Every State, Ranked by How Miserable Its Winters Are
In the battle of polar vortex vs. snow tornados, there are no winners
In most of America, a shitty winter is an annual tradition. It is cold out. Pipes freeze. Lips, noses, and cheeks get chapped and raw. Black ice kills. Polar vortex enters the lexicon. Snow hats look cool until you have to take them off indoors and then your hair looks shitty. It’s horrible. And this year, most of us will be enduring it while locked down. By spring 2021, The Shining might well look like a documentary.
But which state is the MOST horrible in the icy depths of winter? After an intense period of research and debate among friends and colleagues—factoring in everything from weather patterns and average temperatures to the efficacy with which state governments keep roads clear to the historical success rates of their winter-season sports teams—we ranked each and every state from best to worst. Because what the hell else are we going to do when the temperatures dip... make another godforsaken loaf of sourdough?!
Aloha means hello, goodbye, and “who cares about pro sports teams when the average temperature during the winter is 81 and we’re all over here eating malasadas."
Occasionally, retired Kroger business executives from Ohio and their Pilates-instructor second wives will accidentally move to Flagstaff and get very sad and angry when they realize the average winter temperature is somewhere in the 20s. But most of Arizona offers up that dry desert day heat that is good for arthritis and any lingering guilt about leaving their first wives to deal with their delinquent teenage kids back in Indian Hill.
There is no generalizing about the climate of a state the size of Italy, except to say that Tahoe and Shasta are like oil paintings of winter wonderlands; SF’s weather rarely changes except during the weird time during the summer when it becomes winter and everyone misquotes Mark Twain; everyone in LA and San Diego just wears bikinis and surfs to work year-round (except during Sharknado season); and they don’t have meteorologists in Fresno, so no one knows what happens there during any season.
Yes, this seems like an odd placement for a state that clearly experiences some serious snowfall. But the truth is, snowfall is a cause for celebration here. Have you ever been to Colorado in wintertime? The sun is shining, the winter sports are world class, and if people aren’t (legally) high, then they’re getting into some fantastic beer. The Broncos are even good for a Super Bowl with a decent amount of regularity. Colorado has basically solved winter.
Seeing how it’s mostly a humid subtropical state filled with the type of people who unironically adorn their cars with statement bumper stickers and don’t blink for long periods of time, Florida’s winters tend to be mild, as if actively trying not to make any sudden moves lest their population get nervous and start throwing alligators.
45. New Mexico
Did you know that New Mexico is basically Colorado? And I don’t mean that as in they both tend to attract spiritually earnest people who value physical fitness and have weirdly nice calves and prefer to be outdoors wearing shawls with Native American symbols on them (though that is also true). I mean, in the sense of topography, New Mexico and Colorado both have high plains, mountain ranges, deserts, basins, fantastic winters, and affiliations to green chile.
You think they’d have Mardi Gras in February (or early March) if that wasn’t an ideal time for a party? Wait, what do you mean “it’s set by the church calendar to always fall the day before Ash Wednesday?” Well, either way, Louisiana is a decent state when it comes to dealing with the colder months.
Texas is a bit of a grab bag: West Texas is mostly arid desert where you can get the occasional blizzard that shuts down Amarillo, forcing their lauded indoor football team, the Venom, to postpone games. East Texas is subtropical and humid even in the winter, and they get that cool advection fog in Galveston where you can’t see anything.
Sure, once in a while it will snow four inches in Dallas that shuts down everything. But all that said, outside of the Northern Plains, the average temps in Texas in the winter usually stay in the mid-60s during the day, and that’s pretty nice.
Psychologically it seems like Georgia should be safely out of the winter pain zone, and often that holds true, but freezing rain’s nothing to mess with, tornadoes somehow continue to be a thing even in February, and when snow does hit, no city does “wow, we were woefully underprepared for this” quite like Atlanta.
The people of Alabama asked the Lord that He make the climate of Alabama suitable to play football outside year-round and He listened to the people and granted them a mild winter climate for which to play His game. Except up in Huntsville.
40. South Carolina
Outside of the Blue Ridge Mountains, most parts of the state will remain free from snow for years at a time (if something’s going down, freezing rain's probably the bet). The mild winters are needed, as there is plenty more to worry about, such as hurricanes, sharks, and other South Carolinians.
North Mississippi gets hit with a little blizzard action on occasion (snow tornadoes!), but it’s far from the norm. And even when a cold snap does hit, people are generally back to sweet tea-sippin’ weather in no time.
38. North Carolina
Few places have a mountain range that acts like a shield preventing invasions by Midwestern winter weather. North Carolina is one of those lucky states, giving it a relatively mild and tame winter for its placement up the coast. So it makes no sense that their state flag looks like the Indonesian flag with a small stripe of blue instead of a picture of Dean Smith sitting in a Hickory-made rocking chair atop the Appalachian mountain range with a big hunk of chewing tobacco and a chopped pork sandwich.
Other than in the northern reaches of the state, Nevada’s generally pretty well protected from the worst aspects of winter. However, it is NOT protected from packs of bros descending on it for Super Bowl weekend (Chad only gets married once, right guys?!), then getting unruly with the staff at the Hard Rock because they expected the pool to be open even though it’s actually only like 49 degrees out.
Yes, it sometimes gets cold. Counterpoint: hot chicken—which all publications are contractually bound to mention when speaking about Tennessee—is a much more effective belly warmer than hot chocolate, especially late at night.
Like Colorado, you can generally count on the fact that winters will be packed with sunshine and access to world-class cold weather leisure activities (2002 Olympics for life!). Unlike Colorado, there’s no unfettered access to cannabis.
Once in a great while, Old Man Winter will rear his ugly head in a big way, but generally speaking, people need to be much more concerned about RAMPAGING FERAL HOGS (god, we really miss 2019).
The panhandle tends to experience the most cold (hey, just like an actual pan!), and the rest of the state typically has at least one serious snow or ice beating per winter, though they typically don’t linger too long. Bonus: on colder days, locals can humor each other with clever lines about the wind sweeping down the plain. Actually, nobody does that. But they don’t have to, because things are, more often than not, OK.
Generally speaking, the winters tend to be a little rougher the closer you get to DC, which could speak to either geography or the bone-chilling effects of daily political discourse. The mountains (obviously) also receive their share of snow, but they’re also quite beautiful and serene, so that couldn’t possibly have anything to do with whatever bullshit is happening on the senate floor at any given moment.
If I had a dollar for every time someone has come up to me and said “Let’s talk about Maryland’s climate, specifically in the winter,” I would, as of now, have yet to collect any money. Anyway, if you take 68 and go west to Cumberland and farther past, it can get damn cold and snowy, but around Bawlmore it remains relatively tepid.
Kentucky always sounds like a very warm place to Northerners, who envision temperate climes where you can enjoy hot weather alongside your Hot Browns while wearing lavish hats filled with bourbon. And then you realize that it’s basically southern Ohio.
29. West Virginia
John Denver once described West Virginia as “almost heaven.” However, he could have just as easily described it as “almost definitely the place you’re most likely to encounter terrifying driving conditions on I-77, inebriated dudes whose breath smells like Gino’s baked spaghetti haranguing you about Bob Huggins’ offensive sets, and the nagging feeling that they could have come up with a more creative name for a giant ski resort than ‘Winterplace.’” However, that would’ve really altered the rhythm of the song.
Far enough south to generally be removed from the worst of the worst, yet the major metropolitan centers are juuuust far enough north that you can typically count on a few wintry groin punches per season. Said winter blasts— which presumably resulted in the creation of Bud Ice once upon a time—are best countered with a piping hot, definitely-not-weird cracker-thin pizza dripping with processed cheese.
Being smack dab in the middle of the country means you’re gonna have smack dab in the middle winters —sometimes the hammer will come down, sometimes you’ll be like “hot damn it might hit 80 today.” This causes Kansans to put particular stock in the unpredictable nature of their winters, but that’s mostly because there isn’t that much else to talk about.
Whenever Delaware gets pasted with a winter storm, you can pretty much guarantee some other, bigger metropolitan area got it worse, thus leading no one to notice the plight of Delaware outside of people living in Delaware. So, it’s basically a colder version of the rest of the year for Delaware.
The Tom Osborne state doesn’t get quite the same Midwestern winter gut punch that you might think. Winters are actually downright moderate in western Nebraska thanks to the moderating effects of the Chinook winds coming off the Rockies, while people in the east are forced to just hunker down with their stockpiles of corn and watch old tapes of Coach Osborne speaking on farm subsidies interspersed with quick clips of Eric Crouch scrambling for touchdowns.
24. New Jersey
Imagine getting on a train on a winter morning, everybody wrapped in their puffy coats, salty and bleary-eyed. There’s one seat left… between two dudes who definitely appear to be obnoxious. But hey, it’s a seat, so you take it. Yet, when you sit, you get the sense both of these guys regard YOU as the asshole. Now imagine that morning lasts for a few months. This is winter in New Jersey, starring Philly and New York as your bus buddies.
Pennsylvania has something of a split winter personality. In the east, you have more of the sharp-elbowed, horn-honking, battery-in-your-face-even-if-you’re-Santa kind of winter depression. Farther inland it’s a bit more of a Midwestern mentality, a kind of “let’s hunker down and get through this” mindset that leads to stuff like just cramming a bunch of French fries inside a sandwich because you’ve basically given up, and losing count of how many pierogies you’ve consumed before deciding that must means it’s time to start over and order more pierogies.
Vermont has some seriously brutal winters, with most areas averaging around 8ft of snow. But—in the same vein of places like Colorado—Vermonters actually seem to relish in the inability to drive anything without chains. Partially that’s because Vermont also boasts the best skiing by far of all of the East Coast, and partially it's because the over-consumption of maple syrup can do some crazy things to a person’s psyche.
21. Rhode Island
Unlike the issues in generalizing the climates of some of these large states, Rhode Island suffers from the opposite sort of problem—it basically just gets a little bit of whatever Mass and Connecticut are having. Also, you can’t enjoy Del’s Frozen Lemonades when your car is buried under 28in of snow and they’ve completely shut down 295 AND the Providence Place mall.
20. New York
New Yorkers have a way of vacillating between bragging about their comparatively mild winters relative to some of your other northern metropolises (your Bostons, your Chicagos), and then switching into “STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING NOW AND BEHOLD OUR PLIGHT” mode when some serious weather comes their way. Meanwhile Buffalo’s up there under some 30ft of lake-effect snow, just alternating between hours-long shoveling escapades and quiet moments by the fireplace spent softly crying about Scott Norwood while taking shots of Frank’s.
All of the brutal parts of the New England winter with none of the ski perks. And yes, we’re counting Mohawk, Ski Sundown, AND Mount Southington.
On the one hand, the mountains are lovely in the winter. On the other hand, getting there means driving through cold, sideways rain, which turns into sleet right around the time the road changes to switchbacks, then to ice. That never-ending rain in much of the state bred some great music, but there's a damn good reason most of it has a deeply depressing backstory.
There’s no denying the beauty of magnificent Crater Lake when observed via snowshoes. Or the thrills of snowboarding down Mt. Hood or Bachelor. Or staring at the snowy peaks of the Three Sisters mountains from the comfort of a rustic cabin in the high desert. On the other hand, that’s all counterbalanced by Portland hipsters who complain about the rain for five months, yet refuse to buy an umbrella. Which is to say, hipsters ruin even Crater Lake.
The Region (that’s the creatively named NW corner of the state bordering Lake Michigan, for the uninitiated) definitely gets the worst of it—without warning, a foot of snow will just decide to show up and punch everyone in the face. For a state that grapples with this kind of thing on a regular basis, I-65, the state’s main artery, has a knack for turning into an undriveable frozen windswept hellscape to the point where the state actually shuts it down, forcing traffic onto equally dubious state highways. If you’ve ever stared into a barren tundra of a frozen harvested cornfield and thought to yourself that this could be the beginnings of the apocalypse, well... you are in a state known to serve up brain sandwiches.
15. New Hampshire
A general malaise creeps into the Granite State once they realize you can’t race NASCAR when you’re getting 70 inches of snow, so instead New England’s most sunburned neck of a state has to somehow get by by looking through their collections of old Joe Lieberman campaign signs and hoping somebody plowed and salted 93.
You’ve got the lake-effect snowstorms of Lake Erie along the Snowbelt. You’ve got the moderate cold of the central lowlands and Columbus. But then you’ve got Cincinnati and it's basically Kentucky's subtropical humid climate and wall lizards, which are something most people think of in Florida or Houston. So basically, Ohio is more like three separate winter regions, divided in weather, but united in being upset about their NFL teams.
Chicago winters are notoriously rough (and yes, occasionally Siberia-esque), but the people there have the kind of warm and generous spirit that leads to displays of solidarity like... fighting over whether or not a pair of plastic lawn chairs constitutes indefinite rights to a shoveled-out parking place post-snowfall. Downstate things tend not to be quite as bad, other than, you know, the fact that you’re in downstate Illinois.
There is a case to make that Wyoming could be even higher up the list considering that even when it’s just dumping moose-sized buckets of snow everywhere it’s so damn pretty to look at the Grand Tetons that you can’t possibly be miserable. Plus those crucial Chinook winds that bailed out Nebraska also tamp down the bitterest of the cold. It’s basically like the handsome middle child of the West: not quite as fierce and cold as its bigger old brother Montana, or as awkward as Idaho, and somewhat ignorant of the fact that it’s even tangentially related to the Dakotas.
One January, while inexplicably choosing to travel by car from Chicago to Iowa to watch an Iowa basketball game, I experienced a whiteout snow storm so fierce that a truck jackknifed along I-80, causing a historically bad traffic jam that I only escaped by detouring down an equally terrifying, definitely random farm road. It was nerve-wracking. Meanwhile, Iowans seemed to take this in stride with a suspiciously friendly Midwest-ness, possibly because Iowa has to deal with a super confluence of shitty weather: snowstorms in the winter; 50 days of thunderstorms; an average of 47 tornadoes a year (in 2008 there were 105). I mean, jeez, even Wikipedia calls their winters “harsh.”
When it comes to Massachusetts winters, you pick your poison: would you prefer slightly warmer winters on the coast with heavier snowfall? Or brutally harsh Tom Brunansky-bat-to-your-ears cold in Western and Central Mass with slightly less snow? Either way, the state tends to do a good job keeping the Pike clear of snow. Plus the Bruins and Celtics win enough that you can just lie in the hammock in your partially finished basement drinking Ocean Spray Cran-Grape juice and Bully Boy vodkas and watch your bootleg tape of good Shawn Thornton fights until all the nor’easters are over.
Did you know that the Continental Divide can create distinct differences in sunlight, wind, precipitation, and temperature, depending on whether you’re in the eastern or western part of the state? Did you know that, either way, all the insufferable celebrities who thought it’d be “rustic” to own a ranch up there or whatever sure as shit aren’t taking advantage of said property in January. Wait… maybe that’s actually a positive?
If you happen to live up at the top of Idaho’s chimney, up Route 2 by Bonners Ferry or beyond even, wow. You basically live in Canada, and as such, are in no way protected by those lovely Chinook winds we keep talking about, but might have an in on getting cheaper prescription drugs when the borders are open, so it balances out. But because most of Idaho is not in fact in that chimney, and is somewhat comparatively temperate to other western climes, you get rich West Coast people coming out in expensive fur-lined ski wear to use your facilities in Sun Valley.
Look, there’s a reason it’s practically state law that every block in a Wisconsin city or town must have a minimum of three bars on it. There’s a level of persistently grey, soul-squeezing frigidness here that can only be combatted with liberal doses of brandy Old Fashioneds and Spotted Cow along with various forms of fried dairy products.
6. South Dakota
Your average high temperature during the winter months is four degrees higher than North Dakota's, and the Black Hills are very pretty when buried under snow. You are the champion of the Dakotas. Claim your slightly less misery-bound throne!!!
More than 80% of Maine’s land is forests. There are entire huge thousand-mile swaths of land that are uninhabited or barely habited, and that is because northern Maine has winters that are only really spoken about in Game of Thrones—brutal and never-ending and likely on par with The Long Night.
The coast and the south where people actually live have more moderate winters, thanks to the Atlantic, but the Mainer attitude toward winter is a great one—they all seem pretty fired up to ski and sled despite not getting to eat lobster or blueberries for many months—and they tend to be much more upbeat than say, Bostonians, who always like to pretend that we’re getting it the worst and thus are the strongest. And that attitude (and the general lack of people in the real harsh stuff) prevents Maine and its Longest Winters from pushing even farther down the line.
4. North Dakota
In Downtown Owl, Chuck Klosterman writes of a sleepy North Dakota town in which the happenings are fairly mundane until a massive, unforgiving blizzard sweeps through and (spoiler alert) kills all three of the protagonists in different horribly depressing ways. The book is a work of fiction. OR IS IT?
Look, if you’re taking things from a purely “how bad can things actually get, weather wise” standpoint, Alaska is obviously the number one choice here. No other state has vast geographical stretches that can say stuff like “man, I haven’t seen the sun in months” and have it be literal rather than figurative. Any data you want to pull on snow, wind, or cold will make most other states seem like Hawaii.
But here’s the thing: Alaska draws a different type of human. Either you’ve got some Inuit blood flowing through your veins and these types of conditions don’t remotely phase you, or you have the type of slightly unhinged frontier spirit that leads people to say “why yes, I would like to live in the place where even summer can sometimes be kinda winter-ish” or “you know, this Sarah Palin seems like the kind of no-nonsense straight talker who is 100% capable of running a state.” You just can’t view this place through a traditional lens.
For most Michiganders—at least in the lower, populated peninsula—this is winter: you leave work at 5 or 6, already in the dead of night, and fight your way down 94 or 96 or 75 or whatever Godforsaken stretch of highway. You can't even tell if it is drizzling rain or snow, because the brown salt sludge that sprays up off the road coats your windshield more completely than anything that falls from the sky. Overnight, the road freezes. In the morning you wake up and it is still dark. You scrape off your car, then get stuck in traffic as the cars ahead of you gawk at the SUV that has slid into the ditch. You actually look forward to a proper snowfall, just to cover the dirt. Even then, you do not go skiing, because there are no hills.
You do not look forward to outdoor winter recreation because there is none, unless you have been so indoctrinated as to pretend you like cross-country skiing on very flat land or you own a snowmobile. You will almost certainly gain weight. The sounds of revving snowblowers and snowmobiles will drive you to near madness. Then, suddenly, it's Tigers opening day, and you convince yourself that means it's spring, but it's still 45 degrees and the giant piles of dirty snow will still be melting for a month. Unless you're in the UP, in which case they'll be there, along with the revving snowblowers, until at least early May.
To think of the generally cheerful brood of Nordic-bred people being the winners in any sort of a contest of misery seems downright crazy. But for all those adorable don'tcha knows, we think something else is going on. We think beneath that eternal Nordic happiness is some inner pain, trapped below the surface like a Grain Belt dropped into an ice-fishing hole, a cauldron of hot anger ready to spill out like a cut-open Jucy Lucy.
How can you remain so upbeat when you get all the winter weather patterns? Alberta clippers? Sure. Panhandle hooks? You betcha! Parts of northern Minnesota see up to 170 inches of snow in a winter. One hundred seventy inches! That’s like two and a half times the height of Kent Hrbek!! It can get down to negative 60 degrees, a temperature at which frostbite can occur in fewer than five minutes. There are no chinook winds or moderating oceans to temper things outside of a small area by Lake Superior. Your sports teams never win championships. All of your good high school hockey players end up starring for NHL teams in other cities. Ice fishing can’t be that cool, really.
And so we think that —despite all appearances—Minnesota does in fact have the most miserable winter in the United States. So to all the Eriks, and Astrids, and Christens, and Bjorns, and Brynjars, it’s OK to show a little displeasure at the meteorological hand you’ve been dealt. After all, don'tcha know emoting is good for the system?