a northern wardrobe

dressed for the snow

I thought I’d give you an idea of what it is like to dress for extreme cold.

To put our current location into perspective, here are some numbers. The Arctic Circle is at latitude 66˚. Norman Wells, about halfway up the Northwest Territories, is at latitude 65˚ – just 1˚ south of the Arctic. The coldest recorded temperature in Norman Wells is -54.4 (that was over 50 years ago). A few weeks ago, we dropped below -40 with a wind chill that read -50. The wind chill is the killer. On some of the colder days, if the wind picks up, frostbite can set in within minutes of exposure.

dressed for the snow

At the moment it’s sitting steadily around -22 C. When I want to walk into ‘town’ or to a friend’s house I’d wear a normal Spring time outfit – jeans, t-shirt, cardigan – with a Canada Goose parka over the top and insulated Sorel boots over normal socks. Normal ‘street’ boots would be fine, but unless they are waterproof leather the problem is that the snow that covers them while trudging outside melts the moment you step inside leaving you with damp boots. And damp boots means cold feet for the return home!

dressed for the snow

Of course, it feels like mid-summer inside any building so layering is bothersome if you have to peel them all off whenever you get in a car, house or store. Negative 20 has become very mild to us (it’s all relative huh!). Although it is often overcast when it is this ‘warm’, the outdoors can comfortably be enjoyed.

When the temperature drops below -30 I wear longjohns under my jeans, and Jesse will wear his Goose to work (but unlikely while loading or flying aircraft). Mitts or at least some sort of gloves are a must as metal doorhandles will burn the hand. Thick wool socks under winter boots are pretty helpful for keeping the chill off the toes if walking outdoors for a while.

To avoid the cold air hurting my nose, cheeks and most importantly, lungs, I would have a thick scarf or a neck warmer handy for longer walks, or in case the wind picked up. Or if I plan to run anywhere, which I tend to do as it keeps me warmer! On that note, this climate is ideal for exercise as the cold, dry, dense air carries a very high level of oxygen. But even the die-hard runners (there is a decent group of us here) will stop the longer outdoor runs at -20.

Negative 40s we are getting a little more serious. The easy answer is to stay inside. But because we are in the North for (likely) a limited number of winters we sure want to maximise our free days and the novelty of the climate, and actually get some fresh air. Plus, the cold temperatures bring the most glorious clear blue skies, without a drop of snow, and some stunning Northern lights.

negative 35

For walks at -40 I wouldn’t leave the house without:
– wind proof overpants (wind chill is a killer)
– New Zealand merino jerseys (normally 2 long-sleeved) under the Goose
– neck warmer tight around my mouth, nose and cheekbones
– a beanie (touque as they call it here) underneath the fur lined hood pulled up over the head
– double wool socks; ‘thinsulate’ ones followed by a thick knee high wool
– and, if I’m biking to work (the knuckles hit the cold first) I will double glove, wearing merino wool gloves followed by windproof mitts. But… biking is a completely different story as sweating becomes an issue (allowing your skin to become damp in these temperatures is asking for trouble). I won’t go into the biking wardrobe here!


A delightful little friend of mine dressed for -35˚

To many northerners, having so many layers is overkill. To us Kiwis, it’s vital to our ability to stay sane and stay around! We have seen too many frostbitten noses and cheekbones to risk under-dressing. Plus, working up a sweat is normally more fun than shivering.

We have made a huge effort to get outside everyday. And I mean actually spend time outside. Over the winter, friends have lent us snowshoes and Jesse enjoys snowshoeing up the river that runs alongside our house. I favor bundling up and trudging into town to buy groceries and visit friends than idling the car for 15 minutes in order to drive the 100 metres it takes to cross town. And now that the sun is back, and stays around until dinner time, we love our early evening strolls; we just ensure that we check the temperature before leaving the house in order to dress appropriately.

our street

12 thoughts

  1. I spent a few winters in Yellowknife, which would be like Florida compared to Norman wells, right?


    Say hi to the ravens for me and tell them I miss them a lot.

    • Surprisingly, Yellowknife feels colder due to the dampness from the lake, or so I hear. I think the dryness in our area makes quite a difference. Florida sounds so good right now.. Gosh – you can have all the darn ravens.

      • About that cold, you may be right. I worked as a ramp rat on the tarmac of Yellowknife Airport and I swear, some days it was purely brutal out in the open. But I loved it anyways. My wolf-fur lined parky hood came in handy when loading Beavers, Otters, Hercs and old DC3’s with beer or Arctic Trout. It was all a long time ago (early 70’s), but I can still taste bannock dipped in Labrador Tea. I don’t think I ever really left the north because it never left me.

        Good to see someone from north of 60 blogging here.

        • I can understand the bannock and Labrador Tea! What a culture up here huh. Oh Jesse can fully appreciate the brutality of loading on the apron mid-winter.. Nice to hear from a fellow Northerner. How’d you stumble across this?

          • I think you ‘liked’ one of my posts… probably in the Reader. I did a self-portrait back in those wintry days I think you might and Jesse get a kick out of:


            There were some of those long, long December nights that could only be compared to a frozen Hell, but then again, there were moments when the short sunlight made ice fog a crystalline marvel… like walking in air full of floating diamonds. Hard to forget things like that, especially when the ptarmigan run and the ravens talk back to me.

            I loved the north, as did my parents, but my darling wife wasn’t so keen on it (insert LOL here) so we moved back to soft Ontario after three winters.

  2. It’s interesting reading your thoughts on cold and dressing for cold 🙂 I’ve lived in NWT and Labrador for some 30 years and there’s not much that you wrote that I’d change one wee bit! So, you’ve learned fast Christina. And yeah – I always find Yellowknife much colder than Norman Wells. Hope you and Jesse enjoyed the walk across the frozen Mackenzie River this morning – would make for a great blog post! I’ll send photos around to all the Walking Challenge group. Anyhow – cold is a state of mind and running/walking/skiing/biking at -40 is simply superb!

    • Wow Alasdair, negative 40! You and Sheryl are amazing. It’s definitely not such an issue if you sort out the wardrobe before you head out the door. We loved this morning’s adventure across the river, it had been on our to-do list since the start of winter. Thanks for organising it!

      • Cheryl has walked back and forth pretty much since 1994 in all conditions and there were two winters that I biked back and forth and one where I walked. Given it’s dry and *usually* not windy – it’s not too bad when you’ve got the right clothing. Glad you and Jesse enjoyed the walk on the river – it’s a unique opportunity and my first time doing it in almost 19 years here. I ran it on Boxing Day and that was incredible 🙂

  3. Nice Blog! Surprised to see all your oven temps in faherenheit!

    Nice description of what to wear in the cold, reminds me of going snowmobiling in YK in -41c and the track being very stiff!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *