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I grew up in Michigan, went to college in Boston, and have worked the past few winters in North Dakota. It’s safe to say I’ve owned my fair share of cold weather gear, and have some idea of my favorite best cold weather gear for a Midwest winter.
I know cold.
I realize I have unwittingly become well-versed in everyday cold-weather survival. More than that, as part of my job I actually have to do things outside in subzero temperatures. Yuck.
Despite my Michigan upbringing and Finnish blood, I’m usually a wuss when it comes to being cold. The extreme frigidity in North Dakota has toughened me up a little bit–I have definitely sat on my porch drinking beer on a 30-something degree day, feeling the sun on my skin after days of cloudy negatives temps–but I still get grumpy and sulky if forced to spend too much time in chilly conditions. It doesn’t help when your truck heater breaks in February, as has happened to me more than once.
After some trial and error I have found a few ways to make extremely frigid temps bearable. Spoiler alert: they mostly involve merino wool.
In addition to being a cold-weather wuss, I also hate layering bulky long underwear under my clothes (I know, stop whining already)! Snug, thin, merino wool base layers are awesome because you can barely tell they’re there! Merino wool isn’t like wool-wool, it’s soft so you can wear it against your bare skin. I wear them under my Park Ranger uniform, under tight jeans at my bartending job, and as jammies at night. If merino wool isn’t in the budget, 1) I feel you, dude, and 2) fleece is almost as good, just bulkier and lest moisture wicking.
Tbh, I take my base layers off embarrassingly little in the winter. Pretty much just to shower. I’ve invested in my warmth, you can be dang sure I’m gonna ride it all the way to springtime.
And I do mean invested; good cold weather gear and long underwear ain’t cheap. THEY’RE. JUST. NOT. If somebody has found a <$50 department store brand of well-fitting, frigid-weather-friendly moisture-wicking long johns, please let me know and I will take them out for spin faster than you can say “smart wool”. I believe in investing in your base layer, and then cutting corners if necessary with whatever layer you put in between that and your outer (hopefully down jacket!) layer. A really good merino wool base layer will make everything you put on top of it more effective in warming you up.
If I had to make a basic freezing-my-butt-off cold weather gear shopping list, this would be it:
- Basic thermal base layer top, preferably merino wool, either crew neck (like this basic but reliable SmartWool one) or mock turtleneck (like this little Patagonia Capilene number I’ve been into this winter, or this one from REI). The style just depends on what you’re wearing it under. I love colorful stuff, but I mostly stick with black for my base layers; makes them less noticeable if a sleeve or collar peek out. ALSO, you want mid-weight or heavier, like those listed above.
- Thermal base layer bottom, like my holy grail SmartWool babies. Sometimes if I am wearing my skinniest skinny jeans, I’ll go with fleece leggings underneath. My favorites are the H&M fleece leggings, which I own like, five pairs of, and sometimes wear a couple pairs of at once. No shame.
- Merino wool socks, preferably from Darn Tough because THEY ARE SO CUTE. Look at these knee-length ones with DAISIES on them! Or these woodland creatures! I have a friend who works at the Birkenstocks store and she says Darn Tough are the best socks in the game. Anyway, everywhere sells decent merino wool socks now, so these should be easy to find.
- A really thick hat
- A really thick scarf (I have a basic knitted one from Forever 21 or something I just wrap around my neck about 80 times, it does the trick)
- Thermal balaclava, especially if you’re anywhere windy. This is the exact thermal balaclava my boyfriend and I wear every winter in North Dakota. It’s super dorky-looking. We have no regrets.
- Lined/insulated gloves or mittens, probably the only category besides base layers I might insist you splurge on a BIT . These are currently the highest rated gloves at REI, and these are the highest rated (surprisingly affordable) mittens.
- Fleece middle layer (between your base layer and your down jacket outer layer), which I wouldn’t be too picky about and frankly just buy one like this at Target or something.
- Down jacket (the longer the better) (if there was one that went down to my ankles, I’d be all over it), which can be spendy if you don’t hit a sale. I use Steep & Cheap for all my jackets and boots. Literally just Googling it now, I found Marmot down jacket with excellent reviews for 30% off.
- Waterproof or at least water resistant [hiking] boots (I wrote an in-depth review of my all-time favorite winter boots here) are important. Damp toes are no fun, especially when it’s in the single digits outside and you’re chasing your Saint Bernard all over the snow covered neighborhood because he thinks he’s home in the Alps. I currently have these Sorels, which is a super well-respected outdoor shoe brand, and I’m very happy with them. One last note, always buy your winter boots a size up, so you can layer your socks!
I’m not going to get too specific on hats and scarves. Those are such a matter of taste and I don’t think there’s that much variation. AKA I would never go to REI and drop $50 on either (though I do have a $30-ish thermal balaclava for those days when the wind chill is brutal… it makes me look like a bank robber, but when it’s cold enough I just don’t care). My favorite hats and scarves tend to be brightly colored and knitted, nothing too crazy, and that works for me just fine. Some thermal inner layer for a hat is ideal.
There will be some variation to this list depending on the activities you’re getting up to. For instance, if I’m hiking in the snow, I will probably layer a bunch of base layers for excellent movement and wear the tallest waterproof boots I own.
Never underestimate winter weather!
I know, a lot of this seems like common sense, but I will always remember the first winter of my freshman year of college, when several students from California were hilariously unprepared for Boston winters. The best piece of advice I would give them, myself, anyone: however cold you think you’ll be, assume you’ll be colder. You can always take stuff off, but being cold all day will make you grumpy and sad.
If you want any specific brand recommendations, message me and I’ll let you know more stuff I’m into! I don’t really stick to any one brand (except Darn Tough. LOVE YOU LONG TIME, DARN TOUGH), though I will shoot out one last recommendation. Check out Steep & Cheap. They were recommended to me by another Park Ranger friend a few years ago. Basically it’s a discount outdoor gear site, with all the big name brands for steep (har) and cheap (har har) discounts. To date, I’ve purchased a Columbia down jacket, winter hiking boots, socks, and more Christmas presents for my boyfriend than I can count. I know I sound like I work for them or something—I very much do not. I wish.
As always, if you found this helpful, own any of these items, or ended up trying out any of these items, PLEASE holla at me in the comments!
*This post contains affiliate links, which mean if you choose to buy any of these rad products I’ve recommended (nobody asked me to recommend them… I just think they’re rad) I get a small commission. And you get to be cozy af.