Winter is coming.
June 7, 2015 1:28 PM   Subscribe

What do I need to know about moving to the US North?

My partner and I are moving from the US South to the North for at least two years, specifically Missoula, Montana! This is much colder than anywhere we've lived before; the coldest place I've lived for >3 months is Virginia. From my experience, I've learned that wearing a hat and multiple layers help. What else do I need to take into consideration about living up North?

Things I need tips/advice on (that I can think of): clothing, shoes, driving- snow tires? 4wd?, public transportation (Missoula just went zero fare! we'll be commuting via bus), lots of ICE, and all things snow in general.

This Ask is helpful; any more advice, intended for even colder weather?

What else am I not considering? (probably a lot) Also, any advice about living in Missoula and Montana is welcome.
posted by horizonseeker to Travel & Transportation around Missoula, Mt (35 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
The responses to my AskMe about North American winter were quite helpful.
posted by zamboni at 1:37 PM on June 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Layers, layers, layers. Look for wool and down and Goretex. I recommend thrifting or discount outlets: now would be a good time to be looking for winter wear. You'll need socks & long underwear, warm sweaters, snow pants, snow boots, serious cold-weather coats and hats and gloves/mittens. Oh, and glove-liners.

If you're taking public transit you need to be able to stand around in cold snowy conditions without freezing your toes off: look for boots with removable insulated linings (Sorels are good), and get some really warm mittens. Carry a bag that will fit shoes inside, so you can switch out of your boots when you get to work.

Does your car have 4WD? If not, you might want to get snow tires. You'll need ice scrapers for the car, and should get the anti-freeze checked once autumn comes. If you've never driven in the snow, find somewhere safe to practice during the first snowfall (tip: turn into the skid, & never brake while skidding). Learn how to identify black ice.

When looking for housing, ask how much heating bills are during the winter: this will have a significant effect on household finances. Try to identify ways to keep active in the winter: join a gym, or take dance classes, or get into snow sports like cross-country skiing.

Hope that helps, I'm sure there's plenty of other good advice in previous threads.
posted by suelac at 2:07 PM on June 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Don't buy your warm-weather gear in southern stores. If you must stock up in advance (and depending on what your moving plans are, it may make sense to do so now, while winter gear is on off-season discount) then buy online. Southern stores generally don't have what you'd need for Montana.

The Sweet Home's winter gear guide might be handy.

I recommend a long down coat for waiting for buses in winter. It's nice not to have to wear *too* many layers since you'd have to strip down quite a bit when you go inside (standing still in the cold requires more insulation than walking/biking/sitting out of the wind).
posted by asperity at 2:26 PM on June 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

When you get to Montana, take your car to a dealer or auto shop, you will most likely need to get an oil pan heater installed. In northern areas we also have engine block heaters but those aren't necessarily something that can be added on afterwards. This is where you "plug in" your car when it gets cold. You may also need a battery trickle-charger or heater. And when winter comes you will probably have to get a lighter oil installed so that it works better at low temperatures. When it's below 15F (guesstimate) the cold oil will be very viscous and it will be harder for your car engine to turn over and get started. The oil pan heater keeps it warm. The battery may freeze, leaving you with a dead battery. A trickle charger or battery heater will ensure it doesn't freeze.
posted by lizbunny at 2:28 PM on June 7, 2015

I moved from deserty CA to the Rockies for a few years and was surprised that I was over prepared for the cold. A few layers were good, but I often would overheat especially when moving into buildings. It was easier much of the time to underdress for the outside knowing I was going to spend most of my time inside rather than cart around a heavy outer coat that made me too hot anyway. I wouldn't assume it's going to be as arctic as you think!
posted by cecic at 2:30 PM on June 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Layers. Change socks a lot of they get damp. Change anything that gets damp. Get a heated mattress pad warmer so that even if your house heat is expensive and you keep it low, you have a warm bed. Silk seems like a weird choice for long underwear but it's great. A lot of places that have snowy/icy/muddy outsides can sometimes have people who keep their houses looking decent by having a shoes-off culture (in New England this is big don't know about MT) In these cases there is usually a "mud room" to take off all of your outer gear and then put on slippers or something for inside.
posted by jessamyn at 2:36 PM on June 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

We lived in Chicago for 8 years. One coworker moved from Texas. He used his ice scraper over his entire car. Don't do that - ice scrapers are for windows.
posted by Ms Vegetable at 2:40 PM on June 7, 2015 [7 favorites]

Yay, I live in Missoula! I moved here from western Oregon a couple years ago so had to make a somewhat similar adjustment. Feel free to say hi if you have any other questions about anything else! Let's see...

Clothing: it's all about layering. All of this is worth investing in if you're going to be waiting outside for the bus a lot. The thing to be prepared for is big swings in temperature, such that it's plenty warm when you're moving around but as soon as you stop to wait for the bus, the wind starts cutting straight through you. You'll want to be able to easily take things off and put things back on as conditions demand. Also just in general, people dress super casually in Missoula so don't worry too much about looking dressed down in this stuff unless you have really formal workplaces. You will probably want:

- high-quality lightweight wool baselayers (I like to find Icebreaker or Smartwool stuff on clearance - Sierra Trading Post often has good stuff). You'll want a couple of long-sleeve lightish wool shirts, and at least one pair of wool long underwear bottoms.
- an ultralight down layer, somewhere between Uniqlo ultralight down (might be a smidge light, but will be perfect throughout the spring & fall) and e.g. Pagatonia's light down jackets. This is worth investing in because you'll wear it a lot; it's often cold and dry, but not wet. A lot of people go overpowered on this jacket and then find they can only wear it a few days out of the year. Aim for something that would keep you comfortable between 20-40F, not 0-20F. You can layer up when it gets colder.
- one pair of decent thin insulated snow pants for big snowy days
- probably a good wool or fleece hoodie/zip/pullover layer - your mileage may vary but you'll probably be super cold the first year and this will help, and it's a great breathable outer layer in the spring and fall.
- a good winter hat or two, possibly a windproof one and a more breathable one
- a buff or scarf. I wear my merino wool buff all the time in the fall and winter here.
- good gloves, windproof/waterproof but not bulky. You might want a light wool inner glove layer that you can wear by themselves in better weather or layer when it gets really cold.
- great wool socks, I just get whatever's on clearance at Sierra Trading Post
- a good packable rain coat for days where it starts out snowing and ends up raining, or more rarely just rains all day.

Shoes: mostly you just need a good pair of snow/rain boots that can withstand stomping around in big slushy puddles. We don't have a ton of fresh snow on the ground most of the winter, but there are always big melting piles of snow creating slushy puddles. Insulated is definitely better. Sorels, Tretorns, Bean boots, and Patagonias seem to be big here. You might also want a pair of relatively water-resistant casual shoes but I would guess you already have most of that covered. Also nearly every single person here wears Chaco sandals all summer long.

Tires: we have an old AWD Subaru wagon and got some Michelin Premier All-Season tires at Costco on sale. They were absolutely fantastic this year and I'd say they've been worth the money, especially compared to the cost of using separate snow tires. But we like to go out hiking a lot and that might be overkill if you're just staying in town most of the winter; last year we were driving a borrowed Toyota Civic Hybrid with regular mud tires and that was mostly fine (even in a really terrible winter). We only got stuck once and it wasn't a big deal to push it out. However, when we drove the Civic we mostly had to stick to bigger roads with decent plowing - smaller side streets (especially up in the Rattlesnake) were a little too much for that car in the snow.

I haven't been especially impressed with Missoula's bus system - it seems too infrequent to be convenient if you have to make any transfers - but I'm just spoiled from Portland and I use the campus U-Dash bus anyway, so take that with a grain of salt. I bike commute except in the snowy winter and find that Missoula is so bike-friendly and flat that I can often bike faster than I could bus. If you don't already have bikes you like, consider getting some!

Other Missoula stuff: everyone here has dogs except us, so if you have dogs, this can be a great way to meet people. Folks also really like to run - there's a runner's rush hour on the major city trailways between 5-6:30pm when everyone goes running at the same time. And if you're looking for an apartment, let me know and I might have some tips (we had a hell of a time finding a place but ended up in the best spot ever). Cheers, I hope you love Missoula!
posted by dialetheia at 2:40 PM on June 7, 2015 [7 favorites]

Oh, also, fleece or flannel lined jeans are fantastic. (LL Bean sells them, and Mr. Meat has several pairs. One of the best presents my parents have ever gotten him, actually.)
posted by Ms Vegetable at 2:41 PM on June 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

It sounds like overkill, but if you're commuting via public transit (or any other way that doesn't involve getting in and out of a warm car with minimal time outside), I highly recommend buying a cheap pair of ski pants to wear over your work pants. It's like a winter coat for your legs! This made my winter commute SO much better (even though my coworkers made fun of me mercilessly...yes, I am a weak Californian).
posted by rainbowbrite at 2:47 PM on June 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

When you try on coats, make sure you try them on with the other layers you're going to be wearing, too.
posted by Weeping_angel at 2:50 PM on June 7, 2015

I have lived all my life in Maine, Vermont, and upstate New York. I have been driving for 40 years, including commuting and lots of other driving. IMO, you only need snow tires and/or 4WD if you need to drive in areas where roads are not maintained regularly, or the roads are especially hilly. There have only been two or three times when I wasn't able to get to work on time due to snow, and I drive small cars with front wheel drive and good all-season tires. I also have never needed an engine heater, special oil, or any other unusual equipment. Granted, Montana gets colder than it does in the areas I have lived, but you might not want to drop a lot of money on preparations until you get there and see if it's needed. Driving in snow is more about technique than equipment. You just have to use extreme caution and learn how your vehicle handles. Some cars that seem similar are very different in how well they handle snow. My Honda Fit was awful, my Prius C is excellent. Go figure.
posted by jkent at 2:51 PM on June 7, 2015

Thing is, sooooooo much of this is really dependent on particulars.

Clothing is dependent mostly on you. I live in Buffalo, where normal winters are about as cold as Missoula but waaaaay snowier. I don't think I'm some sort of weirdo snowman, but I don't change my socks all the time, I don't own long underwear or snow pants or serious could-weather hats or glove liners or any of that stuff, don't wear and I get by fine, even last winter with single-digit highs for most of February. In winter, I mostly wear sneakers but with doubled-up tall socks, normal unlined jeans, normal underwear, a t-shirt, a thin sweater, the same coat I wear in October, and a plain old toque and gloves.

I don't mean to suggest that you will be fine like that, only that people vary. My wife usually thinks I'm nuts. So anyway it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me to prepare ahead of time, except for having just some sort of jacket, hat, and gloves. If you find your stuff isn't cutting the mustard, you can always just buy/order a warmer coat or thicker hat or whatever and just bundle up a little more in the meantime and avoid being outside for hours at a time.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 3:09 PM on June 7, 2015

I'm from Montana. I lived there for 22 years, four of them in Missoula for college and I'm from Billings (which is colder.)

You're in the valley so actually Billings and other areas will get colder. The problem in Missoula is that there will be warming times then cold snaps so you'll get melted snow, then ice often. However I've never had many issues (sorry I giggled a bit when you said Missoula is cold because I'm used to Billings - I now live in Salt Lake which is a bit milder for winter.)

1) Coat: I personally love my Columbia Onmi Heat. It's a 3 in 1 type coat that has two layers so you can wear them together, the inside, or the outside shell. (Pricy, but you can try Amazon or or others for a cheaper price. Mine is another model that has a small puffer jacket as the inner layer.)

2) Boots/shoes/ice grips. I personally walked to class and rarely took the bus and was fine, but if I were walking more or didn't have great balance I would invest in some ice grips. Most of the time I just wore some kind of boots and was fine, but as I said, it can get icy. You can get something like these to strap onto shoes then toss into your bag. I agree with layers, like scarfs and hats, so you can easily take off some stuff, especially with the bus.

3) Oh and speaking of the bus, note the hours it runs. I remember not being able to get a mall job because the bus stops running at 7. So keep an eye on it. Also the bus gets REALLY packed from about 3 to 4 ish because of high school kids.

4) Heating costs. Keep in mind what type of heat the place has when you're looking for places to live and what utilities are included. It may say it includes heat - but that depends on the type of heat. I've had places with a furnace and electric baseboards. Overall our bill was never too high but if you're used to it be warmer it might be something to keep in mind. Many places also have a fireplace.

5) Driving - I have never needed show tires or anything. Just get roadside assistance or AAA or something. Be sure to give yourself way too much time to stop in snowy conditions and keep an ice scraper and an emergency kit in your car. Really the worst thing is having cars not wanting to start if they're old or the battery is close to dead. I never had any specific car related issues. We only got super dumped on snow-wise once and we spent a good 8+ hours shoveling the alley so we could drive out. But our old car did fine (even though it was under snow before we dug it out.)

I'm also going to assume you're moving there for school? (Because there's not much else there.) If so, living near the college is really nice in terms of walking to stuff if it's too late for the bus (for example a late class or something.) Then you're often between downtown and the college, and there's a a grocery store only a mile from campus too. Anyway, feel free to message me if you have more questions.
posted by Crystalinne at 3:41 PM on June 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

People who have lived there all their life and are used to the cold have bodies that magically self regulate- they can walk around a mall in their full winter gear whereas I have to practically strip down to the bottom layer the second I go indoors. I always carry an extra bag around with me to hold my mittens, hat, scarf, coat, sweater, etc. while I'm indoors.

I hate wearing socks indoors but really good slippers in the winter help so much. Put that item on your birthday/Christmas list.

If you're a knitter or know a knitter, get at least one pair of wool socks for days when it's -30 outside.

I also like wool cardigans that I can stash around the house and wear for an hour or so.

For the coldest days, my clothing is something like knee high socks + wool socks + heavy boots, (if super cold) tights + longjohns + warm pants, tank top + long sleeve shirt + sweater, coat + hat + double mittens + plus scarf inside my coat + scarf I can wrap around my face. I really hate being cold!

People here in Canada look at me like I'm crazy when I do this but I sometimes use an umbrella when it's snowing.

You'll enjoy winter much more if you can find an outdoor activity you enjoy. Try renting cross country skis or snow shoes to start.
posted by betsybetsy at 4:01 PM on June 7, 2015

Ok, I just looked at the actual temperatures for Missoula for 2015 and they were not that bad. As someone who grew up in Georgia, for me, around freezing is bearable, 20-32 f is pretty cold, 10-20 f is very cold and less than 10 f I'm in my full gear and looking for ways to avoid going out, fyi.

I've learned to not even ask my partner (who grew up quite far north) "is it cold out?" We have vastly different notions of what constitutes cold.
posted by betsybetsy at 4:10 PM on June 7, 2015

My #1 rec is to get a boot tray, and pick a spot in your house where people will take off their outer gear and put on their inner gear. You don't want to be mopping up salt or snow and dirt residue off of your floors every day. And a place where you can hang your outerwear to dry off is ideal.

If you have to shovel, do it right away, before it melts and gets heavy. If not, keep a small shovel either in your car or apartment, for emergencies.

Have two sets of gloves: one thick pair with Thinsulate, and another stretchy type (aka Magic glove). You don't need a thick pair to walk to the car or bus station, but you will need it if you have to be outdoors for more than 15 minutes.

Get a vest. Microfleece, microdown, whatever. You can wear it inside or outside, but it will keep you warm. There is a reason you see people wearing vests and turtlenecks, because that shit keeps you warm.

Hat can be a beanie with fold down properties. I have so many hats, but in general, I love a fold-down beanie, that is, double lined but not too hot. Like a fisherman's cap.

Keep your feet dry. I have a pair of Muck boots, which are more like pack boots, and they look silly, but they keep my feet dry and warm. They are not good on ice, however, so if you are walking a lot, get something else.

Get some sock blockers for your doors and windowsills. These are just long socks filled with something heavy to block the wind.

Pick out TV shows that you will want to watch that have long seasons so you can binge.

Get your Vitamin D tested and get a baseline. Take Vitamin D based on that. I take 5,000 a day and 10,000 a day in the short months. Yes, my doctor knows about it and approves. It's a thing here, in the North, even in the summer, you may not get enough, so talk to your doctor about it.

Scarf it up. I am not kidding. Buy many scarves and wear them all. If it gets to be 50, put a nice pima scarf around your neck. 40 or lower, wool or wool blend. My Grammie always said that was pneumonia weather, and she was right: if it's cold, keep a scarf around your neck! Keep your chest covered by fluffing it up.

Eat hot stews in the winter. Spice it up. Then get down into a Snuggie or a fleece blanket and binge watch those TV shows you have lined up. Complain about the weather. Try to go jogging and then come home and complain again. Invest in a lotion company, while cursing Aquaphor, because that's the only thing that works for your dry hands, until Spring breaks and you forget the misery of winter in the North.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 5:07 PM on June 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Everything else I'd have suggested has already been covered, except this: The thing that surprised--and discomforted--me the most when I moved to the cold north was the way the cold weather affected my skin. I'd never used lotion much in my life because I'd always had oily skin, but I quickly learned how to moisturize when the skin on my hands and ankles got so painfully dry it started cracking, and my face got so dry it started looking kinda scaly. YMMV, of course, because everyone's skin is different, but if y'all aren't regular moisturizers already, consider starting.
posted by rhiannonstone at 5:42 PM on June 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

I pedestrian commute in Edmonton, Alberta (and used to bus commute) in temperatures as low as minus 35 celcius (just once!). In addition to the layers, I find having a hot beverage (coffee, tea, whatever) in an insulated mug helps keep you warm.
posted by Kurichina at 5:56 PM on June 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

okay. pardon me for not reading the replies here yet - my time is limited.
five years ago i moved to minnesota. it is cold.
the winter is LONGER and MORE INTENSE than i would have expected. the duration is the worst part.
people take off their shoes before entering houses, basically always, because for 7 months out of the year your shoes are covered with snow grime and salt and crud and whatnot.
you need long underwear, you need warm socks, you'll wear them all the time, you need heavy sweaters, big coats, and in the winter it's a losing proposition to go outside at all without full coverage - hat, scarf, mittens. you need a combination of insulation and windproofing. buy a good jacket. it will cost a couple hundred bucks.
the cold is no joke. ever year there are sad stories about drunk people dying because they get dropped off at their house, can't find their keys, and freeze to death on their doorstep.
everywhere, people forget how to drive in the first snowfall. or they think that they're so hardy and rugged that nothing stops them. and they crash all of their cars together.
cars take a motherfucking beating.
if you're prone to unhappiness, get a SAD lamp. plan to sit in front of it.
people love cross country skiing.
if you're into bikes, people love fatbikes for the winter.
it's hard to stay active unless you're winter-active.
if you're renting, good god, don't sign a lease where you pay for heat. if you do... shit. plan to put plastic covering over every single window. only rent a place that has good windows - well insulated ones.
you'll need warm covers for your bed
posted by entropone at 6:47 PM on June 7, 2015

The most important thing to know about driving in the ice and snow is that four-wheel drive is NOT the solution, and that SLOWING DOWN is!

(And that goes even if it's a truck with big tires, a Subaru, or the latest SUV... those that think 4x4 makes it ok to go "normal" weather speeds WILL end up in the ditch! And the person driving 20mph through the snow and ice will be laughing as they pass...)

Keep a blanket in the car just in case.
Fill the top half of your gas tank, not the bottom.
Keep a bottle of water, non-perishable snacks, and some of those cheap hand-warmers in the car.

Take a change of clothes with you when the weather is nasty. Wear the boots and put the dress shoes on when you get there.

Assume the power will go out at least once each winter; put a flashlight and extra batteries somewhere easy to find in the dark. Also, use an alarm clock that isn't dependent on having power to go off. And count yourself lucky if it's only once.

Buy a snow shovel, ice scraper, and de-icer or a sack of cheap, non-clumping kitty litter about the time they first put them out. Don't wait til it snows; everyone else will make it to the store before you. (Same goes for sleds and other snow toys, if you want/need them.)

Don't just go buy a snow-blower unless lots of other people confirm they work well in your area. (Ours, we get mostly wet, heavy snow - they're darn near pointless.)

The first few times it's going to freeze really cold, give yourself extra time before work or whatever, just in case your car locks freeze shut.

Put bags over your windshield wipers if it's going to freezing rain... saves some time in the morning.
posted by stormyteal at 6:47 PM on June 7, 2015

A heated mattress pad is... it is almost unconscionably luxurious.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:06 PM on June 7, 2015

How to Walk on Ice! (a.k.a. Be the Penguin)
posted by mal de coucou at 7:47 PM on June 7, 2015 [2 favorites]

Fill the top half of your gas tank, not the bottom.

What does this mean?

Fill your tank when it's half empty not when it's all empty. ie: keep a reserve.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 7:55 PM on June 7, 2015 [1 favorite]

Aside from weather and clothing, one thing you might want to know is that folks outside of the US South don't think of themselves as "the North." Even in New England and such, that's not part of the regional self-identity.

Montana is, what, the Northern Rockies? Figure out how they think of themselves and use that regional descriptor.

Also, sadly, expect a lot of ignorance about the South, and much talk about how the South is the place with racism, not other places.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:16 PM on June 7, 2015

It's very dry in the winter. You might want to get a humidifier for your house. Don't set it too high though, or it'll feel clammy. And there will be static electricity. Anywhere there is carpet or rugs, prepare to be shocked. A lot. I have no advice on how to mitigate that. Just know that it's going to happen.

If you're in charge of snow removal, get a good ergonomic shovel. I like the ones with the metal blades. (Well, I did; I moved to Phoenix and will never have to shovel again!) And Google proper shoveling form so you don't hurt your back. Or get a snowblower, but I have no advice about them.

As far as ice on the sidewalks goes, salt (road salt, not table salt) works better than sand, but is bad for the environment. Kitty litter will do in a pinch of you don't have anything else. Also, keep a bag of kitty litter in your trunk; it can help you if you get stuck in the snow. If your car has rear-wheel drive, you're going to want something heavy in the truck to weight it down and help your wheels get traction.

Get a scraper for your car that has a long handle. Those ridiculous little one-handed jobs are all but worthless unless you have super long, super strong arms. And keep some lock de-icer available (do NOT keep it in your car).

Opinions vary on whether warming your car up for an extended period after you start it is worth it. I would always let it run for a couple of minutes before driving, but I've been told that the engine warms up faster when driving than when idling, so I'm not sure if that was worth it. If it's very cold out, it'll feel kind of sluggish at first. Take it easy for the first couple of miles while it gets warmed up.

Good luck!
posted by Weeping_angel at 11:31 PM on June 7, 2015

Oh, and the coolant you put in your car? In cold places, that's anti-freeze. And you want to make sure your windshield washer fluid is rated for freezing temperatures. And I think you might need different oil. In the fall, you can take your car to the mechanic to be "winterized" and they'll do all of that stuff. And probably some other stuff.
posted by Weeping_angel at 11:43 PM on June 7, 2015

Numerous people have mentioned layering, which is, indeed, essential. However, I've known a lot of people who know that they should layer, but don't layer properly. It's absolutely essential that each layer fits comfortably and loosely over the the layer below. If you have two ill-fitting layers (one is much too snug...not necessarily snug on the body, but snug on the layer below), it's very often colder than wearing only one of the two layers.

I've noticed this is especially common with socks, people try to double up their socks and then cram them into a pair of shoes (which usually fit, but now with two pairs of socks are snug) and their toes FREEZE. On that note, don't tie your boots super tight. Give them some slack, it makes a surprisingly noticeable difference.

Lastly, if you end up doing any sort of physical activity outside (shoveling snow maybe? =]), you'll be surprised how hot you can get, even on a bitterly cold day. In this case, you need a good shell to cut the wind, and sparse layers below. This takes some trial and error, because when you first step outside you'll definitely feel underdressed, but once you start moving your fears will dissipate. Letting yourself sweat like mad because you're overdressed is very very bad. Don't do it. And yeah, nthing the 3-in-1 love love love love them for cold climates.
posted by hannahelastic at 12:37 AM on June 8, 2015 [2 favorites]

We lived in Chicago for 8 years. One coworker moved from Texas. He used his ice scraper over his entire car. Don't do that - ice scrapers are for windows.

but do brush the snow off your car - particularly the roof - as it will come flying/sliding off at some point and can be a hazard for you or other drivers behind when they are suddenly hit with an unexpected couple of cubic feet of snow. This where a long handled snow brush is used (they are traditionally kept in the footwell of the backseat of your car)
posted by srboisvert at 5:24 AM on June 8, 2015

I don't have much practical advice to give, but just a bit of reassurance: you will get used to it, and it won't be that bad.

I say this as a Californian who moved to Duluth, Minnesota last year. I was terrified of snow, of the cold. And, yeah, sometimes it is unpleasant... But often it is not. You acclimate, you get used to it. And then, one day, you're just going along like normal, and you realize you just thought "wow, it's a beautiful day! We should really walk to that new ice cream shop and try their milkshakes!" when it is literally just one degree above freezing.
posted by meese at 7:33 AM on June 8, 2015

I'm a life long Minnesota resident and a car guy so I'll keep my advice down to just driving and cars.

Tires are the single most important factor when it comes to getting around in the winter. They aren't "snow" tires, they're "winter" tires. The rubber compound is designed to work at colder temperatures. Summer tires will get really hard when it gets cold and it feels like driving with tires made of glass. Then the tread patterns are designed to cut through snow and ice to find traction. You can get by with some REALLY good all season tires but you'll be doing yourself a favor if you get winter tires. In a perfect world, you'll have them mounted on a 2nd set of wheels because taking the tires off and re-mounting them every time the seasons change is hard on the tires. Other than the initial outlay for a 2nd set of tires and wheels (and maybe a good floor jack and impact wrench so you can easily put them on and take them off yourself) you don't actually spend that much more because you have two sets of tires and you drive on each for about half the year. Plus, if you have the tools to take them off and put them on, you can rotate your own tires and it's not much harder to change your own oil so you save money in the long run.

Which ever tires aren't currently on the car should be stored in a cool, dry area inside some opaque garbage bags.

Even with winter tires, rear wheel drive is really only for the very risk tolerant and/or professional drivers. Front wheel drive is just fine. All wheel drive (or 4WD which is a slightly different thing) are nice to have but not necessary. It helps you accelerate faster and the handling dynamics are a little bit different but it will not help you stop faster. In fact, since a car with AWD is heavier than the same car without, it often takes longer to stop. When cars start to lose grip a rear drive car will tend to lose grip at the back first so the tail starts to slide towards the outside of the turn (over-steer), a front wheel drive car will lose grip at the front first so it just keeps going straight (under-steer), while an AWD equipped car sort of does both. If you really know what you're doing, AWD is better, if you don't, front wheel drive is the way to go as the way to correct it is usually to let off the gas and keep turning and that is what most people tend to do naturally anyway.

The first time you get a good, solid snow, find a big empty parking lot, turn off every traction control or stability control you have and practice driving around on it to get used to what if feels like when the tires break loose. Then turn all that stuff on and do it some more so you know what it feels like when those systems kick in.

In Minnesota, we have a huge fleet of giant plow trucks that keep the roads clear when it snows and lay down salt and sand to help with traction (though it's still very slippery) so ground clearance is only very rarely an issue. I can't say whether the same will be true where you'll be living or if you jobs are such that you'll have no problems coming a few hours late or working from home if there is a blizzard. Even then, I drove a little Plymoth Neon on all-season for years and in snows so deep that the wheels were more like rudders than wheels without ever getting stuck or crashing. Also, having sold cars for a living (and therefore driven many different cars through the snow) small, front wheel drive cars, especially if they have good handling on dry pavement, tend to drive really well in the snow.

When the temperature gets down to around 10F, you'll want to start your car and let it run for about 60 seconds before you put it in drive. This lets the oil warm up and get circulating which takes a bit of extra time when it's really cold. Otherwise you're causing a little bit of extra wear on the engine that might cause problems as the car ages. A LOT of people will start their cars and let them from for 5-10 minutes before they leave so that the whole engine gets up to it's normal operating temperature. It's not bad for the car but it isn't necessary. It's nice to get into a toasty warm car and it sometimes helps to clear ice from the windows. It doesn't waste a lot of gas but it does waste some.

A tip with the heater, don't turn the fan all the way up when you first get in the car. It works by leaching waste heat from the engine and you make the process of warming up the engine take longer by blasting the fan right away. Not only that but you're just blowing cold air at yourself and getting colder. Wait until you see the temp needle start to creep up and then crank up the fan. You will, however, sometimes need to blow the fan anyways to keep the windows from fogging up, once it starts to clear, turn the fan down so that it keeps the windows clear without blasting frigid air at you. A lot of cars will turn on the A/C compressor when you flip the dial to defrost, this is normal. It's not going to blow cold air at you (at least it won't be getting colder from the A/C), it uses it to de-humidify the air to help keep the fog down.

A good ice scrapper is worth it's weight in gold. If you'll be parking outside, I'd also get a "snow broom". Back when my dad first sold cars at a dealership, they would use push brooms to clear the snow off of the cars. That is the modern, purpose-built equivalent and it's the fastest way to clear snow off of a car without scratching the paint. It's what every car dealership uses to clear snow off of their cars and it's what I used when I sold cars for a living. It's much faster and easier than just about anything else and I've probably cleaned more snow off of more cars than everyone else in this thread combined.

Allow a little extra time to get around in the winter, a little more if it snows, a LOT more if it's the first snow of the season. For some reason everyone forgets how to drive in the snow the first time it happens every year and everyone freaks the hell out. It's the day of the year that I'm happiest that I now work from home.

Oh, this isn't car related but it's a good idea to get some extra vitamin D in the winter and get a light box to help stave off the effects of Seasonal Effective Disorder (SAD).

This is getting a bit long so I'll wrap it up with this non-car related thought. The best thing about winter is the end. It drag on and on and on until it seems like it will last forever. Then spring breaks and it starts to get really nice out. You'll appreciate spring a lot more after you've put up with the dreariness of winter.
posted by VTX at 7:52 AM on June 8, 2015

I'll echo rhiannonstone - be sure that you're taking care of your skin. My skin gets dry when it's cold because usually the air also gets really dry (on that note, you might also want to consider a humidifier for the bedroom). And you should really take care of your face - cold and wind will dry your skin out but ice and snow are reflective so if you're outside in those conditions, don't forget sunglasses and sunscreen. I wear a light face sunscreen year round because even if I'm outside less in the winter, it keeps my skin from getting flaky and gross. I like putting on hand lotion, then gloves before I go outside. And chapstick on my lips.

I'll just mention briefly my experience with cold weather as food for thought. I wear layers when it gets cold but more like outerwear layers, in that I'll throw on a fleece under my coat, then take both off when I get to my destination. I've found that most offices heat themselves pretty well in the winter so if I wear a big cozy sweater, I'll actually start sweating. So I really don't own that many sweaters and most of mine are cotton. I get too hot in cashmere and wool if I'm just sitting in the office. I don't own long underwear - when it's really cold, I'll just double up on the stuff I have - two pairs of socks, leggings under pants, a thinner long sleeved shirt under another shirt, etc.

I also buy cheap hats and gloves because I misplace them. Seriously, every winter I start out thinking, I'm going to get a cute matching pair of gloves, hat, and scarf. Then I find that the hat makes my hair look terrible and I lose one of the gloves and really, I want to wear the scarf that my sister-in-law gave me as a gift. So I end up buying a bunch of the cheap knit gloves that you can get at Target for about $2/pair and a few cheap knit hats. Boots are helpful - I should actually consider getting a real pair this year.

I will add though that since you're a lady, I'd advocate getting an adorable winter coat that you love, just because that makes it much more pleasant to wear for several months. I usually just get a black coat but I like wearing it because it makes me feel like a dark super hero type, especially when I'm wearing it with boots. But J. Crew has nice wool coats - get something in a fun color that you'll enjoy wearing. In my experience, everyone else will be wearing charcoal grey or black while the person in the robin's egg blue stands out.
posted by kat518 at 8:09 AM on June 8, 2015

Definitely stock up on cold weather gear, but one of the weird things about Missoula is that it has a temperature inversion in the winter so it's not actually as cold as nearby parts. The bad side of that is it's because of air pollution that hangs out in the valley.

I would definitely invest in snow tires, especially if you are going to travel outside the city at all in winter. Some highways will require chains if the snow is at a certain depth. I lived in Bozeman, not Missoula, but they definitely did not plow as often or as thoroughly as they do in bigger cities like Milwaukee or Chicago.

I loved the winters in Montana as compared to Milwaukee and Chicago. They are much drier, so it feels less clammy and cold, and the snow is fluffier. Plus, you can see mountains everywhere you look! I'm sure it will still be a shock coming from the south, but for me it was totally worth it.

Read some stuff about bear and mountain lion safety before you start hiking around out there.
posted by desjardins at 1:45 PM on June 8, 2015

A couple other tangentially related things - you'll be at a much higher altitude and you may feel like shit for about a week. If you smoke, you'll feel a lot better if you quit. Your tolerance for alcohol will be lower until you've adjusted. Your skin will be very dry in the winter so buy yourself some thick lotion (udder butter is popular). Get good wraparound sunglasses (these prevent snowblindness in the winter) and apply sunscreen liberally because you're closer to the sun now and you will burn more easily, even on bright winter days. I know 3000 feet doesn't seem like it should make a difference but it does.
posted by desjardins at 1:50 PM on June 8, 2015

Make plans to go visit your southern relatives in late January or February. Missoula gets socked in (cloudy) and it can be a long time between sunny days. Winter ( the part with snow on the ground) lasts into mid-April.
posted by ITravelMontana at 4:45 PM on June 25, 2015

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