Winter in NYC can be terrifying.
Between polar vortexes, fell Arctic winds from the north, and bone-chilling, soul-destroying temperatures, winter is brutal. True, climate change has boosted the temperatures somewhat, leading to the occasional warming–but when the mercury drops, it drops faster than Obama’s mic at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.
There’s no two ways about it. Because New York is predominantly a walking city, there’s no way to avoid the cold, whether you’re waiting for the bus that will never come or doing that fifteen minute walk from subway station to apartment.
In fact, the cold may be the one thing that tourists and native New Yorkers agree on.
But despair not; survival of the best prepared–not the fittest–is guaranteed. So read on for winter survival tips, optimized not for downhill skiers or snowshoers, but for more sedentary urban types who spend plenty of time waiting or walking.
Layer your clothes.
Layering is not a new concept, at least not to you savvy, outdoorsy folks. At its core, it’s simple: wear at least three layers to keep out the wind, the wet, and the cold. Sure, you can wear more if you need to (and believe me, you will need to), but understand that most of what you wear will fall into one of the following three categories of layers.
Your base layer: stay dry and stay warm.
Your base layer, the one closest to your body, should be a moisture-wicking, quick drying thermal underwear type. There are a lot of fabrics that can help you with this, from ever-reliable wool to Uniqlo’s inexpensive, proprietary Heattech fabric (also a personal favorite of mine). Avoid cotton; as comfortable as it may be, it only soaks up sweat and hangs on your skin, rather than wicking moisture away and keeping you dry.
If you’ve ever felt wet underclothes clinging to your skin as you shovel snow outside, you’ll understand how critical a proper base layer is. To be cold is bad enough–but to be wet and cold can mean the difference between discomfort and hypothermia.
Do yourself a favor: ditch the cotton and get a good base layer.
Insulate yourself with a good middle layer.
Right above your base layer, wear a thick fleece, down jacket, or sweater. Like your base layer, wool is always a good choice, but for those with sensitive skin, there are plenty of modern alternatives, from Polartec to Thinsulate, and everything far in between.
Just remember: any material that keeps your body heat in and the cold out, is a good insulating layer. Some examples include a zip up synthetic fleece, Ultralight down, or this, the lovechild of a jacket and a pullover.
One thing to note: depending on the weather and windchill outside, you can have more than one mid-layer. Once, during the dead of February, I wore a Heattech, a flannel shirt, a hoodie, and a fleece, all under a thick down jacket. Dress accordingly!
Waterproof, windproof, and breathable: the outer layer.
Choose this layer with care, for it will be all that stands between your other layers and the wet, miserable fury of winter. Do it right, and you’ll have a breathable, impenetrable barrier between yourself and the elements; do it wrong, and you’ll curse yourself for picking the cheapest option on display, falling for that too-good-to-be-true bargain.
The world standard in this area, or at least the first standard bearer, is Gore-tex. A proprietary fabric discovered by accident, Gore-tex has been around for 47 years, stopping water and wind while allowing sweat to evaporate. Still, as venerable as Gore-tex is, there are plenty of alternatives with similarly snazzy names and effectiveness: eVent (which I’ve used personally, and can attest to), H2No, or Dry.Q.Elite.
My hardier friends can get away with only packing a thin, waterproof hard shell over a fleece and polypropylene shirt. Not me; when I buy an outer layer, I usually purchase something with insulation built in. I’m a big fan of three-in-one jackets, which combine a hard shell with a zip-in, down or Thinsulate layer, and I’m very partial to Columbia’s 3-in-1 line, especially their Omni-Heat products. This magical fabric is silvery, shiny, and simultaneously resembles both emergency blankets and disco balls. I’m pretty sure it works, but it definitely cuts down on weight.
One thing to note: insulation comes in two forms, down and synthetic. Down, the light, fluffy plumage (under feathers) of geese and ducks, is one of the most effective insulators known to man, and certainly the lightest. Down is measured in fill power ranging from 450 to 900, with the higher fill power representing denser, warmer down (for instance, one ounce of 900 fill down can fill 900 cubic inches of space).
Of all the companies that have tried to replicate down’s weight to warmth ratio, only North Face’s Thermoball has come close. Still, for all its upsides, down has two huge drawbacks: first, when it gets wet, it doesn’t insulate; secondly, if you wash it improperly, you’ll have stuffing coming out the seams, and ruin your jacket.
Synthetic insulation, on the other hand, is bulkier, clumsier, and yet more resilient in the face of water. I’ve always preferred synthetic, because I’ve felt firsthand the misery of a waterlogged down jacket (as well as an expensive down jacket ruined by improper washing). Still, understand that a synthetic jacket will weight 2-3 times more than a down jacket of comparable warmth. If you’re ok with that tradeoff, then synthetic is the one for you.
A word of warning.
As simple as it is to layer, I always see those who refuse to do so, be it the fashionista with a t-shirt under a thick down jacket, or a hipster shivering in his tank top under a leather jacket. Don’t be that guy/girl who ends up in the hospital, and/or on Gothamist. Dress warm, dress right, and avoid negative publicity (not to mention a giant hospital bill).