A Kiwi in a Canadian winter: This is what -30degC actually feels like

What it's like for a New Zealander coping with a winter in Canada, explained.
Winter in Canada. Photo credit: Reuters

Imagine, for a minute, the Christmas classic Home Alone set in the sprawling sand dunes of the arid Sahara, or even the temperate confines of our land of the long white cloud.

Those burglars' bruises wouldn't be from slipping and sliding all over the show in the icy conditions of a North American winter wonderland, I'll tell you that.

Watching those timeless 'white Christmas' films as a Kiwi kid growing up on the sunny east coast of the North Island had me genuinely excited for my first experience of one here in infamously cold Canada.

And Toronto delivered.

It is by no means the coldest or snowiest city in this country, but even by Toronto standards, we had a pretty decent dumping of Christmas Eve snow.

Couple that with some bloody chilly temperatures and waking up on Christmas morning to see everything covered in white was a pretty awesome experience.

It isn't magic for everyone, though. In the days that followed, temperatures plunged so low, both federal government and city officials put out various "extreme cold weather alerts" warning Torontonians to stay indoors and avoid travel.

The alert has other effects, too. It actually triggers additional measures to accommodate the city's homeless by opening up emergency shelters and what they call "warming centres" - community halls that blast heat all day specifically for those who would normally be living on the streets.

We're talking daytime highs anywhere from -15degC to -20degC, and nighttime lows bordering on -30degC. Weather agencies and news outlets provide a "wind chill" temperature, which generally makes it feel anywhere from 5 to 10 degrees colder than what the actual temperature says. 

Talking to friends and family back home in New Zealand, they often ask: "what does that even feel like?"

The first thing is, anything below 0c just feels super cold, no matter if it's -5degC or -25degC. Kind of like anything above 30degC just feels hot. It's not like you can really tell the difference between 32degC, 34degC and 36degC.

That said, here are five examples of what the cold feels like here:

1. Walking to a tram stop downtown one evening, temperature is about -20degC. Obviously any whisper of breath coming out of your nose or mouth you can see in front of you. But as a group of three people walking towards me went past, you could actually feel their body heat like a passing bubble of warmth. It was for just a few seconds, as they were a couple of metres away, then it became cold again.

2. Similar to the first, but opposite. Colleague arrives at work having driven in. Bundled up for her walk across the carpark and into the heated newsroom, as she took off her outermost jacket, a jolt of freezing air trapped inside her jacket actually rippled out and was felt as a wave of bitter cold by the three people at the desks closest to her.

3. Interviewing some guy on the street for a radio story I was working on. Temperature was about -15degC. I still hadn't bought gloves and held the microphone in my hand for the two minutes I was chatting to him, and as I went to press stop on the recorder I realised my fingers had actually clenched into place around the microphone and wouldn't release on their own. I had to pry them off with my other hand.

4. A colleague from the radio station couldn't even get to work because the front door at her house was frozen shut and she couldn't leave. Don't believe me? Just watch:


5. Walking to work one morning, -22degC. My nose is running, so I'm wiping it with a tissue. But as soon as I take the tissue away it's as if nothing is happening and I wipe it again. Then I realised it's the one people warned me about: Your nostril hairs actually freezing from whatever small bit of moisture is in your nose. There's no choice but to breathe in and out of your mouth.


The biggest difference here compared to back home? You are only cold if you are outside.

Everywhere inside is heated, including buses, supermarkets and homes. Regulations in some areas force landlords to heat rooms to 21degC.

The same cannot be said for New Zealand winter. All in all, a white Christmas in cold Canada is a nice novelty, but there's no denying I'll be looking forward to my eventual return to the Kiwi one I've grown to love.

Jacob Brown is a freelance television and radio journalist in Canada, and former Newshub reporter.