From Canada over Scandinavia to Russia, you are willing to visit any of these places in the winter time? Well, good on you, truly, but you need to be prepared for extreme weather. And when I say extreme, I mean extreme. We are living in the South of Finland and are currently dealing with -20 degrees Celsius, wind and snowfall. So let’s not even talk about Lapland yet. I don’t mean to frighten you away. Actually, this can be a very special experience, but it should not turn into a bitter memory of how you got frostbite on a casual sightseeing trip to Reykjavik. Or Helsinki. Or Calgary. Or Wherever. So let’s see what you can do to survive sightseeing in extreme cold!
1. Invest in good, water-proof shoes with thick soles.
This is my first tip because it is the most important one. You can wear all the layers on your upper body you want. If your feet get wet and cold, you are going to be miserable. Mihir and I personally swear by GoreTex shoes with thick soles and a good profile (lesser chance of slipping!). Of course, there are similar materials out there. So look around a little, but make sure to pick out a good and comfortable shoe.
2. Take weather reports seriously and learn to appreciate wind chill.
Granted, weather reports are not always spot-on, but it’s better to take them seriously if they predict -30 degrees Celsius. But temperature is certainly not the only thing to take into account. The weather channel may only be predicting -15 degrees, but a slight breeze can turn this into -20 degrees. And a storm can turn it into -30 degrees or worse. So be prepared for that.
3. Acknowledge there is a difference between -10 and -30 degrees Celsius.
I have heard many people say that after -10 there is no real difference anymore. Sorry to say, but that is simply not true. At -10 degrees your skin should be fine for about an hour or so if it’s exposed, but in -30 degrees your flesh may freeze within a minute if exposed. So you definitely need to be more careful in -30 degrees.
4. Layer, layer, layer.
This one you may have heard before, but it totally rings true. Instead of one very thick layer it may be better to wear 2-3 thinner layers. What it does is it will keep a thin layer of air between your clothes which further insulates against the cold. Plus, you can more easily adjust if you are feeling too warm or too cold. This applies to your upper body (think shirts and sweaters or fleece jackets), your legs (think long underwear and ski pants), and your feet (several socks, preferably wool).
However, this can also apply to your hands. Personally, in very cold weather I wear two pairs of gloves. A 50 cent pair you can pick up from anywhere and one waterproof pair. This is ideal if you plan on losing your gloves for anything (e.g. taking pictures on your camera) – take off the top pair while you are using your hands and put them back on as soon as you’re done. Additionally, I usually keep my hands in my pockets for extra protection.
Layering can also work on your head and face. In very cold weather (e.g. -30 degrees Celsius) I would typically be wearing a ski-mask to protect my face, a warm wool hat, the hood of my coat and a thick scarf to further protect my mouth and nose.
5. Take good care of your skin.
This may sound a bit silly, but your skin will truly suffer in extreme weather. This especially concerns your face, but also your hands, should they be exposed. Invest in a good, thick, fatty facial cream. It may feel strange when you apply it the first time, but you’ll appreciate it later on. Apply it before you leave the house. Additionally, you should also be concerned about UV protection. Don’t laugh, I’m serious. Those days that make you rejoice – a white winter wonder land with bright sunshine – those will give you a horrible sunburn. The light is reflected by the snow directly into your face and because of the cold you may not feel the full effect. By evening time you’ll wonder why your face is completely red. This is very common especially in mountainous regions (e.g. if you plan on going skiing).
6. Handle your equipment carefully.
Oh, a snow covered landscape makes a perfect scene for a beautiful photograph. And in general, if you are out you are probably carrying a camera around. If you want to enjoy your equipment also after your trip, make sure to take good precautions to protect it against the cold. Most likely your camera will work fine outside, even in -30 degrees. If you are still using conventional batteries you should be aware that they will drain very quickly in extreme cold. Always carry a second pair of batteries in the inner pocket of your coat. Otherwise you reach the perfect photo spot only to find out your camera is unwilling to work. More modern lithium batteries don’t appear to suffer in the cold so much. If you are out in the snow, you will want to protect your camera from water entering. Many recommend simply using a plastic bag with a hole cut in it for the lens. Personally, this also works for me.
In any case, what you really have to worry about is coming back into the warm. For the love of god – do NOT plug your cold camera in or stick the cold memory card into your card reader. The condensation that will form on the connectors will make your equipment short-circuit and may lead to complete loss of data. Sounds horrible? Is horrible. So what you can do is leave your camera in a semi-cold place over night to slowly warm up a little or you can put it in a zip-lock plastic bag before bringing it inside to warm up overnight. There are no guarantees, but these things work for me. I certainly do not recommend using your camera inside after it has been in the cold for a long time. So no looking at pictures, no taking pictures, no charging, nothing. I know this sucks, but will make you happier in the long run.
7. Make goodies your best friend.
I love pocket warmers. They are cheap, they simply go into your pocket, and they keep your hands warm. What else could you want? Also, they come in a copious array of designs. Perfect! There are also electric warmers for shoes, if you want to look into that. I have personally never felt the need for them, but if you are planning on long, long walks out in the forest or whatever, they might be useful. Another little trick I have learnt after living in Finland is using ice grips. You can buy them quite cheap for 5-10€ and they will save your butt a lot of hurt. If the temperature hovers around zero degrees for a prolonged period of time there will be a change in weather conditions with intermittent sleet and periods in which that snow will melt which subsequently creates thick layers of ice on the roads when the temperature drops below freezing. This makes it nearly impossible to walk. So simply put those ice grips on the sole of your shoes and you’re good to go (or just try to walk in the grass next to the road like me).
8. Know your limits and take breaks.
Two to three hours in the extreme cold are enough for me personally. After then sightseeing is certainly not fun anymore. Chances are, that wherever you’re going, those are the only few hours with good sunlight anyway. Make sure that you go out as soon as the sun is out, because as soon as it gets dark, it also gets cold. Brutally cold. If you still want to be out then, that’s fine, but give yourself a break first and get a hot cup of cocoa. And once you come back home and you feel like your core is completely frozen, a hot shower, I tell you, a hot shower is simply heaven.
Now, what do you think? Is there anything we have missed? Do you have further tips for sightseeing in extreme cold? Share your thoughts and pictures with us. Let’s stay in touch!