Winter Storm Watching in Tofino
Storm watching in Tofino … great way to experience the west coast
Welcome to Tofino’s signature winter activity. Ocean swell that tops five meters, rain that seems to fall horizontally, and clouds so low you feel like you can almost reach out and touch them. Find out how to enjoy Tofino’s storm watching season.
Tofino in the winter
Tofino is a tourist hot spot in the summer. That time of year, it’s nearly impossible to get a camping spot anywhere unless you book months in advance, and if you are lucky enough to find a hotel room, they won’t be cheap. Visit Tofino in the off season? During the winter season, the west coast is pelted with big storms that are fascinating to watch, and the town has made winter storm watching a signature activity.
Usually snow free
Of the vast 10 million square kilometers (3.9 million square miles) of land in Canada, this is one of the few where the white stuff rarely comes down or sticks around. That’s not saying the winter is mild – quite the opposite, yet, that is exactly the draw. Tofino experiences lots of precipitation in the winter that, when coupled with the wind, usually comes down horizontally. The average monthly precipitation amounts are almost 500 mm per month in the winter months, and Tofino actually recieves over 3200 mm of rain annually. It’s not unusual for this weather to hit any time of year though, and not unusual to get some nice sunny breaks in the winter either.
Storm watching has a 20 year long history now in Tofino, originally started in charming Wickaninnish Inn about 20 years ago. This idea, originally conceived to give tourists a reason to stay in Tofino over the winter, it has become very popular, keeping the tourist season alive throughout the cold months.
An average daytime winter temperature is usually around 6 or 7 degrees Celsius (45 F), and doesn’t drop to below freezing very often. The average low is 1 degree Celsius (34 F). This makes it hard for any snow that does fall to stick around that time of year. The temperature of the ocean in that part of the world changes little throughout the year either, it’s always fairly cool. Hence, winter activities don’t differ that much from summer activities: paddle boarding, surfing, kayaking and hiking.
What to do
Like mentioned above, summer and winter activities are essentially the same.
Though you can kayak this time of year, choppy waters and constant rain will make a little less appealing than normal. Unless you rent yourself a river kayak and go surf the waves of course, then, you’re essentially surfing. You’re just sitting down while you do it. Check out a local kayak shop, like Paddle West and Tofino Sea Kayaking for information where to get river canoes. You’ll want some kayaking experience before you try this and also an instructional course.
The trails around here aren’t long, but they are beautiful and offer up some major scenic viewpoints. Check out the 8 km Wild Pacific Trail in Ucluelet and the 10 km Long Beach Hike, which is also an excellent place to storm watch. Check out more hikes in the area here.
Where to see the storms
If you don’t want to surf, the best storm viewing spots are often the best surf spots. Check out where the swell is with the surf cam which includes current conditions and ocean swell forecasts. North Chesterman’s beach is the locals favourite surf spot, but you can also check out South Chesterman and Long Beach.
The best beaches are Chesterman (both North and South) and those near the Kwisitis visitor centre. The famous beach where the Wikanannish Inn is located is near this visitor centre. This is where winter storm watching first gained notoriety. The Inn even offers storm watching packages! The package includes full rain gear with rubber boots in each room, and viewing points to give the best unobstructed views of the weather. On the west coast, they say, there is no such thing as bad weather – only poor clothing choices.
The main sport out here in the winter is surfing. The ocean swell is best during the winter, not summer, which may sound a bit counterintuitive to say the least, especially in a country with such cold winters. But the truth is, the ocean temperature doesn’t change much over the seasons so you still have to dress warmly no matter what season it is.
What to wear for on the west coast in winter
What to wear for surfing
Since there is no such thing as bad weather on the coast – only poor clothing choices – you must dress appropriately. Layering is key.
If you’re surfing, you’ll want a dry suit as your number one choice. If you can’t get your hands on a dry suit, you can easily rent a wetsuit almost anywhere. Make sure to get one with long sleeves and a hood. That’s not enough though, you’ll also have to layer underneath to keep your core temperature warm. I surfed in Tofino one winter in a sleeveless wetsuit, and I wore a merino wool shirt with a gore-tex jacekt inside of it to stay warm enough.
Base Layer and Jacket
In the summer, you can get away with less but in the winter make sure to wear a base layer (like a merino wool long sleeve) and soft shell jacket. Wear something that’s not too bulky and easy to get the wetsuit over.
You’ll also need to wear something underneath to keep your legs warm. Wear slightly snug-fitting soft shell pants or a pair of thick long johns.
Hat and Gloves
You may also need an extra hat to go under your hood, and gloves that can go on the inside of your wetsuit gloves in case you need extra insulation.
Your wetsuit should come with booties but you may need an extra pair of socks underneath to keep the warmth in and to keep your feet from getting numb. Merino wool socks will work best as they stay warm when wet.
Unless you are wearing a dry suit, yes, all this will be sopping wet when you get out of the water!
What to wear for storm watching
If you’re not planning on getting in the water, you’ll still need to prepare appropriately for the weather. The rain really does come in sideways on the beaches!
Dress in Layers
Layers are best as they wick moisture the best away from your body, and are also easier to dry. Start with a merino wool base layer, and on over that add a soft shell jacket or fleece jacket. For extra insulation, choose synthetic fill instead of down, since down doesn’t work well when wet.
This is your best friend in wet weather. It breathes when wet and will keep you from overheating. Over top of all your layers add a GoreTex jacket and pants. I like the Arc’teryx jackets. Make sure your jacket has a really good hood that you can synch around your face.
Gum boots are great for walking around casually. But if you’re planning on going for a bit of a trail hike, they’re not great on uneven terrain, so wear a good pair of hiking boots that are lined with GoreTex fabric. It will keep your feet dry and cosy.
Forget the umbrella
Sure umbrellas are nice, but don’t bother if you’re out there in the storms. If the wind catches it, it will instantly flip. In the rough weather umbrellas are just hazards.
Accommodation can be tough to find in Tofino, and a lot of it is very expensive. If you book well in advance you’ll save yourself a headache. There are several campgrounds in the area, but most of them are closed in the winter. Check out rooms available in Tofino here.
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