Softly falling snow. Sticky maple taffy. Herds of Caribou. Canada in winter is a pretty freakin’ magical place, whether you’re soaking in thermal hot springs in Banff or eating poutine (the ultimate winter comfort food) in Quebec City.
Canada is one of our favorite places to visit in the winter. You can take a flight or a train, tickets are usually pretty affordable, and in the winter, it feels like visiting a whole different world. We’ve been taking winter trips to Canada for years – in fact, the very first international trip Jeremy and I took together (and Jeremy’s first international trip ever!) was to Toronto in December the week after we got engaged! So like, a thousand years ago.
But planning a trip to Canada in the winter can be a little intimidating – especially if you live in a place where “below freezing” isn’t exactly a thing. Still, living in California means that every winter, we crave snow and cold weather and yearn for hot mulled cider. And other than watching cheesy Christmas movies and crying into our hot chocolate every night, the only way we can get our cold weather fix is to travel! So for the past few years, we’ve been escaping to cold places in the winter seeking snow, cold, short days, and warm comfort food.
Still, it’s always low-key terrifying to pack for a place where frostbite is like, a legitimate concern. But over the years we’ve dialed in a carry-on suitcase’s worth of warm, travel-friendly gear clothing! We’ve taken our winter travel gear all over Canada, and for good measure we tested it above the Arctic circle, too. In this post we’re laying out all of our favorite, field-tested essentials for visiting Canada in the winter, from gear to clothing.
Table of Contents
Planning a trip to Canada this winter? Check out some of our other posts:
- 14 Things to Do in Montreal in the Winter
- 10 Things to Do in Quebec City in the Winter
- 23 Epic Things to do in Banff in Winter
- 8 Magical Winter Getaways in Ontario
Hey, need a handy dandy checklist to help you pack? We’ve got a printable version of this post that includes EVERYTHING you’ll need for your trip. Sign up in the box below and we’ll deliver it right to your inbox, plus some helpful tips to help you plan your trip.
Canada Winter Travel FAQ’S
Before we send you off into the wonderful world of Caribou and beaver tails (spoiler: only one of those refers to an animal), you probably have some questions. Like “what’s a beaver tail?” and also “where can I try a beaver tail?”
So now that we’ve gotten the 2 most important questions out of the way, here’s some other stuff you’re probably wondering about visiting Canada in winter:
How cold does Canada get in the winter?
It gets cold AF in Canada in the winter. But precisely how cold depends on where you’re headed. Generally speaking, plan for temperatures in the range of from 15-40°F.
Southern areas – particularly on the coast, like Vancouver – will be slightly warmer, though still quite chilly.
As you head north – or ascend into the higher altitude of the Canadian Rockies – the temperature plummets and the days grow shorter and shorter, until you’re literally above the Arctic circle somewhere in the Yukon with northern lights dancing above you around 2pm.
For a nice balance of daylight hours and snow, the cities closest to the southern border of Canada are your best bet – think Montreal, Quebec City, Vancouver, and Toronto. They’re still cold, but not CRAZY cold, and the light lasts a bit longer each day. Plus, they’re charming and Christmassy AF, and it’s hard to feel cold when you’re strolling through a Christmas Market!
Is there like … daylight?
Yes! Much like the temperature, daylight hours in Canada get shorter as you head north. In Toronto, you’ll get about 9 hours of daylight in the dead of winter – a perfectly reasonable amount. In Montreal, night falls around 4pm.
In general, plan for shorter hours the further north you go!
Which Canadian destinations should I visit in the winter?
All of them! OK, not helpful. We’ve got a few suggestions from our travels:
- Best for outdoor adventure and snow sports: Banff and Lake Louise
- Best for romance and charm: Quebec City
- Best for food: Montreal
- Best for Christmas markets: Toronto and Vancouver
How to Pack Carry-On Only in Canada
Even the most seasoned travelers – I’m sort of making a pun here, since we’re talking about winter… anyway – have difficulty packing carry-on only for really cold destinations. This makes sense: winter clothing tends to be heavier and bulkier than what you’d need for a warm destination.
But we’re here to tell you that YES, you can absolutely pack carry-on only for cold weather! Even really cold places like Canada in the winter. We’ve done it and you can too. Here’s how.
- Carry-On Pro Tip: Wear all of your heaviest stuff on your travel days – like your bulkiest jacket, that scarf that’s as big as a blanket, and so on. It will be annoying lugging your suitcase through the snow in 18 layers of clothing, but it’s the only way you’re gonna get through this with just a carry on!
Other than your big chunky stuff, everything else you pack should be soft, lightweight, and travel-friendly – and you want your clothes to pull double duty so you don’t need as many of them overall.
To maximize our packing efficiency, we’ve learned to be really selective about our textiles (thanks in no small part to my degree in Fashion Design, which taught me all about the scientific properties of a whole bunch of fabrics).
For example, merino wool is super warm, incredibly soft (nope, it’s not itchy) and much more lightweight than synthetic fabrics, as well as being naturally antibacterial, which means you can re-wear it without the re-wear funk.
We recommend wearing a merino wool base layer underneath your clothing every day during your trip – that means that the layer closest to your skin should all be made from merino wool.
After your base layer, you’ll need to add on at least 1 additional layer before your outerwear, like a pair of pants and a sweater. On REALLY cold days, where the temperatures are below 10 degrees, we recommend adding on another base layer before your clothing layer & outerwear. And if you’re doing winter activities, add a waterproof layer as well, like lined snow pants.
The beauty of winter travel is that 99% of the time, all anyone is going to see is the very outer layer of your clothing. So as long as you’ve got clothes that can withstand being worn over and over again, you really don’t actually need to bring very many items.
Our typical cold weather packing list looks something like this (we’ll get into specifics in a minute).
- Two pairs of pants. We both bring our favorite pair of travel jeans. I brings a pair of warm leggings, and Jeremy brings a pair of chinos to spice things up.
- 2-3 Sweaters. We look for sweaters that are made from at LEAST 20% merino wool and aren’t super bulky. If you do have a bulky sweater you really want to bring, wear it on your travel days!
- 2 Collared Shirts. These get layered under the sweaters for a variety of spiffy sweater/collared shirt looks. I dress mine up with statement necklaces and Jeremy dresses his up with scarves and a well-groomed ginger beard.
- 1-2 T-Shirts. These get layered underneath our other clothing as needed and worn to bed. I also bring a cardigan so that I can mix things up from the whole sweater/collared shirt situation on those warm, balmy 40 degree days. My favorite t-shirts to wear in cold weather are made of hemp, which is naturally insulating and anti-bacterial, just like wool.
- 1 Skirt or Warm Dress: To switch things up from the ol’ sweater routine, I bring a cute skirt that I can wear with my t-shirts, button-down shirts, or sweaters, or a dress with long sleeves, like a sweater dress. I wear warm leggings or tights underneath to keep my legs warm, and a little belt to dress it up. Bam: that’s like, TRIPLE the outfit options.
- 1-2 Scarves. You’ll be wearing these every day and they’ll be in every picture. So if there’s one accessory you’re really going to be extra about, make it your scarves! I have a scarf collection that spans every color, so I usually match my scarves to my sweaters when deciding which to bring. Jeremy … has one scarf. It is a good scarf. It is dark grey.
- 1-2 Hats. Jeremy brings a gray beanie that goes with everything, and I bring a couple of hats in different colors. You know, for ~accessorizing.
- 2 Jackets: We each wear our bulky outer jacket, and bring a super warm but lightweight down jacket that squishes down really small and weighs almost nothing.
- 1 Pair of Shoes: Yep, really, just one. We’ve found the PERFECT pair of boots for cold weather and they’re all we need to bring. Plus we wear them every day so we don’t even have to bother packing them in our bags. That said: slippers are godsend for puttering around inside a hotel, so we bring a lightweight pair of slippers, too.
- Toiletries/Makeup/Gear/Yadda Yadda. We try to keep this bit as lightweight as possible – Lia has mastered the art of packing travel makeup and we’ve managed to get all of our gear to fit into one single packing cube.
Whoop, there it is: one carry-on bag each.
Er, plus our camera bag. Annnnnnd a day bag. We wear those in front. So like … two carry-on bags each. But still: carry-on only, no checked baggage fees, and endless admiration from your friends and loved ones, probably.
By the way: here is our favorite carry-on suitcase, or if you’re more of a backpack person, our favorite carry-on backpack.
Now that we’ve given you the gist, let’s break it down by the EXACT items we recommend bringing on your trip!
What to Wear in Canada in Winter
Ever heard that saying, “there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing?” Well, it’s true! In addition to keeping you warm as you explore, weatherproof clothing is especially important if you’re going to do outdoor activities like snowshoeing, skiing, or ice trekking. It gets cold AF in Canada in the winter and in snowy or icy conditions, frostbite is a real threat. Yikes.
So, you’ll need to bundle up in your favorite warm wool sweaters, your winter parka, and waterproof winter boots! We’ve got all the details you need.
By the way: If you’ve ever read any of our packing lists before, we’re REAL persnickety about stuff, so please excuse us if we nerd out and like, wax poetic about the scientific properties of merino wool or whatever. We live for that sh*t. Spoilers: you’re gonna learn a lot about merino wool in this post.
Start with a Base Layer
Your base layer is a very important job: to help regulate your body temperature. The goal isn’t just to keep heat in, but also to prevent you from overheating when you walk inside a 70 degree building after running around in 30 degree weather outside.
You know that feeling – the “oh god I’m so hot is this what hypothermia feels like because I need all these layers off of me RIGHT NOW” feeling. It’s usually followed shortly thereafter with the “how am I so sweaty it’s 30 degrees outside” feeling. Ick. No thank you.
We cannot stress enough how amazing merino wool is at preventing you from having to use the word moist to describe yourself. Ugh, did anyone else just audibly shudder?
Merino wool is a travel miracle fabric. It keeps you warm when it’s cold out, but it keeps you cool when it’s hot out – and it wicks and regulates moisture too, so that even if you do get a lil’ sweaty inside, you’ll dry quickly and still be nice and warm when you step back outside into the cold.
Merino wool is also naturally antibacterial, meaning even if you wear it for 2 weeks straight every single day, it won’t smell. Er, yes, we’ve tested that… for science, you know. Also, fun fact: it’s flame retardant, too, so ya know. Handy. I guess now we know why sheep are so dumb: all of their intelligence is in their extremely high tech, super engineered fluffy coats.
If you’re allergic to wool, or adverse to wearing it, you’ll also find great base layer options in silk.
- Winter Clothing Tip: Avoid non-insulating fabrics like cotton, which feels cold when wet – you literally risk hypothermia when you wear cotton in the cold. Don’t do it!
We recommend stocking up on a full merino wool base layer, so you’ve got wool from head to toe. Our personal favorites are below, and we’ve also included silk alternatives.
- Base Layer Leggings: These super comfy 100% wool leggings function just like long underwear. Except they’re made of soft, super-luxurious wool instead of cheap polyester, and make your legs feel like they’re being hugged by an extremely soft sheep. I wore a pair of these under my pants on extra-cold days and they kept me toasty warm (without being too hot)! Jeremy has this pair. Bonus: they also double as the world’s coziest lounge leggings or even sleepwear! Silk alternative: men’s, women’s.
- Base Layer Top: Although you can get away with just wearing a wool cami or t-shirt underneath a sweater in some warmer places like Montreal or maybe Vancouver, most of Canada in winter is cold AF. So we recommend long-sleeved base layer tops, like this one for women and this one for men. Silk Alternative: men’s, women’s, and camisole.
- Merino Wool Undies: You gotta keep those buns warm! I wear these undies (psst: buy a size up) and this travel-friendly bra, and Jeremy wears these.
From the Waist Up
On top of your base layer but underneath your jacket, here’s what we recommend bringing to Canada to keep your torso warm and, like, awesome looking.
- Flannel Shirt: Nothing says “cozy and Canadian” quite like a warm flannel shirt, does it? Jeremy has a variety of warm flannels, because it’s fairly easy to find good flannel shirts for dudes (like this one, which is literally named “Canada Shirt.”) But finding good, warm, comfortable flannels as a woman is much more difficult. I spent years searching for the perfect flannel shirt that didn’t give me button-down boob gap and allowed me to actually cross my arms. And finally, at long last, I found it! The MerinoLux flannel button-downs from Royal Robbins are stretchy, cozy, blended with merino wool, and most importantly, warm AF. But not so warm that you’ll get all sweaty running around and exploring, because they’re also super breathable. They’re also wrinkle-resistant, odor-resistant, and moisture-wicking, and have a hidden zip pocket – so basically everything you could ever ask for in a flannel shirt! Here’s mine and Jeremy’s.
- Sweaters: We wear a LOT of sweaters when we travel in the winter. We dress them up by layering them over our collared shirts or adding scarves. But we wear them just about every day! Your best bet is a merino wool sweater for maximum warmth and minimal smell. You can also sometimes find some REALLY cute options at Banana Republic (like this one or this one) or Men’s Wearhouse for dudes.
- Long Sleeve Crew: A staple of our winter wardrobe is a thin, stretchy long sleeve crew. They’re perfect for layering under a cute vest – and keeping you from overheating if it’s not THAT cold out.
- Warm Flannel Shirt: I’m in LOVE with the MerinoLux flannel button-down from Royal Robbins. It’s stretchy, it’s cozy, it’s blended with merino wool (yassss) and most importantly, it’s warm AF and super breathable. It’s also wrinkle-resistant, odor-resistant, and moisture-wicking, and has a hidden zip pocket – so basically everything you could ever ask for in a flannel shirt. I’ve been searching for the perfect flannel for YEARS (you know, like one that didn’t give me that annoying button-down boob gap and allowed me to actually cross my arms) and this is The One. I love it! Here’s mine and Jeremy’s.
From the Waist Down
- Travel Jeans: My favorite travel jeans have 6 POCKETS. 6!! And 2 of them are zipped and hidden inside other pockets, for extra pickpocket protection. They’re super stretchy and buttery soft, dry quickly even after walking through the snow, and roomy enough to layer over an insulating base layer (or two). They’re cozy enough to wear on a plane, stretchy enough to accommodate that 5 extra pounds of holiday weight I always seem to bring back home with me, and they’re super cute! We’re both obsessed. You can get a pair of men’s or women’s jeans on the Aviator USA website.
- Lined Leggings: On very cold days, I add an extra layer of insulating warmth by throwing a pair of lined leggings on over my base layer and under my jeans (I’ve also worn them without extra pants on top of my base layer because leggings are real pants, fight me). I have two pairs of warm lined winter leggings, one lined with merino wool and one lined with fleece.
Top Layer: Coat, Hat, Scarf, & Gloves
- Packable Down Jacket: Jeremy and I each bring two jackets each on our winter trips: a heavy/bulky coat, and a lightweight, travel-friendly packable down jacket. The down jacket is extremely warm and insulating, and perfect for days when I want the freedom of not wearing a big heavy coat. On extra cold days, it’s also a fantastic added layer of warmth. I recommend a high fill count – the higher the count, the warmer the jacket! I brought this down jacket and Jeremy brought this down jacket.
- Warm Coat: Your winter coat has a big job – namely, keeping you warm but not sweaty, allowing you to actually move your arms, and letting you explore for hours without feeling heavy or restrictive. Plus, it’s gonna be in like, all of your photos. I love this this cozy fleece-lined coat, and Jeremy wears a wool-blend coat like this one.
- Warm Hat: A warm hat is an absolute necessity. It also doubles as a super cute accessory! Did I just rhyme? You want a hat that will stay on your head when it’s windy and keep your ears nice and warm – bonus points if it’s lined. Personally I’m a fan of colorful hats with poofs on top, like this or this. Jeremy is a purist, and likes to wear beanies like this one, which is made from earth-friendly recycled wool and nylon.
- Gloves: Don’t go outside in Canada in the winter without gloves on! Jeremy and I both have these wool gloves that work with touchscreens, because let’s face it, I have a hard enough time using my phone without wearing gloves. Over those gloves we layer on a thicker pair that allows us to do things like throw snowballs at each other.
- Scarves: I LOVE a chunky scarf. They’re my favorite accessory! I’m a big fan of colorful scarves that are big enough to double as blankets, like this one or this one.
Keep Your Feet Warm
We here at Practical Wanderlust would like to personally help you avoid getting cold feet – especially if you’re getting married in the winter. GET IT? GET IT!? We’ll see ourselves out.
Anyway, keep those toes toasty warm! Nothing will cut a day of exploration short like freezing cold toes. Here are out tried-and-true tips for keeping your feet warm all day long:
- Wool Socks: Make sure you don’t just pack run-of-the-mill acrylic socks – they won’t keep your feet warm while you’re out in the cold! Instead, bring socks that are primarily made of soft, heat-regulating wool, like these or these. I recommend wearing 2 layers of socks for cold winter days.
- Warm Walking Boots: You’ll need winter boots that can withstand ice or snow, are weatherproof and waterproof, and are comfortable enough to walk in for HOURS. Sounds darn near impossible, right? Well, it’s not. We’ve found the best boots for winter, and we’re OBSESSED with them (and yes, we both have the same ones. Because we’re kinda gross like that). They’re cute, they’re insanely comfortable, they’re waterproof leather and lined with shearling to keep your toes toasty warm, and they’re extremely lightweight and foldable so you can stuff them in your bag when you travel. Oh, and they have thin and flexible soles that let your feet function as if you were walking around in the cold completely barefoot! Note: you might find yourself in need of some calf strengthening if you’re not used to barefoot-style soles. We can’t recommend these boots enough, and they’re the only shoes we bring on winter trips. They’re made to last and they’re worth every cent. Here are my boots and Jeremy’s boots. You can read more about them in our round-up of our favorite travel shoes for women or for men.
What to Pack for Canada in Winter: Travel Essentials
From guarding against slippery ice mishaps to what to carry all your stuff around in, there are a few things you’ll need to bring with you just because it’s winter. Here are our tried and true travel essentials for winter travel.
- Carry-On Luggage: We already covered our tips for packing light for winter travel above, but there’s one last thing you’ll need: a carry-on bag. If you’re partial to backpacks, this PacSafe bag is comfortable, roomy, and as deterrent as it gets – it’s our go-to backpack for carry-on travel. If you prefer a rolling bag,the Away suitcase is as beautiful as it is high-tech, with a built-in portable charger, an incredibly durable exterior, tons of space, and a built-in dirty laundry compressor (whaaaaat, game-changing).
- Day Bag: You’ll want a bag with you to store things like extra layers, your camera, a phone charger, snacks, and chapstick – you know, the essentials. I carry this super cute day bag with me every single day packed with my packable down jacket, an extra pair of gloves, and anything else I needed for the day.
- Travel Insurance: At this point in our lives, we never travel anywhere without travel insurance. We’re way too accident-prone to risk it! We’ve filed several claims with World Nomads, so at this point, our insurance policies have all paid for themselves. Not sure if that’s like, a good thing, or just a sign that we should probably lock ourselves indoors and barricade the room with pillows… We also really like SafetyWing, which offers quarantine coverage, low rates, and long-term travel coverage for digital nomads. Not sure if you need travel insurance? Take a look at our guide to travel insurance to help you decide!
- Travel Credit Card: We book all of our international trips on our favorite travel credit card, the Chase Sapphire Preferred® Card. Not only do we earn cash back that we can spend on more travel, but the card also offers fantastic travel perks, like no foreign transaction fees, trip delay and cancellation coverage, lost baggage reimbursement, and rental car coverage, all of which helps protect us on our travels. We’ve filed several claims and the card has saved our butt many times! Take a look at our full review of the card. (Psst: shopping for your upcoming trip? You can put your purchases on the card to help you meet the sign-up bonus minimum spend!)
- Travel Friendly Camera: Although our camera of choice is a hefty, professional level Sony A7R II, you don’t need all that to get great photos of your vacation. You’ll do just fine with your phone or a travel friendly pocket-sized Canon Powershot. That said, if you’ll be going snowboarding or taking sweeping landscape shots, a GoPro is a great choice!
Toiletries to Pack for Canada in Winter
Moisture is the name of the game when packing for a winter trip! You’ll want extra strength face moisturizer, conditioner, hand salve, chapstick, and so on. You’ll also want to take care to protect any exposed skin (so, your face) from the sun – winter sun can be surprisingly strong!
I’ve also found some winter-proof basic makeup essentials that stay put even on freezing cold, snotty, eyes-streaming days. Here’s what to throw in your bag:
- Sunscreen: Even on a gray winter day, you’re still at risk of sun damage, ESPECIALLY if you’re around snow! Snow acts like a giant mirror, bouncing UV rays directly into your face. Thanks, snow.I love this lightweight facial sunscreen in 50 SPF – it goes on smoothly and doesn’t break me out. I also love this tinted moisturizer with SPF to multi-task – it’s like a lightweight foundation that protects my face and moisturizes my skin.
- Moisturizer: Your skin will be dry as a bone during your trip, so you’ll need to make sure you’re moisturizing daily – maybe even twice a day! This is my favorite go-to everyday moisturizer.
- Winter-Proof Makeup: My travel makeup routine is incredibly low maintenance and consists of just these 4 products: tinted moisturizer, cream blush, smudge-proof mascara, and bright red lipstick. The lipstick makes me look way more put together than I actually am, and it looks super cute in winter photos.
- Chapstick: Whether your skip the red lipstick or not, you need to wear chapstick to keep your lips moisturized. There’s nothing worse than hurts-to-smile chapped lips, and I seem to get them every time I’m in super cold weather! If you’re doing snow sports, opt for a chapstick with SPF.
- Hand Salve: My hands are one of the first casualties of cold, dry weather. If I don’t moisturize them daily, they dry out and start to snag on my gloves, which is both gross and irritating. Pack a tin of Burt’s Bees hand salve to rub into your cuticles, knuckles, elbows, and anywhere else that needs some extra moisture!
For more low-maintenance travel beauty tips, head over to my travel makeup & beauty guide.
What to Pack for Snow Sports
While you can totally rent everything you need in town, we like to bring a few small things with us to cut down on rental costs.
- What to Wear for Snow Sports: Unpopular opinion: you don’t need special “snow pants.” You just need a pair of water-resistant pants and a warm layer to go underneath them! Snow pants are heavy, hard to pack in a suitcase, and frankly, uncomfortable and hard to move in. So instead, Jeremy wears his water-resistant hiking pants over his wool base-layer. On top, he layers a wool long sleeve shirt plus his packable down jacket, and if he needs an extra layer, his rain jacket. Here are the femme equivalents of all of those items: hiking pants, wool leggings, wool shirt, rain jacket, packable down jacket.
- Snowshoeing: Snow-shoeing is literally just hiking, but on snow. Most places where you can snowboard will also rent gear, but if you’d like to go on your own, pack a pair of waterproof socks and these travel-friendly crampons that can go over your regular hiking boots (these are my favorite lightweight winter hiking boots.)
- Goggles: Sunglasses will cut it if you’re snowshoeing, but if you’ll be flying downhill and shredding some powder, you’ll need actual googles. This is one piece of gear that you can easily pack with you to save money on rentals. Jeremy recommends these goggles.
- Gloves: Don’t go snowboarding or skiing without gloves on! Jeremy and I both have these wool gloves that work with touchscreens because I have a hard enough time using my phone without wearing gloves. Over those gloves, we layer on a thicker pair for snow protection – Jeremy uses these and I wear these.
- Buff: Buffs are kind of like tiny, stretchy infinity scarves for outdoor activity. They’re stretchy loops of fabric that keep your neck warm and can be pulled up over your mouth, ears, and nose when the wind is bitingly cold – which, on the top of the mountain, it will be. We both recommend wearing merino wool buffs.
Canada in Winter Printable Packing List
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Well, that should keep you warm and toasty! Where are you headed on your trip? And what are you more excited to eat, beaver tails or poutine?? Drop us a comment below!
Planning a trip to Canada this winter? Check out some of our other posts:
- 14 Things to Do in Montreal in the Winter
- 10 Things to Do in Quebec City in the Winter
- 23 Epic Things to do in Banff in Winter
- 8 Magical Winter Getaways in Ontario
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