It's no secret that Minnesota winters have a bit of a reputation. Snow, ice and single-digit temps are par for the course in this northern climate. But as the Norweigans say, "There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing!"
When thermometers hover in the teens or lower, you have two choices: huddle indoors, or suit up to embrace the natural wonders of winter in Minnesota. Gliding across skating rinks, carving down ski hills, shooting a hockey puck across a frozen pond, and savoring the meditative silence of ice fishing can all be great fun if you know what you wear.
Not used to the cold? Fear not. Locals will assure you that bulky parkas and abominable snowsuits are not required. But you do need to dress wisely, whether you’re planning to cheer on the Crashed Ice competitors in downtown St. Paul or go dogsledding and winter camping in the deep wilderness.
“We’re all about layering,” said Susan Hendrickson-Schurke, founder of Ely-based Wintergreen Northern Wear, which started after outfitting the 1986 Will Steger International North Pole Expedition. “We talk about the ‘three Ws’: wicking, warmth and wind.”
This starts with a base layer, which have improved significantly since the late 1880s when Minnesota’s Munsingwear revolutionized warmth with silk-plated wool union suits. Lightweight, comfortable modern base shirts and leggings made from synthetics, finely knit wool or silk hold body heat in while also wicking sweat away from your skin.
“That’s the most important layer,” Hendrickson-Schurke said. “You want to stay dry.”
The next layer, usually a synthetic fleece or wool, should add warmth and insulation from the cold. The final layer should be a breathable, water-resistant (not waterproof) shell jacket or pullover anorak that protects you from the wind but doesn’t trap moisture. An outer layer should be able to be removed to regulate temperature while hauling fishing gear onto the ice, skating, snowshoeing, fat biking, cross-country skiing, or doing anything else that can work up a sweat.
If you’re ice fishing on an open lake or downhill skiing during cold winds, look for longer coats that extend past your waist and have plenty of pockets or clips for goggles, sunglasses, phones and other gear you need handy. Many have zippers and vents for regulating temperature.
Balaclavas or face masks and goggles can also be helpful for high-speed sports, from snowboarding to snowmobiling. Minnesota-headquartered Polaris makes outerwear for speeding along trails, and IceArmour by Clam, sold at independent and chain outdoors stores throughout Minnesota, has a line designed with ice fishing in mind.
Smaller companies, such as Heim-Made, sell their own innovations for staying warm, such as a quilted down Minne-skirt that can be worn over leggings and pants (ideal for bleachers and cheering on pond hockey players) and a LumberJacket with built-in mittens. You can find them at holiday markets, art fairs and the Minnesota State Fair.
Smart footwear is as essential as a good hat. Choose boots with good treads for traction, especially for stairs and wherever you might shift your balance, such as on winter hiking trails. Add a polypropylene sock liner to wool socks for extra warmth.
Ely-based Steger Mukluks, which also was sparked by the 1986 North Pole Expedition, takes inspiration from Northern Cree designs with lightweight moose leather, wool liners and rubber soles. Red Wing Shoes, which has handcrafted boots in the Mississippi River town of Red Wing since 1905, also offers traction and warmth with its hunting and hiking boots.
To keep fingers toasty, it helps to have a double layer here, too—a lightweight glove with inner insulation for warmth and an outer layer or mitten that protects from wind and wetness. Make sure they aren’t too tight, especially if you are grabbing onto ski or fishing poles.
For a timeless northern look, Bemidji Woolen Mills taps lumberjack heritage with classic wool plaid jackets and wool pants, plus winter hats with ear flaps and fur. Faribault Woolen Mill, with its factory store in Faribault and a shop at Mall of America, appeals to fashionistas with elegant hooded capes and scarves. Both businesses have been keeping northerners warm for close to a century or more.
No matter how you dress for the weather, the key comes down to layers that flex with your activity and your own body. The attire that keeps one person comfortable might be overkill for another.
“The key is staying dry,” said Dan Stefanich, director of marketing at Clam Outdoors, “and finding the balance of keeping warm but not overheating.”