How To Survive The Winter in Canada

Written by: Gemma Taylor

If you’ve ever wanted a picture perfect white Christmas, or the ultimate powder run on a bluebird day in the Rockies, or maybe dog sledding through a silent and snowy forest while the Northern Lights twinkle overhead, then Canada might be the destination for you.

It’s no secret that winter in Canada is serious business. I’ve managed to survive four of them so far, including one in the ‘almost’ subarctic. So let me tell you how and why you should experience (and outlast) at least one Canadian winter.

An easy way out

Misty sunrise on Vancouver Island

It’s cold in Canada, did you know? Well, actually this isn’t quite true. While a lot of the country does suffer from ridiculously cold temperatures, there are pockets where the weather is actually pretty mild.

Two of these areas are Vancouver and neighbouring Vancouver Island in British Columbia. Here, winter is more like the UK’s – wet and fairly gloomy.

Living on the Island was my secret to getting through my first three winters in Canada with ease. I drove up a mountain to work at a ski resort in winter, returning in the evening to sea level. Most days off in March and April I was snowboarding in the morning and paddling on the ocean in the afternoon. A pretty awesome life, even if I did feel like a bit of a cheat.

The real thing – snowboots and all

Christmas in Fort St John

Last winter I decided to try out this ‘Canadian winter’ thing properly, and moved 1200km north, to a land where -40 degrees Celsius is not uncommon. I got a few surprises that winter.

As it turns out, you cannot go outside with wet hair without expecting it to freeze within seconds (apparently I missed a few science lessons). Leaving cars with the engine on is normal to prevent a hard start or the vehicle not starting at all. When not left running, cars are typically plugged into mains electricity, to keep the engine and fluids warm. Daily shovelling is a way of life for many, though I admit I wasn’t quick to join in.

Travel and adventure in a winter wonderland

Fort St John Christmas cottage

Aside from these quirks, there are benefits to braving the chill in Canada. That White Christmas I mentioned earlier? Lived up to my expectations and more. We spent Christmas morning playing in the snow and skidooing (snowmobiling) across the frozen lake before returning inside to open presents by the log fire. Not bad, I must say.

Christmas isn’t the only major event of winter: Canadians know how to celebrate this season properly. Every city seems to have at least one winter festival, from Ottawa’s Winterlude to Quebec City’s Carnival.

If snow sports are your thing, Canada definitely has you covered. Some of the best ski resorts in the world can be found here along with the best crisp and fluffy powder too.

Winter in New Brunswick

Snowshoeing, hockey, dog sledding, snow tubing, ice fishing, skating, camping, tobogganing and snowman-making are all good alternatives if throwing yourself downhill on a wooden plank doesn’t sound like much fun. Watching other people do all the above while drinking eggnog with rum or icewine can also be worthwhile.

Travel is still possible in winter and in many ways can even be better: no crowds, cheaper prices (outside of ski resorts) and simply stunning views can be expected. Although the odds are pretty low for seeing bears at this time of year, it’s still possible to see lynx, moose, wolves and bighorn sheep.

Despite the shorter days, winter travel don’t have to be gloomy either (Aurora Borealis anyone?). In my brief experience of the ‘almost’ subarctic, if it wasn’t snowing, it was sunny. And regardless of that, everyone knows that life is just prettier with snow.

New perspectives

Big Horn Sheep in Canadian Rockies

By the end of a winter in Canada (almost anywhere except Vancouver and Vancouver Island, that is), temperature has new meaning. No longer is -10c cold; it’s actually pretty warm. A hat and gloves are only required around -15c or so; anything warmer and it’s practically T-shirt weather.

Getting the barbeque out with a forecast of ‘cold and brisk’ is the new normal. It’s important not to get too relaxed though; a sunny and mild day can quickly turn bad with the arrival of a sudden snowstorm. Winter jackets aren’t packed away until at least May. Seriously.

Winter in Canada is not a season to avoid, but rather one to embrace. It’s cold, but cold can be beautiful, exciting and pretty darn fun. There’s less shivering than you would expect and more winter sports, unique experiences and unbeatable scenery than you could ever imagine (or that I could include here).

Canada is for year round travel, not just for summer.

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