A Canadian's guide to surviving frigid winters

frozen lake snowshoe
© K Martinko -- The author enjoys snowshoeing on frozen lakes.

Having grown up in one of the coldest parts of Canada, I know a thing or two about how to dress for warmth.

When I walked out of the Toronto airport late Monday night, I was momentarily shocked by the blast of frigid air that hit my face and instantly infiltrated my thin jacket. After ten days in Israel, enjoying a cool yet mild Mediterranean climate, I’d forgotten how nippy the Canadian winter can be. I was not dressed for it, since there wasn’t any snow when I left. I bolted for my car, dug it out of a snowbank, scraped ice off the windows, and, after a half hour of driving north, finally started to thaw out.

Whenever I travel and people learn I’m Canadian, they always comment on the cold, wondering how we survive. (I, in turn, wonder how they survive in extreme hot, in climates rife with gigantic spiders, poisonous insects, and terrifying mosquito-borne diseases.) Funny enough, when other Canadians find out that I grew up in Muskoka, Ontario’s cottage country, where winter temperatures dip to -40C/F in January and February, and that I now live in Bruce County, which is notorious for its days-long whiteouts, they, too, wonder how I do it.

You see, winter in Canada is not equal across the nation. Some places are much more extreme than others, and while Muskoka and Bruce do not compare to the extremes of the true North, they are certainly tougher climates to inhabit than southern Ontario – or the “banana belt,” as we Muskoka natives like to call it.

So how do we do it? I found an excellent short article by journalist Caitlin Kelly, called "Yes, you can survive this cold! Ten Tips from a Canadian." Kelly's great tips got me thinking about what I've learned from my parents and other locals about managing frigid temperatures. Some of our suggestions overlap, but I've added a few of my own.

Don’t dress too warmly.

This may sound counterintuitive, but there is such thing as a coat that’s too warm. It may be fine for standing around and doing nothing, but who does that? Usually there’s snow that needs to be shoveled. It’s important not to overheat and sweat, because then, once you stop moving, you will become very cold indeed. Layers are important, and should always be removed as soon as you feel yourself become the slightest bit too warm.

Wear wool.

I know this suggestion may not go over too well with many vegan readers, but the fact is that wool cannot be beat in terms of its breathability and warmth. Wool, particularly cashmere, leggings or long johns make a world of difference. Wool socks are an absolute necessity, and a wool vest and wool mitten liners will make life much more pleasant, too.

Mittens are better than gloves.

I have yet to find a pair of gloves that keeps my hands as warm as a pair of mittens. Keeping the fingers together helps to generate warmth. You can’t do much with gloves on, anyways; they’re bulky and awkward, and you’ll end up taking your hands out anyways.

Always buy boots with removable liners.

Boots get wet from the outside (slush, snow, ice) and the inside (sweat). It is imperative to be able to remove the liners and place them on a heating vent (or beneath a wood-burning cook stove, which is what I do at my parents’ house) in order to dry out. It’s much more efficient than flipping a snow-covered boot upside down on a vent and having the scent of hot plastic or rubber infuse the entire room.

Consider certain features when buying coats.

It’s important to be able to seal off potential gaps for cold air to enter. Make sure coat cuffs can be tightened. Buy an ample hood that can fit over a hat on your head and shield your face from wind. Ensure that it can be tightened, too. Fur lining is helpful, too, if that’s something you’re comfortable using; fur is a good wind-breaker and protects the face from frostbite. Down filling is warmer than synthetic. Make sure the coat has pockets that are comfortably accessible to protect your hands when needed. Choose windproof material.

Cover your face as much as possible.

The idea is to minimize the amount of skin exposed to the cold. Tie a scarf across the lower part of your face or use a neck warmer that can be tightened. Make sure your coat collar comes up to your chin.

Drink hot liquids.

If you’re outside for an extended period of time, bring hot liquids in a Thermos. Herbal tea and hot spiced apple cider are family favorites. They will warm you from within and, when poured into a mug, give your hands a cozy place to be. (My family likes to take our mocha pot and tiny camp stove along on snowshoe or ski excursions for impromptu coffee breaks, which is always fun.)

Dry your hair!

In high school, I used to walk one mile through the forest to catch the school bus. It was often below -20C (-4F) on those early winter mornings. My hair was wet and carefully styled with curl-defining mousse, so I stubbornly refused to wear a hat. Every morning my hair would freeze completely, and I’d have to wait for it to thaw on the bus before it could dry. In retrospect, it was crazy, and now I’ve learned my lesson: dry hair makes a world of difference, and so do hats. Never go anywhere without a hat.

If you’re warm, you’ll love winter. If you’re cold, you’ll be miserable. Dress wisely and you’ll see, it’s really not that bad.

Tags: Canada | Clothing | Weather | Winter

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