What Not to Wear.

Or, Learning to Dress for a Real Winter in the Second Coldest City in America.


We moved to Grand Forks, North Dakota in August 2004. My husband was a recent Ph.D. and after a year of teaching in Philadelphia, he accepted a one-year contract to fill a recently vacated position. We jammed as much as we could into the Honda and set off on a new adventure, heading further west than either of us had been. We landed on the prairie the week before classes began and had to quickly find an apartment, something to sleep on, and essentials like – er, dishes and cutlery!

August and September are arguably the most beautiful months in North Dakota. The days are long, and the sunsets are spectacular. Our apartment was on the third floor looking directly west towards the furthest horizon I’d ever seen. North Dakota, at least the Red River Valley where we are, is FLAT! The views across the plains go on forever and it almost seemed as though we could see the other side of the state.

Then came October and the wind – crikey. I guess that’s how the leaves fall from the trees. There are not too many deciduous trees in Queensland, so this so-called season of “Fall” really took on a literal meaning for me. Our Fall usually lasts about 3 weeks before the snow flies and temperatures sharply descend. Hardly long enough to be called a season. 

Now, let me introduce you to winter.

A Grand Forks winter is a new experience for anyone who has not grown up there. But for a girl from the tropics, it really was just rude. Understandably, clothing stores in Brisbane do not stock appropriate winter gear for the other hemisphere, and thus my wardrobe in ND was seriously deficient. I remember my husband laughing at my version of a sweater/jumper that was so thin, it was virtually see through. My winter coat was just not going to cut it. My so-called scarves, gloves, hats were terribly insufficient.  

As the weeks progressed and the sun began to set closer to 4pm than 9pm, I realized that this was going to mark a new extreme and somewhat terrifying weather experience for me. The big sliding door to the balcony frosted up so it was no longer possible to see through it. I could only see if it was light or dark out. There was no such thing as wearing too many layers. I have a vivid memory of the first time my hair froze between leaving the (indoor) pool and getting to the car. I raced home to email my friend with this newfound nugget of amazement. 

That first year it was hard to justify investing in an Arctic-appropriate wardrobe since we were not sure how long we would be there, and furthermore, I was scheduled to return to Australia in mid-January and so I really only had to survive 3 months. That was hard enough. The day I left Grand Forks, it was a brutal -32Fand I arrived in Brisbane to a brutal 32C. In fact, it was so cold that something on the airplane froze and we had to wait for a mechanic to come out and do his thing.

This post will focus on clothing, but I will also cover other winter challenges in later posts, such as driving. Here are a few tips for those new about to experience their first ND winter, and to highlight for others some of the trial-by-error quirks of living extreme.

  1. Appropriate footwear should not be underestimated. Don’t wear Doc Martens unless you have a set of spikes to put over the soles. They are a safety hazard and are guaranteed to see you fall on your butt very close to the wheelie bin while holding a bag full of stinky rubbish. The other thing to avoid is boots that have a steel toe for obvious reasons. I have found that Blundstones (thank you Tasmania) do a pretty good job and you can wear good thick socks with them. 
  2. Hats, beanies, ear muffs, and headbands – these are a must. Abandon your idea of having good hair for the next six months, because frostbite is real and it will get your ears first. Don’t choose any headwear that wind can pass through. Preferably, beanies or hats that are lined with fleece or rabbit fur (I know, hold your judgment until you have had to dig out of a blizzard without a fur bomber hat). 
  3. Gloves and mittens: Gloves tend to be good for driving and doing any activity that requires dexterity. They should be lined and wear a separate pair of glove liners. It’s also useful if they have cellphone compatible technology on the fingers so you don’t have to take them off to answer the phone or check how damn cold it is on your weather app. A better option for long periods of time outdoors is a pair of Carhartt mittens. It’s what they are designed for, and keeping your fingers together increases their warmth.
  4. Critical outerwear: Remember, this is not a fashion show, it’s survival. Forget cute jackets or anything that was made south of Minnesota. A proper winter jacket is thick, long, fleece lined, preferably has a hood, a huge zip pull (remember you are wearing gloves), lots of pockets and is either insulated with poly or has an outer shell that is windproof. 
  5. Scarves: I have a million of them. I find them kind of annoying. Most of them are not that warm and so they end up being something more useful indoors.  Provided your winter coat zips all the way up to your face, you might be able to get away with not wearing one. And, if you have a great winter coat, you can probably get away with one less layer underneath which comes in handy when you suddenly realize it is 50 degrees warmer inside than it is outside.
  6. Walking the dog? If you plan to walk outdoors further than, say, from the house to the garage, you might want to consider a face mask or balaclava (not kidding) for temperatures below 20F. Air temperature is one thing, but the wind chill is a whole other ball game. The skin on your chinny chin chin will thank you for it.
  7. One final tip: Knickers. I’m not going to go into too much detail here, but a good pair set of silk or thermal base layers are essential under jeans or khakis. Let’s face it, cotton just doesn’t cut it when you are on a two-mile walk through the snow while your dog has to sniff and pee on everything. 


Here is a handy dandy temperature conversion chart for my Celsius friends

Just for fun, I took a photo a couple of years ago from our local weather report. Yes, that says, a wind chill of -57. If you see that number or anything like it, stay inside. It can kill you. 

Best of luck with whatever season you are heading to. I’d love to hear what survival tips you have for your extreme climate!

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