An Expat’s Guide to Surviving Canadian Winters

by Emma Higgins

(Image credit: rmnoa357 /

When I moved to Toronto from the U.K. in May 2013, I was quick to shrug off comments about how cold it would be in the winter here. I knew it would be the coldest winter I’d ever experienced, but still thought it would be perfectly manageable. That was until the words ‘ice storm’ were thrown around, and my blood froze not only from the extreme -40˚C with wind chill cold, but also from the regret of my flippancy. The only plus point to this extreme weather is the we live (or shiver) in hopes that the harsh winter weather can only lead to a lovely spring, at which time we might finally thaw.

Just so as it doesn’t come as quite a shock to you next time you’re faced with an unexpected sub-sub-zero North American winter, here’s my guide to surviving the polar apocalypse.


An elementary precaution. When I say layers, I don’t just mean a decent coat and the gloves you’ve been wearing for the last 10 years. I mean thermals under your thickest pair of jeans, enough pairs of socks to make your feet at least two sizes bigger, a decent hat to keep your ears away from the biting wind, and a scarf that will not only wrap around your neck, but also cover most of your face. For the short time I had to face the extremities of the outside world, I had my hat down as far as it could go, and my scarf equally high, so that only my eyes were showing. Here in Toronto, that’s a pretty common winter look.

Additional pro tip: for the days when it’s still very cold but brilliant with sunshine, don’t wear sunglasses with metal frames. I learned that the hard way when mine promptly froze to my face.

Careful Planning

You’re inside at every possible opportunity when it’s that cold outside in these winters, and you’re going to want to keep it that way. When you do have to go outside, try to strategically plan your day so that you move from place to place as efficiently as possible, cutting out as much outside time as you can. If you have to get groceries, get them on the way to work so that you don’t have to make an extra trip later. If you’re going out for dinner, make it a spot that is close to another activity you need to get done that evening. The words ‘two birds with one stone’ have never rung truer than during a polar vortex.

The Footwear Dilemma

Recently, one of the most difficult decisions of my morning routine has become what shoes to wear. I know for some of the more fashion-conscious among us, it’s a pretty important decision anyway, but fashion goes right out the window when the temperature drops below the imaginable. Style is replaced with any footwear that will keep your feet—rather than your rear end—firmly on the ground. A decent pair of shoes that will allow you to walk through deep snow, keep your feet warm, and give you good grip when the streets turn into an ice rink are absolutely imperative.


One of the easiest ways to spot a local from a tourist during a Canadian winter is by how they walk on ice. I’ve been astounded by how confident a Toronto local will glide down the street, seemingly stepping as if there was no ice underfoot at all. Watch me on any given icy morning and you’ll see me treading with extreme caution, eyes at the ground so as to check where the least slippery parts of the sidewalk are. However, it seems that the more gingerly you walk the more you could be running the risk of falling. I’m not saying go hell for leather without any hesitation whatsoever, but as the locals have proven, a bit of bravado will go a long way. Walk with confidence and show that ice who’s boss.


What’s your top tip for surviving the winter chill?


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