[Updated December 31, 2018]
One of the e-mails I get most often from my Filipino readers contain questions about how to prepare for winter travel. It’s a valid concern for those of us hailing from tropical countries, and I honestly wish I had someone give me tips before I went on my first winter adventure. That’s why I decided to write this guide after having experienced varying degrees of the winter season; ranging from above zero Decembers in Japan, to snowy Sapporo, to a “moderate” -2 winter in Seoul, down to a more freezing -16 winter in Seoul. I feel a bit more comfortable writing this guide now that I’ve clocked in enough experience.
Winter is a beautiful season in its own right, and it would be a shame if you let the cold put a damper on your enjoyment of it.
I wrote this guide to share my own wintertime experiences and learnings. Hopefully this will be helpful for those who will be visiting somewhere cold for the first time. I found that I actually really love the experience of a white winter all because I was ready for it! The snow can either be your enemy, or it can be a memorable part of your trip.
Now snow is not a sure thing just because you’re visiting a place with a winter season, but once the temperature drops it will still be very very cold, so here are my tips on how to prepare and survive your first winter escapade!
1. GET YOUR DAILY DOSE OF VITAMINS.
I may not be a doctor but this bit is something I highly recommend as a daily habit, especially building up to the days you’re traveling somewhere super cold for the first time in your life. If you’re already taking vitamins, bring them with you and continue taking them while on the trip. In Japan and Korea, they actually sell Vitamin C and honey with citrus drinks in bottles like the one below. Feel free to try them out and get your vitamin boost too.
If you’re coming from the tropics, it’s possible that your body will react differently to the drastic change in weather. That’s when you develop coughs and colds, which can be the biggest of hassles when you’re on a trip. In connection with this, don’t forget to bring cough and cold medicines, just in case! It’s also normal to find yourself with a drippy nose sometimes, even when you don’t really have a cold. Just wipe/blow your nose and it should be fine.
2. PREPARE YOUR SKIN AND HAIR FOR THE COLD.
Break out your best moisturizers for your winter trip, because you’re going to need them! Dry winter weather can often cause painful cracked skin. Easily affected are the hands and the lips, so make sure to bring moisturizing hand creams and lip balms, applying them generously several times throughout the day.
I use Korean products for my regular skincare routine but I had to pile on more while I was here. My skin did fine until the last two days, when dry patches started to appear around my nose and around my cheek bones. Make sure you are already keeping your skin in top shape on the days building up to your winter trip so that you only need to make some adjustments during.
Below I am sharing some specific products I use for my skincare routine. I have linked some of the products to sources that are either located in or ship to the Philippines (none are affiliate links), but I find that purchasing from reputable sources in Shopee is the cheapest way.
FOR THE FACE:
- CosRx Low PH Good Morning Gel Cleanser OR Innisfree Green Tea Foam Cleanser (any other gentle cleanser is good)
- Missha The First Treatment Essence OR Secret Key Starting Treatment Essence Rose Edition
- CosRx BHA Blackhead Power Liquid
- Benton Honest TT Mist (you can bring this around to spritz throughout the day)
- CosRx Advance Snail 92 Snail Mucin OR Innisfree Green Tea Seed Cream
- Innisfree Bija Cica Balm (to soothe irritated areas)
- Etude House Soon Jung 2x Barrier Intensive Cream (to help your skin recover from the dry weather)
- Innisfree Jeju Orchid Eye Cream OR Mizon Snail Repair Eye Cream
- Laneige Water Sleeping Mask
- The Ordinary 100% Organic Cold-Pressed Rose Hip Seed Oil (recommended for night only)
- Dr. Morita Cucumber & Aloe Moisturing & Brightening Essence Mask
- CosRx Aloe Soothing Sun Cream SPF 50+ PA+++ OR Biore UV Aqua Rich Watery Gel Sunscreen SPF50+ PA+++
- Klaavu Nourishing Care Lip Sleeping Pack OR Vaseline Lip Therapy Cocoa Butter (I prefer the lipstick type balm)
- Tony Moly Peach Hand Cream OR L’Occitane Shea Butter Hand Cream
FOR THE BODY:
I also suggest bringing a bottle of petroleum jelly with you when you go out so that you can apply it any time you feel any dry irritation on your face. Windy days can be quite brutal to the skin! (TIP: The winter winds can be really harsh on the face so make sure to wear a face mask to protect it somewhat.)
As for the hair, Argan Oil can help keep your hair from drying out completely, but I honestly don’t use anything for my hair because it somehow looks better in winter weather. I do make sure to condition daily though.
3. LAYERING IS NOT JUST FOR CAKES.
Everyone has their own way of layering their clothes for winter, but here’s the only thing you need to remember: Quality over quantity! You actually don’t need to wear more than 3 layers underneath your outerwear if you pick the right things to layer with. The materials you should look for are cashmere, fleece, and wool. Well-constructed knitwear also help keep you cozy.
I personally always wear just 3 layers (thermals included) underneath my outerwear and my body would always be warm enough. Hands and face are a different matter though. We’ll talk about that later. First, I wanted to share with you examples of how I like to layer clothes for the winter:
A thermal base layer plays a big role in your warmth during wintertime. Pick thermal tops and leggings that hug your body, but in a comfortable way. Wearing tighter clothing during the winter helps maintain your body warmth. (Loose clothing lets air get through, making you feel colder.) Uniqlo recently released their Ultra Warm line of thermals, and while it is not my intent to promote that brand in particular, I find their winter clothes to be effective. I also recommend their thermal turtlenecks.
Your first and second layers are where you can mix and match thicker articles of clothing to showcase your style– but make sure to prioritize warmth over fashion! I usually wear my layers in different combinations for at least two days. (You’re not going to sweat in them anyway!) Wear leg-hugging pants over your thermal leggings to maximize warmth. I mostly wear normal jeans over my extra warm thermal leggings since my lower body doesn’t get as cold as my upper body, but I wear Heattech jeans when I know I’ll be outside in the snow or up in the mountains for a long time.
I’ve got more specific points about coats, shoes, and accessories below, so read on!
4. INVEST IN A GOOD WINTER COAT.
When you go out and buy your winter coat, there are a few things I think you should keep in mind:
- It should be lightweight but should be able to provide warmth. Down coats aka puffer jackets are generally warmer BUT you can wear a lined wool or cashmere coat too if you know how to layer properly underneath. (See my layering suggestions above.)
- Get coats that are one size bigger so you can lock yourself in despite all your layers. You will be shocked by how big a difference zipping up makes!
- Go for long coats that extend past the waist, whether they be down coats or overcoats. The 2018 trend in Korea with the puffer jackets that extend below the knees are actually quite useful for keeping most of your body warm. (Tip: Heading to Seoul? You can buy coats in Hongdae or even at the Lotte Mart at Seoul Station for a cheaper price than Uniqlo!)
- If possible, pick coats with a hood for protecting your head against the winter winds. Also check for fleece-lined pockets because this really gives your hands a warm refuge.
- Your coats should be rain resistant, lest you forget snow turns into water once it melts. (Tip: You can make like the Japanese and bring an umbrella when walking outside in heavy snow.)
Even though you’re going to be in layers, the cold is going to be quite harsh during windy days. You’re going to want to be able to bundle up inside your outerwear, and zipping up all the way can actually help big-time. I always prefer long coats over jackets since they also warm up part of your lower body. Lined coat pockets are important as a refuge for your hands when they start feeling too cold. (Sometimes the cold can seep through gloves!) Pulling up your hood also adds an extra layer of warmth for your head, even when you’re wearing a beanie and/or ear muffs.
I feel like the branding of the coat doesn’t matter too much as long as it’s able to provide you with warmth. The down coat I’m wearing in my photos are from Uniqlo. It’s not as thick or heavy as the down coats from Discovery Expedition or National Geographic but for me it’s enough. Most locals of South Korea and Japan invest in coats from the more expensive brands because they can justify the cost by using the coats every year.
We tourists don’t need to follow in these footsteps. In Seoul especially, there is the option buy some great quality coats (down or wool) for a fraction of the price of a branded one in Hongdae Shopping Street, or in the underground shopping halls of Myeongdong (and Hongdae). Even the brands in Lotte Mart Seoul Station become cheap when on sale, and the quality is pretty darn good! What about tweed or wool coats, you ask? Make sure you buy lined and winter-appropriate ones. They can be quite heavy but I can’t deny how fashionable they are!
Whichever brand or kind you get, winter coats are definitely an important investment for winter travel. Get yourself one so you don’t feel like you’re suffering in the cold wearing layers of normal jackets.
5. GET BOOTS THAT ARE MADE FOR WINTER WALKIN’.
Walking around in the snow can be very tricky. They don’t really show this on TV, but when the ground is frozen, it is very very slippery! You can literally slip and hurt yourself if you’re not careful. I do not recommend wearing smooth-soled boots because these don’t really have that grip needed. Our goal is not to ice skate on the concrete. I suggest wearing shoes that offer more traction. If you’re more a sneaker person, there are certain sneakers that have winterized soles.
Ideally, snow shoes should be waterproof and should offer some degree of insulation even though you will be wearing at least two layers of socks inside. I love using my multi-purpose Palladium boots even during the winter, and although it isn’t insulated, it is waterproof and it also offers enough room for me to layer my socks to keep my feet warm. When the weather drops to single digits, I often wear at least two layers of thermal or wool socks. (TIP: Make sure to buy your winter shoes in a size that is bigger than what you normally wear. Remember, you will need to fit in your feet PLUS at least two layers of socks in there!)
The other thing to consider is the height of your shoes. If the snow isn’t as thick or high, wearing shoes that are shorter is fine. If the snow is very high or if you’re planning snow activities, consider wearing long boots to prevent snow from entering your footwear. If you really want to wear sneakers, the best ones are those that are winterized. This essentially just means that the sneakers are waterproof and have soles that can handle walking in the snow.
When walking in snowed-over areas, take small but quick and careful steps. Also try to stay away from icy patches on the ground and walk on crisp snow instead. Always be careful!
6. VERY IMPORTANT: NEVER EVER LEAVE YOUR ACCESSORIES AT HOME.
Here’s something I discovered during the -16 winter in Seoul: Even if your body is sufficiently warm underneath your layers, none of that will matter once the cold seeps through your fingers and the winter winds batter your face and head.
Winter accessories may feel like a hassle to carry around but I honestly don’t know how I would have survived double-digit freezing weather without them. Scarves aren’t just fashionable accessories, they can actually protect your neck and even the lower part of your face from the cold. Chunky scarves are THE BEST for super cold winters. Face masks are also really helpful in keeping the lower half of your face warm when the winter chill almost feels like it can cut through skin. Traveling through the super cold winter in South Korea, I never venture out without my face mask hanging on my ears as soon as the temperature hits below -4, but I hate how it fogs up my glasses when I breathe!
Beanies or berets can protect the top of your head from the cold, but during my December 2018 winter trip I have grown to love earmuffs more for keeping my head warm. It somehow works better for me! You can get cheap ones at around Php 250 or less from Namdaemun Market in Seoul. (TIP: You can latch them onto your upper arm when not in use to keep from losing them as you walk around.) Some people prefer those flappy hats with ear covers to keep their heads and ears warm, and that’s a viable option as well.
Another thing to never leave at home are your gloves. Buy insulating ones that will allow you to use your touchscreen, or the ones you can fold back to reveal your fingers. I grew a new appreciation for gloves recently even though I have a hard time controlling my camera’s lenses and buttons with them on, but the fingers are usually the first to feel the brunt of the cold weather. If the cold still seeps through your gloves, put your hands in your pockets and keep them there until they warm back up. You can also use hot packs. (More on that below.)
You don’t have to wear these accessories right off the bat when you think you can still handle the cold, but always keep them ready inside your bag. When the temperature drops within the day and it suddenly gets too cold, you’ll be thankful to have them all with you. Trust me.
7. HOT PACKS CAN SAVE YOUR FREEZING SOUL.
These things are a godsend during winter. Hot packs are basically these little bags filled with metals and compounds that emit heat once activated. (Most of them are activated by shaking, or automatically when taken out of the packaging.) In the photo above are hot packs I used for the cold South Korean winter.
You’ll notice there are two kinds of hot packs I am holding up: The red one has an adhesive on one side, allowing you to stick it onto your underclothes on areas that you think need more warmth. (TIP: I recommend keeping your core warm, but definitely do not stick this onto your skin as it may burn you!) Meanwhile, the orange one is a hand warmer. The heat emitted by these magic bags of warmth can last up to 15 hours, which is amazing, but it is not recommended you sleep with these stuck onto your clothes.
8. IF ALL ELSE FAILS, RUN FOR SOME HOT DRINKS OR FIND REFUGE INDOORS.
When I visited Japan in its colder months, I saw many people stopping by vending machines to purchase a hot drink. Before actually drinking the beverage they use it as sort of a hand warmer, sometimes even touching it to their face, allowing it to act as a source of heat. But why buy from a vending machine when you can go inside a convenience store where it’s warm? Coffee shops are also a great place to sit and rest from the cold with a hot drink. Always remember that you don’t have to force yourself to walk around outdoors when you’re feeling a little too cold.
9. EATING THE RIGHT KIND OF FOOD HELPS STAVE OFF THE COLD.
You’ve all heard about how bad skipping meals are for the body. I think this is more true during winter. To give you energy to face the cold and walk around in layers of winter gear, you’ll need to have proper meals throughout the day.
Ramen is a popular dish in Japan, but even more so during wintertime. The warm broth is like an antidote to the cold weather, and I’ve been told that the fat found in the broth also helps the body keep the cold at bay. In South Korea, their choice of comforting food in the winter is the jjigae, or stew. When eaten piping hot with equally hot rice, it helps to warm the body up really nicely. The cold is also a great excuse to indulge in Korean BBQ and/or dakgalbi!
Since my body works double time trying to keep me warm during the cold winter season, I almost always have a bigger appetite. I try to eat small warm bites between meals too. (Tip: For a warm street snack in South Korea, go for the eomuk or odeng. These usually come with a cup of soup that can warm your soul right up. Another favorite of mine is the piping hot gyeran bbang or egg bread. It’s even better in the cold weather.)
10. THE COLD CAN BOTHER EVEN ELECTRONIC DEVICES.
You’re probably wondering at this point: Do we need to put our phones in a weather-sealed case when we travel to a snowy place? Well, unless you’re planning to do some wild snow activities while using your phone to take photos/videos, special phone cases aren’t really a necessary purchase. At least, in my opinion.
The thing you need to be more worried about is bringing a fully-charged powerbank with you wherever you go. The winter can mess with your phone’s battery, so don’t be alarmed if you notice this strange phenomenon. It doesn’t mean your phone is busted– it just feels cold, like you do. Aside from the battery draining faster, I once had my phone shutdown on me at 65% because the battery became too cold to function.
Remember that electronics have an optimal operating temperature, so using it at temperatures below that understandably causes some minor hiccups. Let it warm back up in your pocket or just let it come back to room temp indoors. It should turn on just fine. My phone usually turns back on the moment I plug into a powerbank. (Camera batteries also drain a little faster, just so you know.)
11. DON’T FORGET TO CHECK DAY-TO-DAY TEMPERATURE HIGH’S AND LOW’S.
If there’s one thing that people sometimes forget, it’s how drastic the temperature can drop in the same place once the sun sets. Sometimes, the nighttime can feel like a completely different location compared to when the sun was up in the morning. Winter days are about the only times I relish standing under the sun, let me tell you!
Knowing the possible range of temperatures you can experience within a day will help you prepare for the worst case scenario. Is there a forecast of heavy snowfall? Perhaps it would be smart to bring an umbrella. You can also plan your activities better if you actually know what the weather will be like each day. Will tomorrow be a clear sunny day? Then it’s perfect for sledding or skiing! You will encounter less itinerary issues if you’ve done your research well.
I’m glad you made it to the end of my humble guide to surviving your first winter trip. It took me forever to get this out because things have been super hectic at work (and I’m half asleep as I write this lol). Still, I hope you find it useful. I’ll be adding to and editing this post in the future as I gain more winter experiences.