Winter in Banff is gorgous and amazing, but I’ll admit there’s definitely some special planning required for a trip to the Great White North, especially if you are a Southerner like me. Here are 26 little(ish) things I think you should know before you go: Winter in Banff edition!
1. Banff is a gorgeous winter wonderland! You will be in awe of those beautiful snowy landscapes.
The photo truly speaks for itself. Banff might have the most beautiful winterscapes I’ve ever seen.
2. But keep in mind, Banff is VERY cold during the winter!
Having grown up in Germany, I thought I knew cold winters. NOPE. I don’t think I ever experienced a winter temperature below 15°F/-9°C in Germany. Meanwhile, in Canada I think that was the warmer than it ever got during our whole trip. Most of the time it hovered around 5°F/-15°C. And the morning we were flying home, it was -15°F/-26°C. Ho. Ly. Crap. I don’t know how Canadians do it.
3. Make sure your snow jacket is waterproof, not just water resistant.
If you plan on playing in the snow, or spending time outside where you may get snowed on, make sure your jacket is waterproof so it can keep you and the insulation dry.
4. Invest in a good, comfortable pair of snow boots.
A good pair of boots will make your winter experience exponentially better. When you think about it, your feet are the part of your body that are most commonly in contact with the snow, so why wouldn’t you want to make sure they’re warm enough to brave the winter? For this trip I bought myself a pair of Columbia Minx boots. They’re lightweight, but still sturdy, have a lot of traction, are completely waterproof, and so warm! I’m still in disbelief of how amazingly these boots stood up to the Canadian winter! Definitely research before you buy, since different activities will require different styles.
5. Layer up to stay warm.
This may be the first commandment of winter survival. Layers, layers, layers! Get a good base layer (I love Columbia’s omni-heat products) to set a good foundation.
6. Rent a car
If you’re traveling internationally, you’ll have to fly in through Calgary, which is actually about an hour and a half away from Banff. Renting a car gives you the most flexibility. We stayed in Canmore, which is about 20 minutes outside Banff, which meant we were driving into the national park area every day. Because we had a car, the logistics of our trip were much simpler!
7. Your US driver’s license is valid in Canada, but be aware of different traffic laws.
All Canadian provinces and territories have distracted driving laws in effect, so cell phones must be used hands-free when driving. Speed limits are also in km/h, so be aware of that as well.
8. It will feel like the entire town of Banff is populated by Aussies and Kiwis.
Because it basically is. I got the feeling that an actual Banff local is like a unicorn. Nearly everyone working in the shops, as ski/snowboard instructors, in the resorts, etc. are from down unda.
9. There isn’t much to do after dark, unless you like to drink.
Most of the shops, except some of the souvenir ones, close at normal times. Same with museums. Only one resort offers night skiing. We tried to see a movie one night, but it was insanely expensive. Bars are open, of course. So if you like to drink, you’re in luck.
10. If you are planning on skiing/snowboarding during peak season, be aware of how crowded the resorts will be.
We knew it’d be busy at the resorts, but we were astounded at just how busy they were. Traffic of cars heading to the slopes was backed up all the onto the highway for Sunshine Village and Lake Louise. That’s approximately 5.5mi/9km! The resorts were running out of room in the parking lots and people had to park all along the road leading up to the gondola/main resort area. The resorts were a madhouse as well. I could only imagine what the slopes were like. We ended up opting out of skiing and rearranged our plans because of this.
11.This will probably also cause issues for you to get your rental gear. Reserve the gear, and have a back up plan.
Even though we made reservations weeks in advance for our ski gear, when we went to the store to pick it up they told us they wouldn’t be able to accommodate our reservation because they didn’t have enough poles and helmets in stock. We were told to stop by after a few hours to see if they’d received any returns. Instead we cancelled that reservation and tried a different rental company. That store was also a madhouse, and gear was flying off the shelves, but we were lucky to get in and out with our gear relatively painlessly.
12. Try out snowshoeing!
Just like you can rent ice skates and ski gear, you can rent snowshoes! We rented them in town by the Lake Louise Visitor’s Center and then walked the trail up to the scenic point overlooking the lake and chateau. It was a good workout since it was all uphill, but such a cool experience!
13. You probably won’t be able to see the aurora during your trip. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try.
We were so excited about getting a chance to see the aurora during our trip, but every night they had a chance of being active it was way too cloudy to be able to see them. We made the trip out to Lake Minnewanka at night to try our luck at seeing anything, and even though it was a bust on the aurora front, it was still cool to be out on the lake at night.
14. Canadians are super friendly!
No explanation needed, they are just so nice and helpful! I also just really love how they use the word “eh” in conversation.
15. Take some time to learn about Banff’s history.
I’m glad we took the time to visit Cave and Basin National Historic Site, and it gave us the opportunity to learn more about the pioneer days of Banff’s settlement and history. For how cheap Cave and Basin is, it’s a must see!
16. If you’re trying to save money, stay in Canmore.
It’s nearly impossible to book accommodations in Banff for under $200 per night. Any places lower on the price range book up extremely fast. Whereas in Canmore there are many options for places that are more budget friendly and most people don’t look out that far for places to stay.
17. Ice skating on Lake Minnewanka is a MUST.
Rent some skates in town and go! Seriously, it is so gorgeous. It looks so interesting with the methane bubbles trapped in the massive slabs of ice. The mountains frame the lake in the most beautiful way. It’s just the most magical experience! Definitely my favorite part of the whole trip.
18. Don’t be surprised by the tax rates.
Canada adds a federal sales tax to all goods/services, and on top of that most other provinces have their own tax. Depending on where you are in the country, your bill could end up with an extra 15% tacked on! You’ve been warned.
19. Poutine is the most wonderful thing ever created.
Ahhhh poutine… You can find it at many restaurants in different variations, but it’s always so delicious! We even took a chance and tried the McDonald’s McPoutine out of curiosity one night, it was interesting.
20. You’ll slip a lot. And probably fall as much.
The roads and sidewalks have icy patches. You will probably not see them and step on them, leading you to slip and momentarily lose your balance. You may not fall on your butt every time, but it’s guaranteed to happen at least once. Be prepared.
21. Go hang out at the Chateau Lake Louise and Fairmont Banff Springs.
These picturesque hotels may charge exorbitant rates, but they’re free to explore and I definitely encourage you do so! We found a giant fireplace in the Fairmont and warmed ourselves after a cold walk around downtown Banff. And after ice skating around Lake Louise we went to explore the Chateau and grab a few bites to eat. During Christmas, these hotels are so beautifully decorated and worth the visit.
22. There are plenty of outdoor outfitters in town, just in case you need to replace any of your gear.
If you realize you somehow forgot your snow pants, or your snow boots were to break on you, there are plenty of places you can go to purchase replacements in town, so don’t fret! This is one of the perks to traveling to a tourist town.
23. Johnston Canyon is a must!
The waterfalls are frozen over this time of year, and they’re an awesome sight to see! The hike to the falls is absolutely gorgeous, too. It snowed on us the whole time, but we were moving so much it didn’t bother us.
24. Don’t forget to explore Calgary a bit before you leave.
There are some cool attractions to visit in the city you’ll be flying through. We went to Calgary Tower and loved it! Their guided audio tour is so detailed and interesting, we learned so much about the history and culture of this part of Canada.
25. The Calgary Airport sucks.
Seriously the worst, y’all. We arrived 2.5 hours before our flight and we barely made it on the plane in time. The check in lines were long and slow. Then the security lines were even longer and slower. Then you have to go through some kind of customs or additional security check which you got it, means waiting in another long and slow line. It took us 2.5 hours to get through everything and get to our gate. Insane. I was so angry and frustrated with this airport, and a Brit who was standing next to me commented something like “Oh you obviously haven’t flown much, this is nothing.” UM NO. Wrong. I’ve flown through dozens of airports in my days, and YYC has got to be the worst. Be prepared.
26. Banff is one of those places you need to visit at least twice. Once in the snowy seasons, and once in the warmer seasons.
Matt and I want to plan a summer trip to Banff so we can experience it when it’s not completely frozen over. I want to see that gorgeous turquoise water in Lake Louise. We want to go hiking and mountain biking. There are so many cool activities and sights to be seen in both types of weather! We’ll definitely be back one day.
And if you have nay other nifty, know before you go tips, leave them in the comments below!
Happy wanderlusting friends!