Visiting the Canadian Rockies in Winter: Seriously?

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After visiting the Canadian Rockies back in 2009, I started my account of that trip with an explanation of things Americans should know, before they venture into Canada.  On that trip, I got to see some of the most beautiful landscapes in North America, but I couldn’t help but think, “I wonder what this looks like in Winter?”

Two and a half years later, I found out.  Much like the earlier trip, I flew into Calgary, then visited places like Banff, the Icefields Parkway, and Jasper.  I knew I’d be driving on some slick roads at times, and that I’d need to bundle up.  But I had no idea what I was in for.

Cold Weather, Snow, and How to Dress

This trip took place at the end of March — technically spring had already arrived.  I’m sure I didn’t experience the harshest of winter weather at this time of year.  December and January, I’m certain, would be much more harsh.  But even so, there was still plenty of winter to satisfy my desire for snow and ice.

You should expect it to snow every day.  Even if the weather forecast doesn’t call for it.  Most of the time, the forecast will be quite vague.  I heard “a mix of sun and cloud” almost every day on the weather report.  I laughed that, in Canada, they say “cloud” instead of “clouds”, until I noticed that it was usually just one huge cloudy blanket that enveloped the entire sky.  And the “sun” portion of the forecast might be nothing more than a few beams of light, for a few minutes.

In Pincher Creek, I saw that “cloud” every day.  It would make it impossible to find the horizon.  The snowy ground would blend into the grey sky, forming a seamless blur.

In Jasper, each day began with several inches of snow.  The forecast never called for it.  It just showed up.  And no one seemed surprised by it.  The sun might come out for a few hours, then the snow would appear again, and drop a few more inches.  There was no point in trying to predict it.

The wind is also brutal at times.  If you have at least two layers on the bottom (pants and long-johns) and three on top (a thermal undershirt, long-sleeve sweatshirt, and jacket), you should be okay in most cases.  A good thermal cap is also essential.  I wore gloves occasionally.

For your feet, stock up on those air-activated hot packets.  Your toes will get cold, especially if you’re hiking in snow a lot — and the heater in your car will never be enough to thaw them out.  Those foot warmers make a big difference.

Road Conditions

If you don’t feel confident in driving on icy or snowy roads, you shouldn’t consider making this trip.  Even the best roads become treacherous during winter weather.  You WILL end up driving on snow, slush, or ice — or a combination of all three.  And not just for a mile or two — you could spend hours driving on slick surfaces, which can be exhausting.

In most mountainous areas, you will be required to carry chains for your tires.  You can buy them for about $40 at an auto parts store, once you arrive in Canada.  Make sure you know how to install and remove them.  I have a set I purchased in 2010, when I visited Yosemite National Park in winter.  They weigh about 6 pounds, which takes up precious space in my checked luggage.  On this trip, I never used them, although there were probably a few occasions where they would have been helpful.

Even if the main roads are clear, you’ll run into snow on side roads, and in parking lots.  You might want to keep a shovel in your car.  I’ve also been told that a blanket can help — put it under your tires for traction, when your wheels are spinning.

As a photographer who stops everywhere to take pictures, I was especially frustrated by the condition of the road shoulders.  The pavement might be perfectly clear, but piled- up snow at the edge of the road left me with no place to pull off.  I’m sure I missed a few good pictures because of it.

If you do decide to stop at the edge of a slick road, make sure any oncoming traffic won’t lose control when they try to avoid you.

Trail Conditions

Winter provides the opportunity to snowshoe or cross-country ski, but if you’re on a road trip, it’s difficult to bring these items with you.  You can rent them, of course, but that will add an extra expense to your trip.  And you might discover that you don’t need them.  I hiked on a few trails where previous foot and ski traffic had packed the snow densely enough to allow for easy walking.  It will require extra effort, and you’ll get tired quicker, but at least you should be able to handle some of the shorter trails.

Most lakes will be frozen, and in some cases, you can walk on them.  Remember that ice gets thin around spots where the water moves quickly — like a lake’s inlet and outlet.  It’s very unlikely that a lake will simply be covered with a frozen sheet of ice.  More likely, there will be a foot of snow on top of that ice — and there could also be a layer of slush hiding in between the two.  Step on the snow, and you could sink down into the slush, and get a wet foot (even if you don’t break through the ice).  The best advice is to walk on a frozen lake, only when others have already packed down the snow for you.

I highly suggest you invest in one piece of essential equipment: buy a set of ICEtrekkers.  These are essentially a set of chains that slip over your boots, giving you extra traction on ice.  You can’t enjoy walking on a trail, or even a sidewalk in town, if you’re constantly trying to balance yourself.  It’s amazing the difference these make, and they’re worth every penny.  Plus, they don’t weigh much, so they’re easy to pack.

Expectations

If you’re going to visit the Canadian Rockies in Winter, set your expectations a little lower.  There will be places you can’t go, scenery you can’t see, and weather that occasionally makes life miserable.  Add an extra day or two, if you can, to allow for drizzly washouts or snowstorm strandings.  In exchange for the extra efforts, you’ll get to see some things that 90% of visitors to the Canadian Rockies never get to see.  And in the end, it’s worth it.

So, do you still want to see the Canadian Rockies in Winter?  Alright then, let’s go!

Be sure to read this rundown of other things you may need to know about visiting Canada – like how to convert kilometres to miles, litres to gallons, and exchange your money.

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