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Living Through Washington D.C. Winters

Photograph of a neighborhood during the Winter months through foliage.

If you’re thinking of becoming a new resident of Washington, D.C., you can easily find all kinds of helpful newbie resources online, from how to hook up your utilities to how to make your visit to the DMV less painful.

But understanding why longtime residents both love — and freak out over — the region’s winter season is a bit trickier. Are the winter months really so bad in Washington, D.C.? C’mon, really?

The Truth About Winter in Washington, D.C.

Before you worry too much about what you’re getting yourself into, let’s check the facts. Winter in Washington, D.C., is no worse than some other major U.S. cities — for example, St. Louis. Typically, Washington, D.C., gets about 14 inches of snow in an average winter season (less than St. Louis by at least four inches). Even D.C.’s coldest month, January, sees average highs and lows of 40 degrees and 27 degrees, respectively (St. Louis’s averages are colder by three and five degrees, also respectively).

 Winter in Washington, D.C., didn’t even make a recent list of the 30 places with the worst weather in America. Nor did it appear in a 2019 article ranking the American cities with the harshest winters, although to be fair, nearby Baltimore did make the list. 

So why do Washington, D.C., residents both love and hate winter months? How do they survive, even thrive, when temps dip low and snow piles up? And what weather-related activities might you end up embracing (and complaining about), just as a proper resident should? Read on.

What to Love (and What Not to Love) About Washington, D.C., Winters

A woman walks in a park with a red umbrella during a snowstorm
  1. The city shuts down after small accumulations of snow. Or ice. Or sometimes, even rain. You can blame the federal government to some degree. When the federal government opens late or shuts down for a snow day, about 300,000 federal employees working in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore area are affected. Many schools and businesses base their decision to close on the federal government’s operational status. Hence, sometimes the city closes even when the weather doesn’t seem all that treacherous.
  2. Residents panic-buy groceries the day before the storm. It can be fun stocking up on hot cocoa, potato chips and other so-called essentials. But if you need to do some grocery shopping, don’t go before a snowstorm has been predicted to hit. The shelves will be bare.
  3. The wind is merciless. Washington, D.C., is windy in the winter months. Some people don’t mind it, while others hate the bone-freezing wind that feels as if it pierces your very soul. The people who don’t mind it are the same ones who’ll tell you, “There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing.” You’ll dislike those people intensely. Then you’ll buy warm clothing.
  4. More than 90% of residents live within a half-mile of a park. Traffic, which is awful year-round, is especially terrible during the winter storms. But after it snows, residents give up on the streets and take to the parks. The Washington DC Snowball Fight Association holds free snowball battles throughout D.C. parks. Find out where they are by following their social media pages.

How to Thrive During a Washington, D.C., Winter

With these tips, you too can master the most brutal temperatures, ice and snow the D.C. area has to throw at you.

  1. Later, layer, layer. You know the drill. Wear layers of warm clothes to go outside, peel them off as soon as you go inside, and then layer everything back on before you step outside again. You might say this is Washington, D.C.’s oldest winter tradition.
  2. Learn how to walk like a penguin. Slipping and falling on the ice can cause serious injury. So reduce your fall risk on ice by keeping your center of gravity over your front leg, like a penguin does, instead of splitting your center of gravity mid-stride, like we humans do.
  3. Keep a bag of kitty litter in your trunk. It’ll add weight to your rear wheels, improving traction. It’ll also help if you get stuck in the snow: Just sprinkle a large handful at the base of your tires and give it a little gas.
  4. Take your coat off and pretend it’s spring in the U.S. Botanic Garden. The Conservatory on the garden grounds is an indoor greenhouse containing two courtyard gardens and 10 garden rooms under glass, totaling 28,944 square feet of growing space. The pandemic has temporarily closed this attraction down, however, so check online or call for updated information.

Embrace These Winter Activities in Washington, D.C.

Holiday decorations hang for sale in a market

Washington, D.C., residents have the winter months figured out. They may grumble to outsiders about how cold it is, but they fully embrace hanging out around their city with fellow residents, chilly temps and all.

Here are four things residents absolutely love to do during the winter in Washington, D.C. (and once you try these activities, you’ll embrace them all, too):

  1. Ice skating at the city’s famous landmarks. You can ice skate on the roof of The Watergate Hotel, the National Gallery of Art’s Sculpture Garden, Canal Park on the Capitol Riverfront, and even around a special ice skating trail at Nationals Park, where the baseball team plays during the summer months.
  2. Dining out — as in outside — while still staying warm. Owners of many of the city’s favorite restaurants got creative during the pandemic to lure back the eating-out crowd. And many plan to continue offering outdoor dining during this year’s winter months. Some eateries will again feature personal igloos, mini-lodges and greenhouses that diners can rent. Others will feature tableside chimineas where diners can roast marshmallows for s’mores. One restaurant is planning Alpine-style cabanas with heaters, fire pits, and menus replete with warm comfort food.
  3. Shopping at the Annual Downtown Holiday Market. The holiday market features more than 70 exhibitors spread out over two entire blocks of F Street NW, from 7th to 9th Streets NW. Enjoy food vendors and live entertainment while you shop for holiday treasures and treats.
  4. Enjoying free s’mores by the fire at The Ritz in Georgetown. The lobby of The Ritz in Georgetown has a fire blazing almost every night, and if you’re there around 6:30 p.m. you’ll get to be part of this winter tradition. Well-dressed butlers pass out free s’mores kits, which are said to pair well with the hotel’s seasonal cocktails. 

Moving to Washington, D.C.? Here’s One More thing to Know

Nobody wants to move in cold weather. But Self Storage Plus can make it a little bit easier, with climate-controlled storage, boat and RV storage, and other helpful storage solutions.

Get started by using our size guide to help you decide what size storage unit would be right for you. Then find a Self Storage Plus near you — we have locations across the Greater Washington, D.C., and Baltimore areas, and beyond.

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