Heading out for our six month Western Canada road trip last spring, we experienced a lot of ‘but how can you afford that?’ and ‘that must be costing a lot.’ The truth is that our trip actually cost a lot less than normal day-to-day living on Vancouver Island. In each road trip update, I shared an approximation of our recent costs, but never the full amount.

total road trip costs

Our entire five month (it ended up being shorter than originally planned) trip cost $7000 including all of our living, transportation (gas, insurance, maintenance) and attraction/activity costs. Note that this amount also includes my solo two-week trip into Alaska.

a pricy destination

Regular readers may remember us mentioning managing to stick to a budget of $10/day total during the first couple of weeks. For the most part, I think we would have achieved that if everywhere had been the same cost as Vancouver Island and southern BC. The price of gas and food in Northern BC and the Yukon took us by surprise; we knew it would be expensive, but it was above even our highest estimates. In practice, the amount per head actually was $26/day for living costs for the both of us (no gas, vehicle insurance and maintenance but everything else). While this amount was triple our budget, less than $30 for two people is still not excessive by any means.

In practice, the amount per head actually was $26/day for living costs for the both of us (no gas, vehicle insurance and maintenance but everything else), so almost triple the amount we managed to stick to for the first few weeks. While it was triple our budget, less than $30 for two people is still not excessive by any means.

Canada may be one of the most expensive countries to travel in, but it is surprisingly cheap to travel around if you provide your own accommodation and enjoy Canada for its natural attractions.

Dempster Highway views 3

Cape Scott Provincial Park hike Nels Bight camping

Free or low-cost accommodation in British Columbia, the Yukon and NWT

The biggest travel expense we saved on was accommodation. Sleeping in our converted Astro Van and tent camping gave us so much flexibility and saved a lot of money. In 157 days, we camped for free 112 times or 71% of the time.* Some of the free places we camped would not have been so appropriate in a tent (e.g. the handful of times we slept in rest-stops or Wal-Mart). The biggest enabler to our free camping was British Columbia’s amazing Recreational Site network. Hundreds of no-fee basic campsites exist all over BC and I honestly think if we hadn’t gone to Yukon we would have just camped for free for entire five-month road trip.

In Yukon Territory and Northwest Territories, we did a fair bit of ‘wild’ camping and stayed at unofficial campsites. My favourites included several spots along the Dempster Highway and at the top of Dawson City’s Midnight Dome. The other part of the time we were happy to pay $12 to stay in the excellent Yukon Government run campgrounds. The $12 charge to stay at these clean and well-organised campgrounds was well worth it. There was always a lot of free firewood available and most had communal cooking shelters. The shelters on the Dempster Highway had the added bonus of window screens to prevent the hordes of mosquitoes getting in.

*If you wondered, the other 29% was made up of 29 nights in paid camping/accommodation and 16 nights staying with friends

Rake Mountain views TmbstoneFree hiking and backcountry camping in Tombstone Territorial Park

Vancouver Island camping

Exploring Canada for free

Canada’s biggest appeal is the natural attractions on offer, and luckily most of these are also free. Our main day-to-day expenses were food and water rather than admission to any man-made attractions. A few of our backcountry trips involved some fees but we tried to limit these by either visiting before the charges came into place (hiking in Cape Scott Provincial Park in April, Desolation Sound in May) or choosing off the beaten track adventures over more popular paid ones (Yukon River paddle, Rake Mountain hike). We did make a couple of exceptions though.

The biggest paid trip we did was the Hot Springs Cove tour in Tofino; we made an exception since it would have been very difficult to get there under our own steam. I persuaded Jean Robert to hike to Grizzly Lake in Tombstone Territorial Park despite the camping fee since it was the hike I wanted to do in the Yukon. It should also be mentioned here that some of the backcountry trips we did ‘for free’ unfortunately did involve some transportation costs due to logistical issues e.g. Powell Forest Canoe Circuit not being a full circuit and our vehicle being 70km away from us at the end! If we had been travelling with other people then it would have been easier and cheaper to figure out.

Garibaldi Lake hike SquamishHiking in the off-season didn’t always work – here’s Lake Garibaldi still icy in mid June

Desolation Sound view canoe paddle

Our biggest expenses – both the inevitable and avoidable

Without a doubt, our single largest expense was gas for our Astro Van. We knew we were never going to have amazing fuel mileage from it (though it does do well for a vehicle of its size and age) and budgeted as such. What we didn’t budget for was the astronomically high gas prices that summer, especially in Northern BC, Yukon and Northwest Territories.

Even before heading north it was pretty expensive, with prices in Vancouver averaging at $1.50/litre. At the time of writing, it is now $1.05/litre! The highest we ever saw was $1.89/litre in Inuvik, NWT. But it was the Arctic, so pretty understandable.

priorities

An area of expenditure where we could have saved money was in food. We found that we both like cooking and eating too much to have gone down the beans-and-rice route for daily meals. Some people like to make sure they always have beer in the fridge; we always like to have good food! If we had been truly committed, we also could have avoided a handful of expensive restaurant meals too.

One thing that definitely did save us a bunch of money though was having a 10lb (4.4kg) re-fillable propane tank (similar to this one) to power our two-burner stove. The initial purchase may not have been cheap, but we used it the whole summer (we even brought it with us while paddling the Yukon River) and paid less $10 total to refill it!

Little Straw Vineyard Kelowna Okanagan food wine lake viewsFrom fancy to basic (Okanagan winery food above, to making bannock in NWT), we loved eating and making food on this trip

Cooking on Dempster Highway 4If you found this post helpful, PIN or save it for future reference!How We Travelled Over 30,000km in Canada for $45 a day - offtracktravel.ca

 

Gemma
Author

One half of a Canadian/British couple currently living in Penticton, British Columbia. Gemma is happiest with a paddle in her hand, on the trail or planning the next big adventure.

10 Comments

  1. Sounds like a wonderful adventure – and no matter what, adventure does cost money! You managed to be thrifty, tho, while setting priorities. Thanks for sharing. I love the pics.

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Hi Lorraine,

      You are absolutely right! And I think priorities is an important part of it. We met other people who ate very basic meals but always liked to have beer on hand and/or more trips to restaurants. Each to their own!

  2. Great tip on the propane tank. Was it easy to refill (any gas station)? and did you need an adapter to hook it up to your stove? This is getting me really excited for the upcoming conversion, lots to consider – especially as I’m not planning on driving this one into the ground like the last!

    Joe

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Hi Joe,

      Yep, really easy to refill! We actually got one fill for free since it was only a value of $4 or something. It honestly felt like never ending gas sometimes, we used it so much but there was always more! We bought an extension hose and adaptor, I’ll take a photo next time I’m in the van for you. Seriously, that propane tank was the best thing we bought on the trip! We used it to power a gas light too, though that was more tricky to set up.

  3. Gašper Kosec Reply

    Hi,Love your article.I am however wondering how u managed the van insurance? i came to canada with a similar idea but insurances here are crazy!

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Thanks! We pay around $130/month for insurance on our van in BC, which works out as $5 a day.

  4. Just wow! You’ve inspired me! I’ve been thinking of doing a trip like this but the hardest thing is to find people to do it with. I move to Canada for the working holiday next year and this will definitely be the first thing I do. Just gotta find someone with a vehicle 😉

    Thank you for sharing!

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      Thanks Sallt! Have you thought about buying your own vehicle? Let me know if you need any more help, Canada is an amazing place to explore

  5. Hi! My sister and I are roadtripping across Canada beginning in August. Thank you for the tips on free camping. I am scouring trying to make this as cheap as possible and camping is a huge expense. We’re in a Honda Fit so sleeping in the car is not our first choice – though it will happen! I’m from Ontario so I’m used to $50 a night campsites. I’m glad to see this isn’t necessarily the case across the country. Excited to read more of your adventures. Thank you!

    • Gemma
      Gemma Reply

      You’re welcome Kathleen! I’m glad this article helped you. Definitely get your hands on a copy of the Backroad Mapbooks wherever your journey takes you – the $25 to buy each edition will go far in helping you find free camping. Have a great trip!

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