Our Official Guide To Surviving Winter In Chicago

By Michelle Meywes Kopeny in Arts & Entertainment on Dec 21, 2015 5:20PM

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Photo by Jessica Mlinarc/Chicagoist

So far we've been relatively lucky with above-average temperatures (and shirtless jogger sightings!) for the month of December. But the official start of winter is upon us and that means snow, ice and below-freezing temps are just around the corner.

If there's one thing Chicago excels at, it's breaking winter weather records. “Record low temperatures! Record snowfall! Thundersnow! Polar Vortex!” Let's not forget we already got a freak snowstorm last month that dropped more November snow than the city had seen in over a hundred years. We've seen snow measured in feet and yes, newbies, there have been days where the high for the day didn't even break zero.

So how do you survive the unforgiving winter in Chicago? With a little help from my fellow Chicagoist staffers, we've put together a guide to help get you through the punishing season. Between us we've got decades of experience and, like anyone who's endured even one Chicago winter, we're eager to share what works, what tragically doesn't and little things that might just make make it a little more tolerable.

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Photo by Jessica Mlinarc/Chicagoist

Gearing Up

There's a Scandinavian saying that goes 'there's no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.' While you might want to punch anyone in the face who says that while you're walking into the wind during a blizzaster, there's a lot of truth to the saying. Chicago is a pedestrian-centric city, and even winter won't stop us from going outside and getting where we need to go, but sometimes that means a mile walk to the train or a half-hour wait (or more) for public transportation. You gotta have the right gear to make it bearable and even safe.

The number one thing to have in your arsenal is a good pair of boots. There's nothing worse than walking around in a soggy, freezing pair of Chucks or Uggs. Writer Julia Weeman, who moved here from Texas, recommends “a pair of amazing, weatherproof snow boots (Sorel makes some that are actually cute),” while Kate Shepherd emphasizes traction. “Make sure that any shoes you're looking at have a good grip before you buy them because you want to avoid falling on the ice.”

Arguably as important as good footwear are gloves and hats. Being able to feel your fingers and ears is cool and frostbite is not. Our editor-in-chief, Rachel Cromidas says that every year she goes to Walgreens or H&M, buys “multiple pairs of those $2.99 gloves," and stuffs them away in all of her coat pockets. Senior Arts & Entertainment Editor Jim Kopeny/Tankboy goes a step further saying, “Hot Hands or Little Hotties can make difference on whether a 10 to 15 minute walk to the train or bus is bearable or filled with freezing agony.” For someone like me who has Raynaud's (a circulation disorder that turns your hands numb in the cold), these hand warmers make all the difference. Lots of gloves nowadays have pockets to slip them inside; otherwise, they can keep coat pockets nice and toasty.

Last but not least, “invest in a decent coat,” as writer Rob Christopher tells us. On those single-digit days, I'm especially thankful for my ankle-length coat that could double as a sleeping bag. If you find yourself without a good coat though, “layers are your best friend,” says writer Aaron Cynic.

Our final, and possibly favorite tip for gearing up, especially if you know you're going to be outdoors for a while, comes from writer and photographer Jessica Mlinarc: “Pack a flask!”

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Photo by Jessica Mlinarc/Chicagoist

Getting Around

So now that you're all dressed and ready to go, how are you going to get there while being outside for the least amount of time?

Thank goodness for the invention of Uber and Lyft. We all remember the days standing on the street with wind and/or precipitation blasting us in the face as we tried to hail a cab. Just request a ride on an app and they'll let you know when they get there, while you wait inside.

For CTA commuters, Bus Tracker and Train Tracker should be your best friend. Writer Ben Kramer recommends checking before you leave the house. “No need to stand in the cold for 15 minutes when you can do it for 2.” Jim Kopeny/Tankboy suggests “adding 5 to 10 minutes to it on days it snows or rains” since traffic moves slower in bad weather. Plus it takes longer to walk in the snow since so many people don't shovel or salt their sidewalks.

Speaking of shoveling, it's not just neighborly, it's the law. It's a rarely enforced law, but recently citizens and aldermen alike have really been cracking down. You can report addresses that aren't cleared, but we try to take a more neighborly approach. We've seen folks on our neighborhood Facebook group start a chain of neighbors willing to help other neighbors, from shoveling to digging out cars. But as writer Rob Winn says, you should still perfect the “shuffle walk” because there are bound to be slick sidewalks out there.

We've also got some car tips for the drivers out there. First off, be aware of the winter overnight parking ban. It's in effect from De. 1 to April 1 on snow routes whether it's actually snowing or not. According to Aaron Cynic, “the city doesn't fuck around, and there are fleets of tow trucks just waiting around to haul your car away as soon as the time hits.”

Of course you should budget extra time for de-icing your car as Jessica Mlinarc recommends, and along with that ice scraper, be sure keep a small shovel in the trunk. You are going to have to dig that thing out of the snow at some point. Photographer Laura Stolpman also recommends keeping salt and kitty litter in your car for weight and traction. “When I parked outside, I sometimes put salt down around my car to help me get out a little easier the next day.”

Protect Your Home

Even if you don't own your home, you should know some basics when it comes to repairs and protecting yourself from a frozen nightmare. When the ground freezes, the next thing to go are your pipes. Know where the water pipes enter your living space and keep the number for your landlord and Peoples Gas handy in case you have any issues.

Which brings us to our next tip: always have bottled water in the house. Let me just say that this is the kind of thing you only let happen once. I've been in my place for six years and last year was the first time that my pipes froze. You'll be surprised how debilitating it is. No brushing your teeth, no toilet flushing, no washing your hands…you get the idea.

Frozen locks don't just happen to cars. If you have a gate on your property, that lock has frozen air on both sides of it (unlike the doorknob to your house or building) and when water gets in there after a wet snow, next thing you know you're climbing an eight foot fence to escape your own yard. Locksmiths recommend lubricants with graphite and spraying as soon as you notice the lock starting to stick. Lubricants with silicone in them are also effective. Just be careful because some lubricants, like WD40, can gum up the lock and leave you worse off.

Protect yourself

Cold weather is incredibly drying on your body, inside and out. Rob Christopher reminds us to moisturize, Julia Weeman recommends a humidifier for “skin, hair and respiratory system,” and Aaron Cynic reminds us to chug water to stay hydrated.

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Photo by Jessica Mlinarc/Chicagoist

Feeling SAD?

Remember the sun? That thing that used to shine light on the city from above? Seasonal Affective Disorder is a real thing, and with agonizingly short days that have it pitch black outside before we even leave the office, the lack of daylight can send even the cheeriest person you know into the depths of SAD. Sure, you can get the hell outta dodge by taking a tropical vacation for a temporary respite. We even know people who spend months south of the border, but since a lot of us don't have jobs (or pocketbooks) that allow us to do that, here are some other tips:

  • Therapy lights are recommended for SAD sufferers because the bright light tricks the brain into increasing serotonin production. It might sound crazy, but don't knock it til you try it.
  • Taking a Vitamin D supplement is also advised since it's another thing we're missing from the sunlight.
  • Work it out. Hit the gym. Get those endorphins flowing. Instant mood booster.
  • Socialize! Make the effort to see friends. I know it's hard to move from a horizontal position on the couch, but you'll feel better once you're in the company of other people. Carrie McGath recommends scheduling monthly game nights or movie nights with potlucks. “Nothing like the comfort of a bowl of chili, some hot boozy drinks and some warm cookies to complement a game of Cards Against Humanity or a themed movie viewing.” Kate Shepherd seconds movie watching, but getting into the theater instead. “Not only is it award season, so the movies are better, but it takes your mind off of the cold for a few hours”.

Finally, if you can't beat the winter, get out there and enjoy it. All the photos in this post came from staffer Jessica Mlinarc's Snow Trek on Northerly Island. What a great reason to get out of the house, socialize and see the city in a whole new light.