Canada is often referred to as the great white north, and with good reason – the winters are snowy and cold. Temperatures in some cities could drop as low as -30 or -40 degrees Celsius. But don’t let this scare you. Know that life goes on as usual, even during such extreme weather. The key is to be well-prepared and embrace winter activities so you can make the most of the cold weather. 

In this article, we will outline some terms and phrases that are synonymous with winter. We will also provide helpful tips and guidance on how to prepare for your home, car, and yourself for Canadian winters. 

Familiarizing yourself with Canadian winters

With the onset of winter in Canada, you’ll begin to increasingly hear terms like wind chill, frostbite, frostnip or hypothermia. Here’s a quick overview of what these mean so you can take preventive measures to protect yourself from it.  

What are the winter months in Canada?

Winter months are generally December, January, and February. Although winter weather can start in November and last through late March or early April, making it a total of approximately five to six months of chilly weather. 

How cold are Canadian winters?

Canadian winters can be freezing cold. Temperatures throughout winter are usually below or around zero degrees Celsius, and tend to linger between -5 and -15 degrees Celsius. It rarely gets below -20 or -30 degrees Celsius, but it does happen. Heavy snowfall is common in November and December. 

Stay up-to-date on weather conditions with a weather app

Canadian weather can be unpredictable and sometimes fluctuate throughout the day. Be sure to download a weather app and check weather forecasts daily to know what to expect and plan your day and outfits accordingly. Environment Canada’s weather app, WeatherCAN, provides the latest forecast information directly from Canada’s official weather source; it is available as a free download for iOS and Android.

Factoring in wind chill

The wind chill is a huge factor when considering actual temperatures. Wind chills are often responsible for the temperatures feeling lower than what you see on the weather app. For instance, the weather app may show you that it’s going to be -20 degrees Celsius, but it will also indicate that it “feels like” -30 degrees Celsius. Keep in mind that a severe wind chill can cause frostbite on exposed skin. 

What is frostbite?

Frostbite occurs when your skin is exposed to the cold weather for a long time and freezes like ice. Just 30 seconds of exposure to cold weather can be enough to cause frostbite. Most affected areas include hands, feet, nose, ears and face. A high wind chill factor, wet clothing, ingestion of alcohol or drugs, and high altitudes are other contributing factors to frostbite. Areas affected by frostbite will look pale grey or white and have a waxy texture. You could experience numbness or localized pain, as well as swelling and blistering. Be sure not to rub or massage the affected area, and don’t expose your skin to direct heat. Use your own body temperature or press something warm against the area. If possible, avoid warming up your skin until you know you can keep it warm. Frostbite is a very serious condition, affecting not only the skin but also underlying tissue, including muscle and bone. Bad cases can result in amputation, so seek medical attention as soon as possible. Make sure you prevent frostbite by having warm clothing, gloves or mittens, footwear, and not leaving any skin exposed to the extreme cold. You can also spread vaseline on the cheeks and nose to protect them from the cold.

A less severe version of the frostbite is called a frostnip. It is common when skiing or snowboarding, and most often affects the cheeks and the tip of the nose. It is characterized by soft yellowish or white skin and causes a painful tingling or burning sensation. Generally, you can use the warmth of your hand for immediate relief. However, remember not to rub the area as it can cause a rash. 

What is hypothermia?

Hypothermia occurs when your core body temperature drops below 35 degrees Celsius. That is why it is crucial to dress warm and bundle up when spending time outdoors. Symptoms of hypothermia include shivering, mumbling, strange behaviour, confusion, disorientation, muscle cramps, cold and pale skin. The best course of treatment is to warm up as soon as possible.

Tip: Avoid waiting for a long time at bus stops or subway stations when it’s cold or dark outside. Download a transit app like Rocketman and use it to find out when the next bus or train is arriving. Rocketman allows you to track your bus along its route, save your favourite stops, and get transit delay alerts in real-time. Get the Rocketman app today for free.

How to prepare for the Canadian winter

Canada is a vast country, and weather conditions differ from the west coast to the east coast. Winter on the west coast is milder and rainy in comparison to the east coast. And the more north you go, the more arctic-like conditions you’ll be likely to find. However, know that as long as you have your wardrobe, home, and car ready for winter, you’ll be just fine. 

Choosing the right winter gear: clothing and footwear

Even bright and sunny days in the middle of winter can be extremely cold. See How to dress for Canadian winter to learn the basics and get tips on fall and winter shopping in Canada so you can stay warm and make the most of your first Canadian winter. 

How to prepare your home for winter

Winters in Canada can be brutal and harsh. With the ongoing pandemic, many people will be spending a lot of time at home. Doing a pre-winter check-up and preparing your residence for winter will ensure you stay warm and safe. 

10 tips to help you prepare your home for winter

  1. Indoor heating can cause the air to become very dry, which, at times, can lead to minor nosebleeds. Having a humidifier at home can help prevent it.
  2. Check if there are any cracks or gaps in windows and doors. If any, seal them or consider having them replaced. Caulking or weather-stripping are ideal for sealing purposes. Also, if you live in a house, remember to check your roof for missing shingles and flashing. 
  3. Drain all outdoor hoses, sprinkler systems, cap taps, and eavestroughs before the onset of below zero degree Celsius weather. 
  4. If you have an attic, ensure the attic is insulated – this is useful in trapping heat inside the house.
  5. Cover up patio and garden furniture, or store it away. 
  6. At times there may be blackouts resulting from storm damage. Have a flashlight and lamp with extra batteries ready along with lots of candles. 
  7. Trim any oversized tree branches that may pose a threat to the structural soundness of your home.
  8. Inspect the chimney, clean the furnace and make sure it is in working order – this is not only essential for optimal performance, but also prevents carbon monoxide leaks or other issues.  
  9. Change the air filters regularly and have the vents and ducts cleaned. While you’re checking your vents and exhausts, check your dryer vents thoroughly and clean any accumulated lint as it can be a major fire hazard. 
  10. As a homeowner, you’re responsible for keeping your property and surrounding areas such as stairs, walkways and driveways clear and reasonably safe for people who use them. Use a snow shovel and road salt to clear any snow from your drive, pathways or sidewalks to prevent slipping. 

Things you can do to get your car winter-ready

Canadian winter can be tough on your car but there are few simple things you can do to ensure your vehicle is protected in the snowy weather. 

Tip: Do consider where you will be parking your car during the winter months. Parking it in a sheltered environment like a garage or an underground parking lot is a better option. However, if you plan on parking your car on the street or in the open, you will need to have thorough maintenance done.

1. Switch to winter tyres

Winter tires are specifically designed to withstand harsh winter conditions; they have more traction and enable better braking and handling. Winter tires are most effective when the temperature drops below seven degrees Celsius.

Tip: In some provinces, such as Ontario, you might be offered better car insurance rates if you install winter tires and take additional precautions. Note that although installing winter tires may not be a legal requirement, but it is recommended to do so from a safety perspective.

2. Check the basics: battery, tire pressure, oil, wiper blades, washer fluid, and coolant

  • Battery: An ageing car battery is likely to die in extremely cold weather, so it’s better to have it checked in a timely manner. Car batteries usually require attention after four years of use or if frequently used in hot weather. 
  • Tire pressure: Monitor the tire pressure as temperature dip – low tire pressure is common in cold weather as fluctuating temperatures can cause the air in the tires to expand and contract. It is recommended to check tire pressure monthly and adjust as needed.
  • Oil: There are specific oil types to be used during winter as they have less viscosity (are thinner) and offer better protection for the engine.
  • Wiper blades: Wiper blades lose their effectiveness over time and hence need to be regularly examined. You can also find wiper blades specifically for winter weather conditions. 
  • Washer fluid: Get a washer fluid that is meant for cold conditions; do not use water as it can freeze.
  • Coolant: Don’t forget to check the coolant levels in your car; ensure that it has the correct ratio of antifreeze to water.

Tips:

  • While starting your car in very cold weather, instead of using your windshield wipers, use an ice-scraper or de-icer to remove accumulated ice from your windshield.
  • When you park your car in an uncovered area, fold your wipers to prevent them from freezing and sticking to the windshield.

3. Ensure the heating system and block heater is working

Check if the heating system in your car is working well – it will not only help you stay warm but will also keep your windows fog and ice-free. If you plan to park your car in an uncovered area during the winter months, you will need to warm up your car engine for a few minutes to ensure the engine starts quickly. Before winter sets in, check whether your vehicle’s block heater is working fine. A block heater timer can help you save on the amount of electricity used. 

4. Install car floor mats

Rubber mats can be useful to hold (and empty) the snow that you bring into the car and to avoid fogging when the snow melts. They’re also easy to clean and low on maintenance. 

Tip: Avoid layering car mats on top of each other as they can cause the gas or brake pedals to get stuck and may lead to the driver’s feet to be improperly positioned for optimal driving.

5. Prepare a winter emergency kit

Driving conditions during Canadian winters can get very bad. Having a winter emergency kit will ensure you are prepared to get yourself out of a bind if you get stranded, your car breaks down, or if you encounter an accident. 

Tip: Consider signing up for roadside assistance. Car dealers, insurance providers, and some roadside assistance organizations – all provide roadside assistance service. No matter which channel you choose, ensure you’re not paying twice for the same service.

Things to include in a winter emergency kit

  • First-aid kit
  • De-icer, to unlock frozen doors, locks and latches
  • Flashlight
  • Water and non-perishable snacks
  • A small shovel
  • A small tool kit and a jack
  • Road salt and sand
  • Reflective warning signs
  • Ice-scraper
  • Snowbrush
  • Batteries, windshield fluid, and windshield wipers
  • Jumper cables or self-charging mini-generators
  • Tow rope

As a newcomer, you may have many apprehensions and fears about facing your first winter in Canada. But with the right knowledge, preparation and winter gear, you will be able to adapt and have an enjoyable experience. 

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Disclaimer:
This article offers general information only and is not intended as legal, financial or other professional advice. A professional advisor should be consulted regarding your specific situation. While information presented is believed to be factual and current, its accuracy is not guaranteed and it should not be regarded as a complete analysis of the subjects discussed. All expressions of opinion reflect the judgment of the author(s) as of the date of publication and are subject to change. No endorsement of any third parties or their advice, opinions, information, products or services is expressly given or implied by Royal Bank of Canada or its affiliates.