By Alan Smith, Meteorologist Posted 2 months ago September 25, 2023
Insider's Guide to Skiing in Canada
This guide was sponsored in partnership with our friends at Ski.com and Do North!
Canada is one of the world's top destinations for skiing and snowboarding, thanks to the combination of big mountain terrain and consistent snowfall. It also offers a less crowded alternative compared to the more densely populated ski regions of the United States.
From ski resorts with big vertical, gorgeous alpine bowls, and large expanses of gladed terrain to snowcat and heli-ski operations deep in the backcountry, you truly can't go wrong with a ski trip to Canada.
Why consider skiing in Canada?
You (probably) can’t visit every ski area in the world, but your desire to explore new places and new activities should propel Canada toward the top of your list.
If you’re visiting from the United States, the exchange rate is very favorable at about $0.74 USD to $1.00 CAD (as of September 2023), so there is new terrain to be explored at a built-in 26% discount!
Here are our top reasons to plan a trip to Canada:
* Variety. You can choose from lift-serviced resort skiing, cat-skiing, heli-skiing, backcountry huts that come with guides and a chef (book these over a year in advance), backcountry touring on skis or a split board, and backcountry snowmobiling, with lodging options ranging from on-mountain resorts to accommodations in small towns. If you like snow, Canada is a playground.
* Road trip. There are plenty of resorts and towns that can be your week-long home base for a ski trip, or you opt to move from town-to-town since parts of western Canada seem like they were specially made to get in a car and chase powder. Many people spend 1-2 weeks driving from mountain to mountain in search of the best snow while exploring new terrain and small towns along the way.
* Views. The western mountains are truly gorgeous and, generally, offer more relief (distance between the valley and summit) than many places in the United States. Even if your goal for a ski trip is about something more defined than views, like finding deep powder or challenging yourself in steep terrain, beautiful vistas are a big plus.
* Not many people. Skiing most of Canada is generally a relaxed and uncrowded experience. Sure, there are more people on weekends and at the mountains closest to the larger cities, but in general, it’s a low-stress environment.
* Ski internationally without jet lag. Canada offers an international skiing experience with some of the best terrain and snow in the world. For U.S. travelers, Canada is more accessible compared to overseas destinations such as Europe and Japan, and border crossings are much easier now in the post-COVID era compared to previous years.
* Canadian hospitality. The stereotype is true – Canadians really are super nice! Beyond the ski slopes, the relaxed Canadian vibe is apparent when spending time in picturesque mountain villages, where you can enjoy local brews, a wide variety of cuisine, and authentic poutine.
Where are the mountains?
Most of Canada’s skiing is found in the eastern provinces of Quebec and Ontario and the western provinces of Alberta and British Columbia.
In the East, Quebec has 56 ski areas and Ontario counts 32 areas within its border. These mountains get most of their snow from storms that track along the east coast, and the exact track of each storm determines the amount and type of precipitation.
The northern location of these mountains means that snow is the dominant type of precipitation, but occasionally a storm will track too far to the west and there can be a few days with warmer weather and raindrops.
Overall, these mountains offer fun skiing, with reliable snow due to extensive snowmaking systems, are relatively close to major cities, and often are less crowded than mountains closer to the major US East Coast cities.
Many of the most well-known mountains are in Quebec, split into three areas.
- The area near Québec-Charlevoix includes resorts that offer tremendous views of the Saint Lawrence River.
- The Laurentians region northwest of Montreal is known for a large number of slopes available for night skiing.
- The resorts of the Eastern Townships that border the United States. You can find an overview of this area on the excellent Quebec Ski website.
In the West, the most notable mountains are in the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta. For reference, the city of Vancouver is located in British Columbia and the city of Calgary sits in Alberta, with the border of the two provinces running northwest-to-southeast through the heart of the mountains.
We think about these western mountains in three chunks of geography – Coast, Inland, and Rockies.
* Coast. This is where Whistler is located, the largest mountain and perhaps the most well-known. Whistler has one of the highest annual snowfall averages of all resorts in Canada because it is closest to the moisture source of the Pacific Ocean.
While the proximity to the ocean can mean that temperatures run a little warmer and rain can fall at the lowest elevations, Whistler stretches over 5,000 feet (1,500 meters) from the base to the summit, so the snow on the upper half of the mountain is often wonderful even during warmer storms.
This area – also known as the Powder Highway – is a fantastic mix of being close enough to the coast to receive a lot of snow but far enough away so that the air can be colder, producing fluffier snow with fewer rain events.
* Rockies. Resorts in this range include Lake Louise, Banff Sunshine, Mt. Norquay, Marmot Basin, and Nakiska. This region is the furthest from the moisture source of the Pacific Ocean, so snowfall is generally lower, but there are still plenty of flakes for powder days.
And since this region is at a relatively high elevation and further east, precipitation is usually all snow from base to summit, and snow quality tends to be excellent (dry and powdery).
What is the terrain like?
In Eastern Canada, the terrain at each resort is mostly groomed trails with trail counts averaging in the 30-50 range and ski area size near or under 500 acres.
In Western Canada, there is a mix of everything, including groomed runs, above-treeline bowls, steep chutes, and tree skiing. The size of the mountains ranges from 1,000-2,000 acres at the lower end, all the way to Whistler's massive 8,171 acres spread across two mountains (Whistler and Blackcomb).
Getting more specific, the mountains in British Columbia (the ‘Coast’ and ‘Inland’ zones) are most well known for fantastic tree skiing (best in the world according to many long-time skiers), while also offering alpine bowls and chutes above treeline.
In Alberta (the ‘Rockies’ zone), the terrain is big and the views are even bigger. If you want to get up high and challenge yourself, the above-treeline terrain is incredible, and of course, there are plenty of groomed runs that make for excellent cruisers while giving your legs a rest.
Snowcat and Heli-Skiing
Canada is the birthplace of cat skiing and heli-skiing, dating back to 1965 when CMH Heli Skiing began operations. To this day, Western Canada (especially British Columbia) offers some of the best cat and heli-skiing in the world, thanks to vast, incredible terrain and consistent snowfall.
There are numerous cat and heli operations throughout BC, from the Interior mountains to the Coast Range to the remote northern sections of the province.
Every cat and heli operation is unique, but a typical snowcat or heli trip involves at least 3 days (and sometimes up to a week) based at a remote backcountry lodge. Skiers and riders are typically divided into groups of 10-12 and are led by professional guides who will select runs based on snow conditions, weather, and avalanche danger.
Skiers and riders typically enjoy numerous runs through untracked powder over the course of a day, with terrain options ranging from trees to alpine bowls depending on conditions. The vastness of the terrain and low volume of skiers (compared to ski resorts) results in an abundance of untouched powder to enjoy.
Upon returning to the lodge at the end of the day, hungry skiers are typically treated to outstanding meals with a chance to socialize with other skiers visiting from around the world.
Cat and heli-skiing trips are incredible experiences, and there is arguably no better place in the world than Canada to book one of these trips.
What is the snow like in Canada?
In the East, there will be a mix of all types of snow. Most of the time, the snow will firm and carvable with the chance for fresh powder. Average snowfall is about 150-200 inches per season, and this provides many chances for powder days.
Also, if a storm tracks too far inland (away from the Atlantic Ocean), warmer air can invade the region and this can bring mixed precipitation or rain for a few days.
In the West, the proximity of each region to the Pacific Ocean is one of the most important factors that determine the amount and the quality of the snow.
The Pacific Ocean is the moisture source for many of the snow storms that hit Canada, so regions that are closer to the Ocean tend to receive more snow.
* Coast. This region often receives the most snow, as evidenced by Whistler’s 469 inches of average snowfall. Also, Whistler measures 6+ inches of snow on 18% of its winter days, or in other words, about one in every five days is a powder day. This is the highest percentage of any Canadian ski area.
Because Whistler is so close to the relatively warm waters of the Pacific Ocean, some storms do drop rain at the lower elevations, though during most storms you will find excellent snow conditions higher up on the mountain even if raindrops are falling at the base.
Video: OpenSnow forecaster Luke Stone getting deep in Whistler
* Inland. This region presents a wonderful combination of lots of snowfall (410 inches at Revelstoke, 393 inches at Whitewater, 373 inches at Fernie) and also a good quality of snow that is thick enough to provide a substantial base and fluffy enough for super fun turns and face shots. A few storms per season will arrive with warmer air with rain at the base, but again, the snow is usually great higher up on the mountain.
Big White (279 inches) and Sun Peaks (205 inches) are located on the western edge of the Inland mountains and also offer their own unique perspectives. Big White's base-to-summit elevation of 5,000-7,500 feet (alpine of Whistler) reduces the chances for rain events and provides great mid-winter snow preservation.
Sun Peaks typically offers one of the earliest resort openings in British Columbia thanks to their summer grooming practices. This gives Sun Peaks the advantage of opening earlier with less snow.
* Rockies. Being furthest from the Pacific Ocean, the mountains in the province of Alberta are generally colder than the other regions, which means that the snow is often drier and fluffier. The average snowfall at Banff Sunshine is 257 inches per year, which is lower than mountains further west, but the upshot is the fluffier snow and the lower likelihood of rain events due to colder air.
How do you get there?
In the East, most people will drive to their favorite area, and another option is to fly into Quebec City, Montreal, Ottawa, or Toronto and then rent a car to make the relatively short trek to the ski areas.
In the West, the major airports are Vancouver and Calgary.
Flying to Vancouver makes sense if you are heading to the ‘Coast’ zone around Whistler. For Whistler, there are frequent shuttles, and car rentals are also available. The drive time is about two hours.
Flying to Calgary makes sense if you are heading to the ‘Rockies’ zone around the town of Banff (including nearby Lake Louise, Banff Sunshine, and Mt. Norquay). The drive is about 90 minutes from Calgary to Banff along a four-lane highway. Kicking Horse is an additional 90 minutes to the west, and Marmot Basin is five hours from Calgary.
For the ‘Inland’ zone, there are multiple options. Most people fly to the Kamloops, Kelowna, or Cranbrook airports connecting through Vancouver, Seattle, or Calgary, and then will either rent a car or take shuttles.
Also, flying to Spokane in Washington State is an option, with car rentals available and a 3-4 hour drive to the resorts of southern British Columbia.
This is Canada, so are the temperatures super cold?
Actually, the temperatures are what we would call ‘normal’ for a ski vacation. For the most part, expect readings in the teens, 20s, and 30s.
During warm spells, readings can rise into the 40s, and during the coldest periods, readings can go well below zero Fahrenheit. This temperature range is pretty standard no matter where your ski trip might take you around the world.
In terms of regionality, the Canadian Rockies (Alberta) typically experience the coldest temperatures as these are the easternmost mountains in Western Canada and arctic air can reach this area more easily. Eastern Canada (Quebec and Ontario) can experience arctic outbreaks as well.
The Coast and Inland regions of British Columbia are more protected from severe cold thanks to high mountains to the east that act as a barrier to arctic air, while milder air from the Pacific also has a moderating effect on temperatures. These areas can occasionally get very cold (Inland region more so than the Coast), but not as frequently compared to the Rockies.
When is the best time to visit?
If you're searching for dry, fluffy, cold powder, late December through mid-January is your best bet. For starters, December and January are the two snowiest months of the season at many resorts in Canada.
The sun angle is also at its lowest point of the year in December and January, and since Canada is far to the north, the sun angle is much lower compared to the United States.
A lower sun angle means that any snow that falls during this time of year will stay cold and fluffy even if the snow stops and the sun shines for days. If you do plan an early-season trip during this window, remember that the base might be shallow in lower snow years because the snow has only been accumulating for 8-12 weeks.
On the flip side, there is plenty of spring skiing at the higher elevations where snow can stick around well into the spring. Skiing in March and early April can be the perfect mix of powder at the higher altitudes and warm temperatures and short sleeves at the base.
If you want to plan your trip well in advance, you'll likely find great deals on airfare, lodging, and lift tickets. Do the math to see if a season pass, like the Epic Pass or Ikon Pass, makes sense as these passes usually work out to be much less expensive than buying day tickets.
If you are trying to time the deepest powder day, you’ll want to wait to book your trip until 7-10 days in advance. This is the window when weather forecasts become accurate enough that you can spot the trend toward cold and snowy weather ahead.
And if you want the most forecast accuracy so that you can dial in the day and the mountain that might offer the most snow, it would be wise to wait until about 3-5 days before a storm. While this short lead time is not useful for most pre-planned trips, it is helpful to keep in mind if you are planning a multi-destination road trip.
The bottom line is that, if you’re craving breathtaking scenery, deep snow, picturesque villages, authentic poutine, and people with amazing exchange rates, now is the time to go… DO North!
Resorts, cat or heli-skiing, snowmobiling, backcountry touring, road tripping – it’s all there for you. And the scenery is incredible so let the Canada experts at Ski.com curate your perfect vacation experience in the Great White North that’s close to home but feels far away.
Enjoy your adventure!
Local Tips & Guides
Sun Peaks: Official Website
Big White: Official Website
Revelstoke: Official Website
Fernie, Kicking Horse, Kimberly, Nakiska, Mont Sainte Anne, Stoneham: Local Travel Tips
Québec Ski: Official Website
Download: OpenSnow Mobile App
Daily Snow: British Columbia
Daily Snow: Canadian Rockies
Snow Forecast & Report: Alberta
Snow Forecast & Report: British Columbia
Snow Forecast & Report: Ontario
Snow Forecast & Report: Quebec
This guide was sponsored in partnership with our friends at Ski.com and Do North!