of what we had available. Yep, you got it, we all pulled out various items, and I quickly donned my wind shirt along with another layer of Capilene. The chemical heaters were worthless, not enough oxygen in the gale force winds to trigger a chemical reaction, all we could do was huddle and hope our gear didn’t fail. At the 9-hour mark the winds subsided enough for us to make it down to the leeward side to take better refuge from the elements and about 48 hours later we were able to hike out. So what’s the moral here? Don’t leave home without your windshirt, it’s tiny and compressible, yet strong and warm enough to provide protection when you need it.
Given the nature of my job in Afghanistan I had to climb, seek vantage points, observe, detect, and assist local populations. This would mean VSO’s, UW, and all the other great pieces alphabet soup that help to stabilize a region. This also meant, “light is right travel,” compression sacks, only the essentials, no bullshit. Given that my regular travels would lead my deep into the treacherous heart of Nuristan or the mind numbing cold of Badakhshan, I needed something that would compliment my load out if the weather changed in an instant, which it usually did.
The windshirt, the titular focal point of this article, and perhaps the reason why my wife suspects I’m cheating on her, it’s because I believe it’s the single most important piece of emergency kit every military alpineer, high country adventurer, or casual hiker should posses and I’m never without mine, Afghanistan assured me of that. The average windshirt can be as light as 1.5 Oz’s or as heavy as a whopping 9 Oz’s, they cost as little as 40 bucks, and provide a level of protection that may mean the difference between hypothermia and survival. Chris Townsend states in his book, The Advanced Backpacker, that his "favorite upper garment and the one I wear more than any other is a thin, single-layer nylon or polyester wind shirt". I find that a solid Nylon, DWR treated 30D – 70D ripstop serves a more diverse role when compared to your standard “waterproof” fabrics, I’m not saying it will out perform the technical membrane of enhanced textiles, but that it will give the user a broader range of comfort when worn in a variety of situations as opposed to your standard waterproof garment.
Due to the lightweight and compressible nature of these garments, it’s very easy to chuck this little guy in the lid of your pack, BDU pocket, or MOLLE it on in a little pouch on your plate carrier. Now I’m not here to tell you which brand to buy, nor am I telling you that one textile is better than the next, it’s all relative to what you’re doing and where you’re doing it at, although I’m a huge fan of silicon encapsulated Nylon, it’s tough, water repellant, and quite. Fact is nothing really gets through it, and when faced with bone chilling conditions, it serves as a vapor barrier, keeping expelled heat as close to the body as possible and everything else out. Which brings me to my next point – size. Make sure it fits correctly, not like a base layer, you want space, but not too much, the idea is to prevent outside wind from coming in and inside heat from going out…duh. Well it’s not always that easy, when we mobilize on a target what’s the last thing on our minds…the fit of our clothing. Yeah, it works right? Wrong, just like your M416 or M11, you need to dial it in. Gear is just as fragile and as important for standoff situations as your weapon. If you’re freezing your ass off, good luck with shooting, adrenaline and cold will force your heart to speed up, heat will shed from your body exponentially, and by the time you regain your composure it may be too late. Guess what (?), the old yarn your gramps told you about all the heat going out of your head isn’t entirely true, our bodies are natural heaters, always expelling heat and in stressful situations it only gets amplified. Adrenaline can be your biggest blessing as well as your biggest burden if not managed correctly.
The beauty of a windshirt is it’s simplicity, but in simple items certain complexities can present themselves. The first is the fit of the garment, if the garment doesn’t have elasticized cuffs I’d reconsider the windshirt, you want to be able to roll up your sleeves if need be if conditions change in an instant. A ¼ zip, this is always a great idea so you can vent if you feel you’re running too hot or zip up if you’re too cold. A pocket – just one is good enough, but it better be useful!
Allow me to digress - I once learned from a very wise man in the industry that the true sign of a great garment isn’t what you add to it, it’s what you can’t take away. In this case a single pocket with a 7-9” opening is ideal and a decent depth should be accepted as the standard. As shooters we know the importance of dexterity, make sure you have a pocket for your gloves if you need to don or doff them quickly, these little pieces of trim make the world of difference when pushed outside of a comfort zone. We’re men…we have beards, especially when we’re in the field too damn long, look for a windshirt that offers fleece around the zipper housing in the upper collar portion of the garment around the neck, last thing you want is your CO coming down on you because you have a fucked up looking hickey on your chin, save yourself the embarrassment, I’ve been there and it sucked. And the piece of the recipe is a dropped tail, cover your ass and back when possible, words of wisdom my friends. Remember this garment is to aid in your success not hinder you. You want to make sure when you extend your arms that the garment doesn’t restrain natural movement, the dropped tail and enhanced arm gussets will assist you, comfort you, and reassure you that the last thing you need to worry about is your wind shirt failing on you.
So next time you’re out at your local REI, Patagonia, EMS, Denali…whatever, take the above into consideration and perhaps next time you’re on objective you can avoid being caught by the one of the variables you know you can’t control, mother nature. I can only speak to my experiences and will attest that the proper load out is paramount. Yes, I still love my hard and soft shells, but my most diverse/ lightweight/ packable piece of kit I own is my wind shirt. This past year I was faced with elements that I haven’t faced previously and given the emergency situation my team faced, I thank my team and my colleagues for recommending a wind shirt to me. Remember, it’s light, it’s affordable, and it’s compressible.
Stay safe and stay WILD!