How to Plan for a Road Trip Across Canada

Ask anyone who’s ever been on a road trip, and they’re likely to have plenty to say about the experience, as well as tips and tricks they picked up along the way. While traveling by car is different for everyone, there are indeed a few basic rules you should know before hitting the road. No matter your vision for the perfect road trip, pre-planning is a must. 

Here’s what you need to know about how to successfully plan and prepare for a road trip across Canada.

Just How Big is Canada? 

For starters, you’ll need to consider the sheer magnitude of the country. In terms of landmass, Canada ranks second in the world behind only Russia, encompassing some 9.9 million square kilometres. Spanning six of Canada’s 10 provinces, the driving distance between Montreal and Vancouver clocks in at about 4,600 kilometres. 

Keep in mind, however, that several provinces are omitted from that total. If you want the complete Canadian road trip experience, travellers shouldn’t overlook Canada’s easternmost regions, including New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, accessible via Highways 2, 104, and 105.

The bulk of Canada’s cross-country drivers utilize the Trans-Canada Highway, or TCH. An architectural behemoth, the TCH spans the entire country, from east to west. Its main route stretches an impressive 7,476 kilometres, and it is one of the longest roadways of its kind in the world. 

Even if you drove 12 hours every day, it still takes the average driver 4-5 days to traverse Canada from east to west along the TCH. 

Get Ready for Wide Open Spaces

Despite the impressive nature of Canada’s national highway system, there are also countless kilometres of open road where towns, people, and amenities are in short supply. Pit stops are a must on road trips of all sizes, and travellers in Canada should prepare accordingly.  

Be sure to fuel up as often as possible to ensure you don’t run low in a remote area of Canada, and stretch your legs often to avoid cramps and exhaustion.  

Budgeting Your Time on a Road Trip

Whether you’re travelling with a large group of close friends, are planning a solo adventure, or something in between, your experience is likely to vary significantly. Aspects of your trip run the gamut from food and lodging considerations to seasonal climate, regional culture, and beyond. 

The starting point is yet another consideration on your Canadian road trip adventure. For international travellers on a road trip, you have more than 100 options for border crossing, but not all border stations are open year-round. In lieu of crossing the border in your personal vehicle that’s packed full of road trip gear, you could opt to fly into a centrally located city, such as Winnipeg or Toronto, and rent a suitable vehicle.

Be Mindful When Loading Up

Speaking of gear, it’s important to travel light, no matter your ultimate destination or planned timeline. While it can be tempting to bring along the latest road trip gadgets and cold-weather gear, an overloaded car can become bogged down, costing you precious fuel as well as time. 

Warm Up with Day Trips

Road trips require endurance, and it doesn’t always come naturally. Especially for novice travellers, a warm-up road trip can allow for a smoother transition into a lengthy cross-country excursion. Taking several short day trips before setting off can also help you better determine your ability to drive long distances by calculating the maximum number of kilometres and/or hours of driving that you can safely do in a single day. 

Consider the Capacity of Your Vehicle

The amount of gear you ultimately cram into your car may also play a role in vehicle performance. If your car is bogged down by heavy gear and lots of bodies, you’re likely to see a slew of negative side effects, including reduced fuel economy and performance issues. 

Getting Your Vehicle Ready

Your road trip vehicle is a companion of sorts, and it should be treated accordingly. Just as you prepare yourself for a cross-country trip, your vehicle should also be suitably warmed up. Before hitting the road, it’s a good idea to get your car checked out by a knowledgeable mechanic and top off all fluids.

But the task of vehicle maintenance on a road trip shouldn’t be left solely to the professionals. In fact, for savvy road trippers, keeping your vehicle running smoothly is one of your most important jobs. 

Your road trip vehicle may start out just fine, but after driving thousands of kilometres, you should plan for an oil change, new tires or brakes, or another form of maintenance. At least one member of your travelling crew should know how to change a tire, check fluids manually, and perform other basic vehicle maintenance tasks.

In the planning stages, you should also consider who may be behind the wheel and prepare accordingly, in terms of insurance and driving time. For parents of teens, road trips also provide a great opportunity for new drivers to hone their skills and learn about roadway safety. Even if you’re not training any new drivers, however, flexibility can go a long way in terms of roadway safety and your overall experience. 

Stay Flexible No Matter What Comes Your Way

Planning is important, of course, but you should also prepare for the unexpected, and be willing to deviate from your itinerary. Sometimes, you may have no choice in the matter, like in an emergency or inclement weather event that forces a roadway closure. 

Detours, Weather, and Unexpected Surprises

As previously mentioned, it’s crucial that you understand the fuel capacity of your vehicle, and research fuel stops in advance. In the event of an unexpected gas station closure on your planned route, do you have a backup plan in place? You may want to consider bringing along an extra fuel canister if you’re driving down long stretches of roads far from urban centers. 

Yet detours aren’t inherently bad, and you may find yourself deviating from the plan to do something amazing. 

Tailor the Experience Towards Your Specific Interests

With so many options to choose from, in terms of entertainment, lodging, natural wonders, and more, planning for a road trip can seem like an overwhelming task. You can narrow down your options by tailoring the road trip to meet your specific interests, whatever they may be.

Destination Planning Best Practices

For example, if you are a musician, consider dropping by open mic nights in the towns you visit. Archaeology buffs can tour Canada’s earliest settlements and historical heritage sites, which are sprinkled throughout the nation. 

As an example, Newfoundland and Labrador’s L’Anse aux Meadows is one of the oldest known Viking settlements in North America, dating to about 10,000 years ago. However, the national historic site, located on the island of Newfoundland, is far removed from the TCH and may be difficult to fit into your road trip itinerary. 

The good news is that there’s plenty of history along the TCH itself, and even within Canada’s biggest cities. For instance, visitors to Hamilton, Ontario, can take a drive down historic York Boulevard and past the stunning Dundurn Castle. Built in the 1830s on the site of a former British military encampment, the spot offers year-round tours as well as a variety of workshops in cooking, gardening, and various crafts.

Food, Glorious Food (What to Eat on Your Road Trip)

Food tourism is immensely popular around the world, and Canada is a prime gastronomic destination. The nation boasts some 97,000 restaurants and bars, enjoyed by visitors and locals alike. According to research, 22 million Canadians visit a restaurant every day. 

Versatile Snacking Options

Long stretches on the road can make you hungry, and you can’t stop at every quaint diner along your route. Yet even road trippers on a budget can indulge in some of Canada’s most popular dishes, including lobster rolls, meat pies, and Montreal-style smoked meat. To further stretch your Canadian dollars, stop by grocery stores and stock up on your favourite road snacks. 

Lodging Considerations for Your Canada Road Trip

Road trips can be both exhilarating and exhausting, and you’ll need plenty of rest if you want to be at your best. As such, where you sleep is of crucial importance for every road tripper. One of the rules of the road trip is to avoid sleeping in your car if at all possible. During the planning stages, look for lodging options along your route that fit your budget as well as your ideals. You may need to book well in advance, depending on the season and the popularity of the destination. 

From Luxury Accommodations to Rustic Cabins

Some road trippers do just fine in hostels and at campgrounds, while others hope to refresh in high-end lodgings. Fortunately, Canada offers every form of temporary accommodations you can think of, from private cabins and 5-star hotels to cooperative hostels that offer dorm-style rooms for large groups and solo travellers alike. 

Getting Around: Road Trip Navigation Considerations

Once you’ve figured out where you’re going to stay and which museums you plan to visit, you’ll need to get there. While GPS technology has come a long way in recent years, it’s not infallible. Thus, to ensure the greatest chance of success in terms of navigation and not getting lost on your road trip, go for the dual approach of digital and analog — that is, paper maps.  

Having paper maps on hand can also be a lifesaver in areas with poor reception or in the event of a technological glitch. 

Useful Navigation Apps and Technology

Paper maps notwithstanding, technology has served to improve the navigation experience on several levels. Whether you’re using Google Maps, Apple Maps, Garmin, or another navigation app, you’ll be able to track your speed, as well as prepare for upcoming toll roads and heavy traffic conditions. 

Entertaining Yourself On and Off the Road

Road trips can be a life-changing experience, but long stretches of driving are often tedious and boring. When you’re spending long days in the car, how are you going to keep from going crazy? Your options for road trip boredom busting will vary considerably depending on the number of passengers in your car. 

How to Keep from Going Stir Crazy

Larger groups may be able to stave off road trip boredom by playing games or testing each other with Canadian trivia. No matter the size of your entourage, you can opt to listen to podcasts or audiobooks, or sing along to your favourite playlist of road trip tunes.  

Final Thoughts

For adventurous travellers, hitting the open road can be the trip of a lifetime. Road trips across Canada provide freedom, unforgettable experiences, and memories that stand the test of time. Yet, no matter your ultimate road trip destination, you’re in for a lot of work and should be prepared for anything that comes your way.

Beau Peters

Beau Peters