Known as the “windy city,” Chicago is often associated with a cold climate. That’s why you’d be right to wonder what winters in Chicago are like and how much snow you’re likely to get in the biggest city of Illinois.
Does it snow in Chicago? Yes, Chicago gets snow, although big snowstorms rarely occur, and most of the snow is just a light dusting.
Learn more about the city’s climate, what Chicago winter is like and how you can make the most of winter in this Illinois city that pulls out all the stops to create a winter wonderland.
Chicago and Illinois Climate
The climate in Chicago is classified as hot-summer humid continental, which means that the city has four seasons distinct from each other and that summers are warm and humid, with hotter temperatures inland. Spring and fall can be cool and warm, with varying weather and mostly sunny skies.
In the winter, Chicago is cold, and snow frequently falls, with significant windchill. Temperatures are around 0 degrees F (-18 C).
By comparison, the wider state of Illinois also has a typically continental climate with warm summers and cold winters. Visit in the fall or spring to avoid any extremes as far as the weather is concerned.
It is interesting to note, concerning climate, that major businesses in Illinois can be seriously affected by weather changes. This is because crop yields depend on good conditions, and Illinois has many crops without irrigation. Illinois is also the center of air and surface transportation in the US, and anything from airports to trucking can be impacted by extreme weather, triggering a domino effect in the state’s manufacturing industry.
How Bad Is Winter in Chicago?
Some of the extreme weather in Illinois has been known to have drastic consequences. According to the State Climatologist Office, 20 to 30 deaths are from floods, winter storms, tornadoes, and lightning each year.
So how bad is winter in Chicago? The locals often say that there are two types of Chicago winter: cold or snowy. Interestingly, natives of the city have developed a fondness for the cold since “you can always put another layer on” in freezing weather. Still, the humid hot summer causes the worst discomfort.
Rather than the snow, it’s the cold that is famous for Chicago. Like most northern USA, winter temperatures can vary a lot and fall close to 0 degrees F. However, the average daily high temperature at O’Hare in January is 31 F (-0.6 C), which could be classed as a mild winter temperature in most places.
The coldest nights registered in the city’s two meteorological measuring sites occur 5.5 times a year at Midway and 8.2 nights a year at O’Hare, when temperatures reach below 0 F (-18 C). In the suburbs, however, this happens more frequently.
The coldest temperature recorded in Chicago is -27 F (-33 C), set on January 20, 1985. There’s also an interesting statistic of the all-time record low maximum temperature, which was -11 F (-24 C) recorded on Christmas Eve, 1983, and then again on January 18, 1994.
January 2019 Cold Snap
A notable cold snap in Chicago occurred in January 2019, when a violent polar vortex drifted south and caused the thermometers to drop to -23 F (-31 C) on January 30. It wasn’t enough to tie the record low maximum temperature, but it still didn’t get above -10 F (-23 C) during one of the coldest days of the outbreak. This was made much worse by wind speeds reaching at least 20 mph, making the cold feel a lot tougher thanks to the wind chill effect.
Chicago Snow – What You Need to Know
Chicago averages 36 inches (91 cm) of snowfall, which can seem like a lot until you factor in the fact that, most often, snowfalls throughout the season are light batches of only around 2 inches (5.1 cm). However, there have been some epic snowstorms in the city’s history: in the winter of 1978-79, Chicagoans had to contend with 89.7 inches (228 cm) of snow!
Around every three years, you can expect heavier snowstorms that lay down over 10 inches (25 cm) of snow in the span of 1 to 3 days. It will generally snow when the temperatures are milder, so often there is snow earlier during the meteorological winter (in December), and then it tapers off as the weather gets colder (in January and February). However, there have been light snowfalls as early as October and as late as May. These usually don’t last very long and will normally become wet and slushy quite quickly.
Cooler By the Lake
The closer you live to Lake Michigan, the more the weather is influenced by it. This is why Chicagoans say it’s cooler by the lake, especially in spring and summer, since the lake retains both the winter cold and the summer warmth. This can affect temperatures within a few miles by a few degrees and will influence whether that snow falls as rain after all.
Living in Chicago, you will need to be prepared for all eventualities, and one of these is the possibility of being stranded for a day or more at home, after a heavy snowfall, or during a blizzard. It is unlikely in normal circumstances, but Chicago residents usually have their own reserves of food and essentials just for these situations and at least a sturdy snow shovel for the front of the house.
While it may seem funny, snow shovels are an absolute necessity, given the amount of snow that can be deposited on your front door by strong winds after a snow storm. This may not happen in other cities, but here you will need to dig yourself out, which of course complicates matters even if you were prepared to walk everywhere when the streets are covered in snow. In any case, planning ahead will save you a lot of worries.
Things to Do in Chicago in Winter
Assuming you haven’t been snowed in and you want to brave the winter cold and enjoy some of the Chicago winter, then there are quite a few fun activities available.
- Ice skating at the iconic ice rink in Millennium Park, enjoying incredible winter views of the city skyline.
- You can also enjoy skating along the Skating Ribbon that meanders through Maggie Daley Park. It’s a great way to skate differently, passing pine trees and the climbing wall and admiring the winter views.
- Try your hand at curling. The Olympic sport is a bit niche, but you can find a curling rink on the rooftop of the Gwen Hotel, where sports and cocktails mix to create a unique atmosphere. The rink is iceless but slippery enough to give you a good idea of what curling is like “in the real world.”
- Enjoy sledding on Soldier Field Sledding Hill. Just near the famous Soldier Field football stadium, home to the Chicago Bears, this hill is stocked with fake snow by the Chicago Park District, so you can always slide down the 33-foot slope. You will also get a bonus view of Lake Michigan from the top.
- Go snowshoeing! You don’t have to go far to try this quintessentially winterly activity. The artificial peninsula of Northerly Island has lots of nature trails where you can put snowshoes on and spend time outdoors in a fantastic atmosphere.
- To truly make the most of winter in Chicago, don’t miss the Polar Adventure Days when you can see Husky teams sled around the peninsula, make various nature-inspired winter crafts, and toast marshmallows over campfires.
Winter in Chicago: Prepare for Snow, but Also for Fun!
Although Chicago snowstorms are no joke, and you can become isolated in your own home for at least a full day if there is a blizzard, it’s the cold rather than the snow that makes Chicago winters sometimes tricky. But, with appropriate cold-weather gear, a snow shovel at home for all eventuality, and a positive attitude towards the low temperatures, there’s lots of fun to be had in Chicago winters. Rather than worrying about how snow Chicago gets, make sure you’re prepared to jump into the winter-specific fun activities organized throughout the city and welcome the cold season as it deserves!