The Trans-Canada Highway is the world's longest national highway. Stretching 7,821 km (4,860 miles), it connects all ten provinces, from the Pacific (Victoria or Prince Rupert , B.C.) to the Atlantic (St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador).   Many Canadians fantasize about "one day" driving and camping the length of the Trans-Canada in a recreational vehicle, even if they have never camped in an RV before. Unless you are starting from Manitoba or northern Ontario, you should allow a bare minimum of six weeks for your round trip, and ten weeks or more is ideal. Here are some tips on how to turn that fantasy into a real adventure.  

Step One: Background Research!

If you know that you won't be able to go on your trip for a few years yet, you are in the perfect position to prepare to have the most enjoyable trip possible. This is because the best way to have an enjoyable trip is to have as much background on what you're going to do and see as you possibly can, before you actually do and see it. That way, you can truly understand and appreciate it. Here is a list of subjects to gather some background knowledge on:  

  • French. Refresh that high school French. CBC Radio One's weekly program C'est la Vie is an entertaining refresher for those with rusty French, as well as a good introduction to current Quebecois culture; the shows and Word of the Week are archived on the website. If your French is totally hopeless, try to research some key phrases, like "I'm sorry that my French is so bad", or "Table for two, please" (or similar phrases to use at the very beginning of conversation) and memorize them. In most parts of Quebec (but not all of them!), you will find that people are able to communicate with you in English; however, a willingness to at least try speaking French, no matter how pathetic, will create goodwill. If you had French immersion in school, then you may wish to learn about Canadian French from resources such as the Ulysses guide Canadian French for Better Travel, or listening to Radio Canada; most French immersion teachers use International French.
  • Canadian history. Canadian History for Dummies, by Will Ferguson, is a great place to start getting the background to understanding the many historic sites and buildings you will encounter in your travels, from the Martello Towers that are dotted across Eastern Canada, to the fur forts scattered across Western Canada.
  • Canadian geology. When you see the Canadian Shield, or the flat open prairies, or the majestic Rockies , a basic understanding of Canadian geology will make all those hours of driving much more enjoyable. For this, your best source is the Canadian Geographic Trans-Canada Ecotours website; print off the info & take it with you! Also, CBC's Nature of Things TV series has a Geologic Journey website with a very nice brief introduction to Canadian geology from coast to coast.
  • Canadian natural history. It doesn't take a rocket scientist (or an ecologist) to see that there are huge differences between the plants and animals of the prairies, the mountains, and the coast. The Ecotours website will help to fill in the blanks, but if you're at all interested in nature, you'll want to do more research on your own, by reading Canadian Geographic or Nature Canada magazines. Many archived Nature Canada articles are available on the 'net.
  • Special interest areas. Do some research to make sure that you are aware of any places associated with your hobbies or other interests, so that you don't end up kicking yourself for missing them. Love snowmobiling? You may want to visit the Bombardier Museum near Montreal. Icelandic Canadian? Perhaps you should detour to Gimli, Manitoba or Markerville, Alberta.    
  • Navigation skills. It is very helpful to be able to figure out ETA's (estimated time of arrival) based on your watch and a map or road signs. Remember, at 100 km/h, it takes one hour to go 100 km, half an hour to go 50 km, 24 min to go 60 km. If you can get comfortable with using decimal hours (0.1 hour = 6 min, 0.2 hours = 12 min, etc.), then it will make it easy to figure out when you're going to arrive at your destination even when you are delayed or running ahead of schedule. Know how to fold and use a map while driving. (Hints: Hold the map in the direction of travel, even if the words are upside down; fold the map so that you only see the part you need to see.) A GPS system will work too, but that costs money, and between dead batteries and satellites that play hide-and-seek, you may find the old pencil & paper system to be much more reliable. However, if you're travelling solo, you should invest in a good-quality GPS system, preferably the talking type with internal road maps, especially maps for the major cities you will be navigating in (e.g. Montreal, Toronto, Vancouver). Become intimately familiar with your GPS system before you go.
  • RV skills. Make sure that you are thoroughly familiar with your RV before you go. Don't make your cross-Canada trip the first trip in your RV. You should go camping in your RV for at least six weekends (preferably at six different campgrounds) before you head out on your great adventure. That way, you will know how to do basic things like dumping sewage, using the water and propane systems, and using campground electricity before you go, rather than having the extra burden of learning this while you are in unfamiliar places. Make sure your travelling companions know how to use the RV systems as well, so that one person isn't stuck with the burden of all the RV housekeeping tasks; assign regular responsibilities to each member of your group for arriving and departing. For example, one person can be responsible for always hooking up and unhooking electricity, water, and sewer, while another is responsible for switching on/off propane detectors, refrigerators. and running water through faucets,   Measure the height and length of your RV (including any rooftop antennas or air conditioning units), so that you know whether you can take it under low bridges, and whether ferries will consider your RV to be an overheight or overlength vehicle, requiring additional charges and special loading.
  • Passenger regulations for RVs vary according to province. If you are in a province which allows passengers to ride inside travel trailers, fifth wheel trailers, and pickup campers, you need to know that some provinces (e.g. BC, Alberta, Ontario & Newfoundland) do not allow passengers to ride in any of those units. Other provinces allow passengers in pickup campers only, but not in trailers; and some provinces allow passengers in pickup campers only if they are equipped with seat belts. Since you will be travelling across Canada, you will be limited by the most restrictive laws, so plan not to have anyone riding in your RV.

Step Two: Itinerary Research  

  • Check out www.transcanadahighway.com for some excellent introductory info to what can be found along the Trans-Canada and some starting itinerary information. It has a detailed mile-by-mile (or kilometer-by-kilometer) list of waypoints along the highway.
  • Most cities and provinces produce excellent free tourist guides and tourist maps, available by mail for the price of a toll-free phone call, or available as an internet download. Get the information in February or early March to make sure you have the current year's information as soon as possible. To find out who to contact, visit the Inside Page for each province here at Trip Advisor, and click on the Inside Page for tourist board info.
  • Join the CAA (if you're not already a member) and get their free Tourbooks and maps for the entire country. And consider getting special CAA Road Service coverage for your RV. 
  • Look through the major Canadian travel guides at your local bookstore, and buy the one which best suits your interests and travel style.
  • Talk to friends, co-workers, relatives about your plans and see what they have to suggest, based on their own travels across the country.  
  • And, of course, use TripAdvisor and Google to find out more.

Once you have this background information, you can draw up a wish list of destinations. With your traveling companion(s), decide which destinations you must visit, which ones you can skip, if necessary, and which ones you find merely intriguing.

Step Three: Itinerary Planning  

Here's where the hard work really kicks in. Use maps and a calculator to figure out your route, travel times, and how much time you want to spend in each area once you arrive. Don't forget to plan fuel stops, along with everything else; not every small town has a gas station, and on certain sections of roadway, where gas stations are few and far between, gas prices can be rather shocking. So it's wise to plan to fuel in larger centres.

Don't plan on doing very much driving at night. In Saskatchewan, the major cause of traffic deaths is collisions with deer on the highways. In Northern Ontario, as well as many other areas, even semi-trailer drivers respect the stopping power of the mighty moose. And in the Rockies, elk, deer, and moose pose a hazard, depending on the area.

For every five or six days spent driving or visiting tourist attractions, plan one "breakdown day" to be spent doing maintenance (e.g. oil change; repacking travel trailer wheel bearings -- they need to be repacked every 10,000 km or you risk a broken axle), getting repairs, or doing laundry / grocery shopping / catching up on your sleep / being sick.

Start attaching dates to your main stops; make sure you know of any major events that are taking place locally while you are there. On the negative side, they can affect campsite availability; on the plus side, you may enjoy participating, if you know what's going on.   For most locations, you won't need to worry about making reservations a long time in advance. Reserve a campsite about two weeks in advance for highly popular sites such as Cavendish, PEI , or Banff, Alberta; otherwise, a phone call a day or maybe two days in advance should be enough to assure you of a campsite for a weeknight. Make sure you have reservations made for Friday and Saturday nights on the preceding Tuesday or Wednesday (three or four days in advance).  If travelling to Newfoundland or Vancouver Island, and your RV is overheight or overlength, you will probably want to make a ferry reservation, particularly if you will be sailing on a weekend.

Dry camping (camping in parking lots or similar locations without any hookups), can be an effective way to deal with the end of a long day of driving. Wal-Mart is well known for allowing people to stay in their parking lots, but if you're just going to stay until the morning, it's not likely that you'll be evicted from any parking lot. Not every spot in every parking lot is suitable, however; sometimes you will find that the parking lot is actually quite sloped (for drainage). If that is the case, then you will have to check and see if it is level enough to allow your fridge to operate without being damaged (remember, RV fridges must be at an angle of 3° or less to operate without permanent damage). Besides, many people find it difficult to sleep if the ground is too sloped. Avoid parking close to a grocery store or restaurant; truck drivers will aften arrive in the parking lot at night to deliver food to them first thing in the morning, and the refrigerator units (reefers) on the trucks can be quite noisy and will run all night.

Canadian Tire stores often have locations which are quite suitable for dry camping: close to the main highway, but not right on it.

Church parking lots can work well, but avoid them on Saturday nights. Even on weekday mornings, you may find that a funeral or other activity is taking place, so choose a spot that won't obstruct other vehicles, with a clear route to the exit.

Gas station parking lots are generally too noisy, because they are right next to the highway and/or are being used by truckers with reefers.

Here are some suggestions for driving the main route of the Trans-Canada Highway, from west to east:  

Victoria to Vancouver: Don't plan to do much more than this in one day, because between the ferry trip (2 hours, not including ferry terminal wait) and Vancouver traffic, you won't be able to get too much further along. So plan to spend the night in V-town. The Parkcanada campground is very close to the Tsawwassen ferry terminal in Vancouver; you may wish to stay here if you're arriving from Victoria late in the evening, or departing for Victoria early in the morning. The campground is gated, so phone ahead if you're going to arrive late.

Vancouver to Kamloops or Salmon Arm, via the Coquihalla Highway (no longer a toll highway): Yes, it's not actually the Trans-Canada, but the Coquihalla is both safer and faster, shaving about 2 hours off the driving time from Vancouver to Kamloops. On the other hand, if you're comfortable with mountain driving, you may find the Trans-Canada route to be more scenic.  In addition, the Okanagan connector at Merritt can be used for a very nice side trip through the Okanagan Valley (Kelowna, Vernon) and reconnect to the Trans-Canada east of Kamloops.

Kamloops / Salmon Arm to Lake Louise / Banff: Start this section early in the morning, so you do not miss the scenery.  Do plan to spend time in the mountain parks; they're one of Canada's scenic treasures.  This section of highway is filled with railway history, with sites like Craigellachie, where the last spike of Canada's national railway was driven, connecting east and west by rail.  There is also a very good railway musuem in Revelstoke.  The summit of the Rogers Pass has another veryinteresting small museum.  Each of these spots are excellent places to stop.  Next comes Golden, stop on the highway for gas, but get off the highway and go into the town for a rest. It doesn't matter which way you're travelling, all these places are dood to stop at for a rest before the next leg. The section of highway between Golden and Field can be hazardous at any time, and it's worse if you're tired and can be treacherous in bad weather, but then so is the Rogers Pass in bad weather. Plan on at least a short break before traveling these sections. Field also has an excellent rest stop.  Near Field, Takkakaw Falls is just a short trip off the highway and well worth seeing (flow is dependent on the time of year)  and the Spiral Tunnels viewpoint is another short stop of particular interest to railway fans; this area was the site of numerous runaway trains until the spiral tunnels were constructed in 1909 to reduce the very steep grade of the notorious Big Hill.  This whole area can have snow any time of year, yes, even in July and August!

If at all possible, drive the Icefields Parkway (Hwy 93) north at least as far as Saskatchewan River Crossing. Remember to fuel first! There is gas available at The Crossing, but you will pay a price that is appropriate to such an isolated location.

Some RVs are underpowered for travelling through the Rocky Mountains; they will slow to an agonizing crawl on the longer, steeper hills. if your RV falls into this category, pack plenty of patience and a cheerful attitude. Get over as much a possible and let others by.  A CB radio set to Ch 19 can help you to communicate with truckers who are trapped behind you ("I'll be pulling over at the passing lane"), making the journey safer and more pleasant. Truckers have a saying: "Everyone can go fast downhill". Don't accelerate on downhill sections as a way to make up for lost time; use them as an opportunity to let backed-up traffic get past your RV. Otherwise, you're setting up a potential road rage situation.

Banff National Park to Brooks, Alberta: You don't want to have to leave Banff early, do you? A half day of driving eastward from Banff will take you to the town of Brooks. There are three very nice provincial parks with campgrounds in the Brooks area. Tillebrook Provincial Park, just east of the town, has a lovely manicured park-like setting. Kinbrook Island Provincial Park, on the shores of Lake Newell, is also very nice for camping, and has all kinds of water birds, from ducks to herons to flocks of majestic, gigantic, Jurassic-like American White Pelicans. Finally, about 50 km away from Brooks is Dinosaur Provincial Park and its two associated campgrounds. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site for the dinosaur fossils which have come from the area, the bizarre hoodoos, and the human history. It's a real desert, complete with cactuses. To see the most interesting parts of the park, you will need to take a guided tour, which you can reserve in advance (along with your campsite); reservations for tours and campsites are highly recommended from June onwards.

Brooks, Alberta to Winnipeg (roughly): How much driving can you do in one day? Here's your chance to find out, as you continue to cross the prairies. This could be your night to discover the delights of dry camping. If, on the other hand, you know that you can only manage six hours of driving a day without completely losing your sanity, plan your driving across the prairie accordingly. Consider stopping for the night in Regina, for example.

Winnipeg area to Kenora, Ontario or Thunder Bay: Much of this route is on two-lane undivided highway. Make sure to stop at the Terry Fox Memorial on the west side of Thunder Bay. 

Thunder Bay to Sault Ste Marie: This leg of the journey goes along the north shore of Lake Superior, an area noted for its beauty and isolation. If you've already gone through the Rockies, the hilly terrain here will not be much of a challenge; if you are headed west, you will find it a good place to practice your hill-climbing and deceleration through downshifting. This is a very isolated stretch of road, with little cell phone coverage. It is also quite beautiful; if your RV is small enough, pull off into some of the lakeside parks and enjoy the magnificent views. If you have a long RV, however, you may find it difficult to get into and out of these roadside stops.

Sault Ste Marie to Sudbury: If you're travelling with children, seriously consider staying overnight in Sudbury so you can visit the science museums at Dynamic Earth (next to the Big Nickel) and/or Science North. They've put up with all the driving so far, they deserve a break. If you wish to press on, you can end the day camping on the outskirts of Ottawa.

Ottawa to Montreal: Ottawa is not just the capital of Canada, it's the museum capital of Canada. Once you've toured the Parliament Buildings, and seen all the museums you can handle (Museum of Civilization, Canadian War Museum, etc. etc.) it will be time to move on to Montreal. Unless you are already familiar with Montreal, spend some time studying the city map before you leave Ottawa. As with other major cities, you won't find a campground conveniently located near the downtown core; instead, campgrounds such as Camping Alouette are usually in the farmland surrounding the cities.

Montreal to Quebec City: Montreal is very charming, but Quebec City is an amazing place; it is the only remaining walled city in North America, and the Old City is full of history and culture and great food and shopping. Kids will enjoy watching the huge variety of buskers, many with quite elaborate 30-minute shows. Expect to spend as much time there as you did in the Rockies. The Quebec City autoroutes (freeways) are very good routes outside of rush hour.

Quebec City to Fredericton: Fredericton has many fascinating historical attractions, from King's Landing Historical Settlement (a living history village a short drive from Fredericton) to the mill town of Marysville to the Historic Garrison District. Hartt Island RV Resort is a great family-oriented campground.

Step Four: Packing List

No doubt you will remember the obvious things like clothing, food, propane, etc. But try to think of items that are "trip-breakers": things which will lead to serious inconvenience if you don't have them, and are so easy to take along with you, if you had just thought of them in the first place. Here are some suggestions to start you thinking:

Medical

  • Prescriptions  - enough to last to the end of your trip, plus one week more; talk to your pharmacist about the best way to store them while travelling for a long time
  • Non-prescription medication for all the various illnesses and problems you may have: anti-nausea medicine, anti-diarrhea drugs, and your favourite remedies for cold, flu, headaches, cold sores, chapped lips, sunburn, indigestion, etc.
  • First aid kit
  • Your knee support, elbow brace, back support, heating pad, etc., if you have trouble which sometimes flares up and requires these devices to aid recovery
  • Additional medical insurance, even if you are covered by Canadian healthcare, could prevent grief when travelling out-of-province, as various provinces have different policies on non-resident medical care for serious medical treatment; minor stuff is usually quite straightforward, however.
  • Spare eyeglasses or contact lenses

RV & Auto 

  • Carefully measure the height of your RV, not forgetting to include any roof racks, antennas, or air conditioners. Write it on a slip of paper (in both meters and feet / inches) and fasten it to your instrument panel or sun visor, so that you can quicky refer to it when you're concerned about low bridges and/or parking garages.
  • Walkie-talkies: at some point, you will have to back up your RV when you're not in a campground. A travelling companion with a two-way radio can make this a much quicker and easier procedure. If you're travelling solo with a large RV, you may wish to consider installing a video backup camera system, or, if that's not practical, bring walkie-talkies so that the inevitable helpful stranger can use one, rather than relying on cryptic hand signals. If you're travelling with kids, get FRS walkie-talkies so that they can chatter with each other or stay in touch with you while roaming the campground.
  • Small cooler chest, for groceries (some people don't like to drive with the fridge propane turned on, which means that on long drives the fridge may warm up; and some people find their RV fridge to be too small for their needs on a long trip)
  • Spare parts for car or RV, such as: bulbs for interior lights; spare cap for fresh water tank; extra sewer hose (it can wear out fast, and sometimes you need an extra-long length of sewer hose); extra electrical extension cord.
  • Tool box, to deal with minor repairs.
  • A jack which is adequate to the task of raising your RV to change a tire; halfway between Wawa and Marathon is no place to discover that the spare tire is fine, but your jack is not up to the job.
  • 12V DC to 120V AC power inverter, to run regular household current devices off of the battery in your RV, if necessary (e.g. to charge cell phone, portable game system, or run a tabletop fan)
  • Spare batteries for all your battery-powered devices (don't forget the smoke detector)
  • Extra toilet paper, if your RV toilet requires special toilet paper (you don't want to have to track down a supply when you're on holidays)

Care, Comfort, & Convenience

  • Favourite laundry soap, if you have one
  • Stockpile of loonies and tooneys for coin laundries
  • Laundry bag
  • Travel soap container (KOAs sell one which is well-designed for campers to use in showers)
  • Large heavy-duty battery lantern, for situations in which you need a lot of light at night to find washrooms / children / bears / small but vital object which you've dropped
  • Chequebook
  • Cash for emergencies
  • Cross-Canada list of roamer numbers from your cell phone provider, to reduce long distance charges
  • Battery-powered fan, for situations where you don't have electrical hook-ups, but do have hot weather. RV ceiling vent fans can drain your RV's battery fairly quickly, and aren't always located where they will be most effective.
  • Shortwave or satellite radio, to tune in the news / get your CBC Radio fix when camped in remote / French-speaking areas
  • Weather radio, to receive Environment Canada weather forecasts & warnings (always bilingual)
  • Laptop computer or other essential electronic devices (portable DVD player, iPod, portable game system, PDA, Blackberry) and associated adaptors, headphones, discs, memory cards, game cards, etc.
  • Favourite brands of food, coffee, etc. which are essential to maintaining good humour
  • Emergency rations: a filling meal or two which you can prepare using only your RV stove and water, but  does not require refrigeration or any additional ingredients. Freeze-dried meals for backpackers work well here.
  • Feminine hygiene supplies
  • Swimwear, even if you think that your opportunities for swimming will be quite limited; swimsuits take little space, and to have to shop for a swimsuit if you have an unexpected swimming / beach / suntanning opportunity could be a major annoyance

Step Five: Meanwhile, Back at the Fort

Don't forget to make arrangements to have your home and finances taken care of while you're gone. In the year or so before you leave, you might pay an extra $10 or $20 on each of your utility bills every month so that you have a credit balance for a month (or more) of bills built up before you go.  (Who wants to have to remember to pay the bills when you're having fun far from home?) Arrange for a housesitter, or at least to have someone come and check on your home regularly; your insurance company can tell you how often someone should check your property. (If it's not checked often enough, your insurance may be void). Make security arrangements for your home. Stop your mail (Canada Post should have at least five days' notice), newspaper, and any other regular deliveries. You may wish to stop your cable TV or satellite service to save money during your absence, but company policies may eliminate any cost savings if you do this for less than a minimum time period, such as three months; ask your service provider about their policy.  

Step Six: Load & Go!

About a week before you load the RV, put everything you're going to take into one room in your house, so that you can see it all in one spot. This will help you to make a final decision about whether you really need to bring certain items with you.  

Since this will be a long trip, plan extra time (at least two days) for packing and loading, to make sure that you're not leaving anything important behind, and to make some final decisions about what goes and what stays.

Step Seven: Stay Focused on Fun

When you're travelling, you can lose track of why you're travelling. Remember, the idea is to have fun. If what you're doing isn't fun, stop doing it! Don't forget to take time to admire the view, watch the sunset, chat with locals and visitors, and just have a good time. You're not married to your itinerary; it's just a list of suggestions for how to have fun.