Keeping with the theme of “hack” lists, this week’s post is all about the best ways to get through the next three to five months without going bonkers. The Cubert family lives in Minnesota, where winter can creep in as early as October, and linger as late as early May. That’s the extreme case, and it happened a few years back in the winter of 2013-2014. (Contrast that with this November, which has been 10 degrees above average and everyone’s basking in upper 50s warmth.)
The point is, winter can be a reasonably short embrace, highlighted by the holidays, or, it can have a polar-vortex-like grip on half of the calendar year. Regardless the variety, how do we survive five-plus months of cold, snow, and reduced daylight?
Here’s my Top 10 (and I would love to hear from you about your survival tactics!)
- Take naps. Nothing beats a nice siesta, when you can swing it. All you need is maybe 30 to 45 minutes at most, in the early afternoon. Of course, your naps will be limited to weekends and vacations while you’re working towards early retirement. Our twin toddlers still take daily naps and we use that precious time to recharge our own batteries.
- Have an afternoon coffee. Something I noticed when I traveled above the Arctic Circle in Norway years ago: They love their coffee. Must be an adaptation for living where the sun doesn’t shine much during the winter months. Caffeine is a helpful boost to pick up your energy level in the middle of day, especially in the middle of the winter. Don’t go overboard though – or you’ll find it harder to get a good night’s sleep. I put a hard-stop at
- Get outside and RUN. I never would have thought I’d be THAT GUY, out running in single digit temps. It turns out that running in winter works just as well as running any other time of year. You just need to dress for it, and remember to hydrate when you’re done, as the air is super dry in winter. The benefits are obvious in terms of just plain getting your exercise, but the main survival hack here is the runner’s high that lingers when you’re done. That feeling you get after a run is literally dope for the brain. Yes, you can run on ice and snow, even with skimpy, minimalist track shoes. Just avoid running on those days after a freezing rain when ice is horrendous, or after a foot or more of snow falls. And be visible to cars with reflective clothing, and stay on the sidewalk if possible.
- Take up winter cycling. You don’t need one of those funky-looking fat tire bikes. Just consider what conditions you plan to ride in. If it’s mostly a wet and gray winter, you can keep your skinny road slicks on. If there’s going to be a few inches of snow, get some wider 3 inch knobby tires. It’s a similar concept to getting snow tires for your car. Riding in the winter is flat out FUN. Again, dress for the conditions – there will be wind chill generated from riding alone. Also be sure to keep your chain cleaned and dry – packed snow will rust out a chain really quick. Personally, I don’t cycle-commute to work in the winter months, but I do like to run errands on my bike to the grocery store, library, hardware store, etc.
- Beef up your home’s insulation. This isn’t about lowering your heating bill, although that’s certainly a nice bonus. This is about keeping moisture escaping from your house, and avoiding a dry environment for viruses to thrive in. The key is it’s all about balance. Too much moisture without ventilation leads to mold. We’ll cover this in Hack #6. The ideal winter humidity level is about 40%. This is a healthy level that’s not too dry for the skin, breathing, etc.
Be ready to invest some coin if you have an older home. You may need to air seal and re-insulate your attic, or punch holes in the exterior walls to add loose-fill sidewall insulation (effectively, covering your house with a blanket.) Alternatively (and much more cheaply), you can strategically deploy humidifiers. You just need to be sure to keep the units clean, and monitor window panes for excess moisture. They should be dry to the touch, or a very light film at most.
Note that even with humidifiers, you won’t be getting any fresh air ventilation, unless you keep a window cracked open. If you’re cracking a window in winter, you’re pulling in dry air, which defeats the purpose of the humidifier. And of course, your heating bill will be that much bigger. Also, I don’t advise using humidifiers that are attached to your furnace. All you’re doing then is introducing moisture into your duct-work, which creates conditions for mold growth.
- Consider adding a Heat-Recovery Ventilation (HRV) system. If you go the route of adding insulation in Hack #5, you may need to add a fancy “HRV” to your house. It’s nothing more than an air-exchanger that uses the stale, warm air exhausted from your house to warm-up the cold, fresh air coming in. You get two holes punched in your house as a result (in and out vents) and the appliance connects to your furnace, exchanging the air in your house for 20 minutes every hour.
What a difference this thing makes in late fall/winter/spring: imagine breathing fresh, outdoor air while in the cozy warmth of indoors. The health benefits (real or perceived) are impressive. We’ve noticed fewer instances of cold bugs since putting in our unit last year. Pretty limited data to be sure, but breathing fresh air even while inside is nice.
Now, the real reason we had an HRV installed (for, gulp, over 2 g’s) is because the side-wall insulation we had done the summer before did an unexpectedly good job of trapping in heat and moisture. Our windows were a condensation mess in November. Enter the HRV – which removes the excess humidity and replaces it efficiently (using heat recovery) with fresh, dry air.
The moral of the story: If you think you’re going to save a lot with insulation, you will, but you better factor-in the potential cost of moisture remediation (e.g., an HRV.) The same unexpected cost was true with our drain tile – which solved a wet basement (the plan), but introduced radon, and required radon mitigation (not in the plan.)
- Have a fireplace and use it (ideally, a gas-lit one.) One of the criteria I set for buying our house was that it had to have a fireplace. I’m glad I stuck to that. However, over time, that thing became as much a nuisance as an asset. The cold drafts made the room chilly when the firebox was not in use. And when we did use it, we had to light it with care to ensure proper drafting, since our house has negative pressure from the radon mitigation system. Sigh. In short, the fireplace was a pain in the ass.
One of the best upgrades we made to the house was to put in a gas fireplace insert. This solved couple of things: it sealed up the old flu and prevented those cold air drafts in winter, and, it probably saved our lungs from inhaling smoke and carbon monoxide when we did try to have fires. Finally, there is the convenience factor of hitting a button and having an instant fire, and then being able to turn it off when you leave the room.
Having a nice, warm fire during the winter months simply warms the soul. In a pinch, it can warm your house too, if your furnace fails. It also serves to cool down other rooms of the house when in use, making it easier to get to sleep at night. If you don’t have a fireplace and space is limited, consider one of the newer, heat-generating electric fireplaces. Just be sure to do your diligence to find one that won’t blow up your electric bill.
- Invite friends. A great way to pass a cold winter’s night is to have friends over to enjoy that fireplace with you. Whether it’s a Wii tournament or card games, engaging with and spending time with your friends is just plain fun. Plus, it’s a great way to get the house cleaned in short order.
- Get out of Dodge. We travel every February to escape out of our winter reality. We’re fortunate that our parents are snowbirds, so we can enjoy spending time with them, and limit our expenses principally to airfare. This year, our family of four will fly round trip using credit card bonus miles.*
The main benefit of warm weather travel in the middle of winter is that it gives you something to look forward to. When it’s 10 below in January and the car won’t start, or it’s too inhospitable to even go for a run, you start thinking about that trip in February, and mentally begin packing your bags.
*There will be a future post outlining how I do this, but there’s a ton of info out there already. If you’re careful to pay your credit card balances in full each month, take advantage of the many sign up bonuses out there. You can save huge money on travel, year over year.
- Move! If all else fails, get the heck out of Dodge for good (or, become a snowbird.) I admit I’ve thought a lot about this option in recent years, especially since the polar vortex struck a few years back (‘course now we have El-Nino and everyone’s wearing shorts in November…) At any rate, there seems to be a consensus among many of my friends and acquaintances that the older you get, the more winter starts to really drag on you. Being in my mid-40s, I’m already analyzing snowbird options for further down the road.
The key is to make the best of the situation, and embrace winter for as much of it as you can. If steps 1-9 aren’t doing it for you, then it’s certainly worth considering whether you’d be happier and healthier moving somewhere warmer.
For all of its negatives, wintertime does offer some very nice aspects too:
- It’s a great setting for the holidays, especially if you get snow on Christmas
- It’s fun to play in the snow with your kids and capture those memories of making snow angels, snowmen, and having snowball fights
- Skiing, skating and other sports are best in winter, outdoors (for skiing, it’s kind of a “must”)
- It gives you an excuse to make chili and warm booze drinks
- You could be in a bowling league and not miss being outdoors
- It makes you appreciate the warm weather months
It’s winter. Might as well make the best of it, and enjoy it!