Heading out for our five 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 our normal day-to-day living! In each road trip update, I shared an approximation of our costs, but never the full amount. But now is the time to reveal all.
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total road trip costs
Our entire five-month 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 to Alaska.
Canada – a pricey road trip destination?
Regular readers may remember us mentioning managing to stick to a budget of $10/day total during the first couple of weeks of our road trip. 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 original budget, less than $30 for two people is still not excessive by any means for travel in Canada.
Canada may be one of the most expensive countries to travel in but is surprisingly cheap to explore if you provide your own accommodation and enjoy Canada for all of its natural attractions.
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. Over 157 days, we camped for free 112 times or 71% of the time. The other 29% was made up of 29 nights in paid camping/accommodation and 16 nights staying with friends.
One of the main reasons we were able to camp for free so often 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 the 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. Often, we paid $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.
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 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 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.
Our biggest canada road trip 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. Gas costs brought total spend per day to $44.50.
Something we didn’t budget for was the astronomically high gas prices that particular 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.
our Canada road trip 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 and paid less $10 total to refill it!
How to travel cheaply in Canada
In conclusion, it IS possible to travel Canada on a relatively small budget. We spent $44.50 a day on our 30,000km road trip for accommodation, food, insurance and gas. The only expense that this figure does not include is the original cost of our vehicle.
The secret to exploring Canada cheaply is:
- Utilise free camping whenever and wherever possible
- Enjoy the natural scenery and limit paid attractions
- Cook own meals most of the time
- Stick closer to the border for cheaper gas!
- For those prepared, try backcountry trips (hiking, paddling etc) out of season
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