How to Sightsee in Cold Weather

    Sydney may have hit an all-time record of 45.3 degrees Celsius on January 18 but in Montreal, the city where I currently reside, and, indeed, up and down the Upper Midwest and Eastern Seaboard of the United States and Canada, we froze that very same week in windchills of minus 40 degrees Celsius.

    For those who have never had the pleasure, negative 40 feels like a collision with a lorry. Air that cold stings every pore not under wraps and practically paralyses. I have also had the fortune, on a trip to Nunavik, 1,400 km north of Montreal in the Nord-du-Qu├ębec region, to experience temperatures on the open Hudson Bay in the -60 C range. Absolutely brutal.

    While the deep freeze records of January 2013 are a rarity in the likes of Montreal, Quebec City, Toronto, Chicago and New York City, they are, like wildfires and heat waves in Australia, a constant threat. With that, let me pose this question: when the mercury rises in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide, does daily life come to a screeching halt? Well, maybe to a certain extent, but point is, we cope, we take preventative steps for ourselves and our children and we soldier on. The same is the case in intense winter climates.

    Harbin Snow Festival, China – Photo credit

    In a city like Montreal or Moscow for example, residents inevitably have to withstand furnace-like humidity in the summer (a humidex of 40 C is typical in late July for Montreal) and, come January, blizzards, sleet and perilous plunges in temperature. And yet, we somehow revel in winter all the same and, when it gets bad, we manage. Not to brag but while the city was under a glacial chill of -25 C and below last week, I still took my infant daughter to her day care every day – a twenty-minute commute on foot (her jog stoller is beastly in snow).

    People express surprise when they see me with a two-year-old outside, in the open, in such cold temperatures. But I stuff my little girl in layers of heavy clothes, cover her up well and proper and swaddle her in wool blankets. She naps on the way to school and on the way home, believe it or not.

    The question is, how do I stay warm? After all, in the cushy refuge of a deep-set jog stroller, my daughter is safe from the polar winds. I, on the other hand, as a pedestrian, have to face it without such protection.

    Like me, a lot of cold weather tourists who visit Montreal, Moscow, Beijing, Harbin, New York City, Chicago, or even Paris, Copenhagen and Oslo, prefer to walk and refuse to let a severe windchill or a lot of snow stifle a good time. How do we do it? One word: layers.

    As a rule, people who complain about the cold have inadequate winter wardrobes. This is what I wear when the mercury dips, whether or not I’m taking my daughter to school, running errands or, more pertinently, taking in the sights.

    From left to right, I start with a merino wool base layer. The material is warm, thin and breathes. The blue top ensures my torso is comfortable and the black long underwear is my secret weapon in winter.

    Next, I throw on a fleece top and waterproof, winter running pants. As with all my layers, these items fit close to my body (baggy is very, very bad in arctic, windy weather). The thermal pants are lightweight yet protect me in windchills of -20 C. As a bonus, they have easily accessible zip pockets for a small wallet and mobile phone.

    If I need to take it up a notch, and in Montreal I invariably do, I pull out the big guns. My red running jacket is reflective and attracts attention (a godsend at night and in storms) and though incredibly lightweight, is ultra-durable. Best of all, it serves as a veritable seal against the wind. The detachable hood is very handy. My ski pants fit perfectly over my running pants and simply provide me with another layer of protection against snow banks and wind gusts.

    On to the accessories. A merino wool running hat was my favourite item until it got pilfered (at my yoga studio, of all places) last month. Now I go with a lightweight fitted wool cap, a fitted cotton neckwarmer and, if the occasion calls for it, a fitted, downhill ski-style face mask. The latter makes me look a little sinister but when it’s -40 C in the wind, I couldn’t care less. As for gloves, I tend to go with a basic wool pair with composite ski or running gloves on top. You really do need the latter if you plan to stay outdoors for more than half an hour in inclement winter weather.

    I’ve left footwear for last because it so often gets underemphasised. I can’t tell you how many people I see walking about in January, February and March with a ratty pair of trainers and gym socks. When they complain bitterly of frostbitten toes or take a tumble on the ice, I’m tempted to scold them like a parent. Bottom-line: your feet are your wheels – protect them at all costs. I start with breatheable running socks and then slip on heavy wool socks. I pull them up high and tight (but not too tight). Boots are a must of course and I’ve had the same pair for six winters now. I won’t name the brand (as you can tell I’m loth to recommend specific labels – I suggest instead that you shop around, in person, and try everything on) but they’re high (over my ankle), waterproof, lace up and have dense, grooved and grippy soles.

    You may have noticed the daypack and little white pocket wallet on the bottom right. They’ve been with me forever and are trusty companions for urban walking and sightseeing – whether it’s terrifically cold outside or not.

    The key to travel in cold weather climates, then, is all about how you prepare yourself before you get outside. Dress wisely, layer up, eat a good breakfast and then, once you’re out there, move your body, walk heartily and take breaks whenever your body tells you to.

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