Fluffy snowflakes are falling. You catch one in your hand, look at it closely, and realize it has the most intricately perfect design. As you sip your hot chocolate beverage, you smell a fire burning, warming fingers and toes. You inhale the cold, fresh air and feel alive. This is Canada in winter. You think back to contemplating a winter vacation in Canada, when you worried about the cold. But you’re “bundled up” as the Canadians say… and it’s so worth it.
I’ve lived 35 winters of my life in Canada. From growing up on the chilly prairies in Manitoba, to spending 12 winters in Alberta and now five in British Columbia, I’ve tried almost every winter activity you could imagine, over and over. I’m an avid snowboarder, dabble in ice skating, and have become a professional at making snowmen with my kids. I’ve experienced frostbite many times. I even had my snow pants light on fire while ice fishing as a kid.
I’m excited to share my recommendations for a winter vacation in Canada and I’ll start with this:
Stay at or near a ski resort in the winter, even if you have no interest in skiing. This is where the action is and winter activities abound (see my “things to do” section below), aside from sightseeing in cities. But if you’re a cities-only person, come to Canada in the spring, summer, or fall… not winter.
So… how cold is it exactly?
That is an excellent question. The problem is, Canada is massive and temperatures can vary from -40 degrees Celsius (or colder in the far North), to a balmy +15 degrees in the dead of winter (Calgary’s Chinooks, anyone?!) Where I live in Kelowna, B.C., temperatures generally range from -5 to +5 degrees Celsius during the months of December to February. Where I grew up in Brandon, Manitoba? It can go into a deep freeze of -30 for days on end.
Most of the popular spots in Alberta and B.C. that I recommend in this post usually hover between 0 and -10 Celsius. But it can be colder or warmer no doubt. If you know you HATE everything about the cold, don’t come to Canada in the winter. If you’re unsure or think you can handle it, you can. Dressing warm is the key to success.
What to wear on your winter vacation in Canada
Bring multiple layers of warm clothes. It’s better to shed layers than not have enough. For snowy activities, start with a warm base layer made of fleece or breathable material, a sweater or sweatshirt, and a winter jacket. On the bottom, you’ll want leggings or sweatpants with snow pants over top.
You should probably wear a toque, eh? (I’m so Canadian). Known around the world as a beanie or hat, you’ll also want a warm, thick toque (see examples in multiple photos on this post), mittens or gloves, and a scarf or neck warmer if it’s brutally cold. Winter boots will keep your feet warm and dry – I recommend Sorel brand boots. If you’re just walking around towns or cities, you don’t need snow pants and can wear runners or regular boots/shoes.
If you can’t stand the cold any longer, there’s always somewhere warm to go inside and get toasty (ideally with a coffee and Baileys in hand; by a fire is a bonus). Try to book a hotel or vacation rental with a hot tub. It feels unreal after a cold day outside when paired with a happy hour beverage.
Canada’s massive – where should I go in the winter?
British Columbia and Alberta are the provinces I recommend. I’m partial to the former, as it’s warmer and has better ski resorts in my opinion – two of the many reasons I live here. If you have two weeks or more, you could do both. If not, I’d focus on one province and one or two areas. Ontario and Quebec also have great options for the activities and recommendations I list below. But I’ve lived in Alberta and B.C. for 20 years (minus a couple short stints living overseas), so it’s what I can speak to best.
Hitting up one or two of B.C.’s ski resorts (see skiing section) and spending a couple days in Vancouver would be a perfect winter vacation. Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort (1.5 hours drive from Vancouver) and Big White Ski Resort (less than an hour’s drive from Kelowna) are amazing, and you can visit the cities while there. Vancouver is a cosmopolitan, coastal city with many sights, and Kelowna offers world-class wineries and pretty lakes for winter photography.
Revelstoke, Golden, and Fernie also offer incredible skiing and snowmobiling, but take two to four hours to drive to from an international airport. Vancouver Island is an option, but I much prefer it in the summer, with its gorgeous beaches and summer activities like surfing, hiking, and wildlife watching.
You also can’t go wrong with Alberta. It tends to be colder than B.C., but Banff, Lake Louise, and Canmore are close driving distances to each other and quickly accessible from Calgary. There you’ve got the beautiful Lake Louise and its ski resort. Banff is vibrant and busy in the winter, with additional highlights such as the Banff Gondola and happening nightlife. Canmore has a chill vibe and the most picturesque towering snow peaked rocky mountains. All of these places have ski hills and any winter activity you’d want in close vicinity.
Jasper is a good choice for a quieter and less touristy place that still has all the best winter activities. The downside is it’s a 3.5 hour drive from Edmonton and more than a four-hour drive from Calgary.
Figuring out which airport to fly into can be tricky, especially because Calgary, Alberta is closer to certain places in B.C. than Vancouver is (like Golden and Fernie, B.C.). If you have questions, leave me a comment on this post and I’ll get back to you.
Things to do on your winter vacation in Canada
Now for the fun stuff. Canada has so many awesome activities to try in the winter. Here are some of the most popular ones that keep us Canucks busy, active, and outdoors during the winter months.
Skiing or snowboarding
This is hands down the best thing to on your winter vacation in Canada. I skied as a kid and switched to snowboarding almost 20 years ago, so these sports are in my blood. If you’ve never done either, book a lesson and get ready to have fun on the slopes! You’re in for a treat with Canada’s powdery snow, varied terrain, and amenity-rich ski resorts. For beginners, I’d suggest trying skiing over snowboarding. It’s easier to learn and gentler on your body. If you’re a surfer, wakeboarder, or skateboarder, snowboarding will come more natural to you.
With about 20 ski resorts in Alberta and B.C., and an additional 40+ smaller ski hills, you’ve got many choices. I’ve snowboarded at 13 of these resorts (some many times) and Nick has visited an additional few, so we’re confident with recommendations. Here’s a rundown of some of the best ski resorts for all levels in Alberta and B.C.
- Whistler Blackcomb Ski Resort (Whistler, B.C.): Canada’s most famous ski resort, it’s the largest and arguably the best. For these reasons it’s also expensive and busy. But you can’t beat the range of accommodations, restaurants, amenities, and amazing terrain, with more than 200 runs.
- Big White Ski Resort (Kelowna, B.C.): My home mountain and absolute favourite place to be in the winter. Also regarded as on of Canada’s best ski resorts (especially for families), Big White has it all – 118 runs of every type of terrain, “champagne powder,” excellent accommodations, restaurants, and family-friendly events, plus just about every other winter activity you can think of on-hill. I’ve written about it in detail here.
- Lake Louise Ski Resort (Lake Louise, Alberta): This resort has one of the longest ski seasons (almost six months), 145 runs for a range of levels, and is super family-friendly. One downside is that there’s no on-hill accommodation, but there are plenty of choices in the town of Lake Louise or in nearby Banff.
- Fernie Alpine Resort (Fernie, B.C.): known for epic powder and varied terrain for all levels spanning 145 runs, Fernie is a lovely ski resort and more tucked away from Alberta and B.C.’s main tourist areas. It has plenty of on-hill accommodations and amenities.
- Panorama Mountain Resort (Invermere, B.C.): Also off the main tourist trail, Panorama is great for all ages and abilities, with 145 runs and a good selection of ski-in, ski-out accommodations and a few restaurants/bars.
For moderate to advanced skiers and snowboarders, I recommend Revelstoke Mountain Resort in Revelstoke, B.C. and Kicking Horse Mountain Resort in Golden, B.C. They are among my favourite ski resorts in Canada, but the terrain is more advanced and I don’t recommend them for inexperienced skiers. Revelstoke has the highest vertical of all ski resorts in North America (translation: you have to ski very fast to make it from the top to the bottom in less than 30 minutes) and sick terrain. Kicking Horse has diverse terrain and crazy awesome views from the top, with a long vertical and many steep runs, including wide open, double-black bowls.
You also can’t go wrong with Sun Peaks Resort (Canada’s second largest ski resort) or Silver Star Mountain Resort in British Columbia. If you prefer a quieter ski resort with less people and don’t care about fancy on-hill amenities, check out Red Mountain Resort (Rossland, B.C.) or Whitewater Ski Resort (Nelson, B.C.). They are off the tourist grid, but have good (or excellent if it snows) skiing.
Ice skating and hockey
In Canada, you can ice skate or play hockey almost anywhere. Not having a rink in your town is like not having a grocery store. Some Canadians eat, sleep, and breathe hockey, so you’re guaranteed to be able to try this activity wherever you are.
Rent a pair of skates and find the nearest indoor or outdoor rink (outdoor is more magical). If you’ve never skated before, it will feel weird. But think about how much fun you’ll have trying to skate, while laughing at your family or friends trying to skate. If you’re travelling with kids, skating can be great fun, but also frustrating for little ones. There are devices kids (or beginner adults) can hold onto to help them skate, which are available to rent or sometimes use for free at skating rinks.
A magical place to ice skate is on Lake Louise. Some ski resorts, such as Big White Ski Resort in B.C., also have outdoor ice skating rinks, including rentals and even a toasty fire going on the sidelines.
Snowmobiling or dogsledding
Snowmobiling will always hold a special place in my heart. My first time ever driving one was in Manitoba on a cold December day in 2007. I followed my boyfriend over snowy prairie farmland surrounding the town of Strathclair, to a beautiful hill overlooking snowy fields for miles with no one in sight. Nick then got down on one knee and proposed. Twelve years later, we’ve had some fun on snowmobiles, from taking them into the backcountry to snowboard, to me crashing one into a tree. Oops.
Snowmobiling and dog sledding tours are widely offered in Canada in the winter. Check out tours in Banff National Park, Lake Louise, Golden, Revelstoke, Whistler or even right at ski resorts such as Big White Ski Resort in Kelowna, B.C.
These tours are expensive. A 30-minute dog sled tour or one-hour snowmobile tour is about $125 – $150 per person. If it’s a bucket list item for you, do it without hesitation.
Sledding (otherwise known as tobogganing)
Pick your transportation of choice – inner tube, “crazy carpet”, sled, or old school toboggan – it’s time to zoom down a fast, snowy hill. Kids love this must-do Canadian winter activity, but adults will enjoy it just as much (especially after a couple drinks). If you’ve got your kids with you on your winter vacation in Canada, don’t miss out on this fun-filled activity.
Like skating, most cities and towns have a local sledding hill. Often it’s a hill at a park or even a golf course, other times it’s a manmade tubing park where you pay to rent inner tubes and zoom down fast “snow coasters.” Some ski resorts offer tubing, including Lake Louise and Mount Norquay in Alberta, and Whistler, Big White, and Sun Peaks in B.C.
This enjoyable activity can be done almost anywhere in Canada where there’s a trail or open space. Although it’s not the most adrenalin-pumping activity, it’s an excellent way to get out into that fresh, crisp air and burn more calories than walking.
It’s easy to rent or purchase snowshoes in Canada. Sports or outdoor shops sell them, and ski resorts and outdoor retailers such as Mountain Equipment Co-op rent them. This is an ideal activity for those who aren’t interested in high-impact winter sports such as skiing, and kids can do it too. Your accommodations or Google will know the best snowshoeing trails in the area.
Hit up a spa
Aaaahhh, you’ve had a full morning out in that fresh winter air, and your muscles are sore from those deep powder turns. A massage or spa treatment is just what you need next.
Spas are sprinkle throughout Canada’s popular winter destinations. Some of the best spas I’ve been to in Canada are found at Fairmont Resorts. The Willow Stream Spa at the Fairmont Banff Springs is fabulous and impressive, and is the only place I’ve ever been asked if they can “massage me longer” than my allotted time… hells yeah! I haven’t been to the spa at the Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise (but I can still smell the eucalyptus steam room) or Vida Spa at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler, but they look lovely.
Other top spas are the Scandinave Spa in Whistler and KurSpa at the adults-only Sparkling Hill Resort in Vernon, B.C. Located close to Silver Star Mountain Resort and the Kelowna International Airport, this beautiful resort is worth a stop for a night or two if you love spas and need to relax or unwind.
Some ski resorts have spas on-mountain, such as Revelstoke, Sun Peaks, Silver Star, Whistler, and Big White (yes, I know I’ve mentioned Big White many times, and yes, it has everything! Even yoga.) Check your chosen ski resort’s website for more information.
Easy kid-friendly activities
Snow provides endless hours of fun for children. Try out:
- Building snowmen. You’ll want the snow to be sticky as opposed to fluffy or this won’t work. Roll three huge snowballs and stack them starting with the biggest on the bottom. Then add accessories – a carrot nose, scarf, toque, rocks for nose and mouth, and sticks for arms.
- Build a snow fort. The best ones have a tunnel kids can crawl through.
- Make snow angels. Lay in the snow with your arms and legs by your side, then move your arms all the way up above your head and legs out to the side. Repeat several times. Then stand up and look at the beautiful angel you’ve created!
- Have a snowball fight. Again, the snow needs to be sticky, but all you do is roll it in a ball and throw it at someone you love (or hate).
My Canadian and U.S. readers may be laughing at the fact that I explained the above. But since about a third of my readers are in Australia, Asia, and other continents/countries frequented by palm trees rather than snow, there’s a chance some people reading this have never heard of a snow angel, let alone made one.
Where to stay on your winter vacation in Canada
Canada has a range of excellent accommodations for all budgets. From friendly hostels to five star mountain castles, you’ll have no problem finding something to suit your needs.
For luxury hotels in Canada, Fairmont Hotels and Resorts are some of the best and most beautiful. The Fairmont Banff Springs (otherwise know as the “Castle in the Rockies”) and Fairmont Chateau Lake Louise (which is right beside the actual lake) top my list. There’s also the Chateau Whistler, Jasper Park Lodge, Vancouver’s multiple Fairmont properties, and more across the country. I used to work for Fairmont and have stayed in many of their hotels; they don’t disappoint. You will also find chains like Westin, Sheraton, and Hyatt in cities, and boutique options in towns.
Many ski resorts have a few (or a ton) of accommodations on-hill. Most are condo-style rentals with private hot tubs and ski-in/ski-out options. Others are hotel style, some with pools, fitness facilities, and restaurants. Most ski resorts have a central reservations service to help you find something that meets your crieteria. VRBO, Airbnb, Allura Direct, and Vacasa offer a plethora of options as well.
For budget to mid-range, all cities and winter tourist towns (Whistler, Banff, Jasper, Golden, Fernie, etc.) have hostels and mid-range hotels. I find Trip Advisor the most credible for hotel ratings and prices, and never book a place without checking it first.
Winter vacation in Canada: final thoughts
There’s no where I’d rather live long-term than Canada. This country is diverse and multicultural, safe, full of friendly souls, and offers so much in terms of outdoor adventures.
I didn’t touch on restaurants and nightlife. Good news: it’s excellent. Although Canada doesn’t have a robust cuisine of its own, you’ll want to try poutine, BeaverTails, and a nice cut of Alberta beef if you like red meat. All ethnic foods can be found in Canada (more in cities than towns), but even small tourist towns have a range of great restaurants. Pubs, bars, and clubs are everywhere, but keep in mind nightlife starts and ends way earlier than in Europe. Bars and clubs are busy by 10 or 11 p.m. and close by 2 a.m. at the latest.
If you’ve never seen snow or tried any of the activities listed above, you’re in for an adventurous treat on your winter vacation to Canada. Now excuse me while I go pack up for my weekend at the ski hill.
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