If you read my post What winter is really like in Canada, you’ve probably gathered that you will need some decent gear to survive in that weather!
But before you hit up your nearest winter recreation store, you’ll need to figure out exactly what you’ll need.
Winter clothing is a considerable expense when living in a cold climate, so you want to make sure you don’t go and waste money on stuff that will either be ineffective or overkill.
So here are seven things you must have in your wardrobe to make it through a Canadian winter.
Number one: A good jacket
What is “good”? There are lots of winter jackets available, some are really pricey, some aren’t, and some are completely useless. Which is the best?
For me, it has to be down-filled and lightweight.
I tried polyester-filled jackets. They just didn’t cut it. The wind ripped right through them, while also making me overheat and sweat. Very uncomfortable.
And I know, there are ethical concerns about animal cruelty here. But there are companies that source down and feathers humanely.
So now I won’t buy a jacket unless it is 100% down filled.
The weight of the jacket is also important, because as soon as you go inside, which is heated to an average of about 22°C, you will have to take it all off, and there is nothing more exhausting and uncomfortable than lugging a heavy jacket as well your hat, scarf and gloves around indoors.
A lightweight jacket is ideal because it’s easier to carry and store when you’re not using it.
This winter I finally discovered the “pack-able” down jacket and it’s the best thing I ever bought. It’s warm, waterproof, blocks wind and folds/rolls into a tiny thing that you can shove into your bag. You don’t boil when you step inside so you can usually keep it on for your entire trip on transit or while you’re indoors for brief periods.
The jacket should have a good hood.
Ok, I didn’t know this when I first moved to Canada, but those fur linings (faux or not) are important! When snow and ice is blowing all over the place, the fur will be the only thing stopping it from hitting your face.
It hurts when tiny ice pellets hit your eyeballs. The fur is supposed to stop or at least lessen that.
It’s also very annoying when your hood covers your eyes but has gaps on the sides. Not only can you not see, but the freezing cold wind will get in and burn your face.
So make sure your hood can cinch closed to stop wind from getting through, that you still have room underneath it for a hat and that it hugs your face instead of flopping down over your head and covering your eyes.
Number two: Good winter boots
You might think you need ski boots, but depending on which part of the country you live in, they might be overkill.
If you live in a city like Toronto for example, you may find you need something a little less hardcore.
My first couple of winters, I wore $200 knee-high fleece-lined waterproof Pajar boots. They were warm – too warm – and slippery. It took me a few winters to learn that in Toronto, you don’t need snow boots because you won’t generally be wading through knee high snow. Nor will the temperatures consistently stay cold enough for those boots. This isn’t Thunder Bay.
Instead, you’ll be dealing with temperature fluctuation, going in and out of buildings and running up and down subway steps, and stepping and sliding around on slushy, half melted, dirty snow that has been mixed with salt and grit and soot.
So what you need are boots that are waterproof, that will keep your feet dry, stop you from slipping and won’t make you overheat when you go inside.
In situations where you will be mostly inside, such as working in an office, it’s best to keep a pair of indoor shoes that you can change into.
You won’t be able to work inside with boots on all day. It gets too warm. Plus it’s not professional attire. Most indoor places have an area for outdoor shoes, where you can take off your shoes and let the snow and salt drip off them while you wear your clean indoor shoes inside (and keep the floor clean and dry).
It’s a good idea to buy ice grips.
When buying winter boots, many claim to have traction on ice.
But even the best-soled shoes won’t save you from icy sidewalks. Temperatures fluctuate in Toronto winters. Some days are -30, some days are +11 and everything in between.
Because of this, snow melts and refreezes, and you get a lot of icy walkways and most shoes have rubber soles which are slippery. You will slip and fall if you step on ice, which you often can’t see until it’s too late.
A lot of people slip on ice in the winter and get wrist injuries and even concussions. Ice grips that you attach to your shoes will help you not to fall.
You won’t need them every day, but there are some days where all the streets are icy, or you live in an area where the streets don’t get cleared that well, and they might save you from breaking your neck.
Number three: Warm socks
Wearing really good socks will be the difference between being comfortable and being miserable.
Wool is the best option here, but if you’re allergic, look for non-wool thermal socks (but make sure they fit into your boots if they’re the really thick kind).
Number four: A good scarf
A scarf is useless if it’s not worn correctly. It is not a fashion statement here, it is an necessity. It’s purpose is to keep the space between your coat and your ears covered and warm. It should not be too long or thick. You want to be able to wrap it around your neck then tuck the tails into your coat and zip your coat closed. Infinity scarves are great for this because often the tails of your scarf get caught in your coat zipper.
On the coldest days, the scarf alone will not be enough, nor will zipping your jacket all the way up. You need the double-layer protection.
Long-haired people, watch out for your hair getting caught in your zipper too. OUCH. You’ll want to have your clothes on correctly before stepping outside, because it is no fun if you get out there in the cold and your fumbling with your hair, trying to tuck it under your hat, away from your face, away from your zipper, with the wind whipping everywhere, all with gloves on.
Number five: A face mask
Or, you can use your scarf. If you’re wearing it correctly, you should be able to pull it up out of your coat and over your nose. But there will definitely be days where you need to cover all of your skin except your eyes, because it gets that cold. A face mask doubles as a neck warmer, so in theory you can ditch the bulky scarf. I found I always needed both.
Number six : Gloves
I found the standard polyester finger gloves okay for the tail end of the season, but when it’s below zero, my fingers hurt when I only wear those. The problem with gloves is that you also need dexterity while wearing them, to do things like unzip your coat, get your keys out, unlock your phone, use your wallet, etc etc. I found the mittens with the flip top finger cover the best. They keep your hands warm but you can free your fingers for a minute when you need to do something.
Number seven: A hat
What kind of hat will be different for everyone, depending on your personal preference and how you wear your hair.
There are all kinds of hats available, from standard beanies to berets to special hats with a hole you can thread a ponytail through.
I personally look for a wool hat without holes. I also have a wool beret which is surprisingly warm and blocks wind well.
The main thing is, can you wear it under your hood. If your hood doesn’t fit over your hat with the coat zipper all the way up, the hat is too bulky.
Ok but what do you actually wear under all that?
Ok, so here are some notes about clothing choices. Fabric matters.
Just like in summer, you wear cotton clothing to keep you cool, in winter, you choose appropriate clothing (read: not cotton) to keep you warm.
On the flip side, everywhere you go will be heated indoors, to around 20 to 23 degrees. (Some people keep their homes a little cooler, and some warmer).
So you have to figure out something that will keep you warm while outside but comfortable while inside.
I’m usually okay in jeans, a cotton tank top and a wool sweater inside. But be prepared to take your shoes off indoors. If you’re okay walking around barefoot you can do that, but I hate it. I always take slippers with me and change into those.
Your legs will be cold if you are only wearing jeans when you are outside, unless your coat is ankle length. I get around this by wearing thigh-high wool socks over my jeans on the coldest days. When I’m inside I can fold them down or take them off.
Thermals underneath work too if your jeans are baggy.
The most efficient way of dressing is to wear thin layers that you can take off or put back on depending on where you are and how cold it is.
But what about going out? Jeans aren’t cute at a nightclub
I hear you!
If you’re going out to a party or a club, simply wear your outfit of choice under your winter gear, which you will take off and store while inside, either in a designated coat check (sometimes for a fee, or at least a tip), or on a huge pile of everyone else’s coats.
You can put your hat and gloves in the pockets and shove your scarf in the hood (or around the coat hanger in coat check).
So there you have it. How to dress for a Canadian winter, from this frozen Australian.