Updated at 12:43 p.m. ET on January 5, 2021.
At last, the days are getting longer in the Northern Hemisphere, a change that feels particularly welcome now, given, well, everything. But winter is just getting started. In any other year, we’d be firmly in a season of cozy indoor gatherings. This year, however, requires that we avoid anything of the sort, especially as America’s coronavirus epidemic continues to worsen and a new and worrying mutation of the virus has emerged.
January and February are almost always difficult months, weather-wise. The days of passing balmy evenings in the park feel like a distant memory. But the safest way to spend time with others this winter is the same way that’s been safest since the pandemic started: Spend it outside. If you are able to, it’s time to embrace the cold.
This might sound like the kind of advice you’d hear from a cold-weather obsessive, but I am not that. I do not ski. I believe a “polar plunge” is appropriate only when you’re trying to outrun a bear. I was born in Russia, but I moved to warmer climes as a toddler. I’m not here to suggest that you try winter camping. I’m just a kindly winter evangelist, standing in front of your outdoor restaurant table, asking you to put on a hat.
As the Scandinavians say, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. “I’ve been warm down to negative 50 [degrees Fahrenheit] because I was dressed appropriately, and then I’ve been cold at 30 because I was not dressed appropriately,” KattiJo Deeter, a dogsledder and an owner of Black Spruce Dog Sledding in Alaska, told me.
The thought of spending time outside in the cold doesn’t have to fill you with dread, and the experience doesn’t have to be miserable. In fact, some chilly outdoor time can be enjoyable, and even preferable to yet another hygge-filled evening at home—especially now. No one’s suggesting that you have a picnic in a blizzard (seriously, don’t do that). But with the right preparations, winter can be good. Winter is good.
Remember that even when it’s chilly, basic safety measures still apply, and they’re even more crucial now, when hundreds of thousands of Americans are getting sick every day. Maintain your distance. Wear a mask. Avoid any situations that increase your risk. “It would defeat the purpose to travel in a car with someone outside your household to get to a place to do an outdoor activity,” says Lisa Miller, an epidemiology professor at the University of Colorado School of Public Health.
Dressing warm in freezing weather can sound daunting, but you need to follow only a few basic principles. Our bodies always give off heat to regulate our internal temperature, and the key to keeping warm in wintry conditions is to retain that heat. You can do that by layering up, starting with a shirt with a high collar and long sleeves to cover as much skin as possible. Pile on a middle layer, such as a sweatshirt, to provide some insulation, and an outer layer that protects against the wind.
On the bottom, avoid jeans, which are terrible for winter because denim doesn’t provide much insulation at all. “I think a lot of people threw out their jeans with COVID,” Deeter said. “Just leave those in the garbage bin.” Layer up, following the same rules for your upper body. Deeter recommends starting with long underwear or fleece-lined leggings, then adding a pair of the soft pants many of us have defaulted to wearing every day. If it’s very cold, top with snow pants. In general, plan to overdress; better to remove a layer if you start feeling warm than to wish you’d brought that extra hoodie.
An important caveat: Outer layers should be sized bigger than the layers closer to your body. Deeter’s base layer, for example, is a size small, while her outermost jacket is an extra large. Wearing many layers of the same size not only hampers movement; it can make you even colder. Tight-fitting clothing restricts blood flow, and you want blood flowing to your extremities, which are more susceptible to the cold than your core is. One pair of thick socks is better than a rigid stack of three, Deeter said. Avoid layers on your hands too, and go for mittens over gloves, since “separating your fingers makes them colder,” Deeter said.
Wear a hat made of tight-knit fabric and actually pull it down over your forehead and ears—Deeter has to suppress a shudder when she sees people with hats perched delicately on top of their head. Jacket hoods don’t count as hats; they’re too loose, with too many openings for heat to escape. Many scarves, though cute and fuzzy, have the same problem; Deeter recommends investing in a neck gaiter instead.
A good layering system depends, of course, on your activity level. If your plan is to sit on a park bench with a friend for an hour, the more layers, the merrier. If you’re going on a vigorous hike, less is more, since our bodies produce extra heat during physical activity. You want to avoid overheating, which leads to sweating. Sweating drenches clothes, whisks heat away from your skin, and makes you feel even colder. “If you’re getting ready to start doing an activity outside, it’s okay to feel a little cool when you start,” Gordon Giesbrecht, a physiologist at the University of Manitoba and a cold-weather expert, told me.
Restaurants and other venues improvised as the weather got colder—setting up extra heat lamps and the like—to make outdoor dining more tolerable. (Some establishments have gotten too creative, constructing “outdoor” settings that actually replicate the dangerous indoor conditions that infectious-disease experts insist we should avoid.) And consumer sales of fire pits swelled as autumn turned to winter. But don’t count on these wintry fixings to keep you warm, because it doesn’t take much to make them ineffective: “A breeze picks up and all of a sudden that heat is getting pulled away from you,” Deeter said.
To supplement the heat lamps, bring a blanket to the restaurant patio, and something to sit on to protect your bottom from what is likely a very cold metal chair. Order warm drinks and food, which can heat you from within. For the over-21 crowd, a little booze can produce a similar effect, but won’t actually keep you warm; the body will draw heat to blood vessels near your skin, and away from your vital organs. And while you’re out, be kind to the waitstaff, who are probably working up a sweat running back and forth between hot kitchens and chilly tables, and who can’t follow the same cold-weather principles as you while they’re on the job.
For most healthy adults, the biggest risk of spending time outside in the cold is that you’ll be a little uncomfortable. But there are some real dangers to watch out for. To protect against frostbite, Giesbrecht said to beware of numbness. “Many people get fooled into thinking, Oh, everything is okay now; I’m not cold anymore,” he said. “If your skin is numb, it’s numb because the receptors on your skin and the nerves that bring back that information to your brain are so cold, they’re not working properly.” As for the risk of hypothermia, Giesbrecht said it takes a long time, even in truly freezing conditions, to knock a few degrees off our core body temperature, longer than the duration of most of our social interactions. The biggest warning sign of oncoming hypothermia is prolonged, nonstop shivering—not just for a few minutes, but 15.
For people who dread the cold, the best strategy is to wade gently into winter. “Before you make dinner plans to go sit outside in the cold with your best friend for two hours, maybe first try going outside and walking around your block,” Deeter said. Test your layering system, make adjustments, and go for a longer walk the next day. The same goes for outdoor workouts, especially for first-timers. “If you’ve never exercised outside, you shouldn’t start in the middle of January,” Giesbrecht said. The more you practice being in the cold, the more cold you’ll be able to tolerate.
It’s helpful to remember that our experience of cold is not only physiological, but psychological too. I’m not saying that your dread of spending time outside in the winter is all in your head, but it’s a little bit in your head. One study found that people who were shown videos of actors pretending to be cold actually felt colder than people who watched footage of actors pretending to be warm. As with getting a shot, the anticipation of the event is often worse than the event itself. If you lean into a reflexive dread about going outside this winter, you’ll be unlikely to make it out the door. Don’t try to pretend you’re on a tropical island once you’re outside, but don’t grit your teeth too hard either.
So, if you haven’t already, give winter a chance. With any luck, this is the only winter we’ll have to spend like this. And braving the cold to see others could help mitigate the gray experience of social isolation, even if doing so is outside your comfort zone. “We hope that people just need to hang on and do this for a few more months before we can get back to being able to do things a bit more like we used to,” Miller, the epidemiologist, said. If vaccination efforts go well, next winter the decision between hibernating until the spring and connecting with others won’t feel so much like a matter of life and death.