Baby, it’s cold outside: how to dress for extreme weather


I was hurrying along a busy underground concourse last week in an attempt to escape a particularly frigid day when I noticed a woman gazing into a large display window. She was looking at a poster depicting two people reclining on deck chairs on a beach, each with a cool drink at their sides. In the background, the bright blue sky and ultramarine sea couldn’t have looked more enticing on a cold January day in Toronto.

photo credit: mira mira on the wall via photopin cc
photo credit: mira mira on the wall via photopin cc

Unfortunately, we all can’t escape to warmer climates whenever the temperature dips below the comfort zone. Some people actually relish Canadian winters – they ski, skate, hike in the woods, or go tobogganing in a local park. For others who dread the onslaught of colder weather, it’s a time to hibernate by the fireside with a good book. Regardless of how we view the months between fall and spring, wearing clothing that protects us from the elements is crucial. But how do we properly dress for Canadian winters?

Here are some tried and true suggestions taken from eHow:

Dress in Layers

Our mothers were right: dressing in layers is definitely advantageous when dealing with sub-zero temperatures. We should always begin with a base layer in the form of long underwear, or something similar which provides an adequate level of protection next to the skin. While clothing made of merino wool products are generally recognized as among the best, synthetics will work as well. And ditch the cotton until the warmer temperatures come back, as cotton is not a good conserver of heat. Additional layers, such as sweaters, should ideally be made from a thick fleece or wool.

Wear a Good-Quality Coat

Choose a good-quality coat especially designed for cold temperatures, and one that’s water- repellent so the clothing underneath won’t become wet if it snows. A hood provides an extra layer of protection for your head. A down-filled coat is particularly recommended if you spend a lot of time outdoors and need extra protection. Despite their bulk, parkas are an excellent choice as they reach down to the knees or further and they usually come with a hood. Ski-jackets are shorter but usually have a waterproofed or water-resistant exterior. They tend to be thinner and lighter than parkas and in this way, a little more versatile. If your time out of doors is more along the lines of waiting for a bus or hurrying from a house into a car, any good quality coat – long or short – will suffice, as long it has the thickness to withstand a typical Canadian winter.

photo credit: iamshaheen via photopin cc
photo credit: iamshaheen via photopin cc

Wear a Hat 

We can’t afford to be fashionistas during the winter months, so keeping your head covered in cold temperatures is essential!  A hat with earflaps is preferable when it’s merely cold, but when the thermometer really dips down, stocking caps such as toques provide much better protection as they cover the entire head. Yes, head-hugging toques may look decidedly “Canuck” but they actually had their origin in Scandinavia during the Viking period. Yet because their design suits the Canadian winter climate so perfectly, toques have come to be regarded as a sort of national symbol. And to go with the hat, a scarf is an excellent idea for protecting the neck and shoulders from the wind. Besides, you probably do look good in a hat.

Hands and Feet

Like every other part of the body, hands and feet should be well covered. Gloves or mittens offer decent protection, but if you spend more than an average amount of time outdoors, layering is once again the way to go. A synthetic mitten underneath a thicker wool glove will provide much more protection than a single layer despite the possible decrease in dexterity. Similarly, for the feet, a thick wool or synthetic sock will work better when accompanied by a thinner layer underneath.  When choosing a good-quality boot, look for one that is well insulated, has soft sides, a good lining, and a thick but flexible sole. The farther your feet are away from the cold ground, the warmer they will feel.(High heel wearers: just because your heels are off the ground doesn’t mean those pumps are keeping you warm, save them for inside, ‘kay?)

Myths About Dressing for Winter

There are more than a few misconceptions that have been around for years, and don’t seem to be going away in a hurry.

Myth: By dressing warmly you can avoid colds, viruses, and the flu.

Colds and the flu are caused by viruses spread from one person to another and not by air temperature. It won’t make any difference how warmly you are dressed if you come into contact with someone who happens to be sick.

photo credit: ProdigyBoy via photopin cc
photo credit: ProdigyBoy via photopin cc

Myth: You lose the most body heat through your head.

This misconception has been around for years, but heat loss is not necessarily confined to the head,  a person will lose heat from any part of the body if it is exposed long enough. However, the case is different with infants because an infant’s head is proportionally larger, so he or she will lose more heat and over a shorter period. This is why it is so important to keep an infant’s head covered during cold weather.

Myth: Men and women feel cold at the same temperature.

The external temperature at which the body begins to conserve heat is known as the “set point temperature” and differs between the sexes. For women, the temperature is around 21 degrees Celcius, but men can contain heat at a slightly lower temperature, around 19 degrees. Hence, women begin to feel colder slightly sooner than men.

Myth: Cotton is a good insulator.

Soft cotton may feel nice, but it’s by no means the best insulator for cold Canadian winters. If cotton happens to get wet, it conducts heat away from the body at a much higher rate than other fabrics. A much better choice would be a synthetic such as polypropylene or Capilene, both of which pull water away from the skin.

Myth: Drinking alcohol will keep you warm.

Imbibing in some brandy may make you feel warmer for a short time because it causes the blood to rush to the skin’s surface. But in reality, alcohol causes the blood vessels to dilate and in the long run, and causes heat loss. It can also impede the shivering process which generates further body heat and worst of all, it can create havoc with judgment.

Myth: Fake fur is as warm as real fur.

 Does anyone wear real fur these days? If you are so inclined to wear fur, stick to the real thing, as it is a far superior insulator than the synthetic equivalent. Just as nature intended, real animal hairs keep heat from leaving the body.

photo credit:   Lori King via  Toledo Blade
photo credit: Lori King via Toledo Blade

Dress for the season, people! 

There you have it in a nutshell – dressing for another cold Canadian winter. Much of it is just good old-fashioned common sense, but I’m forever surprised to see someone out walking in shorts on one of those unseasonably mild days when the temperature rises to plus 7! No, no no! This is still winter and this is still Toronto, and nobody should be deluded into thinking we’re headed for an early spring with a day or two of melting ice. Real spring will be here soon enough, and in the meantime, dress for the season! Six months from now, during a blistering hot day in July, we may wish for a bit of that cold weather back again!

Sources: eHowUniversity of Rochester Medical Center