How to cope with the European winter weather
Are you considering visiting Amsterdam during winter but are afraid of the weather conditions? I completely understand! What you need to do is first understand the weather forecast and how the temperature, the humidity and the wind influence the way we experience the cold, then plan the trip in advance, and finally prepare accordingly. So what should you do, how should you organize it all and what should you pack? You will find all these answers in this article.
Understanding the weather forecast
Officially the Dutch winter, as everywhere else in the northern hemisphere, begins on December 21 and ends on March 20. Nevertheless, it can already get pretty cold here at the end of October. On a regular winter the day temperature ranges from 6 °C to 8 °C (42.8 °F to 46.4 °F) and the night temperature ranges from a bit less than 0 °C to 3 °C (32 °F to 37.4 °F). During a harsher winter the day temperature will range from around 0 °C to 3 °C (32 °F to 37.4 °F), and the nights will be colder of course.
But the temperature is not the only factor in the way we experience the cold. The Netherlands is very wet—the average number of rain days in each winter month is 11, and sometimes it even snows here. We also have sleet and hail, which result in high humidity during the winter too.
The Netherlands’ northern and western borders are the North Sea, and since it is a flat country with almost no hills and no mountains at all, there is nothing to block the cold North Sea breeze.
When we try to predict how cold we are going to feel, we need to calculate all parameters mentioned above: the temperature (of course), the humidity and quantity of rainfall (because humid cold feels colder than dry cold), and the wind speed (as with your home fan, stronger wind will cool you down more).
There is not a lot to say about the temperature and about the rainfall, but how should you read and understand the wind?
Some weather forecast websites and apps indicate the wind speed in km per hour and some on the Beaufort scale. A wind speed of 12-19 km/h (Beaufort 3) is considered to be mild, but the difference between a wind speed of 12 km/h and a wind speed of 19 km/h is big enough: a wind speed of approximately 19 km/h can be annoying and will cool you down. A wind speed of 20-29 km/h (Beaufort 4) is considered to be moderate, and when you travel it affects how you should dress.
To sum it up: If the temperature is lower, the humidity and/or rainfall is higher and the wind is stronger, we will experience the weather as colder.
Remind yourself that in Europe all buildings have a central heating system, and unlike many other European countries, the inside temperatures in the Netherlands are not insanely high. Inside most places, the temperature is nicely warm and you don't need to strip down to your t-shirt. Now – relax!
Estimate your schedule in advance
Now, consider how much time during your visit in Amsterdam will you be outdoors. Strolling through the streets of Amsterdam is a MUST and you WILL spend a lot of time outside. If you are on your own or with a private guide, you can walk faster or take a break in a café, but if you are on a guided tour as part of a group, you will walk at a moderate pace and you will stand in one spot for some minutes, listening to the guide's explanations—and that’s when your body will get cold.
Plan at the last minute (Yes, you read that right)
In order to get the most accurate weather forecast, check it the day before your flight and pack your clothes accordingly. It is advisable to have a weather forecast app on your smartphone that will update automatically with the local weather forecast. During your vacation, check the day's weather forecast every morning, and plan your day and dress accordingly.
Guidelines for dressing up for the Dutch winter
The two main principles are: firstly, do not let the outside temperature, the wind and the rain get into your body, and secondly, do not lose your body warmth through your clothes. For example: if you wear a thick sweater, not only you will feel clumsy, but also the wind will get through and your body warmth will go out the same way, so you will feel cold. However, if you will wear a few thinner layers and you block the airways by tucking your first layer into your pants, fasten your coat all the way up, and wear a scarf and knee-high socks, you will already feel the difference.
The Layering System
The Base Layer - A base layer is your first layer of protection against the elements and will provide a small amount of warmth. A base layer should also ‘wick’ or ‘transport moisture or sweat’ away from the body. This will help to regulate your body temperature as any moisture build-up can draw warmth away from your body. Base layers need to be worn tightish against the skin. Never wear cotton as a base layer, as it does not wick moisture away, so it retains sweat, loses its warmth, and causes too much evaporative cooling. A good base layer is made out of synthetic fiber and wool. Don’t forget to tuck this base layer into your pants.
The Mid layer - The primary function of the mid layer is to provide insulation. A mid layer will direct any body heat that your base layer didn’t retain back into your body and help stop cold air passing through to your body. A good mid layer will be breathable and also wick any moisture away from the body so any moisture trapped by the base layer is transported out to be evaporated. A thin fleece or merino wool top could be worn during milder conditions.
The Mid and a ½ layer – This is a thin down or synthetic-filled thin jacket. Most of these jackets have the option to tighten the neck opening. If you don’t have a scarf, it is recommended to use this option. Thicker fleece or soft-shell jackets would also be suitable for this layer. Most of the time you will be changing this layer, putting it on or taking it off according to the weather conditions.
The Outer layer / shell layer – This layer keeps away the elements (wind, snow, rain, etc.). The shell layer is usually in the form of a jacket, and it should block the wind and be waterproof. Ideally, the outer layer lets moisture through to the outside (look for jackets that are labeled “breathable”), while not letting wind and water pass through from the outside. There are a multitude of jackets that fit this criterion, but there are no jackets that can are totally waterproof and extremely breathable — there will always be some kind of trade-off. Don’t forget to fasten the edges of the sleeves, otherwise the wind will blow in and your body warmth will blow out.
Deciding whether you will wear a base layer on your lower part of the body too will depend on your planned activity for the day. You can use thermal long johns, leggings or tights. You can also wear socks that go over your knees and a long coat that goes below your knees.
Wearing cotton pants is not recommended. As I wrote above, cotton retains moisture, loses its warmth, and causes too much evaporative cooling. That means that regular denim jeans aren’t recommended either. It is better to wear outdoor pants over the long johns or pants made out of a thicker synthetic material. Ensure that your pants aren’t touching the wet ground.
Shoes and socks
You stand and walk on your feet the whole day—without them you get nowhere!
You need city walking shoes with a thicker sole that will insulate your feet from the cold ground. These shoes should also be water resistant and breathable, so your gym shoes or sneakers will not do the job.
You don’t need thick socks. Like your upper body's first layer you need socks that can ‘wick’ or ‘transport moisture or sweat’ away from the feet, and your socks should cover your ankles.
Ensure that you have enough space between your toes with your socks and shoes on, so the warm air can be locked in this space. This allows you to keep wiggling your toes and keep the blood coming to this remote part of your body, so helping to keep them warm.
Accessories – hat, scarf, gloves. And an umbrella
Part of your body warmth leaves the body through the head, neck and hands, and therefore it is recommended to cover those parts of your body as well. Needless to say, that the material should be able to dry quickly and it should be breathable.
Even the most high-tech sophisticated coat will not prevent the rain from getting your face wet (and making your mascara run). If the weather forecast indicates rain, take a small folding umbrella in your bag. Don’t forget to take a small plastic bag with you, so when the rain stops, you can fold your umbrella and put it back into your bag without wetting the inside of it.
To invest or not to invest, that is the question
So now you are calculating how much your vacation to Amsterdam will cost you and if you can afford more expenses related to this vacation like purchasing special clothes for a European winter.
Let me ask you – are you going to limit yourself to summer holidays only? Is this the first and last time that you will visit a country with similar winter to the winter in the Netherlands?
I guess the answer to both questions is NO. Therefore, begin by purchasing at least a few items, and in any case implement the layers system, which will make your vacation more comfortable and thus more enjoyable.
Final note regarding travelling and weather issues
Over the last couple of years, I’ve discovered that if there is the slightest chance of rain according to the weather forecast, clients are deterred from coming on the workshop/photography session/tour. However, we rarely experience heavy rain for long. It usually lasts 15 minutes, then stops or drizzles… The weather in Amsterdam changes regularly so gray sky in the morning doesn’t always mean heavy rain later. And the weather report, especially the 5-day forecast, is wrong more often than not. There is no point in waiting for a workshop/photography session/tour that will be scheduled on a day with the best weather forecast... because that will be the day you are back at home!
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