Travel Thoughts Travel Tips

A Canadian winter: To hibernate or activate?

First snowfall Montreal, Le Plateau


With months of sub zero temperatures and little sunlight during the Montreal winter, the temptation for many people is to hibernate. Yet those who have lived through several Canadian winters, all say the same thing – you have to activate! So for anyone intending to live in Montreal, you will need to ask yourself, in the Canadian winter, do I hibernate or activate?


A Montreal winter is no ordinary winter. The season consists of below freezing temperatures, lasting for months on end with limited sunlight and epic snowfalls. Although this year the winter has apparently been ‘mild’ in Montreal, with less snow and ‘warmer’ temperatures than usual, it still felt harsh. For an Australian whose past summers in Sydney might include the occasional sunny 19 degree day with a really cold day being considered 10 degrees, the weeks of biting cold in Canada, were certainly a shock to the system!

I now understand why local people laughed at me in fall, when they discovered I was just about to experience my first Canadian, Quebec, winter.

I was naive. I didn’t have the faintest clue as to how hard the winter was going to be.

There were sniggers and giggles when Montrealers and expats discovered I was a Canada Winter Virgin and they expressed a combination of sympathy and amusement. After they teased me, wondering how an Aussie would cope with the freezing conditions, they turned to me with advice, some of which is listed below.

I have to be honest, the first snowfalls were euphoric. Even shovelling snow and having wet feet and a freezing nose held some novelty.

Yet, as the weeks progressed, in temperatures that can only be described as cruel and brutal (like -14 to -25 on some days), I started researching hibernation in animals and people. I felt that I was falling into some deep seated biological response to the cold. When I think about this winter, I see how some of my habits resembled that of the Canadian wildlife.

Like a squirrel, I stocked up on groceries and made food to store for cold days. Like a bear, I virtually reached a hibernation state, with sleeping being one of my most favourite things to do. Curled up in warmth, conserving energy, and waiting desperately for the spring to emerge.

To my relief, my research found that there actually have been cultures such as Russian peasants who reached an almost hibernation state in the winter. I wasn’t so strange after all!? (further reading: A Long Winter’s Nap: How Hibernation Helps You)

Other articles also pointed to the fact that it is really quite natural to want to sleep more in colder weather but during winter, people push themselves to keep the same level of working hours as they do in summer. But essentially we are going against our natural response to our environment. Now it is not easy to say to a boss that you don’t want to work as long or as hard in winter – as modern society just isn’t, unfortunately, that flexible. However what you do have in your control is to slow down a little, make more time for sleep and allow yourself to retreat at times from the world. In fact, winter can cause SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) in many people and from what I have heard, depression in winter is quite common, so people need to take extra care of themselves (further reading: Tired, hungry and sad? Relax, you’re hibernating)

So whilst hibernation seems like a natural and normal bodily reaction to cold weather, I wanted to hear from expats and locals, on how they cope with winter and how they keep sane during some pretty challenging conditions – and most of the advice involved getting outside and getting active!

Here is what they had to say:

Martin D: Find a winter sport you’ll enjoy practicing a few months every year.

Laina B:  Don’t let the winter scare you, buy boots, warm jackets, and get out there or you will miss more than half of it!

Katherine A: Go skiing in the winter, the apres ski life at Mt Tremblant or St Sauveur is so fun and the skiing is so much better than in Oz.

Lisa T: When you are walking along an icy street, it is better to slide your feet, rather than walk normally as there is less chance of slipping!

Danielle O: Cling on to a person who purports to enjoy (anything at all about) Winter and fake it till you make it! Go help a stranger dig out their car in a snowstorm – it’s a bit like being bogged in mud in Australia. It’s a hilarious adventure for a newcomer, wielding a huge shovel, a cathartic form of revenge on the snow, great exercise and fresh air, and a new way to be charitable to neighbours!

Michaela M: Dress appropriately. You wouldn’t believe the number of people admitted to hospitals or can be found sheltering in Tim Hortons because they were out at night in a mini skirt, trying to look ‘fashionable’!

Reighan M: Be artistic!! Use the time to go inwards and focus on your craft.

Amy R: If you don’t know people to do activities with, join a local ‘meetup’ group which often caters for foreigners, who want to learn a snow sport.


So without a doubt, most people suggest activating in winter!


But what if you are really not a winter person and the idea of being outside in -10 degrees for hours on end is your idea of deep seated pain?

Other ideas for activation include indoor activities such as: hot yoga, the gym, or dancing!

I took the advice of some others, who claimed – “In the end, if you just can’t cope with the endless cold months, do what everyone else does, who is able to – go south for awhile and defrost!”

So I took my enthusiasm for activation to Colombia for some sun and swimming! And I can honestly say, I think it saved my life, or at least my sanity.

For me, the winter started in October – there has been over five months of cold weather! Now back in Montreal, I am being taunted by the odd sunny day and then punished again with minus temperatures. I long for the spring and to see the city come alive again. I have a new appreciation for these resilient Canadians that go through this cycle year after year. These folks are as tough as they get!

Now I know, from first hand experience, why this city goes crazy in spring and summer, why people love to be out, enjoying a drink in the sun, going to all number of festivals and loving life to the maximum. It is because for a good portion of the year, there is repression and a lot of time is spent indoors. Like anything, you have to take the good with the bad – and there is so much to love about this magic city, Montreal. If you are thinking of building a life here, I encourage you, as it is one of the best cities in the world. But just be prepared, if you are not from a cold climate, there will be some challenges and you will need to make decisions on whether to hibernate, activate or escape, during the freezing months.

Presently is is -8 degrees in Montreal. Old man winter is evidently not done yet. And so it would seem, neither is my hibernation! Hopefully I’ll be on a sunny terrace in a few weeks to celebrate, and activate, in the warmth!

And I am sure I will have a big smile on my face!


You Might Also Like

No Comments

    Leave a Reply