What should I wear in the winter? Difficulty level: Toronto
January 11, 2014 7:13 PM   Subscribe

For a Texas boy, I got pretty good at dressing for the weather in London and Seattle. But now I've moved to Toronto, where I've found my clothes inadequate for the cold of the previous couple of weeks. I was also possessed to plan on a visit to Ottawa's Winterlude in a few weeks where I have been warned I might just freeze to death. What new clothes do I need and where do I get them?

I'll work my way up what I wear now, what works, and what doesn't:

Boots. I have some Lowa hiking boots that seem to work fine on snow, but I think they're only waterproof at the bottom. if I step into a really big drift or a puddle they get wet.

Socks. I wear REI and Smartwool light hiking socks. These seem fine.

Trousers. I usually wear chinos or jeans. When the weather is cold and windy it feels like it blows right through my pants, especially with the chinos. This is not so great. I think long underwear wouldn't work because I would be too warm when I went inside and couldn't remove it. I've considered getting snow pants but wondered whether that would be totally insane.

Jacket. I wear a two-layer Marmot jacket. I like it because it is feels like technical lightweight clothing and it looks like casual wear. What I don't like: the hood sucks and offers no protection from wind or cold, and the jacket might not be warm enough. I usually wear a T-shirt, long sleeve shirt, and sweater underneath, which is barely warm enough usually.

Scarf. I have a thick scarf that I think is somewhat ugly. It also tends to loosen itself in the wind. I've tried using a second scarf to cover up the lower part of my face but it's hard to breathe if I get it too close to my nose.

Eyes. The wind makes me feel like my eyeballs are going to freeze. Would it be totally insane to wear ski goggles? Maybe there are some sunglasses that will blend in better?

Hat. I just need a new one.

I appreciate your help and appreciate specific suggestions (stores, manufacturer, and model when possible) even more!
posted by grouse to Clothing, Beauty, & Fashion (37 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Put on the long johns! Adjust your body temperature by removing/putting on upper body layers.
posted by miss patrish at 7:24 PM on January 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

I think long underwear wouldn't work because I would be too warm when I went inside and couldn't remove it.

Let me tell you a little secret. American Apparel Thigh High Socks.

Yes, I understand that you are a man and that these are marketed to women. But they come in "boy" colors like black and navy, and they are the perfect solution to the longjohns problem.

Hike them up and put on your pants before you walk out the door. Pull them down if you go inside and get too warm. It's totally possible to pull them down without taking your pants off, by grabbing and tugging through your pants at calf height.

Or just go in a bathroom if it makes you feel weird to do it where people can see you.

And either way, to pull them up or down, you don't need to deal with two things you'd need to deal with if you were wearing long johns: you don't have to take your shoes off and you don't have to stash them somewhere because you can leave them rumpled around your ankles and still be comfortable.

I wear them under my carhartts. I'm a carpenter and once I get working I warm up.

Yeah, I know this sounds freaky but try it and you'll thank me.
posted by MeanwhileBackAtTheRanch at 7:25 PM on January 11, 2014 [13 favorites]

Wear long underwear when it's that cold. A thin wool or synthetic will be fine. You won't be hot indoors. What will happen is that you'll end up wearing one less layer up top.
posted by MillMan at 7:25 PM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Layer from below, get yourself Heattech from Uniqlo. Paper thin and works. Get the longjohns, and take them off in a bathroom if your workplace is very hot.
posted by vrakatar at 7:26 PM on January 11, 2014 [4 favorites]

You need better boots. Go to a Mark's (aka Mark's Work wearhouse). You will find EVERYTHING you need for winter wear, including warm boots, hat, gloves and long johns (nthing the johns!!)
posted by MeatheadBrokeMyChair at 7:30 PM on January 11, 2014

And yes, snow pants are insane in this case, as opposed to a good few sets of long johns and long sleeve undershirts. I swear by the heattech, I went skiing once in them and jeans, on a foggy, slushy day. My jeans were soaked through after a few falls but my skin was still dry.
posted by vrakatar at 7:30 PM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Avoid cotton when possible. It is a terrible insulator, but is ok if just one of several layers.
posted by zardoz at 7:30 PM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nthing the advice to wear long underwear when the cold feels too intense. Alternatively, see what stores may have fleece-lined jeans. Mark's might have some, too.

How are you tying your scarf? The loop approach shown in this sales video should keep a reasonably long scarf fastened in any wind.

In addition to Mark's, MEC (King and Spadina) has a lot of stuff perfect for our winters. The long undies are here. Here's a neckgaitor on sale. Sunglasses. You have to become a member for $5 before you can buy there, but you should consider it part of assimilating, like learning how to order a double-double.
posted by maudlin at 7:44 PM on January 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

Anything that keeps you warm enough for TO will work in Ottawa just fine so no need to worry about that.

What do you plan to do outdoors? How long do you anticipate being outside at any one stretch?

This is likely the key deciding factor. I live downtown in Ottawa, when it was -30 last week, I just stayed indoors more :). I've never worn long johns. I skate on the Rideau Canal but only when its above -15 C. You'll need different gear if you want to go snowshoeing, xcountry skiing and so on.

Also, to fix that problem with freezing eyeballs, try blinking more. Seriously! Not many folks need ski goggles on an everyday basis.
posted by storybored at 7:47 PM on January 11, 2014

Another vote for long underwear and a good warm wind-proof hat, but if you're still cold after that, consider a down vest under your Marmot shell. Good ones will compress to a very small package when you're not wearing them. Maybe not quite pocketable but close to it.
posted by dttocs at 7:53 PM on January 11, 2014

I live in Ottawa and walk everywhere in the winter. Here's my recommendation, though you should dress a bit warmer if you plan on standing around. I don't like wearing long johns for the same reason as you unless I am out hiking all day. It's most important to keep your head, neck, hands and feet warm.

(including windchill)
0C to -10C:
Hat, thin gloves, windbreaker jacket with long sleeve shirt

-10C to -20C:
Hat, thin gloves, neck warmer, windbreaker jacket plus fleece layer over shirt, winter boots

-20C to -30C:
Hat, thin gloves plus mittens over top, neck warmer x 2, windbreaker jacket plus fleece plus down vest over shirt, rain/windbreaker pants over jeans, winter boots with thick socks

-30C to -40C:
Hat, thin gloves plus mittens over top, neck warmer x 2, ski jacket over shirt, snow pants over jeans, winter boots with thick socks

special occasions:
freezing rain - slip on traction cleats
snow storm - goggles
posted by lucia_engel at 7:55 PM on January 11, 2014 [3 favorites]

I would advise finding a long loosely-knitted scarf, as opposed to one made of cloth. If you wrap such a scarf tightly around your head several times it's stretched so that it becomes easier to breathe through, yet still provides protection from a brisk wind.

For the power user, you can get a short knit scarf and a short woven scarf and sew them together end-to-end; thus you can wrap it so that the knit layer is underneath creating maximal insulating airgapping, covered by the solid cloth with superior windbreaking properties. This doesn't help with the ugliness issue, though.
posted by XMLicious at 7:55 PM on January 11, 2014

Cotton anything is your enemy is very cold weather. If you get even the slightest bit sweaty or otherwise wet, you will be cold.

For your bottom half:
Ditch the jeans. You could do snow pants, but I don't feel they are versatile enough to be worth the money. I wear pants that are basically just a shell and layer tights underneath as needed. Alternatively, I sometimes wear expedition weight tights (think think fleece pants) if it is super windy or wet.

You want better boots. If you do much standing around on very cold ground you'll see why.

If you are happy with light socks keep them, but you might want to pick up a thicker pair to have in the queue if you're planning on a long day outdoors.

For your top half:
Your jacket sounds fine. You need more/better layers for underneath. I am a HUGE fan of Icebreaker wool for this. But you don't need to spend that much. Smartwool is very good, and many other brands make nice wool pieces. See what you like.

I would get rid of the scarf, sounds like it's causing you more grief than it's worth. Try a neck gaiter/buff. I have an Arc'teryx wool neck gaiter that I love.

Look for a hat that's lined. It will keep the wind out and keep you much warmer. You could also get a thin skull cap (synthetic) and put your normal hat over it.

Don't forget about gloves! I use thin synthetic gloves for max dexterity with a shell over if needed. I only use the shells in the most extreme conditions.

Bottom line is layers, layers, layers. And NO COTTON!
posted by tealcake at 8:05 PM on January 11, 2014

MEC is a good store. You can also look at The North Face, Patagonia and Higher Ground.

How many layers you wear really depends on how cold you run. I would freeze with lucia_engel's outfits on at those temperatures, but I'm a skinny wimp. When I was out skiing in that cold last week I had three layers on my legs (long johns, wool tights and snow pants) and five layers on my top (undershirt, long sleeved shirt, wool sweater, fleece and 650 fill down jacket).

If I were you I'd certainly try another layer under the jeans on cold days, at least a thin pair of long underwear. A good wool sweater is very versatile and easy to layer up top. I agree that you should look at neck gaiters/buffs/tubes. A wool hat lined with fleece is great. Names for boots: Merrells, Sorels, Patagonia.

If I was going to Winterlude and it was cold (for me that'd be anything below -10) and I was planning to do outdoor activities for extended periods of time I would absolutely slap on a pair of snowpants, no hesitation. Better warm and happy to celebrate than cold and miserable.
posted by Cuke at 8:23 PM on January 11, 2014

There's also this.
posted by MeanwhileBackAtTheRanch at 8:27 PM on January 11, 2014

Just to note, the last couple of weeks are around a one-in-ten probability for any given winter, not a normal winter thing. Definitely the coldest I've seen TO in 10 Christmases there, and by a solid margin.

lucia_engel's guide makes the most sense to me. You will only rarely break -20C (close enough to 0F) unless you spend a lot of time outside in the middle of the night (which people do; not snarking).
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:27 PM on January 11, 2014

There is a lot of good advice upthread. Bear in mind that the last two weeks have been anomalously severe for Toronto weather. Most of the time the temperature hovers around freezing, which is pretty manageable. However, Toronto has a humid continental climate, which causes a lot of the difficulty- you have to allow for the rain, damp air, and puddles. Here's what I suggest. Feel free to explore other options as you wish. The important thing is to have a windproof outer layer, then enough layers of insulation to keep warm. Keep as much of your skin covered as possible.

- You do need better boots. Get something that is waterproof at least to your ankle and insulated. I wear a pair of Sorel Pacs when it's wet, and Pajar Maxs when it's dry. (I then change into a pair of dress shoes when I get to the office.) The Sorels are probably overkill for Toronto, but I don't care, I like them.
- Longjohns make a world of difference. Polypropylene or light wool won't even be noticeable under your trousers or jeans. For serious outdoor sports, look at fleece.
- You might want to consider a pair of overpants like the ones skiers or construction workers wear, but they usually aren't necessary in Toronto.
- If you're having trouble keeping the lower half of your face warm, consider the balklava.
- When you are looking for a jacket, bear in mind that Toronto is wet, and down loses all its insulating ability when it gets wet. Consider Primaloft or Isosoft.
- No, it's not insane to wear ski goggles to keep your eyeballs from freezing!

You can find these things at:
- Marks (suggested above) Be careful, the quality of their house brand has slipped in the last few years.
- MEC (Suggested above) Mountain Equipment Coop is a fascinating organisation that sells outdoors goods. They are a coop - lifetime membership costs $5. Their merchandise is unpretentious, the staff is experienced in outdoor sports, and their prices are reasonable. (Have a look at their bespoke building on King Street - I like the architecture.) (There's also a low-cost outdoor goods store called Europe Bound across the street from them that is worth a look.)
- Sail, a regional chain of camping goods stores. They have a really broad, deep inventory.
- Patagonia are expensive but very high quality. Watch for their spring sale.
- North Face also tends to be expensive. Their coats suffered from a decline in quality a few years ago, but I understand they have gotten better.
- Al Flaherty's and Le Baron are local businesses that are more focussed on hunting and fishing, but are worth a look.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 8:45 PM on January 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

MEC has a lot of winter items on clearance right now, so it is a good time to pick up some warmer clothes.

A toque/hat is a must. No matter how warm the rest of your body is, if your head feels cold then you will feel cold as well. Make sure the hat can comfortably cover your ears. I do not know where I got my current #1 toque from but it is great. The whole thing is loosely knit (ie big pieces of yarn with holes) with the lower part having a lining on the inside to make it windproof. It keeps the ears warm but doesn't let your head get too hot. A toque is better than a hood because the hood will reduce your peripheral vision. I remember seeing PSA's on this topic as a kid.

Good gloves are also important. You will likely need a couple of pairs. Some lighter-weight fabric-type ones and at least one nylon-shell type waterproof pair for when it is really cold or you want to play in the snow. My last pair of nylon-shell type were made by Gordini and purchased at MEC for somewhere around $50. They mysteriously disappeared last year after almost a decade of use but were great gloves.

The windpants & tights/long underwear combination makes your legs pretty much impervious to winter. You can get some relatively normal looking windpants nowadays. Uniqlo sells jeans with a wind-proof lining as well, although sadly there is no Uniqlo in Toronto. They work really well at keeping me warm but I always think the lining makes a weird noise as it moves across my skin. No one else has commented on the noise so it may not actually make any. Snowpants are overkill unless you are going to be playing in the snow or going somewhere much colder than Toronto.

Just like your eyes adapt to a dark room, over the winter you will likely develop a tolerance to the cold. So, a -10 day in February will feel much warmer than a -10 day in December. It is still a good idea to pick up some warmer clothes now, but don't be surprised if you find yourself not needing them in future winters.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 9:14 PM on January 11, 2014

Lands End and LL Bean have flannel lined pants.
Silk or wool long johns.
A shearling hat that covers your ears.
Nthing a balaclava.
If you're worried that goggles will look too goofy, try sunglasses first.
posted by brujita at 9:36 PM on January 11, 2014

Not a huge fan of American Apparel or any % polyester but their thermal stuff is an easy thin layer that really insulates. They also wear like iron. I bought a pack of ten and wish I had known about them before. (I am an Ottawan...)

You should be fine indoors in long johns so long as you're not doing anything particularly active.

Lots of hate for cotton, but a waffle weave cotton is very warm. I am not particularly sweaty and hoard waffle weave cotton (because of the bothersome poly in the AA thermals!) for winter.

Flannel-lined pants are a nice option. Example from Eddie Bauer.
posted by kmennie at 9:47 PM on January 11, 2014

I'm in Toronto too and February is supposed to be colder this year. So I'm thinking of getting snow pants - I have worn snow pants in past years (which are now busted) and no one thinks it's insane. This year all I have are my rain pants from MEC (which definitely help!) and people have said that it's smart to wear them - they think they're snow pants at first glance. So don't worry about wearing snow pants being insane. Snow pants FTW.
posted by foxjacket at 9:57 PM on January 11, 2014

I just wanted to add something not clothing related: keep in mind that the weather of the last couple weeks was not at all typical (y'know, the 'polar vortex' thing). I've lived in toronto all my life, and i was freaking COLD as was everyone i knew. So don't think you need to prepare for many winters of that kind of weather, because you don't!

That being said: there is a reason you don't really see chinos being marketed outside of spring/summer - its' because they are summer pants. Denim gets cold too. Now is the season for corduroys when you want to be casual, and wool dress pants when you want to dressed up.

What it really comes down to though, is you have got to get a better coat. It will solve 95% of your problems. I know you see a lot of people walking around in wool coats, but the secret is that all of those people are cold. And the double-layer jackets really don't hack it for walking around, i find they are marketed for skiing and other outdoor activities because they are perfect when you are working up a sweat, but they aren't great when you're standing on the corner waiting to cross with the light. Get yourself an insulated/down coat, that goes to at least below your butt. It will solve everything.
posted by Kololo at 10:02 PM on January 11, 2014

Flannel-lined chinos are warmer than cords.

I wear regular chinos and denim when it's in the 60s/70s F, poplin and linen when it's in the 80's F, shorts when it's anything higher, cords when it's in the high 30's to 50's F and the flannel lined chinos or the cords and twill paired with long johns when it's mid 30's to 20's F. Teens and lower F I wear flannel lined with long johns.
posted by brujita at 11:22 PM on January 11, 2014

Hey! Winter here isn't usually this bad. Lemme tell you about when I was a little kid up north and we had to wear full snowsuits over our halloween costumes...

If you're worried about longjohns, try silk. They tend to adapt to temperature more easily. Also, you CAN take em off, just pop into the bathroom. But the problem I think is denim. Denim is cotton and isn't that great for keeping you warm. I don't understand why people insist on wearing jeans in the winter. Honestly, you're better off with synthetic or wool slacks and longjohns. The slacks will dry out rapidly instead of being waterlogged if they get snowy, and the longjohns will do all the hard work of keeping you warm. You don't need the durability of denim unless you work outside all day or something.

Wear an insulating undershirt. You can get them anywhere, walmart, sears, mark's, canadian tire even, wherever. After that, layer. Tshirt, then a button-up or long sleeved, then maybe a sweater or hoodie if it's freezing freezing miserable. If you can, select garments with front closures to give you more temperaure control. A shirt that you can unbutton on the subway so you don't pass out is good to have.

Skip the cotton socks and go for a wool blend, and above all else, get boots that keep your feet dry. Wet feet will keep you cold alllllll day and into the night. Seriously.

Hats, take a walk though Chinatown, any mall, any store that seems like it might sell hats and find yourself a thinsulate toque. They are not expensive.

If you still aren't warm enough, try hand warmers and foot warmers- those little packs of chemicals that warm up when you snap them. Mec probably has them, canadian tire, maybe even the corner store.

If your face is really getting cold, you could wear a balaclava, which is going to make you look like you're gonna rob a store and will honestly look a bit silly, but will keep you warm. Or get a coat with a hood that has a thick fur edging and wear it tied tightly. That fur edging is there for a reason.

I know nothing about men's coats, so other mefites can cover that.

Also: eat more. Yes, really.
posted by windykites at 11:55 PM on January 11, 2014

Oh, and re:goggles-

I can't imagine ski goggles in Toronto weather. Try sunglasses maybe. When the wind is really bad and you are walking against it, don't look directly into it. Look at the ground and glance up occasionally. Squint a little when you glance up and duck your head a bit while you push against the wind, or turn your head a little to the side so that you can use the things beside you as guides. Don't try to look straight into the wind, it's like looking right into the sun. You'll get the hang of it.
posted by windykites at 12:06 AM on January 12, 2014

I live in Chicago, where we hit -15 below this week. I wear long underwear almost daily in the winter. Your body temperature actually doesn't get too hot, in my experience. As others said, you can layer on top and remove those if you get too hot indoors. For a long time I've sworn by the Cuddl Duds brand (despite the name, they also make men's clothing), but I recently bought some LL Bean long underwear and it's great. Very soft, thin, and warm.

You didn't say anything about gloves. I'm presuming you're wearing them, but don't forget to get decent ones. They'll help a lot more than you think. REI has a great selection of them tailor made for super cold weather. Many now also include capacitive material on the forefinger and thumb so you can still use your smartphone with them on.
posted by anotheraccount at 5:34 AM on January 12, 2014

Layers. Bottom layer of polypropelene or some similar polyester moisture wicking technology. The rest becomes less important.. that stuff works amazingly well.
posted by postergeist at 5:40 AM on January 12, 2014

Re: Ottawa vs Toronto, if you can survive the worst days of Toronto you'll be fine in Ottawa. It's just colder more often there.
posted by Kowh at 7:28 AM on January 12, 2014

If you can handle the faint itchiness, a merino wool base layer is the best. MEC has them at decent prices.

This has been the coldest winter for a while. 2003 was the last time the pipes froze for us before 2014.
posted by scruss at 7:40 AM on January 12, 2014

Forget the uniqlo advice. Unpossible to obtain in Canada. Seconding MEC stores. Or even better is Sail Canada. Lastly under armour (from a hockey/sports store) is perfect underwear. Long john top and bottoms that keep warm and then keep cool...
posted by chasles at 8:11 AM on January 12, 2014

Long underwear, but not cotton or waffle-weave. Silk or polypro - they're smooth and thin and will keep you toasty outside without roasting you inside. Fleece or flannel-lined jeans rock, too. Good wool socks.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 9:15 AM on January 12, 2014

Forget the uniqlo advice. Unpossible to obtain in Canada.

grouse could always get them shipped to a friend/relative/mefite in Buffalo/Niagara. I'd offer myself but am afraid his stuff would get lost in the pile of stuff for biscotti's relatives.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:30 AM on January 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

A light down vest really makes a big difference.

For people with cash, it seems like Toronto wears North Face and in Montreal (where it's colder and damper) everybody wears Canada Goose parkas.
posted by bonobothegreat at 10:43 AM on January 12, 2014

Ottawa's a bit colder than Toronto in general, although it might not be when you visit (it's weirdly warm today, for example).

I grew up here so my cold tolerance might have adjusted, but for me the most important thing by far is a mid-thigh-length down parka with a fur-rimmed hood (fake is ok). A scarf stops the wind coming in the neck, and I just put my hands in the pockets. With that I'm fine for ~20 min in jeans and without a hat/gloves for everything except the very coldest days of the year (sub -30C), when I'll add long johns, good socks, and a hat. When I didn't have a good coat I was freezing all the damn time. Brand matters a bit but anything down-filled is better than not (maybe some of the crazy expensive synthetics at MEC are better, I don't know, but definitely all the cheap non-down is useless) and hood is mandatory for blocking the nasty wind. I got mine at sears, but fancier friends have gotten theirs from canada goose, north face, mec etc.

Good boots help a lot too too (waterproof is best because it's slushy a lot and ice-cold slush is not something you ever want touching your feet). If you want to be out for awhile (like checking out the ice sculptures) I'd add some long johns, good socks, and good mitts (warmer than gloves)/hat.

Important: if you're coming to skate on the canal, that has different requirements from just walking around, depending on the weather. High priority on wind-resistance, hat/mitts/scarf/good socks mandatory, long johns highly recommended, and on the warmer days you may want a lighter coat than normal since you'll warm up with the exercise.
posted by randomnity at 12:32 PM on January 12, 2014

I've been looking into replacing my boots. Unfortunately I wear a size 15 narrow so finding footwear is usually a challenge in general. I've asked a couple of local stores which say they don't carry much (or anything) that large. Do you have any suggestions on where to go? Otherwise I'll need to buy online and pay for shipping back when things don't fit (which is often).
posted by grouse at 2:26 PM on January 12, 2014

Update: Still haven't been able to find boots.

I haven't found a hat either. I need an extra large hat. I used to have an XL Mountain Hardwear hat that looks like their Dome Perignon. I checked all of Mountain Hardwear's online suppliers in Canada and they don't seem to have it. I now have no idea how to get an XL beanie/toque/hat in Canada. Any suggestions welcome.

I'm going to try wearing long johns next time it's ridiculously cold. If that's not enough I'll look into rain pants.

I joined Mountain Equipment Cooperative (do I get credit on a future citizenship application?) and got a new parka there (on clearance for only $120!). It is working out very nicely. There is actually insulation in the hood and it is making up for not having a hat right now.

I also got a neck gaiter ($4) which is long enough that I can use it to cover up my mouth.
posted by grouse at 4:21 PM on January 19, 2014

I've asked a followup question on the extra large boots and hats, "Need big hats and big boots in Toronto."
posted by grouse at 6:12 PM on January 22, 2014

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