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Cycling Canada


Bike Touring In CanadaCanada is a vast country that appeals to many bike tourists because of the outstanding natural scenery and wide open spaces.

On this page we talk about:

These notes are largely based on our experience of biking across Canada in 2006 and in 2009. Since that was some time ago, you might find more up-to-date information on this website: Biking Across Canada.

Highlights


A ride from coast to coast will total at least 6,000km and take 3-4 months at a leisurely touring pace.

Not many people have so much time to spare, so they pick an area of Canada to focus on. The most popular destination is the west coast around Vancouver and the Rocky Mountains. This is the only area of Canada where you’re likely to see any concentration of bicycle tourists. Most are on shorter breaks but a few will be undertaking long journeys up to Alaska or south to Mexico, perhaps via the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route.

The flat prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba come after the Rocky Mountains. They aren’t highly rated in terms of tourism but if you want to get off the beaten path, enjoy some quirky sights and small town hospitality, this might just be your place.

Next up is Ontario, with some great national parks but equally some very busy roads. Pick your route carefully here. It’s followed by the province of Quebec, which boasts perhaps the best cycling infrastructure anywhere in Canada. They have some great, well maintained bike paths.

The eastern corner of Canada is made up of the Maritime provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. With beautiful scenery (think rolling hills, fishing villages and the ocean always nearby) and quiet roads, we think this area is one of the best and most under-rated regions for cycling anywhere in Canada. Maybe we’re biased – this is the area where we grew up!

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Roads & Maps


On the Yellowhead HighwayCanada covers a vast distance and doesn’t have many people. The result is a road infrastructure that is much less developed than in the United States, with fewer choices for cyclists trying to find the quietest route between any two points.

The only road you can always count on to get from A to B is the Trans Canada Highway but its suitability for cyclists varies. Around densely populated areas you won’t want to go near the highway but in more rural areas it isn’t too busy and has a decent shoulder.

Where smaller roads exist, they often don’t have a shoulder but usually this isn’t a problem as traffic levels are quite low. Another option is to fit your bike with wide tires and try to find the service roads or forest roads that exist in many parts of the country. This will entail quite remote touring, however, so you’ll need to go more slowly and carry more supplies.

For maps, you may want to buy a large-scale map for planning before you leave home. If you’re willing to plan as you go, you can also get a free highway map for each province from any tourist bureau. These maps tend to be on a scale of about 1:1 000 000.

More detailed maps are often hard to find and expensive but the free maps show the majority of roads so even if you could find a more detailed map, it wouldn’t add a lot to your options.

The Trans Canada Trail

Most people researching a bicycle trip in Canada quickly find out about the Trans Canada Trail. At first glance, this seems like an obvious way to get across the country but we’d urge you to ‘proceed with caution’.

We tried to ride the Trans Canada trail in several places across the country in many places and found it was generally poorly marked or in a very bad condition for cycling. We’re not talking about a little dirt here but a trail that was totally unmaintained. We experienced fallen trees still uncleared from the previous winter, overgrown grass that reached our waists and and a ‘riding surface’ of large rocks several inches across. In some cases, the trail did not exist at all because it had not yet been built by local authorities.

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Challenges


Bears are the first thing most people worry about when they think of Canada. In general, you don’t need to worry. Bears only regularly come into contact with people in a few places, such as around the Rocky Mountains. If you’re in bear country, you’ll know it because the local authorities generally make the dangers well known. It’s good practice, however, to be careful when camping – not just for the bears but also for the other wildlife that might like to eat your food, such as raccoons!

  • Cook away from your campsite, if possible.
  • String your food up in a tree at night.
  • Don’t keep anything scented in your tent. This includes juice or flavoured drinks, and toiletries.

In terms of daily touring concerns, you won’t have too many. All the comforts you want in terms of hotels and food are, of course, available.

Finding water can be a bit of a challenge. You might be surprised to hear this because Canada is a country that has enormous supplies of fresh water – it’s just not always in a convenient place for the passing bike tourist. Towns rarely have public fountains (certainly not like in Europe) but what you can find are plenty of public bathrooms. We most often filled our water bottles in the WCs of places like supermarkets and fast-food restaurants.

Traffic can be another sticking point. Generally the cars aren’t too aggressive and the traffic density is low but through Northern Ontario, from Thunder Bay to Sudbury, there is only one road and it’s not a good one. You’ll need nerves of steel, all your brightest clothing and a mirror before you set out.

Northern Ontario
On the road in Northern Ontario: with lots of traffic and no paved shoulder, it wasn’t good for bikes or horses!

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Costs


You can probably stick to a budget of $15-20 Canadian a day, if you embrace wild camping and cook for yourself.

Tenting In A Cornfield
Tenting behind a cornfield in Quebec.

Free camping spots are generally easy to find. They’re a little trickier to tack down in the prairies (a lot of farming means more fenced land) but in this region you’ll find community campgrounds at reasonable prices.

Your budget can easily hit $30-40 Canadian a day if you want to eat out and a minimum of $100 Canadian a day if you want to sleep in hotels. Some typical costs when we were there in 2009 were:

  • $1.50 Canadian for a filter coffee
  • $5 Canadian for a sandwich in a cafe
  • $20-30 Canadian for a night for a campground
  • $60-100 Canadian for a Bed & Breakfast
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Seasons


As you’d expect from a northerly country, Canada has a fairly short bike touring season. In general, you won’t want to start touring much earlier than May because it will be too cold and rainy. You can even get snow at some higher elevations until June.

Summers are pleasant, with temperatures around 25-30°C. This is by far the best time to ride, although you may have to deal with mosquitos. A net to cover your head and some long-sleeved shirts and pants are a good idea if you plan to do any amount of camping in the summer.

Early autumn, from September through to the first weeks of October, are a great time to ride. The days are generally sunny, the roads are quieter because most tourists have gone home and the changing colours of the leaves make for some stunning scenery. Do pack a fleece for frosty mornings and nights.

Public Transport


VIA Rail Bike BoxThere aren’t a lot of options for putting your bike on public transport in Canada but one of the best is the train. For just $20 Canadian, your bike can travel with you on the long-distance services across the country. If you need to cover some mileage quickly, this is the easiest way to do it.

The train company, VIA, will even give you a box that’s so generously sized you don’t need to disassemble the bike at all – just turn the handlebars and roll it in!

The only catch is that train services are limited in many parts of Canada. There may be only one train a day in each direction. Depending on where you are on the line, you may have to catch the train or disembark in the wee hours of the morning.

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8 Responses to “Cycling Canada”

  1. bob in Edmonton says:

    Re: Wild or rough camping on the prairies. Ive traveeled across Canada by bike and have done a lot of touring thru the prairies. Ive found that the nicest and easiest place to rough camp was on the prairies. there is always a ball park or recreation centre with free camping and water and showers. In most small towns where the train station once was is a small park with water picnic tables and portable outhouses – no one has aver bothered me or said I couldnt camp there

    • Emily says:

      Hi Bob,

      I saw that you mentioned doing a lot of cycling in the prairies. My partner and I are going across canada and we would like to take quite a southerly route but know there are gravel roads in some places as well as abandoned or very small towns. For instance, have you ever crossed between Cressday AB and Consul Sask?

      Any suggestions for southerly routes???

      With thanks!
      Emily

  2. Tim Woods says:

    Agreed, Bob!! Prairies are great for camping!! and people! Prairie folk are the friendliest people in the country… nicer than NFLD’ers….

  3. Tim Woods says:

    Oh and what are Garlic Fingers? And where do I get some??

    • friedel says:

      Garlic Fingers are a sort of pizza, but just cheese and garlic with a special sauce. They’re an Atlantic Canadian specialty – the best ones we’ve had are at Joey’s Pizza in Sackville, NB.

  4. friedel says:

    Good to know… we mostly try to ‘hide away’ when we’re wild camping, so places like the ball park didn’t occur to us as a good camping spot. Normally, we associate community spaces with the place where the local kids go to hang out, and where cars may drive up in the wee hours of the night.

  5. I love the responses and I believe they truly reflect how Canadians accept and respect visitors.

    That said, let’s do a review of terminology: Wild camping is camping out in the wild with no attempt to hide. Stealth camping tends to be in areas that are not as wild. In my blogs I define stealth camping as “Camping overnight on non-agricultural land that is not improved, fenced or marked for trespass away from civilization using Leave No Trace principles.”

    Those who choose to camp where they wish (in a city park perhaps) without any attempt to hide are actually gypsy campers.

    Please consider Canada when you plan a tour. We love to see you!

  6. Adam says:

    Any issues using Canadian unleaded gasoline in a Whisperlite International stove? I have read that special additives to Canadian gas (to deal with the cold) eat away at the stove parts. Thanks!

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