How to survive winter
December 20, 2009 8:22 AM   Subscribe

Tips on how to survive a long, cold winter.

Now that winter has started to bite, the snow is falling, and the days are short, what tips do Mefites have for surviving the dark winter? April and the warmer air seems a long way away, and I'm interested to know how people cope mentally and physically with the harsher conditions.

I often wonder how people who live in Scandinavia and Canada cope with the lack of sunlight, cold, ice and snow. It's really hard not to get down this time of year, and I'd love to know how people get through it year after year.
posted by stenoboy to Health & Fitness (34 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Take up a new, time consuming habit that does not require natural sunlight. I suggest baking, since not only does it take a long time to make one "project" (two hours start to finish for a batch of cookies) but the warmth of the oven warms up the kitchen, doing double duty of knocking off the cold.

If you already do basic baking, I suggest looking to Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.
posted by banannafish at 8:28 AM on December 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

I usually backlog some television or movies that I can watch in the winter. I think the best way to cope is to just deal with it, and not let it set you back. It takes up a good portion of the year, so it's silly to let it control how you live your life.
posted by backwards guitar at 8:31 AM on December 20, 2009

On the physical aspect, many layers over a base of thermal underwear do a lot. This lets you keep your house/apartment temperature lower than you otherwise would. Besides being environmentally friendly, a lower ambient room temperature makes the outside seem less cold, and getting out during the few daylight hours is important.
posted by justkevin at 8:32 AM on December 20, 2009

Don't try to avoid the winter. Get out and enjoy it. If you go with the mindset that winter is a miserable event to be survived, that's all it will ever be.

It's not clear if you're deep in a city or nearer to the countryside. You need good, warm clothes, good footwear, and something to do in the cold, be it walking, skiing, skating or snowshoeing. Even the worst winter storm is fun to walk around in (away from traffic) if you're dressed for it.

On the other hand, driving anywhere in or shortly after bad weather will suck and you just need to leave early and expect to arrive late.
posted by cardboard at 8:39 AM on December 20, 2009 [3 favorites]

For me, buying a house was a huge life change. The biggest benefits were having space for projects in the winter and having enough rooms that I can have some alone time. Also, I live with others in the house, so I can be social when I want to.

I also keep big planted tropical and reef aquaria, and they are warm looking, bright, and it feels like gardening to keep up with them. Feeling warm is psychological as much as it is physical.

Lastly, I run CF lights in the sumer, but 100 watt incandescent in the winter. I like the heat and warm, bright light.
posted by cjemmott at 8:42 AM on December 20, 2009

I love wintertime and live somewhere where it's pretty cold and snowy and yet still I find I have to do the "put one foot in front of the other" routine in order to keep going some days. What everyone has said already - hobbies [esp warm ones], watching TV and dressing warmly are all great. Here are a few things that I do.

- if it's sunny at all I GO OUTSIDE, even if it's just to sit squinting on my stoop. It makes me feel better and really I can't avoid winter. If I wanted to avoid it I would move. I got into some outdoor activities like snowshoeing and also making ice candles and other ice stuff, it's fun
- If there's no sun turn on a bright light. When I get up in the morning, I turn on the bright overhead light and, again, sit under it squinting for a bit. I think this helps me wake up and not just lie in bed eating cheetos all day
- exercise, thanks to the aforementioned cheetos cravings, it's hard to stay in shape. I actually started going to the gym [even though I'm not wild about it] because 1. excercise makes me feel good 2. the long hot shower after I exercise with hot water I am not paying for is AWESOME
- tactile pleasures generally. Your skin feels unloved in the wintertime. Find ways to appreciate it with moisturizer, or soft feeling fabrics or nice sheets or whatever. There are a lot fewer sensory pleasures in the winter [fewer smells, less skin area to be exposed to stuff] try to compensate for that
- finding warmth - in addition to dressing smartly it's good to have places to go where you can be warm. This can eithe rbe someplace in your house [in my place it's the bed with the mattress pad warmer] or for some people it's in front of the fireplace or a warm bath. Waking up cold and being chilly all day and going to bed chilly is no way to live.
- routine routine routine - obviously if you really get seasonal affective disoder you may want to see a doc and not just "power through it" but if you just get the blahs, I've found that having a lot of routines and a "to do" list keeps me from sitting around wrapped in a blanket longing for spring. I have delicious coffee in the morning, a trip to the post office, soup for dinner with an episode of The Big Bang Theory, whatever it takes to have something to look forward to that isn't scraping ice off the car.

And hey, starting in two days the days are actually going to be getting longer! That wasn't so bad was it?
posted by jessamyn at 8:43 AM on December 20, 2009 [4 favorites]

cardboard beat me to it, but, yeah, get into winter sports and activities. Cross country skiing is an inexpensive, exhilarating workout. I'm on the edge of my seat hoping for a big storm.

I wonder how people cope in areas where there's never any snow. It is what you make of it.
posted by TurkishGolds at 8:43 AM on December 20, 2009

I'm in the Upper Midwest, and have been all my life. Things that I try to strive for in the winter:

-Be active. Inside or outside, it doesn't matter. Join a gym if you need to, or just go outside for walks on a regular basis. It is pretty easy to pack on the pounds if you just come home and veg out on the couch all night. And really get out there and enjoy the days when the temps get into the 40's and the snow starts to melt a bit.

-Projects. I like to knit. My boyfriend is reupholstering a chair. I get a lot more reading done in the winter than I do in the summer. Unclutter your closets or sort through old papers. Repaint the kitchen. Organize the basement. Do all that stuff you don't want to do in the summer when you just want to be outside.

-Parties. Have friends over for dinner parties, make it pot luck, or have something like a DIY pizza night where you supply the pizza dough, sauce & cheese, and they bring their favorite toppings. Board games & cards. Go to the neighborhood bar on a snowy night. Be with people.

-Cooking. I agree with the comments above that winter is my favorite time to cook. My house is cold anyways, and I can make it warmer by turning on the oven and then I will also have something delicious to eat. Tackle something time-consuming like making lasagna from scratch or learn how to make bread. And then have people over to share it with you :)
posted by sararah at 8:49 AM on December 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Haha, I was going to mention this, but jessamyn brought it up - the days will soon be getting longer! OPTIMISM!
posted by sararah at 8:51 AM on December 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

As a Canadian who has been living in Philadelphia for three years, I can't tell you how much I've missed real winters. The snow we've gotten this weekend feels like an early christmas present.

I've never understood winter depression, but one thing that seems common to it is describing winter as "dark." That's crazy. The nights are dark, but summer nights are dark too. And sure the nights are longer, but the days are beautiful. My best advice is to make sure you get outside everyday, the closer to noon the better. Just because it's cold doesn't mean you need to huddle in the office at lunchtime. Go for a walk, get the blood flowing. You'll be amazed at how bright it is. Brighter than the summer by far.

As for nighttime, curl up with a blanket, a book or movie, and a hot cup of cocoa or tea. If you have a fireplace all the better.

And yes, by February, I'm anxious for summer. But before the end of July, I'm longing for winter. Every year. Both seasons are wonderful. I think everyone can come to recognize that with a little effort.
posted by 256 at 8:53 AM on December 20, 2009 [4 favorites]

I had friends who worked for a time in Helsinki, and they bought full-spectrum lamps for their apartments to help get them through the winter.
posted by holgate at 9:04 AM on December 20, 2009

Lots of hot showers-- but make sure to moisturize afterward.
posted by oinopaponton at 9:22 AM on December 20, 2009

Yes, get outside. That will make winter feel like less of a trap. I do a great deal of walking in the winter. When I get to my destination I'm warmed up from the exercise as opposed to shivering and running to the nearest source of heat. It requires decent outer wear, something I used to ignore for some strange reason (like always wearing a hat - seriously!). Once I got a "serious" coat (long, quilted, insulated) and really took steps to cover my skin, it wasn't nearly as bad.

What helps, too, is embracing the things that are purely seasonal. For me that's things like enjoying the way the trees look with their branches exposed (I love to take photgraphs this time of year), ice skating, hot cocoa, making soup, bringing out the warm clothes and blankets from storage - even shoveling. I burn more candles during the winter, do more baking, more eating. These things are distinctly "winter" and I know somewhere in my head that I can't have them without that. (the big cold winter season). Good luck!
posted by marimeko at 9:25 AM on December 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Night Sledding.

As far as the psychology goes, my self-trick is a synthesis of many above involving exercise and appreciation. Rather than obsess on what one can't do because it's cold and snowy, sometime in November, I switch my head over to anticipation of a big snow or a hard freeze. A big snow means cross country skiing, or snowshowing or just taking a really nice walk in the woods. A hard freeze means the ice on the outdoor skating rink nearby will be wicked hard and fast and a lot of fun for however long I can stand skating around.
A real real big snow, like those lucky sods out east are having, is sheer magic... going skiing down streets at night through a city transformed...oh I'm so jealous.
So focus on the fun it allows you to have rather than the bother of digging the car out etc. You also have to convince yourself that nordic torture sports are indeed fun.

Another helpful thing is to have a southwest facing window, such that if there is any sunlight to be had, you'll be soaking in it.
posted by Cold Lurkey at 9:28 AM on December 20, 2009

Layers. Aways wear layers -- warmer than just wearing one thick layer. Put silk or cotton on first (for wicking away sweat).

And if lack of light gets you down, try a bright and/or blue light lamp.
posted by jb at 9:44 AM on December 20, 2009

From a physical perspective, the "experts" recommend taking extra vitamin D in northern places.

I take 1000IU everyday.

But of course the "experts" can be wrong so perhaps decide after researching a bit for yourself.
posted by simpleton at 10:21 AM on December 20, 2009

All you need is a good coat, a humidifier, and vitamin D pills.

If you have a good coat (and accessories), there's no weather bad enough to keep you indoors. Try to have activities that force you to go outside regularly (walk to work, a local restaurant, etc) - you'll adjust to the weather quicker than you'd imagine. My favourite coat is one of those knee length down-filled marshmallow ones - just like wrapping yourself in a huge comforter. Winter is not the time to worry about fashion.

Having a humidifier works better for me than caking myself with moisturizers. Leave it on at night, or all day if you're really sensitive. It also warms up the room a bit.

And the darker your skin is, the more important it is to take vitamin D supplements. Lots of studies on this show that people with darker skin are much more likely to have low levels of vitamin D, so pop a pill to make up for it.

My favourite part of winter though is indulging in the heavy comfort foods that don't work as well in summer: soups & stews, roasted root vegetables and poutine in particular.
posted by Anali at 10:33 AM on December 20, 2009

Lots of light.
Get out of the house.
Buy plants.
posted by blue_beetle at 11:02 AM on December 20, 2009

I often wonder how people who live in Scandinavia and Canada cope with the lack of sunlight, cold, ice and snow.

My boss grew up in Finland, and he says that (a) the problem there is not the cold but the cloudy skies and short days, and (b) most Finns go south for a week or two (say to the Mediterranean) to see the sun again. So if you can afford it, a trip south would probably help.

I grew up in far northern NY state, just south of Quebec, and so I'm pretty much used to the cold and dark, but it still gets me down sometimes. Be sure to get outside on sunny days, and if you can find any outside chores to do (shoveling snow, chopping wood), they warm you up and help you enjoy yourself despite the cold. Any kind of skiing, ice skating, or snowshoeing, or just walking around, also works. My dad used to like to chop wood out in the cold, partly because, as he said, your first breath when you take a break is like a drink of pure cold water--very refreshing.

Also, I don't get why people take down Christmas lights inside the house after Christmas is done. They add light and cheer. I'm planning on keeping mine up until March at least.

Lastly, although we haven't seen the solstice yet, we have seen the earliest sunset. In Boston, it was on December 11th or so. One explanation for this is given here, and it's basically due to the tilt of the earth, but I don't pretend to follow the details.
posted by A dead Quaker at 11:05 AM on December 20, 2009

Agree with the plants - fresh herbs can usually survive the winter if you establish them during the summer and keep them warm, and my sweet potato and avocado plants survived quite nicely with not a lot of light.
posted by Anali at 11:07 AM on December 20, 2009

I spent two winters in Mongolia: -40 temperatures, little snow, cold apartment, and short short days.

It is ok to hibernate a little bit. Your body feels tired from the cold and the darkness. Huddle up in a blanket in front of a space heater and just read/nap.

However, get outside when you can. Bundle up. Put on more layers if you are cold. If there are opportunities for winter sports, do that. If not, find some kids and play with them. One of my best winter days was playing with some random kids on a frozen river.

Drink hot things. Drink tea, coffee, coco, or just hot water. It warms you up like nothing else.

Snuggle with an animal or a person or a big pillow.

After Dec 21, check daily and rejoice at the few minutes of daily light you gain each day.
posted by soupy at 11:42 AM on December 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Having lived in Sweden, my coping consisted of
- cooking lots with friends in my nice warm kitchen
- lots and lots of candles even when it is not a special occasion
- cod liver oil for vitamin D
- a very warm coat and long underwear. I'm from Georgia and you'd be surprised how long it took me to figure out that you have to have good winter gear and not just buy the cheapest coat at Target. I now have a waterproof long down lined jacket that makes me much more pleasant to be around in the winter.
- Forcing myself to go outside for at least 30 minutes a day even if I didn't want to.
- Spiced apple cider and wine with some good friends!

Now that I live in the US again, I really enjoy my crockpot, which is great for stews, soups, chili, mulled wine and whatnot. They didn't have them in Europe.
posted by melissam at 11:57 AM on December 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Get up earlier. Go to bed earlier. Maximize the amount of sunlight you walk around in.

"There is no bad weather. Only bad clothes." Go out dressed so warmly you could survive three days in the cold. People who complain about the cold go out dressed only warmly enough to survive the run from the door to the car. Thermal underwear or flannel-lined jeans, warm winter boots, warm winter gloves, a parka and a hat, and you're good down to -20C or 0F. Snow pants and a scarf will take you down to -30C or -10F or so. When your eyes start hurting, get ski goggles. (Can you tell I live in Montreal?)

If you overdress a bit for the cold, you'll go around thinking, "It's not that bad, actually," as you stuff your scarf in your pocket and unbutton your coat a bit.
posted by musofire at 12:03 PM on December 20, 2009

When we lived in Denmark, my mom kept a pair of yellow fisherman's glasses in her office and would let people wear them for a pick-me-up. (Yeah, it's silly, but that's part of the idea.)
posted by The corpse in the library at 12:05 PM on December 20, 2009

Canadian here.

Complain. Bitterly.

And then laugh about it.

Buy brightly coloured mittens, scarves and hats that make you happy.
posted by kitcat at 12:23 PM on December 20, 2009

Gin. Cuddle parties with friends, watching movies. And long underwear.
posted by runningwithscissors at 12:31 PM on December 20, 2009 [2 favorites]

Being outside in the cold is helped immensely by having the right clothes. As others have said, layers are your friend. A good-quality padded coat, maybe with a sleeveless gilet over the top, hats, gloves (fingerless, with leather over them), scarves and snow boots. I also have some snow cleats, which are a godsend for walking on ice. If you're warm and feel stable on your feet, it's far more enjoyable being outside doing whatever it is you like to do.

I also stockpile books and movies/TV shows to keep me entertained during the dark evenings.
posted by essexjan at 12:48 PM on December 20, 2009

Going to a bar and complaining about how much winter sucks seems to be a popular option almost everywhere I've been.

Seriously though, you've set April as a magic date when everything will be better, which means you've set yourself up to be miserable for the next 3 months. Think of it this way instead: you've already gone through the worst of it (the weather getting worse) - now the days are going to start getting longer, the weather will start getting warmer, and everything's returning to the way you like it.

And yeah, getting out in whatever daylight you have available helps too. If you work & end up going to/coming home from work in the dark, take an extra long lunch break and work an hour later - since its already dark, it doesn't matter, and you can be outside when it's actually light.
posted by devilsbrigade at 2:18 PM on December 20, 2009

Take a walk in the cold, it can be wonderful. Make sure you dress warmly. If you live in a city buy hot chestnuts from a vendor, put them in your pockets.

Bake A LOT. Breads, cakes, cookies anything that will keep the oven going and make the place smell wonderful. If you think you cannot because you live alone or have a small apartment, try it anyway. If you think it will be too expensive, it will not, just keep everything simple. I did this and it always made me happy to make the baked goods and to give the baked goods away.

Get a slow cooker (used ones are cheap or free!). Make stews. Invite friends or neighbors over dinner. Ask them to supply the rest of the dinner if you cannot afford it.

If you like handcrafting, now is the time to do some projects.

Plant some indoor plants and nurture them. Try forcing bulbs.

Dream about moving somewhere where this is no winter, do research on this, I did and eventually moved to Maui :O where I have happily lived for 20 years with no winter.
posted by fifilaru at 3:05 PM on December 20, 2009

I like to go out to a club sometimes and dance. Cabin fever helps for better parties.

I also love making soups, I like to do a couple a week. They're great to have at work for break, and when you come home from work as a snack. The suggesting about baking is a great one too.

I commute by bike in the winter and I found that helped get me active and was beautiful on sunny days.

If you're into saunas I find they help me and dry skin too.
posted by glip at 4:23 PM on December 20, 2009 [1 favorite]

Back when I lived in winter, working out (for me that meant running around a track or maybe a cardio class) at a gym where I could put shorts and a t-shirt on and sweat for an hour did wonders for me. It probably helped that the gym was brightly lit and I was doing this after work, so it was dark outside already.
posted by mandymanwasregistered at 7:43 PM on December 20, 2009

Not sure where you're from, but a response to that question depends on where you mean winter and what you mean by 'survive.' There is the sort of kinda cold maybe snows two times/winter, usually above freezing in the daytime like typical NY or Philly weather - and then there is the bitter howling Moscow, Winnipeg Minneapolis winter. You mentioned Canada and Scandinavia, so I assume the latter.

I've never understood winter depression, but one thing that seems common to it is describing winter as "dark." That's crazy.

I kind of agree with 256 here, and at the risk of starting a flame war, I wonder when people here in Manhattan talk about winter depression whether they rally have SAD or are, well kinda whining because it is a bit cold and cloudy. New York is approximately as far south as Madrid which means it gets the same amount of daylight in December as Madrid. Hence theoretically, there should be similar rates of winter depression, but I don't think that is the case. I was told that the UV light that ameliorates SAD can penetrate through clouds so the relatively cloudier conditions in NY aren't the answer unless what I am told is wrong.

Hence my thesis is that if you are primed to hate winter, and obsess about wind chill or the "devastating blizzard" on the Weather channel then you'll be miserable, if you just take it as a fact of life, go out, take up skiing, throw snowballs with rocks embedded in them at city busses (We're tough in Queens, hey!) you're fine.
posted by xetere at 9:12 AM on December 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

1. Invest a couple pairs of nice Merino wool underwear. Icebreaker, Smartwool, and Ibex makes some really nice stuff that will keep you cozy. Yes, it’s not cheap, but it’s worth it. As someone who finds it painful to pay more than $40 for pants, I paid $76 (originally $140) for a pair of wool leggings from Ibex. And I invested in a lot of wool socks, from thin dress socks to thick boot socks. You can always troll sites like Sierra Trading Post for discounted gear as well. And since wool doesn’t smell up fast like polyester, you can wear them pretty frequently between washing without smelling like a hobo.
2. Throw some bright colors into your accessories. Mentally, it does wonders. Even if it’s just a red tassel on your hat, having some color to fight against the monochromatic winter is nice.
3. Dress in layers.
4. Buy a good coat and winter accessories. Yes, you will most likely resemble the Michelin Man, but you know what? EVERYONE ELSE looks like the Michelin Man, too. And you’re warm.

1. Accept that winter is a constant in your life. Resenting winter or wishing it were spring does not help.

1. Plan more Projects in your life. You will be amazed at how being busy helps. Thinking, planning, buying, and making are all steps in doing Projects make you feel both productive and prevents you from moping over it being winter.
2. Indulge in cooking things like chili or mac n cheese that you would feel guilty eating during summer. Now that it’s cold, don’t you deserve something hearty? With cheese? With more carbs? Yes you do!

1. If you followed Rule 4 under Clothing, you can do anything you want outside. Find a pair of snowshoes on Craigslist and go stomping through the woods. A lot of golf courses will let people snowshoe/cross country ski for free. Take photos of naked trees.
2. Take walks and enjoy the feeling that you have to walk briskly to stay warm. Isn’t that weird AND awesome? Bringing a thermos of hot cider or Hot Toddy is also a nice touch; I like the sensation of drinking something hot when it’s truly cold out.
posted by mlo at 3:24 PM on December 22, 2009

Since everyone else is giving you helpful advice, I just want to throw with the 'just enjoy it crowd'.

I grew up in Toronto. I consider it temperate. I loathe the idea of moving anyplace with no winter. Like 256 said, I'm ready for summer in february, but I'm also ready for winter by july.

Winter is a wonderful time, filled with warm drinks, gentle conversation, quiet, and introspection.

I look forward to it every year. The weak sauce winter in Vancouver has been getting me down.
posted by Alex404 at 8:14 PM on December 26, 2009

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