Well if you read my post about what winter is really like in Canada, you’ll have figured out that you need a whole lot of winter gear to survive it. So here is the ultimate guide to everything you need to dress properly for a winter in Canada!
When you think subzero temperatures, I’m sure your instinct is to go for the biggest, wooliest, puffiest winter clothes you can think of to shield you from the elements. But this just isn’t practical in a crowded city like Toronto. Sure, you need proper winter gear, but you can ditch the huge puffer jacket, the two-metre-long woollen scarf and massive knee high snow boots.
Instead, opt for layers of high quality materials. Wool, silk and polypropylene are your friend. Cotton outerwear is not advised: save it for summer. Jeans are also the best way to freeze, unless you wear leggings or thermals underneath them.
Unless you live on the west coast, you won’t see temperatures above 20 degrees for about seven months and your wardrobe needs to reflect this.
First you will need a good jacket
What is “good”? For me, it has to be down-filled, thin and lightweight.
I know, there are ethical concerns about animal cruelty here. But there are companies that source down and feathers humanely. And 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. So now I won’t buy a jacket unless it is 100% down filled.
The weight of the jacket is important, because there is nothing more exhausting and uncomfortable than lugging a heavy jacket as well your hat, scarf and gloves around a mall. A thin jacket is ideal because it’s easier to carry and store when you’re not using it.
It also needs a good hood.
I find those jackets with the huge, fur-lined hoods look good, but are an absolute pain in the ass.
First, you don’t need all that bulk. It’s the most annoying thing when you step inside and have to take off your coat and carry it. It’s like carrying an unrolled sleeping bag around.
Second, there are times when you don’t want your hood up. And the minute you get close to someone or something, your hood is bumping into them.
Third, those fur linings are useless. All the do is tickle and annoy your face, and allow snow and ice to stick to them. I find them pointless and as soon as a buy a coat I take them off, as they’re usually detachable. 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.
Fourth (yes I have four things to say about hoods!) it is 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.
Second, you will need good winter boots
I’m not talking ski boots here. You can wear them if you wish, and people do, but I don’t think you need them.
The number one concern is their sole. Do they have good grip?
My first winter, I bought $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. This isn’t Thunder Bay.
Instead, you’ll be stepping and sliding around on slushy, half melted, dirty snow that has been mixed with salt and grit and soot.
What you need are boots that are waterproof, with good thick wool socks, 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).
I’m obsessed with Timberland teddy fleece boots and I buy a new pair every year. This is not a sponsored post, but I find them very comfortable for walking long distances, they’re warm enough without being too hot when you’re inside, and they have decent grip. I haven’t tried every single boot that’s out there, but I’m a “if you’re on to a good thing, stick to it” type of person. The only downside is that they’re lace-up boots, which means they take time to get on and off – annoying since you’re expected to remove your shoes half the places you go. There are plenty of other winter boots that are zippered or slip on.
It’s a good idea to buy ice grips.
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.
If you’re wearing really good socks, then you can survive most of winter in average fall boots. 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).
Then you need wool, wool and more wool
When I discovered this, I bought wool everything, and that’s all I will wear in winter. Wool socks, wool hats, wool gloves. Everything else was a waste of money and did nothing to keep me warm, and I was miserable.
My sincerest apologies if you are allergic to wool, because that is the one and only thing I found that would keep me warm while regulating the heat so I didn’t end up sweating and then freezing.
And 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.
It would be wise to invest in 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.
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.
Ok but what do you actually wear under all that?
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.
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.