My parents live in the American South where the climate is so mild my dad can play golf year round. They have never particularly enjoyed cold weather and passed that trait onto me. Yet I often seem to find myself in frosty climes. I spent five winters in New York City shivering and bemoaning the piles of dirty snow on the sidewalk. Now I live in Riga, Latvia, a city situated so far north that its river has been known to freeze over.
Before the move I received two pieces of advice that have proven helpful and mostly true. The first is an oft-repeated quote by Sir Ranulph Fiennes, a British adventurer who has climbed Mount Everest:
There is no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.
The second point I heard was that nowhere in Europe is especially warm in winter so I might as well embrace the cold. I thought I’d circumvent this last January with a trip to sunny Istanbul but was welcomed with a blizzard instead. And you know what? I LOVED IT! The snow-covered city was stunning and blissfully free of tourist crowds. Plus, I was toasty-warm in my winter gear.
Before I packed my bags for Latvia, with thoughts of icicles and hypothermia running through my head, I invested in some key pieces that have protected me from the elements across the continent from Norway and Estonia to Belgium and Turkey. Here are my tips for conquering the cold this winter travel season.
A good coat is the most important article of clothing you can pack. Puffy down coats will likely be warm enough, but the issue I’ve found is that they don’t stay dry. It snows and rains a lot in Europe and, even with an umbrella, you can quickly find yourself soaked to the bone. To avoid this undesirable situation, look for coats with water resistant material and a hood. I’ve been very happy with the Arctic Down Parka from the North Face.
I don’t know about you, but cold feet make me miserable. Wet feet are even worse. That’s where waterproof insulated boots come in handy. Standard Uggs are warm but can become sodden. Wellies provide excellent rain protection but tend to feel like frozen blocks of cement – even with fleece wellie socks. I’ve found that boots from LL Bean provide the perfect amount of protection. I wear the classic version paired with thick wool socks, but if you’re really worried about the cold or are heading to the Arctic, upgrade to the shearling-lined version. Whatever you do, leave the heels and dress boots at home. Those cobblestones can be treacherous!
But Heather, I hear you say, we have plans to attend the opera/ballet/theater in Europe. Won’t we want to wear fancy shoes to the performance? Yes, you will. Carry them with you and change in the coat check. Everyone will think you’re a local!
The tricky part about dressing for winter is not overdoing it on the layers. You need to strike a balance between being warm outside and not sweating to death indoors. My go-to options are a Uniqlo Heattech t-shirt and fleece-lined tights (NOT leggings – the feet are important), worn beneath jeans and a merino wool sweater. Avoid cotton undershirts as they won’t wick away perspiration.
You will want a scarf and hat, even if your coat has a hood. Wool and fleece are good materials, though you should choose whatever makes you comfortable. It’s no fun to be itchy! The item I have the most trouble with is gloves. I take a lot of photos and need my fingers, which quickly freeze when left unprotected. Last winter I bought e-tip gloves from the North Face and they worked okay, but weren’t really warm enough for lengthy periods outside. Lately I’ve been rocking fingerless Latvian mittens, but that won’t cut it once the temperature drops below zero. If anyone has a solution, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!
Have you traveled to Europe in winter? What are your packing tips?