How to Survive a Canadian Winter
22 January, 2018
This timely winter survival guide – written in the middle of the Canadian winter season – is inspired by the rampant fearmongering and often inaccurate notions that circulate around this time of year about the Canadian winter being the epitome of one’s worst winter nightmares. Surviving winter in Canada – both mentally (you’ll see what I mean later) and physically – is not necessarily a dubious Guinness-book-of-world-records-worthy feat of endurance or a heroic battle against the odds of life or death. There is so much hype around the reality of winter in Canada that it gets blown out of proportion and subject to remarks that suggest people in Canada live in igloos, go spear-hunting for polar bears, and hibernate amidst giant glaciers strewn across frozen tundras, shivering in the frigid cold and praying to make it to the next day.
It’s not that some aspects of this scenario are impossible, it’s that it depends on where in Canada you live. And if you’re like 90% of the Canadian population, you live along the southern border of the country. (The rest of the country is practically empty.)
Let me be clear: winter isn’t for everyone. Not even mild winters. That’s OK. My goal is not to convince you that you will love winter in Canada; it is simply to dispel any misconceptions you may have and to teach you HOW to successfully cope with winter here. Whether you love it or hate it, this guide will show you how to survive it. Maybe also how to stay happy in spite of it. Hopefully even how to TRIUMPH over it.
So, let me begin this survival guide by dispelling the common misconception that there is one unique weather system in Canada. The Canadian terrain, much like its inhabitants, is hardly homogeneous. Rather, there are landscapes and weather systems as diverse as you will find across any continent (and do consider that Canada is a country that is, in fact, the size of a continent). In the winter, weather systems across the country range from cool and rainy, to dry and frigid, to humid and frigid, to warm and temperate and everything in between. (Yes, you read that right – warm and temperate even in the wintertime; hello, Vancouver!)
Of course, the coldness of winter depends on the year, as some years are better or worse than others. But even within the same year, there are many variables that can change the type of winter weather Canadians experience, including climate change and the influence of a rapidly warming North Pole. Consistently, however, the single most important variable that can make or break your winter is your Winter Weather Enemy No. 1: windchill.
The presence or absence or strength of the wind that blows during wintertime (ie, windchill factor) is the real game changer in the extremity of winter temperatures in Canada. Without windchill, the cold more or less feels about the same after a certain point (minus 15 degrees Celsius, in my personal scorebook), no matter how cold it really is. However, with windchill, especially a high windchill factor, everything changes. ALL BETS ARE OFF! Mild temperatures will feel multiple times lower, and cold temperatures will feel excruciating. Therefore, before heading out into a Canadian winter – don’t be deceived by the basic weather report. Always factor in the windchill factor, when considering how warmly to dress and how much time to spend outdoors.
That being said, let’s set the record straight on what’s it’s really like for the majority of Canadians during wintertime in Canada, here are some myth-busters and some common-sense advice on how humans in Canada survive the winter.
How to Survive Physically
1. We do not have superhuman, cold-repelling powers. We are humans like all others, with a normal human range of tolerance for hot or cold weather. So that means, when it’s really cold out, we feel it just as much as you do.
2. We dress completely. Dressing completely for winter does not entail simply throwing on a winter coat and heading out the door. There is a whole battalion of clothes you need to put on before you head out (and take off when you enter a typically overheated office or commerce), which definitely adds an annoying but necessary 5-10 minutes to your dress and undress time when you have to go somewhere.
The full list of your winter-wear battalion should comprise: hat, earmuffs (a great addition when there’s wind), long wool scarf, optional face mask (optional because, normally, you should wrap your scarf around your neck in a way that also engulfs the lower half of your face), regular clothes, sweater, thermal underwear (usually a thick pair of stockings), winter coat with a fur-lined hood, gloves or mittens, optional leg warmers, socks, winter boots. The only visible skin on you, when you have finished dressing properly, should be your face. And if it’s really cold out, really only your eyes.
The only visible skin on you, when you have finished dressing properly, should be your face. And if it’s really cold out, really only your eyes. Also, when purchasing a coat, be sure to get a coat that covers your butt––the entire length of your trunk, your body’s powerhouse, should be covered. Now, don’t go all California out here and get a coat that falls down to your tippy toes. You don’t need to get that crazy. Not that you should care really, if you’re truly freezing, but…if you walk around in winter with a coat dragging around your ankles, you will not only be the laughingstock of town, you will also find it hard to walk properly, and when the snow melts and becomes slushy your coat will get very dirty very quickly. Aim to get a coat that is anywhere in length from just below your butt to just below your knees (or at worst, mid-calf level). No longer.
Don’t cheat on the winter wear outlined above. Plan to get every single piece of clothing and accessory listed. Trust me, wearing something as simple as a hat or a scarf in winter can CHANGE YOUR LIFE. Ultimately, what can make you feel comfortable or miserable in the winter is not so much the temperature outside as it is how you ADAPT your behaviour––including what you wear––to the temperature. So if it’s freezing out, and you go outside without putting on a scarf, or wool socks, or ear muffs, or whatever, you will feel the difference immediately, and it won’t feel good.
3. We dress in different materials. Canadians invest in very good-quality winter clothes made out of durable, heat-retaining material. So our hats, scarves, coats, and the whole lot of it are made out of winter-appropriate material such as wool, fleece, and down feather, mostly. Swap anything out with cotton or polyester and you will feel the biting difference immediately.
If you’re shopping for winter clothes, some good brand that can guarantee you quality, winter-appropriate material include: Canada Goose (by far the most popular brand for coats), Sorel (by far the most popular brand for boots), Kanuk (specializing in winter coats for the extreme north of Canada, so you probably won’t need this if you’re staying in the major towns by the southern border), North Face, and Soia & Kyo (my personal favourite). Scroll down to the bottom of this page to shop these brands.
4. We layer. The ultimate key to surviving winter in Canada is to layer. Layering simply means, wearing different layers of clothes and accessories. And layering is so important because it helps you adjust your clothes to weather variations (you can put on or take off more layers, depending on how the weather changes during the day) as well as to adapt to alternating between the suffocating warmth of overheated buildings and the freezing cold of the outdoor air. Layering will ensure that you are neither too cold nor too hot and can adjust what you’re wearing even when you’re far from home.
5. We hurry between buildings. If the temperature outside is in the double negative digits, it can literally be dangerous for you to be outside for a long time, especially if you’re not in motion or not appropriately clothed.
If you have to stand outside and wait for a bus that’s late, for example, you will eventually feel cold, as the chill will work its way through every crack and air channel in your outerwear and eventually find its way to the very core of your bones. (Tip: If you arrive at the stage where you’re feeling bone-chilling cold, a surefire way to quickly rev up your internal furnace again is simply to drink a hot beverage like tea, coffee, or hot chocolate).
Also, it goes without saying that if you are not appropriately dressed, you are in direct and immediate danger of hypothermia and frostbite, and therefore should not be outside for more than a few seconds. That being said, no matter how cold it is outside, keeping your arms and legs moving and being in constant motion will dispel any possibility of hypothermia and frostbite.
Unsurprisingly, you will be hard-pressed to find anyone loitering out in the streets during extremely cold weather in Canada. Rather, people speed walk from homes to metro stations to offices and other places of congregation, scurrying between one overheated building and the next, usually with their head buried down into the warm folds of their wool scarves, and their shoulders hunched high to ward off an imaginary chill, and their hands scrunched deep into their pockets.
6. We celebrate when the weather warms to just a single negative digit. After long, cold stretches with double negative degrees (and the mercury often dipping into the thirties, forties, and fifties), you can understand that it will seem like a veritable beach holiday when the weather warms to just a few degrees shy of zero. What may not seem evident, however, is that people remain overdressed for a while, in the same clothes they would wear for minus 30 degrees, and therefore start to sweat profusely, fuelling the impression of reaching tropical beach weather. A Canadian celebrating the advent of minus ten degrees is therefore not crazy but simply rejoicing at being able to actually feel HOT again.
7. It’s not cold all day every day. It’s not freezing outside for long stretches of time. This is both a good thing and a bad thing. It’s good because it allows us to catch a reprieve, and it lifts our spirits. It’s good because when it’s not dangerously cold, we can go out and play in the snow or allow our children to run around outside and get some exercise. It’s good because who doesn’t enjoy milder winter temperature, not dressing like the Michelin Man every day, and spending more time lingering outdoors? But what’s not good is the mess that warmer temperatures, or worse, highly unstable weather marked by alternating cold and warm spells, wreaks on the sidewalks and streets. The results are dirty, slushy snow that splatters everywhere as you walk or when cars pass you by, and perilously slippery ice on streets and sidewalks that make walking or driving nail-bitingly arduous. In Montreal, for example, winter weather is very variable and both scenarios reproduce themselves throughout the winter season.
How to Survive Mentally
It is worth an important mention on how to deal with winter in Canada mentally, as long periods of cold or stormy weather can take a toll on your mental health if you don’t take positive action. In Canada, depending on your location, winter may last anywhere from 3 months to 10 months, and dealing with this kind of weather for so long does provoke a high rate of depression and suicide.
First of all, a healthy body leads to a healthy mind. It’s important that you continue to eat healthy meals and get enough sleep during the winter months. As winter in the Northern Hemisphere means less exposure to the sunlight necessary for Vitamin D synthesis in the body, which in turn is important for calcium absorption, a Vitamin D deficiency could negatively affect your development of strong bones and teeth. There is also some evidence, albeit inconclusive, to suggest that a Vitamin D deficiency might negatively impact your mood. You should therefore be especially mindful about eating foods that are rich in Vitamin D during winter. Better yet, take a daily Vitamin D supplement to be sure you’re getting your recommended daily intake.
It’s also very important for your health to take part in winter activities. If it’s your first winter in Canada, make a plan for how to get out of the house and participate in fun activities throughout the season. Hibernation can be very dangerous for your mental health. A strong suggestion is to actually take advantage of the cold weather and all the snowfall by getting involved in winter sports. It’s easy to find places to (learn to) downhill or cross-country ski, snowboard, ice skate, snowshoe, and more. Grab your friends or family and set up a regular schedule for hitting the winter slopes for some fun sporting activities. Another suggestion is to find out what your city offers in terms of winter activities. In big cities like Montreal, local governments go to great lengths to ward off wintertime blues among residents by offering a wide variety of festivals, events, exhibitions, and general entertainment throughout winter. Do some research online to find out what’s going on in your city, or simply head downtown and walk around to check out what’s happening. The important thing is to live your life as usual, and not to change your social habits for the duration of winter just because you don’t feel like going out into the cold. Do it for your mental health!
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