Although the dead of winter is safely behind us, it is still looking pretty cold out on that North American weather map. Austin, Texas recently came close to freezing at night, although that temperature would have seemed warm to people from North Dakota, where it was -30C(-21F). My part of Colorado is going to reach a reasonable high of 54F today, which seems warm for January to me because I grew up in Canada.. but you can make a Hawaiian pass out just by mentioning a temperature like that in conversation.
What is it that allows people to survive in such varied temperatures? And what is it that causes some to whine and spend money in response to cold temperatures, even while the Mustachians thrive and embrace the seasons?
In a word, it’s “Clothes”.
Although not well known to contemporary American society, “Clothes” aren’t just for showing off to your friends and coworkers. You can also get special ones that allow your body to remain comfortable and active, even when the ambient air is outside of the 72-76F range!
I have been reminded of the power of clothes several times recently, and also reminded that few people modern people understand this power. In a radio interview, an MMM reader and I were explaining the concept of winter bicycling to the show’s host. She seemed perplexed at the concept:
“Umm.. this morning, it was 21 degrees at my house here in Virginia! How are you going to bike through that? Especially in a skirt and panty hose?”
We patiently explained that with the aid of “Clothes”, we have both had no difficulty riding our bikes for dozens of miles, even in temperatures far below 21F. Even my six-year-old son rides his bike in those conditions. And on top of that, it turns out that these Clothes things are interchangeable – you can put on one set for winter cycling, and have a second set waiting underneath with your office costume! It is miraculous, convenient, and I wish everyone knew about it.
But today I’ve got an even more general-purpose clothing tip to share with the world, which could save us billions of dollars collectively. Are you ready for it? Because if you don’t know about this already, it will change your life:
Now sure, you already knew of the existence of this piece of clothing, and maybe you’ve even used it once or twice. But have you tried wearing it all day, every day, during the dead of winter?
The results may amaze you. Your legs have a lot of surface area, so they can lose a lot of heat to the surrounding environment. And a pair of jeans or work pants does not provide much insulation. So by adding these things to your wardrobe when you are out on the town, you’ll feel like you have taken an immediate jump about two states South of wherever you live. Walking outside is comfortable, biking is comfortable, and the temptation to wuss out and use your car to get to that errand only 2 miles away is drastically reduced. So you can cut down your driving by 10 miles a week, even while you increase your walking, running, and biking by the same amount. Score #1.
But there’s more. When you get home, don’t go taking those things off and changing back into your swimwear. Leave them on! Suddenly, you will notice that your house is a little stuffy at the 70 degrees you’ve been running, and you need to turn down the heat (the MMM household is a more comfortable 67 during the day, 62 at night). You notice that your heating bill drops by about 10%. Score #2!
Meanwhile, something happens in the synergy department: you’ve moved your house and the outdoors closer to the same temperature. This means that flowing between the two environments now happens more seamlessly. Your exposed skin is already accustomed to a cooler house, and your legs are already snug in their two layers. It is easy to step outside for a walk, with very little fuss. So you do it more often. Score #3.
If you combine the 1.3 gallons of gas saved each month, with about 1,000,000 BTUs per month less heat that you’ll need to pump into your house throughout the winter, you can understand how I think of my own long underwear as a productive oil well that I get to keep right in my pants. What other $10.00 garment could produce such incredible investment returns?
To top off this dose of winter inspiration, I’d like to share a short piece written by an Alaskan Mustachian, who wrote in to teach us Southerners how easy we all have it, thus we should all get outside and leave the car behind:
Out in the Cold
by Sister X
MMM advocates biking year-round but for many of us junior ‘Stachians, that sounds pretty extreme. When the weather is warm and it seems to always be sunny it’s easy enough to do. But how do you get out and about when the world turns cold and dark? The temptation to say, “Fuck it, I’m driving today!” can be pretty powerful. I know, and I completely sympathize.
However, I don’t let that stop me. I live in Fairbanks, Alaska, and I’m a year-round bicyclist/pedestrian.* No matter what the weather is like (including whiteouts and an ice storm during which people were seen ice skating on the sidewalks…I was a bit late to work that day) and through all temperatures (down to about -55 F). I’ve been doing this for about three years so I really do understand the dark (at our darkest we get about an hour of full sun plus another three hours of dawn/dusk) and the cold, and what it takes to pull yourself out of bed every morning knowing that you’re going to be trekking through harsh conditions. Training your mind is the hardest part and, trust me, it gets easier once you make it part of your routine. (I had no choice in the beginning, which simplified things very much for me.) However, the cold is not to be underestimated, especially if you’re not used to it. People who go from warm house to warm car to warm office tend to feel the cold more than I do. MMM previously talked about acclimation and how important it is, but there are other things you’ll probably need to know before you set out into the cold and dark.
A few important facts:
Ladies, we feel the cold in our extremities before men do. It’s far more important for us to keep our feet and hands warm because we’re more prone to frostbite. When the temperature drops our warm blood is redirected to our core faster than men’s, leaving our hands and feet feeling the cold. (It’s suspected that this is meant to protect any potential offspring in utero.) On the plus side, men will get (and die of) hypothermia before us, so it’s a trade-off.
People who are unused to the cold are more likely to get hypothermia. It’s a sad fact that homeless people in California die more frequently of cold-related conditions than homeless people in cold areas do. Part of this is because of acclimation, and part of it is because people in cold areas know better what to do to stay warm. (And yes, that does make me feel a bit like I’m preaching to the choir.) If you’re not used to being in the cold for any length of time, start slowly.
It is entirely possible to frostbite your lungs. Yes, your lungs, and your throat, and your mouth. If it seems painful to breathe because of the cold, you’re damaging your lungs. Wrapping something, like a scarf or cowl, around your face is the easiest way to avoid this. Any temperature below zero, I automatically put something around my face. My brother hates scarves but swears by a special face mask he bought, meant for working in cold weather. Find what works best for you, but be sure to have something to protect your lungs and throat.
So here are my top tips for non-car commutes in the winter. The first category is gear:
1. Always dress in layers. Even on the coldest days I will often find myself getting too warm when I walk (uphill) to work. Since sweating will only cause me to be cold later, I do my best to avoid it. Peeling off a layer or two as I walk to vent heat helps. Also, since no one layer can prepare you for everything it helps to have a variety. Fleece is fabulous for staying warm, not so good at blocking the wind. But if you put a light windbreaker over your fleece you get the protection of both. Additionally, you have a layer you can take off if it’s unnecessary.
2. Bring more clothes than you think you’ll need, especially if your area is prone to rapid temperature swings. It’s not unusual for my area to go from -20F (-29C) one day to +20F (-6C) the next. There was one day last winter when it was a balmy -10F (-23C) when I started out in the morning, but -40 when I walked home, and still dropping. Whenever I’m inclined to leave my parka at home, I think of that day and how grateful I was that I’d brought it out of habit. In other areas, blizzards might suddenly appear or the wind could pick up. It pays to be prepared.
Extra clothing doesn’t mean that you have to cart around a suitcase full of extra gear. I knitted some arm warmers for myself which go up to my elbows and can be used as extra sleeves. They’re easy enough to tuck into my purse but warm enough to make a real difference in how warm my hands and arms are if the temperature drops. I also keep an extra sweater in a drawer at work, just in case.
3. Bring a flashlight, wear a headlamp, or have some other source of light. When the weather is inclement there could be power outages. You don’t want to find yourself halfway to your destination when all the streetlamps shut off. Also, these can be used to make you visible to cars.
Since batteries don’t do so well in the cold, test them frequently, replace or recharge as necessary, and consider getting a flashlight which doesn’t require batteries. There are several types which generate power from things such as hand cranks.
4. Figure out what gear you actually need and will use. For my daily commute, I never wear snowpants. I find them to be too warm, too bulky, and too awkward. It’s much easier for me to wear long underwear or leggings under my pants. What gear is best suited to your climate, and what will you actually wear?
5. Once you’ve identified what gear you need, then you can figure out where it pays to buy quality and where it doesn’t. My long underwear are hand-me-downs from my parents, who no longer live here. They’re from the 70’s. But who cares? They’re still in good shape, and no one but my husband will ever see them. Raid family closets, check the thrift store, whatever, just don’t spend a lot of money on the things which don’t matter.
However, my parka was quite expensive and I regularly receive good wool socks as Christmas presents. (My favorite brands are SmartWool and Darn Tough. They can be found at a discount through Sierra Trading Post or Steep and Cheap.**) With good quality, warm socks it doesn’t matter how cheap my shoes or boots are. I still usually wear two pairs of socks.
For bicyclists, you might find that some special gear is worth it and some isn’t. The one product I would recommend at least trying out are the special over-the-handlebar mittens. They attach to your bike and protect your hands from the wind and cold. (I’m sorry, I don’t know the brand, but I see them all the time around here.)
6. I find ice to be a challenge, and a good workout. It gives my fast-twitch and stabilizing muscles a chance to show their worth in keeping me steady. However, I’m young and in good condition. Not everyone is. If you’re older, unused to walking on ice, or have any reason why a fall would be bad, ice cleats are your friend. There are some which are made to slip over regular shoes to give you traction when it’s needed. I know my work gives them out for free since slipping on the ice is the number one cause of injury among our staff. Others in icy areas might see if their businesses do the same in an effort to promote workplace health and safety. If not, they can be found online.
7. It helps to be crafty, or know someone who is. You can make specialty items for yourself very cheaply and know that you’re getting exactly what you want. In addition to arm warmers for myself and my husband, I’ve also made a cowl for myself for wintertime running. This way I don’t have to bother with a scarf but I do have something to pull over my nose and mouth to keep me warm. I’ve also made socks out of sweater weight yarn and they are absolutely the best thing I’ve got for days when it’s -40 and colder.
So that pretty much covers anything I’ve found to properly outfit a person to deal with the cold and dark. Don’t think of it as a must-have list, think of it as a starting point for what YOU might need. I know others who live near me, make a similar trek as mine, and have different needs than I do. I have a friend who wears one of those bright orange safety vests for the two roads he crosses. I find that keeping a flashlight in my bag and wearing bright colors makes me feel safe enough. So do what will work best for you.
On to the second category, generally good ideas for dealing with the cold:
1. Be in shape. This sounds ridiculous at first, but it really is important. If you’re thinking, “But fat insulates!” get that thought out of your head right now. It’s true, but it’s not what will keep you the warmest. Muscles produce heat and that’s what you want. I’m not telling you to suddenly become a body builder, but having a decent muscle-to-fat ratio in your body will do more to keep you warm than excess body fat will. As long as you’re not underweight you’ll have enough fat to insulate yourself properly.
2. Drink something hot when you get to your destination. As soon as I get to work in the morning I start making a big pot of tea in the coffee maker. I know someone who prefers to heat up a mug of plain water in the microwave. Whatever you prefer, make it hot. This will help your body to regulate its temperature back to normal.
3. Change your clothes! This isn’t just good advice for sweaty summer biking clothes. As soon as I get home on cold winter nights I change out of my work clothes and into something comfy and warm. Your outside clothes will carry the cold with you, whereas clothes from your closet have been in your warm house all day.
4. Use electric blankets and heating pads sparingly. The only days on which I use our electric blanket are when it’s -40 or colder, and then only for as long as it takes to get my coldest parts warming up. Maybe ten minutes? It’s much more effective to exercise right after I get home, or to do chores which keep me moving, than it is to lie passively under a blanket, even a heated one.*** So get up and move around already. Do burpees, or pushups, if you really want to warm up.
5. A warm shower or bath when you’re truly, bone-chillingly cold can help you to warm up. HOWEVER, hot water on cold skin is extremely painful. It’s best to warm up a little bit with other means (like by moving around and drinking something hot) a little bit before you get in the water. When you do, start very slowly, with only lukewarm water. As your body warms up you can slowly heat the water up.
6. Always be alert. This is probably the hardest recommendation I have made or will make. If you’re like me, you’re both easily distracted and often get caught up in your own thoughts. This has led to some near-misses for me, including but not limited to animals (I was nearly trampled by an angry mother moose last winter) and cars. For animals, learn what potential predators are in your area and how to read their body language, even if it’s no more exotic than your neighbor’s dog. For cars, I’ve found that drivers don’t expect to see pedestrians and bicyclists even in the best, most perfect summery conditions. How much less, then, do they expect to see pedestrians and bicyclists in the winter? It’s a sad fact that until we get more people out of their cars, the burden of paying attention is on the pedestrian.
7. Never, ever jaywalk. All vehicles come to a complete stop at every sign, right? Right? I’m hoping my sarcasm is coming through here because, seriously, jaywalking is often the smart choice. Cars and trucks will most likely not stop for you at crosswalks. They don’t think they have to and you can be standing there for minutes waiting for a chance to cross. In the cold, standing still for that long can be dangerous. Jaywalking allows you to find a large enough break in traffic to cross the road at a comfortable pace, rather than trying to run across ice and snow.
The corners of intersections, where the snow has been packed smooth by all the cars, is also frequently one of the iciest parts of the road. Be especially careful as you cross roads not to slip, and to make yourself visible to all the drivers. Be a nuisance! At least that way they’ll pay attention to you.
8. If you’re having trouble staying motivated, it really helps to think about what you like about your area. You moved there for a reason, and chances are you get to see and notice things which most people don’t. For me, it helps that even in the depths of winter Fairbanks is gorgeous. I get to see the bright stars and even the aurora borealis occasionally on my walks. People in cars don’t get a chance to see the views I do because they’re too concerned with watching traffic and keeping their vehicles on the road.
A little womanly advice:
1. You can do what you want, of course, but I’ve made it a policy never to pay attention to men yelling and honking from their cars. If they’re going to treat me like a zoo animal just for walking, they don’t deserve acknowledgement. Of course, in a small town like mine this has led to some hilarity as I’ve accidentally ignored friends and even my father-in-law as they tried to say a friendly hello in passing.
2. Acknowledge those you pass and keep your head up. You’re less likely to be an appealing victim if you’re alert to the world and to those around you. Among the people I pass regularly we generally nod and say hello, even though we don’t know each other’s names.
*In the winter I switch to walking because ice + wheels + me makes an emergency-room-worthy combination. Trust me. Also, because I don’t like riding my bike when everything about it freezes. However, I bike pretty much everywhere in the summer.
**I have no affiliation with any of these companies.
***I would add “snuggle with someone” to this list, but my husband has told me that snuggling with me when I get home is like cuddling up to a corpse, involves lots of swearing, and he refuses to do it anymore. Maybe best saved for staying warm, rather than getting warm, unless it truly becomes necessary.
Further Reading: I later learned that Low-Tech Magazine had written a similar perspective on warm clothing. Better content than my article above because of the added science. Better pictures too. But not as good a title.