When I say this autumn weather is not that bad and you should enjoy the warm days by being outside you’ll probably roll your eyes. But when I say that we’re possibly gonna have zero degree temperatures in less than a month – yes, already in October – you better start muttering the House Stark words.
But don’t worry: I’m a Finn, and people seem to imagine that I spend the winter in Lapland fighting polar bears for food. Well, I’m not going to comment on if that latter part is true or not, but I can provide you with several little tricks passed down from our polar bear fighting mothers to us easy-living Estonia-going sons.
1. Learn to wear layered clothing
So you went and bought the thickest looking winter jacket made of nothing but the finest goose down and it ended up costing 100€? Now you think you’re prepared for the winter? What did you think you’ll wear under it, just your t-shirt? Wrong!
The key to warm clothing is layered clothing. Air is one of the best insulators and you can trap some of it between several layers of fabric. That way the individual fabrics don’t even have to be that thick. You don’t have to dress up like you’re going on a polar expedition, but you can take a lesson from hikers and mountaineers: you should have at least three layers of clothing. The inner layer (maybe your T-shirt and long johns) provide comfort and keep the skin dry. The mid layer (a woolen sweater perhaps) provides warmth and insulation. The outer, or ”shell”, layer (a sturdy jacket and some thick pants) protects the layers below from wind and water.
With all that on you might find yourself sweating in the mild Estonian wind, but don’t worry, that’s why you have layers on: you can take off or open the buttons of one or several layers. With a little experimentation you’re going to find how many layers and how thick fabrics you need to comfortably adjust to weather changes. And you can be fashionable about it!
2. Cover your head (and other appendages)
I don’t have to talk to you about wearing a scarf, do I? You’ve noticed now by yourself that if you don’t cover your throat in the freezing wind you’ll catch a cold or get a sore throat at least, right? By the way, there are several ways you can tie up a scarf and some of them are way warmer than others, but I’m not going in to that now, google it and experiment on your own. But I know I have to talk about headwear, because I see way too many people without any.
Your head is like a radiator. All those blood vessels coursing around keeping your skin and hair looking healthy. And when you sweat, water evaporates the fastest from your scalp since it points straight up. Nature basically designed your head as a cooling valve, and it doesn’t work very well up here. You can lose up to 45 percent of body heat from an unprotected head. So, please, cover your head and stop complaining about freezing to death. You can do it with a knit cap, a fancy hat or even just a nice and thick shawl over your head, but try to keep the crown of your head and your ears covered. It will mess up your hair, but it will keep you moving as well.
And another thing, in continuation to previous point about layering: get a nice pair of gloves and some thick socks and some thick boots. After your head and neck your toes and fingers are probably the most vulnerable to cold. In the real winter (that we’re not gonna have here, sadly) you want to wear a thin sock underneath your woolen sock inside your woolen covered boots. In the old times people used to stick old newspapers inside their boots for better insulation (if there was any left from whacking polar bears on the head with rolled newspapers). You can also layer gloves: have thin knitted gloves under your thick leather (or woolen) gloves. That’s why the thick gloves don’t have separate fingers: your fingers should be tucked in so tight you can’t use them anyways.
3. Insulate your windows
Notice how windows in Estonia are double-glazed? That’s another example of layering with the cheapest insulator, air. In Finland where we are kind of crazy about low-cost heating nowadays you can even find four to six times glazed patented window systems. But, while you probably cannot install new windows to your flat, you can make sure there isn’t any cold air leaking in through the tiniest gaps between the window and the wall or the window sill.
If you go to the shop you can find weatherstrip sealing tape that has some wedge shape, made of foam or vinyl, that’s supposed to cover that drafty gap in your window. Before buying you might want to check if your window already has these installed, though.
If you’re ready to go the extra mile and you know you’re not gonna open your window once it gets freezing, you can invest in cotton wool lint and stick it into the window gap with a blunt butter knife for example (be careful not to damage your window). Then you can seal it off with insulation tape (again, be careful not to use a too strong adhesive, so it won’t damage your window when you take it off in the summer). Bye-bye cold (and fresh) air!
4. Use curtains when it’s dark
For the short while that I was living in Narva mnt 27 (now I live somewhere way colder), I was shocked to see that long curtains were not a part of complimentary house ware. Like a reverse green house, big open window surfaces are the main way of losing heat when it’s cold and dark. Easy way to fix that is covering the windows with curtains (the thicker the better) that keep the heat away from the cold glass surface. If you’re too poor to go buy curtains (hint: check second hand stores), you might want to improvise: use a rug or a duvet cover as a curtain.
But here’s a caveat: during the day time when there is any sunlight available, you want to have the shades open. With light comes heat that your windows can capture inside, just like a green house.
5. Cover floors and walls with fabrics
An uninsulated floor can account for 10% total heat loss in the house. Carpets are just as functional as curtains. There’s also the psychological effect of feeling especially cold when the soles of your feet are cold and it radiates upwards to the whole body. While you’re at it, get a pair of warm & snugly slippers too.
But it’s not only the floors that radiate coldness, it’s also the walls. Ever wonder why medieval castles had a lot of tapestries? Because the walls behind those tapestries were stone cold rock. Try to decorate the walls with fabrics instead of paper posters. Or better yet, cover your walls with bookshelves. Nothing can help one survive a long winter like a good library.
6. Drink a lot of hot liquids
We, Finns, consume statistically the most coffee in the world. There are everyday cultural reasons for that, but it’s also because it’s much easier to get up in the cold with a cup of hot joe. Drink coffee and/or tea regularly to replenish your inner warmth. Have some warm soup for a snack or a meal. It’s also nice to warm your hands with a hot cup.
And in the winter/Christmas season you should definitely try some Estonian hõõgvein (mulled wine in English and Glühwein in German) or glögg, as we Nordics like to call it. Don’t turn it down if you don’t like the first glass you taste, there are several varieties and different ways to serve it, you might like it more with sweet seasoning or not. There’s also a lot of variety to be experimented with eggnog and other ”hot grogs”, i.e. mixing hard liquors with boiled water.
7. Stay active when it’s cold, keep warm when being passive
Right now it’s still very light outside (yeah, you don’t believe me), but as the weather gets colder also the days get shorter. Soon you might think you only live in the night time. It’s very easy to get depressed about this and stay inside and only go out to drink. That’s not healthy, and I want you to make a promise to me right now that you will make an effort to keep active. Exercise. Do home work. Meet friends (without the intent to get plastered as soon as possible). You can even go jogging in the winter, just dress properly (keep your head and appendices covered but maybe compensate for heat generated through exercise by losing a layer of clothing) and don’t overdo it (take a hot shower after moderate exercise or better yet, go to a sauna).
But another thing is you have to plan how to keep warm when you’re physically too tired to do it yourself. If your room is cold in the evening, consider having a night cap (a knit cap, not a shot of vodka): your head is still radiating body heat when you sleep. Wear long-sleeved pajamas and consider if you should have layered clothing inside also. Think how you can preserve heat: if it’s cold outside, wear your outdoor clothing indoors for some 10-20 minutes before leaving, so you’ve already heated them with your body heat before you go outside and your body needs to work more to generate even more heat.
If you follow all these points you can survive a winter in Lapland, so in Estonia you should be able to stroll through winter like it’s nothing! Then you can focus on enjoying all the winter activities around here, like open ice swimming and whatever else the Estonians think you couldn’t even bare to hear about. Just ask them!
And finally, enjoy the lovely summer… I mean autumn weather that we still have here in Tartu!