Packing for a Cold Climate: What to Wear and Where to Shop

Packing for a Cold Climate: What to Wear and Where to Shop

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When I told my friends that I’d decided to go to college in Minnesota, I was met by incredulous stares and questions of “But why?” and “Isn’t it freezing there all the time?” The answers? “Carleton is the best school for me,” and “No, not all the time.” But I’ll admit that I was a little nervous too. Growing up borderline in the South, my summers were hot and my winters were, for the most part, mild. Even though I was following in the footsteps of my mother and going to college across town from my best friend (who was following in the footsteps of her father) and both of them were giving us advice, I wasn’t really sure how to prepare for the cold.

My mom made me buy fur-lined boots, a down jacket, and a fleece, but she left the rest up to me. I didn’t own long underwear, so I settled for leggings and tights, thinking that they couldn’t be that much different (wrong!). I didn’t have my own earmuffs, so I stole my mother’s. I wasn’t enamored by the thought of wearing mittens and hats; throw those on with my puffy, light pink down jacket and I thought I’d look like a particularly feminine snowman—not a look that I thought would make me many friends or catch me any significant others. I grudgingly packed it all though: snow boots, rain boots, puffy down jacket, fleece, leggings, mittens, gloves, earmuffs, and hats. And to my mother’s credit, I used it all that first winter.

The first winter that I spent at Carleton was particularly rough; my parents were emailed a notice that said something along the lines of “Temperatures are below freezing and the windchill is -40° F, so make sure your child knows that undue exposure to the elements can cause hypothermia and frostbite.” Notice that the administration didn’t cancel classes, just urged us to walk quickly through campus. My dad was a little freaked out by the message, but I was safely bundled up in my puffy pink jacket and my snow boots, and I wore leggings under my jeans more than once that winter for extra warmth. The second winter, I took a geology class that had numerous outdoor lab periods (four hours in a row in the snow once a week!). At that point, no matter how many pairs of wool socks you wear, your feet will be cold.

After graduation I lived in Wyoming (cold, but I moved away before winter), Texas (winter doesn’t really exist down there), and Virginia (similar to the winters I experienced growing up). Your body forgets what real cold feels like in a matter of months, so the good news is that if you’re not planning on staying in a cold climate beyond college, you don’t have too much suffering to worry about. Forgive my joking. Yes, if you have a cold winter, your eyelashes will freeze shut, your snot will freeze before it can drip out of your nose, and you’re definitely going to experience cold fingers and toes. But if you’re safe about it and pack the right clothes, you’ll get through it fine. (However, it will never not be surprising when it snows before Halloween.)

Here is some advice about what you should pack to prepare for the cold:

  • Down/Wool/Microfleece winter coat (ideally with a hood)
  • Rain coat
  • Fleece jacket(s) or pullover(s)
  • Sweaters
  • Wool socks
  • Snow boots (some degree of waterproofing is ideal)
  • Rain boots (especially if your snow boots are not waterproof)
  • Scarves
  • Gloves and/or mittens (for extra warmth, wear gloves under your mittens)
  • Hats
  • Headbands or earmuffs
  • Long underwear (if you’re headed to a particularly cold climate)

The best way to stay warm in the winter is to dress in layers. Wearing a T-shirt or tank under a sweater with both a fleece and a winter coat thrown over the top is going to keep you a lot warmer than just a T-shirt and a jacket. This is especially important if you have to walk long distances to get to and from class or if you’re going to be spending time outside doing recreational activities. More important than your torso and legs are your extremities. If it’s particularly cold, wear more than one pair of socks, layer up your gloves and mittens, throw on a hat to cover your ears, and wrap a scarf around your face. I can’t guarantee that you’re going to be the most recognizable kid on the block, but you’ll be one of the warmest.

While it’s important to bundle up when you’re outside, you need to remember that your school will have the heat going (read: blasting) in all of the buildings and classrooms on campus. Layers offer you the option to acclimate to wherever you are: the great outdoors, your warm dorm room, or a hot classroom. Wearing outfits that are easily disassembled will keep you from sweating like mad when the indoor temperature reaches 75° F, but it will also keep you toasty when it’s time to head out into the snow.

Where can you find the best winter clothes? You’ll probably recognize a lot of the brands: The North Face, L.L. Bean, Columbia, Patagonia, Mountain Hardwear, Marmot, Smartwool, and Land’s End, among others. You can shop for these brands on each of their websites, but you may also have luck on Amazon or at a retailer like Dick’s Sporting Goods. I’m going to warn you, though, good winter outerwear is not cheap. But if you’re going to be living in a cold climate for four years, the quality that you’ll get from one of these top-of-the-line retailers is going to be worth the price. If you need to be frugal, consider rummaging through thrift store offerings or looking at Ebay or Amazon Marketplace. Be doubly sure to check on the quality of resold or used pieces, as winter gear has a limited lifespan, especially if it’s been washed frequently. If a jacket is lumpy, thread-worn, or full of holes, it’s not going to do you much good.

For the most part, you can wait on packing your winter clothes and bringing them to school until Thanksgiving or winter break. (Not all of them though; you’ll want at least a medium-weight jacket [like a fleece] if it gets chilly early on.) When winter break rolls around, you’ll know a bit more about the climate and have talked to your older friends about what they wear in the winter. If you are not planning on heading home for break, are moving somewhere where winter starts early, or get cold easily, you could ask a family member to mail your winter outerwear to campus in the fall. Or, if you have space, just pack it and bring it to school at the beginning of the year. I promise, even if you’re moving from sunny Southern California to upstate New York, winter isn’t the worst thing in the world, and like all things, it’s temporary. If you think about it, there really is no such thing as too cold, just too underdressed.

For more advice on staying safe in a cold climate, read this article.

About Megan Clendenon

Megan C. is obsessed with Cincinnati-style chili, Louisville basketball, and Scandinavian crime fiction. She has lived in six different states and held 12 different jobs since beginning her undergraduate degree at Carleton College in 2008. The wanderlust abated somewhat in recent years, as Megan settled in Texas from 2013 to 2016 to finish a master’s degree in geosciences, write a thesis on the future horrors that stem from climate change, and get married. During her free time, you will find Megan sitting on the couch, cheering for her Louisville Cardinals, planning future adventures abroad, and snuggling with her dog, Tiger. She currently lives outside of Washington D.C.

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