The weather app in my mobile indicated that the temperature was FEELS like -35 degrees celcius. My mind was admonishing me to ask that despite a bright sunny day with blue skies why were the tips of my fingers NOT FEELING anything? I hurriedly glanced around to expect that the Bus I was waiting for at the non-sheltered bus stop would somehow magically present itself ahead of its time.
Ask any Torontonian and the first thing they will say is that the weather here is really unpredictable. Today it might be -10 and tomorrow you will have a pleasant 3 degrees celcius. Before I delve into the reason let me share that apart from being very far up north, the weather on the eastern coast of Canada is substantially impacted by the cold Labrador current. The current is notorious for bringing floating icebergs into the paths of ships and is the one held responsible wrecking Titanic.
Canada is really vast with a wide variation of climatic patterns but talking specifically about Toronto, there is a culprit called Polar jetstream. A jetstream is an intersection of two air masses- a warm air mass pushing up north and polar cold mass pushing down south. This jetstream flows from west to east at a stupendous pace of more than 150 km/hr and whenever it crosses to the south of Toronto, the temperatures suddenly plummets. Really harsh winter days are typically when this jetstream is pushed south and a polar vortex covers the region. It brings extremely cold arctic air blasts into the region leading to temperatures below -15 or -20 degree celcius. When coupled with high speed winds like 25-35 km/hour it substantially increases the wind chill. Even if the absolute temperature is -10 degree the wind chill would make you feel like -20 degrees. And that leads us to the second topic.
How to dress and protect yourself
You really need to invest a significant amount of your precious dollars to be ready for the winters. That is initially a bit difficult to comprehend but ask those who have seen a winter here and you would get a consensus. Your outerwear has to be able to protect you both from the sub-zero temperatures as well as the wind chill.
- Jackets/Parka: A good winter jacket will be something that is waterproof (to shield you during icy rains) and padded with really good insulation material. The sought after filling is Down feathers (real feathers from duck or geese). Down is a great insulator because of its fluffiness which creates tiny air pockets to trap air and help you retain heat. The more down feathers (in %) a jacket has, the more expensive it becomes. Because of the extreme wind chill during winters, you need a hood that has a surrounding fur. The fur uses the principles of physics to soften the intensity of cold winds blasting your face and divert it around. At temperatures below -30, it certainly helps your cheeks from a frostbite. Such jackets are typically called Parka jackets and one with at least 60% down and rated to a temperature of -35 or -40 degree celcius should help you outlast the winter. Canada Goose is a premium brand but a Parka from them could easily set you back by a $1000. In case you are a compulsive deal hunter like me and happy to live with other brands, your work is cut out to get that steal deal. Outlets like Winners or Marshalls have a discounted collection but I bought mine from a Niagara falls factory outlet. Apart from a 40% discount, I got an additional 20% when i subscribed to their emails (unbelievable but yes!) and they had plenty of sizes for me. If you are lucky to get a steal deal like me, $200 would suffice.
- Boots: I had a misguided notion that I could manage winters without investing my money in buying a pair. My moment of truth came pretty soon when it snowed and slushed. You really need soles with a good grip when it snows. You also need waterproofing as the slush on the roads quickly gets your shoes wet otherwise. Please check the temperature rating and the presence of a warming cushion/fur in the snow boots that you decide to buy. Expect a setback of $100 if you get yourself a real good deal.
- Gloves: Flimsy gloves that wraps around all your fingers individually increases the heat loss instead of conserving it and the trapped moisture inside further aggravates. For really cold temperatures you need technically sound protection and the thick padded ones are a lot more effective. Established winter wear companies mention the temperature ratings for the gloves and it certainly helps you to decide.
Beyond these appurtenances, you could invest your hard earned money into buying additional utilities of comfort but I managed well without them. Other quick tips would be to dress in multiple layers in accordance with the weather and plan a journey so as to reduce your exposure outside when it is really cold.
If you are new to Toronto/Canada or coming after the fall, you might want to shop during a Black Friday sale (typically in November as the day after Thanksgiving) or the Boxing Day Sale (one day after Christmas i.e. December 26). My experience has been that Boxing Day sales are even better but it is difficult to find stock if you have a fairly common frame.
People drive their vehicles in winter with winter tires on as roads are cleared of the snow efficiently. Public transit modes like subway, buses are all heated and no worries on that as well. Before stepping out just be sure to check out the weather outside as cold days are surprisingly bright with plenty of sunshine.
In you live in Downtown and connected to the Walk, you might be able to skip walking in the snow. The Walk is an underground maze of walkways stringed with multiple shops and connected to a lot of prominent buildings and subway stations in the area. It is more like a large shopping mall interconnected with various passages.
A lot of newcomers tend to rent out a basement due to relatively lower rentals. However, before you decide to rent one, please make sure the kind of heating you would have access to. Though all apartments and condominiums are heated but the basements sometimes are just insulated with foam on the periphery walls without a dedicated heating system in place. Be wary of spending your winters in such a depressing set-up.
Coming back to my Story
Standing at the bus stop, with my fingers quickly loosing their intended evolutionary functions and choosing to become a frosty lump, I decided to take my gloves off and insert my hands into the warm confines of my jacket. My bus was another 10 minutes away and just to give you an indication, at a temperature of -20 and wind speed of 35 km/hour, it takes an average of 5 minutes to get a frostbite. More Canadians die each year in Canada from exposure to extreme cold temperatures than from other natural events. I remember there was a case in January this year where an old lady was accidentally locked out of her old home in Montreal and could not survive the night. No need to be alarmed but the point being that don't be caught outside without the right outerwear.
Reaching back to my home, I made myself a hot cup of tea and spent quite some time reading more on the coldest habitable places on earth (read Omyakon) and how people survive there. I also spent a fair bit of my time searching how comparable my day was to the temperatures at Mt. Everest.