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Winter survival guide from a tropical islander

March 19, 2017 | Nicole A.

I grew up in Puerto Rico (PR), where the average temperature is about 85 degrees Fahrenheit in “winter” time. Despite not knowing what winter meant in New England, I decided to come to MIT for graduate school. I knew that it would be an adjustment, and a few things caught me by surprise, but if I was able to survive my first winter in Boston, anyone can. Here are some tips I wish I had.

Creating a Winter Wardrobe
As soon as the temperature hit 60 degrees, I was wearing a jacket and boots. I had what I thought was a winter coat, which ended up being an autumn jacket. It was waterproof and with a hoodie, perfect for cold rain and wind, but not warm enough for winter. I needed to get a new wardrobe.

At the time, I wanted to save enough money to move off campus by the end of the year, so I bought the cheapest clothes and boots I could find. Going cheap was not the best idea, since those items only lasted one season. If I could do it all over again, I would go for quality over quantity. There are a lot of good thrift shops around Boston and Cambridge where you can find good quality clothes at affordable prices. But be careful — there are other vintage stores that sell used clothes at high prices. Find one that fits your budget.

I like going to Boomerangs, Buffalo Exchange, The Garment District and Goodwill. Also, there are online thrift shops, including Ebay, where one can find used, good-quality, winter gear. I use my research skills to find the best deals and quality items for my lifestyle. I would recommend starting at www.buymeonce.com, where they feature items with a lifetime guarantee and some of them keep the warranty if you get them second-hand. Finally, I found a nice winter coat and boots that I use every year.

Layering Your Clothes
I used technology to survive my first winter. I had no idea what 40 degrees meant. So I got an app that told me how many layers to wear. I used Weather Travel Fashion (WTF), an app developed to help people prepare for the weather while traveling. I used it every day. There are other apps that, like Snafu—The Weather Wardrobe, that give you a description of the weather and suggest what to wear. Others, like DressCast, even tell you where to buy a few suggested looks.

Technologies aside, I also had to learn the art of layering. I still have not mastered it fully, but the idea is that one can wear a t-shirt, put a jacket or a sweeter over it, and be warm. So I use spaghetti strap shirts, tank tops, t-shirts, and leggings for layering. By the end of the year, I had way too many items of clothing and I was using my luggage for storage. I decluttered by only keeping my favorite and most useful pieces and donated the rest. Now, all my clothes fit in my drawers and closet, making it easier for me to layer for autumn and winter.

To think of new ways to layer my clothes in a fun way I use Stylebook, an app that lets me catalog my clothes into a virtual closet. I love Stylebook because it gives me data! It tells me how many items I own and how much I use them, which helps me know which items are the most useful for me.

Walking in the Cold
If I am walking outside and I see something shiny in the ground, I do not step on it — this is ice, and it is slippery. I know people who have learned that the hard way. Walking outside, I stay warmer if I breathe through the nose. To start getting used to the new season, I try not to use a hat if the temp is above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. That is because the body needs the right cues to prepare for the changing temperatures.

Skin Care
Something that I discovered my first winter is that my skin is very dry. I tried a lot of different lotions. In the end, I found a homemade body butter recipe and 24 hour moisture body lotions that have been working fine for me. If it gets really bad, I add a bit of Vaseline to my hands and lips to prevent them from chapping. Also, I got an air humidifier for my room, which helped me breathe better at night. I used Pinterest a lot to figure out interesting ways to layer my clothes and to find remedies for my dry skin. Long story short, Pinterest turned my kitchen into my second lab and now I use a homemade body butter of equal parts coconut oil, olive oil, cocoa butter, and shea butter.

Vitamin D
The most important lesson of all was to remember to take my vitamin D supplements. Ok, I knew that in winter we get fewer hours of sunlight, but in the tropical paradise that I lived in, that meant only one less hour of sunlight. Here, it is a lot more. I was feeling less energetic, more stressed, and often irritable. As soon as I started taking vitamin D supplements I felt a lot better. Do not wait until you get vitamin D deficiency until you start taking the supplements! It also helps fight seasonal depression.

I was used to running in 90 degrees Fahrenheit. It turns out that running in the cold is very different. I gave up on running. I know other graduate students who adapted to running in the cold. The trick seems to be to keep running during autumn so one can stand running in the winter, and there is a lot of extra clothing and equipment involved.

I switched to warm yoga because I got to be in a warm room for an hour. I also got the Cody app where you can purchase exercise videos and stream them from the app, the website, or download them. There are other workout video subscriptions available and the MIT gym offers group exercise classes at a good price if working out with gym equipment is not your thing.

Boston’s Nightlife in Winter
I was not brave enough to go out at night during my first winter. I was scared of the cold because it feels colder at night. I went out my second winter and I wished I had done it sooner. It turns out that winter and snow can’t stop the clubs from opening and the dance floors are FULL.

Every bar and club that is open during the summer is also open during the winter. The most important lesson I learned that first winter was that every nightclub has a great invention called a coat check. I walk into the club, I give someone my coat, and I get a piece of paper with a number so that I can get my coat back. The coat check service is not expensive and it sometimes relies on tips. I take a cab or an Uber home to minimize the time in the cold. Turns out you can have a night of fun out of the cold.

More than Surviving
My second winter was easier for me because I had the right clothes for it, and I knew the drill with the vitamin D. There were a lot of snowstorms that year. One time the snow prevented the T from operating for a few hours, and a few lab members and I got stuck at MIT. Among the mountains of snow, we walked to a nearby bar and had some of their winter cocktails. They were warm and delicious. It was funny to see people literally skiing into the bar to get their cocktails! So yeah, I can’t believe I am saying this but I enjoy winter.

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