Canada is a huge nation with a diverse geography. It covers almost half the Northern Hemisphere. The Canadian geography unfurls in two parts - south to north and West to East. The more you go north, the cold and rockier it gets, which makes life extremely difficult for humans. That is why a majority of the Canadian population is situation south, close to the American border. The north is closer to the Arctic Circle and is much colder than the rest of the nation. The southern regions that are closer to the US border are moderately cold, especially Ontario which includes major cities like Ottawa and Toronto. On the north, we have extremely cold towns like Churchill, with an average winter temperature between -15°/ -24°. Of Course, it gets a lot colder than that every other day. The same goes for the northern provinces of Yukon, Nunavut, and Northwest Territories. Prairies - Alberta, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan also have extreme winter due to their flat landscape. British Colombia, Quebec, and Ontario are relatively less cold.
No matter where you plan to land, this guide will help you in surviving your first Canadian winter.
It is extremely important to understand what you are up against. Winter is harsher, especially in prairies and northern provinces. As a starting point, you can try to google up for "average winter temperature in 'Name of your city'". Generally, it is colder during January and February. It gradually starts getting warmer starting in March.
I live in Winnipeg and I have seen ambient temperature dipping to -38. I can for sure say that temperature below -20 is harsh, below -30 it is very harsh, and if there is wind, it's the worst thing to imagine. But, that does not deter people from going out for work. Being adequately prepared for the day helps you get through the harsh weather. Adequate preparation includes wearing the right kind of jackets, shoes, gloves, etc. Therefore, you must shop accordingly. Let's move ahead and discuss a few things that are extremely important.
A jacket is by far the most important piece of any winter gear. That being said, all jackets are not made to withstand every weather. Some jackets are extremely warm, but they aren't waterproof and vice versa. If you plan to live in Toronto, you might need something that is moderately warm and waterproof. It rains in Toronto and the temperature doesn't dip that low. In such weather, you might get weird watery snowfall occasionally.
This is not the case with Manitoba. For most of the winter, the temperature is well below -10 degrees. So, I would regret making a compromise on water-resistance. Additionally, you don't wanna carry those heavy jackets around when it is not that cold. I would recommend anyone to have a lightweight jacket and a parka. Lightweight should work well in temperatures up to -10 degrees. If it gets any colder, you can change to a parka or anything similar.
That brings us to a very important question.
How much should you be spending on a jacket ? Are expensive jackets any better?
I have tried many jackets over the past few years, from the cheapest ones to the most expensive ones (Canada Goose). You can expect to spend around $100 for a decent 'Made in China' jacket. Whereas, around $200-300 for Colombia, Tommy Hilfiger, and Under Armour. There are more expensive jackets as well from North Face and Canada Goose.
So, does brand makes that much of a difference?
Frankly speaking, you will get a bit better-looking jacket with those brands. But, in terms of performance, they are good as those Chinese knock-offs.
To sum up, if you are looking to go cheap with decent performance - go for Chinese. You can buy them from Amazon, Walmart, or Giant Tiger. And, if you want decent performance with decent looks - midrange jackets from Colombia, Hilfiger, etc. are worth the money.
Amazon links for reference. Feel free to check them.
Irrespective of where you are going to live in Canada, two things that your winter shoes must have is -
(a) Adequate insulation
(b) water resistance
I have worn every shoe I have in all types of weather. I have been out in my runners when the temperature was -30 degrees for half an hour. Yes, it was a terrible choice. Never do that. But, I mostly prefer to use lightweight winter shoes with a moderate amount of insulation, as they are more comfortable. In this category, Colombia is my favorite. I have heavy Baffin shoes that I use when I am out for a longer duration. They are incredibly warm but are pretty uncomfortable to walk in. If you are out in -30 ish temps for an hour or so, you certainly don't need heavy shoes like Baffin.
So, how much should you spend on shoes?
Well, the price of shoes goes up and down depending on the season and offers available. But, my best estimate would be somewhere between $140-200 for decent pair of shoes. Since I am very picky about shoes, I won't recommend anyone going cheap by buying Chinese alternatives. Either you'll lose on quality or on comfort.
Amazon links for reference. Feel free to check them.
Consider these Colombia or similar varieties if you plan to endure the heavy cold for a shorter duration. They are lightweight and pretty comfortable.
These Baffin shoes are pretty good as they have liners. Colombia doesn't come with liners. Liners make a huge difference by proving an extra layer of protection and insulation.
If you happen to live in a relatively warm place like Toronto, you probably don't even need gloves. Or anything cheap should work pretty well. But, having a good pair of glove in prairie or northern provinces is extremely important. Body extremities are most prone to frostbite. And with temperatures dipping that low, risk increases by multiple folds. Luckily I never had frostbite, but I believe I was on the verge of getting one a couple of times. It could have been terrible. I am glad I still have all my fingers and flesh. So, gloves are extremely important !!
I look for three things when I am buying gloves -
a) Water resistance
c) Ability to use them with touch screens or phones.
Manitoban winter is extremely harsh. I cannot use my phone even for a minute when the temperature is below -30. In this case, having a glove that works with a touch screen is a blessing. Of course, you can't expect them to be very precise, but you can for sure dial or take calls. Additionally, don't wanna go for bulky gloves that hinders the mobility.
How much should you spend on Gloves?
Well, you may get decent gloves for as low as $20 from Walmart or Giant tiger. If you need to go for touch-capable gloves, you can buy them online for under $30. Gloves from Colombia and other brands may cost between $50-100. But in my opinion, they are no better than the cheaper alternatives. I prefer to use any glove that have insulation by 3M. 3M brands their insulation material as 'Thinsulate'.
We have already discussed the increased risk of getting frostbite at low temperatures. This is something that I came to know about very recently. I wish I would have known that earlier. Sometimes it may gets too cold for your gloves, socks or jacket to handle. And, you have no heat source nearby. What is the best thing you could do? What is your plan B?
There are broadly two types of heat packs or hand warmers.
1) Sodium acetate heat packs - They have sodium acetate and water solution in them. With just a click they produce heat between 50-60 degrees for about half an hour. This could be a blessing if you ever find yourself in a catch 22 situation. And the best thing is that they could be used over and again simply by boiling them in water. I always carry Sodium acetate heat packs in my bag.
2) Rechargeable Handwarmer - I am personally not a fan of them. They could work well in warmer cities like Toronto but are surely not meant to endure the Manitoban winter. When the temperature is low, the battery dies fast, so they are highly unreliable in extreme cold. Even cell phone batteries battle to sustain in that harsh cold. But, you may have a look at them.
This is something that varies a lot according to the preference of an individual. Some like to double up their pants while few are brave enough to endure -30ish in just a single pant. I am not that brave, so I prefer to wear a thermal under denim, sometimes two! This is something that you need to find out with experience. But, it is wise to have a few thermals as a necessity.
You can certainly get them for about $7-20 at Giant Tiger or Walmart. Quality may vary. I prefer to use the lighter ones.
I believe that is the most common thing that people cheap out on. I did that too! But, I have realized that those cheaper bottles are not worth the money, especially in temperatures below -15 degrees. I had a cheap steel flask that came loose due to the cold and the coffee leaked into my bag. So, we need something sturdy that could resist cold pretty well, maybe drops from 4 feet too, which is quite common when I am walking and trying to change gloves or taking out my cell phone. I believe that Contigo and Thermos offer the best value for money. Tough they are a bit expensive but they will last for a very long time.