Advice for baby's first loooong road trip
July 28, 2018 6:20 AM   Subscribe

As part of a move from Toronto to Vancouver, I'll be driving our car alone across the country this August. I've never done a road trip longer than 6 hours before, so I'm a little anxious...

I'll be by myself with an SUV full of stuff.

Specific questions:

1. Does this 7-day route look about right? Should I stop more or add more stops? Any cities I should avoid or choose instead? (The only cities where I can stay for free are Calgary and Kelowna.)

2. If 7-8 hours per day is too much driving for that many days in a row, what would you recommend?

3. Please share any other tips for making this safe: foot stretches, back and leg stretches, reducing eyeball strain, etc. I don't want to arrive in BC in shambles.

4. Random advice about nice rest stops, cheap but nice motels, and so in?

posted by Beardman to Travel & Transportation around Canada (30 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Splitting the wheeltime with a friend is strongly recommended. Offer to buy them an airplane ticket back to Toronto? It's heck of a lot safer, even if that person's job is just to keep you from nodding off. There are a lot of very flat, boring, mesmerizing stretches in a cross-country drive.

Also, while I think you're gonna arrive in shambles regardless, if only mentally, but you should be wearing graduated compression socks and doing the same DVT exercises you'd do if flying for three days.
posted by rokusan at 6:32 AM on July 28, 2018 [7 favorites]

Make sure the car is in good shape.

Find ways to keep you engaged and awake - for me podcasts are preferable to music and perhaps find something to do with your hands like eat sunflower seeds.

Get some exercise in at the beginning or end of the day. Stop for a walk or a hike if the opportunity presents itself or a nap if you have to.

Drink plenty of water, if nothing else you‘ll have to stop more frequently and move, which is a good thing.
posted by koahiatamadl at 6:44 AM on July 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

I’ve never driven across Canada, but I have driven across the US several times, including one solo trip.

7-8 hour days are a good target. If you can squeeze in a few 10-12 hour days early in the trip, it will help lighten your load near the end of the trip when you really want to be done.

Podcasts and audiobooks will help pass the time and stave off boredom. Keep a cooler stocked with drinks and snacks to avoid extra stops. Stop once in a while to observe the scenery and stretch, though.

Have a trusted hotel chain or two that you’re willing to crash at. For me it was La Quinta. Join AAA or a Canadian equivalent to give you peace of mind if your car breaks down. Put a first aid kit in your car if you don’t have one there yet.

This last one may not apply if you have a newer car with an electronic fob, but: get an extra car key and attach it to the underside of your car with a zip tie. Carry a pocket knife to cut said zip tie. This has saved my ass multiple times when I’ve locked myself out of my car in the middle of nowhere. It’s easy to be a bit forgetful when you’re tired from driving.

Also not a bad idea to have a mechanic give your car a once-over for any obvious problems before you hit the road.
posted by gnutron at 6:55 AM on July 28, 2018 [6 favorites]

Podcasts and audio books can help the miles fly by. I just did Colorado to Ocean City with just tweens, and what helped was having a destination (or more) each day for the drive as well. Stopping for scenic overlooks, and getting good sleep. Stretching our legs at parks that were off the highway and feasting our eyeballs with more flora and less pavement helped.

If you are driving solo, two books you might like are Lab Girl (recent) and The Wild Trees (older, but very Pacific Northwest) both nonfiction. Break up the audio with music that moves you & podcasts like The Moth.

We listened to The Hate U Give (YA) and the kids were enthralled. PG13+ for the parents reading along. We had an enjoyable drive.
posted by childofTethys at 7:04 AM on July 28, 2018

The first thing to know about long distance solo driving, especially when you're not used to it, is that it will always take longer than you think. So put a couple of days of slack in the plan that you can use up if you have to.

The most likely cause of death on a long road trip is inattention due to fatigue, so managing fatigue needs to be your priority. Single best fatigue management tool you can possibly have is another driver to swap over with every two hours. But if you can't organize that, then getting out for a stretch and a walk around the car and a quick check for softening tyres and maybe a piss every two hours, even if you feel you don't actually need to do any of these things, is a fairly close second.

If you plan your trip times in such a way as to let you keep your normal driving speed down to about 80km/h instead of hammering along as fast as you legally can, you'll use much less fuel and kill much less wildlife, in all sizes from mosquito to moose. And once you're through the couple of hours it will take you for 80km/h to stop feeling intolerably slow, and have got used to every other impatient fucker sweeping past while giving you the finger, you'll find that it's a pretty good sweet spot between keeping the driving task relaxed enough to stay sustainably pleasurable and adding so many more hours as to be annoying.

Driving with the heater blasting your feet and demisting your windscreen, and a window cracked open ever so slightly to get you a cool breeze in your face, is much less sleepiness-inducing than just letting the heater warm the entire interior.

If you do find yourself tending to nod off, and especially if you experience severe fatigue-onset symptoms such as suddenly realizing that the world just went completely silent for a second or two there and/or you're having trouble maintaining position in your lane, the first thing to do is PULL OVER. The second thing is to set an alarm for 15 minutes from now, and the third thing is to lay back your seat and nap, perhaps with some friendly voices coming softly from the radio, until the alarm goes off. Attempting to make this procedure unnecessary via caffeine consumption will not work. Caffeine is a fine thing and having a coffee before you set out is nice, but only sleep cures fatigue.

You will also most likely find that if you let yourself nap for longer than about 15 minutes at a stretch, your body will settle down into a deeper sleep state that leaves you much groggier when you wake up from it without having given you noticeably more fatigue relief. That said, sometimes a two hour roadside nap is exactly the right thing.

Pumping your tyres up to the uppermost end of their recommended pressure range will roughen the ride slightly and cause a bit of extra road noise, which is helpful for maintaining alertness; it will also save you considerable fuel on a long trip like this.

Top up your windscreen washer bottle at every fuel stop. You will need to clear an accumulation of bug gunk at some point, and you don't want to find out you can't do that right when you find yourself heading straight into the sun. Also well worth checking the oil dipstick at every fuel stop. If your car starts consuming a lot of oil half way through a long trip, you don't really have the option of getting that fixed when you're out in the middle of nowhere but you can keep enough oil in your motor to avoid it seizing up on you.
posted by flabdablet at 7:09 AM on July 28, 2018 [8 favorites]

Most hitchhikers are friendly people who just want a lift. Many of them are interesting. Very few are mass murderers.
posted by flabdablet at 7:16 AM on July 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Unless you actively don't want to drive through the whole way through the the US, I-90 may be faster with more places to stop (if somewhat functionalist highway outposts vs. charming Canadian towns). The speed limit is definitely higher -- posted 80 mph (129 kmh) in Montana, so people will be doing around 90 mph (versus 50 or 66 mph in Canada). And the Dakotas are empty. Google has the time as 40h vs 45h which is nearly one less day at 7h per. Or, if flabdablet's approach sounds better, do that. But I tend to find high-speed cruise-controlled driving pretty easy.

7 to 8 hours sounds about right as an adult. You can get away with a bit more but it starts to be really miserable, and after that unsafe. Try to get out of the car for a few minutes at least every 2 to 3 hours. Everyone's different, but I like to start early and be on the road for sunrise or shortly thereafter. Better than driving late into the night, for me.

Don't let transient traffic conditions or other drivers' stupidity bother you. You're driving for days, not hours. It will all average out.

Arrange things in the car that you will want such that you don't have to search for them or turn around in your seat to get them, including at night. Wet wipes are a good idea for freshening up and if you're going to be eating in the car.

Podcasts are great for road trips. So are audiobooks.

An external cell phone battery pack is a good idea, in case the car breaks down and you run down your phone dealing with it.

I'm not sure about the Canadian route, but I-90 will probably cross areas with poor cell coverage. I still keep a road atlas in the car on long road trips, and print out the route instructions in advance (on a highway trip, mostly just where I plan to stop). Similarly, sync at least some music for deadzones. Often when you're that remote there isn't much on the radio either (unless you have satellite).
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:20 AM on July 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Alright. I can't say much about the whole trip, but I can tell you this. Staying in Calgary is a monumentally standard city to stay in (unless it is Stampede - in which case it is AWESOME!). I don't know how long the day that puts you there takes, BUT - my absolutely favorite place in the world (granted, I don't get out much) is Canmore, Alberta - which you drive through on the next leg (its about 12km the Calgary side of Banff. It isn't quite as sleepy as it used to be, but it is a nice town with good food and beer. I don't know if it is cheap anymore (it used to be Banff on a discount with privacy) but the views are absolutely stunning. If ever I can completely cut the cord to an office - this is where I would live. Note: Canmore is 78km further west of Calgary...

There's plenty to walk around trail-wise or town-wise, plenty for biking, plenty for kayaking... and yeah...its just plenty.

I've stayed at the Drake Inn whenever I've gone there (5 times?, with 2 non-adjacent stays over 2 weeks... so 10 nights total? over the past 17 years) which ranks as 2nd cheapest in town - but still costs just under $200... Its a nice town to walk and enjoy the 360 panoramic view of the Canadian Rockies... Note: I stay at the Drake because they also have kickass (on edit) FOOD (end edit) at their pub, are centrally located to what used to be the downtown, and were within walking distance to where I needed to get to... generally the guiding service's headquarters. (The Drake always bookended any mountaineering / climbing / skiing trips I took with Yam).
posted by Nanukthedog at 7:21 AM on July 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

Top up your windscreen washer bottle at every fuel stop. You will need to clear an accumulation of bug gunk at some point, and you don't want to find out you can't do that right when you find yourself heading straight into the sun

Bring some actual Windex and some real paper towels, IMO. Most gas stations are pretty dire when it comes to what they provide, if anything at all, and it just spreads the gunk around your windshield.

Do check your wiper blades, they're easy to overlook. And your flat/tire change kit to make sure the jack and tire iron are both there. For that matter, check if you have an actual spare tire or a doughnut, if you don't know already.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:28 AM on July 28, 2018 [3 favorites]

Google gives me a route that goes mostly through US that shows as many fewer hours (40 vs 47). Don't know whether that's because of higher speed limits, or what. And I realize that driving through a different country would cause some level of anxiety in some people. But if your main worry is exhaustion and body-stress due to long hours, fewer hours is better. The route through US that Google gives will , for the most part, be very wide-open spaces once it gets past Chicago.
posted by sheldman at 7:36 AM on July 28, 2018

Response by poster: Thanks for all the advice so far, and please keep it coming!

I want to avoid crossing the US border because I don't want to have to repack all my stuff if they search it, and the exchange rate is pretty grim for the Canadian dollar right now.
posted by Beardman at 7:41 AM on July 28, 2018

Google gives me a route that goes mostly through US that shows as many fewer hours (40 vs 47).

Yep, I-94 across the top and I-90 look to be quicker. I-94 is probably quickest, I-90 is more scenic.

Don't know whether that's because of higher speed limits, or what.

Partially, also because Toronto is close to Buffalo and 4h north of Detroit on the highway. To go through Canada you have to go north a ways before you can start going west. But ultimately it's all of 5 hours.

I want to avoid crossing the US border because I don't want to have to repack all my stuff if they search it, and the exchange rate is pretty grim for the Canadian dollar right now.

Very sensible.
posted by snuffleupagus at 7:43 AM on July 28, 2018

I drove from Portland to Delaware (2843 miles) by myself in 5 days. I had one day where I drove for longer than 7 hours and it was not fun--I was desperate to get to the motel. So, my number 1 advice would be to echo what other posters have said--do not go over 8 hours in one day.

Have reliable roadside assistance. I don't know what's it like in Canada, but the assistance you can add onto your car insurance here in the States is generally contracted out and is terrible.

One thing I haven't seen anyone mention is boredom--it is fucking boring. Have some plan to combat that. For me it was a combo of podcasts and dancey singalong music. I probably drove my dog crazy screaming Robyn songs through Wyoming at 80 MPH, but it had to be done.
posted by Automocar at 7:48 AM on July 28, 2018

Oh, and use your cruise control. You wouldn't think it would, but it makes a huge difference to fatigue levels at the end of each day. Once I got past the midwest and started hitting a bunch more traffic and couldn't use it, I found myself getting much more tired.
posted by Automocar at 7:52 AM on July 28, 2018 [8 favorites]

Also I don't want to take away from other advice you are getting, which is great - but wanted to add the idea that you might find that you LOVE a long day in the car by yourself and that listening to your music and watching the world go by will be fascinating.

I have driven 2700 miles in four days, by myself, a few times including at age 50. Not saying that you will necessarily be like me - just that you might, so don't tell yourself that this is something to be dreaded or just survived.
posted by sheldman at 7:55 AM on July 28, 2018 [4 favorites]

to add the idea that you might find that you LOVE a long day in the car by yourself and that listening to your music and watching the world go by will be fascinating

Absolutely seconded. I spent all of 1995 following the nice weather all the way around the coastline of Australia in a very superannuated Kombi, and that's when I first discovered how much more there is to see at 80km/h than at 100.

The fact that a long journey at 80 necessarily takes hours longer than one at 100+ is not a bug, to my way of thinking, but a feature.

Also seconding the advice to use your cruise control. Without it, multiple hours maintaining precise positioning for your accelerator foot will make it all crampy and tired and sore, especially if you're not acclimated.
posted by flabdablet at 8:20 AM on July 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Flip side: I absolutely hate being in the car alone for longer than about 6 hours, and once quit on a small road trip that required 3 consecutive long days in the car.

But: I LOVE being on road trips with people, and the first time I drove across the US it was to help a friend move and we had a blast. I also had enough miles for a free airline ticket to the start destination so my friend just paid for my train home at the end (less than $200). All of which is to say I second the suggestion that you see if any of your friends might want to join you on the trip just for the adventure of it. It will be much, much safer and may not cost you very much money to have them along. (And the winning formula for driving with a friend: ~10 hours driving, split evenly--and stop for one touristy/scenic thing each day!)
posted by TwoStride at 8:49 AM on July 28, 2018

I've driven across the US and back, and on other long trips solo. I used to drive the 1,000 miles to my hometown pretty often, sleeping at rest stops.
. Leave sufficient space in the car to put the seat back and sleep. I have napped at many, many pulloffs because all of a sudden I realized that I'm just too sleepy. Even an hour or 2 nap will get me well back in the safe zone. You want the nap before you're out of the safe zone.
. Drink a lot pf water, needing to pee and pulling off the road to pee keeps you awake.
. Varied music and podcasts. Late at night, great piano jazz, the road nearly deserted, the drive is beautiful. On boring stretches, podcasts, include some funny ones, laughing bumps up your oxygen levels. Music you can sing to, as well.
. Stop for historical markers, weird stores, sights. Who knows when you'll pass that way again. I stopped in, Nnevada?, and went down a dirt road to see where the earth had slipped in an earthquake - several feet of exposed earth where the ground got rearranged. Not staggering, but genuinely interesting, and you have to take breaks, so take interesting ones. Having your brain a bit stimulated helps you stay awake.
. Take a walk, dance, jog, whatever, at every stop. It makes a huge difference in your body's ability to tolerate sitting for hours. Carry a washcloth in a ziptop bag and wash your face with water at every bathroom stop. Brush your teeth, too. You'll feel so much better.
. Pace the coffee. I hate when I can't sleep when I stop for the night because of that coffee at 5 p.m. Consider a mild sleep aid in case that happens at the motel.
. Yeah, that spare key advice is very good.
. If you can drive and talk, on lonely stretches, call friends. Not on busy roads.
. Have a very good phone mount. You need to be able to glance at that map easily.
. 2nding bring a bottle of windex and a jug of washer fluid. Clean windows are safer and so much more pleasant.
. 1st aid kit, lots of extra water, granola bars, blanket, and I always have a jar with some tea lights and matches. I have been stuck with car trouble in winter, and being able to have a candle burning (in a jar for safety) made me feel better.
. Car emergency kit - oil, brake fluid, transmission fluid, pliers, multi-tool, flashlights (1 headlamp + 1). Check the spare. You have the manual, right? Read It.

You can do this. And you can make parts of it fun. After reading and writing this, I want to go on a road trip.
posted by theora55 at 9:26 AM on July 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

When I do cross country trips, I try to do the most hours early on while I’m still fresh, then slow it down. A full day off is also wonderful.
posted by MountainDaisy at 9:32 AM on July 28, 2018

I would plan for 8 days, and after day 4, take a day off and rest before doing the last 3 days. That day off will give you something to look forward to on day four, when you’ve had about as much as you can stand. And then when you start up again, you’ll only have 3 days to go. The last day is eay because “I’m almost there!”

You’ll want podcasts and audio books, of course, and I also have found that classic 70’s/80’s hair bands are the best for singing along as loud as you can. Journey, Bon Jovi, early Van Halen, etc., plus throw in some musicians with huge catalogs of hits, like Tom Petty, Beatles, Rolling Stones and Rod Stewart. Add some John Denver because everyone needs to sing Rocky Mountain High while driving through mountains at least once. Some classic old school country is fun too. Try Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams.

I like to keep a small insulated cooler with ice on the floor of the passenger seat for things like cheese snacks or deli meats, and on the passenger seat, I use an organizer like this or this. Another trick to stave off boredom is to bring things most people don’t think of as road trip food. I bring containers of fancy olives, stuffed grape leaves, cashews instead of peanuts, small boxed soups that can be drunk out of the carton, crystalized ginger, spicy rice crackers from an Asian grocery store. On my last road trip, the thing that kept us going was homemade trail mix that consisted of pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, and dried cranberries. The bulk section is your friend. Candies that take a long time to chew are good - caramels or ginger chews are my go-to for road trips - they keep you from eating too much sugar too fast, and keep your mind occupied for a bit.

And yes, 15-20 minutes naps are better than long ones.
posted by MexicanYenta at 9:33 AM on July 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

Add some John Denver because everyone needs to sing Rocky Mountain High while driving through mountains at least once. Some classic old school country is fun too. Try Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Hank Williams.

And Yello.
posted by flabdablet at 9:42 AM on July 28, 2018

Don't be surprised if you enjoy it more than you'd think. I love long, solo drives. Bring lots of fun things to listen to. Start in the early morning and bring healthy road snacks. I prefer long drive times (12+ hours a day is just fine for me), but I prefer to start very early because driving at night in sparsely populated places usually means a greater risk of encountering wildlife in the road and car + big animal is potentially deadly.
posted by quince at 9:52 AM on July 28, 2018

Lots of good suggestions above.

One thing I've noticed is that Google does not consider stops in their drive time estimates between cities. That 7hr 23 min it estimates for the 686 km from Toronto to Sault Ste Marie is how long it would take if you were to drive straight through at the speed limit. A day long drive will take a good 2-3 hours longer than what Google estimates.

As others have said, consider taking a day off in the middle of the trip or build in a couple of short days where you only drive for three or four hours. Stay at least once at a place with a swimming pool or jacuzzi. Check out when the farmers markets are open in cities along the way for fresh fruits and home-baked goods.

I also recommend starting early in the morning. Since you are generally driving from east to west getting an early start means you will stop before the sun is in your eyes by late afternoon. Speaking of which wear sunscreen, or if you're fair skinned like me wear a upf-rated long-sleeve shirt over your left arm while driving.
posted by plastic_animals at 11:48 AM on July 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

Thoughts about your route:

* Your first three stops look fine if you're aiming for eight-hour days. I'd maybe push further west than Regina (to, say, Swift Current) since the prairies aren't very stressful driving. After that I'd push to Canmore as suggested above. You're going to want to stop and see stuff in the mountains.

* Why Kelowna? My recollection is that it's faster to go through Kamloops.

* My road-trip experience is that it's better to not stop over in major cities -- hotels are more expensive, they're more of a pain to get in and out of at rush hour, and depending on where you're staying there's more risk to all of the stuff in your vehicle.
posted by irrelephant at 12:17 PM on July 28, 2018

Podcasts are great for road trips. So are audiobooks.

So is epic prog rock. Can't have too much.
posted by flabdablet at 12:32 PM on July 28, 2018

Start early. Never drive after sunset. Be at your hotel when the sun goes down. After a day driving when it gets darker you will already be fatigued and accidents are more likely when you are tired and the sun is raking your windshield— you are driving west.

Stay at cheap motels if you like character, or chains if you like reliable. Either way, get your nightly destination sorted before you start out each day. You don’t want to be tempted to go just a little farther. You do want to know exactly how much farther you have to drive.

800 km a day is doable but aggressive if you lead foot it. But that’s pushing luck on multiple fronts. Look for stops about 600 km apart, max 700. Get it done but pace yourself.

Stop and walk around every two hours minimum. Eg: breakfast, drive, coffee, drive, lunch+gas, drive, siesta/nap/snack, drive, hotel.

Lots of other good advice about safety above.
posted by seanmpuckett at 3:22 PM on July 28, 2018

I have done a lot of really stupid things on many cross county drives— the above is my distillation of how not to get dead on the road. Drive safe.

Also: Stop and take pictures. It’s a beautiful world. Will you ever see these sights again? The air smells different in different places! Shout at the sky.
posted by seanmpuckett at 3:27 PM on July 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

I've done the trip a number of times , but not recently.
I'll mention a few points:

Ontario is huge. It's gonna take about 24 hours to get to Manitoba.
You'll be driving for days and wonder: when do I finally get out of this province?

Some people may mention the Northern route through Hearst and the Kap.
Don't bother taking that. It's flat, going through endless miles of blackfly infested swamp.
Villages ( and services )are few and far between.

Highway 69 to Sudbury is massively improved. 4 lane almost all the way.
Watch your speed as you approach Sudbury. Really easy to really speed, but keep it down
Grab a bite and gas by Parry Sound instead of the French river further on.

Between the Soo and TBay ,the north shore of Lake Superior is very pretty . Pull over have a sandwich ,enjoy the scenery.
Wawa is a very small tourist type town .
Marathon is a lumber , mining town. ( you should see the Hemlo gold mines just before the town }Nothing special but gas , lodging available.

Kenora is a pretty town about 2 hours outside of Winnipeg. You could stop early and spend a night there if needed.

You hit the prairies just after the Manitoba border. Looks cool, but quickly wears off.
You start longing for a tree, a curve anything
Think Corner Gas
You can make great time through Maintoba and Saskatchewan. Boring though
As you get into Alberta you start seeing the foothills, which seem to take forever to get to.

The Rockies are incredible. They really are.

I like to get an early start. Grab a coffee, drive an hour or 2 and then have breakfast
Gives me a longish break and I'm miles down the road before breakfast.

Stop to stretch your legs have a sandwich, coke whatever. It'll rest your eyes a bit as well.
You can clean the windshield as well. Clean means less eyestrain

Going back from Van to TO ,the rising sun is gonna be a problem.
Good sunglasses are a must.
posted by yyz at 3:43 PM on July 28, 2018 [2 favorites]

irrelephant: "Why Kelowna? My recollection is that it's faster to go through Kamloops."

The OP has a place to stay in Kelowna. Calgary to Vancouver in a single day even via the faster Kamloops route is a pretty serious slog. Stopping in Kelowna breaks that up and one is well rested when navigating the Vancouver horror story of traffic.

You might want to consider dropping down to #3 from Kelowna and coming across that way. It's a much nicer drive (though much is twisty 2-lane). However If you just want to get to Vancouver once you've made Kelowna 97C to Merritt and down is the way to go.

You'll want to keep an eye on once you hit Calgary. There is always the possibility that forest fires will affect your travel plans.

Make some road Nachos (tortilla chips mixed with shredded cheese wrapped in foil).

I find it really easy to get dehydrated on road trips. Lots of caffeine, really dry air from the A/C, constant breeze from the HVAC or open windows. Make sure to drink plenty of water. WalMart has these huge 2.2l water bottles ($4 at wally world) that I love for this sort of thing; the large mouth makes it easy to fill it with hotel ice cubes. If you have access to a freezer on any of your stops you can also freeze regular bottled water to keep it cool for later.

seanmpuckett: "Stop and take pictures."

I'd set up something like a GoPro as a dash cam to take interval pictures of the trip. If you have a Canon camera there is a free software hack for them that includes this feature.
posted by Mitheral at 9:35 PM on July 28, 2018

Your route looks doable barring any delays. Depending on the time of year (ie. Next two months) be aware that the stretch before Sault st. Marie has tons of construction right now and it may take longer than what Google suggests.
posted by snowysoul at 6:34 AM on July 29, 2018

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