18 winters in Austin, and I was moving to Berlin. “But how will you endure the winter?” everyone asked. Before Austin, I spent a traumatic winter in Minneapolis, the worst cold snap on record. For 3 weeks straight, the temperature (with windchill, but that’s how it feels) stayed below 30 degrees below zero. Celsius or Fahrenheit. At that unimaginable level of cold reality shatters and the two scales overlap. 30 below zero. And I was too young and vain to wear the right clothes. I walked to work in my hip thriftstore leather coat and cute little ankle boots. I drank a lot and played video games to distract myself from the chill in my bones. After I escaped, for years I would shudder in horror at the slightest draft.
Before I arrived in Germany, I was already collecting advice. Someone told me the old adage, which I had not heard before: There is no bad weather, only the wrong clothes. Ok, this time I’d dress for the cold. And I’d stay alert to any other advice I was offered. I’d follow those strategies. And I have, and I’m fine. The cold really doesn’t bother me at all. Now, yeah, it’s been a relatively mild winter here, true. But still, it’s March now and the cold has barely bothered me at all. For anyone suffering: I hope this helps.
1. Stay well rested!
I’d had this one all mixed up. I thought when people talked about winter and sleep, they meant there was some primal, deeply felt urge that connected the two. That our inner bear sense was activated and we cuddled up under thick covers driven by instinct. Turns out, it’s actually a completely logical, rational decision to sleep more when it’s freezing cold out. Get a bad night’s sleep and it’s incredibly obvious what a difference being well-rested makes. I asked a few people from cold climates and was told it depends on the person, but, yes, this is not uncommon. It’s not that the cold makes me crave sleep, it’s that I very consciously get as much sleep as possible and it helps enormously. Now, of course, getting a good night’s sleep can be it’s own challenge…
2. Get exercise
It’ll help you sleep well! Also, exercise trains the body to be able to respond quickly to fluctuating blood flow needs – exactly what you need to be able to adjust your own temperature more smoothly and effectively.
3. Oil your skin
Our skin holds our warmth in. To function well, the skin has to be packed in oil. We secrete oil to lubricate our skin and then wash it off with soap. Oops. I think of a nice coat of oil after a bath as my first layer of long underwear.
4. Get used to the cold
Wow, the Germans have this one down. They begin the cold season with lots of socializing outdoors at Christmas markets, where hats and mittens and scarves are available for sale – along with warm drinks, food and good cheer. They are always opening windows to get some air – even when it’s freezing outside! They often sleep in unheated rooms, with the window ajar. You can really dress warmly and keep your turtleneck and sweater on all day, because the buildings are almost never too warm for it. The cold feels more familiar this way. It’s not such a horrific contrast to go out in it.
A practice that has helped me so much with getting more comfortable with cold is doing a cold rinse at the end of my shower. I think the mental training from that helps me to not overreact when I do feel very cold. When you panic at the feel of it, the cold feels so much worse. When you can make note of it without having a strong emotional reaction about it, it’s not such a big deal.
5. Eat warming foods
The warm spices in winter sweets and drinks give some heat in the short term. For long-term cold resistance, though, I think of fats and fat-based nutrients like omega 3’s and vitamin D. Your body is made of the building blocks you put in, and membranes built of fryer grease are not going to function as well as membranes made from a variety of fats from good, real food and sufficient nutrition. Build a strong net of membranes in your body to protect yourself.
6. Get warm
Sauna, steam room, bath. Use warm water to get all the way warm. It gives relief, but it also, like exercise, helps train the body to adjust to a wide range of thermal conditions. When you can react in a supple way, you can avoid feeling shocked and frigid.
7. Get the right clothes
And just one more time – get the right clothes. Every time I go out I think of it as putting on my cold armor. +10 for my coat, +2 for leg warmers, +1 for gloves (hand shoes in German! really!). Getting dressed has always been one of my favorite things and it’s so much more fun when there are so many elements to play with. Two layers of socks, boots, a scarf, a hat…