Canada gets cold in winter. And with cold I don’t mean -5°C. I’m talking about -40°C. How do you deal with that?
When moving to Canada, I had no idea it got this cold. Coming from New Zealand, where the climate is mild, it was a shock. When it snows in Canada– it snows. The entire day. The snow stays around for seven months, so basically winter lasts from November to May.
Extremely Cold Year
A heads up, I’m talking about winter in the Canadian Rockies, so in Alberta and the eastern part of B.C. In Vancouver, at the west coast, there is less snow and temperatures are milder. You get rain in exchange though.
In the Canadian Rockies you get sunny days, but it gets very cold. This year apparently was an extremely cold one – lucky me… I’ve never really experienced a tough winter. I grew up in Belgium, where snow is quite rare. One day of snow messes up the traffic, and usually the next day the snow is gone. In New Zealand there was snow, but not as much, and the temperatures weren’t extreme.
What locals say about the cold:
1. “It’s a dry cold”
They admit it’s cold, but then they add: “but it’s a dry cold”. Bitterly cold days are usually accompanied by lots of sunshine, making it a dry cold. “In the east it’s way colder, they have a humid cold”, they often add.
Luckily there are also Chinook winds, which are warm winds lifting the temperature a bit. Thank God for those!
2. “There is no bad weather, there is just bad clothing”
This is one of their favourites, and actually they’re right. It’s important to dress well with colds like this.
Put on a pair of thermal underwear, wear your snow boots and the snow won’t touch you… It’s still VERY COLD though (I’m obviously not used to it yet). Canadians are big on having the right clothing, and I do understand where it comes from. If you don’t dress well, you could die. There are those horror stories of people being locked out of their house and freezing to death.
Survive Canadian winter with these tips:
1. Dress in layers
Start with a base layer like thermal leggings and wear snow pants on top of them. Same for your upper body. Wear a base layer, then a t-shirt, a fleece and a coat. The advantage of layers is that it traps the body heat inside and helps you stay warm. You can also easily take something off when you’re too hot and put something on when you get cold.
2. Cover your entire body
Yes, that includes your face. Take a cap, gloves, a scarf and something to cover your face. Exposed skin can get frostbite in as less as 30 seconds, so you always want to be covered up!
No need to go into town with ski goggles, it is ok to expose your eyes to the cold – you still want to see where you’re walking, right? Don’t be surprised though if your eyelashes are freezing. It’s not as bad as it looks.
3. Knowledge is power
Educate yourself about what can happen when you are exposed to extreme weather. Hypothermia and frostbite are the two most common results from staying unprotected in the cold.
If you get frostbite, your skin will look pale grey or white and have a waxy texture. You can also experience numbness, pain, swelling and blistering. Definitely don’t rub the affected area and don’t expose it to direct heat. It’s better to use your own body temperature.
Also watch for signs of hypothermia in yourself and in friends and family. Someone could be in trouble it they are shivering, confused and weak. Get them inside as quick as possible and try to gradually raise their body temperature.
4. Don’t stay outside for too long
This is a simple tip, but so true. Try to limit outside activities, as it can be dangerous when temperatures are up to -40°C (-40°F). It’s important to just use your common sense and see what feels right.
I have been snowshoeing for example in temperatures around -28°C (-18.4°F). It was a sunny day, I had a lot of warm clothes on and I kept moving. Besides a few minutes stop for a drink or snack I didn’t stop. This way your sweat doesn’t get the chance to get you cold. The cold doesn’t mean you can’t go hiking and have fun, you just need to be prepared.
5. Check the weather forecast
Always check the weather forecast before heading out. If you’re doing a day walk or other outdoor activities, keep an eye on the weather in advance. Sometimes extreme weather warnings are issued, advising you to stay inside. You can check the weather on the radio or TV, or online.
Buy good, durable gear. Cotton isn’t great for temperatures like these, as it won’t provide any warmth if you get wet or sweat. Wool or polyester are better options. Also go for shoes with thick soles, as thin ones let the cold right through.
If you’re going on hikes, it’s smart to take an emergency blanket, in case something happens. These blankets are thin sheets that keep the heat in. It reflects up to 90% of radiated body heat, and could be the difference in staying alive.
Don’t be scared!
I hope I didn’t scare you there! It gets cold in Canada, but you don’t get -40°C temperatures the entire winter. It usually comes in waves. Those extreme temperatures will be around for a few days, then a Chinook (warm wind) comes in, and it warms up again. A week (or two) later the cold temperatures are back. I’ve had experienced days where it is -40°C (-40°F) and the next day it is -10°C (23°F). No longer is -10°C cold, it’s actually pretty warm.You’ll experience a totally new relationship with the weather in Canada. -5°C is practically t-shirt weather.
When the sun is out, the days are just beautiful. With good clothing and knowledge you can have so much fun, and the scenery is just beautiful! I’ve done a few hikes and snowshoe trips in winter, and I absolutely loved it. It’s something special.
When I moved to Canada I first had a big shopping spree at my Decathlon store in Belgium. As I had never really experienced a tough winter, I needed a lot of clothes. I chose thermal underwear, puff jackets, a strong raincoat and much more, and I’m glad I did! Every time I go outside in the Canadian cold now, I feel prepared and comfortable.
Looking to stay longer in Canada? Here’s my guide on how to work and travel in Canada.
What to pack: The Canada winter packing list
So you know more about Canadian winter, now what do you add to your Canada winter packing list? For the Belgians under you, hop in a Decathlon store and find good clothes at a reasonable price! For the rest of you, here’s a list of items you can buy online.
PS: if you have an ad blocker, you won’t see the clothing links. Some of the links in this article are affiliate links, which supports this site without costing you anything extra.
The first layer, next to the skin, should be thin. Silk, nylon or polyester are good options to keep the warmth in. Get a base layer for your body and legs. Jeans are not good in cold temperatures!
Click on the picture to find out more information!
Wool legging Merino Wool legging
Shirt short sleeve Long sleeve
The second layer, which you wear on top of the base layer, should be an insulating one. Fleece or wool clothes are good insulators, as they trap warm air. Don’t buy cotton, as it will keep you cold when getting wet.
I was never a fan of puff jackets, until I moved to Canada… They are a great second layer, or even final layer. I usually wear one under my rain jacket, this way I’m warm and protected from the wind.
The winter jacket will protect the upper part of the body while snow pants and boots will protect the lower part of the body.
Lastly, the final layer should protect you from wind and snow. Think of waterproof and windproof material. Wind chill is a huge factor when talking about the cold. Wind can really cut through your clothes, so wear good clothing.
I went for a wide rain jacket, as I had to fit my other layers underneath, and I am absolutely in love with my snow pants from Decathlon. I wear my thermal leggings underneath and I’m good to go. These pants are sturdy and perfect for my hiking adventures.
These are the boots I’m wearing atm. They’re winter hiking boots and so warm, but not too warm that my feet get all sweaty. I have them in yellow, adding a bit of colour to my pictures.
Gloves Mittens Warm socks
I always go outside with a buff (aka a neck warmer). It keeps my neck warm, and sometimes I also use it
as a bandana to keep my ears warm. Try to go for a polar buff, as it is thicker and will keep you warmer.
Beanie Hand warmers Emergency blanket
I bought an alpaca wool beanie from a farm in New Zealand, but there are many other beanies that keep you warm! Basically any beanie will do. The handwarmers can come in handy too (see what I did there 😉 ). They’re great for keeping your hands warm or for warming them up again.
When I’m out hiking I usually wear a short-sleeved base layer, a long-sleeved second layer, a puff jacket and a raincoat. I wear a lot, as I don’t sweat easily. So far it has worked great when hiking in the snow and extreme temperatures. When I’m too hot, I just take a layer off. The Canada winter packing list above is a great tool to buy the essentials, and then you can play and choose what you combine.
If you made it to the end of this article, you have the information to prepare yourself for a Canadian winter – and to go hiking in that white world. I highly recommend visiting Lake O’Hara in winter: read more about my hike here or winter wonderland at Emerald Lake.
And don’t forget: the most cold weather injuries are the result of lack of knowledge and carelessness. With the right preparation you have nothing to fear and can enjoy the sunny, cold days! Canadian winter truly is really fun!
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Have you experienced extremely cold winters? How did you protect yourself?
Read more Canadian adventures: here.