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12 Chicago winter hacks for surviving the season

Written by
Clayton Guse

Remember the summer? That time when you could enjoy an outdoor street festival every weekend and get sloshed on countless patios? By the time the winter rolls around, those days feel like they were decades ago. The first winter for most people after moving to Chicago is filled with painful learning experiences. Even after a few years here, you still might get tripped up by the arrival of the cold. In the interest of making the entire city less miserable this season, we put together a list of tips that can help you survive Chicago's dreadful winters.

Learn and use the Pedway system

If you're walking through the Loop, you don't need to put up with the slush-covered sidewalks and howling winds. The Pedway is a subterranean system of routes that allows you to travel between CTA stations, City Hall, the Aon Center and more all without stepping foot outdoors. It might seem a little intimidating and you'll almost certainly get lost during your first few excursions in the system, but once you get the hang of it, your frostbitten fingertips will thank you. To get started, check out a map of the entire system provided by the city. 

Use white wine vinegar to get salt stains off of your shoes

Chicagoans consider themselves lucky if they make it through the winter without ruining a pair of shoes. But it doesn't have to be that way. The rock salt sprinkled across town might be impossible to avoid, but it doesn't have to ruin your favorite pair of shoes. If you find your kicks covered in a film of white salt residue, whip out a bottle of white wine vinegar and a cotton towel. Dilute the vinegar in some water and gently apply to your tainted shoes with the towel. Let those suckers dry naturally and they'll look good as new. It's also worth investing in some leather shoe protecter in winter—it could save you a lot of hassle down the road. 

Insulate your windows

Having huge, south-facing bay windows is an awesome thing to have during the summertime. But all that glass will suck the heat right out of your apartment during winter, jacking up your gas bill in the process. If you want to save some cash as well as some warmth, head to your local hardware store for some insulation supplies. Grab some foam strips to put along the cracks of your windows and doors, and buy a few window insulation kits (you'll need a hairdryer to shrink the plastic into place for those guys).

Bring your own skates to ice rinks across town

One of the benefits to Chicago's endless winters is the fact that outdoor ice skating is available during nearly half of the year. But if you really want to enjoy the city's bounty of outdoor rinks, you should pick up your own pair of skates. Lines for skate rental at popular destinations like the ice skating ribbon at Maggie Daley Park can be unbearably long. If you have a personal pair of skates, you can walk right onto most rinks without any hassle. 

Take advantage of the city's snow plow tracking app

When you're looking to travel across the city during or after a snowstorm, it's good to know which streets have been cleared and which ones are being ignored. Chicago has an open source real-time map showing where the city's fleet of snow plows and salt spreaders are operating. This is particularly useful for cyclists who bike through the winter and aren't keen on getting stuck in a foot of snow on an unplowed street.

Call your alderman if your street isn't getting plowed

While the Department of Streets and Sanitation is usually pretty efficient at plowing most of the major streets in town, the same can't be said for neighborhood side streets. If you find that your neighborhood's streets are blanketed in snow a day or two after a snowfall, give your alderman's office a call. If you don't know who your alderman is, you should probably figure it out—especially if you want to get the potholes on your street filled after the snow melts. 

Stock up on HotHands warmers

When temperatures drop into the single digits, there's hardly a pair of gloves or pockets that can insulate your hands from the cold air. Anyone who's cut their winter teeth in the Midwest knows about the glory of HotHands warmers. If you really want to get saucy, shove the bags into your pants or socks. You'll feel like you're in a sauna while everyone else is shivering.  

Bring your lunch to work

Packing your lunch is a great way to save some money year-round, but during the winter it can also save you from a miserable walk to find a sandwich. If you forget to pack some food, choose from one of the options for quick delivery so you only have to step outside for a moment. UberEats and Postmates are two great options (just make sure you tip well if you use the latter).

Consume as much vitamin D as possible

It can be hard to get enough sun during winter's gloomy, short days and that can lead to a vitamin D deficiency and a hard case of seasonal affective disorder. It's best to counter the winter blues by mixing in some vitamin D-rich foods in your diet. Milk, yogurt, eggs, beef liver, tuna and cheese are all great sources for the stuff (and those all sound like great winter foods anyway).

Keep your car equipped with kitty litter, a shovel and an ice scraper

Owning a car in the city can be a pretty masochistic experience. From forking out money for a city sticker to inevitably being pinged by red light and speed cameras, driving in Chicago is hardly worth it. If you're one of those brave souls who own a vehicle in the city, be sure to keep your car equipped with all of the essentials that can get you out of a winter jam. If your car gets caught in a snowdrift, you'll be cursing the heavens if you don't have a bag of kitty litter and a shovel. And if you don't keep an ice scraper in your backseat year-round, well, you should probably just move to Miami. 

Moisturize, moisturize, moisturize

While Chicago's summers tend to be humid and sweat-ridden, its winters are goddamned dry. This season, your palms will almost certainly crack, your lips will chap and your face will be drier than your father's jokes. The only good way to counteract the phenomenon is to head to your local drugstore and buy copious amounts of moisturizer (that or, you know, run away to a more tropical climate for a few months).

Invest in a serious coat

We all have that one jerk of a friend who claims they'll make it through the winter by "layering up," but then refuses to walk more than two blocks at a time. Don't be that person. Invest $100 or more in a thick coat that will keep you reasonably warm in subzero temperatures. A good scarf, hat and a pair of gloves are all must-haves as well, but a lot of novice Chicagoans think they'll be able to survive winter in a hoodie and a windbreaker. If you see anyone foolishly underdressed this winter, do them a favor, channel your inner mother and tell them they're "gonna catch a cold."

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