Fun and frugal winter activities

Going stir crazy? There are many reasons to get out of the house — to enjoy local winter activities, see the sights, spend time with friends and family and even get in some exercise.

Whether it’s a date, part of your fitness routine or an adventure with the kids or grandkids, here are some suggestions that are easy on the budget.

See the lights: From December to the first week of January is prime light viewing time throughout Canada. If a stroll around your neighbourhood leaves you wanting more, look for local parks and historical sites in that put on a special show this time of year. Make it an outing by packing a snack and taking along a warm beverage like hot chocolate or flavoured coffee.

It’s also a good time to visit one of Canada’s many light festivals. For example, there’s Ottawa’s Christmas Lights Across Canada, the Festival of Lights at Vancouver’s VanDusen Botanical Garden and Niagara Falls Festival of Lights (to name a few). While some of festivals charge admission, others are free or offer free events.

Skate: Many arenas offer family or public skating times for a reasonable price — and offer rentals for those who don’t have their own equipment. If you’ve got your own blades, take advantage of free opportunities on outdoor rinks at parks, school yards or even city hall. (Availability will depend on the weather, but the hours are more flexible.) You can find an online map through the city’s website or parks and recreation department.

If you happen to be in the Ottawa area, one of the must-do activities is skating part of the Rideau Canal, a UNESCO Heritage Site. At nearly 8 km in length it’s one of the largest skating rinks in the world. (See the Skateway website for details).

Drop in for a game of hockey: Hockey may be quintessential Canadian winter sport, but you don’t have to join a team, be a local or even be a particular age to play the occasional game. Look for pick-up leagues in your area or drop-in hockey games. Many communities offer seniors’ games in addition to regular adult men’s and women’s, and the price is often less than going to the movies. (Some equipment like helmets and gloves are required.)

Explore the trails: Many local parks and conservation areas maintain winter trails for hiking, skiing or snowshoeing, and you can even rent equipment for the day if you don’t have your own. These activities don’t require much instruction or lengthy lessons to enjoy, and they afford some sight-seeing and photo opportunities.

Walk indoors: Unfortunately, icy conditions can pose a risk to avid walkers. If you need to work some exercise into your day, look for indoor walking tracks at the local community centre and college or university campus that are available for public use. While fees tend to be low, access to some tracks is available for free during certain times of the day like early morning and late evening.

Another option: try mall-walking. If you’re travelling, this can be a great way to do some window shopping without the crowds. If you’re local, consider joining a group to take advantage of special events and discounts that stores offer.

Attend a winter festival: Festivals make great mini-breaks whether you’re a traveller or a local. While many aren’t free, some offer free outdoor activities and concerts (even in the chilly months of winter). Take a look at the schedule of events — general admission may be a deal if there are a lot of activities available. In addition, look for other events and attractions in the area that are offering discounts and promotions during the festival.

Kids’ stuff: With the holiday break, February long weekend and March Break all coming up, many museums, historic sites and libraries how low-cost or free children’s activities. Activities aren’t just for the little ones — many places offer tween and teen activities such as crafts and workshops. Parents and grandparents can often tag along for free. A word of caution: many of these activities require pre-registration and spots fill up quickly.

Visit a museum or gallery: Watch for special promotions, family discount days, and free or reduced admission times. Some children’s museums even offer free days for grandparents and discounts for families.

Volunteer: People often forget that volunteering for a cause with a friend or family member can be a great way to spend some time together. If you’re a regular volunteer, bring your guests along. Pitch in at the local food back, help decorate your church for holidays, or find another cause that’s important to you.

In addition, volunteers often get some perks — like free admission to the museum for which they work.

Learn about snow : Looking for some activities you can do anytime, anywhere? Check kids’ learning websites for ideas for easy outdoor stuff to do with kids such as making a crystal ball out of bubbles, enjoying a snow slush dessert or an experiment to see how much water is in snow. Try to create your perfect perfect six-sided paper snowflake.

Winter activities are especially fun for visitors who have never experienced snow — but make sure proper attire is available and safety precautions are followed.

Costs to watch out for:

Park admission. Unfortunately, many parks and conservation areas are no longer free to visit so it’s a good idea to check before you head out. While you likely won’t get a break on the regular adult rate, watch for discounts or free admission for children and people over the age of 65. To get more for your money, watch for special programs or events that are included in admission costs.

Parking. Even if admission is free, there may be a parking fee. Car pooling can help lower these costs or try public transportation.

Equipment rentals. Renting a full set of equipment can cost around $12-15 per person, but it’s often cheaper than buying your own — plus it saves the hassle of travelling with specialized equipment (for which some airlines charge extra fees). If you’re looking to save some money on gear, try buying second-hand or from consignment shops (just make sure the equipment is in good shape and meets current safety standards).

Trail guides. It can be handy to have a travel guide or trail guide, but it’s often an added cost. Look online for maps and guides that you can print out yourself rather than purchasing.

Food. Pack your own snacks and water to avoid expensive and potentially unhealthy convenience foods.

Where to find information:

Local tourist board offices. City or provincial tourism bureaus can be a wealth of information about upcoming activities and events — even if you live in the city. Most of the information is available online, but you can also stop by the bureau office to pick up brochures.

The local parks and recreation or conservation authority. Their websites will point you to local trails and parks that are ideal for winter visits and keep you informed about special events and programs.

City websites. Municipal government websites also have information about local sites, events and activities. Many city-run sites like recreation centres will post their hours, admission rates and activities online. For example, you can find out which pools are open for family swims, which arenas have family-skating days and where to find the indoor walking tracks.

Local parks and recreation guides. If you didn’t receive one in the mail, pick one up at your local community centre.

Event or site websites. Major festivals and sites like museums usually have their own websites with more detailed information about prices, schedules and amenities.

Winter activities don’t have to be expensive, but it may take a little searching to find them. Perhaps this year they’ll also be the start of a new family tradition.

Photo © Tony Tremblay

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