An Aussie’s guide to surviving winter in Canada
“How do you think you’ll deal with the cold?” I heard this a ton as I was preparing to move to Canada from Australia with a working holiday visa in hand. I know I’m not the first Australian to get the question. Pretty much anyone who decides to migrate to a place where real winter is a thing gets this question all the time.
If you’re like me, you find yourself always answering, “Yeah I’ll be fine; I’m taking my good coat!” Only to later discover that your good coat wasn’t, in fact, that fantastic after all, and you basically got hypothermia after wearing it once in sub-zero, freeze-off-every-inch-of-your-body temperatures.
To put Canadian winter in basic Australian terms, Canada is FRESH. (Take note: If you say this term in Canada, be prepared to explain to everyone that it means cold.) Gone are the days of watching the footy on the weekends in a Victorian winter when it was 15 degrees outside thinking I was going to freeze—15 is bikini weather for me now!
Having arrived in Canada in June, I was spoiled with a dreamy bliss of hot, sunny days (and I mean HOT: well above 30 degrees, and SUNNY: darkness didn’t totally fall until midnight in some places!), complete with festivals, beers and BBQs. Now I don’t like to be overconfident, but having experienced this early on I thought I was going to breeze through winter like Steven Bradbury claiming the gold.
After some travel, my partner and I decided to settle in Toronto to find jobs. Working in the hospitality industry, the weather is a BIG small-talk topic. As soon as I open my mouth, they are immediately intrigued about my accent (I admit, I like the attention! I am basically Steve Irwin, Paul Hogan and Nicole Kidman thrown into one). After the initial where-ya-from chit-chat, the next statement is almost always, “I can’t believe you moved here, it’s so cold! We would love to go to Australia!” (Pronounced correctly I might add—not Straya.) I usually follow with, “I am just excited for the experience.”
Fast forward to December and I'm now asked, “How are you coping?” In my head, I am answering with, “Yeah, if coping means rocking back and forth in a corner most nights whilst watching reruns of Home and Away and making a pact with myself to not go outside until the temperature is above my age, then yeah, I’m having a ripper time, mate!” But instead, not wanting to admit I didn’t realize it would be this extreme, I answer with, “Yeah I love it, I was born for this weather!”
I remember the first really—and I mean REALLY—cold day in December: -20 with a wind chill of -35 (p.s. wind chill makes no sense, Canada. The temperature should just be -35, right?), I needed to quickly duck out to the supermarket to get something. Boy, did I learn a lesson that night. Quick trips do not exist in a Canadian winter. In order to simply leave the house, you must make best pals with your shovel, attempt to plow out a path (workout alert) followed by removing the shocking amount of snow off of your car with a bizarre broom-like object whilst it is still snowing. Then you sit in your car for what feels like 79 hours to get the ice off of the inside of your windows before you can even go anywhere. Disclaimer: I am told this is how the story goes; I gave up that first night as soon as I picked up the shovel.
To be fair, apparently this winter has been a real introduction to a true Canadian winter. If I had a dollar for every time that I have heard “This is the coldest winter in 50+ years” or “I don’t even remember it ever being this cold in my entire life” or “Wow you’ve picked a real doozy of a winter to arrive in!” I would have about 14 billion dollars, give or take a few.
Now I realize that I may not be creating the prettiest picture in my fellow travellers’ minds, but fortunately after the initial shock in December, I pretty quickly figured out some super important tips to not only survive my first blissful experience of a real winter, but actually enjoy it, too.
1. (and most importantly) Get a good coat
Don’t skimp on the price, people! This is IMPORTANT! Picture little old me coming over to Canada with simply a puffer vest with no sleeves that was basically one centimetre thick, expecting it to keep me warm. BAD IDEA! Even if times are tight save up every little penny (beers/snacks/laundry change) and make the investment! I purchased a full-length down coat that has become my new best friend that I like, totally, never leave home without. Check out second-hand or consignment shops for a good deal, too.
2. BOOTS are made for walking
Once again, silly old me thought snow boots were not mandatory and that my Nikes would get me through. WRONG! Not only will your toes drop off but you will also be unable to walk anywhere due to the ice that forms after the snow melts and then refreezes (note: it is embarrassing when you fall face first walking across the road in the middle of the city). I am grateful that I learned this lesson quickly (well, sort of quickly anyway, after arguing with my partner for weeks that I wouldn’t need boots). Get a good insulated waterproof pair that goes down to at least minus 20. Spoiler alert: these temperatures exist!
3. Layers, layers, layers baby
Don’t be like me and think that you can just pop on some leggings and a normal jumper. Nope, not happening, ever. Never leave home without at least 8 to 42 extra layers to put on. I quite often look a lot bigger than I am because I’m wearing three pairs of pants, four pairs of socks, three thermal t-shirts, two sweaters, my toque (beanie for fellow Australians playing along at home) and my coat. It has to be done! Just be prepared for the major workout that will occur when you enter any establishment and attempt to de-layer.
4. Find indoor activities to stay entertained
If you’re like me and can’t stand being stuck at home for more than an hour at a time, make friends with Google and find cool events/attractions nearby that are indoors and toasty and warm. Every weekend I am searching ‘Things to do this weekend in Toronto’. Even just going out for a couple of hours can help cure the winter blues! Super cool things I have done recently include: trampoline park (huge workout warning!), board game cafes, the aquarium, thrift shopping and exploring fresh food markets. Another super cool thing is a lot of these things are free; cha-ching!
5. Don’t be afraid to go outside and experience the beauty
Newsflash! Snow is overwhelmingly beautiful! Don’t be afraid to go outside and take it all in (fully layered and wearing your boots and toque of course). Why move here if you don’t experience the feelings of a true winter? Please PLEASE PLEASE do all of the following:
Attempt to build a snowman(Side note: actually A LOT harder than we anticipated and ours ended up more like a snow blob with no facial features nor rounded shape). Perhaps look at some YouTube tutorials before starting this one if you want success or just copy the neighbour kids’ expert technique like we did.
Go tobogganingLots of big hills within most cities turn into FREE snow-covered toboggan hills in winter. Inexpensive sleds can be purchased from outdoor stores, or if you want to be really authentic, chuck down an industrial size garbage bag and you’re off.
Watch frozen waterfallsDrive/walk/fly/cycle/ride a magic carpet as far as you can to experience frozen waterfalls. One word: AMAZING. See photos below, be amazed, get in a car, chase waterfalls and be even more amazed.
Get involved in a snowball fightThese are the most fun when your opponent is unsuspecting. Go ahead, be a kid for a moment and attack like you’re going for gold! Pro-tip: the snow is best for snowballs when the temperatures are a little bit warmer (i.e. minus 5). When it’s super cold out, the snow is basically dust.
Go ice skatingThis one is an obvious must. Most inner-city rinks are well maintained and free to skate on—you just need to hire/rent skates for approximately $10 at most locations and you’re in for a rocking good time. Pro-tip: ice skating is Canada’s version of Aus Kick; therefore, every single Canadian has been doing it since they learned to walk. If you don’t want to be totally shown up by all their twists and turns while you’re still hugging the side rails, perhaps consider some lessons first. Thank me later.
Now that I am well into my first Canadian winter, I have realized two important things:
- Winter is actually really incredible if you aren’t afraid to get outside and explore it. The world has so many beautiful extremities and I feel privileged to get to experience such magnificence in Canada.
- Everything comes to an end. Soon enough the snow will have all melted away, it will be summer again, my pasty white skin will be getting roasted and I will be wishing for a day below 30 degrees.