As the weather chills Paul Bilton puts on his thermals and winter tires

Those of you from Canada, central USA and the Arctic Circle will likely scoff at what follows, but bear with me please because Swiss winters can be a bit of a shock for those brought up in Florida or Eastbourne.

The first thing to realize is that like summers, Swiss winters are an unknown quantity – even to the weather forecasters. They can be bitter (the winters, not the forecasters). I recall two weeks when the highest temperature was minus 5°C and nights were minus 15°. That was 1985 and it killed my father-in-law's hedge. But just as likely winters can be mild with hardly a flake of snow in the lowlands.

Regardless of what winter may hold, the Swiss naturally expect the worst and start to prepare for it around now. Light-weight summer clothing is put carefully away in the attic in rather ineptly named 'moth cupboards'; rickety and rather gaudy plastic constructions available at supermarkets for storing clothes in, not moths. It will take some hours to get this simple device erected. Once you have it built, on no account should you take it to pieces again, even if you move house, as you will find it impossible to build a second time.

Down from the attic come winter boots, gloves, coats, scarves etc. and, if you are like me, winter underwear. You will be amazed how cold jeans can become as you wait for a bus in sub-zero temperatures. I soon realized that it would be much more sensible to wear long johns instead of trying to stand in such a way as to avoid the freezing denim touching my bare legs.

If you have a car, you will have to have your wheels changed to run with winter tires. (It is quite possible to do this yourself, but no Swiss would dream of trying.) I thought that this would be a good investment, as instead of one set of tires lasting say four years, two sets should last for eight. But those sneaky tire dealers tell you that winter tires only work for about five years. I'm not quite sure what they do after that – retire perhaps? In reality if you live below 800 meters you are likely never to drive on snow. But you will hear threatening tales of how if don't have winter tires you are skating on thin ice and if you have an accident you will be in hot water. (There's at least a fr20-fine for mixing metaphors.)

Chains are another horrid invention that you should carry in your car from now on. They look so easy in the demonstration videos in the stores. There a woman can fix them on in seconds without breaking a nail. In real life, chains will take at least an hour to attach and you may never be able to remove them again. They really are for emergency use only. Once you start driving with chains fitted it is like going over an endless cattle grid and the vibration can loosen dental fillings.

Be careful that you have the right size chains too. I changed my Golf a few years ago, little suspecting that the new one would have bigger wheels. There I was in a car park at the foot of the Julier pass in a blizzard with the police looking on and my filthy rusty chains breaking every fingernail I had. They just would not fit. Next to me was the same model Golf going back to Belgium having its chains removed. I enquired if the owner would like to sell them. He produced the plastic box they came in with the receipt. I paid and an hour later I had them fitted. Safely over the cattle-grid they call the Julier Pass in the Engadin, while fighting to remove my chains, a German Golf pulled up and the driver asked if I wanted to sell my chains. I said 'natürlich' and was even able to produce the receipt. (The Swiss rarely drive over the Julier Pass in the winter and when they do they have chains – and ones that fit.)