You must’ve seen this one coming. Not winter, but this post that’s going to include crap about Denmark again. Apologies in advance, but I’m playing out the string on them fancy Danes once more. Let’s see if we upper Midwestern and Canadian types can learn something useful, like how to survive a cold and dark winter.
A few years back when this blog was still in its infancy and all I could muster was mundane “list posts”, I ginned up a spot on winter survival hacks. Give it a read – it’s a quick one – and then come back. You’ll find yourself well-equipped with all the things you already knew beforehand.
You can call me “Cap’n Obvious”, but my intent is to get us grounded on how miserable a long, cold winter can be:
- Winter is cold. That means it’s uncomfortable. You have to put on several layers to avoid shivering, at least until your car warms up.
- Winter is dangerous. Icy roads and sidewalks injure people, wreck cars, and keep us indoors.
- Winter is dark. For many of us, the darkness brings on Seasonal Affective Disorder. A very real condition that even Vitamin D supplements can’t solve.
- Winter makes us sick. Got kids? Then you got germs. Viruses. You name it, you’ll get it. Bring on the Vick’s Vaporub and humidifiers.
- You get movies like Frozen.
How to Survive a Cold and Dark Winter if You Can’t Move Somewhere Pleasant
Ignore that last part in italics. It’s a knee-jerk reaction. Without any training or research on the matter, I have a few tricks up my sleeve. Tricks designed to help this fledgling author “grind it out” from November through April-ish.
- A fireplace is a must. If you don’t have a fireplace, get a jackhammer and a pile of bricks and build one. Or do what we did and buy (or rent) a house with one already installed. The best kind for sheer ambience are wood-burning, but the best kind for your lungs and convenience are gas-burning inserts.
- Take naps and drink coffee. I think it’s a Norwegian thing, but I’m not positive. No, that’s right, the Norwegians are down for coffee and cigarettes. We’re not here to get lung cancer, so just stick with caffeine and extra sleep. Just not in that order.
- Embrace the holiday season. That knocks two months off this raw, snowy deal. Then you’re only left with having to slog through the worst four months of winter, from January through April.
- Pick up a winter sport, like, say, downhill skiing! Or if you’re more frugal-minded, try winter walks and challenge yourself with well-lit, reflector-coated winter runs and bike rides.
- Fill up your weekends with social events. Have friends over for game night and a casual dinner.
See? I’m a gottdam expert on this stuff. All it takes is a decades-long life of living in the wilderness, above the 50th parallel. You figure it all out on your own eventually. But then, March rolls around. And then April snow showers that bring us May blizzards.
And I realize once more that I don’t know sh*t about how to survive winter. First-world problem alert! Time to call on the experts.
Hygge: The Danish Tonic for Winter Survival
We’re going to dig a bit deeper into “hygge”. I touched on hygge (pronounced “hoo-guh”) briefly in a post from March 2017, as a possible antidote to the many, increasing societal woes here in the States. From Wikipedia:
Hygge is a Danish and Norwegian word for a mood of coziness and comfortable conviviality with feelings of wellness and contentment. As a cultural category with its sets of associated practices hygge has more or less the same meanings in Danish and Norwegian, but the notion is more central in Denmark than Norway.
Want to take on the hygge experiment with Cubert this winter? Here’s what you’ll need:
- A sh*tload of candles. That’s right. Burn that wax, baby. You’ll need 13 lbs. of candle per person this winter season. Yankee Candle affiliates are scratching their chins right about now…
- A fireplace. Score! I had that one figured out already. Granted, I use our fireplace to curl up in a ball and study warmer places to live on the iPad. So I still have my work cut out.
- Live in the moment, and enjoy the company of friends and family. This one is tricky for us “Living the American Dream” types, who don’t know when to quit. Always scheming and plotting the next big purchase, vacation, or money-making scheme.
- Eat a sh*tload of cakes and chocolate. Well. I guess it’s only for six months out of the year, so what can it hurt?
- Follow a sane work-life balance. Leave work by 5:30, don’t login again until 8:30 the next day. And not on weekends. Oh, and get your sleep! The average Dane hits the sack before 10PM. Just like Carl.
There’s certainly more, but I like the prime number 5 when it comes to mundane list posts. Sue me. The bonus material is this: Share in the work. Prepare meals together. Create a cozy nook in your living space, somewhere you can read in comfort with your cup of coffee or spiked hot chocolate. You feelin’ me? Good. I love a little hot chocolate with my peppermint schnapps, jawohl!
Creating a home that’s hygge-rific isn’t all that challenging. It boils down to comfort and creating spaces that aren’t dominated by electronics and clutter. Go with muted earth-tones. Buy a bean bag if that’s comfortable to you. If you don’t have a fireplace, create a cluster of candles.
I’m no Martha Stewart, but I can home-make with the best of ’em, by golly. And check this out: You can still be a practicing minimalist, so long as you hang onto the throw pillows, blankets, candles, books, magazines, coffee mugs, fondue pots, board games, etc. etc.
There is a Catch
But of course. Nothing comes without a hitch, not even cozy ol’ hygge. In my quest to find an antidote for Minnesota winters, I learned about hyggelitical pitfalls. For one, the Danes love their little cliques*. Try to break into the “circle of trust” to enjoy a group of Danish friends’ warm hearth in the middle of February, and join them in a rollicking game of charades? Good luck with that.
*A must read article that’s short and sweet. The comments are even shorter and sweeter still. Gotta give it to the brits for their flair with biting sarcasm.
This isn’t anything new to me living here in the states. Minnesotans have (perhaps) an unfair reputation for some home-grown cliquishness. Ask any transplant, especially someone from Wisconsin.
As a transplant myself, I’ve found it tough to crack these friendly viking circles. That’s part of the reason why our own circle of pals and misfits is heavily foreign-born from sources including India, Holland, Russia, Bulgaria, Sweden, etc. Even our alley neighbor with whom I’ll sometimes catch a game at the bar with is a Boston native.
At any rate, the Danes will shut you out in their own backyard. So if you find yourself hanging out in the suburbs of Copenhagen, expecting instant hot chocolate-to-go with instant Danish friends, be prepared for a reality check. (Or bring your friends with you.) The irony of this facet of hygge is that Denmark is always among the happiest of nations, yet the unhappiest place to live for unsuspecting expats. Jerks.
Oh, and the Danes apparently consume double the sugar per capita vs. their European counterparts. But please: Take that with a grain of salt. If you need sugar to survive winter, who are we to judge??
So, if you can get over the Danish tendency to gravitate to a potentially boring normality and sameness, with a heavy dose of sugar and candles, then maybe hygge can yet prove useful. My takeaway is to apply the good parts of hygge and leave the rest to the introverted, borderline xenophobic, middle-minded Danes. Another cookie, mate?
My Action Plan
Since winter started with a sudden, unexpected blizzard on October 14 (see the featured image), I don’t have much time to plot and scheme. Gotta crack this nut FAST, before the wolves start howling and the ice tracks form on the sidewalks.
For all the hype around hygge, I still find some of its core ideas and notions valuable. Opening up our house to friends a bit more (what Blue Zones would refer to as “moais”)? Easy. Plus, it prompts us to keep the house a little cleaner. Win-win.
Candles and candle-lit meals? I can dig that. We had put most of our candles away after the twins were born. At 5, they’re ready to learn about candle safety. And how not to pour hot wax on the iPad.
What else makes hygge work? It’s gotta be the balanced lifestyle. AKA “das short commute”. Or, being done with work at a decent time. And getting to bed at a decent time. Oh yeah – leaving your work at the office. Check all those boxes, and you’ll avoid burning your candles at both ends.
Extending hygge to the outdoors can only serve to bolster my odds of winter survival. I’m thinking a few weekends of hitting the slopes with the family would be good for us. The lift tickets might be expensive, but I reckon affordable for two or three outings tops. We may try snowshoeing or even winter biking. Heck, building a snowman can be rewarding. Right, Elsa?
Some More Advice for Winter Survival
1.) 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.
2.) 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
3.) 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.
4.) 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.
5.) Beef up your 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.
6.) Install 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.) The HRV connects to your furnace to use the furnace fan, exchanging the air in your house for 20 minutes every hour. This helps remove those nasty airborne byproducts of candle burning common in hygge homes…
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 $2,000) 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.)
7.) Install a fireplace (gas or high efficiency electric)
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. You can just 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.
8.) 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.
9.) Get out of Dodge for a week or two
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.
10.) Move permanently!
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.
Winter doesn’t have to completely suck
- 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
How to Survive a Cold and Dark Winter
Whether you do the hygge shuffle, or just grin and bear it, winter can offer a few surprising benefits. For one, you learn to appreciate every other part of the year that much more. Many Minnesotans despise air conditioning in summertime, because there aren’t as many days on the calendar to enjoy air above 40 degrees F.
Winter keeps us focused. If all we did was run around and play all the time, frolicking in fields of daisies (who does that?!), sh*t wouldn’t get done. The cold weather gets us to buckle down on our studies, our day jobs, and maybe some projects around the house too. I dunno guys, I’m reaching here. Throw some more winter benefits at me in the comments, please?!?!?
And let’s face it. I’m not about to give up my dream of spending three months of core winter in sunny AZ or NV when the kids take off to college. Hell no. Sunshine and warmth cannot be denied, even on purpose and struggle grounds.