Frigid weather: How to survive an extremely cold day

With much of the country in the grips of bitter winter weather, Canadians are coping as best they can with bone-chilling cold, massive snowfalls and predictions of more nastiness to come. Here's a look at some of the ways to stay safe and protect yourself and your property.

Many regions in Canada are experiencing a blast of snowfall and cold conditions

If you want to go outside when the temperatures plunge, a facemask can protect from frostbite and windburn. (Pawel Dwulit/Canadian Press)

With much of the country in the grips of bitter winter weather, Canadians are coping as best they can with bone-chilling cold, massive snowfalls and predictions of more nastiness to come.

In Saskatoon on Tuesday, Environment Canada is predicting a high of –25 C, well below the seasonal normal of –11 C. In Toronto, the temperature is not expected to rise above –18 C, again a far cry from the normal high of –2 C.

Pedestrians in Montreal battle 90 km/h wind gusts as the city faces freezing rain, snow, and a rollercoaster temperature swing from 5 C to -13 C on Monday. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Cold weather in some parts of the country may invite scoffing from people living in other places where such low temperatures are run-of-the-mill at this time of year. But no matter how cold it gets, people everywhere are figuring out how best to endure the conditions.

Here's a look at ways to ensure you and your property stay safe and survive the current frigid temperatures.

Protecting yourself

There's no rocket science involved in understanding that colder temperatures can pose health concerns for individuals, especially if they are outside. Windburn, frostbite and hypothermia can pose significant risks.

A skater braves the cold weather on the Rideau Canal skateway in Ottawa on Jan. 3, 2014. (Sean Kilpatrick/Canadian Press)

Environment Canada is urging extreme caution for people heading outdoors in the current bitter conditions.

In a weather alert for Toronto posted Monday, the agency predicted wind chills of –30C to –35 beginning later in the day. Wind chills of –35 to –40 overnight and into Tuesday morning were also expected. In those conditions, exposed skin could freeze in less than five minutes.

To reduce the risk and protect yourself from extreme cold conditions, Health Canada advises:

  • Wear appropriate clothing. Choose clothes that are appropriate for the weather; dress in layers with a wind-resistant outer layer; choose warm socks, gloves, hat and a scarf; and change into dry clothing as soon as possible if clothes get wet.
  • Use sunglasses, lip balm and sunscreen on sunny days. Wear a facemask and goggles if you are skiing, snowmobiling or skating to protect from frostbite and windburn and keep moving to keep blood flowing.
  • Avoid alcohol. If you drink before you go outside, it could increase the risk of hypothermia because of increased blood flowing to your extremities. "You may actually feel warm even though you are losing heat," Health Canada says.
  • Find shelter. If there aren't any buildings around, look for a small cave, a ditch, a hollow tree or a vehicle to reduce the chance of frostbite or hypothermia.

Protecting your home

Houses are built to withstand many conditions, but can be vulnerable to extreme cold in particular aspects, such as plumbing. Frozen pipes bursting after the recent ice storm in southern Ontario were a vivid reminder of that.

Pete Karageorgos, manager of consumer and industry relations for the Insurance Bureau of Canada in Ontario, says there are many things homeowners can consider -- "unfortunately, some of them should have been done before winter started."

That could include ensuring the home is property insulated, particularly in two areas: anywhere related to the plumbing system and outside walls, and around the roof, particularly close to the edge, where the eavestroughs are.

Right now, though, Karageorgos has a few hints for what homeowners can do to a make their home safer:

  • Keep the furnace well-maintained. That way it can bear the extra burden when it’s much colder outside.
  • Remove snow and ice from outside the home. It's a plus from both the personal safety and legal liability perspectives.
  • To prevent frozen pipes, turn off the water supply and drain the pipes if you're going to be away.
  • Don't use heat sources like torches or open flames to try to thaw frozen pipes – use a hair dryer instead.
  • Have working fire and carbon monoxide detectors. If they are hardwired into the electrical system, make sure the battery backup is working.

If you're at home, and unsure if your insulation is adequate to offset frozen pipes, a small, steady flow of water could help prevent freezing.

"Keep a tap or two turned on. Not full blast but enough so some water is flowing through it, because that's the other way to prevent pipes from freezing," says Karageorgos.

Protecting yourself on the road

Winter driving comes with its own challenges, ranging from navigating road surfaces that may be covered in snow and ice to ensuring you're prepared if you suddenly find yourself stranded.

The CAA recommends drivers be well-prepared for any winter driving conditions they might encounter. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

In frigid temperatures, CAA reminds people to pay particularly close attention to their battery, which can be drained of power by the cold.

"Before you attempt to start your car, make sure you have turned off all your accessories including the heater, radio and lights," Silvana Aceto, a media relations consultant for CAA South Central Ontario, said in an email.

CAA recommends checking tire pressure regularly and keeping the gas tank at least half full to help avoid a fuel line freeze. Drivers should also keep the following items in their cars:

  • Fully charged cellphone
  • Ice scraper and snow brush 
  • Booster cables 
  • Extra clothing and footwear 
  • Blankets and sleeping bags 
  • Windshield washer fluid
  • Bottled water 
  • Granola or energy bars.