Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Driving in Canada for Tourists

Welcome to my blog. Please feel free to poke around and 'comment' if you have questions. I'll be happy to answer them for you.

Driving in Canada is quite unlike driving in other countries although obviously some things remain constant the world over (like obeying the posted speed limit). But the amazing variety of terrain from gravel mountain roads to 6 lane highways and driving conditions from rain to snow and ice to dry roads can make preparing to drive here a necessity.

Firstly, if you are driving here because you are on vacation then make sure of a few things before you leave with your rental car.

*Do you have adequate insurance

All car rental companies offer insurance from the most basic liability to the grandest comprehensive and the prices can vary significantly so your $29 per day vehicle may end up costing you maybe $40 per day. One thing to check is that you might also have some coverage through your credit card provider or travel insurance so check before leaving home and you'll save some big bucks $$$.

* Watch for wildlife. I'm not talking birds and rabbits, I'm talking moose, deer, mountain lions, bighorn sheep, wolves, elk, buffalo, and bears. The little ones can give you a good scare and possibly damage your car but hitting one of these big guys could be much worse so pay attention, especially driving at dusk and dawn or at night on open highways. It's believed that between 4 and 8 large animal collisions occur in Canada every hour. It's not something to be scared of, it's just something you need to be aware of.

* Don't Feed The Animals. Leave Wildlife Alone. Please please please do not stop on the road and get out of your car to take pictures. I know that to some of you are thinking "why would someone do that?" but I've seen it a lot, especially in the National Parks of Banff and Jasper. Someone will see a bear grazing near the road, pull over, get out and start walking a couple of hundred feet to get a better view and pictures of this magnificent creature who is quietly staring at them.. This is a 'Break' worthy YouTube video just waiting to happen. It's dangerous because someone may hit your car or the animal may hit you. They are wild creatures so respect them and admire from a distance. They might look cute but if they decide you're too close or if they have babies hiding somewhere they can turn on you in a second. Do yourself and them a favour...stay in the car and roll down the window for pics and leave them alone. Even a gentle and cute looking deer can hurt you so please use common sense.

*Do you have a valid drivers license

You can drive in Canada with a current drivers license from many countries such as the UK, US, France, Australia, and if you have an International Drivers License then you absolutely can drive here provided you also bring along your regular valid drivers license. You can check to know for certain by contacting the hire car company from your country before you leave. Isn't the internet helpful? Most hire companies are going to want you to be 25 years old too but not all. Check it out before coming.

*Are you comfortable driving on the right hand side of the road?

If you've never done so before then give some thought to how you turn, traffic flow around roundabouts etc. It's easy when you're in the flow of traffic because you just follow everyone else but a bit harder on quiet roads because you can slip back into your normal driving habits. Contrary to what most people think though there are not many accidents where a person was driving on the wrong side of the road and were from a different country.

*Alcohol. In a word...DON"T. Save yourself the trouble and don't drink and drive. Canadian police are not nice about drinking while driving and I can guarantee you'll regret it. You are considered legally impaired at .08 and in BC you can't be over .05 which could result from one large class of red wine at dinner or a large beer for some people. If you are coming to a new country for the first time it is better to be totally alert and not drinking if you plan to drive. Penalties for drunk driving range from having your license taken away for 24 hours right then and there at the side of the road to 120 days in jail, a 3 year driving ban and fines. For all the current Provincial rules (they do vary depending on province) check out this Wiki page.

*Winter Driving.

If you are here in the winter when the roads are icy, have you ever driven on ice and snow? Even experienced Canadian drivers have more accidents in the first week after the snow comes in winter. It takes a little bit of time to remember to leave more stopping room between cars, take it easy on the brakes and gas, and change our tires if we're going to. Winter tires and supposed all seasons tires are not the same as far as grip goes. A winter tire has better traction because it's rubber compound is softer and it's tread more aggressive. An all season tire in Canada is really a 3 season tire, spring, summer and fall. Winter tires can also have added grip from studs (little metal grips that stick out of the tire) and from chains that the driver straps onto the tire for driving on snow. Studs are good on ice, chains on snow. There are many roads where it's posted that you must have winter tires or carry chains from October 1 to April 30. If you do not have the mountain and snowflake symbol on the sidewall of your tires or appropriate chains for your vehicle you can get in trouble both from road conditions (have an accident or get stuck) or from the police. Even a warm province like BC has lots of roads both highways and back roads that are posted this way. So if you are renting a car between October and April, even if the weather is nice, you should check your route to see if you are traveling any posted roads and insist that the rental company provide you with chains. This especially applies to Vancouver. Many people start a vacation in Vancouver, rent a car and drive to places like Whistler, Kamloops, Banff. It's a wonderful way to see BC, I know, but you'll be going over several roads and highways that are posted as winter tires needed. SO please check your routes before renting a car and make sure it's suitable. Oh and one thing to know as well, you can rent a truck or SUV thinking it will be better on snow and it might, but you are still required to have winter tires or chains, regardless of the type of vehicle you have.

But Overall......

You will find that in most of the country drivers are courteous and helpful. Of course there are always exceptions such as rush hour and busy highways in the major cities. For less stress just avoid driving during the busy times 7-9am and 4-7pm. The Trans-Canada Highway system is a series of roads of various width extending coast to coast. You can be sure that they are well maintained and signed. And roads in Canada are generally less busy than other countries so you can safely enjoy your drive, stop at the many rest areas and points of interest along the way, and get fuel of course. But do please pay attention to your gas gauge if you are driving a long way. I have seen a lot of highway signs letting you know that this is the last fuel stop for 260km etc so pay attention. If you're in town it's no problem but out on the highways pay attention to your map. Be prepared for an emergency by having some basic supplies like cold weather clothing in the winter, good footwear, blankets and some snack foods, a shovel, water, flashlight and maybe a first aid kit. Whatever seems appropriate given your situation.

Canada is such a big country that it's hard to understand the distances between places. For instance, Edmonton and Calgary are 2 large cities in the province of Alberta. They're really close together by Canadian Standards...only 3 1/2 hours drive and 300km's. Our move across Canada involves driving 7100km. It's a little different than driving in Europe. So use google maps to calculate driving distance and times, and buy a good detailed map before setting out. Knowing the major cities along your route can be helpful also because often road signs give directions to the next major city and not necessarily the smaller place in between that you're going to. If it does turn out that you get a little lost you can ask for directions from a gas station or roll down your window and ask pretty much anyone on the street if you are in town. Most people are happy to help.

Driving is a wonderful way to explore Canada and I highly recommend it either in a car, van or in an RV. So...welcome to the road and maybe we'll see you on our drive across Canada!

Please feel free to comment and ask questions. We are not professional drivers but we do drive about 80,000km per year and have experience on all sorts of different roads in vehicles from a motorcycle to a school bus. We have combined 55 years worth of experience. And you are welcome to 'Follow us' and check out the rest of our blog.


  1. Canada is still one of the best places to go on road trips, despite the threats in the road. Canadians are good drivers and are well disciplined in obeying traffic rules. Accidents are not always caused by the place or bad weather, it's mostly on how you carefully manage your driving skills. In any way, I enjoyed reading your post, Elizabeth! Thanks for sharing! All the best to you!

    Jerry Brady @ Lambert And Williams

    1. Hi Jerry. Yes that's something we take for granted. That despite all the drivers and the miles and miles of road, there are really very few accidents. Drivers are good and obey the rules and there's just so much amazing stuff to see in Canada! From coast to coast there's truly a wonderful country to explore here.