No matter what time of the year you visit the Canadian Rocky Mountains be prepared for umpredictable weather and rapidly changing conditions. Ask any local about dressing for the mountains and they will tell you it’s all about layers. Having clothing options that you can take off and put on as necessary is key, even in the summer months. For more information see our post on What To Expect For Weather And Temperatures In The Canadian Rocky Mountains.
Step one in packing is looking into the climate information for the time of your visit. Unfortunately it’s not as simple as providing a packing list for each season as they tend to blend into one another. It’s almost like there’s six seasons, a long winter, the transition from winter into spring, spring, a short summer, fall and the transition back into winter.
Another factor in how you might pack is dependent on where you live, especially if you’re not accustomed to any type of colder climate. With the exception of some of the warmer summer days, you’re likely to find much of the year cold in the mountains.
Summer, Late Spring And Early Fall Packing List
The summer months of July and August are the months with the highest temperatures and in a perfect world the days would all be warm and sunny, but that’s not always the case. This packing list also applies for late spring and early fall since all these periods can experience cooler temperatures.
Be prepared for the possibility of rain in June and early summer and for temperatures that can drop significantly at night, particularly at higher elevations. Mosquitoes can be a nuisance from late spring through early summer. They can remain an issue through summer on hiking trails that cross through forested areas or near lakes or wetlands.
- Footwear – a comfortable pair of walking shoes for general sightseeing
- A sturdy pair of trail runners or hiking sandals are adequate for lower elevation hiking trails and short walks. For advanced trails supportive lace up hiking shoes or boots are more appropriate
- Light weight short sleeve shirts and for cooler weather at least one long sleeve shirt which can also come in handy for sun protection
- A pair of long pants for cooler temperatures or to protect your legs when hiking in areas with brush, they can act as mosquito protection
- a light fleece jacket, or pullover, hoodie or warmer sweater
- A light waterproof/windproof jacket with a hood or an inexpensive fold up nylon poncho for unexpected rain
- A daypack to use for hiking/outings to carry snacks, extra clothing, camera, etc.
- Sunblock, UV blocking lip balm, a hat with a brim, sunglasses and insect repellent
- bathing suit, there’s only a handful of lakes warm enough for summer swimming but you may want to spend time in one of the hot springs or hotel pools or hot tubs
- refillable water bottle so you can fill it up at water fountains and from your hotel. Don’t fill it from natural un-treated water sources, they can contain giardia and other organisms
- a small collapsible cooler can be handy for driving outings in warmer weather, fill it with sandwiches, snacks and drinks for lunch stops. Inexpensive ones can be purchased at places like Canadian Tire or Walmart.
Light weight but warm jackets like the ones below are great for cooler days and chilly mornings and evenings that can be experienced in the summer, late spring and early fall. The one on the left has a slight bit of insulation in the body portion and the other is a fleece that provides a bit of warmth. If you get caught in the rain it’s nice to have a water resistant jacket that is a slightly larger fit so it can be thrown over top of a jacket like these.
Spring And Autumn Packing List ( Late April/May/Early June and September/Early October)
During the transitional seasons the weather can fluctuate from spring/fall weather to winter like conditions from day to day or sometimes within a few hours. These seasons can be difficult to pack for as you can experience the climate of all four seasons during one trip.
You won’t need the same extreme clothing required in the winter months, but you will still want the following:
- a pair of lightly insualted gloves
- a warm hat
- a scarf
- long sleeve shirts
- comfortable pants
- possibly a light pair of long johns depending on your activities
- a warm jacket is neccesary but it can be a mid-weight
It’s pretty safe to leave the summer weather clothing such as shorts and tank tops at home. Be prepared for wet, flooded or muddy ground as areas begin to experience snow thaw in spring. You’ll want footwear that’s waterproof and can also traverse through some areas of snow. Daytime temperatures in spring can still get close to freezing. Mornings and evenings will be chilly in both spring and fall and there’s always the possibility of snowfall anytime after summer ends.
The jackets below are typically for the fall once te colder temperatures start to set in and in later spring when the frigid winter weather has passed, but it’s still not warm.
Packing List For Hiking
- Hiking sandals or walking shoes are suitable for lower level walks and hiking trails.
- Lace up hiking shoes with a higher cut ankle support or hiking boots are better for rugged terrain or more advanced hiking.
- Waterproof shoes will be best for most of spring and early summer and something with a good grip.
- A cushioned pair of socks, we like ones made by smartwool or wigwam, they have a variety of weights and ones that help to prevent blisters.
- A light jacket or hoodie wrapped around your waist even on a warmer day will be appreciated if the conditions change.
- Some people find the zip-off pants that convert to shorts useful for changing weather conditions or for protection if you find yourself getting into areas where mosquitoes are present.
- Shirts made from synthetic materials designed to dry quickly are better for hiking. When cotton gets wet from rain or sweat it takes a long time to dry and you can become easily chilled if the temperature drops.
- Sunglasses, sunblock and UV protective lip balm and a hat with a brim.
- A bandana can be wrapped around your head to catch sweat or on your neck to protect it from the sun.
- Walking/hiking poles can be helpful for trails with a variance in elevation or areas with uneven ground. The lightweight carbon fiber ones are the best, they can be purchased on arrival at many of the outdoor gear shops.
- Bear Safety – bear spray and an air horn (optional) can be a way to scare a bear away or to attract help during an emergency. Bear bells are not reliable and considered to be very ineffective. Hikers become over confident carrying them when in actuality they don’t make enough noise to warn a bear of your presence.
- Don’t assume the weather will be the same as it was at the trailhead, be prepared for changing conditions. It’s not uncommon for a thunderstorm to come out of no where in the summer and cause you to be caught in a downpour.
- Daypack with snacks, water, sunscreen and bug spray.
- Depending on the type and length of hike you may want to carry a compass, small emergency first aid kit, waterproof matches, extra clothing, rain gear, extra food, a knife and a flashlight.
The footwear below has sufficed for much of the hiking we have done in the mountains, but we don’t do a lot of advanced trails or ones with scrambles. The hiking sandals are what we wear for easy to moderate trails in the warmer months. For cooler temperatures and on trails with more difficulty or uneven terrain we wear the hiking shoes. The type of socks we like are shown with slightly cushioned bottoms that provide a lot more comfort, they have a thinner breathale top.
Typical clothing we might wear or take with us on a summer, late spring or early fall day of hiking or outing. A brimmed hat, hiking sandals or shoes and socks depending on the type of trail. Shorts or long pants, a hoodie to wrap around the waist or store in a daypack. A light water resistant coat in the daypack, a short sleeve shirt and a light long sleeve shirt to throw on for warmth if needed or for use as extra sun protection.
Stainless steel water bottles are great for refilling. We enjoy using the expandable hiking poles for extra stablility on some of the trails. The carabiner clips are great for hanging the waterbottle or other items off the outside of your daypack.
Considerations For Other Rocky Mountain Activities
- Whitewater rafting – secure fitting shoes that you don’t mind getting wet. A pair of old sneakers will do and clothing that quickly dries
- Horseback riding – a long pair of pants, thicker material like blue jeans is probably best
- Swimsuit- year round for hotsprings or hotel pools and hot tubs, or for the few lakes warm enough for swimming in the summer months
Winter Packing List (Late October to April)
During the cold winter temperatures the importance is not only in staying warm, but also dry. As with other seasons layers of clothing is the most appropriate way to dress. If you need to buy winter clothing on arrival in Vancouver, Calgary or Edmonton some options are Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) Walmart, Canadian Tire or Mark’s Work Warehouse. There are a few places in Banff, Jasper and Lake Louise but they can be very expensive. Canmore has a Canadian Tire/Mark’s Workwearhouse.
- A pullover or sweater
- Pants made of wool or cotton and if you are going to be doing a lot of outdoor activities or be out for extended periods of time you will want a pair on insulated snow pants
- An outer jacket that is insulated and wind and waterproof is best, a parka style longer jacket keeps you warmer in extremely cold weather when going for walks.
- If you’re not visiting during the extreme cold a waterproof pair of shoes might suffice, but chances are you will need to navigate through snow somewhere so you’ll want a warm pair of waterproof boots. For the extreme temperatures you’ll need well insulated boots, make sure they are rated for temperatures down to at least -30C. or lower.
- In the colder temperatures mittens are a much better choice over gloves. You want the air space between your fingers, it makes a big difference in keeping them warm.
- You may want to purcahse a few of the disposable warming packs that can be activated and put into boots and gloves.
- A warm scarf or a neck warmer or both. A neck warmer is a long tube that can be worn around your neck and folded under to make it smaller or pulled up over the lower half of your face when needed.
- A warm hat is another important clothing element for the winter, if your head’s warm you’ll be warm. A toque is the preferred choice in the mountains. Get one with a band of fleece that runs around the lower inside edge, it keeps you warmer and stops any wind from getting through.
- Long sleeve shirts or turtle necks and a warm sweater
- Sunglasses, when the sun reflects off the snow it’s incredibly bright
- Chapstick or lip balm, to keep your lips from chapping and cracking from the dry air. Carmex lip balm is one that works well and is very popular with skiers.
- warm socks, we like the ones made with merino wool called smart wool
- thin fleece jacket for under a heavier coat
- In winter don’t forget to have a small pack of tissues in your pockets, you’ll likely find your nose running from the cold air
An important factor in dressing for cold winter weather is a base layer. There are specifically designed garments for keeping you warm by maintaining your body temperature and dry by wicking away sweat from your body. This is especially important for winter activities like skiing and snowshoeing. Base layers made from Merino wool are popular with the locals. It provides excellent temperature regulation and has natural moisture wicking properties. There are a variety of weights or weaves (light, medium and heavy) for use in different temperatures and activities. Even the heavier weave pants and shirts are light and thin. It’s a very soft comfortable fabric.
These are examples of the type of base layers that can make a huge difference in keeping you warm and dry. The shirt, pants and socks are all made from merino wool.
If you need to add another layer underneath your winter jacket, a thin fleece jacket or pullover works well. They help provide extra warmth without getting too bulky. These work well as an extra layer at anytime of the year. The other imporant factor in winter is to protect yourself from the elements of wind, precipitation, temperature and sun. Synthetic or wool materials are preferred for warmth. Cotton does not dry out if it gets wet. Gore-Tex and nylon materials are the best for outer wear for wind and snow protection.
The last thing you want in the winter is cold feet. For the months of extreme cold the boots that will keep your feet the warmest are like the ones below with an insulated liner. This particular pair is rated for down to -40.C/-40.F and they have a waterproof upper and rubber shell base and outsole. For outside the extreme winter months ladies can get away with something more fashionable and less bulky, but make sure it has some waterproof protection.
This is some of the typical outerwear I wear as a female in the winter depending on my activities. For skiing you’ll want a more specialized ski jacket. For general outings and walks I might wear the jacket on the right that is made out of wool. The longer length keeps me warm, otherwise I wear something like the one on the left that has an insulated filling.
For a men’s jacket this one has worked well, it’s light weight but provides a lot of warmth.
Items to keep you extra warm in winter. The knitted toque below has a thicker fleece band on the bottom inner edge providing a lot more warmth and wind protection for your head. The little black item is an alternative to bulky ear muffs. They are called ear grips and fold out and expand to wrap around the back of your head and over your ears. The other item is a neck warmer. This one is a thin knit that can be worn on it’s own or under a scarf for extra warmth. There are heavier fleece ones that are preferred by skiers instead of wearing a bulky scarf.
Packing List For Skiers And Snowboarders
Always check with your airline carrier regarding it’s regulations for bringing ski and board equipment. You can rent skis, boots, poles, jackets, pants and helmuts through many of the ski resorts and several places in the towns.
- Warm hat or head band or liner to keep your head warm under a helmut
- Waterproof ski pants, tightly woven nylon or polyester or thinsulate are best
- Insulated and waterproof ski jacket
- thick insulated ski gloves or mittens
- Goggles that serve as sunglasses, these are not always available to rent and can be very expensive to buy at the ski resorts, best to bring your own
- sunglasses to wear when you have your goggles off
- a face mask/balaclava for extreme cold or wind
- a fleece, sweater or warm turtleneck
- thermal long underwear/pants and thermal shirt as a base layer
- Neck warmer/gator or scarf
- Snow boots
- Wool blend socks that wick away moisture, thinner material is most comfortable in ski boots
- Ski bag, skis, ski boots, poles, ski helmut and ski lock
- Don’t forget the sunblock and UV blocking lip balm, the sun is strong as it bounces off the snow
- Keep snacks like energy or granola bars in the pockets of your ski jacket
- hydration pack or water bottle if you won’t be coming in for long periods for a break
- a small back pack for carrying extra items
Tips For Dealing With The Dry Mountain Climate And High Altitude
The sun’s ultraviolet rays are stronger at higher altitudes. You can easily find yourself with a sunburn year round, even during the winter months. Bring sunblock and UV blocking lip balm, sunglasses and a brimmed hat.
Through much of the year the mountain areas have very low humidity making the atmoshphere very dry. Visitors may find it quite different to what they are used to at home. The thinner air in the higher elevations means a higher increase of water evaporation from your lungs, it’s important to stay well hydrated, even if you don’t feel thirsty. Places such as Lake Louise sit at approximately 1700 meters. Some people, especially those coming from near sea level, find themselves out of breath more than usual when exerting themselves. Take this into condisideration when doing strenuous activity or hiking or if you have health issues such as asthma.
The dryness can be uncomfortable especially when trying to sleep. Most hotels have humidifiers available for use in their rooms. If you don’t see one ask for one from the front desk. We definitely recommend using one in the winter months. You may not realize how the dry air is effecting you until you introduce some moisture into your room.
The arid climate can dry out your skin, lips, eyes, nose and throat. You may find yourself with chapped lips, and in particulary cold weather a sore nose and/or throat.
The positive aspect of the dry air is that it makes cold weather feel less cold. You can tolerate colder temepratrues in the mountains much easier than places that get cold near sea level that are wet and damp.
Items To Help With The Dry Air
- chapstick or lip balm for dry lips
- eye drops – important for contact lens wearers and many other people may find they provide comfort to their dry eyes.
- In addition to your usual face moisturizer, it’s nice to have a moisturizing lotion for the rest of your skin, particularly for hands.
- the small cans of mineral water mist are an excellent addition to skincare regime to help keep your face hydrated
- lozenges if you find your throat getting dry and sore, even sucking on a candy helps
- Lubricating nasal mist or gel for dry nose, especially in the winter months when it can get very uncomfortable
Dresswear For Nightlife, Restaurants And Apres Ski
The Canadian Rockies are a place where people come to hike and ski and enjoy nature and the wilderness. The majority of restaurants are casual. In the winter you’ll see people dining with a hard earned day of messy ski hair and hiking footwear and shorts in the summer months.
Unless your attending a special dinner, holiday event or dining in an upscale restaurant in places like the Banff Springs, Rimrock Resort or Chateau Lake Louise there’s no need for fancy clothing. Even in these higher end resorts you’ll still see a lot of casual wear. If you are going to enjoy a meal in one of the finer establishements a nice pair pants and dressier shirt is fine for a man, bring along a sport jacket if you usually travel with one. For the ladies any outfit that looks nicely put together like a dressy blouse and co-ordinating pants is perfectly fine.
There’s not a great deal of nightlife in the mountains, it’s almost non-existant in places like Lake Louise. Banff has the liveliest atmoshphere with a few club style places catering to the younger crowd. Both Banff and Jasper have a variety of bars and pubs offering evening food and drinks all in a casual atmoshphere.
What Photo Equipment To Bring
During any visit you won’t want to forget your camera, plenty of memory cards, batteries and charger. If you have a camera with interchangeable lenses a wide angle and polarizing filter come in handy for a lot of the scenery and a zoom lens for wildlife. A tripod is helpful for low light shots. A pair of binoculars can allow for better wildlife viewing. See our post on Where and When To Photography In Banff National Park. It’s full of lots of information on where the best spots are to photograph and equipment recommendations.
Traveling With Babies Or Young Children
Several companies offer rental options if you are traveling with babies or toddlers. They rent car seats and all kinds of baby equipment. One item that may be useful during your visit is an all terrain or chariot style stroller.
Some of these companies will deliver items to the airport or to your hotel in the cities and have one way rentals between Calgary, Edmonton, Vancouver and Toronto.
- One Tiny Suitcase – Calgary and Edmonton
- Little Traveller – Calgary
- Snuggle Bug Babygear – Banff and Canmore
Other Items That Are Nice To Have During Your Visit
- If you’re doing a lot of sightseeing through various mountain parks you may want to keep a small journal to correspond with your photos. It’s easy for everything to become a scrambled mess of memories by the time you get home.
- Binoculars are nice to have for better wildlife viewing. They allow you to view from the safe distance that you should remain back from wildlife.