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Back to Archives | Back to December 2007 Contents 

Cold-Weather Training Issues

By Brian R. Johnson, Professor of Criminal Justice, University of North Alabama, Florence, Alabama; and Greg L. Warchol, Associate Professor of Criminal Justice, Northern Michigan University, Marquette, Michigan

any police officers in the United States are exposed to cold-weather situations for at least part of the year. Of interest, however, is that many agencies never provide firearms training in cold settings. Instead, the training may be suspended during colder months, or it may be moved indoors to protect the officers and the training staff from the effects of the cold. In these indoor settings, officers often appear for their training wearing their cold-weather gear. When they prepare for their training, however, they take off their heavy outer jackets, gloves, and hats; shoot their qualifying course; put their cold-weather clothing back on; and go back to working the road.

What functions does this type of training serve? Though comfortable for the training staff and officers and perhaps satisfying the need for quarterly qualifications, this type of training could actually be a disservice to officers, because they do not have the chance to be exposed to the many issues that cold-weather training may present in the context of tactical modifications. From a legal perspective, lack of cold-weather training may soon be scrutinized in the courts, as several precedent-setting court cases have called for realistic training for situations a police agency may expect to encounter. With adequate planning, a firearms training program can be conducted in a realistically cold setting, making it much more meaningful for all parties involved. As this article shows, cold-weather training can be conducted in a safe and productive manner, providing police officers with much-needed information related to cold-weather shooting.

For detailed information on the effects of cold weather on the human body, including a wind chill table, please see the supplement to this article, available by clicking here.

Planning Cold-Weather Training

Planning for cold-weather training is a little more complicated than training in “thermally neutral” environments. The key to cold-weather training is to ensure range safety and participants’ heat balance. The training staff should be vigilant and strive to create an environment that is not distracting because of the cold weather and the related physiological, behavioral, and psychological reactions officers will have. The training should also be conducted in a realistic environment, where the officers can assess their tactical abilities in the context of a cold environment. Some of the issues that need to be considered are listed below.


When scheduling training, firearms staff should consider a point in time not immediately at the onset of cold weather but rather later in the season. Personal thermal comfort levels have been found to be affected by the degree of acclimation (or adaptation) to the cold.1 Research has shown that humans can adapt better to cold after repeated exposure.2 By training later in the cold season, officers may be adjusted to and more tolerant of time spent in the cold since their daily activities have exposed them to cold temperatures.

Compared with training in the warmer months, training staff should consider scheduling shorter training blocks in cold-weather settings. Generally speaking, the longer the exposure to the cold, the greater the effect of the cold on the officer’s performance in the context of physiological, behavioral, and psychological responses. Instead of having one four-hour block of training, for example, the training staff should consider having two blocks of two hours each, scheduled on different days.


As pointed out earlier, the perception of cold weather is often subjective in nature, to the point that officers could psychologically defeat themselves and demoralize others around them if they do not have a proper attitude toward the cold and cold-weather training. Because of this issue, one of the primary concerns of the training staff should be to maintain morale in a positive training environment. It must be remembered that in any situation where the level of professionalism and morale is lowered, the training value is diminished or lost altogether. If the training staff are resistant to cold-weather training, this will be directly reflected in officers’ attitudes and actions in the training. Thus, the training staff should recognize the importance of cold-weather training and foster a positive attitude about it.

Some officers will have concerns and complaints about training in cold weather. It is the training staff’s responsibility to neutralize these comments in a productive manner. As with any training program, trainers must emphasize the importance of the training. One of the best ways to illustrate the importance of cold-weather training is to share with officers some force-related incidents that occurred in cold environments. Examples of these types of incidents can be readily obtained locally or from the Officer Down Memorial Page ( Another way to emphasize the importance of cold-weather training is to apply readily what was taught on the range in a cold setting. For example, some officers might never have trained wearing gloves. Having officers train with gloves and then placing them into a dynamic training situation where they shoot wearing their gloves will serve to build their confidence levels and to reinforce the point that the cold-weather training was meaningful.

Range Safety

One of the primary concerns is the prevention of accidents from falling. To prevent falls, the surface of the range should be kept as dry as possible. This will require range staff to stay vigilant regarding the ground conditions, making sure that all snow and ice is removed and that deicer is used. This will require some advance planning: range staff should consider beginning to remove snow and ice 48 hours before the scheduled training. The removal of snow and especially ice may take several attempts. Starting one or two days in advance will allow the staff to literally chip away the snow and ice slowly while applying deicers to ensure that the range surface is dry on the training day. Starting early will also allow the natural phenomena of evaporation and radiation to help in clearing ice and snow from the range surface.

It should also be remembered that cold discomfort may reduce officers’ diligence in the safe handling of firearms. Because of the direct and indirect effects of the cold, officers could have slower reflexes and lower levels of concentration and could experience greater fatigue. All of these issues, alone or in combination with one another, could affect coordination. Furthermore, officers could be less attentive on safetyrelated issues because of behavioral responses. For example, because of the loss of some motor skills, officers could forget to take their finger off the trigger when reholstering due to the loss of sense of touch. Trainees and staff can address safety concerns in part through the continual reinforcement of range safety and diligence.

Equipment and Supplies

Cold-weather training also requires additional equipment and supplies. Besides the need for snow removal by public works and/or the use of shovels and deicers, the training staff will need to provide some type of shelter and a heat source. If the range facility does not have a permanent heat source, temporary portable heaters (for example, those fueled by propane or kerosene) should be used. The training staff should also consider using mats on the tarmac. An antifatigue mat or even carpeting could prevent a fall if ice or frost is present. Moreover, because heat is lost through conduction, mats would serve as an additional insulating barrier between the feet and the cold concrete or asphalt surface, slowing the conduction of heat away from the feet.

Temperature and Environmental Factors

The training staff will also have to be vigilant in monitoring the weather. Staff should monitor the weather forecast and be given the authority to cancel the training session if it should become too cold. While what constitutes “cold” is often subjective, the training staff should base the decision on the wind chill factor, the morale of the officers attending, and the consensus of the training and command staff.

Weather conditions can change quite fast. While training, the staff should also periodically monitor changes in the weather. Besides monitoring the local weather channel forecasts, a crucial tool to monitor weather conditions is a pocket weather tracker. This device can provide information on wind gusts, temperature, and wind velocity. This information will provide trainers with a complete understanding of cold conditions at their particular training site.

Food and Hydration

According to some researchers, up to 60 percent of the body’s energy is used to heat the body in cold weather.3 Because the body is burning more energy in order to keep warm, training staff should also consider providing high-carbohydrate snacks. Carbohydraterich foods provide additional energy and ensure that the officer’s blood sugar levels are stable and safe.4 Food is also a source of pleasure, which could serve to improve the psychological wellbeing of officers if they are not enjoying the cold environment.

Some caution should be exercised with eating food at the range. Greater amounts of lead can be ingested if officers fail to wash their hands before eating. This issue can be readily overcome if there are restrooms available or if officers are provided disposable moist towels (such as Handi Wipes) to clean their fingers and hands.

The training staff should also make sure that beverages are available for the officers. Despite the cold, officers will still experience some level of dehydration through perspiration and their breathing.5 To achieve the dual goals of hydration and warmth, trainers should consider having warm beverages available for officers. Some caution, however, should be exercised with caffeinated beverages, such as coffee; the overconsumption of stimulants could affect officers’ fine motor skills and their subsequent performance on the range.

Keeping Trainees Warm

When conducting training, it is vital for the training staff to watch trainees for the signs of hypothermia. This dangerous condition sets in when the body’s core temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit. 6 The following are some early warning signs:

  • Numbness in hands

  • Involuntary shivering

  • Loss of fine motor skills

  • Slurred speech

  • Difficulty in thinking clearly or irrational behaviors7

With cold-weather training, measures should be taken to ensure that officers are protected from the negative effects of the cold. First, the training staff must look out for some of the signs of cold-induced stress on the trainees, monitoring them for signs of cold discomfort, including shivering, verbal complaints, and inattentive behaviors. Cold discomfort can be readily controlled by moving to a warm environment, increasing physical activity, and taking more breaks. If training blocks are relatively brief, officers are protected from the cold, and the training environment is not excessively cold, keeping officers warm should not be too difficult.

Adequate Shelter: The employer and training staff must ensure that officers exposed to the cold have a sheltered area. Since the majority of heat loss can be attributed to convection, a key consideration is to shelter officers from the wind. To accomplish this, for example, an agency can use a large military tent to shelter its officers when they are not on the line shooting. Not only does it provide for shelter between strings of shooting, but having the officers themselves set up the tent before training can also serve as a team-building exercise (requiring some physical exertion). A simpler option, of course, is to have a heated building in which officers can periodically warm themselves.

Physical Activity: To increase the amount of metabolic activity and the production of body heat, the training staff should also consider creating a more dynamic training agenda. Simply standing in a static environment can lead to thermal discomfort, boredom, and increased levels of trainee dissatisfaction. A dynamic and realistic setting, by contrast, would require officers to move around, generating heat in the process. The potential novelty of the experience may inspire officers to be more interested and better engaged in the training.

Increasing the Number of Breaks/Rotations: If the training lasts a long time, the training staff should consider increasing the number of breaks, to rotate officers into warm, sheltered areas more frequently. For example, last winter (January through March) one of the authors (B.R.J.) was responsible for training police recruits at an outdoor range facility. Recruits were rotated every half-hour from the cold (20 degrees Fahrenheit or less in the evening) to the heated range house. In the range house, recruits were given the opportunity to take off their warm outerwear (in order to prevent overheating), to drink warm beverages, and to receive some sideline, “hip pocket” lectures by the staff members who also opted to warm up.

Protective Gear and Clothing Issues

A cold-weather training exercise is a great time to assess how well officers’ choice of clothing affects performance in the context of thermal comfort and their ability to perform firearms-related tactics. The selection of proper cold-weather clothing can be difficult. It should be based on a variety of factors, including the temperature, the level of physical exertion, and tactics. The following issues in improving the function of cold-weather protection should be considered:

  • The key to staying warm is to stay dry from perspiration, snow, and rain.

  • Clothing should be light enough not to impede the movements of officers (examples of lightweight clothing materials include polypropylene, silk, and Gore-Tex).

  • Water-resistant or waterproof outerclothing will protect an officer from getting wet. Water greatly reduces the thermally protective properties of clothing. In addition, clothing should be selected that has the ability to wick large amounts of water (in the form of perspiration) away from the body while still insulating the body from the cold.

  • Clothing should be worn in layers. The layering of clothing allows officers to regulate their thermal comfort better by adding or removing layers of insulation

These issues must also be balanced with the tactical needs related to a gunfight.

Clothing should allow for the following:

  • A rapid draw and slow and deliberate recovery of the firearm back to the holster

  • Freedom of movement—officers should be able to shoot and move from the standing, kneeling, and prone positions, if necessary

  • The proper mounting and function of long arms

  • Access to and use of other equipment (such as handcuffs and a baton)

To ensure the functionality of protective clothing, it is important that officers train in their normal cold-weather gear. It makes no sense whatsoever for officers or the training staff to wear clothing during their training that is different from their normal cold-weather gear. This form of training is counterproductive, as it serves a very limited purpose and can even lead to overconfidence in officers’ ability to perform in a cold-weather gunfight. Instead, officers should attend training wearing their normal protective gear. By showing up in their normal clothing, officers and training staff will be better able to assess and modify officers’ choice of protective gear to meet the dual needs of protection and proper tactics. After the training segment, part of the afteraction report should include an assessment of how well each officer’s clothing worked, suggesting adjustments as appropriate.


In cooler climates, especially in those areas that have snowfall, officers should wear boots that protect against the snow and resulting water that could easily soak through shoes designed primarily for warm weather. Boots, because of their construction, prevent conduction of heat away from the body due to contact with cold surfaces better than shoes. Trainers should consider the following points regarding boots:

  • Boots that are too tight constrict blood flow, increasing the perception of cold feet.

  • Socks should be worn in layers, with an inner sock made with wicking materials

  • to pull perspiration off the surface of the skin and an outer sock to insulate against heat loss.
  • Boots must be slip-resistant. Because officers may have to move across snow and ice, boots with an aggressive tread/adequate traction should be selected.

  • Steel-toed boots should not be worn. The steel in the boot will conduct heat away from the body at a faster rate than boots without this feature. In addition, some boots have metal stiffeners in the sole. These, too, serve to conduct heat away from the body faster than do boots without metal stiffeners.

  • Officers should consider purchasing insulated boots, which are sold by many boot manufacturers.


One debate with cold-weather shooting is whether an officer should wear gloves. In deciding on this matter, trainers and officers should bear in mind the basic tenet that “we train the way we fight.” First, officers who consistently do not wear gloves in the cold should train without them (although they should recognize that in a gunfight their hands could be exposed to the cold for a long time). By contrast, officers who occasionally or always wear gloves must train with them.

One concern with gloves is that shooters may lose some tactile sensitivity when placing their finger on the face of the trigger or manipulating the weapon in some other way (such as for magazine changes). This may mean that officers have greater difficulty establishing positive trigger pressure because their “normal” feel or sensation is reduced. Considering that the exposure of bare skin will result in the loss of some sensation and fine motor skills (because of vasoconstriction, for example), combined with the fact that placing a finger on a metal trigger can increase the cold sensation and further reduce officers’ ability to feel pressure contact, shooting with gloves may not really be much different from shooting without them. Either way, officers lose some degree of their sensation and fine motor skills when shooting in the cold.

If officers choose to train with gloves, there is a dual issue to consider. To keep the hands and fingers warm, gloves should be thick enough or have enough volume to prevent radiation and convection heat loss. However, at the same time, they must not impair shooters’ manual dexterity. It will be quite difficult (if not impossible) to achieve both of these objectives. Officers will most likely choose a glove that will reduce (but not eliminate) the loss of heat while still allowing for some degree of dexterity.

Some further considerations related to gloves are important:

  • Gloves must be tight enough that when shooters place their fingers on the triggers, there is little or no slippage when rearward pressure is applied. Positive trigger pressure must be maintained while wearing gloves.

  • However, gloves that are too tight could cause additional constriction of the blood vessels. In combination with the physiological effects of the cold (such as vasoconstriction), gloves that are too tight could further increase cold discomfort and impair officers’ fine motor skills.

  • Gloves must slow the loss of heat, but gloves that are too warm could cause perspiration. The resulting increased amount of moisture could actually lead to a rapid cooling of the hands because of increased evaporation of perspiration.

  • Gloves that are too thick could prevent the finger from moving inside the trigger guard as well as other fine motor skills needed to manipulate the weapon.

Tactical Considerations

Changes in the tactical threat environment will also require the training staff to concentrate on tactics that are more critical to success in cold-weather environments. Many of these deal with the loss of motor skills because of the cold and protective clothing.

First, gross over fine motor skills should be emphasized. Because shooters may lose theirdexterity and motor coordination on account of the cold, tactics that rely on these abilities should be further reinforced in the coldweather setting.

Because of the reduced sense of touch and fine motor skills, more emphasis should be placed on using other sensory organs (such as the eyes). The training staff should encourage officers to look at what they are doing more often in the cold than in warm weather, balanced with the need for effective tactics. For example, officers should pay closer attention to their magazine changes through both touch reference of the magazine and taking a quick peek at the magazine well.

Because officers may be exposed to ice and snow in a cold-weather gunfight, the training staff should emphasize how to properly walk and shoot on slippery surfaces. The training staff should concentrate on the slow and deliberate heel-toe stride (or “Groucho walk”) to prevent the feet from slipping rather than on a stride that does not ensure proper foot placement. At the same time, speed may have to be reduced in order to maintain proper footing on slick surfaces.

Hands and fingers should be kept as warm as possible at all times. In the context of firearms training, this could be as simple as wearing appropriate gloves. It could also mean having officers change their tactical environment to stay warm. Since the wind is a major cooling agent, for example, one technique to slow the cooling process is to teach officers to use some form of cover or concealment as shelter from the wind; this also can afford protection from projectiles as well as visual cover.

A less obvious but important point is that inhaling cold, dry air can lead to a gasp reflex. To prevent such problems, breathing through the nose should be encouraged. Breathing through the nose serves to warm and humidify the air entering the lungs.

In other situations, cold-weather training will require the training staff to reinforce existing tactics and monitor and adjust any issues related to the fundamentals of shooting. The following common tactical errors could lead to the development of bad tactical habits:

  • Shuffling or stomping feet to stay warm

  • Placing hands in pockets

  • Shrugging or looking down in an effort to protect the face from the cold

  • Turning the back to the wind when the threat environment is in the same direction


Far too often, police agencies fail to conduct firearms qualifications and training in colder environments for several reasons, including complaints from officers and the reluctance of the training staff to be exposed to cold weather. It may also include issues related to the risk of falling and the exposure of officers to cold weather, which could lead to cold-related injuries. With proper planning, however, trainingstaff can develop a safe and comprehensive coldweather firearms training program that will be quite beneficial for its agency. Such training will improve the competency levels of shooters in cold weather, and it will also educate officers on the tactical realities of operating in cold conditions and improve their understanding of what clothing best protects them from the cold. The benefits of cold-weather firearms training go far beyond firearms training itself. ¦

Brian Johnson, Ph.D., is a professor of criminal justice at the University of North Alabama, Florence, Alabama. A former interim director of a Michigan regional police academy, he taughtfirearms, defensive tactics, and other skills to both pre- and in-service police recruits for over 10 years. Johnson is a graduate of several shooting schools and has served as a subject matter expert on state-level use-of-force committees.

Greg Warchol is an associate professor of criminal justice at Northern Michigan University (NMU), Marquette, Michigan. Before joining the faculty at NMU, Greg was a research analyst with the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Statistics, in Washington, D.C. He also worked five years with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Northern District of Illinois, where he ran the Asset Forfeiture Support Unit.


1Larry Kinney, Michael Renner, and Ira Krepchin, “Understanding Comfort, Behavior, and Productivity,” chap. 2 in Space Heating Technology Atlas, (accessed October 10, 2007), 19.
2Yutaka Tochihara, “Work in Artificial Cold Environments,” Journal of Physiological Anthropology and Applied Human Science 24, no. 1 (January 2005): 73–76.
3William Atkinson, “Working in the Cold,” Occupational Hazards 63, no. 12 (December 2001): 43.
4Ingvar Holmér, Per-Ola Granberg, and Goran Dahlstrom, “Cold Environments and Cold Work,” in Encyclopaedia of Occupational Health and Safety, ed. Jeanne Mager Stellman, 4th ed. (Geneva: International Labor Organization, 1998), 2:42–48. Also available as a CD-ROM.
6Richard G. Hoffman, “Human Psychological Performance in Cold Environments,” chap. 12 in Medical Aspects of Harsh Environments, ed. Dave E. Lounsbury and Ronald F. Bellamy (Washington, D.C.: Office of the Surgeon General, U.S. Department of the Army, 2001) 1:383, -HumanPsychologicalPerformanceinCold Environments.pdf (accessed October 10, 2007).
7ACT WorkCover, Guidance to Working in Hot or Cold Environments, December 2004, (accessed October 10, 2007), 16.



From The Police Chief, vol. 74, no. 12, December 2007. Copyright held by the International Association of Chiefs of Police, 515 North Washington Street, Alexandria, VA 22314 USA.

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