Surviving Ithaca Winters

The Weather

Ithaca winters are typical of those elsewhere in the northeastern United States—in general, extremely cold! When the strong winds of Ithaca combine with low temperatures it becomes harder to keep warm. For example, if the temperature is 20°F (-7°C) but the wind is blowing at a speed of 35 mph (56 kph), then the wind-chill temperature is -20°F (-29°C). The snow also makes winter uncomfortable. Ithaca can get as much as 125 inches (316 cm) in one winter. There are usually one or two days each winter when brisk winds combine with very low temperatures to produce potentially dangerous conditions.

  • Make a habit of listening to weather forecasts on TV or on the radio so that you will be able to dress appropriately each morning.
  • On days that are bitter cold, limit the length of time that you are exposed to the cold. When you are out in very cold temperatures BE AWARE OF THE POTENTIAL FOR FROSTBITE which is an injury to the body caused by freezing. Most often, frostbite affects the nose, ears, cheeks, chin, fingers, or toes, and can permanently damage the body. See Frostbite Symptoms to learn more about the signs of frostbite and how to treat it.

The Terrain

You will be doing a lot of walking while at Cornell. The winter snow and ice, combined with the hilly terrain make it very difficult to walk, so a good pair of boots is essential.

How to Keep Warm

  • Layering is warmth: Wear many layers of loose clothing, as this ensures that there are pockets of air between the clothing layers that insulate your body from the cold. For the upper body, a long sleeved shirt worn over an undershirt and topped with a sweater and coat is best. For the lower body, a pair of long underwear underneath a pair of pants will keep you warm. Underwear made from silk is very comfortable, and polypropylene is good for outdoor sports, although both of these materials tend to be expensive. Pants need to be loose-fitting—remember that the idea is to keep warm air close to your body. Tight fitting pants and jeans do not help to keep you warm.
  • Keep your head covered: Wearing a hat is very important for keeping warm. A wool hat is a necessity; if you really feel the cold buy a sheepskin hat—this will give you full protection against the icy winds that blow across campus. Do at least wear a pair of earmuffs to protect your ears.
  • Close “gaps”: neck and wrist openings are potential sites for heat loss. Wearing a scarf around your neck and long gloves or mittens can help you close these gaps.
  • Ventilate to cut down on perspiration: Because you will be exerting a lot of energy walking all over campus, you are likely to perspire and overheat. If you do become overheated, periodically loosen, remove or open your outerwear. Remove your hat first and then loosen the neck opening for a short period of time.
  • Make use of your body heat: Wear mittens instead of gloves. Since mittens expose a smaller surface area to the cold, your fingers will stay warmer with mittens.

Dressing in removable layers which you can take off or put back on as you need will help you to cope with the temperature differences you may encounter in entering and leaving campus buildings, which are often overheated.

What to Buy

Your comfort depends on the quality of your clothing. All clothing is required to have a label which describes clothing fiber content and clothing care, so you can always find out exactly what you are buying.

Down jackets and full-length down coats are warmest, and since most of them already have a nylon outer shell, they provide the best protection against the wind. Even though down garments are costly, they are a good investment. Wool is the next best insulator and, although not effective against the wind, it is warm even when wet. Leather is very effective against the wind, but it is a poor insulator and inadequate for Ithaca’s winters.

You may be tempted to buy cotton and acrylic sweaters, since they tend to be cheaper than wool. Cotton and acrylic have very little insulating value, so these will not keep you warm enough. It’s worth paying a little more for a good wool sweater.

Your feet will become wet and cold if you do not wear good foot protection. It’s best to buy leather hiking-type boots with insulated lining and thick rubber soles with lots of tread. These will keep your feet warm and will make walking on the ice easier, but they will not keep your feet dry unless you waterproof them yourself with silicon spray. You can buy silicon spray at the shoe store when you buy your boots. Vinyl boots are waterproof but will not keep your feet warm. Avoid wearing boots that have high heels or smooth soles. For safer walking on the snow and ice, wear boots with lower heels and treaded soles. If you’re not sure what to buy, ask a friend who has been here for at least one winter season.

Buying Outwear

Clothing in Ithaca tends to be expensive, but there are some places where you can buy good-quality clothing fairly inexpensively. You may want to try the Bon Ton, Sears or Target in the Shops of Ithaca Mall.

The best time to shop is during a sale. Some stores have pre-season winter clothing sales in October, and most have sales right after Christmas. Don’t think that this will be too late—January and February are Ithaca’s coldest months!

Many Americans buy used clothing which is often of good quality and very cheap. For used clothing, try Trader-K on the Commons in downtown Ithaca, or the Salvation Army Store on Elmira Road (Route 13 South).