Winter is Coming: How to Cope With the Cold, American Style

Expats are often unprepared for the intensity of American winters. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Expats are often unprepared for the intensity of American winters. (Photo: Creative Commons)

Unless you’re one of those lucky expat Brits basking in the bottom band of sunny states, winter in America is a serious business. It gets COLD. Like, penguins wouldn’t even live here kind of cold. Our tepid British winters—the type that prompted your mum to demand you “put on a woolly”—are a sweaty sauna compared to what Mother Nature cooks up December to March up in much of the U.S.

If this is your first cold season in a state with a reputation for harsh winters, please know that whatever the locals have told you is not an exaggeration. Sub-Arctic temperatures in the Midwest, for instance, will not only gum up your engine, they could cost you an arm or a leg (literally) if you insist on taking a blasé approach.

To be safe, start buying up winter gear and supplies around mid-autumn. First off: boots. Wellies are hopeless in the über-cold and will merely turn your feet and calves into fleshy ice pops. Come winter, retire them and upgrade to something designed for an Arctic trek.

Don’t cheap out and, if in doubt when you’re wondering the aisles of REI or Eastern Mountain Sport, ask yourself: What would Ranulph Fiennes buy? Repeat this methodology for choosing a jacket. As a general rule, the more unattractive you look in a winter coat, the cozier you’ll be. Even image conscious New Yorkers morph into puffed up, waddling blobs when the cold hits, and no one cares.

Also, reference this handy infographic on how to walk on ice.

Found via Lifehacker)

(Found via Lifehacker)

Your heating bill will likely soar in the winter months, and once again this is something to plan for rather than resist. Perhaps you can cope swaddled in 10 jumpers, but your fragile water pipes need regular doses of warmth. Set the heating on a timer so it’ll keep things liquid all times—even when you’re out or away.

If you’re not in control of your building’s central heating, don’t panic. State laws requires that workplace and residential properties are heated to a certain level over the winter, so look up the temperature rules for your region, then take issue with your landlord or boss if you can’t feel your toes.

Brits tend to have romantic notions about snow, perhaps because we don’t see a great deal of it. To us, the white stuff is delicate winter candyfloss meant for frolicking in. It’s very different in much of the U.S. Detroit, for instance, gets an average of 41 inches a year—and it’s not something anyone sensible looks forward to.

The good news is that because much of America is used to harsh winters, they’re well equipped and know how to handle it. Here in New York City, for instance, garbage trucks are fitted with snowplow attachments and the streets are swept clean continually. Compare this to major cities in the U.K., which come to a shivering halt at the mere rumor of a snowflake.

Depending on where you live in the U.S., you may be required to keep the sidewalk directly outside your home gritted and clear of snow. (See the rules of show shoveling.) If you rent, talk to your landlord about whose job this is—and who’ll provide the snow shovel and grit.

If you own a car, you may want to change your tires to something more snow appropriate for the winter months to improve traction, braking and handling. Talk to a local mechanic if you’re not sure whether this is necessary. (And if you’re traveling by car in inclement winter weather, have a roadside kit handy for emergencies.)

So now that we’ve ticked off the gloomy stuff, it’d be irresponsible of us not to remind you to have some old fashioned snowy fun. So, make a snow angel! Go sledding! Build a snowman!

How do you cope with the cold, expats? Or will you be in Miami sipping mojitos while the rest of us freeze? Tell us below!

See more:
Five Occasions When British Expats Should Fly Home – And Five When They Shouldn’t
Brits in a Cold Climate

Ruth Margolis

Ruth Margolis

Ruth is a British freelance journalist who recently swapped east London for Brooklyn. She writes about TV for Radio Times and is working on her first novel.
View all posts by Ruth Margolis.
  • maggie

    Yak Trax are great for walking on ice. In the boot I always have cat litter and a snow shovel also one of those first aid kits that have the thermal blankets in. I used to do pet sitting so was out in all weathers including our lovely Nor’easters and snow tyres were a must and I make sure i put them on in November. Make sure you have flashlights, candles and plenty of batteries in case of power outages. Stock up with water too not only for drinking but for flushing the loo.We were without power for five days and lived in front of the fire I also used to cook on it using the rack from the grill. Our local high school was open for showers :)

  • Viviana

    I’m in the Midwest: Winters here are bad for different reasons. One winter, I woke to the radio telling me that it was -20 degrees Fahrenheit with a windchill factor of -40. Another winter we got record-breaking snow. We had a blizzard every week for about two months. Finally, getting snow out of season is cruel, like in May or October.
    If you’re driving in the ice or snow, weight helps. You should treat a half-tank of gas as empty and keep sand bags in the trunk. For pick-up trucks you can fill the bed of the truck with snow for more weight. If you’re on ice, NEVER slam on the brakes, slowly pump the brakes well in advance. If you’re fishtailing (say you’re turning right and the back of your car starts going left) steer the car in the direction it’s sliding to regain control. Good luck.

    • GDB

      Except weight also adds inertia to your car, so your point is somewhat moot. Weight over your drive wheels is what’s important. Just don’t drive RWD cars during winter and you’ll do fine.

      Also, AWD/4WD is no excuse to speed. It’s not how fast you can go, or how well you can get moving, it’s how well you can STOP.

      Also, drive a Manual transmission car. On ice, rather than braking, just compression brake by taking your foot off the gas.

      • Grand Moff Vixen

        Weight is good. Driving too fast is not. Use the sandbags wisely or you
        will find yourself in the ditch. So no, the added inertia is not a moot
        point. Just slow down.

      • MontanaRed

        I would like to add to all this good advice that if an intersection is icy or on a slope (particularly an uphill slope), and traffic permits (VERY important), sometimes it is better not to come to a complete stop.

        The idea is not to have to accelerate from a dead stop with spinning tires digging into the icy surface, making ruts, and potentially trapping the car in place. Very slow, steady progress forestalls this problem.

        I grew up in Minnesota and have lived all of my adult life in snow-prone places. Oozing through an intersection when I can do so safely is a favorite winter driving tactic.

      • Butch Knouse

        Another advantage of manual transmissions is that, with most 5 speeds, if you’re stopped and spinning your wheels, shift to second gear and drive away. Works on both FWD & RWD.

  • maggie

    Forgot to say I’m in New Hampshire

  • GDB

    Keep your faucets constantly running a slight trickle. A very small trickle. Yes, it’s wasteful, but it’ll keep the water flowing in your pipes so they won’t freeze as quickly. A little extra on your water bill is worth not having to pay for a burst pipe and the water damage resulting from it.

  • JamaGenie

    When I lived in NE Kansas, a local pasttime was deciding how far south one needed to live to avoid icy, snowy winters. The #1 solution: At some point in the Fall, tie a snow shovel to the front of your vehicle, drive south until someone asks “What’s that funny looking thing on the front of your ride?”, then MOVE THERE. Works for me. ;-}

  • John H Harris

    Three words are usually enough to make my British friends’ jaw drop: “Lake Effect Snow”. While the European continent seems to be able to deal with the cold, those from the British Isles are truly impressed with the amount of snowfall the Great Lakes can generate.

    Of course, I survived the “Blizzard of ’77”, so I tend to laugh at even the last couple years’ winters as reported from over there…

    As far the inforgraphic goes, that death figure is accurate, though it fails to specify that the deaths are usually caused by blunt-force trauma from body parts (generally the head) striking either the frozen concrete of a sidewalk or some other hard object on the way down…

  • Samuel Lawson

    I advise a trip to the local Army & Navy Surplus shop to buy a *real* Navy Pea Coat – not the kind you find at a department store. It may weigh about 20 lbs, but there is no warmer vestment. %100 wool, so it sheds water, actually seems to get warmer when wet, and looks very nice. Usually one can be had at an A&NS shop for less than $100US. Besides, who doesn’t love enormous buttons with ship anchors on them, eh?

  • Samuel Lawson

    I also advise carrying ‘kitty litter’ in the boot. Instant high-traction cement when spinning-out in a snow drift.

  • James Barnwell

    Good article!

  • jsnb2001

    I went to London for Christmas a few years ago and brought all my winter stuff thinking it would be cold. It was like early Spring weather — very nice for someone who is used to feeling like an icicle 4 months out of the year.

  • Don Cole

    A note about tires – you only need to worry about chains or snow tires in the farther northern parts of the country. Some localities even ban their use to avoid damage to the streets. Unless you have a solid snow pack all winter long, you don’t need them. Just slow the f**k down.

  • frozen01

    Another thing is that dramatic temperature changes of 20, 30, even 60 degrees Fahrenheit in less than 24 hours are not all that uncommon.

    My English fiance just moved to the US a week ago. The day before his arrival, it was a pleasant 57F… jumper/sweater weather at worst. The day OF his arrival? About 20F… well below freezing. Today? -15F windchill. Despite this, he still tried heading out for a bit of shopping (because he’s a “hardened northerner”), and gave up immediately, then sent me a message at work saying “you were right, it’s far too cold outside” *lol*.