What's it like to live in a properly cold climate?
Readers from Iceland to Japan share their experiences of getting through a long cold winter
Gillian Ackland enjoying the snow in Calgary
Brian Gaynor enjoying the snow in in Hokkaido, “Japan’s Alaska”.
As winter makes its presence felt in Ireland, we decided to ask our readers living in cooler climates what proper cold feels like. Dress appropriately, don’t stay outside too long, and embrace the season and enjoy it are among their suggestions for surviving winter where they are.
Sibeal Turraoin, Iceland: ‘I go to hot outdoor pools most days’
I’ve been in Iceland for the past 18 months and though it’s not as cold as other countries on the same latitude it can get pretty chilly. The coldest I’ve experienced has been -18 degrees, though it can be -30 or more in the highlands. The wind sometimes blows cars off the road and we joke about weekly hurricanes. Driving can be fun, but I’m used to it now and I use nailed tyres and carry emergency gear.
In the winter, people tend to hibernate a bit. Soon there will be only 3.5 hours of daylight. But it’s brighter with snow and the sky is full of beautiful pastel colours. Most houses are heated with very cheap geothermal energy – no immersions but lots of hot water. I go to hot outdoor pools most days.
Gillian Ackland, Calgary: ‘We embrace the cold rather than avoid it’
When my boyfriend and I first discussed moving to Calgary, I was completely daunted by the prospect of -30 degree Celsius temperatures. I questioned if the move was a sane decision. How could people live in such low temperatures?
But the strong economy, high living standards and the Rocky Mountains sealed the deal and we made the move.
Having experienced one Canadian winter and now in the middle of another, I can say that it is not as bad as I thought it would be. During my year and a half living here, most of the cold I have experienced has been softened by beautiful, clear, sunny skies. Rarely do we get the dull, overcast, rainy weather of Irish winters.
It feels strange to look out the window at beautiful clear skies and have to bundle up for -20 degrees, or to wear sunglasses all year round because of the glare of sun on fresh snow.
Canadians don’t mess around when it comes to winter. In early November, vehicles will be ‘winterized’ with cold weather tires for better grip. Buildings are well insulated – most houses and apartment building have double doors and windows, electronic temperature control and heated parking areas.
Calgary’s downtown has a heated elevated skywalk system which allows office workers and downtown dwellers to walk up to 18 kilometers without going outside.
Oisin Challoner, Uppsala, Sweden: ‘You go straight from sweltering to freezing and learn to enjoy it’
Uppsala dropped to -20 last January; I cycled home from work at 5am and marvelled at the stillness that cold and darkness brings to a lit street.
The weather is much more hospitable between -5 and -20 than you would think, given you don’t break the seal of your clothing and layer up sufficiently. When I return to Ireland, bitter mornings of +2 leave me shivering.
The cold also facilitates sauna-snow activity, where you go straight from sweltering to freezing and learn to enjoy it. The cold brings the crispest, most refreshing sunny days you can experience. There’s nothing quite like the wintry air combined with the mellow warmth of direct sunlight on your face.
Despite the inconveniences it brings, I think my emotional reaction to the prospect of cold speaks volumes. Had I moved to a warmer country, this account would be far less glowing.
Adrian Gannon, British Columbia: ‘Throw water in the air and watch it hit the ground as ice’
Working for a large construction company based in Vancouver, I was offered the opportunity to “work away”. It was a hospital build in Hay River, Northwest Territories. Winter started in October, and there was snow still on the ground in April. Temperatures dipped to -47 degrees Celsius. It was a shock to the system. Average temperatures were around the -30 mark. Venturing outside meant having to spend 15-20 minutes putting on the necessary clothing. A favourite was to throw water in the air and watch it hit the ground as ice.
Gary Whelan, Dresden: ‘Long johns are your friend’
I moved to Dresden in October 2011, arriving to an Indian summer with temperatures of 30 degrees, but it soon turned cold. Not having the money for a car, I had to use the bus. The wait in -18 degrees some mornings meant I learned fast to add layers. Vest jacket under coat and woollen hat under my fake- fur hat. Long johns are your friend. A lightweight winter coat is a must; mountain climbing gear the best. And always book a taxi if you are going out on the town. A 3am walk in -15 degrees is not healthy.
Kevin McCafferty, Bergen: ‘No such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes’
Det fins ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlige klær (No such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes), as the Norwegian saying goes. It rhymes in Norsk. The first rule is to dress for the weather conditions you have, not what you’d like to have. That means thermal underwear, jumpers, scarves, hats, waterproof gloves, a wind- and waterproof, lined jacket, warm waterproof boots. Also isbrodder, clip-on spikes for your shoes or boots when it’s very icy underfoot. The young wouldn’t be seen dead using these, but they’re often the ones that end up in A&E with broken legs, ankles or wrists.
Buy a big snow shovel, so you can clear a 50-metre drive of 30cm of snow in two minutes flat. Top tip: Turn off the car heating and open all the windows a few kilometres before you get home, to get the temperature in the car down to the outside temperature and avoid a thin film of ice forming on the inside of the car windows in the morning.
Florence van Dijk, Winnipeg: ‘The city had temperatures colder than Mars’
We moved to Winnipeg four years ago, just in time for the coldest winter here in 100 years. It was reported that the city that December had temperatures colder than Mars. When the windchill hits -40 to -50 degrees, skin can freeze in less than five minutes.
The city’s nickname is Winterpeg and its inhabitants are tough. Kids are expected to play outside unless its below -27 degrees. Schools have not closed since we have lived here – even through blizzards the kids turn in.
The river freezes to form the longest skating trail in the world and people make their way around the city through skywalks.
Jonathan Aherne, Yinchjuan, China: ‘My ears may be falling off’
It is 6 am on a morning in 2007. I am stepping out of my apartment after a four-hour sleep. Preceding that, I have just experienced my first 13-hour flight from London to Yinchuan, China. I am expected to teach English to my first class of about 20 students , without any planning, and then another four after that. My surroundings look desolate and grey, and directly in front of me is a guy cooking food out of a barrel. None of that matters though, because I am just realising that my ears may be falling off.
The temperature on my first day in Yinchuan was the coldest I’ve ever experienced. Ireland had prepared me for minus one or two; Yinchuan was minus 10. The rest of the day could charitably be described as a blur but I’ll never forget that first footstep into real cold. Thankfully, after adjusting, Yinchuan turned out to be a great adventure which meant I ended up teaching and travelling throughout Asia for another 10 years
Lisa Rigney, Edmonton: ‘People have remote starters for their vehicles, so they enter a warm environment’
We cope in a number of ways when the temperatures plunge, beginning by dressing really warmly. Last year my three kids looked like bank robbers sporting balaclavas whilst sledding. Their little bodies were encased in snowpants, winter coats, winter boots and mitts and toques, which Canadians call hats. The wind plays a big role in how cold it actually feels. It could reach -30 but feel like -40 with the windchill. These are the days I prefer to stay indoors and hibernate. A lot of people have remote starters for their vehicles, so they enter a warm environment.
James Quinn, Rochester Hills, US: ‘Going out is not just uncomfortable, it’s dangerous’
We drive everywhere, and keep the heat all on day (luckily it’s much cheaper than in Ireland). Unlike Ireland, we get hardly any rain, but lots of snow. It can remain below freezing for all of January and February, so snow that falls in December can still be on the ground at the end of February. In particularly cold winters, the maximum time one can stand at an open front door before flesh begins to freeze might be 10 minutes. Going out in the cold is not just uncomfortable, as it would be in Ireland, it’s dangerous.
Gary Tate, Whistler Resort Municipality: ‘The snow squeaks when it is walked on’
The simple answer is to bundle up like an onion and get on with your life. My first winter in Canada was back in 1989, spent crewing a helicopter on a power line construction job at Snare Lake, north of Yellowknife. The coldest day was -42 degrees. The snow squeaks when it is walked on and the hairs inside your nose freeze. Engine oil turns to treacle.
Winter is too long to shy away from the outdoors. Get outside and enjoy it.
Barrie-John Murphy, Pennsylvania: ‘The fieldstone farmhouses take on an austere beauty, with their thatch of snow’
We always get snow in Pennsylvania, sometimes lots of it at once. Everything doesn’t come to a halt like in Ireland, but it does slow down. A quietness descends on my area, and the fieldstone farmhouses take on an austere beauty, with their thatch of snow and candle-lit windows.
The worst snowstorm we ever had was a freak storm in late October 2011. The leaves were still on the trees and the added weight of the snow brought down many of them, leaving us without power for nearly a week.
Stephen Cass, New York: ‘By 12 inches, it’s time to work from home’
Things in New York City don’t really stop until there is more than three inches of accumulated snow. Then things start to get messy on the roads, but the subway usually keeps chugging. By 12 inches, it’s time to work from home, for those of us lucky enough to have telecommutable jobs.
The real hassle is after the storm passes, when the snow ploughs push material from the roads up onto the sidewalks, which can make getting across the street very difficult. The important thing when the weather gets really cold is that you must wear gloves. If you slip with your hands in your pockets, you won’t get them out in time before you hit something hard. If you’re lucky, you’ll get bloody nose, if you’re not, it’s a broken neck.
Gillian Caffrey-Ivie, Calgary: ‘I think the coldest I’ve been out in is -45’
My husband and I have been living in Calgary for the past seven and a half years. I walk to work every day, or cycle when it’s not icy. I think the coldest I’ve been out in is -45 – with a wind that feels like your face is being sliced. I find I get the coldest when I get home after being out in that weather, so it’s usually all the layers off and straight into a warm shower. The worst is going from the freezing cold into the shops with all the heating on full blast. And it’s never fun warming up the car and brushing the snow off first thing in the morning.
Patrick McKenna, Montreal: ‘There’s no point in raging against winter’
Canada is the world’s second coldest country with a wide variety of winter weather – extreme cold, blizzards and ice storms. Quebec, where I live, shares with Kamchatka, in Western Siberia, the distinction of being the most snowed upon region in the world. Of course you dress for it: down-filled coat, scarf, mitts, boots, woollen hat, and facemask. Then you get out and enjoy it. Cross-country skiing, ice skating or snow shoeing under a blue sky and blazing sun is healthy and fun. At night, under a full moon, they are magical. There’s no point in raging against winter.
Carol Simick, Ontario: ‘Yes, I do wish my parents had picked somewhere warmer’
We have lived with this cold since 1956 when we immigrated to Canada. As a 12-year-old, it was all fun. Now, as an older adult, all I can think of is how to avoid the cold. I now live in a rural community where we lose electricity and the roads get closed because of poor driving conditions. Yes, I do wish my parents had picked somewhere warmer, but you adapt to what you have.
Rev. Gerard McNamara, Hungary: ‘No amount of salt or grit on the roads or even winter tyres on cars help’
Plenty of layers is key to beating the cold. Thermal long johns, T-shirt, shirt, light pullover and a good jacket, hat and gloves are all needed. Staying outside for no more than 30 minutes at a time is also key. Driving can be a real challenge, although in fairness, central Europeans are far better prepared for snow than the Irish. However, when icy rain comes down, only the most foolish leave the safety of their homes. At those times, no amount of salt or grit on the roads or even winter tyres on cars help at all. As a child I (like all Irish kids) hoped for a white Christmas. Now at least I have a fair chance of it.
Kathleen Montgomery, Ontario: ‘Forget fashion. Everyone is Nanook of the North’
Beautiful and enchanting – yes. Challenging and treacherous – you bet. Canadians take pride in the harsh winters. It seems crazy but it’s true and I, too, have learned to do likewise. The harshness of the dry petrifying cold literally takes your breath away. You dress appropriately or freeze in minutes. Forget fashion. Everyone is Nanook of the North.
Brian Gaynor, Hokkaido: ‘Imagine how a sparrow must feel. Buy a bird feeder’
After 20 years in Hokkaido, Japan’s Alaska, this is what I have learned. Get outside. Go skiing, snowboarding, snow-shoeing, skating, strolling, or surfing (yes, surfing). Buy the warmest thermal underwear you can afford, preferably made from merino wool. Put winter tyres on your car. Make it an all-wheel drive car (four-wheel drive is for amateurs).
Cultivate a taste for warm sake or mulled wine. Or just add near boiling water to any alcohol you like. Eat porridge, sweet potatoes, and baked beans. Though not necessarily at the same time. If the bitter, freezing cold depresses you, just imagine how a sparrow must feel. So buy a bird feeder. Mix lots of butter in with the feed. And finally, lots and lots of double bear-hugs for your loved ones (for warmth and affection).
John Cotter, Massachusetts: ‘By the end of March I’m longing for our next winter’
Winter in Massachusetts brings chilly weather, but beautiful cloudless skys. Snowfall can vary from as little as a couple of inches in a day, to two feet. If temperatures stay cold, we can have snow on the ground well into March. Sometimes we will even have heavy snow in March.
In this climate, how you dress is crucial. By now I hardly feel the cold at all. Layers of clothing are key, as are gloves and headgear. Sunglasses help protect from the wind and the dazzling winter sun. If you are properly dressed, it seems warmer here on a freezing cold, sunny day than in the damp, chilly winter weather I grew up with. Winter for me is our most enjoyable season. By the end of March each year I’m longing for our next winter and the snow that will surely come.