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Canada: A Survival Guide to Surviving Cold and Long Canadian Winters

Updated on February 2, 2011

Why am I writing this???

Today, January 24, 2011, marks the day that our city has broken the record for the coldest day since 1970. Forty one years ago, the temperature was measured at -27.8oC(-18oF). This morning at 0500h, the temperature dipped to a bone chilling - 28.6oC (-19.5oF), and that is just the air temperature!! Factor in the wind chill, and we are now down at -37oC (-34oF)! I can say, it was a tad bit cold when I left for work.

Opening the outside door this morning, I was greeted with a blast of chilling cold air. For many, it's a terrible way to begin the morning. My car agreed as it moaned and started sluggishly.


Winter and Psychology

Since we're on the topic of winter, it is during this season that I notice the "little things" that I would otherwise not notice. Beginning in September, our days begin to shorten. In another words, the sun rises a bit later and the sun sets a bit earlier each day until Winter Solstice comes and goes. It is noticeable each day -- you wake up at the same time, but the sky is a shade more gray until it remains a night sky. When you leave work, the sun has already set and the sky is dark gray. In my case, the sky remains a night sky when I leave for work and when I leave for home. Perhaps that is why I notice it so much.

Winter can bring an onslaught of mixed emotions and health issues.  With less exposure to the sun, we face potential vitamin D deficiency and the shortened days can bring on depression. How do I combat this? Vitamin D deficiency can easily be countered by taking supplements and exposing skin to natural, unblocked sunlight during the day. Bathing in the sun's rays is still the best way to get a good dose of vitamin D, though you must be careful to practice sun protection. This is important the higher in altitudes as it takes less time to become sunburned.

Depression can set in -- imagine not seeing the sun or bathing in its warmth day after day. I am a sun lover and without my daily dose of sunshine, I become, let's say, not very nice. Even when I'm in the office, I open my blinds to let the sunshine stream in. No matter how hectic the day, if I do this, everything seems manageable and achievable. On weekends, I'm up early and by the time the sun rises, I'm heading out the door to enjoy the warm rays while participating in many different forms of activities. Snowboarding, skiing, hiking, cross country skiing, biathlon competitions, walking, sledding, skating, playing street hockey and running are just a few winter activities that are common during the winter months.

I cannot stress how important it is to leave the house. Cabin fever sets in very quickly when you do not leave your house. Cabin fever happens when you stay within a confined space, such as your home, which results in a claustrophobic reaction.  Winter is a long season, and one cannot stay home bound. Even if the weather is cold and blustery, you have to bundle up and head out. A short 15 minute walk each day will ensure that you don't end up with cabin fever. The air, the socialization, the change in scenario, nature and the sun are all contributing factors for a healthy and enjoyable winter.  Being active also helps the months pass by quickly. 


Winter and Beauty

Winter is not a humid season. The cold drains the moisture from the air as well as from your body. It is not uncommon to find your hands, face, scalp and lips chapped. The radiant beauty that one carries through warm and humid summers disappears once the temperature dips below zero.

Prevention is the key. Don't wait until your lips are chapped, cracked and bleeding. By then, you are in pain and it will take a lot more diligent dedication to healing yourself than it would have taken if you were only proactive. Your face -- nose, lips, eye area -- are exposed to the harsh winter elements like wind, driving snow, sun and the fabric that you brush on your face (mittens, gloves, scarves, wrap arounds). For your lips, a nourishing lip balm is a must. Burts Bees, Body Work's cold climate lip balms and Rawleigh's ointments are the best. They seal in the moisture, won't hurt you if you lick it off your lips and are highly portable. Don't leave home without one!

Eyes, cheeks and nose require special care too. A daily moisturizer is a must. Moisturizers come in different weights -- light, medium and heavy -- as well as with or without sun screen. Check with your dermatologist or cosmetologist to see which type and brand best suits your skin type and needs.

Winter winds and cold can be brutal on your hands. Not only can your skin dry, chap and crack, they become cold if not properly protected which can result in frostbite. What is frostbite?  Our cells in our bodies are composed of liquids, including water.  When your skin is exposed to extreme cold temperatures for a period of time, the liquid in the cell freezes.  Upon freezing, crystals are formed.  These crystals damage the cell membrane and damage to the cell and skin occur.  This can happen to any skin surface that is exposed to cold temperatures but the most common areas include nose, ears, fingers and toes as they are extremities.  The first signs of frostbite setting includes red, swollen and itchy skin.  If the area continues to e exposed to the cold, the swelling will continue.  Eventually, the area will turn a whitish color and then black if the area remains unprotected.    Frostbite can only be surgically removed.  In cases with severe frostbite, the appendage can become infected and it may possibly be amputated. Frostbite is serious and must be at the forefront of planning any activity outdoors.  With children, it is imperative that their skin and coverings be checked frequently as their body size and mass will not produce the amount of heat that an adult will, which results in the onset of frostbite much sooner than in an adult. 

The best way to help keep children's fingers warm are mittens as they keep the fingers in one area, allowing them to heat each other. Mittens range in size from infant to adult and styles are from plain to extremely fashioning. Mitts are recommended for hiking, walking, snowball fights, snowman building and skating.

For sports or activities that require finger dexterity, you can choose to purchase gloves. If you choose this route, look for gloves that are waterproof, windproof and have the proper weight of insulation for the activity. There is nothing worse than not feeling your fingers or not being able to use them when you need them because they have become too cold! A nifty little warmer can be dropped into the gloves (or socks or boots) to keep fingers and toes warm. They do work, but only for a short period of time. My experience has been that once the warmth has worn off, I feel colder than before I activated it simply due to the pronounced difference in temperatures.


Keeping Warm

The goal of winter is to keep warm!  How to do this?  Begin with layers of clothing.  The layer next to the skin is called the base layer and it is this layer that retains your heat.  Choose a base layer that is made of natural fibres such as silk.  Silk is light, smooth, flexible and retains heat while wicking moisture away.  Cotton is also a good choice but tends to have the next layer "stick" to it.  Your base layer should consist of a top and a bottom and finished with socks that are of the appropriate weight for the activity and temperature.

The second layer should be another light layer made from natural fibres.  Cotton is preferred, as it helps retain heat and can absorb some of the moisture that is wicked from the silk.  This layer can be hidden or it can be used as part of the overall fashion statement. 

The outside layer is essential as it is the barrier between our bodies and the outside elements.  There are many designs, manufactures, grades, weights, and purposes for winter jackets, snow pants and boots.  I recommend that you choose windproof and waterproof ski jackets, snow pants and boots.  Remember that waterproof articles have sealed seams to ensure that water does not blow in, leak in or trickle in.  If the seams are not sealed, then the garmet will not be waterproof.  More than likely, it is only water resistant.  These are two different statements.  Read the tag carefully, and if you are not sure, make an inquiry to verify that it is waterproof.

Boots are a bit more tricky.  Look for thick rubberized soles with good grips.  Kodiak boots are the best as well as Cougars as they provide excellent traction while being waterproof, windproof and come in a variety of styles that appeal to the young and the grown ups.  Boots should have a liner that can come out for drying if they become wet (snow that has fallen in, body moisture or from being filled with snow during a snowball fight).  Boots can be made from synthetic materials, or natural materials such as wool shearling.  Wool is the best -- it is warm without heating your feat, wicks away moisture, dries instantly and is readily available.

The third, fourth and fifth layer should be heavier in weight and a style that you prefer.  They should be loose fitting, easily removed and portable.  As you perform your activity and your body heat rises, you will remove these layers one by one to maintain a constant and comfortable body temperature.


Heat Loss and Hypothermia During Winter

Heat loss occurs everywhere on your body during every season.  In winter, we notice it more because it is cold and we are warm blooded animals.  There is a myth that we lose 40% of our body heat from the top of our head.  This is not true.

The amount of body heat that we lose is dependent upon exposed surface area.  For example, I would lose most of my heat from my body than I would from my head if my body was not covered.  My body has a greater amount of surface area than my head.  However, if I was completely bundled up from my nose down to my toes and no parts of my body were exposed to the cold except for my head, then my head would lose the majority of my body heat. 

Even though our head does not lose the majority of our body heat, it is still important to don a toque.  A toque is a special hat that is made to fit the head and is made of a material that will retain heat.  A toque can be made of natural materials, such as wool, or can be made from synthetic fibres.  When purchasing a toque, ensure that the toque provides adequate coverage, especially over the ears and forehead, it is lined so that the wind does not blow through the weaving, wearability, washability and weight.  Again, the toque should be of the appropriate weight for the activity that you are particpating in.

Ready, Set, Go!

Though it is already the end of January, I still have another 3 to 4 months of winter to enjoy.  Friends think that I am crazy for loving winter, but I really do because I am prepared for the cold.  And now, you can be too!

I'll be heading out again in a few hours -- the temperature has warmed up 2 degrees -- and the sun is shining bright!  Besides, there's nothing better than a cup of hot chocolate and warm chocolate chip cookies after being out in the cold!


Winter Activities

Before I head off, I would like to propose some fun, adventurous, simple, unique and common winter activities that can be done on your own, with a group, with friends or with your family.  If you love dogs, dog sledding can be an adventure!  Or perhaps you would like to learn more about breeds of dogs that are hearty companions for the cold climate.  I suggest you read more on the Canadian Eskimo dog breed.  A fabulous, loyal and indigenous Canadian dog breed.

The winter biathlon is another great sport that combines endurance, strength, power and speed.  In the Nation's Capital, the annual Winter Triathlon is a competitive sport that is unique to the Canadian winter.  All children, and grown ups, love to build snow forts and have snow ball fights.  Frosty the Snowman lines many streets when it snows and he wears hats, carrot noses and buttons for eyes.  

One extremely cold winter, I took the kids outside and we cut ice from the surface of the frozen fields.  We carefully carried them, and built ice fortresses in the fields.  When the sun shone on the fortresses, there was a dazzlling display of rainbows.  As the sun warmed the snow, we made ice sculptures and snow sculptures.  We also had a terrific tabbogan hill and that entertained us on a daily basis.

Skating and ice hockey can be seen everywhere on this northern landscape.  In fact, ice hockey is Canada's national winter sport while lacrosse is Canada's national summer sport.  How cool is that? 

 Remember, this is a very short list of activities.  In fact, the list is as long as your creative imagination! 

Another Note....

Photography is another wonderful way to spend time in the outdoors.  Most of us think of photographing vacations, events, celebrations, family and friends during times of warmth.  Photgraphy during the winter months provides a canvas that produces images containing opposing elements.  Virgin snow carpeting a field while the sunshines on a day where the temperature dips below 25oC.  The warmth of the sun's rays melting the ice that has coated the branches of a tree.  The peacefulness of falling snowflakes as the wind whips around during a snowstorm.  Perhaps it's just the sheer joy on the faces of children who sport rosy cheeks while bundled up in winter gear.  I, along with my children, enjoy composing photos year round.  I encourage you to try this venture and capture your winter moments and freeze these memories in time.  For ten photography tips for composing fabulous photos, click the hyperlink.  Would you like to view some beautiful winter photos?  Fellow writer Timorous, has composed an article featuring winter photos that will bring a chill to your spine by capturing the beauty of a cold winter. 

© 2011 Beth100


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