By Joel Gratz, Founding Meteorologist Posted 5 years ago October 14, 2018
The following guide was sponsored in partnership with our friends at the Canadian Ski Council.
We developed this guide to skiing in Canada because we heard from many skiers (and riders) that they wanted to explore the vast terrain available within the boundaries of the United States’ northern neighbor but did not know where to start in their research.
In the first part of the guide, we mapped the location of Canada’s main mountains and discussed the pros and cons of each area.
In this second part of the guide, we’ll dig into the snow and weather of Canada, learning more about the quality of the snow, how much of it falls each season, and how to choose the best time to visit.
Where are the mountains?
To break it down even further, there are three general areas of western Canada – the Coast, Inland, and the Rockies. The first part of this series offers more background about each region.
The snowfall totals below are from ZRankings, which is my trusted source for unbiased snowfall data.
What is the snow like?
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 snowstorms 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.
* 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 eastern 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.
Case study – why does Fernie get so much snow?
While I was researching this article, I was struck by the snowfall statistics at Fernie. It is far to the east of the 'Inland' zone, nearly in the 'Rockies' zone, and as we discussed, the further east we go, away from the moisture source of the Pacific Ocean, the snowfall tends to be lower.
However, instead of much lower snowfall at Fernie, I found the opposite.
For perspective, Whistler is in the snowiest resort, averaging 469 inches each year.
Further inland is Revelstoke which averages a very high 410 inches per year.
And interestingly, Fernie, which is much further east than Revelstoke, averages seasonal snowfall of 373 inches, or about 90% of the average at Revelstoke. How could it be that Fernie's snowfall is not much lower than Revelstoke when Fernie is significantly farther from the moisture source of the Pacific Ocean?
I believe the reason for Fernie's high snowfall total is the location of the highest mountains in British Columbia.
Taller mountains force precipitation from the atmosphere and block some of this precipitation from going past them.
In the case of Fernie, there is a gap in the highest mountains that seems to allow moisture from the Pacific Ocean to move west-to-east and make a direct hit on Fernie.
The taller mountains are shown above as dashed orange lines. Notice the gap, where moisture (shown as the blue lines) can move from the Pacific Ocean on the left side of the image toward Fernie on the right.
There are many factors that contribute to a mountain getting more or less snow, so I do not want to say that the example above is the single factor that brings deep snow to Fernie, but it is likely at least one factor that helps!
I highlighted Fernie because its situation piqued my interested while writing this article, though I could likely find unique weather and topographic aspects to discuss for each of the other resorts. That might be content for an entirely different series of articles!
This is Canada, so are the temperatures super cold?
Actually, the temperatures are what I 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. Again, this temperature range is pretty standard no matter where your ski trip might take you around the world.
When is the best time to visit?
Because I like dry, fluffy, cold powder, I am partial to the time from late December through mid-January. The sun angle is the lowest of the year, and since Canada is far to the north, the sun angle is much lower than mountains in 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, April and even May 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, I would 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 a planning a multi-destination road trip.
I hope that the first part of the series helped you to understand the locations of the mountains in western Canada and that this second part offered perspective on the snow quality and amount of snow across the zones.
The bottom line is that, if you love to play in the snow, you owe yourself a trip to Canada. Resorts, cat or heli-skiing, snowmobiling, backcountry touring, road tripping – it’s all there for you. And the scenery is gorgeous and matched only by some areas of Europe. Enjoy your adventure!
Local Tips & Guides
Sun Peaks: Official Website
Big White: Official Website
Revelstoke: Official Website
Lake Louise, Banff Sunshine, Mt. Norquay: Local Travel Tips
Fernie, Kicking Horse, Kimberly, Nakiska, Mont Sainte Anne, Stoneham: Local Travel Tips
Quebec Ski: Local Tourism Information
Download: OpenSnow Mobile App
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 the Canadian Ski Council.