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A practical guide to road-tripping in Canada

by Staff

This article was produced by National Geographic Traveller (UK).

Roadtripping is one of the most popular ways to explore Canada, enabling travellers to go wherever their whims take them, stopping to explore an old-growth forest or a sky-scraping city whenever the thought appeals. But some rules for driving in Canada aren’t immediately apparent, and it can be tough to know what kind of car to rent and what to expect. Here’s the essential guide to exploring Canada by car.

What car should I choose? 

Canada’s roads are generally well maintained and easy to navigate, so it’s really just a matter of personal preference. That said, if you’re planning on going somewhere remote or known for unpredictable weather conditions, it may be worth opting for a 4WD. If you’re driving in winter on remote roads such as the Dempster Highway in the Yukon, you should consider hiring a car that comes with winter tyres and snow chains. Some cars in cold regions come with internal heating elements for the engine, which will prevent it from freezing in extreme temperatures; there will usually be an external socket when parking for you to plug this into. Most car hire operators will be able to provide you with a satellite navigation system for a fee.

Do I need a special driving licence? 

You can hire a car using a full UK driver’s licence, though some companies may require you to also carry an International Driving Permit, so it’s worth checking ahead before you travel. Take out the best insurance to cover you in case of an accident. 

Any rules of the road I should know? 

Traffic lights often catch international travellers out. Generally, it’s acceptable to turn right on a red light after a stop if it’s safe to do so, unless otherwise indicated. There are also two types of green light: a solid green means the same as it does in the UK; a flashing one means you have the right of way to turn left. Four-way junctions are also fairly common and the rule there is the first to stop is the first to go. If you arrive at the same time as another vehicle, the person on the right has the right of way, though it’s always good to visually confirm with the other driver before moving. 

How can I keep safe? 

Always plan a realistic route: Canada is the world’s second-largest country, and stops between towns and petrol stations can be surprisingly few. You should always travel with enough food and water to tide you over if you get stuck, and check you have enough petrol before a long drive, particularly in more remote areas. Once on the road, one of the main hazards is wildlife, especially at night — elk, deer, moose and bighorn sheep, as well as bears and wolves, which occasionally cross the road without much warning. Get a satellite phone to call for help if you get stranded in an area with limited phone reception. Ice can be difficult to see on the road and even the best drivers can slip and get stuck in a snow drift. 

Published in the March 2024 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK).

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