Winter in Chicago can be amazing — but it can also be dangerous if you are unprepared. A few simple precautions will ensure that you and your family have a memorable winter for all of the right reasons.


How tough are Chicagoans? Subzero temperatures are simply character-building exercises, as one gentleman noted when Chicago Public Schools and 200 neighboring districts cancelled classes because of frigid local temperatures:

“We close our schools in January because it is … cold?” William Choslovsky, a Chicago lawyer, wrote in a Chicago Tribune op-ed. “We still live in Chicago, no? And just what are we talking about? Expected lows of — hold on tight — minus 8. Come on, Mike Ditka would play football sleeveless in minus 8.”

How cold is winter in Chicago?

The short answer: very. While the city’s position on the northwest coast of Lake Michigan reduces lake effect snow, average January temperatures hover around 25 degrees Fahrenheit.

That’s warmer than northern neighbors like Minnesota and Wisconsin, but chilly nonetheless — in fact,’s Jon Erdman lists Chicago as the sixth coldest metro area in the U.S.

Erdman notes that the average December to February temperature during winter in Chicago is 26.4 degrees. Chicago has an average of eight or nine days per year with subzero cold and another 127 days with subfreezing weather. That’s over one-third of the year!

How do I keep my family safe during winter in Chicago?

If you don’t have winter survival kits in your home and car, you aren’t ready for winter in Chicago. These kits require a modest financial investment that seems like the best money you ever spent when you actually need them.

Home winter survival kit:


Pretend you are going camping, except the campground will be your living room. Carve out some storage space in a closet, (dry) basement or (heated) attic and stock boxes with the following items recommended by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Extra blankets, jackets and sleeping bags in case you lose heat or have furnace issues.
  • A radio and extra batteries in case power is lost and you need updates from the outside world.
  • Flashlights or lanterns and extra batteries. The CDC frowns upon candles and matches, which can lead to fires.
  • Canned food and drinking water. Don’t forget to stash a non-electric can opener, too!
  • A first-aid kit.
  • Rock salt and kitty litter for de-icing sidewalks and driveways.

Two nice items to have during winter in Chicago if you have the extra money:

1. A gas-powered generator (which should never be operated indoors, of course). Generators can be stored in small storage units during less wintry months — it’s easy to find cheap self storage in Chicago and near your neighborhood. Remember to check with your self storage company to determine if all fuel must be emptied prior to storage. Any reputable self storage facility will not allow fuel to be kept in storage units. If you have questions, contact a storage expert.

2. A landline. Mobile phones are great, but if you lose power for an extended period of time, a landline will allow you to maintain contact with friends, family and emergency personnel. Bundling landlines into existing packages from your cable or Internet provider is often very inexpensive and can literally be a lifesaver.

Car winter survival kit:

Have you ever been stranded in your vehicle? If so, you know that it’s a miserable experience — especially if it’s one of those 127 subfreezing days during winter in Chicago. Make sure that this exasperating inconvenience does not become a tragedy.

The Red Cross of Central Illinois recommends that you always carry these supplies in your car:

  • A radio, flashlight and extra batteries for both.
  • Warm blankets and a first-aid kit.
  • Snacks and bottled water.
  • Jumper cables, a compass and road map.
  • A tire repair kit, a pump and a small shovel.

If you don’t have a big sack of kitty litter in your trunk, get one soon. Cat litter serves as extra weight that helps your car’s stability while driving, and — if you get stuck — the litter can be sprinkled around your tires for gritty traction.

Two things to consider during winter in Chicago if you have the extra money:

1.) Roadside assistance. If you can afford a AAA membership or a roadside plan from your insurance provider, do it. Blowing out a tire on Dan Ryan during a winter storm is bad (and dangerous) enough without having to get out to fix it yourself. Check with your auto insurance account rep or take your business to AAA for details.

2.) Use CTA trains, buses. If you can get by on public transportation, you may want to consider vehicle storage for the winter months. Salt, potholes and icy driving conditions can wreak havoc on your car. Check the Chicago Transit Authority website and see if you can make it work.

How do I protect my home during winter in Chicago?

Remember these three tips: keep your pipes warm, your gutters clear and your trees trimmed, and you should be alright.

If your water pipes burst — and if you have old plumbing or copper pipes, it’s a real possibility during winter in Chicago — you’re going to have an expensive mess on your hands. Keep your heat on when you leave home, even for extended periods. Wrap uninsulated pipes in heat tape. Leave cold water dripping from faucets when the weather gets particularly cold.

If your gutters are full of debris, water can freeze and create ice dams that lead to extensive roof damage. Obviously you aren’t going to climb a ladder during a full-on snowstorm — be diligent about cleaning those gutters during the autumn months.

If tree branches hang near your home, consider having the limbs removed. Winter in Chicago can mean heavy snow and ice, which could bring those branches down on your roof, car or head at the worst possible time.

Winter in Chicago is actually a lot of fun!

Blackhawks and Bulls games. Skating in Millennium Park. The Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival. The Winter WonderFest at Navy Pier. Sledding at Erie Park. Sure, winter is cold — but winter in Chicago can also be a lot of fun. Unlike Mr. Choslovsky, however, we do recommend wearing long sleeves.

About the Author

Ben Kirst

Hey, everyone -- I'm a blogger here at the Life Storage blog, which, based on my lifelong battle against clutter, messes and household chaos of all kinds, makes this a bit of a dream come true. Best birthday ever? I got a Dyson.

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