Our little house is holding its ground against the Arctic cold, its outdated and thin insulation keeping the worst of the freezing temperatures at bay. And when I say outdated, I’m talking layers of foil and shingles applied to the walls under siding that is likely at least seventy years old. At times like these, I’m envious of those with wood stoves and fireplaces. It would be lovely to have a source of direct heat in addition to the forced air, something to really take the chill out and toast the tootsies. I know they can be fire hazards as well, very aware of that, but I also see them as a backup plan for power outages. Eventually, it would be wonderful to have something for heat in our house that doesn’t rely on electricity or gas. I remember an incident in Hamilton, Ontario, years ago, when our children were very small and we were staying at a hotel for a visit. There was a terrible cold snap and the hotel room was so chilly that all of us had piled into the one bed. We heard in the morning that one guest had gotten so cold that he’d taken the hair dryer into bed with him and it had shorted out some of the wiring, explaining why the electrical radiators weren’t doing their job! A hair dryer is an illusion of heat, and you only feel colder once it’s turned off. Hot showers, on the other hand, are almost as good as hot baths for sinking heat into your muscles and bones.
We’re only in the beginning of the deep cold, too. The long freeze and coldest days are still coming, usually around the first week of February. It’s so biting that the car needs a good forty minutes to warm up properly, and the dog refuses to pee or poop outside until she’s absolutely desperate. My glasses feel uncomfortable against my face after five minutes in -35 C, less if there’s a wind that makes it feel colder, the snow squeaks like styrofoam under boots and tires, and my nose crinkles up immediately. So I have a few rules I like to follow to make the cold less uncomfortable, easing my transition from hibernation to activity in the depths of Northeastern Ontario winter.
1) Layers. Many layers of clothing, up to and including the head and hands. My typical comfort zone in clothing includes:
-a tunic-length tank (nothing worse than when your coat rides up in a windstorm or getting into a vehicle and a freezing cold breeze hits your lower back! Or, if your pants are falling down because they got stretched by your muffin top or the elastic needs replacing and the top of your crack gets exposed for a moment — yikes! That long tank top is your friend in winter. Trust me.)
–a long-sleeve jersey top or turtleneck. I used to wear a lot of turtlenecks but sometimes I feel like they’re choking me, so I’ve been switching to cowl-necks and throwing on scarves. On my longer torso, the jersey top or turtleneck or what-have-you will ride up on the waist, therefore I like that tunic-length tank as a back-up plan.
–a warm sweater — cowl-neck, hooded, whatever. This is your main layer, your bulwark against the cold, your second skin. Well, okay, maybe your long-sleeve is your second skin and this is more like your outer coating. Or maybe the long-sleeve is like your layer of blubber and your sweater is like your thick skin. You have to act like a polar bear or a seal, people, bundling those layers to hold in your body heat. Fleece works, and wool if you aren’t allergic or annoyed by the itchiness. (Again, that long-sleeve . . .) The only thing I dislike about fleece is that if it’s too soft in texture it picks up dog and cat hair like a magnet. Hey — extra insulation!
–a scarf — long, short, thick, thin, cowl, infinity, eternity (was informed by a student today that the longest, thickest infinity scarves are now called eternity scarves, so that’s good to know), or what-have-you. Guys, you should wear them too. They’re incredibly versatile, dashing and sexy, and they keep the cold off your neck and away from your ears. Heck, I’ve even pulled mine up and under (or over) my winter hat in times of need.
–leggings or sweatpants — the layer under your jeans so that when you go outside and the cold makes the denim freeze up, you don’t get that burning feeling on your thighs. With dressier pants, though, you may have to swipe a bit of lotion down the fabric of the inner layer so static cling doesn’t get you. Nobody needs The Cling.
–a thick fleecy bathrobe — as soon as I get home, I’m throwing my bathrobe on over my clothes until the house warms up. I am also prepared in case I need to hitchhike across the galaxy!
–warm fuzzy slippers — see above.
–a thick fleecy / woolen blanket — when that cold air starts creeping up your legs, it’s time to curl into the corner of the couch under the blanket. Eventually, all that is peeking out under the layers will be your eyes and hands. That brings me to the final accessory:
–wristlets — you know, those funky fingerless gloves that leave your digits free for texting, dialling, eating, using the remote control, etc. I have a pair that I can plug into my computer for an extra dose of heat, though I find the material a bit scratchy. The good news is that with my mad knitting skillz, I can eventually create my own wristlets from the softest yarn I can find and transfer the heating system over. Ahh, sweet, sweet heat . . .
2) Comfort Foods. There is a reason that animals fatten themselves up for winter. I know that overindulging in doughnuts, pastries, creamy coffees and hot chocolates is less than desirable, but caloric intake is necessary for survival! Plus, they’re good for the soul on those bone-cracking mornings. Hot soups and tea are also effective tools for enduring the winter.
3) Hot Movies. No, not porn. I’m talking tropical-island, sandy-beach, burning-sunshine, piratey movies. My winter favourites include Captain Ron, each of the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Sahara (the one with Matthew McConahotty), Fool’s Gold, Forgetting Sarah Marshall, 50 First Dates — anything that will offer just a hint of escape from the white, frozen wasteland outside my windows. CAUTION: Watching a winter-themed movie in the middle of the winter is NOT recommended. Have you ever sat through a showing of The Day After Tomorrow during temperatures of -20 or below and started critiquing the warming techniques of the survivors in the library? Use psychology on yourself. Watch a HOT movie, particularly if you’re like me and you can’t afford a real get-away to the sunny south. Oh, Florida . . .
Winter Sports. I’d like to say that these are helpful during the Deep Freeze, but really, when exposed skin gets frostbitten in ten minutes or less, just stay inside. I know some snowmobilers live for it, and some ice hut enthusiasts crave those ultra-cold days, but no. Just no.
5) Furry-friend Cuddles. My dog Skittles is such a comfort on these bitter nights. Her fur is warming, her body heats up the couch (and the bed), and yet when she runs outside with me while I warm up the car or put the garbage out, she hits the snow with such joie de vivre, it almost makes me forget that my body is rebelling against my climate.
6) Light. As much as it pains me to pull back the curtains (one extra layer against the cold air), I need to let the light in, as do most of us. Sometimes I like to light some tea candles, too, for the illusion of heat and a warmer light than that cast by the weak January sunlight.
7) Sleep. It’s so tempting to hibernate; I tend to stay up very late and sleep a lot in the day when I can get away with it (read: on vacation / weekend) because then I don’t have to see the ice and snow outside. I can cocoon myself and ignore the bitter cold beyond my walls. But then it gets addictive. So get enough sleep but balance it with the light. I have a small SAD light that helps me to wake up on time, feeding me the essential light I need to make sure I wake up after dreaming.
8) Do Projects. Some people like to tinker away at engines. Many of my friends do their best writing in the dead of winter. Others bake their stress away, or sew, or build models. Pick your favourite and go to it! When it’s too cold to enjoy outdoor activities, make the most of the indoor time by mastering a skill. Be crazy like me and commit to a massive project, or sample a few things you’ve never tried before.
Clean. Sorry, no, I can’t bring myself to include that as a survival tool for the dead of winter. Cleaning (shudder) is a necessary evil, something that we have to do anyway, but I can’t feel like the house is properly clean if I can’t open the windows and air it out or use my clothesline.
So that’s it — those are my main go-tos for handling the deep winter freeze. What works for you?