a northern wardrobe
I thought I’d give you an idea of what it is like to dress for extreme cold.
To put our current location into perspective, here are some numbers. The Arctic Circle is at latitude 66˚. Norman Wells, about halfway up the Northwest Territories, is at latitude 65˚ – just 1˚ south of the Arctic. The coldest recorded temperature in Norman Wells is -54.4 (that was over 50 years ago). A few weeks ago, we dropped below -40 with a wind chill that read -50. The wind chill is the killer. On some of the colder days, if the wind picks up, frostbite can set in within minutes of exposure.
At the moment it’s sitting steadily around -22 C. When I want to walk into ‘town’ or to a friend’s house I’d wear a normal Spring time outfit – jeans, t-shirt, cardigan – with a Canada Goose parka over the top and insulated Sorel boots over normal socks. Normal ‘street’ boots would be fine, but unless they are waterproof leather the problem is that the snow that covers them while trudging outside melts the moment you step inside leaving you with damp boots. And damp boots means cold feet for the return home!
Of course, it feels like mid-summer inside any building so layering is bothersome if you have to peel them all off whenever you get in a car, house or store. Negative 20 has become very mild to us (it’s all relative huh!). Although it is often overcast when it is this ‘warm’, the outdoors can comfortably be enjoyed.
When the temperature drops below -30 I wear longjohns under my jeans, and Jesse will wear his Goose to work (but unlikely while loading or flying aircraft). Mitts or at least some sort of gloves are a must as metal doorhandles will burn the hand. Thick wool socks under winter boots are pretty helpful for keeping the chill off the toes if walking outdoors for a while.
To avoid the cold air hurting my nose, cheeks and most importantly, lungs, I would have a thick scarf or a neck warmer handy for longer walks, or in case the wind picked up. Or if I plan to run anywhere, which I tend to do as it keeps me warmer! On that note, this climate is ideal for exercise as the cold, dry, dense air carries a very high level of oxygen. But even the die-hard runners (there is a decent group of us here) will stop the longer outdoor runs at -20.
Negative 40s we are getting a little more serious. The easy answer is to stay inside. But because we are in the North for (likely) a limited number of winters we sure want to maximise our free days and the novelty of the climate, and actually get some fresh air. Plus, the cold temperatures bring the most glorious clear blue skies, without a drop of snow, and some stunning Northern lights.
For walks at -40 I wouldn’t leave the house without:
- wind proof overpants (wind chill is a killer)
- New Zealand merino jerseys (normally 2 long-sleeved) under the Goose
- neck warmer tight around my mouth, nose and cheekbones
- a beanie (touque as they call it here) underneath the fur lined hood pulled up over the head
- double wool socks; ‘thinsulate’ ones followed by a thick knee high wool
- and, if I’m biking to work (the knuckles hit the cold first) I will double glove, wearing merino wool gloves followed by windproof mitts. But… biking is a completely different story as sweating becomes an issue (allowing your skin to become damp in these temperatures is asking for trouble). I won’t go into the biking wardrobe here!
A delightful little friend of mine dressed for -35˚
To many northerners, having so many layers is overkill. To us Kiwis, it’s vital to our ability to stay sane and stay around! We have seen too many frostbitten noses and cheekbones to risk under-dressing. Plus, working up a sweat is normally more fun than shivering.
We have made a huge effort to get outside everyday. And I mean actually spend time outside. Over the winter, friends have lent us snowshoes and Jesse enjoys snowshoeing up the river that runs alongside our house. I favor bundling up and trudging into town to buy groceries and visit friends than idling the car for 15 minutes in order to drive the 100 metres it takes to cross town. And now that the sun is back, and stays around until dinner time, we love our early evening strolls; we just ensure that we check the temperature before leaving the house in order to dress appropriately.