I’ll admit it, when we first learned we would be moving to the coldest capital city in the world, I was a tad bit concerned how to best brave the cold.
I mean, how is one supposed to dress? Can you actually maintain warmth at -40F? (Fun fact: the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales converge at -40 …. and yes, that is pretty cold no matter which letter you use). Does the cold make you breathe differently? (Yes). Does snot freeze when it is that cold? (Also, yes). How about hair? (Yes, including all facial hair like moustaches and eye lids – forget about using mascara in extreme cold).
We are now well into our second winter in UB (and are braving a third one before our time in Mongolia will be up) and we’ve learned a thing or two about staying warm.
In case anyone is preparing to move to the tundra or just curious how we do it, get yourself a warm cup of tea and read on. And be thankful for the fact that it’s probably not -29C/-20F where you are right now (yes, after a really, really cold week last week [-37C/-35F], we are in for a bit of “warmth” this week).
So, what do you really need?
Moving to a very cold climate is not only challenging for all the moving-related reasons but it’s also a bit of a financial investment since you really need a bunch of stuff to literally survive. Sure, you can make your way to an REI store in the U.S. and get overwhelmed by the selection and prices and decide to give up right there, hand over your credit card, and weep when you hear the total price for all your heavy winter gear. Or you can go the more frugal route and still manage to stay warm … with 4 people in our household, 2 of whom who can’t seem to stop growing, I opted for doing research and saving some money along the way.
The secret to staying warm in extreme cold lies in layers – lots and lots of layers. We keep a fleece zip-up jacket in stock for everyone as well as warm long sleeves and camisole tops and short sleeves for underneath.
Also, very handy are down vests for layering – we all have one (check LandsEnd & Columbia for great ones, REI brands are also great and not as expensive as some of their other clothes). In my experience shopping in the U.S. for heavy winter gear Columbia and LandsEnd stores and brands are the way to go offering the best “warmth for the buck.”
Boots: you will need good winter boots (no negotiation here), I recommend at least 2 pairs per person (so that’s multiple shoes when you factor in growing feet). There are a number of top brands to choose from and trust me, spend money on boots because if your feet are cold, you will be miserable all over in about 5 seconds, trust me.
Our kids have used Kamik boots (these types) for the past few years and never once complained about cold feet. Kamik offers a temperature gage and trust me, buy the ones that are rated to -40F/C. You will not be sorry. Kamik also makes cute and functional boots for women and other top brands to consider are Keen, Sorel (I still have my eyes on the nice Joan of Arc ones), and Vasque. Please note that not all boots provide a temperature rating; some only list how much insulation is used – generally, the higher the number, the warmer the boot.
Columbia also has a range of boots but in my experience, they haven’t been as warm as some of the other brands (omniheat ones like these). Of course, there are Ugg boots that are supposed to be warm and wonderful but I haven’t tried them out yet (a bit pricey)….I do own a pair of the Bear Paw brand that is essentially a knock-off Ugg brand and they work well for what I call the “Mom Boots” – you know, the ones you slip in and out of in no time and that are warm enough with the right socks for the 10 minutes you spend outside getting your kids in and out of the school bus. And speaking of fur-lined boots, I absolutely LOVE my local Mongolian-made boots that are lined with sheep fur.
Socks: So you spent some money on good boots but you still need to make sure that your little toes are warm and toasty so invest in good socks. SmartWool socks are a good brand but go with the heavier ones as many of my finer SmartWool socks ended up in holes within a few wears. My husband loves his SmartWool socks but I actually love, love, love the locally made ones using yak and camel wool – they are so nice and toasty and I may have bought a few pairs here or there.
Hats, Gloves, & Scarves: get a few hats, scarves, and gloves for different temperatures. I don’t have any particular ones from the U.S. that I favour but I love, love, love the double layer cashmere hat I bought in Mongolia at a friend’s cashmere factory (more on that and picture of the hat here). Even if it’s -30C and below, I am warm and toasty in that hat. Same goes for my matching pashmina cashmere – love it! For gloves, remember to stock up on some that are insulated and some people also recommend glove liners although we’ve managed to survive without them.
Long Underwear: yes, I know – you foolishly think long underwear looks silly and feels uncomfortable. Let me put it this way, if you are taking a hike in -30C and the wind is blowing while you admire the beautiful steppe, you will quickly change your mind. My kids really love their long johns – especially the thermaskin ones from LandsEnd. And don’t be surprised when your kids start using their long johns as PJs or insist on stripping down when they come home into only wearing long underwear. That’s how our kids roll here – see, easy layering technique comes in handy when it’s time to change for bedtime!
If you’re still not on the long underwear side of things, another fantastic option – at least here in Mongolia – are locally made long leg warmers that go up to your thigh. Like local socks, they are made out of yak and camel wool and they are so warm that on my gym or yoga days, I wear long leg warmers over my yoga pants and slip on my coat and head out the door. As long as I am not walking major distances, this keeps me warm.
Coats: Like boots, you will need to spend some money on a good coat (in addition to a few “in-between cold and crazy cold coats” so you are comfy year-round) – I actually recommend having 2 coats for kids as one will end up dirty and/or wet and you might not have enough time to wash and dry it before it’s needed again. Coat shopping is a biggie and was a big worry of mine – do you spend all of your cash on a Canada Goose coat? (I didn’t and I haven’t tried their coats but I have several friends here who absolutely love theirs and say it’s the best money they ever spent….so if money is not an object or you’re in a rush, by all means, that will keep you warm!).
Adults: I simply love LandsEnd’s winter coats – they come in a number of lengths (I prefer long ones and trust me, you will too when it’s -35C and your shins are starting to freeze) and, most importantly, they come with temperature guidelines (click the “warmer” coats option). I have two long coats from LandsEnd (this is my most recent one I love) and have not been cold (yet). LLBean also has some nice coats and they also have temperature ratings; John has this coat that keeps him warm but it’s not as long mine.
Also, I cannot overstate local products here. When we first arrived, we went on an embassy outing to a Mongolian coat maker and John bought a beautiful winter coat that literally has an entire (or maybe two) sheep’s fur on the inside. Some friends bought ones too and I am honestly not sure why I haven’t done the same yet (note to self…). Anyways, John wears this coat over his suit when he walks to work (don’t worry, he’s also sporting long johns underneath much to the amusement of the kids).
Kids: Coat shopping for kids is tough since coats are pricey and kids grow quickly so you easily need a new coat every year. While I love LandsEnd coats for adults, the warmest options for kid coats only go up to -20F and that’s just not going to cut it in Mongolia (unless you add more layers). A sales rep at REI strongly recommended Columbia brand coats for kids – Alpine Action or interchange models (the latter comes with a built-in fleece layer that you can unzip and wear as a stand-alone jacket) and so far, there haven’t been any complaints from the kids about being cold.
Snow Pants & Skirts: depending on activity levels (sledding, ice skating, hiking) and how much time you plan on spending outdoors, you will appreciate another final layer of clothing. The kids will definitely need a few snow pants (or bibs as they are sometimes called) and you might be more comfy in one as well. I haven’t researched the brands too much – I found some great bargain-priced ones at Burlington Coat Factory (London Fog brand) before moving here and they have been just as good as the more expensive ones from LandsEnd.
And finally – snow skirts! Unless you’re from Alaska you’ve probably never heard of a snow skirt but my Alaskan friends swear by them – one of whom is actually bringing me back one to Mongolia (woohoo). Think of it as a padded and insulated skirt that is easy to put on/off so again another push purchase for those early mornings when you need to get the kids out the door.
If your budget and time is tight, you should fare well with the essential items but if you have some money and shopping energy at your disposal, you might want to consider these items:
- neck gaiters – sometimes a nicer, warmer option than scarves especially when you’re active outside (ice skating, climbing, dog sledding) – also sometimes an easier option with kids as they can’t choke on them. Some are long so you can use them as a scarf and hat combo.
- balaclava – unless you are spending a lot of time outside and you’re very active (bike riding, ice skating, sledding etc), you won’t need this….but one can certainly make a case for wanting one.
- ear warmers – if your hat doesn’t cover your ears you either get a new hat or sport some ear warmers over the hat. I would just recommend getting a better hat.
When preparing for winter conditions with kids, keep in mind that they will continue to grow (no matter how often you tell them to stop!). Also keep in mind that kids will be kids which means they will not only outgrow snow boots when you need them the most but that:
- they will loose and misplace hats, mittens, and pollution masks to no avail, and
- they will continue to play and roll around in the snow and dirt so it’s best to keep two pairs of snow pants/overalls handy. Also, if your kids play like mine, they will quickly tear open the knee part of their snow pants.
When you’re moving to the cold, it’s important to know what kind of cold you’ll experience. If you’re headed to Mongolia, you will be in store for a very dry, very cold climate. How does this affect you? One word – hydration.
Your skin will crack and you will constantly be wanting water so stock up on chapsticks and lots of heavy duty body lotion/cream for everyone. My kids have chapstick in their backpacks and during winter, applying it is part of the morning routine.
Speaking of environmental conditions, the winter in Mongolia is not just terribly cold but it’s also very heavily polluted (you can read more about what I have to say about that here and here) so don’t forget to pack those pollution masks (click on the second link for recommendations).
Finally, if you’re heading to colder climates, be prepared to make your own fun as you’ll be spending lots of time indoors. Pack indoor activities such as puzzles, board games, movies, and arts & craft supplies.
And rely on your excellent community to make life indoors more fun – in the past 1.5 years, I’ve gotten back into work-out mode thanks to motivating friends and I’ve planned and attended countless fun parties (murder mysteries are a must!).
And yes, you can and absolutely should still go out and explore even if it’s -35C. ‘Cause there’s nothing like having that “badass” sense of satisfaction knowing you completed a hike or walk around town in the true cold Mongolian winter.
A few little tips and tricks to close out on how to save money when you’re shopping for winter gear (and please, please, please leave a comment if you have additional insights):
- sign up for emails and alerts from Sierra Trading Post – they have by far some of the best prices for all your outdoor and athletic needs.
- Yes, REI is expensive but the staff there is extremely helpful and knowledgeable. Also, they have a big sale around August and January so sign up for those email alerts.
- Speaking of email alerts, sign up at LandsEnd as well and be ready to shop for best prices between late November (Black Friday deals) and January (end of season sales).
- If you like Columbia brand clothing, look around for a factory or outlet store. We bought two of our heavy winter coats in the heat of Texas summer at an outlet and saved a bunch of money.
- A friend in Vienna recommended 6pm.com for discounted shoe shopping and I’ve been buying shoes there ever since.