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Life below freezing: what to wear

Updated: May 1, 2021

Photo: personal archive.

If you, like me, grew up in an oasis of eternal Summers (hi, there, Brazil!), it can be intimidating to visit or to live in a country with real white, cold Winters. But there’s no need to avoid travelling this time of the year. You should let Covid-19 stop you from travelling, but not the cold!

Let’s learn from the natives of the Nordic countries, like the Finns. They accept below-freezing temperatures and lots of snow as a normal part of life in Wintertime and believe you shouldn’t stop doing what you usually do (yes, people still ride their bikes to work or go jogging in the evening). They say there’s no bad weather, only bad clothing.

Where I come from, if temperatures drop to 23 C (73 F), everyone is complaining about the cold (seriously, it’s true). In Finland, where I live nowadays, that’s Summer for you. While I write this blog post, there’s a snow storm raging outside my window. It’s supposed to drop from 30 to 40 centimeters (12 to 16 inches) of fresh snow on the ground. Snow plowers have spent the night removing excess accumulation, and the wind is blowing strong. Still, schools are normally open (in my 3 years in Finland, there was no snow day!) and, to my dismay, I know my son will have to spend break time outside, as they always do, regardless of the weather. And no one thinks that’s crazy here.

Just to give you a sense of people’s comfort with below-freezing conditions in Finland, babies are left to sleep in their strollers outside, up to around -20 C (-4 F). One of the most common Winter activities here is to enjoy “avanto” (“hole in the ice”, in Finnish), which means to take a dip in a frozen lake or in the Baltic sea (which also freezes up, btw), usually after sauna. If that doesn’t convince you these people take sub-freezing temperatures in stride, I don’t know what could!

One might wonder how they manage, or why. It’s simple. When you live in places where Winters are long and dark, you either learn to enjoy it, or you will be pretty miserable during big chunks of the year. But there’s no way you will enjoy Winter if you’re cold, so it’s fundamental to dress appropriately!

Here are a few tips on dressing for Winter, if you’re new to sub-freezing life:

1. Buy your clothes at your destination

It’s your best bet, especially if you don’t know for sure what to buy. You might find better prices and a larger assortment, plus it will be easier for you to get something that is appropriate for the kind of weather conditions you will face. This is especially true if you’re coming from somewhere warmer.

You might even find be able to buy used clothing or even rent instead of buying (some ski resorts offer outwear rentals).

2. Layering is key

Layers not only make you warmer but allow you to quickly adjust to changing conditions.

Ideally, pick a thermal first layer that wicks moisture away from your skin. If that base layer is of good quality and really warm, you might even get away with less layers. (Your first layer should include a shirt and underpants).

Your second layer should be something warm, like a fleece jacket for the top of your body. Fleece is really warm and comfortable and I like it better than wool, but wool will work as well.

If it’s really cold and I’m planning to spend a lot of time outdoors, I’ll include a second pair of underpants below my snow pants or pick a more heavily insulated pair of snow pants.

3. Quality outerwear is a must!

Your coat is really important. If you’re facing truly cold weather, I would forego the elegant wool coats. If you’re getting only one jacket, I would get a ski/snowboard one. The water-resistant shell will prove valuable if you’re facing a snow storm and you won’t need a second coat if you decide to enjoy the outdoors (and you really should! Check out our post on Winter activities to try).

There are different types of insulation and down is a common recommendation. It’s made of duck or goose feathers and it’s really warm, but I prefer to buy synthetic insulation to respect animal rights. You can find high-quality synthetic insulation jackets that will keep you warm, so you don’t need to buy down if you don’t want to.

As for the length of your coat, it should ideally go down to your hips, but not much further. I don’t recommend the really long ones because they really restrict movement (forget snow sports on those).

If you’re venturing outdoors or doing sports like skiing or snowboarding, you need water-resistant outer layers. Check clothing made specifically for snow sports. Snow pants, for instance, have several necessary features, such as an elastic gaiter designed to seal around your boots (in order to keep snow and slush from getting in), or zippers in the thigh areas to allow ventilation and better temperature control. They can consist of just an outer shell or a heavily insulated ensemble. Check insulation, water-resistance and breathability to pick the one most suitable for you.

4. Accessories are just as critical as outerwear

Even after getting the right under and outer layers, you won’t feel comfortable without protection to your head and neck.

It’s really important to keep your head warm. For lower temperatures or prolonged time outdoors, pick a hat with lining (a wool hat with fleece lining is enough in most cases). Ear flaps are a welcome feature when it’s really cold: your ears are one of the first parts of your body to suffer.

Apart from the hat, I never go out without neck protection, preferably something that can be used to also protect my face and ears in really cold temperatures or if there’s a lot of wind. You can use a scarf but, for winter sports, I prefer neck warmers or cowls (I love the fleece ones!). Balaclavas are a good option for prolonged times outside when it’s really cold, but I would still use a neck warmer in case I need to cover up to my nose as well. You can also use face masks, but I prefer the versatility of neck warmers.

5. Cold fingers are no fun: invest on the right gloves or mittens!

Apart from your ears, your hands are probably the part of your body that will get colder faster and that will be harder to warm up.

If you’re only getting one pair, my recommendation is to buy ski/snowboard gloves or mittens. Water-resistance is a feature that you really need even in everyday life. You might need to get the snow out of your windshield or hold onto a handrail that’s covered in ice or snow.

If you are going to face temperatures below -5 C (23F), I would go for mittens instead of gloves. They may seem cumbersome, but the truth is that insulated ski gloves are not much different (you will need to take either off to use your phone or a key, for example). So, why mittens? They keep your fingers warmer, are easier to put on/take off (especially if you’re using a liner) and are the best option if you’re using a hand warmer.

For really cold temperatures and outdoor adventures, I recommend ski mittens, a liner and a hand warmer (they’re those packets that heat up when exposed to the air and provide heat for several hours).

Try to find liners that are enabled for touch-screen use, so that you don’t have to expose your hands to the cold when taking that selfie.

A hand warmer inside a mitten will keep your fingers warm and cozy. You can place the hand warmer right at your fingertips with a mitten (with gloves, you get a warm palm and cold fingertips). Believe me, you will think it’s the best money you’ve spent when you’re enduring a long ski lift ride.

For small children and toddlers, don’t even bother buying gloves, even if temperatures are not that low. For one, there’s no way you will get all those fingers in the right spots. Plus, they will touch the snow, a lot. If you’re still not convinced, know that many won’t always tell you their hands are freezing. Water-resistant mittens are the only sensible option here.

6. Socks and boots are really important

Ok, it seems I am telling you everything is critical. Well, maybe it’s because if any part of your body is freezing, you will be miserable regardless of how well protected the rest of your body is.

Thus, socks and boots are critical too. Your feet are probably the part of your body that will be in longer and closer contact with the ice and snow, so they need to be well protected.

Invest on good socks, appropriate to the temperatures you will face. I go for thick wool socks (merino is great) because my feet are always cold. Take advantage of layering as well and add extra socks according to your needs. I usually wear 2 or 3 socks, depending on how cold it is and how long I’ll be outside. If your feet get really cold, you can also get feet warmers or toe warmers.

Finally, if you are to splurge in anything, buy good boots. Quality makes a huge difference in your level of comfort here. Also know that good boots for bracing the snow are not delicate and may even look ugly to you (I felt like Minnie Mouse when I put on my first pair). They are normally bulky and you have to buy a larger size to be able to fit the thick socks and have room to wiggle your toes.

Good winter boots should have:

  • non-slip soles with large treads to provide good traction (these are essential in countries like Finland, where salt is not used to clear snow/ice on pedestrian pathways);

  • waterproof outer materials;

  • Good insulation;

  • Ankle support.

I recommend getting a pair of snow boots to brace the outdoors and, if you can, an extra pair of insulated boots (such as hiking boots) for walking around the city. I prefer the well-known brands like North Face, Columbia or Merrell, but maybe you don’t want to invest too much if you’re just going on a trip. If that’s the case, make sure to find a pair that’s waterproof and with non-slip treaded soles, preferably for Winter sports.

Photo: personal archive.

Finally, several things should impact your choice of Winter wear, from the weather conditions (temperature and wind) to the type of activity, to your own tolerance to the cold. It’s really important to stay warm, but it’s no fun to be sweating underneath several layers either. Still, if you intend to spend a long time outside, I would err on the side of caution (you can always remove a layer, if you feel like it). Also remember that you may face different conditions within a day, or during an activity (you may feel comfortable at the base of the mountain, but freezing at the top or on the ski lift; cold when you are still and warm when exercising).

Now you can feel more confident to enjoy the Winter in all its glory! Skiing, snowboarding, snowmobiling, sledding or even just building a snow sculpture is a lot of fun (here are some other ideas to try). And, if you’re really brave, come to Finland, take off all those layers of clothing and dive into a frozen lake! Finns swear by it!

Photo: personal archive.

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