Snow is accumulating and temperatures are sinking. So I’d say winter is here for good. And although you might cheer yourself up every morning by counting the days to Spring, you still need to get warm until that comes along. Time for a little Nordic course on how to keep warm whatever the temperature. Learn from the best!
- Choose the right fabric
Forget about cotton t-shirts with cool patterns, fashionable caps and synthetic fabrics which promise you the moon. Wool is THE fabric you need. Wool is a natural fabric, and is warmer than cotton because there are air pockets between the fibers of wool which our body heats and which are kept in the pockets. Also cotton retains moisture (sweat and rain) and makes you feel really cold if not entirely dry. Cotton fibers are not able to capture that heated air, and all synthetic fabrics are made of byproducts of plastic/petrol (usually a blend of polyester, nylon, spandex) which means that they stink more and are less durable over time. Wool is itchy, you might say. Not if you choose merino wool. Norwegians call it ullundertøy but they are also sold by New Zealand companies which produce a lot of merino wool. It is called “woolen thermal underwear” in English or just “thermal underwear” for the synthetics-based fabrics.
They come in different colours, patterns, density of wool (hence the price difference) and when worn directly on the skin they will keep you warm and comfy yet letting the humidity of your body get out. Make sure you choose 100% wool, the more blending the less warm it will be. As they say in Norway, there is no bad weather, only bad clothing. Although I beg to differ, when it’s 30 degrees outside the right clothing is just about any pair of flip-flops and a bathing suit…
2. Layering technique
It is extremely important to layer clothing. What keeps you warm is the air that is warmed up by your own body between the layers. As shown by the number 1 rule, layering three clothes made of cotton is not a good idea. However layering for example one woolen shirt on your skin, then one woolen jumper or light dune jacket, then a gore-tex shell can be smart. This way the heat will stay in your shell jacket, and since it is wind-proof you will not get cold from that either. I have a big dune jacket I use over a warm jumper and no woolen underwear when going to work, as I know I need to protect myself just on my way to work. But if I go outdoors for a whole day I will dress differently, such as on the model above.
3. Don’t get too warm, don’t sweat. Assess how much activity you are going to do today.
It might sound like a contradiction, but you should try not to get too warm. If you do you will start sweating, and your clothes will get wet, which is the worst thing that can happen if you want to stay warm: layers against your skin being wet and therefore making you feel very very cold. Then your layering can barely help you, although wool is a bit better than other fabrics. See here where you can see wet cotton feels colder than being naked in cold weather.
When temperatures sink, a common mistake people make is to cover themselves with layers of everything warm they have. To avoid that, you need to assess how much physical activity you will be doing when get dressed up for the cold. If you will be watching a game outside and be sitting for hours completely still, you will get very cold so dress up with lots of clothing. If you are going to go skiing, then dress lightly. Norwegians usually go skiing with woolen underwear and a shell, with an added woolen jumper in their bag. Basically any activity will make you much warmer than you think, hence the risk to sweat and freeze. The objective is therefore to protect yourself from the cold, but not get too warm either. Just the right temperature for you to feel good and the humidity to leave your body. Don’t hesitate to take off some clothing if you feel like you are starting to sweat, since they are dry you can put them back on when you feel cold again.
4. Keep your whole body warm, not just your head
I always believed that most heat came out of our body through our head, turns out that was misguided, the reality is apparently that heat leaves your body proportionally to the amount of body exposed to cold (somehow that makes sense). This myth comes from a study 50 years ago where men were in an Arctic expedition covered from neck to toe, when they were putting something on their heads they felt warmer. Yep, but the rest of their body was warm already. Try being naked by -20 degrees with a woolen hat, might not turn out that cosy. Anyway, your head is important, just like the rest. Put a comfy woolen hat with tight weaving, and more importantly make sure your feet are warm.
5. How to keep your feet warm
Have you even had very cold feet while in your shoes, and felt like your whole body could not warm up? The key to keeping your feet warm is three-folded:
- they need to be isolated from the ground (which might have ice, snow or just be very cold). To do so you need a thick sole to your shoe. You can also add a sole inside your shoe which is aluminium below and wool above. That way your feet is isolated from the ground yet still warm.
- You need warm socks, such as thin woolen socks. Or two pairs of thin woolen socks on top of each other.
- and the most important of all: you should leave air, by checking your toes can wiggle in the shoe. You can have the warmest socks on the planet, if your foot is tight in the shoe and there is no air in there to actually be warmed up, you will feel freezing cold. This is why Norwegians usually buy their winter shoes a nutch too big to leave space for socks and space once they have their winter socks on.
If you have very cold feet before going to bed you might not be able to sleep. To remedy to that you can put a water bottle on your feet just before going to bed.
6. Don’t start a diet in winter
When it is cold outside it is not really the time to get on a diet by lowering your calorie intake. You need energy to fight the cold and be strong during the winter. Take warm drinks, eat fat food (good fats, not pizza and potato chips) and don’t let your immune system down. Healthy fats to add to your diet include fish, nuts, nut butters, olives, avocados. You can start a diet in the summer when you have salads available and it feels too warm for heavy food.
Don’t believe drinking alcohol makes you warm though, because it gives an impression of keeping you warm but actually doesn’t. Alcohol makes your skin feel warmer but actually lowers your body temperature.
7. Do sauna once a week.
Why do you think Northern people are world champions in sauna? It is freaking cold up here and the Finns, Swedes, Russians, Icelandic and Norwegians know how to feel warm inside with saunas and warm springs (Iceland). The best with sauna is to stay in there some minutes, then go in a cold shower or even better roll yourself in the snow. This will make you feel warm, increase your blood circulation and apparently relieve stress. Also it makes you sweat, which is a healthy way to release toxins from your body (not happening that often when it is so cold outside). Most gyms in Norway have saunas as well as some cabins. I personally love hot baths outdoors, it feels amazing to be outside in the steam while feeling warm in your bathing suit. You get out of there and don’t feel the cold! Read here about the time I got drunk in a sauna in Finland.
8. Do physical activity including outdoor sports
One can run outside until it is -10 degrees (I promise, I do it often), one can also do lots of winter sports which are highly available in Norway and other Nordic countries and very cheap (cross country skiing will only cost you the skis and the shoes, doing it is free in Norway). Doing sports outside during the winter is very healthy, will make you feel warmer and will also make you feel less depressed as you will enjoy some daylight (depending on where you are in the country), some Vitamine D absorption, and in any case a window of nature in your mind which is good for you. You can also do any sports indoors, just keep your metabolism active. Here a lady doing bikini skiing, doesn’t she look happy?
9. Make sure you are warm in your own home.
Being cold in your house is a no-go. You need to relax and feel warm at home to be able to face the cold outside. A few tips: check the insulation of your home. If your windows have a few millimeters gap letting a cold air from the North Pole come in your home all day and night, that draft needs to get blocked. Heat the home of course, although that can be expensive (especially if the insulation is bad), and in times of despair do like the Berbers in the mountains of North Africa: carpets or woolen blankets on the walls. If your bed is cold before getting in, put a warm water bottle in the bed 30 minutes before going to bed, and then keep it under your feet. Invest in a good blanket made of feathers. And don’t forget to get some air in everyday from the outside, especially in the morning.
Many keep their oven open after having baked something, light candles (that won’t heat the place, but it gives a warm feeling with the light), and light the fire in the fireplace if you have one. Homes in Nordic countries are usually very warm, but the problem arises in countries where winters aren’t usually that long and rough, then there is little investment in keeping the cold away.
10. Enjoy the sun whenever it is there
This is no just for you to feel warm but also to keep your sanity. Personally I don’t think the cold is the hardest to get through in winter up north. What is difficult for me is the lack of sunlight. You can always dress for the cold, but you cannot get sunlight North of the Arctic Circle, unless you travel South or start having dreams about the sun. This is why when you see the sun, even for a few minutes, look at it, let your body absorb it (through your eyes for example, if you are covered from head to toe). And if this getting too tough, read my post and get tips on How to Survive your Winter Depression.
I’ll leave you with this philosophical quote from a bird in this New Yorker cartoon:
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