The 7 layer ECWCS system is the Armies newest answer to cold weather clothing. It was first fielded in 2007. It consists of a light 'silk weight' set of long underwear, a 'medium' weight set of long underwear known for one side having ridges like a waffle, a fleece top, a light wind jacket, a set of 'soft shell' top and bottom, a gore tex top and bottom and a cold weather top and bottom referred to as the marshmallow suit.
These systems seem to be making their way onto the surplus market and Commander Zero asked about my thoughts on them. For background I have used various components of this system over several years in Central Europe, Afghanistan and Kyrgyzstan. I have used it in a variety of weather from 40 degrees and rainy to 0 degrees (ambient not including wind chill) with snow, sleet and hail during training and deployment
Taking a step back we should briefly discuss the fundamentals of dressingfor cold weather. You need to layer with moisture wicking fabrics that stay (relatively) warm when wet and during precipitation have an outer layer that repels moisture from the outside yet lets moisture escape from the inside. Start with a good set of long underwear that are synthetic or wool on the inside, have gore tex (or non patented equivalent) for when it rains and put insulating layers in the middle as needed. Also you need hats (at least 1x sun like a ball cap or boonie and 1x cold like a fleece beanie) and gloves. More on that can be covered in previous posts (insert links)
Also we should compare, in generalities, this system with various civilian offerings from the outdoor community. Military stuff is going to take abuse and be more durable than most general use civilian offerings. Military gear will (and this relates to the wear) usually be a tiny bit heavier though this stuff is pretty good about that. To get a corresponding level of durability in civilian gear you would probably need to look at legitimate expedition weight stuff from serious use companies like North Face. Generally speaking civilian gear tends to put a higher premium on comfort and ergonomics though this stuff is pretty good and largely an exception.
I will talk through the layers of the system sharing my thoughts on each.
Level I Lightweight Undershirt and Drawers
-I love these. The basic design has been around for awhile (I have some from ’04) and was originally black and made by Polartech. These very thin long underwear are suprisingly warm for their weight. They have handy little thumb holes you can slip your thumb through to keep this underlayer in place while sliding into other layers. It also prevents the cold skin gap between your gloves, which are another article entirely, and the end of your sleeve. I wear these consistently when outside at temperatures below 40 or so. These are also suprisingly durable, especially considering they are so light. I have a couple sets of the old black ones that were used hard for several years and show no noticable wear. Often I wear only the top but if I will be doing moderate to low intensity activity the bottoms will be added also. These compact small enough there isn’t a reason not to keep a set handy.
Level II Mid Weight shirt and Drawers
-These are good for when it is pretty cold. They are nowhere near as compact as the lightweight set but are significantly warmer. They have a waffle like appearance on the inside and are refered to as ‘waffle tops’. They zip up which is nice for venting or if it is quite cold you can zip them up and they cover the bottom half of the neck. I often use the top(s) and consider them very valuable. I wear them consistently when it is below 30 degrees outside. The bottom’s I do not use so much as it is easy to overheat in them; they would be good for moderate activity in very cold weather or light activity in under 30 degree weather. Often I wear the mid weight top and the light bottoms.
Level III High Loft Fleece Jacket
-Not a whole ton to say about this, it’s a fleece. I would describe it as a light to mid weight fleece as compared to all of the different commercial offerings. It is noticeably less warm than the older Army fleece (the black one) which was thick and heavy but it also compacts significantly smaller so that’s something. This is pretty warm, especially when combined with other layers but it is not especially windproof.
Level IV Wind Jacket
-This is a thin, light jacket that squishes down to be quite small. It is wind proof (otherwise the name would be kind of awkward) and water resistant. I say water resistant intentionally. This will not keep you dry standing around all day in a torrential downpour but is good for a drizzle or short trips out in all but the heaviest rain. It does not have a hood so you really need to pair it with a brimmed hat. Due to being adequate for most decent weather conditions (especially spring/ summer) and being quite compact this is a coat I carry/ use a lot.
Level V Soft Shell Cold Weather Jacket and Trousers
-These are a bit more packable, strechier and breathable than gore tex but not quite as water proof. This breakdown from the Arcteryx site explains the difference better than I can http://arcteryx.com/HardshellvsSoftshell.aspx?language=EN.
The jackets are nice but I have never really used the pants. I have some doubts about how durable they will be for real use but can’t say for sure. The jackets will take a pretty good downpour so long as you are not out in it too long. They are probably not sufficient for longer durations outside in moderate to heavy rain. That being said since they breathe better than goretex they are nice for spring rainstorms and the like where it is not cold but is wet. I like these but between the wind jacket and the gore tex they are kind of a mushy middle ground.
Level VI Extreme Wet/ Cold Weather Jacket and Trousers
-This is an updated version of the military gore tex top and bottom. They are gore tex so they are basically impermiable to water. Also like their older cousins these are really heavy duty coats and pants as far as gore tex goes. Obviously you would not want to run headlong through an acre of blackberry bushes but this isn’t some thin flimly gear that will tear the first time you bump into a branch. The downside is they retain heat to some degree. I don’t see people wearing them much while active when it is over 60 degrees because they would sweat a lot. Good kit.
Level VII Extreme Cold Weather Parka and Trousers
-AKA the Marshmallow Man Suit. These are very warm. Assuming proper layering they are really only something people use when the temp is below 20 or so and they are going to be pretty sedentary (guard duty, etc). These are bulky items though they compact smaller than one would imagine. Often folks will use just the coat to stay warm in cold temps for short periods (instead of putting on 4 layers they will take off after walking from A to B). These are wind proof. Moisture isn’t an issue as I can’t imagine someone wanting to wear them unless it is well below freezing. As to criticism I wish the jacket was 6 inches longer. They have a hood that folds into the collar which is decent but not a real heavy hood. Honestly maybe I’m being too picky and if those are needed regularly a person should just go buy a real parka. As to the pants they really should be more of a an overall/bib, I stand by that criticism.
This system has a lot of good components. For whatever reason in the Armies view it is easier to give everyone all the pieces and let them figure out what to use for their situation than give some folks this and some that. Depending on a person’s environment and needs different components of this system could give someone a big start towards having a pretty darn good cold/ wet weather wardrobe.
To the rubber meets the road question of whether you should buy this system. Obviously price matters significantly. Military Surplus is definitely a feast or famine deal so depending on what your local area prices are (the net is helping with this) and the current supply/ demand prices vary wildly. Generally speaking if you can get these items at 65% or less than the price of a comparable civilian offering this stuff is a good deal. If it is over say 80% of the same price I would carefully weigh the individual item in question against earth tone civilian offerings.
Do you need to buy the whole system? I would say that unless you got it at a substantial discount (over buying all the items individually) there is not a need to have the whole thing. The soft shell and gore tex suits (top/ bottom) are largely redundant and likely to be the two most expensive parts of the system. The fleece is fine (and you really should have a fleece or 5) but fleece is so cheap you could probably beat it for quality to price ratio at Ross or a local outlet. The the Marshmallow Man Suit is good for places with truly cold weather but not needed in the South or other warmer areas.
Assuming reasonable prices across the board for everything if I was going out of pocket for this stuff I would buy: 2x lightweight drawers, 1x medium weight drawers, a fleece; unless I had a green/ brown one already, the wind jacket (I love that thing) and the gore tex. If I was in a cold weather area and didn’t have that well below zero gear squared away I would also purchase the marshmallow suit.
Those are my thoughts on that. Hope they help in deciding what gear is right for you. As always the comments section is open.