What to Wear in Winter in Canada

Rue Petit Champlain on a snowy winter day, Quebec City, Quebec

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If you visit Canada between November and March, you will likely encounter some chilly — and in some locales, downright freezing cold — weather. Plenty of visitors to Canada do not heed how seriously cold it can get and arrive ill-prepared for sub-zero temperatures and wet, windy, snowy conditions. 

Not being dressed for the cold can ruin a day—especially if you're with kids. Thankfully dressing to keep warm in winter is straightforward if you just follow a few important tips.

Dress in Layers

Dressing in layers is rule number one for dressing for cold weather. Not so much that multiple garments can keep you warmer than one, but layers allow flexibility to adjust to different temperatures.

Layers should go as follows:

  • Start with a thin, wicking layer—like silk, polyester or nylon, not cotton—next to the skin. The idea here is to pick a fabric that will wick the perspiration away from your skin. Cotton, for example, tends to leave your skin wet, clammy, and chilled, especially if you are active. 
  • Follow with fleece or polyester or wool. This is the insulating layer intended to keep warm, dry air close to the body. 
  • Finish with a third waterproof, wind-resistant layer, Gore-Tex or another man-made synthetic fabric, for example. Don't forget snow pants. In sub-zero weather and for extended lengths of time, jeans alone won't cut it.
  • Be sure to wear base layers on your legs as well as your upper half, such as long silk underwear. Even a pair of nylons is better than nothing; but again, avoid cotton next to the skin.

Keep It Loose

Make sure none of your clothing is too tight. Looser clothes insulate better and allow more fluid movement. 

Less Is More

The goal when dressing for a cold day is to stay warm, but not to get hot and sweaty, which can, ironically, make you cold because of the moisture produced. Pick fewer, quality items made of the proper fabrics rather than overdressing.

You don't always have to spend a lot of money on these cold-weather garments: Merino wool shirts, thermal underwear, down-filled mitts, and more are available at places like Costco for much less than at specialty sporting and adventure stores. 

In addition, shop online and during the post-winter months for excellent savings. Check out the REI online outlet for substantial savings.

Avoid Cotton Next to the Skin

Cotton tends to absorb water, such as sweat, which will end up making you cold. The goal is to stay dry, which in turn will help keep you warm. Choose other fabrics, such as wool, silk or synthetics for undergarments and socks. 

Silk undergarments are lightweight but surprisingly warm. 

Keep Your Feet Dry

Feet should be covered with wool or synthetic fabric socks and water-resistant, insulated boots. Putting plastic bags around your feet to ensure dryness is another option.

Don't Forget the Accessories

Hat, mitts, and scarf are musts in cold climates. Covering your face can be especially important. BUFF®, for example, is lightweight headwear that slips over the head and can be worn around the neck or pulled over the face for protection as needed.

Hats are a necessity for outdoor winter activities. If you can find one with ear flaps, all the better.

Some find leather mitts with fleece gloves built inside the best for sightseeing, as the leather is supple and gives your hands better movement. However, for snow sports, gloves made of high-quality, water-resistant, synthetic fabric may be better, or wool gloves covered by a nylon shell.
Another handy accessory is a pair of disposable heat packs, which you can buy at sporting stores or even some convenience stores for about $3. They can go into boots, mitts, and pockets and will give you a little heat blast for about 4 to 6 hrs.
Although they won't keep you warm, don't forget sunglasses and sunscreen. Fresh white snow on a sunny day can be intense and bright.

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