Dressing for a Calgary winter
With temperatures ranging from -30ºC to +10ºC during winter, how you dress will make all the difference to how comfortable you survive outside.
The two somewhat conflicting pieces of advice I received about dressing for winter here were
- Get a really good, big jacket
- Always dress in layers
The first piece of advice, I found out was not actually that great of an idea. If you’re wearing a heavy weight jacket, you’re probably not going to want much beneath it, as any movement is going to make you hot and sweaty. So this means that jacket is either going to be off or on. In -20 or colder, you’re gonna be absolutely stoked to have that jacket on. However when it’s a bit warmer, say -10.. that jacket is going to be overkill, you’re gonna get hot, and there’s gonna be shit all you can do about it other than open it up to some cool air, or take it off.
This leads onto the second piece of advice - which I have been and will continue to follow. Wear layers, and carry extras.
I have already experienced days that start off at -16ºC when I’m walking to catch the bus, and warm up to +4ºC or higher when leaving work - and vice versa. Being able to add or remove layers to account for these massive differences from Chinook winds really is invaluable.
Now that we know that layers is the way to go.. The question is what layers, and how much? There aren’t many resources online about how to dress for such weather, and so hopefully this can be an aid.
Let’s go in reverse order starting at
5ºC to 0ºC:
This one’s easy, and if like me you’ve come from New Zealand winters, you’ve probably already got it down.
Lets take it down a notch.
0ºC to -5ºC
Depending on wind, this is probably still easy.
- Top-body lightweight underlayer. Merino or synthetic is fine.
- T-Shirt - optional if you won’t be too hot in a hoodie indoors
If it’s windy, add a wind-breaking soft shell (could just be a rain coat), and consider more protected shoes.
-5ºC to -10ºC
This is the inconvenient range. It’s bordering on getting by in your standard comfortable wear, and not getting by. My go to in this scenario is as follows
- Top-body lightweight underlayer
- T-Shirt over top of underlayer
- Lightweight insulating jacket
- Socks. Now’s a good time to increase the weight/warmth of them.
- Light gloves
I’ve been getting by with a goose down Patagonia puffer jacket for this kind of weather, however any puffer jacket is likely to do, and they can certainly be had for cheaper than Patagonia’s prices. The puffer jacket is very nimble and light, and easily compressed into a backpack if you’re feeling a bit warm or you head inside.
-10ºC to -15ºC
Alright. Now it’s cold. At these temperatures, you don’t want to be outside for long without at least a little preparation. If you’re noticing a pattern here, it’s that as it gets colder, I’m changing some layers for warmer bits, and adding more pieces of clothes. You might also notice jeans have been fine so far - which surprised me. At this point, there are certainly people who are going out still with only jeans - but they are much more accustomed to the cold and brave/stupid. Time to up the ante
- Top-body medium weight underlayer
- Light-medium sweater
- Lightweight insulating jacket
- Longjohns. Seriously, it’s worth it.
- Jeans/Pants as usual
- Don’t be wearing airy shoes now. If there’s a touch of wind, it’s not going to be a good time. Get a pair of winter boots that are rated for at least -15.
- Beanie! Or toque. Depends where you’re from
- Optionally, a neck tube or scarf if it’s windy, or you’re not used to the cold.
- Light / Medium gloves
-15ºC to -20ºC
Up to here, it’s been pretty comfortable. Admittedly, once you start nearing -20ºC, things get uncomfortable if you’re outside and not moving much. If you’re sitting and waiting for a bus, for example, it’s gonna start feeling a bit shitty. You should take this temperature seriously and dress for it. If you’re without warm footwear or gloves, you ought to start thinking about how to get inside and keep warm. Frostbite is your enemy.
- Top-body medium/heavy weight under layer
- 2x light sweater / 1x heavy sweater
- Medium-weight wind breaking jacket.
- Boots. Do not-not be wearing proper footwear by now.
- Beanie - a single beanie is plenty to keep your head warm
- Neck tube or scarf for comfort. Definitely necessary if wind is in the mix. Also useful for covering the lower parts of your face which will be getting bloody chilly by now.
- Medium gloves - and consider some wind proof mittens on top.
-20ºC to -30ºC
By now you should have an idea of how this is going. The lower negative 20s are much the same as the previous bracket, but the upper negative 20s to negative 30 is just shit. If you don’t have to be outside, just don’t be outside. It is seriously cold, and you’re going to pay for it if you’re not dressed right.
Make sure you have windproof mittens over some warm gloves, or some heavy weight, wind proof standalone mittens or gloves. At these temperatures, it’s not going to take long to get into trouble in your hands.
My loadout for combatting these temperatures from top to bottom follows;
- Neck tube. Maybe two depending on the conditions. One for the neck, one for the face.
- Top-body heavy weight base layer
- Light weight sweater
- Puffer jacket
- Wind breaking insulating jacket over top
- Merino gloves
- Goretex mittens over top
- Mid-weight longjohns
- Snow pants. Now is not a good time for normal pants or other wear. Your fashion doesn’t mean anything if you’re literally freezing your butt off.
- Heavy weight socks
- Winter boots
What this ends up looking and feeling like, is your whole body covered apart from some opening for your eyes. It might sound ridiculous, but if you’re going to be outside more than a minute or two, it’s necessary. By now, most people out are looking like this. Some people will be wearing snow goggles or similar if there’s wind or snow.
I hope this is a useful resource for those going into cold weather for the first time. However, these loadouts might not be perfect for you, which is why, going back to the second point, it’s important to carry extra layers. Even if it’s just another sweater, if it gets colder than you expected, you will be very thankful for your foresight.