How long can I stay outside in extremely cold weather?

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Do you wonder whether it’s safe to go to work when the wind chill index shows “feels like -50°C”? If you don’t know the answer to this question, 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

Windchill is how the temperature feels like to our skin, but it’s more than that. It is actually the measure of the rate of heat loss from the skin that is exposed to air. The windchill factor or windchill equivalent takes into account not only the temperature but the wind, sunlight and humidity.

The following chart shows you how long you can be outside before it becomes dangerous. 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.

Plan your trip especially if you will be taking the bus. Make sure that you:

  1. Know the bus schedule beforehand – Be just a few minutes early but not so early that you’ll have to wait in the bus stop for a long time. Based on experience, I set out around five to 10 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 the new Navigo App, or transit (works in more than 125 cities worldwide). These apps are free.
  3. Find a nearby shelter – It’s great if there are heated bus shelters along your route. But if there aren’t any, look for possible shelters near your stop. In the event that your bus is delayed (or for any other emergencies), go to a convenience store, building or any structure that can protect you from the wind and snow.
  4. Always dress warmly – I find that it is safer to add an additional layer if I will be commuting. You can always take some layers off later if you feel warm. Read the next section for more tips on getting the right winter clothes and gear for the weather.

Check the amount of snow fall to gauge road conditions if you’re driving. Tune in to the news and other radio programs for traffic advisories to avoid delays. Install Manitoba 511 to get the latest information about road conditions. 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 such thing as bad weather. Just poor clothing choices. 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. The best ones are down-filled and nylon. Fur, like sheared beaver or mink, can be the warmest choice. However, they can be expensive (wearing these can be against your principles). If cost is your only concern, check out some thrift or vintage stores. They have good second-hand fur coats, scarves or hats.

Features to look for in a winter coat:

  • High collar to cover your throat and lower face.
  • Warm insulating hood. Drawstrings are good so you can tighten it around your face.
  • The cuff must be tight and elastic so you can tuck your gloves in. This ensures that no part of your skin is exposed to the elements.
  • 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, ask a salesperson for help.
  • Color can be another consideration. Choose winter jackets in bright colors for kids so that they are visible to motorists (especially if they walk to school). If you work outdoors most of the time, visibility is also important. Go for yellows and reds, instead of the usual blacks, grays and browns.

The best strategy to keep warm is layering. This means having two to three layers of clothes underneath your winter jacket and pants. It can include thermal underwear, shirts or sweaters, and tights. Textiles like wool, corduroy, and fleece are the best at keeping body warmth in. Choose your layers depending on your needs or activities for the day. 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 like:

  • Hats or toques – 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 – The best ear warmers are made of fleece, fur, or sheepskin. You can even choose one with built-in headphones or a headband type.
  • Gloves or mittens – Mittens provide more warmth since it allows your fingers to bunch together and create more heat. However, gloves are better if you need your hands to be warm while working (and you need to manipulate objects or operate equipment). The warmest types are made of cashmere, wool, fleece, as well as leather lined with any of these materials.
  • Shoes/Boots – Winter shoes can range from sneakers to thigh-high boots. Choose one depending on your style/taste/preference and the activity you will be wearing them for. Always keep in mind durability (especially if you will be trudging through snow), height of the heels, 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 protect and provide warmth for your neck and shoulders. Wool scarves are the warmest. If your legs get cold, use wool socks or thermal socks and leg warmers (read 14 best socks for winter that keep your feet warm and dry by Sam Escobar, Don’t forget shades or sunglasses to protect your eyes from the wind and glare of the sun. If you will be working or playing sports outdoors for a long time, you will need goggles.

Accessories for added protection

  • Ski pants – Wear ski pants if you will be outside for an extended time. They will keep your legs warm and dry. If you need less protection but still want warmth, wear fleece or flannel-lined pants or leggings.
  • Face masks – These provide maximum protection from the cold wind. They come in various styles, like a balaclava hood, full or half face cover, or just a neck warmer.
  • Metal or rubber grippers – You can attach them to the soles of your shoes if you need to walk through icy, slippery surfaces. They provide traction so you don’t slip. They are detachable.
  • 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 detachable.

Lastly, always have lip balm and moisturizer in your bag. Wind burn can happen 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.

Article updated October 20, 2023.

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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