Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
I grew up in the Northeast, went to college in the Northeast (with a brief stint in chilly Scandinavia), and now I live in New York, where a light dusting of snow quickly becomes a sludgy, dirty mess — but that’s a mess my life has prepared me for.
When it snows (or sleets, or freezing rains, or hails), I just pull on my boots over some wool socks, add a sweater, parka, beanie, and a big scarf and I’m ready for anything. These are items of clothing I’ve been wearing since before I could even dress myself; it’s not a thought process at this point, it’s muscle memory.
In college, I watched friends from all over endure their first winter in the Northeast. I’ve never seen a group of people more confused about what to wear. Some were woefully underprepared, lacking warm jackets, waterproof boots, or winter accessories of any kind. Others went full throttle in the other direction the moment the temp dipped below 40, decked out in subzero parkas and balaclavas for the season’s first snow.
If you’re approaching a cold climate for the first time, don’t stress out about your closet full of shorts and T-shirts. But don’t buy way more than you need, either. Instead, consult our checklist of everything you should have on hand to face the cold months ahead. It will make clear what’s non-negotiable, what’s optional, and what’s just icing on the cake.
A Weather-Appropriate Coat That Covers Your Butt
If there’s one place on this list to splurge, it’s on a coat. The “covers your butt” part is important; those cropped puffers might be cute, but they aren’t actually going to keep you that warm. What you really need is a parka that comes at least to your mid-thigh (or lower), and preferably one with features that make it multi-use, like zip-in liners, zip-off hoods, or optional fur (so you can take it off in the rain or snow). Opting for waterproof rather than water repellant is a good idea, so you can wear the coat in snow or rain. Canada Goose is known for making the warmest coats in the world, and the brand delivers on that promise. But if you don’t want to drop a grand, you’ll still be plenty warm in a parka from an outdoors label like The North Face (which offers lifetime guarantees at a third of the price).
I can’t stress this enough. You need to buy waterproof boots. (Or at the very least, waterproof your boots). If you plan on doing lots of tromping around in deep snow, go for something designed to keep it out. I like L.L. Bean’s classic duck boots — they work, they last, and they’re not even that pricey. If you just need something to get you through city streets in a little wet snow, Doc Martens will do you just fine, and they don’t make you look super geared up (i.e. you won’t have to change into normal shoes when you get to your destination). Go for a fur-lined version for extra warmth, and spring for the ultra-protector too, which adds waterproofing.
I mean, duh, you already know about sweaters, but it’s the shopping method you should pay attention to. Find at least two cozy ones in colors that go with most of what’s in your closet (for me, that means neutrals and blacks) and you should be set for your first few months; by the end of the season, you’ll most likely have accumulated a few more fun ones. Since you’re buying two now, opt for one oversize or chunky-knit sweater and one thin enough to layer under some of your lighter jackets. (And if you’re thinking cashmere, check out our price guide and shopping tips.)
Buying a pair of pants (or two or three or four) is obviously a good idea, but there’s no need to retire all of your shorts, skirts, and dresses until summer if you add a few pairs of super warm tights into the rotation. In our lengthy product test of black tights, Wolford’s super opaque tights came out on top; H&M has a fleece-lined version that’s good for those extra-chilly days.
Even if you’re not a hat person, buy a beanie. There are days when you’ll really need it, and covering your head with an extra layer under your hood makes a huge difference. While there are plenty of fashion-y hats out there, you don’t need to be a big spender in this department; as our menswear editor has pointed out, the only hat you need to buy costs $10 — and we found a bunch of other options in the same range.
A Warm-Enough Coat You Can Dress Up
In a cold climate, you can totally get away with wearing your warmest parka with anything (even an evening gown) and nobody will bat an eyelash, so this one is optional. But there will be times when you don’t want to. For those days, get yourself a warm, non-parka coat that can work with office clothes, jeans, or a more formal ensemble. This can really be any style, from a classic wool coat (look for Thinsulate or another warm lining, or something big enough to layer sweaters underneath) to something furry, as long as it’s versatile.
On the days you need the waterproof boots, add wool socks. These will keep your feet warm (especially if you’ve opted for rubber-only rain boots; rubber conducts cold) and dry quickly, with the added benefit of feeling super cozy. I grew up wearing Smartwool and I have to stay I’m still pretty loyal to the brand. If you want something more fancy, check out Japanese brand Anonymous Ism.
A Big Scarf
Don’t underestimate the power of a big scarf. You can wrap that thing around your face in cold wind, wear it flat under your coat like an extra layer on your front side, or even use it like a blanket on a plane, train, or your freezing office. Adding a big scarf on top of a lighter jacket can also make it substantially warmer. Look for one in a color that will blend with most of your coats: & Other Stories has a ton of options for around $50; if you don’t mind polyester (it’s still soft!,) UO has a bunch for $39.
Gloves or Mittens
Some people prefer mittens to gloves because your fingers can move around in there and keep each other warm; I like gloves because it’s easier to grab things (like a credit card from your wallet) without taking them off. It’s a personal preference thing, so just try some on. A co-worker pointed out that wearing either gloves or mittens is optional especially if you’ve got nice soft pockets in that new parka, but it doesn’t hurt to have these at the ready.
A warning: Those stretchy “magic” gloves they sell at the drugstore are not warm; the wind will whip right through. Go for something in a more tech-y fabric or classic leather (I’m really into Hestra, a heritage brand that makes gloves for men and women in several styles and colors) to keep the wind out, and if you’re always on your smartphone, consider something with touchscreen-friendly fingers.
What You Can Skip
Neck warmers, face masks, tall boots, down or fleece vests, snow pants, flannel PJs, long underwear, cold weather workout clothes, thermal base layers... all these things are nice to have and if you’re down to throw down, go for it. But don’t let anyone tell you that you need them; you don’t. As long as you have a warm coat, waterproof boots, pants or warm tights, a hat, and a scarf, you’ll be fine.
Where to Stock Up
Uniqlo, Frank + Oak, and Everlane all make good quality, inexpensive basics like sweaters, jackets, and other layers at prices low enough to knock a bunch of these things off the list at once. Check out Army/Navy stores and men’s workwear stores for some surprisingly cool brands and good prices on coats, gloves, and hats. And don’t forget about thrift and consignment stores for things like fur or wool coats; you can find some real gems that will keep you warm and cozy.