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What state has the worst winters?

When it comes to brutal winter weather, a few states in the Midwest and Northeast come to mind as the most notorious for bitter cold temperatures, heavy snowfall, strong winds, and icy conditions. Determining which state officially has the “worst” winters depends on how you define bad winter weather and which factors you prioritize.

What criteria make a winter bad?

There are a few key factors that contribute to making a state’s winter miserable:

  • Frigid temperatures – States with average winter temperatures significantly below freezing tend to have harsher winters.
  • Heavy snowfall – Frequent snow storms and high seasonal snow totals can make winter more disruptive and hazardous.
  • Strong winds – Bitterly cold winds drive down wind chill factors, compounding the impact of cold air.
  • Ice storms – Freezing rain and ice accumulation can knock out power and make roads impassable.
  • Cloudy days – Gloomy winter skies can feel depressing.
  • Length of winter – The duration of cold weather matters too. Winters seem worse when cold and snow linger into spring.

Of course, cold tolerance is subjective, and what may seem like a nightmare winter in one region leaves residents of colder climates unphased. Geographic and demographic factors also influence winter severity. Rural areas often face greater snow removal challenges. Winter weather takes a harsher toll on homeless populations. For the purposes of this article, we will focus on temperature, snowfall, and general winter climate factors.

The 10 States with the Worst Winters

Here are the states that tend to experience the most difficult winter conditions:

  1. North Dakota
  2. Alaska
  3. Minnesota
  4. Maine
  5. Michigan
  6. Vermont
  7. New Hampshire
  8. South Dakota
  9. Wisconsin
  10. Montana

Let’s analyze what puts each of these states on the list.

North Dakota

North Dakota tops this list as the state with the worst winters due to exceptionally cold temperatures throughout much of the season. In January, North Dakota averages highs around 13°F and lows of -2°F statewide. The eastern half of the state along the Red River Valley endures the coldest temperatures, with average lows below zero from December to February.

In addition to relentless cold, North Dakota also gets pummeled with snow. The eastern cities of Grand Forks and Fargo average 45 to 50 inches of snow per season. Drifting snow can pile up several feet deep during harsh blizzard conditions that commonly impact the Great Plains. Although winter highs sometimes surge above freezing, the next Arctic front is never far off in North Dakota.


The northernmost state in the U.S. is an obvious choice for winter severity. Barrow, the northernmost town in Alaska, has average highs of just 4°F in January and lows dipping to -20°F. Temperatures plunge far colder with wind chill factored in. Alaska is prone to massively deep snow dumps, with Valdez in southern Alaska receiving an average 300 inches per winter. In the state’s interior, Fairbanks endures around 65 days below 0°F every year. Bitter cold, dark winter days last from October through April in much of Alaska.


Minnesota winters resemble those in nearby North Dakota, with subzero cold and plentiful snowfall. The average high in January statewide is just 21°F, while lows drop to 2°F. Minnesota gets an average of 49 inches of snow per winter, with a high frequency of snowstorms. Blizzard conditions and whiteout snow squalls are common. The northern part of Minnesota has the harshest weather, with places like International Falls averaging 40 days below zero annually. Wind chill readings of -60°F or lower are not uncommon during Minnesota’s frigid winters.


While the Northeast is not as cold overall as the Upper Midwest, the region still shivers through rough winters. Maine averages 32 inches of snow per winter in the south and over 100 inches of snow per winter in the north. Maine’s location along the coast brings plenty of storms barreling up the Atlantic, creating frequent snowfall and powerful nor’easters with howling winds. January highs average around 31°F statewide, with lows in the teens. Subzero cold snaps are common, especially in northern Maine’s snow belts.


Michigan weathers harsh winters owing to its geography spread between the Great Lakes. The state averages 38 inches of snow per winter, with lake effect snow bombarding western Michigan off Lake Michigan. The northern area of the Upper Peninsula piles up over 200 inches of snow per season from November through April. Low temperatures average in the teens statewide in January. Blizzards and wind chills as low as -40°F or colder are not uncommon during the long Michigan winter.


This New England state is hit with plenty of snow, averaging 68 inches statewide per winter. In the Green Mountains, over 140 inches of snow can fall during winter. Burlington averages 20 days per winter year with temperatures below zero. Lows in January average just 9°F across Vermont, while highs struggle to reach freezing. Storms tracking from the Great Lakes dump heavy snow in Vermont, sometimes enhancing totals to over 100 inches in southern and central Vermont during cold, snowy winters.

New Hampshire

New Hampshire joins its fellow New England states as experiencing long, snowy, and cold winters. The southeast averages 35 inches of snow near the coast, while the north gets pounded with 80+ inches in the White Mountains area. In January, low temperatures average between 2°F in the south to -7°F in the north. Wind chill values under -30°F are common when Arctic air masses settle over the region. Storms blasting up the East Coast frequently smack New Hampshire with heavy snow, sleet, freezing rain, and rain.

South Dakota

Like its northern neighbor, South Dakota endures bitterly cold winters. In January, high temperatures average in the mid 20s F statewide, while lows range from 2°F in the southeast to -2°F in the northwest. Eastern South Dakota is prone to heavy snowfall, averaging 35 inches per winter in Sioux Falls. The Black Hills and Badlands in western South Dakota receive less snow but contend with subzero cold snaps. Overall, South Dakota winters serve up freezing temperatures and piles of snow.


Sandwiched between the Great Lakes, Wisconsin accumulates copious lake effect snow, averaging 43 inches per winter statewide. The city of Superior along Lake Superior reports an average seasonal snow tally of over 80 inches. January temperatures in Wisconsin range from average highs of 26°F and lows of 8°F in the south to highs of 19°F and lows of 2°F around the Bay of Green Bay. Wind chills of -30°F to -40°F occur multiple times every winter in this perpetually frozen state.


The northern Rocky Mountains pipe in cold arctic air to Montana all winter long. January lows average a bitter 1°F in the southwest to -22°F in the northeast corner. Around Glacier National Park and the Canada border,SUBARCTIC temperatures are typical. Great Falls contends with an average 41 days below zero every winter. Snowfall averages over 60 inches statewide, but amounts double over mountain passes. Big blizzards with strong Chinook winds create winter misery across Montana.

Coldest States by Average Winter Temperature

Looking at December through February temperature averages, here are the states with the coldest winter temperatures overall:

State Average Winter Temperature
Alaska 10.5°F
North Dakota 12.2°F
Minnesota 14.9°F
Maine 20.4°F
South Dakota 21.2°F
Montana 21.5°F
Wisconsin 22.6°F
Wyoming 23.9°F
Idaho 25.0°F
Michigan 25.7°F

Alaska experiences the coldest average winter temperatures in the U.S. by a large margin. Several northern tier states in the Midwest and New England also stand out for winter cold. Surprisingly, some Rocky Mountain states like Wyoming, Idaho, and Colorado crack the top 10 list for cold as frigid air pools in the mountain valleys.

Snowiest States by Average Winter Snowfall

In terms of which states get blasted with the highest amount of snow each winter, here are the top 10 snowiest on average:

State Average Winter Snowfall
Alaska 74.5 inches
New York 63 inches
Michigan 60 inches
Maine 59 inches
Minnesota 49 inches
New Hampshire 49 inches
Vermont 46 inches
Wisconsin 43 inches
Colorado 39 inches
Wyoming 38 inches

The snowiest regions are concentrated in the Northeast, Upper Midwest, and mountainous western states. Alaska takes the crown for the snowiest state with an average seasonal tally exceeding 6 feet in many parts of the state. New York may seem like a surprise at #2, but frequent nor’easters often dump 1 to 3 feet of snow even in New York City and surrounding areas. The Great Lakes states also get buried under lake effect snow bands stretching off the open waters. And the western mountains wring out hefty snows from Pacific winter storms.

Most Miserable Winters: The Dakotas

When assessing the worst winters in the U.S., the combination of freezing temperatures, abundant snowfall, harsh winds, and long duration of cold conditions points decisively at the Dakotas. North Dakota and South Dakota rise to the top as the states forced to endure the most miserable winters year after year. Here’s a recap of what makes winters so harsh in the Dakotas:

  • Daytime highs in January average just 13°F in North Dakota and 24°F in South Dakota.
  • Overnight lows in January average -2°F in North Dakota and 2°F in South Dakota.
  • North Dakota gets an average yearly snowfall of 35 inches; South Dakota averages 28 inches.
  • The Dakotas experience frequent blizzards and whiteout conditions when arctic air outbreaks clash with Pacific moisture.
  • Bitterly cold winds drive wind chill readings down to -60°F or colder.
  • Subzero cold snaps lasting one to two weeks are common in the Dakotas.

For these reasons, North Dakota and South Dakota consistently suffer through the worst winters in the U.S. in terms of snowfall, cold temperatures, harsh winds, and the long duration of frigid conditions. Braving the brutal winters on the northern Great Plains tests the limits of human cold tolerance like nowhere else in the country.


Defining which states experience the worst winter weather depends on priorities such as cold temperatures, heavy snow totals, blizzard conditions, ice storms, or general winter dreariness. By factoring in average winter temperatures and snowfall totals along with local climate conditions like strong winds, duration of cold, and winter storm frequency, the Dakotas stand out as having the worst winters. North Dakota and South Dakota contend with subzero cold, copious snowfall, powerful winds, and lingering winter conditions that make winters a miserable undertaking. For those determined to endure the most challenging winters, the Dakotas are about as extreme as it gets in the Lower 48 states.