Advice from Your Resident Canadian Polar Bear: Surviving a Proper Winter

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Visiting somewhere cold?  Moving to a country with a proper winter? Japan? Norway? Southern Chile?

Here are some tips for those of you that are not used to extreme climates from your resident polar bear. I am planted firmly in front of an air conditioner as I write this from my home in Jakarta – to which I have not yet completely acclimatised!

WINTER CONUNDRUMS

Canada is one of the few places in the world where it is remarkably common to experience two different types of burns simultaneously: Frost bite on the outside or your hand, whilst suffering second-degree burns from your

Tim Horton’s coffee on the inside of your hand. It’s a serious (first world) problem.  That short walk from the car to the office with a coffee in hand can be dangerous!  Add dress shoes and a thin layer of ice on the sidewalk to the equation and it’s a disaster waiting to happen.  Think broken hips, cut lips and sprained wrists.

We also battle frozen beards, crystalised eyelashes, 16 hours of darkness and get aerobic workouts from shovelling snow off our driveways. But 38 million people know it’s worth it and summer is always welcomed and fully embraced with immense elation.

FROSTBITE: WAS SANTA’S HOT COCOA SPIKED OR DID HE JUST HAVE FROSTBITE?

Frostbite is similar to a sunburn.  At first skin is red, cold and feels “prickly”.  Next, the exposed skin can get hard and appear waxy (cue visual of Santa’s jolly red cheeks).  Eventually, if the skin is not gradually warmed back to room temperature, it can blister and in extreme cases, turn black, causing skin, muscle and even bone damage.  It’s common to get it on toes, nose, ears, cheeks and chin – all those areas with limited blood flow and maximum exposure to the icy cold air.  It’s important to invest in good warm gloves or mittens, wool socks, a face mask or balaclava, and of course a toque (Canada coined this term and we firmly believe it is the correct and only term for what others call a “beanie” or a “hat”).

In all seriousness, watch the weather reports for warnings because wind chill can drastically impact the likelihood of frostbite. Minus 15°C can actually feel like minus 25°C.  It only takes ten minutes to get frostbite in temperatures ranging from -28°C to -39°C.  Canadian cities such as Edmonton and Toronto, both with populations over one million, experience these temperatures regularly over winter (yes, you read that, millions of people choose to live in cities where the cold air literally burns their face in minutes).

WHAT TO WEAR (AND HOW TO WIN A GAME OF STRIP POKER):

Some say there is no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothes.  Thus, LAYERS LAYERS LAYERS. You need to stay covered to keep your body warm and also to avoid frostbite.  However, that enormous Russian-style fur coat you purchased because it looked so stunningly gorgeous on that tall blonde model, is not the most practical.  The best approach to harsh cold weather is layering that you can remove as needed to regulate temperature and moisture.  Think of it as a game of strip poker… the more layers you start off with, likely the better off you will be!  Here’s the skinny, in proper order of operations:

  • Base Layer: Closest to your skin. A long sleeve shirt that fits fairly snug is best. The material must be warm but also thin and moisture-wicking to keep you dry.  Outdoor shops sell shirts and pants designed specifically for base layer use.   It is a good idea to invest in a few.  Merino wool is an ideal material, but clothing companies such as Patagonia and Mountain Equipment Co-op are experimenting with new synthetic fibres that work just as well.
  • Mid-Layer: Insulation. This is solely for warmth and should be modified/added-to depending on the temperature and your activity. A great option is a “puffy”, which is a down-filled (or synthetic-fill) jacket that provides warmth only, and is generally not waterproof. Puffies vary in thickness and temperature ratings.  Depending on the quality, they are quite breathable, which is desired.  If you are snowboarding or doing other sports that keep your temperature elevated, a thin puffy may be enough. You can experiment with mid-layers and remove as necessary.  Puffies are more convenient than cotton or fleece sweaters, as they can be compacted down to a very small size.
  • Outer Layer: Water and wind proofing. This layer protects you from rain, snow and bone-chilling wind. This layer is simply a shell to be placed over your other layers, and is not intended to provide warmth. Gore-tex® is a good option for material as it is 100 percent waterproof.  Check that zippers and seams are coated with waterproofing. Make sure you buy a shell big enough to fit your other layers underneath.

All-in-One coats are an option, but less versatile. Other good investments are winter boots, wool socks, base layer pants and snow pants if doing any outdoor sporting activities, or spending more than a few hours outdoors.  It is important to stay warm, but also dry.  Remove layers as required to avoid the vicious cycle of too hot, sweating, then too cold.

GETTING AROUND

We definitely DO NOT ride motorbikes or scooters for most months of the year as winter roads are treacherous.  Rock salt and sand commonly get poured all over streets to melt the ice and provide traction for cars and pedestrians.  Salting the roads tends to rust motor vehicles and is bad for the aquatic systems, so some cities have started using alternatives such as beet juice, which has proven to be effective in melting snow and ice. In countries with abundant geothermal resources and related infrastructure, such as Iceland, they run their hot water pipes below the pavement, which melts the snow and ice as it forms. This reduces the amount of salt, gravel and snow clearing during the winter months.

Car won’t start?  Often foreigners visiting Canada and other (proper) cold countries do not think of car maintenance and emergency preparedness.  At deep sub-zero temperatures car batteries no longer function adequately, so cars manufactured for these countries are outfitted with electric block heaters.  In older cars especially, the block heaters need to be plugged in overnight and while parked for longer than a few hours.  Emergency kits for cars, in some areas, are required by law, which include warm blankets, a food ration, flashlight, matches, etc.  Planning ahead for emergencies is imperative in such a harsh climate.  Being stranded with a car that will not start could be fatal if you are not adequately dressed to prevent hypothermia.  Cars are also outfitted with heavy-tread winter tires, which need to be changed out for summer or “all-season” tires during summer months.

THERE IS AN UPSIDE!

Different from the situation in the comfy, consistent and humid climate in the tropics of Indonesia, Canada has very small critters!  Cockroaches, rats, mice, and insects are all very small.  The winter acts as natural population control for these critters which is a relief to those who are disturbed by the creepy crawlers.  Some provinces are even declared “rat free” (I don’t fully believe this claim), and cockroaches are actually quite rare, especially in the non-coastal and less-humid areas of Canada.

There are other wonderful aspects of winter such as ice hockey, ice skating, tobogganing/sledding, winter hay rides (a winter sleigh drawn by horses through snowfields), skiing, snowboarding, luge, bob-sledding, ice fishing, igloo-construction and pumpkin-spiced latte’s in front of a warm cozy fireplace. Many northern cities have winter festivals that feature snow-cone snacks (balls of snow/ice flavoured with sugar or maple syrup) and ice sculptures big enough to walk through.  And sometimes cocktails just taste better when stirred with a fresh icicle!

If you have a visit to Canada planned, or if you are headed to any cold climate for an upcoming expat posting, don’t shy away from the winter.  In Canada the white snow that decorates the mountain ranges and covers the prairie fields is picturesque, pollution is very low and the winters are often accompanied by bright blue skies (blue-bird days).  The Northern Lights (Aurora Borealis) can be spotted from cities even as far south as Calgary.

 

So be prepared with warm-wear and remember the most important rule (don’t eat the yellow snow), then you will enjoy your trip to any winter wonderland.

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