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How 4 Countries Survive Winter (And What You Can Learn From Them)

Some countries have learned to thrive in cold temperatures. Here are the winter activities and tricks that help them get through.
How 4 Countries Survive Winter (And What You Can Learn From Them)

With much of the world locked down, cold temperatures seem to have robbed people of their one remaining joy: To be outdoors. Yet some regions have learned to not just survive in it, but to thrive in it, with winter-centric activities, and sometimes, a few thoughtful logistical tricks. Here’s how some of the world’s coldest, most wintery places deal with the hardest season, and what tactics you can apply to your own life.

Woman holding hand up to a lit candle - how people get through winter

In Demark, people get cozy and hyggeligt

While it’s the least chilly place on this list (excluding its colonies in the Faroe Islands and Greenland), winter in Denmark is certainly very dark — the capital, Copenhagen, clocks just seven hours of daylight on the shortest day of the year.

But the Danes have found a way to work with those long, dark nights: by making them feel cozy and comfortable. This concept, which goes by “hygge” (pronounced “hoo-gah”), seeped into the international consciousness in 2016 and became quite a trend, with all sorts of products from blankets to candles being touted as hygge.

Yet for Danish people, hygge is not a trend or a consumer goods movement, but a state of being cozy and comfortable.

“Hygge is about an atmosphere and an experience, rather than about things,” wrote Danish happiness researcher Meik Wiking in The Little Book of Hygge

“It is about being with the people we love. A feeling of home. A feeling that we are safe, that we are shielded from the world and allow ourselves to let our guard down.”

Sure, crafting this hygge mood may involve purchasing things like candles, blankets, and hot cocoa, but the end goal is crafting that safe-and-warm hygge sentiment, with or without those things (and there’s a good chance you can hygge up your home with little to no investment). 

Snow-shoeing - a popular Canadian winter activity

Canadians adopt winter sports — and hearty winter food

A huge country with diverse geography, there isn’t a singular, quintessentially Canadian way to do winter. For example, while winter sports are generally popular, some options may not be accessible depending on where you are: a daytrip to the ski slopes is easy from mountain-ringed Vancouver, but not from Winnipeg, which is surrounded by dead-flat prairie on all sides. Similarly, outdoor skating is a great idea in Ottawa (where eight kilometres of the city’s Rideau Canal is open to skaters), but less so in Toronto, where warmer temperatures mean natural icy surfaces are less common (although there’s no shortage of artificial outdoor rinks). 

Weather differences aside, the common thread across Canada is that winter sports are generally popular, and adaptable. If you don’t live near any mountains, cross-country skiing is an option. Snowmobiling, sledding, and snow-shoeing are also options; then there are the various ice-based options like skating, curling, and hockey. 

“It makes you excited for the snow and cold weather that provide good conditions for those activities,” explains Lesya from Montreal, a city that receives over two metres of snow per year on average. “My experience of winter has done a complete 180 after investing in cross-country skis,” adds Jessica, also from Montreal. 

But if you’re planning to go into more rugged terrain for activities like cross-country skiing, you may want to invest in some extra equipment and brush up on survival skills, says Rejean, also from Montreal.

“Winter is unpredictable and you never know when a one-hour trip could turn into an eight-hour nightmare, he says.

Canadian poutine smothered with gravy and cheese curds - How Canada gets through winter

Of course, the country has tips and tricks less dependent on the presence of snow and ice. The French-speaking province of Quebec excels in hearty, rib-sticking winter-friendly food like poutine (fries topped with cheese curds and gravy) and tourtière, a hunky meat-stuffed pie popular at Christmas, but still appropriate for any below-zero temperature. Outside Quebec, there are Beaver Tails, a sizable piece of flat, fried dough, often topped with Nutella, cinnamon sugar, or other sweets. 

For those who are completely averse to going outdoors at all in the winter, a few Canadian cities have one more trick. Toronto, Montreal, and Edmonton all have some version of an “underground city”: kilometres-long systems of tunnels that connect office buildings, train stations, and shopping malls in each city’s downtown core. This allows workers and visitors to move between buildings and services while spending minimal time outdoors — a solid idea, given that temperatures in all of these cities are known to dip below -25°C (-13°F). 

Senior man smiles as he pushes another senior man on wheelchair in the cold, outside of a cabin

Swedes lean into friluftsliv (“open-air living”)

Get through winter by immersing yourself in friluftsliv (literally “open-air living”). A popular concept in Scandinavian countries (including Sweden), it evokes a lifestyle of enjoying the outdoors and nature. 

Friluftsliv doesn’t necessarily mean diving into winter sports — it refers to simple enjoyment of the outdoors, arguably in a calmer way than strenuous activities like skiing or skating. It can involve what many of us might consider “summer” activities like hiking or kayaking — what comes first in friliuftsliv is spending time outdoors, regardless of the activity. 

This Swedish approach to winter is for everybody. While Canada is a bit more focused on winter sports that require a certain level of fitness, mobility, and special equipment, the friluftsliv approach puts the emphasis on just getting outside. What you do when you’re out there is up to you, so disabled people and nondisabled folk alike can engage with winter through simple immersion in their environment.

Then when you’re done with the outdoors, head inside for fika, a slow, relaxing coffee break. It’s not a winter-specific activity, but given that it centres around coffee and pastries, it’s certainly winter-friendly.  

Warm couple sitting on snow

In Russia, locals invest in thick outerwear

Russians have no shortage of strategies to survive winter in the country’s vast, icy expanses. 

In the popular imagination, drinking copius amounts of vodka seems to be one (inaccurate) understanding of how all locals get through the cold. 

But for a more realistic alternative, look to how Russians dress for winter. There’s some truth to the stereotypical image of Russians clad in fur coats and hats, and fur remains relatively popular in the country. 

And while fur is still a luxury product plagued by ethical concerns, its functionality can still provide useful cues for winter dressing. Rather than layering on piles of lighter clothing made for warmer climates, you’re better off with a powerfully thick outer layer, be it fur, faux-fur, synthetic, or otherwise.

If the coat is solid enough, you can then wear whatever you please underneath without freezing. It can’t hurt to have more than one set of winter clothes, says Emily, a winter pro who grew up in icy Winnipeg, Canada.

Buy at least one super functional but sort of ugly set of gear, and at least one warm enough and incredibly glamorous look, so you don’t have to feel like a schlub all the time. Mine is full-on  Russian winter princess: fur hat, long wool coat, popped collar, drama.” 

If you’re a wardrobe minimalist, you’re better off making a bigger investment in one robust winter coat, rather than saving a little but then shivering your way through winter. The same applies to boots (especially for snowy climes), and other accessories like gloves and scarves. 

Interested in learning Danish, Swedish, or Russian?
Author Headshot
Tim Forster
Tim is a Berlin-based journalist and editor, and quite the all-rounder with experience writing about everything from reality TV to Michelin starred-restaurants to the international satellite industry. He speaks fluent French (helped by nearly a decade living in Montreal), some Spanish, and is making progress in German.
Tim is a Berlin-based journalist and editor, and quite the all-rounder with experience writing about everything from reality TV to Michelin starred-restaurants to the international satellite industry. He speaks fluent French (helped by nearly a decade living in Montreal), some Spanish, and is making progress in German.

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