Yes, you can survive this cold! Ten tips from a Canadian

By Caitlin Kelly

Right now across North America it’s colder than….insert cliche here.

For us Canadians, it’s “really?”

I grew up in Toronto and Montreal, have visited Quebec City several times in winter and even once reported a story from the Arctic Circle in December.

I know cold!

Anyone who survives multiple winters in Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal or parts further north — like Yellowknife  (- 27 today) or Salluit (-11) — quickly learns how to handle bitter, biting winter winds, frost, ice and snow. As one friend, a former wildlife biologist who worked in the Arctic says, “It’s not the cold. It’s having the right clothing.”


A few tips:

— Don’t wear anything made of metal! If you have piercings on any piece of exposed flesh — earlobes, eyebrows, nose, whatever — take that thing out  now. Metal conducts cold. You do not want to invite frostbite. That includes metal watches, bangles and rings.

— Exposed skin can get frostbite within minutes. Wrap a wool, cashmere or polypro scarf or cagoule (Americans call this a neckgaiter; the link is to a $12.99 one in black. Do it!) around as much of your face as possible. Forget vanity! If you have to work outside or spend long hours outdoors, give in and buy a balaclava. Yes, you’ll look like a cat burglar. Deal with it.

— Woolen tights and socks only. Forget any other fabric right now, except cashmere. Only wool will give you the insulation you need. Woolen tights are also super-durable, so even if they cost a little more, you can use them for years.

— Moisturize. Skin is easily dehydrated and chapped by winter winds, so wear plenty of creamy, rich moisturizer and use lip balm. Refresh often.

— Don’t forget SPF. The sun is still shining and your skin still needs protection; choose a moisturizer or facial cream with 15 to 30 SPF.

— Windproof clothing is your best bet — down-filled nylon from makers like LLBean, The North Face, Patagonia, Lands’ End. Look for features you really need right now — a tight elastic cuff deep inside the sleeve so you can tuck your gloves or mittens into it so that not one inch of your flesh is exposed between sleeve bottom and mitten top, a high collar that can cover your throat and lower face and a warm, insulating hood with strings you can draw tight around your face.


— Fur is the best. If that suggestion horrifies you, sorry. But if you can find a fur coat, scarf and/or hat —  at thrift stores, vintage stores, Ebay, etc. — fur will keep you warmer than anything, and (sheared fur, like sheared beaver or mink) with minimal bulk.

Yaktrax can help save you from serious fall and injury. I love these things! For $20, these metal/rubber grippers slip over the soles and sides of your shoes or boots and will make even the slipperiest of sidewalks less terrifying. They’re light and small enough to tuck into your purse or backpack in a Ziploc bag after use.

— Stay dry. Exposed moisture will freeze. That includes wet hair. Yes, I used to get hairsicles as I crossed the University of Toronto campus between winter classes after my early morning squash game. Always wear a warm hat that covers your ears and thick windproof gloves or mittens.

— Drinking hot tea helps. Winter wind is dehydrating and drinking lots of hot tea will warm you quickly and affordably, with no calories. Try a new-to-you blend like Constant Comment or smoky Lapsang Souchong.

48 thoughts on “Yes, you can survive this cold! Ten tips from a Canadian

  1. I grew up in North Western Montana, and I agree with pretty much everything here, except that wool is the only thing that works. Layers of a variety of materials are a good idea. Something that wicks away moisture on the bottom, a fluffy middle layer, and wind-proof outer layer is the best combination I’ve found. And finding boots that keep your feet warm and dry is really important. In my experience, it’s the feet that cause the most misery when it gets cold.

    Another tip would be to force yourself to relax. Shivering is good to help keep you warm, but once you’re in a warm, heated building, take a second to just breathe and let every muscle relax. It prevents a lot of the aches and pains that muscles overextended from constant shivering can cause.

    1. Thanks. I was going to mention boots but it seemed (?) so obvious. Nothing else works as well, for sure.

      I agree — it’s easy to get caught up in a cycle of shivering. I should have added (obvious to me) that a good, hot bath will also help. I like them a lot better than showers.

      1. The scary thing about sudden cold like this is if you do not (as I do already) own the requisite clothing and footwear. It’s costly if you suddenly have to buy a bunch for yourself and/or kids.

      2. Definitely. There’s been a lot of angst about that down here. Fortunately, I’ve kept my family prepared and it hasn’t been snowy or icy, so driving to the store to get such things has been easy for most people.

        Best thing that’s happened – a coworker wore her footie pajamas to work under her dress, because it was the only way she figured she’d stay warm in our building with half-functioning heaters.

  2. mylifeinfocusblog

    For Christmas, I bought everyone in my family Marino wool socks. At first everyone pooh-poohed them. Not any more! Mother always knows best!

    Especial, a mother who is in sunny Florida now! Missing the whole winter blast!

  3. amatterofinstinct

    I love this post, but I have sad news from up here in Canada. This morning it was -23-ish north of Toronto, where I live, sunny, not snowing. Just cold, that’s all. Buses were cancelled and schools (not “officially” closed) were half-staffed and students DID NOT GO TO SCHOOL BECAUSE OF ONLY THE COLD. I am happy to have any day off school, but really?

    Are you a bit embarrassed now? Because I am.

  4. Great tips. Another suggestion: Bring all winter garments with you when you drive or use other transport. Last week my car broke down on a windswept highway in western Minnesota, with the thermometer temp at -5 F, and it would have been terrible if I didn’t have coat, gloves and hat with me as I waited more than an hour for AAA’s help. Kids often argue they don’t need gloves, etc., when they go driving, but you never know when something bad will happen.

    1. Hey, so good to hear from you!

      GREAT tip, thanks! This happened to me many years ago as well — stuck on the highway in a blizzard awaiting a tow truck. Dangerous without lots of warm clothing — let alone a blanket.

  5. Yes! We are pretty accustomed to the cold and snow here in New Hampshire, but I am always surprised by people who take unnecessary risks. I ran into a dude wearing SHORTS at the supermarket during last week’s 3 degree snowstorm. He told me that he “just never gets cold.” Biology is real – exposed legs can get frost bite, too!!

    Stay warm!

  6. I would not recommend Yaktrax unless you have money to burn, because one pair lasted about a week. They are very good, as the column said. But they break very easily in the cold. When I called the company they said, “Well, we HOPE that they last longer than a week.” Sure. Also, if you get them too large they will fall off and you will lose them. If you get them too small, when you try to put them on they will bounce right off.

  7. Excellent advice, although I had a pair of Yaktrax for winter running that fell off in the snow about 5 minutes after leaving the house, so I’ll reserve my judgement of them. Drinking tea however, after having grown up in northern Scotland, will solve any problem you have and heal all ills.

    1. Good to know…

      Just brewing a fresh pot of loose leaf Earl Grey in a white china teapot. Bliss! I lived for a summer in a stone cottage in Crieff, Perthshire. Am very eager to return to Scotland one day.

      1. Sounds lovely. I got some very special tea this year, grown on a plantation in Cornwall, which I can highly recommend (except for the price!). And haste ye back as we like to say to our visitors.

  8. Thanks for the great advice. Thankfully I still had some of my cold weather gear in a closet from when I lived up north. This is the coldest winter we’ve had since we moved to Texas 15 years ago.

    1. Thanks!

      I was realizing how difficult it must be for anyone who owns nothing like that. It costs a lot to suddenly buy boots/hat/mitts/jackets of any quality, let alone for a whole family.

  9. Great advice (esp. about Yaktrax–love them!). I read your post this afternoon while waiting for Cameron outside her middle school, watching a stream of kids emerge without coats, hats, mittens–some in tee shirts and shorts! When you’re thirteen, outwear is just not cool, even when it’s 5 degrees…

  10. When I was in Toronto , I experienced -35 for the first time in my life. I drank Tim Horton ‘s hot chocolate almost everyday ! I still miss it !
    And skin get dehydrated so went Shoppers to buy a moisturizer 🙂
    It was a good experience living that cold winter!!

  11. Pingback: A Canadian’s guide to surviving frigid winters | Cottage Digest

  12. Pingback: A Canadian's guide to surviving frigid winters – Viraw

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