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. “Polar vortex” enters the lexicon. Snow hats look cool until you have to take them off indoors and then your hair pays the price. The whole affair is horrible. Still, it feels worth taking stock of—and perhaps even revering—shitty winters while the concept of “winter” still exists here on Planet Earth. And there are a few states that really take the cake as far as the cold months go.
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 whether the snow stays fluffy or turns immediately into sidewalk sludge—we ranked each and every state’s winter 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 what month it is when the average temperature during winter is 81ºF anyway and we’re all over here eating malasadas.”
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.
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 winter? 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.
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 chiles.
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.
Other than in the northern reaches of the state, Nevada is generally devoid of the worst aspects of winter; in fact, this is the best time of year to be in the desert, since you can stand outside for more than a few minutes without feeling like you’re going to have a full-on heat stroke. However, while crowd favorites like Vegas are protected from terrible weather, they are NOT protected from packs of bros 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.
Psychologically, it seems like Georgia should be safely out of the winter pain zone, and often that holds true. But freezing rain is 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.
Much like Florida, Alabama shakes off winter blues pretty easily, as any state would if it lay along the Gulf Coast. Winter temperatures ‘round these parts are relatively temperate, and toward the end of the season when most other states are still wrapped up in coats, Alabama is already thinking about where to spend spring break.
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 are more pressing matters at hand, 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.
Historically, the Lone Star State has been a bit of a grab bag (West Texas is mostly an arid desert that gets the occasional blizzard; East Texas is subtropical and humid year-round; et cetera). In years past, we may have ranked Texas as a place where winter comes and goes without much issue—but considering the devastating snowstorm that rocked the state in February 2021 (not to mention certain US senators that just so happened to be “dropping off their daughter in Mexico” while it all went down), we’ve had to place it further up on the list this time around. We sincerely hope our Texan friends won’t have to deal with that level of chaos (and utter government failure) ever again.
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 coldest temps (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 actually visit Kentucky and 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 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.
Missouri is 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 leaving 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.
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 because the over-consumption of maple syrup can do some wild things to a person’s psyche.
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. Further 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 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 it’s time to start over and order more pierogies.
22. 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 Lemonade when your car is buried under 28in of snow and they’ve completely shut down 295 AND the Providence Place Mall.
21. New York
New Yorkers have a way of vacillating between bragging about their comparatively mild winters relative to other northern metropolises (Boston, Chicago), and 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 said shoveling escapades while taking generous 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.
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.
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. The never-ending rain that takes over much of Washington State during winter has bred some great music over the years, but there's a damn good reason most of that music has deeply depressing backstories.
One could make the case that Wyoming should be even higher up on the list. The Chinook winds coming in off the Rockies tamp down the bitterest of the cold, and even when the snow comes down hard, the Grand Tetons are so damn pretty in winter that you can’t possibly be miserable. Wyoming is basically the handsome middle child of the West: not quite as fierce and cold as its older brother Montana, or as awkward as Idaho, and somewhat ignorant of the fact that it’s even tangentially related to the Dakotas.
If you happen to live up at the top of Idaho’s chimney—up Route 2 by Bonners Ferry or beyond—then wow, you basically live in Canada. As such, you are in no way protected by those lovely Chinook winds we keep talking about, but you might have an in on getting cheaper prescription drugs when the borders are open, so it all balances out. Still, because most of Idaho is relatively temperate compared to other western climes, you’ll get rich West Coast people coming out in expensive fur-lined ski wear to use your facilities in Sun Valley.
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. Instead, New England’s most sunburned neck of a state has to somehow get by on longing, looking through their collections of old Joe Lieberman campaign signs and hoping somebody plowed and salted 93.
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, you’ll suffer a bit, but hey—at least the state tends to do a good job keeping the Pike clear of snow.
If you’re taking things from a purely “how bad can things actually get, weather-wise” standpoint, Alaska would obviously claim the number one spot. Any data you want to pull on snow, wind, or cold will make most other states seem like Hawaii, not to mention the fact that the sun literally does not rise for months at a time. But here’s the thing: winter brings out both the best and worst of the Last Frontier. The subzero temperatures are a lot easier to swallow when you can look up at the dancing Aurora Borealis from a train or a cozy cabin or the front stoop of a quirky bar at the edge of the world, and there’s nothing quite like dogsledding across a glacier to get you to accept the cold. Depending on your sense of adventure, Alaska could sit just about anywhere on this list.
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 sure as shit aren’t taking advantage of said property in January? Wait… maybe that’s actually a positive?
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 undrivable 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.
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 Texas. So basically, Ohio is more like three separate winter regions, all of them miserable in their own varied, unique ways.
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.
People talk about winter in northern Maine the same way they talk about winter in Game of Thrones: brutal and essentially never-ending. Huge thousand-mile swaths of the state are uninhabited or barely habited, and that is because the cold months up this way are on par with The Long Night. Still, the coast and the south have more moderate winters thanks to the Atlantic, and the Mainer attitude toward winter is a great one—they all seem pretty fired up to ski and sled despite not getting to eat blueberries for many months—and much more upbeat, than say, that of Bostonians. That attitude (and the general lack of people in the real harsh parts) prevents Maine from landing even farther down the line.
Nebraska doesn’t get quite the Midwestern winter gut punch you might think. The cold months are actually downright moderate in western Nebraska thanks to the moderating effects of the same Chinook winds that bailed out Wyoming, while people in the east are forced to just hunker down with their stockpiles of corn. Still, winters here don’t exactly offer the long list of wintry things to do or see that you’ll get in other places across the country, which lands this state pretty high on our list.
One January, while inexplicably choosing to travel by car from Chicago to Iowa to watch an Iowa basketball game, I experienced a whiteout snowstorm 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.”
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.
4. South Dakota
South Dakota’s average high temperature during the cold months is four degrees higher than North Dakota's, the Black Hills are very pretty when buried under snow, and there are a few redeeming qualities about South Dakotan winters—namely, ice fishing and snowmobiling—that have convinced us to maybe, maybe, stick around come this time of year. This is officially the better of the two Dakotas. Claim your slightly less miserable throne!
For most Michiganders—at least in the lower, populated peninsula—this is winter: You leave work at 5 or 6 (aka the dead of night) to fight your way down some wretched stretch of highway where brown salt sludge spraying up off the road keeps you from determining whether it’s raining or snowing. Overnight, the road freezes, and when you wake up, it is still dark. You scrape off your car, then get stuck in traffic as the cars ahead of you gawk at an SUV that has slid into a ditch.
You do not look forward to outdoor winter recreation because there is none, unless you pretend to enjoy cross-country skiing on very flat land. The sounds of revving snowblowers and snowmobiles will drive you to near madness. And, even when spring technically arrives, 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 runners-up in any sort of a contest of misery seems downright crazy. But beneath those adorable don'tcha knows, we feel that there must be some deep, dark languor. How can you remain so upbeat in these conditions? Parts of northern Minnesota see up to 170 inches of snow in the winter! It can get down to negative 60 degrees, a temperature at which frostbite can occur in fewer than five minutes!
It is our belief that, despite all appearances and cheery winter festivals, Minnesota does, in fact, have one of the most miserable winters in the US. 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 soul?
1. North Dakota
A lot of states broke all-time-low records this past year. But not North Dakota. No, North Dakota is just always that cold. In fact, it ranks as the coldest state in the lower 48. July and August are the only months when it hasn’t snowed here. Every year sees temperatures in the -20s (and a few days in the -30s!). Once in the 1930s, it even dipped down to -60 degrees. This is just normal here.
The Canada-adjacent state is also the flattest of the Great Plains states, meaning there’s nothing to stop the winds from whipping across all that bare land, stripping you of any residual body heat, blocking all visibility on roads, and shutting down the only two major highways during blizzards.
But it isn’t just the freezing temps and soul-piercing winds that put the home of Fargo at the top of our list: In neighboring polar-vortex-stricken Midwestern states, you can at least cozy up in a lakeside cabin and sip a beer while looking out at gorgeous wintry forests, lakes, and shorelines. In North Dakota, all you’ll get is prairies, grasslands, and wetlands—all buried in endless snow to the horizon—and nowhere to hide.