Your First Winter: A Guide to Winter Outerwear and Apparel

I know your type.  You come to the North, the land of cold, icy winters, for opportunity or adventure, for love.
 
People warn you about the cold winter.  “Dress in layers,” they say. You’re no dummy, so you pack your warm clothes: a sweater, a leather jacket, ankle socks, one pair of suede shoes.
 
You arrive in the long steamy months of August and you don’t see what all the fuss is about. September comes. The leaves change colors.  You make new friends.  You find someone good to cut your hair. As the weeks go by the weather grows cooler, sure, but you can handle it.
 
Suddenly it’s October and the temperature outside is as cold as you’ve ever experienced.  You see the mist your breath creates when you step outside in the morning for the first time.  It’s thrilling and novel.
 
In November you see your first snow flurries and they begin to accumulate. And the more you hear about the winter, the more you fear it. But the locals around you laugh and say “This isn’t winter; winter hasn’t even started yet!”
 
Fear not! This guide will tell you everything you need to know about winter clothing including:

  • Getting the right outerwear (jackets, gloves, boots, socks)
  • Strategies for layering
  • For you international folks, how to convert Fahrenheit to Celsius in your head 

Let’s face it: you can’t change the weather, but you can change what you wear. If you dress appropriately and get the right gear, winter won’t be as much of a struggle. So let’s get you outfitted properly.

No one wants to end up like this guy.

Outerwear

Three coats to consider
Balancing outerwear between fall, winter and spring can be tricky.  Temperatures can swing between 70°F (19°C) to 25°F (-3.9°C) with rain, snow and a variety of strange occurrences in between adding to the mix.  Trust me—not just any coats will do during these seasons. You’ll be tempted to go the cheap route when buying these coats but I urge you to get the good stuff first.  High quality coats will last longer and work better than less expensive coats which you will have to re-buy often.

Here is what you’ll need to beat the weather:

1.      The Raincoat

You should invest in a truly waterproof raincoat with a hood that has some type of thin but warm lining.  Rain jackets are generally made of synthetic materials like Gore-tex.  These can be found at sports or outdoor stores. Department stores may carry them as well. Reinforced rubber seams and labels that say “waterproof” or “weatherproof” are what you’re looking for.  If the tag says “water resistant,” walk right on by.  A water resistant coat won’t keep you dry in a hard rain.
 
A waterproof jacket will keep you warm and dry on blustery, rainy days when the temperature is between 60-45°F (14 - 7°C) without the use of an umbrella.
 
Good brands to look for are The North Face, Columbia, Patagonia, Lole, Exofficio, and Mountain Hardwear.  They can be found online or in sporting goods and camping stores like Dick’s Sporting Goods.  The price should hover around $100 for a waterproof coat.
 
If it is only drizzling outside, meaning it is not a heavy rain, you could wear a short wool coat called a pea coat instead of a rain jacket.   And if you like, you can carry an umbrella in case it starts to rain harder.

This jacket uses a great waterproof shell.

2. The Fall and Spring Coat

Think of your fall and spring coat as a transition coat.  Often people get a wool pea coat that hits at the hips and is lighter than a full winter coat.  These are often fashionable and, when chosen in the right colors, can be used both before and after winter (choose your coat color carefully!).
 
Note: If your raincoat has a warm lining such as polar fleece, a soft synthetic fiber, you may not need an additional coat for fall and spring.
 
Pea coats are available almost anywhere outerwear is sold, which means prices range from $50 to $150. Since this coat doesn’t need to be as technically advanced as a waterproof raincoat, you can buy less expensive options.

 

These lightweight wool coats are great for walking between classes, even in the winter months.

3. The winter coat or parka

Just because a winter coat is big and bulky doesn’t mean it will be warm.  It might be too warm meaning that when you go into a store or get on the bus, the coat makes you overheat and sweat, which makes you wet, which will make you cold. And that’s bad news! Bulky coats can also restrict movement, make you feel enormous and can be a pain when traveling.
 
Ideally, you’ll get a coat that is breathable and will cool off when you’re inside.  Wool and down coats make for breathable materials.  Down jackets, or “poofy” jackets, are popular for good reason.  The coat is lined with goose down feathers which poof up and insulate the warm air your body creates.  They are surprisingly warm yet extremely light-weight. 

Poofy coats are stylish and come in many colors. 

If you’re not a fan of wearing animal products, a jacket with a polar fleece lining and a waterproof outer shell will serve you well.  There are synthetic down jackets available too. They may or may not have a fur lining around the hood.
 
I highly recommend a winter coat that comes down past your butt.  Otherwise when you are sitting outside waiting for the bus, you’ll be sitting directly on a cold bench.

This parka is sure to keep you warm, even on the snowiest days.

Consider Lands’ End, Eddie Bauer, Woolrich, Columbia, Exofficio, The North Face, and Patagonia when searching for a winter parka.
 
You can expect to pay anywhere between $75-$300 for a good winter coat.  Look at it as an investment in your quality of life for half the year.  You won’t be disappointed if you get a coat that was designed for harsh winters.

Accessories
 
Boots are made for walking in tall snowdrifts and puddles

Having boots that rise above the ankle is important for walking through snowdrifts, which are tall piles of snow blown by the wind.
 
Having boots that are easy to remove is key. This is often accomplished with a zipper on the side of the boot. Once inside, snow and slush will melt off your boots making a puddle on the floor.  Put the boots on a rug to dry.  It will prevent you from stepping in a cold puddle in your socks. Yuck!  Again, look for the words “waterproof” or “weatherproof” on the label.  Expect to spend around $100 for a good pair of boots.

Slippery ice becomes a problem of the past when you're wearing these rugged boots!

Fits like a glove

Winter is a game of staying warm and dry.  And you are most likely going to get wet from the snow on your hands and feet.  Additionally, your hands and feet are the extremities farthest from your heart making them the hardest to keep warm. That is why you need to pay close attention to what gloves, boots and footwear you buy.
 
Getting waterproof (Gore-tex) or water resistant (leather, wool) gloves with a fuzzy lining (felt, polar fleece or lamb’s wool) is a good idea.  Having a few extra pairs around is not a bad idea either since it is very easy to leave gloves behind, or have one fall out of your pocket. Sometimes you'll get lucky and find the missing glove after the snow melts in the spring—but don’t count on it! You might also buy a pair of finger-tip-less gloves or gloves with conductive threads such as Isotoner’s smarTouch gloves in order to operate a smart phone while keeping your hands warm.  
 
What about hats and scarves?

Since your head can be especially sensitive to cold, wearing a hat is a good way to protect your head from the elements.  If you find hats annoying because they mess up your hair or because you find them itchy, consider earmuffs or winter headbands, which deliver protection right where they are needed.
 
Scarves make a great winter accessory and come in a variety of colors and fabrics.  They can be wrapped around your head and face.  But if your coat has a good hood and a high front neck flap, you won’t necessarily need an additional hat and a scarf.

Winter headbands are a cute alternative to the full-blown winter hat. 

Pockets are more important than you think

Be sure to get a jacket with big pockets.  The more the merrier.  If your pockets are shallow, your hat and gloves may fall out and you’ll lose them.
 
Why do I need a hood?

I stress the importance of a hood on your jacket because the head, face and chest are the most sensitive to cold weather.  Also, a hood will keep the rain or snow out of your eyes and off the back of your neck.  There are few things more unpleasant than a cold snowy wind whipping around your neck and down your back.

Strategies for staying warm all day with layering
 
Layering your clothing is the single best thing you can do to make for a relatively painless winter season. You might wonder what to layer and how to avoid the feeling that you’re wearing six pairs of pants.  All good questions.  Here is the framework for layering.
 
1) The Base Layer
 
Your base layer is what you wear next to your skin.  Look for wicking, non-cotton materials.  I like WinterSilks, which are soft, thin and breathable since they’re made of silk.  For a pair of tops and bottoms, it’s about $70, but they make all the difference.  They are thin and light weight, they don’t feel bulky.  
 
Pay special attention to the waistband of the base layer because if it feels tight or bulky, it will feel even worse when you layer pants on top of it. Look for flat seams or low-waisted long underwear.  Patagonia also makes base layer long underwear that is made of Capilene® in various levels of thickness. 

2) The Mid Layer

Your normal everyday clothes make up your mid layer.  In the winter that might be a long sleeve shirt with a sweater over it and jeans.  By wearing a layer over your base layer, warm air gets trapped between the two and keeps you warm.  If you’re still not warm enough, add another layer on your torso like a down vest or blazer.

Vests are a great way to add extra warmth.
 
3) The Outer layer

This is where your coat, hats, gloves and scarves come in to protect you from the elements when you’re outside.

Final words of advice:
 
Avoid wearing cotton next to your body
 
Cotton has many wonderful attributes.  It is soft and breathable.  But when cotton gets wet, either from rain, snow or from your own sweat, it gets cold and drains heat from your body.  That is why most of the recommended fabrics for winter are not cotton and have wicking properties. What are wicking properties? These are fabrics thatpull moisture away from your body.  Materials with wicking properties include wool, leather, silk or synthetic fabrics like polar fleece, polypropylene, and Capilene®. 
 
New on the market is Charged Cotton®.  It is said to have the soft breathable qualities of cotton without the problematic heat drain.
 
Socks
 
As I said above, avoid wearing cotton, especially on your feet.  Feet sweat.  Shoes leak.  Both scenarios will make your socks wet and your feet cold.  I have a hard time concentrating on anything if my feet are cold so a good solution to this problem is wool or synethetic socks.  SmartWool is a brand that makes non-itchy wool socks that resist odor.  They are around $20 a pair.  They last forever, are very comfortable and come in nice designs and colors.  You can even get away with wearing them for two days in a row. Most wool socks are itchy, so be sure to get a brand that advertises itself as non-itchy.

Now go out and get the right gear
 

 It’s possible that this guide started to sound repetitive with the emphasis on waterproof, wicking materials, and layering.  To be honest, it should feel repetitive!  That’s because the strategy for dressing warmly is really about two conditions:

  1. Staying warm
     
  2. Staying dry

As you’ve learned, there are easy ways to accomplish those two things with the proper apparel.  By now, you’re ready to go to the store and buy the right gear the first time around so your first winter can be a pleasant one.
 
BONUS: Converting Fahrenheit to Celsius in your head
 
There is a very good chance that temperatures listed in Fahrenheit have no meaning to you since so few countries use Fahrenheit.  Here is a simple way to convert one to the other.
 
First, subtract 30 from the current temperature, and then divide the sum by 2.  For example, let’s say the temperature outside is 50°F:
 
50°F  –  30 = 20      then        20 ÷ 2  = 10°C
 
Though this method is not 100% accurate, it gets you close enough to be able to make a decision about what to wear.