Exploring Canada by road doesn’t have to be limited to the summer season. Winter road trips offer low crowds, cheaper prices and wonderfully snowy scenery. But there are undoubtedly more challenges. Some of them I knew before our recent 4700km two-week winter road trip across Canada, some of them I definitely didn’t. We experienced sun, snow, ice, blizzards, high winds, slush and temperatures down to -35c. Here’s everything I would have wanted to know before setting out that epic winter road trip in Canada.
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Be prepared for short driving days
Daylight is limited in the winter. I don’t know about you, but I hate driving in the dark, especially during winter when blizzards, black ice and freezing rain is all possible. On our winter road trip in Canada, we drove when the sun was coming up and generally stopped soon after it went down. This reduced our driving window to approximately 7am – 4pm, depending on time zone and location.
Yep, don’t forget that if you drive across Canada you will be passing through a number of different time zones! Remember that the time of sunrise and sunset will vary as you drive across different provinces and territories.
Pick your destinations carefully
You’ve probably already guessed, but due to adverse weather conditions and lack of visitors, many attractions in Canada have either reduced hours or are completely closed in winter. A lot of provincial and territorial parks will have limited access or will be completely closed to visitors. Don’t worry, however, there are still places to visit and things to see as we proved on our winter road trip across Canada. Hot springs, in particular, are a great place to stop when crossing Canada in winter.
Be aware of limited roadside facilities
In a similar theme to the above advice, many roadside facilities are shut during winter. This includes things like toilets, visitor centres and rest stops. Typically, the buildings are completely locked (we found Ontario the worst for this). Quite often, the road leading to these facilities isn’t snowploughed at all.
It is also important to know that some gas stations are closed during winter. This wasn’t a problem in most places with the exception of Highway 1 between Kenora and Sault St. Marie. I definitely wouldn’t advise risking a low gas tank in this area. It’s a good idea, in general, to keep your vehicle topped up with gas to prevent the fuel-line freezing up during winter road trips.
I know it almost goes without saying, but on a winter road trip in Canada, you MUST be prepared to drive slower than normal. Slippery roads, reduced visibility, heavy snowfall and black ice may not just slow progress down, but force you to pause or stop the trip completely. In extreme conditions, highways are sometimes closed. For this reason, plan plenty of extra time to get to your destination(s). In summer, it is not uncommon for some people to drive across Canada in as little as four days. In winter, this would be an unrealistic (and potentially dangerous) challenge.
Unexpected winter road trip hazards
When heading out to drive across Canada in winter, I anticipated tough road conditions and weather. Some things, however, I did not think about were:
- Road signs can become completely covered in snow, making navigation sometimes difficult. This shows exactly why it is useful to have both a physical map (I personally love Backroad Mapbooks) and offline access to Google Maps. For the latter, I downloaded sections as we drove.
- Despite being Canada’s major road across the country, Highway 1 doesn’t necessarily have phone signal all the way along it. We had an intermittent signal when driving through the BC side of the Rockies and then completely lost it for about 200 kilometres in Northern Ontario (from Wawa to the outskirts of Sault St. Marie).
- High winds can cause snow drifts in unexpected places. Be careful because snow drifts can be surprisingly deep and make for difficult driving.
- Most of Highway 1 across Canada is double lane separated highway. There are however large sections in Northern Ontario and smaller stretches in British Columbia that are not. In these areas, it is easy to be momentarily blinded by snow flurries caused by oncoming vehicles (especially trucks).
must have items for any winter road trip in Canada
Aside from good winter tires, there are a few other crucial items required for winter road trips in Canada. I’ve also added a couple of extras that we found very helpful during our own trip across Canada.
Shovel and tow rope
Two items you’d hope not to use, a shovel and tow rope are essentials for winter road trips in Canada. We chose to purchase an avalanche shovel for a couple of reasons. Since they are usually carried while backcountry skiing, avalanche shovels are lightweight and pack down small. Secondly, we hope to start snowshoeing in the backcountry this winter and will need one anyway.
Winter weather isn’t kind to car batteries, to say the least. Be sure to carry some jumper cables, just in case. Luckily, it was not necessary to use jumpers on our own vehicle but we did have to boost someone else’s car just a couple of blocks from Niagara Falls in -20c weather.
Lots of windscreen washer fluid
During 4700 kilometres of driving across Canada in winter, we used over 20 litres of windscreen (or windshield) washer fluid. And that was in relatively good winter weather. With so much snow, ice, dirt and general grime splashing up on the windscreen, washer fluid is absolutely essential during winter road trips to keep clear visibility. There were times when we had to use it after every passing vehicle. Make sure you buy winter windscreen washer fluid rated to -40c or lower. Consider also replacing your windscreen wipers if they are not winter rated.
Think sleeping bags, blankets, food, gloves, warm hats, wind-up flashlight (torch), first aid kit, extra clothing, water (see below). This equipment could save your life if road conditions force you to be stuck in your vehicle. Since we were moving across Canada with all of our belongings in the vehicle, we already had all this stuff with us by default. For reference, to sleep comfortably in our van at -30c weather we used individual 0c rated sleeping bags, two duvets and three more blankets on top.
Clothing-wise, be sure to have lots of different layers. When driving, the vehicle will be warm and hence less clothing will be needed. But if your vehicle gets stuck in adverse weather, more layers will quickly be required as well as warm, waterproof winter gloves and boots.
Cold weather freezes liquids. Ergo, water is harder to store on a winter road trip. The solution, however, is easy. Insulated flasks. Used most often for coffee and tea, you can also use insulated flasks to keep water and other liquids cold (but not frozen) in freezing conditions. One morning, we had absolutely nothing unfrozen to drink except what was in our 24oz (680ml) Hydroflask. Be sure to have at least one insulated flask in your vehicle.
Following on from the insulated flask logic above, coolers are also useful on any winter road trip in Canada. If possible, store any kind of fresh food in one of these to give it a little more protection against the cold temperatures. Of course, always carry some dried food (granola bars, nuts) that will still be edible if they happen to freeze and defrost a few times.
To still have fun! Winter road trips in Canada are more challenging, however, it can be an enjoyable experience. Driving 4700km across the country in December may not be my number one recommendation to someone thinking of visiting Canada, but winter road trips definitely do have their benefits. For one thing, everything looks somehow even more beautiful under cover of snow. Canada is truly a winter wonderland in every sense.
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