Every winter, as I loudly proclaim how much I hate the cold, people inevitably say, “But you’re Canadian!” as though that somehow makes me naturally invulnerable to sub-zero temperatures. While the nature part is not necessarily true, there are some things I learned that helped me deal with growing up in a country that can see below freezing temperatures for 6 months of the year. Seeing as a large number of new teachers in Ulsan are about to weather their first real winter (I’m looking at you, Southern Hemisphere peeps), I thought I’d pass along some of this knowledge to keep those of you unused to cold from becoming hermits for the next few months.
Snow day in Ulsan, Winter 2011
Dressing for the Cold:
One of the most important things you can do to keep yourself comfortable is to learn to dress properly. The key to this is layering. You need three basic layers: a wicking layer (more on that to come), an insulating layer and a protective layer.
First and foremost, you should know that cotton is not your friend in cold weather. Winter sports enthusiasts will know, cotton can actually kill you (or lead to toes being cut off). The problem is, it isn’t a “wicking” fabric. See, when cotton gets wet (melted snow, rain, your own sweat), it stays wet, holding the dampness against your skin. Wet and cold are a bad combination, as it can drop your core body temperature, which can lead to hypothermia (in extreme conditions, this can lead to death). What you need to do is choose an under layer that is either silk or a poly-blend. These will wick, or pull, the sweat and moisture away from your skin, keeping you dry – the key to staying warm. This goes for socks, long-johns, and undershirts. You want this layer to fit you, but not be tight against you. If it’s too tight, it can affect your circulation, which will contribute to your feeling cold, but also, the way you stay warm is by heating little pockets of air and keeping them trapped next to your body – if the clothes are skin-tight, you don’t get the benefit of those air pockets.
Enough snow to cancel schools and hogwans across the city (Winter 2011)
The second layer, insulation, is also important. Wool and fleece are good choices here. Wool is an excellent, natural fabric for keeping you warm. It does the whole wicking thing, but it also will keep you warm even if you fall in the ocean. It’s one of the best insulators out there. Fleece is a pretty good synthetic counterpart. If you’re staying inside, this is as far as you need to go (though you may choose to wear more than one insulating layer).
When you venture outside, you need to add the protective layer. This is to keep out the rain, snow and wind. Just as the level of humidity makes us feel hotter in the summer, the wind can make it feel a lot colder in the winter. This is known as the Wind Chill Factor, and if you’re ever in Canada during winter, you will hear a steady stream of complaint about this weather phenomenon. Check out the Environment Canada website if you want to calculate how much colder the wind makes things.
Down, real or synthetic, makes for a warm jacket with both insulation and an outer protective shell.
Hats, scarves, gloves, mittens and socks should also be woolen or synthetic, never cotton. Mittens keep your hands warmer by keeping your fingers all together where they can share body heat. If you’re participating in snow sports, or are likely to get wet, get mitts or gloves with a nylon shell. Resist the urge to put on multiple layers of socks or gloves. Instead of keeping you warmer, this restricts your circulation, and actually makes you colder. Instead, buy thick, fuzzy socks or mitts, and a pair of warm boots.
Ulsan doesn’t see a lot of snow, rain or ice most winters, though last year saw a few snow-days. This generally means that the roads and trails are dry and safe for biking or running. When exercising in the winter, dress to protect yourself from the wind, more than from the cold. You’ll generate plenty of body heat, but because you’ll be sweating, it’s easy to get a bad chill if the wind gets you. Keep your ears covered, too. For whatever reason, they don’t get much blood flow, even when you’re exercising, and are susceptible to frost bite. Always dress in layers so that you can add or subtract to keep your body temperature more or less consistent.
Playing in the record heavy snowfalls in Gangwondo last winter. If you’re dressed for it, this is fun!
There’s also the indoor option. Ulsan has tons of health clubs scattered around the city, as well as some indoor rock climbing gyms.
And while there’s not much snow down here in the south, there is usually a decent snowfall farther north. Korea currently has about 13 ski resorts, most of which are close to Seoul or in Gangwando (the northeastern province that borders North Korea). The best ski hills are in the Taebaek Mountain area, as they get the most natural snowfall each year. Taehwa tours runs buses to High 1 from Ulsan (see for more details).
Learning to snowboard at High 1 Resort
Hiking is another great way to get out and enjoy the winter. Again, dressing in warm layers is important, but the trails are less crowded than during the peak Autumn colours season. Keep in mind that weather can change suddenly on a mountain, and sunny and warm below doesn’t mean it’s not snowing at the peak.
As tempting as it is to shut yourself up in your cosy apartment, it can be important for your mental health to absorb some vitamin D, so wrap yourself up, and get out there. The colder you get, the better the hot chocolate tastes when you get back inside!
Bundled up and enjoying the sunshine on the slopes.
Public baths are a big part of Korean culture. Families bond over bathing. And while public nudity may be a bit daunting for a Westerner, it’s one of the best ways to warm yourself up in the winter. There’s always the jimjilbang (hot room) option, where you put on shorts and t-shirts and lie around in hot rooms, but soaking in hot tubs or sweating in steam rooms can help you forget winter even exists. (Read this article on how to use the bath house.)
Traditional Korean heating is one of my favourite things in the history of the world. Nowadays, hot water pipes run under the floors to heat each room (except the bathroom – where you spend a good portion of your time naked and wet. Why would you bother heating the bathroom?). In case you haven’t discovered it yet, the control panel for your hot water also turns on your floor heat. Don’t leave it on for long periods, as it doesn’t really stop heating while it’s on, and you can turn your apartment into a sauna. More than once I’ve forgotten to turn my heat off before work and been unable to walk on my floors when I got home… But when you’re home, ondol is wonderful. It feels great to lie on the warm patches and feel the heat soaking into your skin. Just remember to keep your doors and windows shut when the heat is on, or you’ll run up huge gas bills.
Winter doesn’t have to be a huge drag. Take advantage of the opportunities it offers; skiing or snowboarding, basking in the heat of saunas, and drinking limitless hot chocolate.
Wintery sun, as seen from the KTX