Brits in a Cold Climate

It’s all about layering. (

I was raised in the frozen tundra of North East England. Icy Scandinavian winds came howling in from the North Sea, stinging my cheeks and making my two-bus journey to school a misery in winter. Cold? I didn’t even know the meaning of the word.

Here in the upper section of the U.S. it gets cold. Nothing in the UK even comes close. (Okay, I haven’t experienced a winter in the Outer Hebrides, but I can’t think it would compare.) Unless it’s to ski, I usually caution my British friends against coming here any time between late November and late March, as it can be brutal. Your average British outerwear just doesn’t cut the mustard, I’m afraid.

Temperatures in the Midwest usually hover well below freezing for most of the season, with averages in Minnesota, for example, between 6 and 16 Fahrenheit (that’s -14 and -8 Celsius respectively.) The lowest recorded temperature in the state is -60 Fahrenheit, which is an unimaginable -51Celsius. (How people live there is beyond me, by the way.)

When it’s winter in the Midwest, the hairs in your nostrils freeze. Yes, you read that correctly. At first I didn’t know what was happening as it’s a strange sensation, but you get used to it. Your eyes water with the wind and the cold and sometimes, those tears also freeze. In general however, we go around wearing butt ugly hats and scarves wrapped tightly around our mouths. The resulting fogged up sunglasses can be a problem but hey – it’s all a blanket of white anyway.

Our coats are basically huge quilts with zippers, and below them you’ll see Sherpa like snow boots. Anything higher than a two-inch heel has you teetering and falling all over the place. Fashion has no place in the Midwest between December and March, ladies.

Even the dogs don’t escape. Pooches everywhere suffer from sore paws, as the streets and roads are often heavily salted. Big burly dogs suffer the ultimate indignity of having to wear – dog booties. Don’t even get me started on how you’re supposed to get them on the dog’s feet, except to say it should be an Olympic event. It’s more work than putting a fitted sheet on a top bunk and my pooch was having none of it last year.

How are you surviving the cold?


Toni Hargis

Toni Summers Hargis is a Brit who has lived in the USA since 1990. She currently lives in Chicago with her husband and children and writes about US/UK matters when not putting out domestic fires. Toni blogs as Expat Mum and is the author of Rules, Britannia - An Insider's Guide to Life in the United Kingdom, (St. Martin's Press). She has made frequent appearances on radio and TV explaining British things to Americans.
View all posts by Toni Hargis.
  • Jacqueline O. Moleski

    A couple of bits of advice for British contemplating a Winter visit to the Midwestern or Northern US. First – don’t. That white stuff might *look* pretty but trust me, you’ll never be able to deal with the cold. IF you travel, by air, to the US make sure you have some way of arranging emergency lodging – a credit card or traveler’s checks for hotel – something. Be prepared to get stranded due to weather delays for 1-3 days. In rare cases, that may stretch to a week. Do NOT even THINK about driving in snowy areas. Just don’t. If you do travel by car – carry a snow brush, afghan or small lap blanket, regular sized blanket, and kitty litter, sand or salt in case you get stuck. Check local suggestions/regulations on other things you can and cannot carry. Before leaving for the US order a new Winter coat from Lands’ End or LL Bean on-line. Lands’ End has helpful temp guides for each coat. Pick the warmest one. Don’t forget about a hat, scarf, and gloves or mittens. Wear LOTS of layers! And really, seriously consider staying home ’til Spring or Fall.

  • Elaine

    Now to explain Canada to the Brits? Cold is all relative to where you are and where you are from. The prairies can easily get to -40c but its dry & sunny. If it stayed that temp for a while, I could dash into the store without my jacket (I was wearing 3 other layers). On the west coast it be -3c and you free frozen due to all the rain in the air. Those in the northern territories comes down lower and think its balmy at -15c.

    • Anne Kostalas

      My friend here in Montreal tells me -15C is officially cold as that was the temperature below which she was not allowed to send the kids out into the school yard. I emigrated here from Newcastle in 2008 and often write advice to visitors about what to wear in a Montreal winter on my blog Dear England, Love Canada.

      • Elaine

        -15c isn’t that cold a temp for our winters. Does the snow factor in? or Montreal (or QC) very cautious? My niece in Ottawa is sent outside as many days as possible. The school (& common sense) say the kids have to be dressed for it.

  • Carla Herling

    It really isn’t that cold here in Minnesnowta, you get used to it. And it seems that the colder it gets, the people get nicer, it’s know as Minnesota nice. In January through February, you can have weeks where it never gets above -20°F, and when it gets above 20°F after one of those cold periods, people will walk around in t-shirts, shorts and flip-flops. We do get a lot of snow. The last nice storm we had, we got about 15″ of snow, and wouldn’t you know it, my snowblower wouldn’t start. Of course, in the tradition of Minnesota nice, my pastor from church hooked me up with some friends who snowblowed me out, and a neighbor came over with his John Deere and helped as well. You must come to Minnesota, it’s really a nice place.

  • Abigail Rogers

    I’m thankful that I live in Arkansas, where 0 degrees Fahrenheit is a rarity!


  • Viviana

    Thank you! I live in Iowa and I always told people that my nose hairs would freeze in the cold and they all looked at me like I was crazy