What Winter in Canada is Really Like: All the things you have to deal with in winter!

Moss Park, Toronto, Canada – December 2018

Canadians love to talk about the weather. One of the most common questions I get asked is, “What’s the coldest it gets in Australia?” When you live through a few winters here, you understand why.  I think they ask because:

  • they dream of living in a snow-free land or;
  • they know an Australian winter is a walk in the park compared to a Canadian one. 

And it is! I’m from the coast of Sydney, Australia, where winter looks like this picture, and I rarely experienced anything colder than 8 degrees celsius.

But even if you’re from the coldest parts of Australia, I will tell you straight up:

You do not know what winter is until you’ve seen a winter in Canada

What’s the big deal about winter? It’s cold, and it snows, right? Snow is beautiful!

Snow is beautiful. But there’s a lot to living in this climate that you don’t realize until you actually have to do it. I’m sure you understand that it’s very cold, but what does that actually look like?

Let’s talk about time.

Even though winter proper is three months long, the cold seems to go on forever

And I’m only talking about Toronto, which is said to have a mild winter compared to other parts of the country. It gets so cold here, that you will start thinking zero to two degree days are downright balmy compared to -20.

Never in my life did I think I would be calling zero degrees warm. But Canada does that to you. 

Here is a rough timeline of the cold season. All temperatures are in Celsius. 

Fall officially begins Sep 21st. By the middle of October, the temperatures are usually already in single digits. So it’s only midway through fall and it’s already colder than a “freezing” day in Sydney.

October is the time to bring your hats and gloves out of storage, but you won’t need a winter coat just yet. It’s a beautiful time of year with all the leaves changing colours. The many parks and trees in Toronto put on quite a show.

Toronto in October

Halloween is chilly, so don’t think you can strut down the street in a barely-there costume, because you’ll freeze. As such, onesies are a big hit here.  

November is similar, and you might see snow, but it doesn’t usually dump piles just yet. You can still spend time outdoors without a full winter wardrobe.  Trees lose their leaves by the end of November.

Toronto in November

Winter officially begins December 21st. It’s usually around -5 to -15 for most of December. You may or may not see a white Christmas. I’ve seen three in seven years. 

January and February are the coldest months with the most snow. For a few weeks it will hit around -25 to -40 with the wind chill. Snow falls at least once a week and there will be a few ice storms. 

Toronto in February

By March, everyone is sick of winter, ice and snow and just wants it to all go away.

But it doesn’t really until late May. People forget that every year and are always surprised/annoyed by the last few snowfalls that happen in spring.

That’s why the city by-law says that indoor heating has to remain on until June. JUNE.

That’s more than six months of cold weather, with three of those months being extreme. But being cold is just the beginning….

With the cold comes ice and freezing rain

What is freezing rain? It’s when the temperature goes above freezing and then rapidly drops back to freezing, resulting in rain that instantly freezes when it hits a surface. In a matter of hours, roads, buildings, trees, electrical poles, footpaths, cars, benches, railways, streetcar tracks, traffic lights, you name it get coated in a thick layer of ice that remains frozen.

Ice buildup on the outside of a building

Depending on the severity of the freezing rain, the result can be anything from the roads and pavements being slippery, to trees breaking and falling on power lines, cutting power for days.

If you have electric heating and hot water tanks, it’s a miserable time to not have electricity.

Temperature fluctuations result in “freeze and thaw” events. This is when snow melts a little and then freezes as ice. There will be snow on the ground that has layers of ice underneath.

As it starts to melt, the ice is exposed and it’s really impossible to walk anywhere that isn’t salted by the city. The further away you live from downtown, the worse it is.

I couldn’t walk around the courtyard in my apartment building for almost 2 months this winter because it was covered in ice.

Freezing temperatures means a risk of pipes bursting.

When this happens, the water goes everywhere and freezes all around the site. I’ve been evacuated from two buildings because of a burst water main.

So if you own a home here, you can’t just take it for granted that you can go on vacation and come back to find your property in the same condition. You have to take preventative steps like draining pipes and draining hoses before you leave.

Garbage bins freeze shut!

So do windows, doors, locks, gates, bike chains – basically anything with leverage that’s outside.

Travelling by any means becomes a challenge

Ice-covered walkways are slippery

Walking is difficult because you can’t always see the ice, so you have to walk slowly and carefully to make sure you don’t end up on your butt or with a fractured wrist.

The leading cause of hospitalizations for injuries in Canada is falls.

A pathway covered in ice

Sometimes footpaths get buried

But if you don’t walk on them, you have to walk on the busy road beside them.

Street corners are the worst, because that’s where the snow gets piled up the highest.

It can be hard to use the crosswalks because there’s so much snow in the way. Good luck if you have a stroller, a wheelie bag, etc.

Driving is also a hazard

Most public roads are well-salted and cleared by the city.

Driving is worse while the snow is actually falling. Visibility is limited, and the white lane markings (genius to have them the same colour as snow!) are completely invisible while it’s snowing.

You basically have to follow the car in front of you and hope they’re keeping in their lane.

Late for work?

You will be after spending 20 mins digging your car out of the snow!

If you don’t have underground parking, you must allow extra time to dig your car out of the snow that accumulated on/around it while it was parked.

Add about 20 mins to dig your car out of snow in the morning

(PS. Don’t keep anything in your car that you don’t want to freeze. I watched a poor lady try to thaw out her 5L bottle of laundry detergent after it was in her car for 3 days…)

Get ready to freeze waiting for public transit.

Thank goodness for transit apps. You soon learn to use them to minimize time spent standing outdoors freezing waiting for the next one. Even 5 mins is torture when the wind is blowing -25 degrees at you.

Transit functions fairly well considering, but on bad days, buses do get stuck in snow, and streetcars do malfunction because of ice buildup on the tracks.

Taxis/Ubers/Lyfts are available, but demand is high and they are not immune to getting stuck, so if you do manage to get one, be prepared to shell out coin.

But you bike to work, so you’ll be okay

Nope. Don’t forget about the ice. When the temperaure is below zero, you’re bound to encounter ice somewhere along your journey and that means you are very likely to fall.

The bike lanes are usually a mess as well, since the snow plows push the snow to the sides of the road right into the bike lanes.

Most people put their bike away once they’re snow on the ground.

A bike waiting for winter to end

I thought they were just being softies and didn’t want to be cold. It took a near miss and then an actual fall on ice to stop me from biking when it’s freezing.

Don’t even get me started on air travel

I’m surprised aircraft get off the ground here at all. Ice on the runway, freezing rain, low visibility, etc etc. The Eastern Seaboard is notorious for its bad weather, so extensive flight delays and cancellations are just expected here.

Salt destroys things

This car was black!

Salting of surfaces is necessary to melt snow and ice so that vehicles can safely drive on the roads and people can walk on the footpaths.

The problem is, it eats away at things such as asphalt, metal (look forward to rust on your car, just like living by the ocean), destroyed bike chains and shoes.

By the end of winter, the roads are a torn up mess and have to be repaved often. If not, they’re left a mess and driving, walking and biking on them sucks.

This is a black car!

Many things are “seasonal” and put on hold until Spring

This includes, but is not limited to:

  • gardening
  • yard work
  • renovations
  • construction
  • picnicking, outdoor parties, al fresco dining
  • outdoor sports like baseball, golf, tennis, etc
  • camping
  • just being outside in general

Oh, you wanted to enjoy your backyard? Sorry, you can’t. It’s buried in snow

If you celebrate Christmas, it’s more common here to have an indoor Christmas dinner, rather than an outdoor Christmas lunch like we do back in Australia. I suspect this has something to do with not being able to barbecue…

You can kiss having New Year’s Eve parties outdoors goodbye. Unless you like standing around freezing, in which case, New Year’s Eve at Nathan Phillips Square welcomes you.

So get used to that indoor life

Because even if you are brave enough to spend time outside, it will be hard to find other people who want to join you.

As well as the indoor heating

Indoor spaces are heated to about 23 degrees. This is necessary for survival, since you would actually freeze to death if it wasn’t. But there is some adjusting to this.

In buildings where the property controls the heat, it can sometimes be too hot. You can open a window but that just makes the heat blast harder to maintain the pre-set temperature.

Because you can’t open the windows, and you spend most of your time indoors, you breathe mostly recycled, stale air.

Indoor heating makes it difficult to gauge what the weather is like outside because you will be comfortable in very little clothing.

You have to wait until you’re just about to leave before you bundle up and put your shoes on, otherwise you will get too hot walking around your indoors in all your winter gear.

So allow a bit of extra time for that before going out, because getting ready to leave the house is a task.

You can’t just walk out in your indoor clothes. You have to make sure you’re properly dressed and protected for outside conditions. Your weather app becomes your best friend.

You have to figure out a way to dress for both inside and outside conditions, so you can be warm outside but are able to remove and carry most of what you’re wearing once you get inside.

You soon learn that huge bulky coats, scarves and boots are overkill and hard to deal with on a crowded public transit vehicle or in a busy mall.

Learn more in my post How To Dress for a Canadian Winter

You also have to watch where you place your furniture and belongings in your home, so as not to block heating vents/melt your stuff.

Winter dries everything up

Indoor heating makes the air very dry. For the first few years, when I woke up in the morning, I felt as dry as I do on long haul flights. The air gets static and you get shocks when you touch things. Your hair and skin get more dry than usual, especially if you take long, hot showers. A humidifier helps.

The water that comes out of the faucets is frigid, so when washing your hands , you have to mix hot and cold water so your hands don’t freeze. It becomes a habit, and now when I go home to visit my family, I get lectures for unnecessarily using hot water. But constantly using hot water contributes to dry skin. Moisturise, moisturise, moisturise!

Winter clothing is an expense

You need an entire winter wardrobe to get through the winter, and that comes at a price. Since winter clothing is a necessity here, it’s much cheaper than it would be in Australia, but you still get what you pay for. While you don’t need a $1000 Canada Goose jacket, you still need to choose quality gear or you will be miserable when you’re outside if you’re not wearing the right clothes.

Winter affects your mental health

I feel it is important to include this one, as it is something you may not realize is even happening to you. Coming from Australia, the land of sunshine and long summers, to the exact opposite of that is a shock to the system. It’s that fact that you’re not able to spend as much time outside, and that everything natural (except for the evergreen fir trees) loses its colour, and that the days are so short. The biggest factor is the lack of natural light.

Winter will give you a Vitamin D deficiency

Generally, there aren’t too many sunny days. The sun will peek through now and then, and only on the days when it’s really really cold.

Even if you are an Aussie who spent most of their time indoors in Australia, you still got sun exposure inside buildings and vehicles because of windows and the fact that part of your skin, even if it’s just your forearms, was usually exposed. Here, because buildings are designed to retain heat, they have less windows. The daylight hours are also so short that it’s possible that your skin won’t never see the sun for six months.

Depending on the type of work you do, you could spend most of winter in the dark.

Say you get a 9 to 5 job. The shortest days of winter are 8 hours long, because the sun rises at 8am and sets at 4pm.

If you leave your house at 730am, it’s dark. You get on the subway, you’re in the dark.

You arrive at work and you scurry from the subway station to your office – maybe you’ll get a glimpse of the sun.

Your office doesn’t have windows so you’re inside with artificial lighting. On your lunch break, you brave the cold to stand in the sun, only it’s too cold to stand there for long, and you’re covered head to toe anyway.

You finish work at 5pm and it’s dark.

That leaves you with just the weekends to seek out the sun, and there’s no guarantee it will show up at all.

Unless you’re super brave and love the extreme cold and want to go out there no matter what, you’ll find yourself spending most of your time inside.

Wildlife disappears

Well, almost. Especially by January and February, there’s not a creature to be seen. You forget that you haven’t heard a bird chirp for months until they start to reappear in spring, around mid March/early April when the snow starts melting.

And then…. beacon of hope! The snow starts melting!

This is what I call the big tease after the big freeze

Which means flooding

And mud. Lots of mud.

As the frozen ground starts to thaw, it shifts, and the frozen piles of snow and ground water melt and can seep into lower levels of buildings.

It is common for basements to flood during this time, unless the owner has a flood management system in place.
If you live in a basement apartment, or keep a car or a bicycle in an underground space, be aware of this.

You start to get some warmer days, a sunny 5 to 10 degrees, but Jack Frost still has a few snow storms left in him. As I said, it doesn’t consistently stay above 15 degrees until late May/early June.

Watch your head!

You will see these signs all around the city as melting snow starts to fall off the roofs of buildings. At least they’re nice enough to warn you.

Watch out for dog poo!

Grassy areas become a soggy mess, and several piles of dog poo that owners buried in the snow (instead of picking them up) make an appearance.

Ok, so what’s good about living in winter?

I know. I’ve made it sound like living in winter is hell. So I guess I should point out some of the positives of it:

Winter is magical

It really is a sight to behold. When the city is blanketed in snow, or you look closely at the pretty formations of ice crystals, it’s quite gorgeous and fascinating.

Free ice skating!

Coming from Australia where entry to a rink is about $25, it’s amazing to see how many free outdoor rinks there are in the City of Toronto. Many of them have facilities such as indoor change rooms. You just bring your own skates and go for it!

Not to mention….

Less sun damage: You might go back to Australia looking 10 years younger than your mates because you haven’t had as much UV exposure

No bugs. They all go dormant in winter. There’s not a roach or a fly or a mosquito to be seen. You may see tiny (by Aussie standards) house spiders and centipedes in damp areas (mostly basements), which are harmless but look absolutely terrifying with their ridiculous number of legs.

If you identify as female, and you wear clothes marketed to people who identify as female, you will suddenly be blessed with pockets thanks to your winter coat. It is possible to leave the house without a purse!

The “hibernation-friendly” weather is conducive to studying and shift work. It’s very easy to fall asleep on command, or keep your head in the books in the dark and dreary months, because you’re not really missing much outside.

But the biggest thing about the weather here is…

It really makes you appreciate good weather. I never took hot weather or the beach for granted when I lived in Australia, but now I really understand how it feels to be deprived of sunshine and the outdoors and I feel so grateful when summer comes and we can embrace the outdoors again.

I don’t think I have ever been so excited to be able to keep my windows open. And I promise I will never say “I’m freezing!” while back in Australia, ever again.

(But I will definitely give Australians a hard time when they dare to complain about the “cold” in front of me).

So now that you’ve read all this about winter, do you still want to live here?

Have I scared you off, or are you even more up for it now? Let me know in the comments, and share with your friends who swear they prefer cold weather!

Read next: How to dress for a Canadian winter!


9 thoughts on “What Winter in Canada is Really Like: All the things you have to deal with in winter!

  1. Pingback: How to Dress for a Canadian Winter – An Aussie in Toronto

  2. Celeste Shields says:

    Incredible that you’ve taken the time to share your experience of living in Toronto. I.could feel the cold seeping in as you described the length of the cold season. We are truly blessed to live in Australia, enjoying our year round climate. I live in the hinterland behind the Sunshine Coast and feel grateful each day for so very much that our environment and nature has to offer. We really only have pipe of cold days and few hot ones, it the humidity here and zaps the energy. Nothing enough to complain about. I have visited Canada, in winter, as a tourist and loved it. To live there through prolonged winters and not see the sun would be a huge challenge. Thank you for a truly interesting read.


    • Aussies in Toronto says:

      Thank you for your comment Celeste! Always different as a tourist isn’t it ? And it really does make you appreciate the ease of living in a warmer climate doesn’t it ?


  3. Pingback: Toronto: The Facts and My Impression – An Aussie in Toronto

  4. It’s always so interesting to me to hear about Canadian winters from people who didn’t grow up with them. I’d never even given some of these things a second thought. Like when I put out the garbage I just assume it’s gonna be frozen shut, but now that you mention it I guess that isn’t normal everywhere. Lol. Glad the winters haven’t scared you away though.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: When spring finally comes to Canada – An Aussie in Toronto

  6. Pingback: How to Dress for a Canadian Winter | An Aussie in Toronto

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