One thing you want to remember when packing for Banff, Alberta (or the Canadian Rockies in general) is the high elevation of the mountains. The province of Alberta is much higher (12,000 ft) than provinces like Ontario (2,300 ft) or Nova Scotia (1,700 ft or less for other Maritime provinces). The mountains themselves cause quick changes in the weather because the Rocky Mountains form a barrier between the Pacific Ocean and inland Alberta, and cast a rain shadow (a dry area on the leeward side of the mountains) and block rain-producing weather systems on the windward side. This also causes Chinooks: warm weather in the winter months 1.
If you’re staying in Banff National Park, you’re likely to be staying in the Town of Banff, Canmore or Lake Louise so be prepared for the weather to be changing in a moment’s notice to be warm or cold. You will want to make sure to pack in layers and bring a mix of warm clothing to stay comfortable in the mountains. If you’re planning on doing any outdoor activities, you can bring your own gear or rent a lot of equipment in Banff if you’re flying in/don’t want to pack your gear.
I like my packing list to rely on items I already have, so packing layers is the perfect way to not have to go out and buy something new every time you travel. Creating capsule wardrobes, wearing multiple layers and being prepared are key!
What to Wear in Banff in the Fall
You can spend as little as a few days in Banff National Park, or a few weeks and you’ll constantly find things to do and places to go! The wonderful thing about Banff National Park and the surrounding towns is you don’t need to pack a lot of different types of outfits: clothes for outdoor activities work for going out for dinner or drinks and wearing a casual pair of pants and a sweater works perfectly in all situations. You are going to want to pack a lot of layering options to dress warmly in the morning and strip down layers in the middle of the day. If you’ve heard of a clothing capsule, you’ll want to make one. Choosing a small variety of items that can all be styled together is the perfect packing tip. I typically stick with neutrals and one bright jacket. In addition, you’ll likely be able to leave your shorts and sundresses at home because the fall brings cooler weather and not many days of summer weather!
Depending on the length of your trip, and whether you like to bring a carry on or checked bag, you may wish to increase the amounts shown below.
What to Pack for Banff National Park
– 2-3 short-sleeve shirts for layering – 3-5 long sleeve shirts – 1 sweatshirt or cardigan – 2 pairs of pants – Warm pajamas – 2 bras – 7 pairs of underwear (I don’t know about you but I always pack extra pairs) – 5 pairs of warm socks (preferably wool) – 1 pair waterproof hiking boots (if planning on doing your own hikes, a sturdy pair of hiking shoes is preferable but running shoes are good for most popular hikes) – 1 day pack with emergency first aid kit (I have this day pack from MEC that is perfect) – 1 bathing suit if you plan on visiting the hot springs or book a hotel with a pool/hot tub
A warm, waterproof jacket is a necessity. Temperatures can drop below freezing and you’re likely to encounter some rain, snow or hail in the fall. I have this down filled rain jacket that I bring everywhere. It packs up in a small bag, and is bright for awesome contrast in photos (see my link here for how much you need a yellow jacket for travelling). It’s a great layering piece for extra warmth in the morning!
If you get cold easily, I also recommend a pair of mittens, a scarf, and a hat. If you’re a novice hiker, dress a bit cool when you start and you’ll warm right up on the hike up a mountain! Wear your puffiest and biggest clothing items on the plane to save space in your baggage.
Warmth will be key for comfort! Having a merino wool base layer is ideal, with a few layering options like long sleeves or a sweater. Having sweat wicking bottom layers will help stay warm on longer hikes, because you’ll notice you’ll be quite chilly at the bottom and work up a sweat as you get to the summit – but then if you stay at the summit for photos you get quite chilly again! Sweat wicking layers help you stay warm. If you can create a clothing capsule and pack items like sweaters/cardigans that will be warm on an outdoor adventure but nice for a dinner outing, you’re set!
Warm, waterproof or quick drying pants will be your best friend. These pants from Aritzia are my favourite travel pants because they’re stylish but very comfortable and pack up tightly without wrinkling. You’ll want to pack a pair of leggings or two for outdoor activities. You can also bring a pair of rain pants or snow pants but I found I was comfortable without them. Bring jeans for a night out in Banff or Canmore!
Shoes for Banff
You will not regret packing a pair of sturdy hiking shoes but you will be able to purchase them in Banff (for a premium). I had to buy these pair of hiking shoes and paid about $40 more for the convenience of purchasing them in Banff. I also recommend bringing socks that go past your ankles – these are perfect for hiking in mountains (look for cushioned wool socks to prevent blisters). Having a second set of comfortable shoes to walk around the towns is a great idea! Hiking shoes can be quite heavy and bulky and having a second pair of shoes gives your feet a bit of a break.
If you have never purchased hiking shoes before, you want them to have about a thumbs width of additional length past your toe – this is for doing downhill when your feet will slip to the front of your boot.
I organize my packing lists with an app called Stylebook. I use it daily, but it’s also really helpful to visualize the items you’re packing in your bag.
Colour Coordinating your Outfits for Photos
Another thing to consider is if you’re interested in coordinating your outfit to the scenery. You will find a lot of blues and greens, so contrasting colours like red and yellow give a perfect pop of colour in your photos. A red plaid shirt is a quintessential Canadian look. Larch season is in late September in the Rockies: larches are deciduous conifers who’s pine needles turn bright yellow in the fall before falling off the trees for the winter. Purple and yellow are complementary colours, so consider bringing purple on your trip during larch season.
Other Essentials for your Banff Packing List
– A reusable water bottle. This is one of the top items that should be on every list! You can drink the tap water in Banff and you need to bring water with you on hikes. – Bear Spray: you do need it for hiking but a lot of people leave their bear spray at hotels (you can’t fly with it) so ask the Front Desk of your hotel for some before heading out. – Sunscreen: it’s likely you will be at a much higher elevation and therefore closer to UV rays so you’ll want to protect your skin from the harsh sun – Toiletries/makeup: toothpaste, toothbrush, shampoo, soap, face wash, moisturizer, a comb/brush, etc. – Photography equipment: including my camera, lens, tripod, shutter remote, extra SD cards, extra batteries and camera bag. – Electronics and their chargers. This will include my camera battery, iPhone, Fitbit and Kobo chargers. – Universal adapter.
Non-essential Packing Items
– Hair straightener – can double as a curling iron – Especially these days, I pack these sanitary wipes in my bag to wipe down any plastic surfaces on the plane/public transport – Cold medicine and Advil (considered a non-essential because you can buy some in Banff if you need to).