How to Survive (and Have Fun!) in a Chicago Polar Vortex

How do you prepare for record-breaking cold amidst a Chicago polar vortex? While we love adventuring in Chicago on walking, bus and boat tours during rain, shine or snow, we currently are not operating our winter walking tours during this Chiberia weather. Our friend and guest blogger Johanna Wawro said “carpe diem” and went out for some hardcore outdoor exploration, and she has some helpful tips for surviving and making the most of the polar vortex.

chicago polar vortex minus 21
Brrr… one of the coldest days on record

Why Venture Out in a Chicago Polar Vortex?

Once every few years we get blasted with arctic weather which can be a heck-of-a-lot of fun if you’re prepared for it. My boyfriend and I ventured out on the second coldest day on record. While most sane people played it safe indoors, we opted to forge into this polar winter wonderland. The lake was warmer than the surrounding air, which created a ton of steam. Seeing the skyline in what looked like a cloud of smoke was magical. The various ice formations were exceptionally cool (no pun intended). The best part was having the city all to ourselves. No traffic, few people on the street, closed businesses…a rarity in this congested city. The London House rooftop bar was empty, and its views were spectacular.

chicago polar vortex rooftop
You can get a rooftop bar to yourself during a Chicago polar vortex. Photo courtesy of Johanna Wawro

Vortex Gear You Can Get from the Thrift Store

Here are some tips for gearing up during a Chicago Polar Vortex:
Getting warm clothes doesn’t have to be expensive if you look for some items at your local thrift store. There are racks of 100% wool sweaters that’ll keep you nicely insulated. I found a bunch of mine for no more than $5. The thick goose-down, Canadian-made coat I have on in the pics cost $14, and it has kept me cozy all season. They have a ton of footwear too. I got my duck boots for $3, and an “ugg”ly pair of Uggs for $15. They aren’t exactly pretty, but they keep my feet fairly warm. 

Protect your eyes with goggles. Ski goggles work great. Also protect your face with a ski-mask or one of those pullover scarf thingies.
Gloves are important too. Mine suck, and so my fingers hurt while I was out today. Get wind and water resistant gloves. 

chicago polar vortex googles
Goggles are a must if you’ll be outside for long in a Chicago polar vortex. Photo courtesy of Johanna Wawro

How to Dress for a Chicago Polar Vortex

If you want to stay out longer, however, I suggest investing some serious Vortex gear for Chiberia times. For footwear, I recommend Mukluks. They are expensive, but it’s the type of shoe that Inuits wear, and your feet will never get cold in them. Although they are pricey, Mukluks will last you a lifetime. 

Invest in a good pair of thermal underwear. I bought my Patagonia thermal leggings for $75. I used them while hiking in Peru and have worn them daily since the temps have dropped. You can throw any kind of pants over them, as they are thin, yet effective. Good thermals are a worthwhile investment if you intend on staying comfortable during winter months. Take good care of them, air-dry them after washing, and they will last you for years.

Buy wool socks! They are also expensive, but again, wool is essential. DO NOT wear cotton. Cotton absorbs moisture while you sweat. Moisture is enemy #1 for any type of outdoor activity, especially in a Chicago Polar Vortex. It’ll make you cold and miserable straight-away. 

Oh, and I almost forgot…get a good hat! Sheepskin is great. I have an alpaca hat that I purchased in Peru. Anything that deflects cold air away from your face is good.

chicago polar vortex jacket
Good winter gear will let you explore the polar vortex in Chicago. Photo courtesy of Johanna Wawro

Stay Safe and Warm Out There!

While we were out adventuring, I got a chance to be on our local WTTW channel. They made me sound like bit of a wuss, but hey, I got to be on TV! Check it out!

Hope everyone has fun and stays warm out there!

Guest post by Johanna Wawro

Enjoy More Photos of Chicago’s Polar Vortex


Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on pinterest
Share on linkedin

be a



Private Tour Coordinator and Tour Guide

There is no shortage of things to discover in Chicago—I love being an urban explorer and uncovering its hidden places. I have an MA in Public History from Loyola University Chicago, and I have worked as a museum educator and kindergarten teacher. My desire to learn new things fuels my passion for educating others, which I get to experience every day as a Chicago tour guide. I live in the northern neighborhood of Rogers Park.

“Our guide Ellen was exceptional and gifted with a great personal touch.”


Tour Guide

Whether you are a first-time visitor or a lifelong resident, the vibrant history and modern majesty of Chicago never ceases to amaze. I’m a graduate of Columbia College with an M.A. in Interdisciplinary Art. I’ve worked for many years as an educator at City Colleges of Chicago. As tour guide at Chicago Detours, I integrate my enthusiasm for culture and architecture with my passion as an educator. West Town/Noble Square area is home for me.

“Jen was a perfect storyteller and kept us spellbound for hours.”


Tour Guide

With our Chicago neighborhoods, vibrant cultural institutions and nearly two centuries of larger-than-life stories, there’s never a dull moment here! I’m a fifth generation Chicagoan and a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis. In addition to guiding tours, I’m a creative writer and amateur genealogist. I also enjoy the city’s dynamic theater scene. You can also read overlooked stories from 19th-century newspapers on my “Second Glance History” blog. I live in River North.


Tour Guide

Chicago is unique as it always evolves into the future while holding on to the past. I’m fascinated by how people latch on to old architecture but happily pave over others. My background is in theater and performance and I’ve been a tour guide here for more than 10 years. Currently I’m finishing my Master’s in Public History at Loyola University because I love to teach the history of this scrappy city. I’m in the Edgewater neighborhood.


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

Chicago’s history is so fascinating, you could spend a lifetime uncovering its secrets…I’m willing to give it a try! I have an M.A. in US History from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and then pursued doctoral studies in Urban History at the University of Illinois at Chicago. I love to learn new aspects of Chicago’s rich history and then share my knowledge as a tour guide with Chicago Detours. I live in Ravenswood.

“Marie was a bubbling fountain of information and contagious enthusiasm.”


Operations Coordinator and Tour Guide

As a fourth generation Chicagoan, I have been living and loving Chicago by bike, on foot, public transit or automobile. I am a graduate of UIC where through the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs, began my eagerness to understand the nature, history and impacts of urban planning and development. It is incredibly rewarding to give back to this wonderful city by helping out in the office of Chicago Detours. I live in the incredibly diverse neighborhood of Albany Park.
“Sonny was extremely knowledgeable about all things Chi-town.”
Wade K


Content Manager and Tour Guide

Chicago has so many neighborhoods, buildings, and by-ways that it’s hard to go long without seeing something new, or something familiar from a new angle. I studied Cinema History for my M.A. from the University of Chicago. I’ve worked as a culture writer for various publications and as an educator of the humanities at the City Colleges of Chicago. I’m thrilled to share my love of this city’s busy past and unique architectural spaces with Chicago Detours. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of Lincoln Park.

“Alex was fascinating to listen to. He clearly knows his history and it shows.”
Katie K

Amanda Scotese

Executive Director and Tour Guide

I’m an interpreter of personal stories from the past and the city’s landscape. I love to imagine what originally happened inside old unmarked buildings, and what forces have shaped their design. I studied Chicago history, architectural history, and anything Chicago-related through my M.A. in the Humanities at the University of Chicago. My love for stories was enriched by my B.A. in Literature from the University of Michigan. I’ve written travel articles for publications like Rick Steves’ Italy best-selling travel guides, the San Francisco Bay Guardian, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. I live in the Chicago neighborhood of West Avondale.
“You can TELL Amanda is hyper-passionate about doing the research and getting the story that nobody’s heard before.”
Shelby F

Book a chicago event

Let’s Connect!