It’s freaking cold outside! And the temperature is expected to keep falling all the way to a face-numbing, toe-curling, finger-chilling minus 22 degrees.
So we figured it was a good time to answer James Pruitt’s Curious City question about how Chicagoans survive the brutally cold winters.
How do people survive the Chicago winter?
I’d like to say that Chicagoans survive through pure grit, but that’s not entirely the case. Making it through the worst Chicago winters with fingers and toes intact involves some careful strategies, which certain people know better than others (even if they don’t all agree).
We decided to consult some of these people — including mail carriers, outdoor writers, professional photographers, and the manager of a store that outfits locals for cold-weather activities — and ask for their best advice.
Plus, we put the question out to you on social media (you’ll find some of your suggestions below).
You can decide whose tips you trust. But the most important thing: Find something that works for you this week — and beyond. You’re welcome.
Best ways to keep your feet warm?
SOCK + BAG + SOCK + BOOT
“I will put on a regular pair of socks, then a plastic bag, and then thermal socks (before the boot), and then galoshes over that if it’s a shoe or boot that’s not waterproof.” — Mack Julion, a 20-year Chicago letter carrier and local president of the National Association of Letter Carriers union
SOCK + SOCK + BOOT
“I wear two pairs of socks, including big wool socks, and then half way through my route I’ll change into new warm socks and finish out.” — Dominique White, a 23-year Chicago letter carrier
BEN GAY + PANTY HOSE + HAND WARMER + SOCKS + BOOTS
“I put Bengay on my toes, then put on pantyhose or tights as my base layer. Next, I use those packets of hand warmers (in the boot), and then double up on socks. I buy boots that are bigger because I need to put a lot of stuff in there.” — Heather Charles, longtime Chicago photographer
ADVICE FROM THE OUTDOOR FOOTWEAR EXPERT
Mike Daurio, an REI manager, approves of most of the above methods, but worries about the breathability of the plastic bag. He also warns against stuffing your boot so full of stuff that you can’t move your toes, “because that could restrict blood flow. You should still be able to wiggle your toes.”
“I would recommend a thick wool (never cotton) sock in an insulated waterproof winter boot at half size bigger than normal. Make sure you try on your boot at the store with the sock on.”
Best ways to keep your hands warm?
LATEX OR NITRILE GLOVES + WINTER GLOVES
This method is favored by many mail carriers and photographers who claim it retains heat.
“I sometimes put on latex gloves under my outer gloves with one of those hand warmers stuck in between them.” — Photographer Heather Charles
“For shooting (pictures) in sub zero I always wear nitrile gloves, so I can pull the thick gloves off to shoot, but then I put them back in my gloves quickly. (Sweat could be an issue for some), but I don’t have super sweaty hands and your body shouldn’t be sweating that much in these temps.” — Photographer Peter Tsai
THIN WOOL GLOVES + WATER/WINDPROOF GLOVES
Daurio favors wool instead of latex or nitrile to avoid sweat.
“Wool is a great insulating liner. If you can imagine sheep standing on a side of a mountain getting rained on, you see they still manage to keep warm. But a standard wool glove is not usually going to be wind and waterproof, so having a shell that is water and wind proof would be important for the next layer.” — REI manager Mike Daurio
GLOVES + MITTENS
“I did a column about the warmest gloves you could buy. But none of them beat this easy method: Take a pair of conventional leather or dress gloves — but you can use any decent glove — and put mittens on top. On regular cold days, I use fleece mittens. But when things get bad, I use big ragg mittens ...The mittens cut the wind and add a huge insulated layer, again with more air.” — Barbara Brotman, longtime outdoors writer for Chicago Tribune
GLOVES, MITTENS, AND GLOMMETS/GLITTENS
So far, we’ve heard numerous suggestions on how to keep your hands warm with layers. But if you have only one option, what’s the best? Daurio says it depends on the conditions.
“Mittens are the warmest because your fingers can cuddle together, allowing them to share warmth.”
“If you have a job that requires your fingers to have temporary dexterity, a glommet (with a retractable mitten top) may be best.”
“Anytime you put material between the fingers, you lose that shared warmth and allow exposure to cold air. But we have some heated gloves and mountaineering gloves that are the top end and very effective. A glove that has a good liner (or is used in combination with a liner) is usually the best way to keep your hands warm.”
Best ways to keep your face warm?
GOGGLES + WINDPROOF BALACLAVA
“I recommend a windproof balaclava. … That will help protect your face when you are walking into a head wind. You can layer it with a stocking cap, or helmet and ski goggles if you're doing something like walking or biking to work.” — Mike Daurio of REI
“If I have any exposed skin in this weather, I will cover that in Vaseline to keep it protected.” — Mack Julion, mail carrier
Other warming tips
“Put baked potatoes in your pockets.” — Former Chicago Tribune health reporter Julie Deardorff
HAND WARMER + WARM BOTTLE OF WATER
“I use medical tape to actually tape a hand warmer to the back of my neck right where the shower would hit you. That is my way of tricking my brain into thinking I am a little bit warmer than I actually am. Also, keep a warm bottle of water sealed up really tight in an inner pocket of your jacket to radiate heat and keep warm while waiting for the train.” — Mike Daurio of REI
Take the advice of an avid runner, even here in Chicago I run all winter, Vaseline is the best for exposed skin on your face. And ir doesn’t drip in your eyes😉— Kate bradley (@Chef_Kate) January 29, 2019
Vaseline, Aquaphor or CeraVe Healing Ointment would be better options to protect your face.https://t.co/3huXdtw4mp— J U L E S (@DrJulienArbor) January 29, 2019
REPORTER’S NOTE: On Tuesday, I tried a few of these methods when I ventured into the cold.
On one hand, I wore a latex glove under a winter glove. On the other, I wore a wool glove under a winter glove. The hand with the latex glove under a winter glove felt a little warmer. But my best results were when I put a latex glove under a big thick mitten — pure bliss.
On one foot, I wore a plastic bag between my sock and boot. On the other I wore the bag between two socks. The bag between two socks foot was warmer and sweatier -- but not unpleasantly so.
I also covered one side of my face in lip balm (I didn’t have vaseline). When I returned, that side did feel less chapped than the unprotected side.
More about our questioner
James Pruitt is a Chicagoan who who originally got interested in this issue because of his concern for Chicago’s homeless in the winter.
“I always try to give money to homeless people on the street but I can't imagine what it would be like to not get access to a shelter because it is full, or religious, or something like that,” he wrote to Curious City. “But somehow many people seem to do it every year, which made me curious, how does one go about it?”
Curious City took on the topic of how Chicago’s homeless navigate the winter in a story by Odette Yousef in 2017. Given the extreme cold expected in the Chicago area, we decided to expand the question to the best ways to keep warm outside.
Monica Eng is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her at @monicaeng or write to her at email@example.com