Nov 18, 2010

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Chicago Winter

I've now had the same conversation with two different people in the course of a week--the same conversation that I seem to have once every couple of months--the "Chicago winter isn't going to kill you" conversation with someone who has just moved here from warmer climes.

So, let's start by getting that out of the way:

The Chicago winter isn't going to kill you.

I'm from New Orleans, so I'm used to spending my summers wading through molten tin and having the air conditioner running on Christmas Day (which, by the way, was great when you got a new bike or Big Wheel for Christmas). I grew up having to mow the lawn nine months out of the year, with the grass growing so fast that you had to cut it every five days in the summer (in 100 degree weather with close to 100% humidity no less).

Yeah, I don't miss that so much.

Digression: When people ask me how I can stand the Chicago winters after growing up in New Orleans (and my family asks me this every year, right after we have our first sub-zero temperature in Chicago), I tell them this: When it gets freezing cold, you can always put more clothes on. When it gets ridiculously hot and humid, there's a point at which you have to stop taking clothes off or you'll get arrested.

I'll take the freezing cold over the blistering heat anytime.

But beyond that, Chicago has radically different weather at different times of the year, and I really love the change of seasons here. For one, I never saw snow before moving to Chicago for school, and quickly discovered that there’s great fun to be had in the Chicago winter. And then there's a tremendous amount of excitement when you see the first flowers poking up through the ground in the spring, and then we truly celebrate the great outdoor weather in the summer with numerous festivals, concerts, and block parties (most of which are free). But for me, autumn in the Midwest is a magical time. Autumn is the time when I first moved to Chicago (and started college), it's when I met my wife (and later married her), and, having grown up where the fall colors are green and brown, I never cease to be amazed by the brilliant reds and golds of the trees when autumn is in full force. For me, autumn in Chicago is what makes the winter months worth it.

That said, when I first moved up here I was completely unprepared for the winter--I had a crappy old army field jacket, no scarf, cotton socks, and a pair of cheap gloves that I'd bought in New Orleans (i.e. paper-thin). If it hadn't been for luck, liberal applications of antifreeze (i.e. cheap beer), and an overheated dorm room, I probably would have died from exposure.

But now that I've been here for 22 years, I cruise through the Chicago winter effortlessly, thanks to the combination of advice from a wife who was born and raised here and some great technological improvements in cold-weather wear (namely Thinsulate and SmartWool socks).

The Weather

Many Chicagoans are obsessed with the weather, and I mean really obsessed with the weather. If you own a TV, you’ll quickly get to know Tom Skilling, who has been the weatherman on WGN for over 30 years. Tom is a serious weather geek and has tons of fans in the city and, yes, even his own branded Snuggie.

There are two types of winter in Chicago: Snowy, and Cold, and the good news is that they rarely happen at the same time. Cold Winter will occasionally dip down below zero (Fahrenheit), but usually resides somewhere above zero and below 20. You’ll hear a great deal of discussion about wind chill, and high winter winds are where you’ll really feel the chill unless you dress for it (see below). Cold Winter comes mostly in January and February, but I think that the first time the temperature gets below freezing is the hardest--after that, your expectations are set and you’re typically more prepared for the cold air.

Snowy Winter typically happens when the weather is closer to (but below) freezing, and then the snow tapers off as it gets colder. Despite being known for cold (and windy, although that's mostly due to the politicians) winters, Chicago doesn’t get a lot of snow compared to other places like Pennsylvania and upstate New York. The bulk of the snowfall usually falls in December, January, and February, with lighter snows coming as early as October and as late as early May (very rare). The early and late snows don’t typically stick around for very long and are usually very wet and slushy. When the weather hovers right around freezing, we can get sleet and freezing rain which can coat tree branches, power lines, and roofs, causing power outages and various property damage due to the massive weight of the ice. Fortunately these kinds of storms happen somewhat infrequently.

The closer you live to Lake Michigan, the more likely it is to affect your weather. In the spring, you’ll frequently hear that the weather is “cooler by the lake” (and, of course, it’s often a little warmer by the lake in the autumn). The lake acts as a huge heat sink to retain both the winter cold and the summer warmth and can affect temperatures within a few miles of the lake by several degrees if the wind is coming across the lake. The lake can also cause
lake effect snow
, which can dump up to a foot or two of big, fluffy snowflakes on the city, but lake effect snow from Lake Michigan typically hits Western Michigan and Northern Indiana harder than Chicago.

A lot of snow is a snowstorm. A lot of snow and a lot of wind is a blizzard. Whenever the forecast is for more than a foot of snow or a blizzard, you should prepare to possibly be stuck at home for a few days (although this is unlikely, it’s best to plan for the worst). This usually means a grocery run to get staples and plenty of food and a battery check for your flashlights. I’ve only lived here through one blizzard, and I laughed when my girlfriend (now my wife) camped out at her mom’s house and practically begged me stay over as well. I told her that I was only three blocks away, and if the streets weren’t plowed I’d just walk over the next day.

First, I had to leave my apartment through my landlord’s apartment since my door was snowed in. Then it took me 50 minutes to “walk” the three blocks--through the middle of the street, wearing full ski gear (including goggles). I learned my lesson: blizzards are a great time to stay home and keep warm.

The Basics: Behavior

Before getting into the proper clothing, let's review how you'll act when the weather is freezing: You're not going to be sitting in the park reading the paper when it's 5 below outside. Much like a New Orleans summer, you're mostly going to minimize the time that you're outside in a Chicago winter unless you're doing something fun outside (more on that later). Make sure your hair is bone dry before heading out in -10F weather (or your hair
break, I kid you not). If you have metal-framed glasses, you might want to not wear them when it's below zero because they'll pull heat from your head and cold from the air and promptly spot-weld to your temples. Plan your errands so that you'll take fewer trips out of the house and spend less time moving from store to store. Before it gets cold (if you have room), stock up on dry goods like paper towel and toilet paper, canned goods, and other sundries that aren't going to spoil. Believe me, you don't want to have to run out to the grocery to get toilet paper when it's fifteen below zero.

The days get really short, so take every opportunity you can to get a little sunlight. You can fight Seasonal Affective Disorder by heading over to the Winter Garden at the Harold Washington Library or Crystal Gardens at Navy Pier. Or get out and about with friends. Join the Chicago Sport & Social Club, or Sports Monster if you’re more serious, and play some indoor sports.

I also highly recommend taking a few days (or a week if possible) in late January or early February to go somewhere warm--I don't care if it's for work or pleasure, a short break outside of the frozen tundra is a tremendous help to making it through the depths of winter. Some people will recommend you actually go somewhere colder so that when you return to Chicago, the winter seems more mild, but I much prefer the shot of warmth--it’s up to you.

Dressing appropriately

Disclaimer: I work as a software engineer/engineering manager, and the dress code at my office is "you must wear clothes." I'm not going to focus on what to wear that will make you look good and keep you toasty warm because sometimes those two things are mutually exclusive. Also, I don’t cover things like how to wear pretty boots, how to not get your hair smooshed under a hat, or how to deal with frozen mascara, etc. Sorry ladies. If someone else cares to write an essay on that, I’ll be glad to link to it from here.

What I am going to cover is what you'll need for the worst case days in the winter: when it's blowing snow off the ground and 15 below with a -30 wind chill--if you're prepared for that, you're good to go for the rest of the winter.

The first thing that most Chicagoans will tell you about winter is the hackneyed "Dress in layers!" Well, it's true, you should dress in layers. This means that on your torso you should wear an undershirt (or long underwear), a regular shirt, a sweater, possibly another layer (like a fleece), and then an outer jacket with a liner. On your legs you should wear long underwear and pants that are thicker and preferably wool (I admittedly have a weakness for flannel-lined jeans). Layers are helpful for two reasons: They allow you to adjust for daily fluctuations in the temperature as well as gross inaccuracies in meteorological forecasts, and sometimes it's easier to layer than to wear one giant overstuffed down poofy coat. The poofy coat, however, has the advantage of being really warm and easy to take on and off, which is easy if you’re running in an out of stores or going to a party where you don’t want to spend 5 minutes peeling off layers in your host’s foyer.

Let's work our way down from head to toe: For starters, you should have a hat, usually either wool or fleece (not cotton). You should wear a scarf or, even better, a fleece neck gator which you won't have to fiddle with or keep tucking in (as long as you don't mind pulling it over your head). I also recommend 180s ear muffs as a way to really keep your ears warm--they're really warm, small, low-profile, and fold up to almost nothing. That said, don’t go overboard and don a ski mask unless you want to look like a burglar or a bank robber. The important thing here is to keep cold, air away from your head, ears, and neck. And get some lip balm and some lotion and use them both liberally--in cold weather, your lips (and your skin!) can dry out and even crack.

A note about cotton: Cotton does not keep you warm:* not cotton sweaters, not cotton socks, not cotton undershirts, not cotton anything. Cotton is not a good insulator. When you sweat (and you will sweat, even though it's five degrees out), cotton will hang onto all that moisture and hold it right up against your body where it will make you feel cold and clammy. This is the reason that you never want to wear cotton socks while skiing--your feet will sweat (since they're encased in non-breathable plastic boots and you're exerting yourself), and cotton will soak up all that water and hold it right up against your feet. While cotton sheets are lovely in the warm summers, cotton is evil (like the fru-its of the dev-il) in the winter and is out to kill you and steal your Xbox. If you wear a cotton layer, just remember that it's not going to help keep you warm (and you really don't want it right next to your body when it's insanely cold out). You've been warned.

*There's always the exception to the rule: flannel is OK, even if it's cotton.

For a lighter jacket or inner jacket, most people have a warm fleece. Get one with a zipper front and maybe a pullover as well. What you’ll discover pretty quickly is that in the winter we spend most of our time inside, so when you get to work you might be hot if you’ve got too many inner layers on. A fleece is pretty flexible

I'd like to talk more about the jacket you should wear: For starters, you should buy your jacket in Chicago. Attempting to get by with that winter jacket you bought in San Diego is a recipe for misery and frostbite. Your jacket should be heavy duty with a zip-out lining, cuffs that you can cinch closed, preferably an internal lining that gathers around your waist (to keep cold air from coming up the bottom of the jacket), and it should be long enough to at least cover your ass. Keeping cold air from coming up the bottom of your jacket is key when the temperature gets down well below freezing (this also applies to cold air coming in through your sleeves and up your pant legs). Some people like to go with the full-length down coats that go down to their knees, and these are very warm (although you’ll sacrifice a little mobility. If you get a jacket that is a warm shell with a zip-out liner (which likely is down), you'll get a lot more use out of your jacket over the course of the winter and both layers will keep you warm. Lastly, even though you have a hat and scarf, it's nice to have a jacket with a hood (typically zip-out) that you can pull up and cinch tight for when you're commuting in a snowstorm.

I'm a big fan of Columbia's jackets, but Patagonia, REI, Eddie Bauer, and many others have great heavy-duty winter coats. Remember, if it feels like a flimsy piece of crap, it probably is--avoid it. A good winter coat is going to have some heft to it.

Gloves or mittens are important because if your fingers are cold, it doesn't matter how warm your torso is--you're still going to feel cold (They can also help keep the dry winter air from drying out the skin on your hands). Mittens will let your fingers cluster and touch each other, so they'll retain heat better, but you're sacrificing movement and diligence for this, and let's face it, most people feel like a little kid when they're wearing mittens. If you decide to wear gloves instead, just make sure that you have some lined with something like Thinsulate or wool and that their outer shell will break the wind. They should also be pretty heavy, and long enough to go past your wrist and "tuck into" the cinched cuffs of your jacket, or every time you move your hand, you'll feel the kiss of cold air on your wrists. You might even want to have a couple of pairs of gloves that are various weights depending on how cold it is.

Moving on to your lower body: Plain old jeans are going to feel like sheets of ice slapping against your thighs when it's really cold out (because jeans are made out of that ev-il cotton stuff), so either wear wool pants, long underwear under whatever else you're wearing, or flannel-lined jeans (which are one of the greatest inventions of the... well, of whenever it was that they were invented). Oh, and also, when it's snowing, you probably want to wear darker pants whenever possible because you're eventually going to get some street muck on the backs of the lower leg of your pants and lighter fabrics really show that.

Let's talk for a minute about long underwear (or "long johns" as you might hear them called). People swear by a variety of types of long underwear such as those made of silk, merino wool, or Capilene (which is made out of polyester), but as long as they're not cotton, you'll be fine. Some people swear by
Under Armour
, but any brand will do (I got mine from REI). Many people think that they need thick long underwear to keep them warm, but on the contrary, usually the thinner stuff is better because it both insulates you and wicks sweat away from your body. In a bad winter I probably bust out my long underwear 5-10 times, so even though you're not wearing them often, they're a lifesaver when the weather guy is talking about temperatures in degrees Kelvin.

And now onto socks. I could wax poetic for hours about socks: wool socks, wool blend socks, etc. etc., but I'm going to cut that short and say this: You need to invest in some SmartWool socks. I say "invest" for good reason--they're about $18 a pair (although you can often get them on a "buy three get one free" sale or some such. They're made out of treated merino wool, super thin, very soft, and you can thank me later. You're welcome.

Now for shoes, or more specifically, boots. The city of Chicago is really great about snow removal in the streets--we can get 30" of snow on Saturday and everyone will be happily commuting on Monday. The problem with snow lies in three places: when it's coming down, homeowners that don't shovel their walks, and transition points like where you leave the sidewalk and enter the street. You're going to encounter slushy black puddles, ice patches, loose snow, and everything in-between. You need some boots that will not only keep your feet warm and dry, but that will give you some traction and help you navigate icy patches without landing on your ass. Do not make the mistake of thinking the slushy black puddles are frozen over and you can walk on them. That will only end in tears.

If, after all that, you still think you're going to freeze to death, give Old Man Winter the finger and buy North Face's Summit Series Himalayan Parka with matching overalls. They’re pricey, but you could sleep outside wearing that get-up and stay toasty warm.

Fun Stuff To Do in the Cold

Chicagoans don't just sit around inside and mope when it's cold, we embrace winter. As a result, there are tons of fun things to do in Chicago throughout the winter when it’s cold (20F-40F), but not super-chilled. Here are a few things you can do in Chicago that you can't pull off in other, more temperate locations:

Go to The Magnificent Mile Lights Festival right before Thanksgiving and see them turn on over a million lights on Michigan Avenue. I also highly recommend warming up with some food and drink at Chicago's Christkindlmarket in Daley Plaza which is a great German tradition in the city. Also see the massive Christmas Tree at Daley Plaza, and another at the Museum of Science and Industry. You can spend a fun day walking around downtown just to check out the Christmas decorations in the hotels and department stores (and stopping for the occasional hot chocolate to warm up). If you're into Christmas lights, there are no shortage of neighborhoods where people go crazy decorating their homes. Make your own blown glass Christmas ornaments at Chicago Hot Glass. Embrace Winter Sports--there’s a reason we have both Summer and Winter Olympics to protest against! The Chicago Curling Club puts on great Learn2Curl sessions (and it’s really a lot of fun). It’s flat outside, so get some Cross Country Skis and tool around Waveland Golf Course or Palos Forest Preserve. Skating rinks abound, from an outdoor public one at Millennium Park(with a backdrop that can't be beat) to hockey action at Johnny’s Ice House. Go for a horseback ride on the trails at Fitzjoy Farm in Palos Park (no relation to me, I swear). If you have kids or you're a big kid, sledding is loads of fun. On the best sledding days the weather is actually moderate, the snow is fluffy, and you can ride like the wind.

If you’ve got the space, get a portable fire pit to huddle around. Cook on an open fire using a Dutch Oven or buy a smoker and make some awesome BBQ. Take a day to cruise around H Mart, the massive Asian market in the Northern burbs and track down gargantuan Korean chestnuts to roast.

Head to the Beaches of Lake Michigan. Not surprisingly, they'll be pretty well empty, but the ice formations are often quite beautiful. The sound of the ice when the lake freezes over is eerie and captivating, but I wouldn't recommend trying to walk on it.

And if you decide that, after all this, the cold doesn't bother you one bit, you might want to join the Polar Bear Club and have a swim in the lake. In January. You can’t make this stuff up.

Streets, Driving, and Cycling (yes, Cycling!)

Chicago has a fleet of hundreds of salt trucks and plows that often start salting (yes, salt--none of that inferior “sand” stuff they use in other parts of the country) even before the first snowflake falls to make sure that you can get safely from A to B in your car even when the city gets hit by a blizzard. Alleys get plowed last, if at all, so you may find yourself with your car temporarily stuck in your garage if it doesn't have four-wheel drive and we get a ton of snow.

If you have a car that you park on the street, you should be aware of a Chicago, um, "tradition" that you'll witness after big (i.e. more than 12") snows. You can spend a half-hour or even an hour or more digging your car out of a spot after a big snowstorm, so, in the neighborhoods, Chicagoans don't want to give up that freshly dug out spot. Rather than leave their car in the same place all winter long, people will dig out, pull out, and "mark" their spot with something as a way of saying "This is my spot, I dug it out, and if you take it, I'll key your car" or something similarly friendly. The "markers" that I've seen take the form of old tables, chairs, milk crates, 2x4s, sawhorses, bar stools, old coffee tables, and--I kid you not--a recliner. Is this legal? No. Will the Chicago Police be there to help you when you take someone's spot and they come after you? No. Is this crazy? Maybe. Is it worth it to pay for a garage space in Chicago? Probably.

Driving in the snow and ice is an acquired skill. Know whether your car has anti-lock brakes and skid control as these can all help you to drive through snow and ice. While four-wheel drive can help you drive through snow and ice, it does not help you stop at all, and every year I watch people plow into other cars when they drive their SUV too aggressively on an icy street. Give the car in front of you plenty of room, don't tailgate, and when the roads are treacherous, don't drive unless you have to. If you want to get used to driving in the snow and ice you might want to spend some time driving around an empty parking lot getting to know how the car handles in snow.

If you relocate your car here from a warmer place, take it to a mechanic to get a winter overhaul: make sure you've got appropriate antifreeze and that it's topped off with windshield wiper fluid (water will freeze solid, so you need to use real wiper fluid). You should have the following in your car from October to April: a combination ice scraper/brush/squeegee (I recommend a telescoping one like this one), an extra gallon of wiper fluid, a small telescoping snow shovel, and maybe even a small bag of rock salt. These will go a long way to helping you get through most winter weather that strikes. Lastly, some kind of roadside assistance will come in handy when your car dies in -10F weather (of course, the worse the weather gets, the longer they'll take to come).

Lastly, if you love to bike, you’ll be happy to know that there’s a big contingent of folks who ride bikes all winter long. It may sound completely insane, but 90% of the time the streets are totally dry and clear of snow and ice. You simply need to dress like you’re going skiing--good gloves, windbreaker, and balaclava and you’ll warm up fast enough if you dress appropriately. That said, you might not want to bike when the streets are wet or you’ll find yourself covered in a thin film of road salt, and that’s no fun at all.

Sidewalks and Walking

If you live in a house, you're required by law to shovel your sidewalk, but unfortunately, many people don't shovel despite this. For snow removal, your basic tools are a snow shovel, a broom and something to melt snow. If you've got a lot of walk and/or driveway to shovel, you might want to invest in a snowblower*, but it's usually not necessary. Whatever the case, the most important thing to know is that you need to buy these supplies well before the first snowfall. Despite the fact that Chicagoans have figured out how to live in the city, every year, the first snowfall results in a run on snow shovels, snow melt, and snowblowers, so unless you want to be clearing your walks with a lawn rake, plan ahead.

* Yes I know it’s technically a snowthrower, but it’s just so much easier to say snowblower. Snowblower snowblower snowblower snowblower. See?

There are different kinds of snow shovels: L-shaped handles or straight handles, metal scoops or plastic scoops, metal handles or wooden handles. I recommend finding a light one that won't flex too much and that feels right for someone of your height. While the metal and metal-edged ones are nice, they can get stuck more than the plastic ones if your sidewalk has a lot of cracks. When it’s colder, snow is light and fluffy and easy to shovel. When it’s closer to freezing, snow gets wetter and heavier, and many people call this “heart-attack snow” because every year a few people overexert themselves shovelling this kind of snow and die from--yep, you guessed it--a heart attack. No kidding.

After you shovel your walk, there will probably be a little bit of snow left, and maybe even some ice stuck to the walk. If the remaining snow doesn't look like it's melting on its own (and it's not likely to get above freezing that day), you might want to help it along. The most common thing to use is salt, but that is typically only effective down to about 5F. Beyond that, there are other products that melt snow down to lower temps, but many of these (even salt!) can damage concrete and stone walkways. In addition, it usually doesn't snow when it's really cold, so I've always done fine with plain old rock salt. Besides, it's cheap and easy to find if you buy it before the rush. One last word on applying salt: you shouldn’t salt if it’s still snowing or likely to continue to snow because you’ll just wind up picking the salt up (and probably throwing it onto your lawn) the next time you shovel.

While a snowblower isn't necessary, I’ve discovered that there are a few tricks to buying a snowblower. Most importantly, get out and buy it before the first big snowfall. After the first big snowfall, your only choices are going to be the cheapie plastic ones that run on 9 volt batteries and the $1,500 ones that, in addition to removing snow, can also rip up sod, shrubs, and 200 year old redwoods.
A few tips for walking on snowy sidewalks: most important of all, keep in mind how long it’s been since the last snow. Unshoveled snow turns into slush, which turns into lumpy ice after being trampled, which can be deadly when covered with a fresh coating of soft snow. With experience, you’ll start being able to detect the different stages of sidewalk snow and alter your footing and walking technique to accommodate the uneven surface.

If you watch the news, you'll sometimes hear about certain conditions forming
black ice
on roads and sidewalks. It's not completely invisible most of the time, so keep an eye out for it as it's basically frictionless and very dangerous.

Home Is Where The Heat Is

Whether you have an apartment or a house, there are a few things you can do to make the winter months more comfy and cozy without turning your thermostat up to 80.

There are tons of comfortable and warm things you can wear around the house, from flannel pajamas, to loungewear, sweats, sweaters, and fuzzy socks. There are also all sorts of slippers you can get to keep your feet warm, including down slippers that are so warm you’ll probably have to wear them with socks to keep your feet from sweating non-stop. Fleece throws or
are also great for sitting around reading or watching TV.

If you’re used to wearing your outdoor shoes around the house, you might want to get a boot tray and shed your winter boots at the door, else you’ll track snow, ice, and salt across your floors and carpets. This will help keep your house a lot cleaner through the winter months.

In the bedroom, there are tons of great products to make your bed warm and cozy (calm down there, I’m talking about sheets and blankets here). The first thing most people get is a warm down comforter, and there are different weights, so get a heavier one if you want the most warmth. Flannel sheets are also a great way to retain heat while sleeping, although be careful, because if you wear flannel pajamas with the flannel sheets, you might roll over in the middle of the night and start a friction fire (Kidding!). If all that’s not enough, you can get a feather bed to go under the sheets as well for the ultimate in bedtime warmth and coziness. This will enable you to sleep in a cooler room, which usually is better for sleeping, but does make getting out of bed in the morning just that much harder.

There are two ways that most houses are heated these days: forced air and radiant heat (usually radiators). I’ve alway found that forced air heat is a very dry heat, and once the heat goes off, your house will immediately start getting cooler. Radiators, on the other hand, usually have a tremendous amount of metal heat mass, so they’ll continue radiating heat well after the heat turns off. There are two kinds of radiators: steam and hot water. Steam radiators are the ones that you hear hissing and clanging and bumping and banging when they’re on. Hot water radiators have a closed loop of hot water (much like radiant floors do), and should be completely silent. I love hot water radiators as they provide a quiet, consistent heat and don’t stir up any air (which makes them great for allergen sufferers).

If you don’t have a humidifier, you might want to get one: The dry winter air can make your house a desert, and a humidifier isn’t only good for humans, but things like musical instruments and some furniture can get damaged if the air gets too dry. Radiators often have water trays that you can periodically fill to put some humidity into the room, but you can pick up a cheap humidifier at most home stores.

Lastly, fireplaces are great to sit around on cold winter days. Wood-burning fireplaces smell amazing, but are finicky, messy, and tend to be used less frequently. Gas fireplaces will warm you up just as much, make almost no mess, and can even be controlled by remote (although vent-free gas fireplaces can generate a ton of water vapor, so you might want to crack a window). One caveat on fireplaces is that while they’ll warm the areas near the fireplace, if your thermostat is in one of those areas, the rest of your place will likely get cold as the heat won’t come on while the fireplace is on.

Helping Others Stay Warm Will Warm Your Heart

Despite all of the moaning and groaning about Chicago winters, there are a lot of people that have it a lot harder. Give them a helping hand. Gather up all your old unused gear, and give it to someone in need. Donate money to homeless shelters. Cook a little extra, and share it with someone who’s hungry for a hot meal. Don’t like giving change to panhandlers? Fill your pockets with handwarmers, and hand them out instead. Volunteer at a soup kitchen. Donate coats to the coat drive. Participate in gift-giving for the less fortunate. Being cold can be pretty miserable when you don’t have a choice.

That’s a Wrap

That should just about do it to keep you warm through the Chicago winter. I should note, however, that the winter really isn't that bad: If you've never had a white Christmas, it's a magical time regardless of your age. It's typically only bitter cold in January and February, and most indoor spaces are heated to a very comfortable level, so it's not like you're never going to get warm for six months. And remember (and you'll hear Chicagoans say this often), the weather here builds character. And you could probably use some, buddy.

Welcome to Chicago!

Thanks to Marie Fitzpatrick, Adrian Holovaty, Zach Kaplan, Moshe Tamssot, and Ben Collins-Sussman for reviewing drafts and contributing tons of great advice to this article.


Shay Howe said...

Awesome post Brian, you make a lot of great points.

I grew up in the freezing cold in Ohio and never really appreciated it. When I moved to Arizona for college I quickly learned what I had been taking for granted all those years. You would think having an average of 300 sunny days a year would be great but it can actually be quite depressing. I would rejoice on days when it would rain or occasionally even make the 4 hour drive North to see snow in the winter.

I have since lived in Chicago for the past couple of years and am happy say I truly enjoy the winter.

bryan knight said...

Good Post. Chicago is the farthest south I have lived, and I will add this: you can't fight cold temperatures. It will start to get cold in the fall, and it will stay cold until march or april. So get used to it. Spend some time outside slightly underdressed in the fall, and just be cold. Get your body acclimatized to the weather and it won't FEEL so cold over time.

The first 40 degree day in the fall FEELS super cold. The first 40 degree day in the spring FEELS super warm. In the spring you are practically wearing a tshirt and everyone walks around oohing and aahing over this summer weather.

So get out there early, get used to the cold. Or stay inside, overdress, and you'll still be complaining about how cold it is in february. No one likes a complainer. Don't be that person.

Today was about 40 all day, and I was out and about in a zip up hoodie and a tshirt. I think I'll pull the coat out soon.... but not quite yet.

Mugsy the Girl said...

HI there,

great post!

There is an article about Chicago's winter for women. Not as thorough as yours, but for a different audience.

I'm sure you can link to it if you want to.

Victoria Wang said...

Great post! I've always lived in the Chicago burbs but there were quite a few things here that I didn't know, particularly your point about cotton.

Karl Fogel said...

OMG, thank you! This is my new post of reference for whenever anyone talks about Chicago winters, from now on.

Ari said...

A tip from my time as a messenger in Chicago: if you're riding in the wet and salty, a pair of fenders for your bike is absolutely necessary.

The rear one will save you that embarrassing white stripe that starts at the top of your butt and runs up your back.

The front one will save your life, as it will keep the spray out of your eyes and let them focus on the road.

These ZĂ©fal fenders can even be removed using thumbscrews and clips:

Bren in SoCal said...

This is required reading for all of my Californians who are thinking about school in da Chi. (Or, really, anywhere east of the 5 and north of the 10.) Good, good stuff.

Unknown said...

Nice :) Exactly what I need. I still dont know half the items you described, but atleast I have a shopping list ready.

Julianne said...

Chicago Botanic Gardens is great foe walking in the winter, esp. the Japanese Garden and new Evergreen area for nature lovers and photographers. People of all ages cross country ski across many golf courses in the Chicagoland area. Families can even rent skis of all sizes at many of the Forest Preserves and public parks. (My fav' nearby place is up north, Heller Nature center.) Thanks for mentioning many of us are still able to ride commuter bikes during many days of the winter months- if you dress well for it. Too bad folks just don't see all these great adventures on the national news.

Megan said...

I felt slightly like a granny buying it, but I bought a heated mattress pad last winter and now wouldn't go without it. Just warm enough to take the chill of the bed and helps the bed get warmer faster. I keep my therm. at 58 at night, and the pad makes this possible.

geekgrrl said...

I've had Thinsulate gloves over the years but always felt the winter bite. this year I picked up a pair of mittens (with inner finger separations) lined with Mirafil. ohh what a difference! even if the rest of me is cold, my hands are toasty warm. if Thinsulate lets you down, try to find Mirafil instead.

Erini CS said...

I would just want to add in regards to pants in the winter... Dark pants may hide the street slush, but because there's so much salt/ice-melter stuff, that'll actually leave white stains on the bottom of your pants. Solution: get good boots and tuck those pants in! (As a female, I *only* own skinny jeans just for that purpose.)

I learned a hard way that curbs can be deceiving. I stepped into 6-inches of snow just to find 6-inches of very cold, very wet slush underneath. And I was in wool, non-waterproof boots.

For people who are going to wear jeans all winter, just wear long underwear all winter too. Once it gets in the low 30s, it's a staple for me. Leggings or tights help too, but yes, gotta be careful with cotton.

Lastly: to all home owners... PLEASE SHOVEL. If someone falls on your property they can and might sue you. I learned this was possible when I fell and nearly snapped by wrists on CTA property. (Which if you fall on anyone's property, report it immediately.) (Another reason to wear a puffy coat that covers your butt is that it's extra padding for if you fall.)

Anonymous said...

I highly recommend Dalhgren socks over Smartwool. They are simply better -- trust me on this one. The quality, warmth, and comfort is much higher with Dahlgren. Check them out.

LadyReverie86 said...

My husband and I are planning to relocate in August with our two little girls (ages 1 & 2). We are both from Louisiana and have found this to be tremendously helpful, THANK YOU!
I'm a New Orleans Native as well, by the way! :)

Andy Paullin said...


Unknown said...

I'm a Jamaican and I'm going to experience my first Chicago winter...I'm now SERIOUSLY rethinking that decision!!!!! OMG!! I don't know that an Island Girl like myself will be able to handle that weather....however, this article did a world of good educating me on what to expect. So, I definitely WON'T be buying my sweaters and jeans here. Ordering them from some store-or-other that specializes in apparel for the horrid weather!! I'm going to Chicago with optimistic trepidation!!


Unknown said...

After growing up here & living in a few different places laughed so hard reading this as it was all so true!!!! As a vegan, I swear by columbia's omniheat coats, specifically the long hooded one that reaches your knees & boots that reach under your knees. Keen & kumik both are good brands that will keep you warm & dry. This article hit the nail right on the head. I love my flannel jeans & this year I found fleece lined leggings I can't wait to try out. Also, I learned its experience to learn how to wrap scarf that keeps you warm.

Unknown said...

Also those 3 in 1 coats aren't for here where you will most likely have fleece or a sweater on then trying to put a fleece lined coat over it & then being
able to move is very constricting!