Another winter has descended on Chicago — a harsh inevitability that chills our floorboards, freezes our windows, and makes us forget the sun. If this is your first, welcome! It’s really not that bad. These months can be kind of enjoyable, actually, with the right perspective. With the tourists gone, the streets are quiet, and none of your friends from out of town are hitting you up for an escort to the Bean and a couch to sleep on. You’ve got time to see movies, read books, and make art, and you’ve got the space to reflect on seasons past and on the year ahead. There are good times ahead, so long as you are ready to face the elements. Here’s how to prepare.

Sealing cracks near the window helps keep the cold out

Winterize Your Home

In your home, the biggest thing to watch out for is frozen pipes. Close any inside valves leading to outside water spigots and open the spigot to allow any remaining water to drain. Insulate pipes in unheated areas of your home and along exterior walls with pipe sleeves, heat tape, or even newspaper. During severely cold temperatures, let a trickle of cold water run through faucets served by exposed pipes as a last-ditch precaution. Lastly, don’t turn the heat off if you leave town for the holidays. If you lower the thermostat, make sure to keep it above 55° F.

To improve energy efficiency, look for gaps where cold air is getting in. Seal gaps in the trim with caulk and replace the weather stripping below the front door if needed. Buy a window insulation kit and cover your windows to reduce drafts. The plastic isn’t pretty and you’ll miss looking out of your window unobstructed, but the kits are cheap and can make a big difference in your heating bill. You might also consider using a space heater if you’re hanging out in one room — that way you can set the thermostat at a lower temperature so that it’s not heating empty rooms.

If you own your home, the law requires you to keep your walkways shoveled. Don’t skimp by buying a flimsy plastic shovel — you’ll pay for it with hours of futile scraping and frozen tears. Pick up a solid metal shovel and a few bags of ice melt. Your local mail carrier will appreciate it.

A case of "Chicago dibs" for street parking / photo by meryddian / CC BY-ND

Travel Smart

You’re going to have to leave the house eventually, so make sure you have a pair of solid boots and several pairs of warm socks before you need them. Tennis shoes can’t save you. Hopefully you’ve already thought to buy a good winter coat, but don’t forget to protect your neck. A scarf and hat paired with a hoody layered underneath your coat is a good strategy to prevent frost bite. It’s easy to neglect your legs as well — pick up some long underwear to wear underneath your pants and you’ll be staying warm through the worst treks.

If you own a car but not a garage, street parking is about to get medieval. Lawn chairs and ornaments will appear in the road after the first heavy snow — evidence of a dibs warrior laying claim on a spot they hath shoveled. Look upon these plastic reindeer with scorn, but do not move them, lest your door be keyed. Keep a small shovel in your trunk to free up your own spot and to escape it after the plows have passed through. If a street has plenty of parking, it might be a trap. Check for signage that indicates parking bans during the snowy months. The city has no shortage of tow trucks and loves to collect cars from these roads.

Train commuters are free from much of the hassle that drivers experience, as the CTA has a number of tricks up its sleeve to keep things moving through the entire winter. Railcars have sleet scrapers to clear the electrified rail and plow blade attachments that clear the way of snow. Buses, of course, are subject to the same road conditions as anyone on the road, but they’ve got the torque to make it through most snowfall and their routes are a priority for the city’s plows.

Stay both warm during winter and active with an indoor pool

Watch Your Health

The flu makes its way around the city fast, so try to do everything your mom told you to do to keep your immune system strong. Eat your veggies, sleep enough, etc. But you are a Chicagoan, after all, so when you eat take-out for a week, stay out until the bar closes, and wake up a wreck, there’s Emergen-C. Mental health is also important, making boredom your seasonal enemy. Start a creative project or two, invite a friend out for hot cider, and write letters to your relatives to fend off seasonal depression. On those rare occasions when the sun is shining, bundle up and go soak up some Vitamin D.

Staying active can be a challenge, especially for those of us who abhor the gym, but you don’t have to pump iron in a gym to stay in shape. Find an indoor pool, climbing wall, or recreational activity that doesn’t feel like a workout. The city has several skating rinks and no shortage of free events to tear you from the hypnotic spell of Netflix.

Remember the Vulnerable

As tough as winter is on the financially stable Chicagoan, it’s a lot tougher on the poor and homeless. Donate your extra coats and warm clothes to the Salvation Army, Button & Zipper, or a local church. The city also has warming centers that offer a safe refuge during extreme temperatures. Call 311 to locate one near you, request a well-being check for someone who might be suffering from the cold, or report inadequate heat in a residential building.


“50 Ways to Winterize Your Home.” [Productivity501]

“City Warming Centers.” [City of Chicago]

“CTA is prepared to handle a long, cold winter ... we're just not.” [RedEye]

“Our Official Guide To Surviving Winter In Chicago.” [Chicagoist]