So you’ve decided on a winter Canadian vacation. You’re going to own the open road and wander endlessly through the Canadian countryside. Regardless of your driving experience, winter driving is a whole other animal and can make even the most experienced snow bunnies unsettled. So before you get your Mukluks and tuque on, here are 5 things to consider about driving Canadian winter roads.
Owning the road requires a vehicle. Don’t assume you’ll have access to a fleet of cars at the rental company when you arrive. You should book the rental long before your feet have even boarded the plane, to allow for the greatest availability. Heavier vehicles fare better on slippery roads than smaller, lighter cars. If your budget allows, opt for an SUV, van or truck. At the very least, a larger, 4 door sedan should suffice. Ensure to include any accessories like a child seat (required by law) or ski racks when booking the car. Also, check what the gas mileage is of the vehicle you rent.
Most rental companies in Canada require that you be at least 21 years of age and have a major credit card. You will be expected to present your driver’s license and/or an International driver’s permit upon picking up your car. Assuming you are not Canadian or American, they may also require your passport and that you purchase liability insurance. Review the rental agreement from the comfort of your home – you don’t want any surprises at the counter.
Before driving off, the rental company will do a walk through of the vehicle with you. Check for any damage to ensure you don’t get pinned with the bill, and take a look at the tires. Ask if they are winter or all season and make sure they have some good tread. If they look bald, ask for another car.
Canadian winters are COLD! Not just the “glue your nostrils shut” kind of cold either. I’m talking -63°C (-81.4°F), “flash freeze your eyebrows off your face” kind of cold. Alright, so not all of Canada reaches those temperatures, or even comes close to it on any given winter, but it’s still bloody frigid in most of the country from November to March.
And if your vacation will have you travelling far distances, it’s not just the weather you need to be concerned about. Canada is huge! New comers are often shocked at how far apart everything is here. You could literally drive for hours between civilization. Therefore, you need to be prepared for those long excursions, to ensure the safety of you and your fellow passengers.
When planning your road trip, its important to map out the entire route. This not only allows you to determine distance between destinations but also service centres and small towns. Since you know the rated mileage of the car, see previous point, you can now estimate the distance you can travel on a tank of gas (petrol). Plan your fill up stops and ensure to never let your car get below 1/4 of a tank. Once completed, share the route with someone who will not be part of the trip. And although this may seem obvious, make sure not only your gas is filled up before you depart, but also your window washer fluid as well. Washer fluid is necessary on messy roads. Hell throw an extra gallon in the trunk. Be sure to purchase an anti-freeze windshield washer fluid, sold at most gas refilling stations.
So are you ready to hit the road? Not quite yet. The only thing worse than being lost, stuck or in an emergency on a winter road, is being lost, stuck or in an emergency on a winter road and not being prepared. How can you be prepared? Well here is what you need.
If your rental company did not supply one, pick up a cheap medical emergency kit. You should also bring a warm blanket(s), candles and waterproof matches, non-perishable food, warm clothing (think mitts, scarf, hat, winter jacket and boots) and bottled water in your car. I know you’re saying “really? candles?”. Remember the cold winters I mentioned a while back? Well you’d be surprised at how fast a warm vehicle turns cold when not running. You’d also be surprised at how warm a vehicle can get just from burning a candle. These items are to ensure you don’t freeze to death while waiting for help.
Keep your cell phone charged, you can get service in the weirdest places in Canada. And lastly, have a map of where you are going. Stick to your planned route and stay off unknown, unmarked roads. This type of exploring could get you into dire straights fast. A car can get stuck in as little as a few centimetres/inches of snow and leave you stranded.
Understand the Weather Impact on the Landscape You Are Visiting
Why do you care and how could you possibly know, right? Well if you understand the landscape, you can then anticipate what hazards the weather conditions could pose. For example, if you are visiting the mountains in British Columbia, it’s wise to know the threat of avalanches are not only real but regular. Do you know what areas along your route are prone to avalanches?
You would think driving the flat, straight prairie highway would be simple. And you would be dead wrong. Blowing snow can cause blinding conditions and unsafe roadways. Freezing rain in Nova Scotia may look innocent enough until your car spins 180° in the middle of the road.
If you are aware of the landscape and the type of weather conditions that frequent the area (ex. you rarely find freezing rain in northern Ontario but will find it often in southern Ontario) then you can plan accordingly. Visit the website of the town, county or province you are visiting as well as the Ministry of Transportation for information on the location’s weather conditions.
How to Drive in Winter
Just so we’re clear here, I’m not going to actually provide technical “how to” driving techniques. No, I’m going to offer a common sense approach to keep you safe.
Major highways usually have a speed limit of 90 – 110 km posted. When the weather or roads are bad, slow down! It is suggested you leave 2 seconds between you and the car ahead of you. Longer if the roads are treacherous.
Also, if you’ve rented a 4×4 and you think you can drive “balls to the wall” crazy because its none other than a 4×4 – here’s a news flash. You will go into the ditch during bad weather just as fast as someone not in an all wheel drive. Too often people think a 4×4 will keep them on the road. Well it does not – at least not if you are driving like a tool. A four-wheel drive will help get you unstuck, from snow, mud – it will even haul your ass up a mountain side. But it does not, let me repeat, DOES NOT make your vehicle less slippery when you hit black ice. Oh yeah, did I mention that little gem yet? Black ice is, well ice! Except you cannot see it and your car tires cannot grip it. Everyone who hits black ice will lose some amount of control of their vehicle – whether you go spinning off into a ditch is determined by the experience of the driver.
In Canada we have a little show called The Weather Network. We love our weather reports here. Check out this program before you leave your hotel, friends place, or police station (because you were caught driving like an idiot) and if the show reports black ice along your route, stay clear of that area.
Knowing When to Get Off the Highway
I know, you’re saying to yourself, but I planned a road trip! Yeah and your life isn’t worth attempting to plough through to your next stop. Besides, you will probably be delayed by a couple of hours or a day at most. Some of the best experiences happen unexpectedly when you’re forced off a highway at an unscheduled location.
If the weather is bad and you feel very nervous – get off the road. There is nothing worse than a nervous driver in less than perfect driving conditions. If you have no visibility or the road is so covered you can no longer see it, pull off at the next service station and have a coffee, wait out the storm. If you cannot control your vehicle, head to a hotel for an unplanned adventure. And if everyone else is getting off the highway, then follow their lead. Canadians are used to driving in snow. If we are heading for the exit ramps like rats running to the tip of a sinking ship, let that be a very prominent warning to you.
So that’s it. The 5 things you need to consider when driving Canadian winter roads. Oh and one more thing. You can always save yourself the hassle and worry and travel by train through the unspoiled Canadian wilderness. Sit back and relax with a glass of wine. What could be more tempting than that? Bon Voyage!
How will you be travelling your next Canadian adventure?
~ True North Nomad