Driving across Canada | How to Plan a Canadian road trip

After a 6-week trip across Canada, these two Roadies have insider’s tips you'll find extremely useful. Additional text by Eric Fletcher. 23 Sep 2016

Driving across Canada | How to Plan a Canadian road trip

driving holiday

For useful informationWith images of “Easy Rider” and freedom dancing in our heads, my husband Eric and I had fun planning then enjoying a six-week Canadian road trip from Quebec to British Columbia this summer. Driving across Canada is a great way to explore the country. 

We paddled, hiked, and horseback rode, taking our Toyota RAV4 with our home-built canoe, Windigo, secured on the roof.

driving across canada
Tiny planet showing Windigo on our car along the shore of Lake Superior. Photo: Eric Fletcher

We stayed in historic B&Bs, funky Parks Canada oTENTiks (hybrid tent-cabin lodgings) and a few motels but this was primarily a camping trip.

driving across canada

Apart from our two-week remote horseback riding expedition in northern British Columbia, by choice, we were online regularly while driving across Canada. As a writer-photographer team, this enabled us to incorporate some work into our normal “busman’s holiday.”

driving across canada

Many of us want to do the grey-nomad thing, where we pack a vehicle and take off exploring.

Here are our tips to assist you in planning hassle-free road trips driving across Canada, including five very different Canadian destination recommendations. 

With 2017 marking Canada’s sesquicentennial, there’s no better time to feel the heartbeat of our country and no better way than to go driving in Canada.

1- Pre-planning your driving across Canada route

We always pack paper maps. Not only provincial road maps: if we’re venturing into the backcountry, topographical maps, too.

World of Maps has a good selection, while Natural Resources Canada is the creator-dispenser of Canadian “topo” maps.

driving across canada

We also use websites and apps to plan and track our route while driving across Canada. 

Online tools will show you accurate distances and driving times. You can divide the total by the number of days to get a sense of how much driving you’ll need to do each day.

Although “all-nighters” are doable, we usually drove four to six hours, to allow for paddling Windigo, hiking, visiting with friends and family and other serendipitous happenings.

From experience, we found that a longer day of driving in rain could give us a spare day further along.

2- Useful Online Tools

We used Google Maps to plan and track our route because it runs on both our iOS and Android mobile devices. And, most handily, it can work offline if map data is pre-loaded. This is essential for operating in areas with no data connection and to reduce internet costs on our cross-Canada drive.

canada drives

Tips: Download new map coverage data when you have access to free WiFi.

Useful iOS and Android apps to consider include Waze (for planning routes under 1,600kms); weather forecasts (such as The Weather Network); and Gas Buddy (for finding cheap fuel nearby).

Check to see if your credit card gives you extra points for patronising specific brands of fuel stations.

Consider bookmarking sites that will give you ready access to information you may need on the fly. As news junkies, we relied on CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) Radio’s frequency lookup page to know where to tune the dial for the hourly news.

3- Driving Across Canada Using a GPS

GPS devices (SatNavs) come installed in most rentals but do check and do take the time to learn how to change the settings to fit your driving preferences. For example, if it is set to calculate the shortest route, you may want to turn on the “avoid unpaved routes” option to prevent it from including shortcuts using gravel roads.

Tip: Learn how to record the current precise location coordinates on these (or on your mobile device). This proved crucial when we arrived upon a serious motorcycle accident on a mountainous stretch of highway. We captured the precise coordinates, then drove on to the first area with a signal to dial 9-1-1 (Canada’s emergency line) to provide the precise location for an ambulance and police assistance.

canadian road trip

4- Mobile Phones and Calling Home

Your home cellular provider may have roaming plans that can work in Canada but do check before you leave home as costs may be prohibitive. 

North American mobile services operate on different frequencies than most of the world.

If you have an unlocked tri- or quad-band GSM phone, a better alternative may be to purchase a SIM card. Some can be purchased before you arrive (such as Similicious) but you can also purchase pay-as-you-go cards at 7-Eleven convenience stores and Petro-Canada gas stations.

Canada has reasonable data and telephone coverage along our highway systems and free WiFi is often available in places such as Tim Horton’s, Canada’s coast-to-coast coffee and donuts shop (which also has good WCs, incidentally). However, reception on backroads is iffy and in the mountains, well, good luck!

Before you leave home, learn how you may be able to pinpoint the location of your device if it is lost. For most devices, entering *#06# will display the unique IMEI number that identifies your mobile device. You will need it to activate a SIM or to have the device blocked for use on Canadian wireless networks.

Most jurisdictions in Canada prohibit the use of hand-held devices while driving. Even if you are able to sync your device to your vehicle for hands-free operation, plan to let your passenger manage it while you focus on the road. 

5- Banking and credit card smarts

Check with your home bank to learn which of the Canadian banks have reciprocal arrangements to minimise transaction costs for your debit and credit cards when driving across Canada.

Figure out how your GPS or mobile device mapping tools can locate banks with ATMs (they’re called ABMs or Automated Banking Machines in Canada). If you use online banking, understand how your security works and refresh your passwords.

Tip: To avoid missing bill payment dates, consider pre-paying accounts before you leave.

Ensure your credit cards are activated for Canada (contact your bank) and advise the credit company so they know you’ll be making purchases abroad. Put a limit on the amount you will accept on your card in case it is stolen.

6- Passports

Are they current? Check. Also, ensure the name you book flights with is exactly the same as it appears in your passport.

7- Electronic Stuff 

Regardless of whether you pack a smartphone or a DSLR, laptop or GoPro, battery power is a huge deal – read: being without juice is more than a pain, for some of us it’s a non-starter. What to do?

Packing a cheapo 12V plug to USB adaptor isn’t a great idea. Most are limited to 1A output, so can take a long time to charge a device. Instead, opt for a charger with >1 USB outlet able to deliver 2.1 amps each to charge your devices more reliably and more quickly.

The C$20 Aukey charger we used kept both of our devices topped up as we drove.

For extended power when we were not driving, we packed two external battery packs chargers with USB outlets to keep our cameras and smartphones powered up during our 12-day wilderness horseback trek. This technology is changing rapidly so search for “portable USB charger” for the most current information.

Tip: Take a box to contain your charging gear and keep them out of sight.

8- Planning for Your Canada Road Trip

Although a winter road trip is doable, unless you’re a keener for snowstorms and ice, plan to come during summer when roads are clear.

canadian road trip

driving across canada

Tip: In Canada’s North, light (or its absence) needs to be considered. Our northern latitudes aren’t known as “Land of the Midnight Sun” for nothing, where during summer there’s no lasting darkness and in winter, no sunshine.

For useful information, while driving across Canada, check out websites for the Trans-Canada Highway, which lists current weather warnings and maps. Visit Destination Canada and explore virtually before planning your trip. Browse Parks Canada’s National Historic Sites, National Marine Conservation Areas, and Parks. And discover private campgrounds, too, by Googling. If you’re renting an RV check out RV parks and campgrounds in all provinces.

9- Wildlife in Canada

Finally, no-one wants to injure wildlife and Canadians know to be careful at dusk and night particularly during summertime when deer, racoons, skunks, moose and other critters roam.

More unappealing wildlife, such as biting insects, can be fierce while camping so pack repellant sprays and mosquito coils.

canadian road trip

Of course, hunting and fishing are a big draw to some but make sure you have the proper licenses, which are different for each province. Police or game wardens will check and will confiscate your catch plus fine you if you do not comply.

10- Planning your house sitting team

Before leaving home do you have pet sitters, plant sitters or house sitters organised? Do you have a house manual with emergency numbers? If you rent your home, create a Letter of Understanding that your tenant and you co-sign, and advise your insurance company or neighbours or friends.  

If you rent your home, create a Letter of Understanding that your tenant and you co-sign, and advise your insurance company or neighbours or friends.  

Five Great Canada Drives

The Whole Hog: The Cross-Canada Drive (6,521 km /4,025 miles)

Want to get a sense of Canada’s vastness by road and ferry? At a minimum, take a summer’s three-to-four months and explore Newfoundland, Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia.

From a Newfoundland kitchen party to whale watching off Vancouver – and everything in between – you’ll experience Canada’s culture and wilderness.

canada drives

Plan for several months (or Gap Year adventure) so you can relax, meet locals, experience fabulous festivals and perhaps First Nations Pow Wows and more.

The Gentle Isle: Prince Edward Island (218 km / 135 miles)

Sometimes known as “Anne’s Island”, PEI is a dream-come-true destination for a family vacation because of beaches and genuinely laid-back, warm welcomes visitors receive everywhere. Who doesn’t love Anne of Green Gables?

If you haven’t discovered this red-headed imp of a Canadian heroine, read the book, then visit author L. M. Montgomery’s (and Anne’s) charming farmhouse museum.

canada drives

Visit Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre of the Arts and learn about how this capital of PEI was the birthplace of Canada in 1867. Then, discover uniquely on-island (or on-ocean) authentic experiences such as “I dig, therefore I clam kayaking adventure.”

The Cowboy Trail: Calgary to Waterton Lakes National Park of Canada (258 km / 161 miles)

Explore your inner cowboy in Calgary or “Cowtown.” Visit in early July during the Calgary Stampede to get into the mood, watching roping contests, bucking broncos (horses are bred for this) and country music shows.

Insider’s tip: Live like a local first by visiting the Alberta Boot Company to buy an authentic stetson (cowboy hat) and pair of boots. Don’t miss the Glenbow Museum to learn about First Nations culture.

road trip canada

Then? Drive Highways 1A west then 22 south of Calgary to visit a host of Canadian cowboy and First Nations sites. Favourites include Bar U Ranch National Historic Site (the Sundance Kid spent time here hiding from The Law. Remember Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid?). Once world-renowned for its Percheron horse-breeding program, today the 1882 site showcases ranch life in Canada.

Waterton Lakes is a national park where we thoroughly enjoyed exploring on horseback on a two-night camping trip, riding sure-footed steeds from Alpine Stables.

Finally, return to Calgary via Head-Smashed-in-Buffalo-Jump to learn about the bison (buffalo) and how early peoples of the plains stampeded them over precipices to gather meat, hides, bones and seemingly everything from these sacred creatures.

Klondike Gold Rush: Whitehorse to Dawson City (525 km / 328 miles)

Whitehorse, named for the Yukon River’s white rapids coursing past the city, is a bustling northern city full of the hopes, vim, and vigour of Canada’s north.

Visit the Beringia Centre to learn about the migration of ancient peoples to North America during the last Ice Age and the MacBride Museum of Yukon History to brush up on the Gold Rush.

road trip canada

Then drive the 400 km Dempster Highway to Parks Canada’s National Historic Site of Dawson City – where you can pan for gold, and listen to the “Bard of the Yukon,” Robert A. Service’s poetry… including the renowned poem, “Cremation of Sam McGeewhere you’ll learn: “There are strange things done in the midnight sun/By the men who moil for gold…”

BC Circuit Spectacular (~2,000 km / 1,250 mi of driving + ferries)

Vancouver to Prince Rupert (~1,500 km/ 940 mi); Prince Rupert to Port Hardy via BC Ferry Inland Passage; Port Hardy to Victoria on Vancouver Island (500 km); Victoria to Vancouver via BC Ferry.

Vancouver’s lights and excitement drop away while you drive north, north, north to the deep harbour port of Prince Rupert.

road trip canada british columbia

The drive is one of Canada’s most magnificent, taking you north through Central Interior historic towns such as 100 Mile House en route to Prince George, then northwest, cutting across the Northern Rocky Mountains to Hazelton, Terrace and finally, the port of Prince Rupert itself.

Insider’s tip: Visit Ks’aan at Hazelton, a First Nations museum for aboriginal culture. Just outside of Prince Rupert, don’t miss the North Pacific Cannery to glean the flavour of what the salmon run once was, with the fishy catch that kept First Nations, Japanese and other workers busy in the now-historic cannery. Once in Prince Rupert quaff a craft beer at funky Wheelhouse Brewing Co.

To complete the circuit, catch the rightly renowned BC Ferry, voyaging southward down the Inland Passage to the northern tip of Vancouver Island, docking at Port Hardy. We saw humpback whales, osprey (fish hawks) and bald eagles so be sure to pack binoculars.

On-island, visit Port McNeil, leave your car for this day trip, and walk on to the ferry to Alert Bay, a First Nations village where iconic Canadian artist Emily Carr visited and painted village life and totem poles. Nowadays we can stroll an ecological boardwalk through wetlands and view U’mista Cultural Centre. Also interesting, south of Port McNeil is Telegraph Cove, right on the ocean. Camp, hike rainforest paths to the lighthouse (Blinkhorn Trail) or take a guided kayak paddle of the cove.

easy drives in canada

Highway 19 takes you south for the five-hour drive to Victoria – which is just so English. Stroll the inner harbour while sailboats’ masts create their merry jingling backdrop and visit the Fairmont Empress for High Tea. Catch the BC Ferry from Schwartz Bay to Tsawwassen (Vancouver) and your mega-wonderful roadie trip of BC is done. 

Katharine and Eric Fletcher are freelance writers and photographers who live in Quebec and love exploring Canada by road.

Where to stay? Try Num Ti Jah Lodge, which is well located along the Icefields Parkway.

 

driving across canada

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