How long can I stay outside in extremely cold weather?

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Yes, it’s one of those years where we’ll be experiencing snow storms and near frigid temperatures. Just last week, we celebrated the holidays with bitter cold temperatures, snow and freezing rain. And it seems like the cold weather warnings were up not only in Manitoba, but in most Canadian cities as well.

If you were one of those who wondered whether it was safe to go to work when the wind chill index showed “feels like-50”, this guide is for you! The following will show you how to brave the elements safely (and when to just stay home):

Windchill hazards table

The chart shows you how long you can be outside before it is detrimental to your health. It also indicates what to do and wear for various degrees of windchill.
Windchill hazards chart

Chart adapted from Windchill Hazards and What to do from Environment Canada.

If you are going out, it pays to plan your travel, especially if you will be taking the bus. Make sure that you:

  1. know the bus schedule beforehand – carefully time your departure from the house so that you will be just a few minutes early but not so early that you’ll have to wait in the cold for a long time. Based on experience, I set out around two to five minutes earlier than the prescribed time to leave suggested by Winnipeg Transit’s Navigo Trip Planner. This is because I walk slower in winter.
  2. get a mobile app – mobile apps are life savers! These will tell you precisely how many minutes until the bus comes. It will also indicate if the bus will be late, if there’s a change in route, when the next bus is coming, and other passenger information. Check out: BUSguide, Wpg Bus Live (Android and iOS), transit (works in more than 125 cities worldwide), Winnipeg Transit +, myBus Winnipeg –Live Transit, or get the mobile version of Navigo. All these apps are free.
  3. find a nearby shelter – you are fortunate if there are heated bus shelters along your route. But if there aren’t any, scout for possible shelters near your stop like a convenience store, building or any structure that can protect you from the wind and snow. In the event that your bus is delayed (or for any other emergencies), you will have somewhere safe to go to.
  4. always dress warmly – I find that it is safer to add an additional layer if I will commute. You can always take some layers off later if you feel too warm. Read the next section for more tips on getting the right winter clothes and gear for the weather.

If you’re driving, it pays to check the amount of snow fall to gauge road conditions. Also, tune in to the news and other radio programs for traffic advisories so that you can avoid delays if there are vehicular accidents, road closures, rerouting and the like. Always be prepared. Have a shovel, snow brush and ice scraper in your car. Better yet, equip yourself with a winter driving kit which we described in this article: Top 3 winter driving tips.

Dressing for winter

For hardy Manitobans, there’s no bad weather. Just poor clothing choices. So this season, forget vanity – or at least make it a secondary concern – and choose the warmest windproof clothing you can find (check the chart above for recommended gear).

Winter Coat
A winter coat is a must, and the best ones are down-filled, nylon jackets. If you can find fur, it can be the warmest choice, like sheared beaver or mink. However, getting them may be costly (or against your principles). But if cost is your only concern, you can check out some thrift or vintage stores. They may have good fur coats, scarves or hats.

Features you need to look for in a winter coat:

  • High collar to cover your throat and lower face.
  • Warm insulating hood. Make sure it has drawstrings so you can tighten it around your face.
  • The cuff must be tight and elastic to enable you to tuck your gloves in. This ensures that no part of your skin is exposed to the elements.
  • Some check the temperature rating to know if the jacket will be appropriate for the weather. However, others say that temperature ratings do not take everything into account (like humidity, wind, activity level etc.) so they may not be so useful. If you need a winter coat for a specific activity, like for example for skiing or for working outdoors, you will be better off asking the manager or salesperson for help.
  • Color can be another consideration. For your kids, it’s better if you choose winter jackets in bright colors so that they are more visible to motorists should they need to walk to school. If you work outdoors most of the time, visibility can also be a plus. So go for the yellows and reds, instead of the usual blacks, grays and browns.

Layering
Of course, you already know that the best strategy to keep warm is layering. This means that you have two to three layers of clothes underneath your winter jacket and pants. These can be composed of thermal underwear, shirts or sweaters, and tights. Textiles like wool, corduroy, and fleece are the best at keeping body warmth in. Choose your layers (or how many) depending on your needs or activities for the day. And don’t forget to shed some layers if the temperature becomes warmer – sweating can freeze your skin and deplete your body heat. This can lead to hypothermia. In frigid weather, you may also need other winter accessories:

  • Hats – there are various types you can choose from depending on your style and comfort level (see examples here: 9 types of winter hats, U.P. Supply Co.).
  • Ear muffs – if your hat does not come down to your ears, then you may need extra protection. Extremities are the first ones to hurt when exposed to the cold. There are many types of thermal ear warmers but the best ones are made of fleece, fur, or sheepskin. You can even choose one with built-in headphones or the headband type (see some samples here: 6 ear warmers that won’t mess up your hair, Chelsey Hamilton, Health.com).
  • Gloves or mittens – we recommend using mittens for more warmth since it allows your fingers to bunch together and create more heat. However, if you have them on while working and need your fingers to manipulate objects or operate equipment, then you would need gloves. The warmest types are made of cashmere, wool, fleece, as well as leather ones lined with any of these materials.
  • Shoes/Boots – Winter shoes can range from sneakers to thigh-high boots. You can choose your pair depending on your style/taste/preference and the activity you will be wearing them for. But you should always keep in mind durability (especially if you will be trudging through snow), as well as the height of the heels and the material and thickness of the sole for your safety and comfort. The best ones are waterproof and skid-free.
  • Others: Scarves, mufflers, or stoles to protect and provide warmth for your neck and shoulders (for a great guide on what type and material work best for winter, read: Your guide to buying scarves, ebay); wool socks or thermal socks and leg warmers (read 14 best socks for winter that keep your feet warm and dry by Sam Escobar, Bustle.com); and shades or sunglasses to protect your eyes from the wind and glare of the sun. And if you will be working or playing sports outdoors for a long time, you will need goggles.

Accessories for added protection

  • Ski pants – if you will be outside for an extended time, it is best to wear ski pants. These windproof and waterproof pants will help keep your legs warm and dry. If you need less protection but still want warmth, you can also opt for fleece or flannel-lined pants or leggings.
  • Face masks – there are thermal ones that can cover your entire face, with holes for your eyes and nose. These provide maximum protection from the cold wind. Just like hats, they come in various styles, such as a balaclava hood, full or half face cover, or just a neck warmer. Sure, you’ll look weird, but like I have mentioned, forget about vanity. . .
  • Metal or rubber grippers – these are attached to the soles of your shoes to help you walk through icy, slippery surfaces. They provide traction so you don’t slip. They are handy. You can keep them inside your bag when you don’t need them or for later use.
  • Gaiters – If your shoes and lower legs need extra protection or if you don’t like wearing high boots and need to trudge in snow, a good option would be gaiters. Gaiters are garments worn over your shoes and lower pant legs. They are weather-resistant, waterproof, and are detachable.

Lastly, always have lip balm and moisturizer in your bag. Wind burn can really hurt when the air is dry.

Disclaimer: English Online does not profit from the sales of products mentioned in the links for winter accessories. They were chosen for actual depictions/photos. We do not endorse them.

Sources: Yes, you can survive this cold! Ten tips from a Canadian, Caitlin Kelly, Broadside Blog; Cold environments – Working in the cold, Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety; Surviving Canada’s cold weather – How to prepare, Phil Sylvester, World Nomads; and Deep freeze tips for surviving the extreme cold gripping Canada, CBC News. Accessed January 2 and 3, 2018.

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Community Resources

Do you need to work in a cold environment? The Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety has a fact sheet that can guide you on things like regulated exposure limits, prevention of adverse effects of cold, and Personal protective equipment (PPP).

Read 5 winter dangers and how to manage them for more tips on navigating winter.

Worried about your kids going to school? Read How to keep school kids safe in extreme weather.

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