How to dress for winter in Canada
Montreal resident Patrick McKenna shares his advice on preparing for your first cold winter
‘Appreciating the unique beauty of winter is a precursor to falling in love with your little corner of this great big country.’
Did you travel to Canada on a working holiday visa this year? Have you found a job in mining or construction on the Prairies? Are you are you emigrating on a longer-term basis, or beginning studies at a Canadian university? If so, you are about to encounter your first Canadian winter, which can come as a shock, no matter how prepared you think you may be.
Lots of layers
The most common advice is to “dress in layers”, but this wisdom needs some elaboration to be truly useful. To begin with, you need to take account of the climate where you are. Canada is a vast country, of vast regions. Quebec, where I live, could accommodate most of the territory of Western Europe. So Canada doesn’t have a winter; it has many different winters a fact that adds a layer of complication to the “dress in layers” advice.
Different regions, different winters
The Prairie region is seen as having the coldest winter. However, “cold” is not defined simply by temperature. Minus 40C with no humidity or wind on a bright day in Winnipeg may be easier to dress for (and be more agreeable) than - 15C with windy and humid conditions in Montreal. The Maritime Provinces may not be as cold Central Canada, but tend to get more snowstorms. In Vancouver you probably can dress as at home – for the rain.
In Winnipeg or Saskatoon, in mid-winter an outside layer of a knee-length, down-filled parka and an innermost layer of thermal underwear are essential. You probably will need earmuffs, scarf, heavier gloves, and maybe mitts, and at times, a full-face mask and warm boots. I never leave home without lip balm. Good quality sunglasses are essential when driving in the morning or late afternoon winter sun.
In Montreal or Toronto you can manage with an outer waterproof shell, with a fleecy, woolly hat, scarf, and light gloves. You may not need boots but shoes should be waterproof for encounters with slush. When city streets become wind tunnels, anti-skid soles will help keep you on your feet on ice-covered footpaths. In “zero friction” conditions of freezing rain or after a thaw and overnight refreeze, strap-on crampons can be very useful.
City winter dressing
In an urban center, you dress for the walk to, and the wait at, a bus shelter. Then you board what may be an overheated and overcrowded bus that drops you at an equally overheated subway system. You may exit the subway and wait for another bus to take you to your destination. As you move between –15C to +30C you will do a lot of zipping and unzipping of your coat and fleecy, while pulling on and off gloves and your woolly hat. I always found that very tiring.
Winter can be very capricious during its first and last weeks. In early fall and late spring, for example, it is hard to gauge which way outdoor conditions will jump.
If you work in an office, you may have to juggle your formal dress code with the need to stay warm at the bus shelter. On the Prairies, working outdoors, you dress for warmth and warmth alone.
Dressing the kids
Although a heated school bus will ferry kids to and from school during the week, they will also need to dress for winter. For the younger ones, winter wear is not a problem, but for early teens, peer pressure seems to say, “It’s not cool to be (dressed to stay) warm.”
The number of items of winter wear can climb quickly, especially for families. Wardrobe space may be an issue. Costs can be kept down by foregoing high end hi-tech winter wear, or by buying second hand.
Learn to love the cold
Dressing for winter obviously is about staying warm, dry and safe from frostbite or a fall on an ice-covered footpath, to but also brings some other general well-being benefits.It reduces your dependence on a vehicle, saving you money and reducing stress. Dressed warmly, there’s a better chance you will be outdoors and active. Bright winter sun takes the edge of S.A.D. (Sunlight Affective Disorder), especially at Christmas, that nostalgic time that falls during the darkest days of the year.
Overall, dressing properly for the winter will help you make the most of your emigration project in Canada. You may begin to appreciate the unique beauty of winter, a precursor to falling in love with your little corner of this great big country. The winter is lovely in Canada, as long as you are dressed for it.
Read more: Our Destination Canada guide has a climate chart outlining the differences in temperatures and precipitation between the main cities
Patrick McKenna is a regular contributor to Generation Emigration. Read his articles from the archive on life in Montreal, and dealing with homesickness