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What to Wear in Canada in Winter on a -20C Day

We’re in the middle of the first cold snap of the year. Temperatures are plummeting south of -20°C (-4°F) here in Calgary in Canada. Cold weather clothing is a necessity so you can still enjoy getting outside. Stay indoors for the next five months at the expense of both your mental and physical health. Learning to love the winter is the key to surviving it. While we have COVID-19 in our midst it’s going to be especially important.

Here’s what to wear in Canada in winter so you can actually enjoy days that are -20° C. Your world in winter will open up when you wear the right clothes. You might be surprised at how much there is to do.

Calgary winter weather forecast
Calgary winter weather forecast

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What to wear in Canada in winter – layering is the way to go

Start with long underwear – either the Capilene or merino wool variety. I love Patagonia’s capilene long underwear – and it comes in a couple of weights. The merino wool products made by Icebreaker or Arc’teryx are also excellent.

The other bonus to merino wool is that it doesn’t stink – even if you sweat a lot. I prefer the feel of merino wool over Capilene but both of them work well at wicking moisture away from your skin.

For super cold days I use thermal weight long underwear for added warmth.

Add wind-proof, heavy duty long pants, preferably made with Gore-Tex if you’re planning to be outside for any length of time. If you’re just planning to walk around the city, you can certainly just stick with long underwear and your usual pants.

For cross-country skiing or snowshoeing I’ll usually wear heavy long underwear and a shell pant – preferably with a full zip of the leg. This insulated one by Patagonia would also be a great choice. Or try these bottoms that are perfect for anything outdoors.

Above the waist, it’s all about layering too.

What works for me on the extra cold days is a synthetic or merino wool long sleeved top – preferably with a zipper at the collar in case I actually get overheated.

Then I add a fleece jacket (a wind-proof can come in handy) and a down vest. On top I will wear either another down sweater (it’s more like a short down coat but I like the ones with a hood) and then a waterproof-wind-proof shell. If I’m not moving a lot, I’ll go for my really warm down jacket for the outer layer.

Don’t lose head through your head

Next is a neck warmer, scarf or even a buff. These simple items make such a difference in keeping you toasty, especially considering how much heat you lose from your head. Don’t forget to add a hat.

If snow is in the forecast – even if you’re not skiing I recommend taking ski goggles so you can see that much better. I really like the ones from MessyWeekend.

What to wear in Canada winter - layering is key
Dressing in layers with a warm scarf and hat
Goggles are useful in a snow storm even if you aren't skiing
Goggles are useful in a snow storm even if you aren’t skiing

Keeping your hands toasty

I never wear gloves in winter unless it’s a spring temperature kind of day. Go for a pair of very warm mitts if you are prone to frozen fingers. I also bring handwarmers with me – and in fact keep several in the car in case our car ever breaks down. They will help keep your hands warm for up to six hours.

You can also buy toe warmers but they’re hard to fit under your toes if you have tight-fitting shoes or boots.

Hot drinks and many layers make a huge difference on very cold days
What to wear in Canada winter – layering is key along with a hot drink

My husband has frozen his feet several times so now he wears heated socks powered by batteries. They aren’t inexpensive but they sure make a huge difference. I wrote about them here.

What to wear in Canada winter - include hand warmers
Hand warmers (Photo credit: CATSA)

What to wear on your feet

I like merino wool socks – and again they don’t stink. They come in a variety of weights so pick what works for you.

Fashionable boots aren’t always the warmest boots. For the best boots for warmth, try a pair of Salomons or Sorels – my go to boot for the coldest of days.

They even work in the far north though I’d recommend adding a thick insole to further insulate your feet from the cold.

What to wear in canada winter - Sorels work for everything outside
Sorels work for everything outside

The rewards are great for people who get outdoors.

A world waits for you – be it walking in Calgary’s Nose Hill Park on a crisp winter day, skating at Lake Louise, cross-country skiing in Banff National Park or doing the icewalk up Johnston Canyon.

Skate around the ice castle at Lake Louise
Skate around the ice castle at Lake Louise

Invest in the clothes. They will last a long time and make the winter enjoyable.

Further reading on things to do in Canada in winter

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest boards.

How to dress for a -25C winter day


Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 61,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada.

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Great post and I’ve had all the right clothing for the past 30 years in sub-zero weather, Leigh. It’s always the dang wind that grates on my last nerve lol. Of course I hated when it got TOO cold, WITH snow because it would freeze between Phoenix’s toes and make walking impossible. Yes, he and I tried little booties and he said, “No thank you” 🙂

  2. Austin, Texas is the coldest place I’ve ever lived so the thought of -25C has me shivering just thinking about it. I’ve only been to Calgary for spring skiing, and I imagine that it must have been warmer than that. These tips are really handy for a cold weather novice like myself.

    1. @Michele When the temperatures plummet like that you really have to bundle up so you don’t go stir crazy inside. It’s all quite possible and it’s amazing how good you feel when you’re back indoors.

  3. You live in Calgary also? I’ve noticed the biggest difference between women dressing for outdoors in Calgary vs. Toronto, is that Calgarian women will clump around in boots even if the pavement is prepare for sudden snow/cold or suburban areas have not been properly ploughed.

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