Winter Sports & Activities
Along with hosting the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games, British Columbia has become firmly planted on the world stage showcasing some of the very best slopes, sports terrain, and winter adventures that can be found anywhere. From perfecting snowboard tricks at one of the premier super pipe parks at Whistler Blackcomb, to tracking new cross-country skiing trails in the Okanagan, snowshoeing through protected provincial parks and being set down atop a mountain peak to experience the rush of un-touched snow and descents that go on and on, visitors to British Columbia are offered a winter wonderland waiting to be explored.
Heaped in coats of snow, British Columbia’s magnificent mountains range throughout the province are a prime winter destination for those who seek to enjoy fresh powder, cool crisp air, and of course, fantastically picturesque views. With an operating season running from as early as October to as late as June, and drawing the attention of world-class winter sports events BC has proven to be a worthy place for skiers, snowboarders, snowmobilers, adventurers, excursionists and family recreationers alike. From the thrill of "steep and deep", to the tranquil of remote wooden chalets, and from the rush of a "gnarly" terrain park to the "ahs" of hot rock spas and cheese fondues, staying in BC during winter provides something for every taste, all season-long.
Human-powered, machine-powered, or dog-powered there are enough activities to keep a winter wanderer busy for days. Of course winter conditions naturally include temperatures colder than may be generally comfortable, but as it has been said "there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing". Be prepared and have fun.
Read more about Ski, Snow Activities, Winter Sports & Tours
Downhill Skiing & Snowboarding
Downhill skiing and snowboarding are two of the most popular winter activities in British Columbia’s mountains. With plenty of deep snow and access to diverse terrain this region attracts skiing and boarding enthusiasts each season from all over the world to ride the best.
There are 13 mountain resorts within a day’s drive from Vancouver as well as over 23 local ski areas throughout B.C that offer everything for a good day on the slopes—well organized lift systems, a variety of groomed runs, challenging courses and access to backcountry tours to test the skills of beginners, intermediates and experts, as well as structured terrain parks, and hosted special events for chances to show and shine. Along with choice places to eat and all kinds of bookable accommodations plus opportunities for après ski and night life a trip to the hills is an awesome experience.
The Coast Mountains touching the Sea-to-Sky Highway and backing Vancouver will be familiar to those who saw Olympic events held at renowned Whistler resort and the Cypress Mountain local ski area. Views overlooking the city from Grouse Mountain and Mount Seymour too are simply breathtaking—don’t forget to watch where you’re going. And the Peak-2-Peak longest unsupported span Gondola connects two mountains—Whistler and Blackcomb—into one giant thrill ride.
Most of the ski resorts in BC are located in the southern half of the province in the Central Interior and Rocky Mountain areas of the Thompson Okanagan and Kooteney Rockies region where some of the world’s largest and consistent snowbelts are found. Access from Vancouver, as well as airports in Kelowna and Kamloops, and Cranbrook provide alternatives to reach a vast array of runs, ski-in ski-out accommodations, and facilities to match any budget.
Want to try the most runs (200 at Whistler Blackcomb), highest lift-serviced vertical (1,713m at Revelstoke Mountain Resort), one of the largest 6-passenger chairlifts (Silver Star Mountain Resort), ski-through pedestrian village (Sun Peaks Resort), largest totally ski-in ski-out resort (Big White Ski Resort), or eat at Canada’s highest elevation restaurant (2,350m in the Eagle’s Eye dining room at Kicking Horse Mountain Resort)? Allow time to explore—there is a lot on offer.
In Northern BC, skiers and boarders can expect to find almost non-existent lineups, along with some of the deepest snow bases of lift-accessed mountains in North America (for example average snowfall 1200-1250cm/40-41ft at Powder King Mountain Resort and Shames Mountain). On Vancouver Island, near the Comox Valley, Mount Washington Alpine Resort experienced on average one of the largest mountain snowfalls in the world during the 2010-2011 season (1840cm/60ft) due to unusual climatic conditions creating a perfect all-natural snow base… and this is on an island that boasts the mildest, mostly snow free winters in Canada!
Heli-Skiing/Boarding & Cat-Skiing/Boarding
Sometimes regular downhill skiing just isn’t enough. Something out of the ordinary, or a touch extreme, may be just what is sought for that extra charge, an adrenaline boost. Over the past few decades, British Columbia has become the premier destination where locals and travellers alike stretch the boundaries of winter sport in order to obtain the greatest rush, the greatest views, and the greatest experience imaginable. Pioneered in the Bugaboo Mountains of the Kootenays in the 1960’s heli-skiing has become an increasingly popular way in which to access untouched, often remote, alpine terrain by helicopter air-lift instead of chair-lift. Today, BC is recognized as one of the top destinations in the world to heli-ski with a number of well organized and safe operators, snowfall conditions reaching 12-15 metres (40-50 feet), and a variety of terrain to try. Qualified guides are found in a number of mountain towns throughout the Central and Southern half of BC including Fernie, Nelson, Golden, and Revelstoke. Typically multi-day packages are most commonly offered though day-trips can be arranged. Strong intermediate to expert skill levels are recommended. Powder-hounds delight!
Cat-Skiing developed as an alternative lift method too since the 1970’s in order to reach backcountry wilderness terrain normally out-of-bounds to the structured resort setting. Tracked vehicles, some powered by eco friendly bio-diesel engines, carry up to 12 visitors in a heated cabin on several trips daily. The accessibility of cat-skiing has allowed it to grow in popularity and several cat-skiing destinations with operaters in BC located in areas such as the Selkirks region (Revelstoke), Coast Mountain region (Whistler), around the town of Golden and the Blue River area (Valemount), along with a few companies in the Northern region.
Guides will transport skiers and snowboarders into high alpine slopes where the terrain has never been touched and the views, indescribable. Avalanche dangers do exist and guidance and proper gear essential.
The vast amounts of terrain throughout BC make it a wonderful place for cross-country skiing (Nordic style skiing and Langlauf). Visitors can experience fascinating nature and wildlife at a steady pace while gliding through open meadows and intricate trails. Dedicated tracks set up in provincial and national parks, city recreation lands, even golf courses, cater to this fitness fun and the ease of access allows all ages to participate. With over 70 X-country trail venues to choose from there is plenty to explore.
Work on perfecting technique at professional venues like the Callaghan Valley Training Centre near Whistler, to the day lodge at Bulkley Valley Nordic Centre in Northwestern BC near Smithers, or kick back at the pack-in pack-out Dakata Ridge Recreation Area on the Sunshine Coast, and explore guided tele-mark style back-country tours like Black Jack Cross Country Ski Trails in the Monashee Mountains near Rossland in the Kootenay region. Mount Washington Alpine Resort on Vancouver Island for example, is a local go-to spot with more than 50-kilometres of trails winding through one of the province’s oldest parks. A change of pace can be found in the city of Prince George, where urban cross-country skiing is a great way to sneak in some fresh air, a quick workout, and discover city trails on a whole different level.
A winter activity perfect for those who would rather stay off the slopes, but still want to take advantage of British Columbia’s beautiful winter scenery, snowshoeing is perfect for individuals of all ages and skill levels. With very little equipment needed, snowshoers can experience the quiet trails that weave through the forest, spot animal tracks, see wildlife in action, and of course, have many great photo opportunities. A number of mountain resorts and local ski areas have outlets from whom snowshoes can be rented and who can recommend some great paths and trails to explore for anywhere from an hour to full-day treks.
To try out one of North America’s fastest growing winter sports, try the 10-kilometre trail network at Cypress Mountain, near Vancouver, where a hike to the favourite Hollyburn Mountain will give you a superb 360-degree view. Mount Washington on Vancouver Island boasts an impressive 20-kilometre trail through nearby Strathcona Provincial Park, while the Yoho National Park near Kimberley Alpine Resort in the Kootenays offers many snowshoeing tours that include a hike, hot chocolate, and mountaintop snack. Northern BC also has some great snowshoeing trails including Eskers Provincial Park near Smithers and the vast network of Wells-Barkerville trails near the community of Wells.
Snowshoeing is easy to learn, and in appropriate conditions is a relatively safe and inexpensive recreational activity. However, snowshoeing in icy, steep terrain is more dangerous.
Dogsledding & Skijoring
Being pulled through tree-lined trails by a pack of adorable Huskies, dogsledding is a unique winter activity that doesn’t require any coordination or ability. Simply settle in to the sled, lie back and enjoy being whisked away to the sound of encouraging barks from the pack leaders ahead. Mountain resorts and tour companies offer dogsledding adventures that take you through the backcountry not often seen by the skiers and boarders. If you’re up for it, learn some commands from your sled guide and emerge from your cozy sled to drive the dog team through the trees yourself. Tours are most often held from late November to March, weather permitting, and last about two and a-half hours.
To see some Alaskan Huskies up close, head over to Whistler where tours through the Soo and Callaghan Valley are quite popular, as well as at Sun Peaks Resort near Kamloops, where you can learn how to harness the dogs and give them a treat at the end of the trip. If you’re headed up into the Kootenays, make sure to stop by Fernie Alpine Resort, where a sled tour through the deemed wildlife capital of British Columbia may have you seeing more than just dogs. Up north in the Cariboo region where dogsledding has a history, sled through the rolling hills and meadows of Moose Valley Provincial Park, near 108 Mile Ranch for a one-of-a-kind experience, or schedule a brief hour or multi-day trips with operators in Quesnel and Prince George.
Skijoring—a sport in which a skier is drawn over ice or snow by one or more dogs. This ancient Nordic sport, believed to date back to the 1800s, is quickly gaining a following. In the Kootenay Rockies, the small town of Elkford hosts the Winter in the Wilderness and Dog Sled Derby in January whose highlight is the skijoring race and dogsledding competitions.
The wide variety of terrain in British Columbia is ideal for an ultimate winter playground activity for those who prefer motor-powered fun. Snowmobiling has been for years an essential mode of transportation amongst northern populations when inundated with insurmountable amounts of snow. But now driving this machine has become a popular recreation and extreme sport for British Columbians and a unique activity for visitors. From groomed trails, quiet logging roads, to glaciers, back-country valleys to extreme slope terrain, snowmobilers of all experience levels can find amusement amongst the fresh white powder.
With over 70 snowmobile clubs in BC and many companies and mountain resorts offering a variety of adventures, book half-day, full-day or multi-day rides with snowmobiling tour operators in the Coast Mountain regions of Whistler and Pemberton for a truly Canadian All-Terrain and Snowmobile experience, Northern Vancouver Island, the Cariboo region and the Blue River area, the Thompson Valley area of the Thompson Okanagan region, and the Kootenay Rockies with staging points out of Golden, Revelstoke, and Fernie. The renowned areas draw snowmobilers for the wide valleys, big mountains, legendary amounts of snow, and stunning scenery. Over in the Okanagan Valley, Sicamous has long been a family favourite spot for riders and snowmobiling tours, while in Northern BC, Mackenzie’s access to many trails begin right at your doorstep.
Snowmobiles, mandatory helmets, cold-weather outerwear and warm layers of clothing, as well as avalanche beacons, snow shovels, and essential gear and guidance are available for rent and purchase at many of the snowmobile centres.
Tubing & Tobogganing
For many Canadians there is the fond childhood memory of speeding down a hill at the schoolyard or park on ‘snow days’. To tap into this fun and introduce visitors to another great winter activity, most mountain resorts and ski areas have created tubing and tobogganing tracks for children and adults and provide access to some good old fashioned fun. Whether on your own toboggan, sled, plastic slider, mat, or a specially designed rubber tube (truck tire inner tube!) nothing beats the thrill of sliding down a hill with that just barely out-of-control build-up of speed.
Take a break from the slopes to visit the tube parks near Vancouver at Mount Seymour, Cypress Mountain, and Whistler of course designed to please with eight different lanes ranging in difficulty and maximum thrill. Or try the Okanagan’s Big White and Silverstar Resorts, where the visitors of all ages can spend an afternoon racing—and sometimes tumbling—down the hills.
Things To Do on Ice: Ice Skating, "Ice" Hockey & Curling
While in Canada during the winter it is highly recommended to try ice skating with a leisurely glide around the rink or to go out on a frozen pond or lake—with at least 6 inches of ice!. Just for the experience. In British Columbia’s winter wonderland there is plenty of opportunity to find the right ice to enjoy. Many municipalities and communities have recreation centres set up with indoor or outdoor facilities and often with skate rental outlets too. Marvel at graceful figure skating turns and twirls and ice dancing. Step up the fun and play an impromptu game of ice hockey or watch a session of professionals battle it out at a local arena—better than on TV. Go Canucks Go!
With ice and rocks part of the BC landscape is it any wonder that the sport of curling—of throwing smooth rocks down a sheet of ice, is part of the winter experience in many towns and cities throughout the region. Even if the terms and etiquette may not be familiar to everyone there is always a local curling club that is well equipped to help any inquisitive visitor understand the appeal of a game that’s been played for centuries. Hack, sweep, and hurry, hurry hard will bring new meaning to what could be thought of as every-day words.
Ice Racing: Motorcycles, Snowmobiles, & Automobiles
If racing gets the blood pumping there are organized events in British Columbia to watch ice racing on motorcycles, snowmobiles, and automobiles which can be found in the Okanagan on Deer Lake near Kelowna, Swan Lake near Vernon, Stake Lake south of Kamploops, and in Northern BC at Ashcroft and Cache Creek.
Winter harness racing with horses however is done outside Vancouver at the Fraser Down track in Cloverdale, part of Surrey BC – not on ice.
Usually winter activities tend to be drawn by gravity and sliding down a hill or gliding along a plane surface. Ice climbing challenges going the other way – going up; for instance ascending a waterfall in the only way possible—when it’s frozen. This is an activity best started with a healthy dose of guidance from experienced mountain guides and outdoors enthusiasts with the right kind of equipment—technical ice axes and particularly sharp crampons.
In British Columbia, winter is taken seriously. But it’s not only about getting the best winter tires, the warmest down jacket, or the most efficient shovel to tackle the driveway. No, winters in British Columbia are about breathing in the crisp mountain air, attaining fresh new heights to experience the best powder snow, to cruising through nature’s best backcountry trails, and to share a lot of fun with friends and visitors alike. And it sure is an experience to heading back to the chalet for a warm cup of cocoa, a hot soak in the spa tub, and to bundle up by the crackling fire. No matter your preferences, there is a winter activity to suit the tastes of every traveller.
By Tanya Colledge
Photo credits: Snowboarding courtesy Tourism Vancouver/John Sinal; Heli-skiing in the Rockies courtesy Tourism BC/Randy Lincks; Snow tubing in at Whistler courtesy Tourism BC/Randy Lincks
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