Skiers and snowboarders love Banff, but you don’t have to be a downhill enthusiast to enjoy winter here. Skating, x-country, snowshoeing, snow tubing and sightseeing….the list goes on! The early part of the winter season, from mid-November to just before Christmas, tends to be quieter and is a great time to enjoy iconic locations without the crowds. Peak ski season is usually in February and March, when families and visitors from around the world flock to the slopes.
Weather and Packing Tips:
Winter in Banff is cold but also dry – the lack of humidity makes it much easier to stay warm compared to damp weather. Cold snaps can get down to -35C, but an average temp is more like -10. The warm wind system known as a Chinook can cause sudden rises in temperature, creating the occasional surprise +15C day in the middle of winter!
Breathable, sweat-wicking thermal base layers are the foundation of a perfect winter outfit. Many people swear by merino versions from brands like Icebreaker, but you can also find more accessibly priced synthetic versions from retailers like Uniqlo. You’ll want a good wind and waterproof jacket, preferably with some insulation, then you can add layers in between to be prepared for any conditions. Keeping your extremities warm is key, so make sure you have a good hat (or toque, as we say round here), gloves and socks.
Warm boots that grip well on snow and ice are another winter essential in Banff. Alternatively, a pair of Yaktrax slip onto almost any shoe for extra grip.
Don’t forget your sunglasses! The coldest days can also be the sunniest and you won’t want to miss a moment of those bright winter skies.
This winter, you could…
Capture the Dawn Light – Without the Early Alarm!
Photographers and filmmakers adore golden hour, the period just after sunrise, and before sunset. The soft, pink-toned light adds a magical touch to any landscape (and makes us all look at least 10% more attractive!) In summertime, you need to be up by 5 AM to have your camera ready at dawn. But in November and the first weeks of December, as we head towards the winter solstice, you’ve got time for a leisurely breakfast before the best conditions hit around 8.30. And if you miss it, there’s not too long to wait – sunset rolls around just after 4! Add in the dusting of snow that highlights the mountain ridges and sparkling frost on the trees, and you’ve got the makings of some truly spectacular pictures.
Looking to level up your photography skills? Check out workshops with legendary local photographer Paul Zizka.
Skate on a Mountain Lake
This one’s for those early weeks of November, when it’s getting cold but lower elevations don’t yet have snow cover. This creates a brief but magical window when the lakes freeze and you can skate out onto the clear ice, taking in the scenery or maybe having a quick game of pond hockey. Vermilion, Johnson and Two Jack Lakes are all fantastic for skating when conditions are right and you can hire skates at local rental shops – we recommend Banff Adventures Unlimited, in Bison Courtyard on Bear Street.
Find out more about skating on wild ice.
See the Northern Lights
The Aurora Borealis is one of nature’s most unforgettable spectacles! It’s hard to predict when the lights will make an appearance, but you can check out aurorawatch.ca and follow their twitter account to get alerts when there’s a high chance of seeing the lights. Guests in our Deluxe Rooms overlooking Vermilion Lakes might not even have to leave their bed to catch a glimpse of the magical skies. But it’s worth at least heading to your balcony, or our front patio to see the full effect over the mountains! Many locals will head to Lake Minnewanka when there’s an aurora forecast – lower levels of ambient light and the wide open skies make it an excellent viewing spot. If you’re heading out to aurora watch, make sure to wrap up warm and pack snacks and a hot drink. Be extra careful on the roads at night, as freezing conditions and wildlife create additional hazards.
Ski or Ride Something Unforgettable
The three resorts around Banff have a great variety of ski terrain, with something to enjoy in almost all conditions. But when you wake up to 20+ cms, there are a few places locals will recommend for turns you’ll brag about for years.
The following tips are for experienced skiers looking to challenge themselves in the resorts’ lesser-traveled sections. If you’re not as confident in your ability, you’re still going to have an amazing time! You might like to check out the free mountain tours offered by volunteer Snow Hosts at Sunshine Village and Lake Louise. They lead beginner and intermediate groups a couple of times a day and are a great way to discover your new favourite run!
Tip #1 is not to overlook Mount Norquay – sure, it’s smaller than the others, but on a pow day you can be on the chair in half the time it takes to line up on the Sunshine access road. When it’s deep, Norquay is the perfect kind of steep – try the leg burning runs off North American chair, especially Boundary Bowl. Looker’s right off Mystic Chair, Bruno’s Gulley offers short, fun bumps skiing in deep conditions. On the opposite side, Sun Chutes rewards those who brave a tricky entrance with some interesting inclines and often untouched steeps.
If you’ve made it to Sunshine Village, keep an eye out for the rope drop on South Side Chutes, at the top of Goats Eye. This is rarely open first thing, so still offers plenty for those who couldn’t face an early start. Sunshine’s freeride zones are a big draw for experienced skiers when the snow is good. If you’re looking to check these out for the first time, you need to carry and be comfortable using avalanche equipment, as well as be confident skiing extreme terrain with natural hazards. Delirium Dive is the most well-known, and the ‘easiest’ route down is less intimidating than you might think. Many first-timers find navigating the metal stairs into the bowl the most challenging part. If you’re not used to putting on your skis or board on a slope or in a tight space, you might want to practice a little before you go. The Wild West has some fantastic terrain, with no hiking or removing your skis required. However, route finding is much harder, with multiple chutes of varying difficulty – you don’t want to get lost and end up in a cliff section! If you don’t have a ski buddy who knows the lines, consider hiring a guide – specialized lessons are available to help you enjoy the freeride zones safely.
Over at Lake Louise, head straight up the new Summit Chair. Yes, snowboarders no longer have to struggle with the dreaded button lift to access some of the resort’s finest terrain! From the top of the chair, you have a choice of fabulous and challenging runs, but we’d recommend boot packing a little way over to the top of Hikers’ for an amazing run down the back bowl.
Learn more about the Banff ski and boarding experience from SkiBig3.
Need some tailored advice on your trip from the people who live, work and play here? Call us anytime: 1-800-551-2281.
Ready to start planning your winter adventure?