Surviving winter in Chicago: Polar vortex edition

Millenium park

On New Year’s Day, we took our friends Jeremy and Pedra to Millennium Park in the snow. Photo by Rose Raymond.

By the time I read that Chicago’s 2013-2014 winter has been the city’s coldest in 30 years, I wasn’t surprised. I knew it was bad the day my work was closed because wind chills were threatening -45 degrees. The actual temperature that day? -12. What does that feel like? No matter how bundled up you get, cold seeps through your hands, feet and face almost instantly. On that day, I threw a cup of boiling water into my boyfriend’s yard and watched it vaporize into steam on impact with the frigid air.

Cloud gate

Snow falls on Cloud Gate on New Year’s Day 2014. Photo by Rose Raymond.

As Bob Dylan would say, “You don’t need a weather man to know which way the wind blows.” But in January, I got in the habit of checking the 10-day forecast on anyway, hoping to see respite from the deep freeze on the horizon. Then I lost track of how many days running I saw nothing higher than 29 in the forecast. When things finally started to look good—highs in the 40s!—the forecast reminded everyone that another polar vortex was on the horizon.

Devastating? Yes. A total bummer? Uh-huh. Strength-building? Absolutely.

In 2010, I moved to south Florida with a lifetime of brutal winters under my belt, including many in Chicago and D.C.’s 2010 Snowpocalypse. I got to West Palm Beach in August, and it was December before I needed to wear a long-sleeved shirt outdoors. On Halloween, it was 75 degrees and humid at midnight. In the streets of West Palm Beach, my fellow revelers took full advantage of the warm weather to show some serious skin. If you haven’t seen thongs in the street, you haven’t experienced a south Florida Halloween. But that’s another story.

The balmy winter was nothing short of heavenly, but I was shocked the first day the temperature dropped below 40 degrees—I think it was in January. I was in the habit of going to the gym after work with three of my coworkers. That day, they all said it was too cold to go anywhere. When I got to the gym by myself, I was one of the few exercisers “foolish” enough to venture out in the chilly 37-degree weather.

Over the following 18 months that I stayed in South Florida, I noticed a trend: If the weather was ever-so-slightly unpleasant, people would stay indoors. Once, I was the only person besides the team captain to show up for a kickball practice when it was cloudy and drizzling. Another time, a Friday night bar outing was canceled because of heavy rain.

Had I stayed much longer in Florida, I’m sure I would have joined the ranks of weather pansies dominating the state. But after this winter, I feel invincible. A few weeks ago, I had plans to go out with friends on a Friday night. When I saw that the windchill was -5, I thought to myself, “That’s not so bad,” and my buddies and I wandered around the city, visiting no less than five establishments that night. We walked about a mile total traveling from place to place. I might be out sunbathing when we see 45 degrees.

Presumptuously, I now consider myself something of a cold-weather expert. Here are my tips on surviving a 30-year cold spell in Chicago, or anywhere really:

Go on a spending freeze.

The coldest months of the year are usually January and February—conveniently, right after the holidays, when we’re all broke and burned out on socializing, eating out and celebrating. I decided to restrict my spending from January 21-February 21. I didn’t go out unless I had previous plans to do so, and I avoided buying nonessential items. This was my first ever spending freeze, and it was really hard, but the abysmal weather made it a little easier to stay home and cook or have dinner at friends’ houses instead of going out.


One of our staying-home winter projects was making homemade blueberry scones. iPhone photo by Rose Raymond.

Get out of the house.

I’m fully aware this item directly contradicts the previous. My boyfriend, Travis, and I avoided going out when we didn’t have set plans, but we ventured into the sub-zero many times. Usually it was because we had concert tickets or out-of-town guests, but the act of going out, even in the raw cold, was always a refreshing break from a solid week of nesting.

But if we didn’t have anything going on, we almost always stayed in, and probably would have even if we weren’t trying to save. So my advice would be to buy concert or theater tickets and invite friends to visit well in advance of the crappy weather—you won’t want to go out, but once you do, you’ll be glad you did.

Dr. Dog

We faced frigid temps to see Dr. Dog at the Riviera Theater in Uptown. Amazing show. iPhone photo by Rose Raymond.

Cheese fries

We ended another winter night out at Chicago institution Weiners Circle. The cheese fries are fantastic. iPhone photo by Rose Raymond.

Cans at Maria's

A wall of vintage cans from the wall of Maria’s, one of the places we sojourned during the deep freeze. iPhone photo by Rose Raymond.

Wear snow boots and long underwear.

After one of our early January arctic blasts, the temperature inexplicably rose to 38 degrees, prompting rain and the mountains of piled-up snow around the city to flood the streets. On this day, Travis was nearly the unhappiest I’ve ever seen him—we went to a birthday dinner, and his shoes and socks got soaked through on his way to the party. Luckily, my feet were dry, so I was in a better mood. I cheered him up by reminding him of our upcoming travel and making a list of all the other things we had to look forward to (Outdoor dining! Going to the beach! Ice cream!).

Commuting and going out in inclement weather is brutal, but wearing the right stuff works wonders. My staples this winter? Snow boots, fleece-lined leggings and mittens made from recycled wool sweaters.

Leave town.

At the beginning of January, Travis and I bought plane tickets to California for the last week of February. Knowing we were escaping really helped us get through the dreary subzero days. Travel is expensive, but in my opinion, it’s worth every penny—and you can go on a spending freeze to save up for your trip!

For the past six weeks, as Travis and I traversed the city in the heinous cold, wearing our excessive layers, we reminded each other that we were escaping. That soon, we’d be on a beach in flip-flops and T-shirts.

What are your tips for surviving merciless winters?

Frozen river

The partially frozen waters of the Chicago River make a beautiful design. iPhone photo by Rose Raymond.