You are currently browsing the tag archive for the ‘winter road trip’ tag.

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Winter road trips are not too different from summer ones. You can run into bad weather or road closures in any season. But here is my advice for long-haul driving in the winter:

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1) Service your car before you leave – snow tires are essential, oil change of course, and keep a thick wool blanket in the car (in case you need to nap). It’s probably a good idea to have emergency stuff like jumper cables, fluorescent triangles, shovel and traction mats (although I don’t have the latter), but there are plenty of websites you can visit for these kinds of lists.

2) Don’t have a fixed schedule. You need to pace yourself according to road conditions and weather, and if you have a daily goal, you could stress overly or drive beyond your need to rest.

3) It’s easier to find accommodation at this time of year, so no need to book ahead. When you NEED to stop, then search for what’s available nearby (booking.com has great deals and you can book a hotel or motel in your price range immediately). Some days, I just drove through the night (45 hours straight once – I saw two sunrises!), stopping for one-hour naps (with my blanket) every now and then. When I’d had enough, I pulled into the nearest small town and had a comfortable bed at an inn within half an hour.

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4) Remember daylight hours are short. I wouldn’t, however, start at the crack of dawn because it’s too cold, roads can be icy and if you’re going through a big town or city, you’ll run into morning rush hour. Best avoided. I generally start at 9:30 or 10. I don’t mind driving at night, but in British Columbia, you might want to avoid driving after dark: the sun goes down behind the mountains early and wild animals are a real hazard. So keep distances short in the Rockies.

5) You probably don’t want to drive north of Lake Superior in the winter. That’s one long, lonely, twisty, “no service” road. You can go through Michigan (Chicago, or directly south of Lake Superior through northern Michigan state), Minnesota and North Dakota. The prairies can be bitterly cold and windswept. Watch weather forecasts and stay ahead of storms, and be aware of icy roads. At some point, you will need to turn north, and it’s going to be a long and lonely and probably icy trek. Try to do it in the daylight. Drive slowly and test your brakes on the roads.

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6) The worst conditions to be aware of are blowing snow or soft snow on the road that whips up with passing vehicles. This is the most dangerous. When a vehicle is about to pass or a big transport is coming towards you in these conditions, slow to a crawl or even pull over. A veil of snow in front of you can completely blind you for long enough to put you in the ditch. Don’t risk it.

following-truck-at-night7) In bad weather and/or at night, position yourself a very safe distance behind a transport — leaving enough room to stop comfortably if the vehicle you’re following should hit an animal or stop suddenly – but close enough that the transport’s rear lights are your guiding light. These drivers travel at a steady pace and at safe speeds and they know the roads. Plus, they generally know you’re following them and will warn you of trouble ahead by flashing their lights.

8) Schedule trips over the Rocky Mountain passes for the warmest time of the day (early afternoon) when the sun is high. Check road conditions and weather forecasts. Be prepared to reroute or stop.

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9) Don’t always rely on your GPS in case you lose service. Have a list of the roads you need to take or where you need to get to that day. Either copy GPS directions onto paper before you start out, or use a real map.

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10) Finally, learn to recognize signs of sleepiness. Falling asleep at the wheel is a real possibility and can be deadly or at the very least extremely frightening. Long-distance driving can be mesmerizing to the point you don’t even realize how sleepy you are. Be mindful. Take frequent breaks, for gas, bathroom breaks and walkabouts. Don’t use drive-ins. Stop your car and get out. Often, a 15-minute nap is all you need to refresh and continue.

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DECEMBER 9: THROUGH THE NIGHT

Through most of Wisconsin, I follow closely behind large transports to avoid hitting any animals and to save gas by travelling in their wake. They move at a nice steady pace just below the speed limit.

The driving snow eventually clears up exposing a starlit heaven, and a pale gold waxing moon falls like a misshapen stone through the night sky to sit like a lump on the horizon. The temperature falls steadily as I approach the Prairies.

By the time I hit Minnesota, I’ve gained an hour of time and the clock slips back to four a.m. Central Time. When I reach the 2,000-kilometre mark, I’ve been driving for nearly 20 hours, only snatching little naps here and there, which aren’t really naps. It’s uncomfortable in the car, because there’s too much stuff in it and the temperature outside ranges from minus five to minus 15 Celsius. I have a good winter coat and a thick wool blanket, but I get chilled quickly when I turn off the engine.

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Starbucks is everywhere in America!

Just before six in the morning Central Time, I head over to the Starbucks near the Target, where I’ve been sleeping in the parking lot, and have a satisfying breakfast and change my clothes and clean up in their washroom.

I don’t really see the sun come up because I’m driving west. The shadows of the night simply dissipate slowly and the sky becomes light as if by magic. Eventually the sun does come over the horizon and blinds me in the rear view mirrors.

The further west I go, the sunnier it gets, and the colder it gets. The roads are bare. The sky is a jagged painting of clouds. The air is still. I’m getting nearer the Prairies, but I don’t have the same energy level I had the last couple of days at all.

I continue through Minnesota under a brilliant sun and on into North Dakota, gaining yet another hour as I cross the next time zone. Then I run into more snow.

The roads in North Dakota are mostly ice-packed, especially the right-hand lane, so I use the passing lane as much as possible, but as I turn north, the highway narrows to two lanes, which are covered with chunks of ridged hard ice. Big trucks heading south throw up plumes of snow that block my visibility.

The land is flat, the trees are bare and the low winter sun is blinding.

It’s minus 26 degrees when I stop to fill the gas tank at Carrington, and the station’s fuel pump malfunctions in the bitter cold. They tell me it’s at least another three hours to the Saskatchewan/Canadian border and the roads are like this all the way.

It’s not yet four in the afternoon when the sun has crossed the sky to hover on the horizon. I’ve had a lot of daylight driving as I’ve been rolling since dawn, but I’m very tired now and the last hour has been extremely uncomfortable, forcing me to stop short of the Canadian/Saskatchewan border.

img_4656In Minot (pronounced My Knot) in the north of the state of North Dakota, I decide to look for a hotel. At the edge of town, I pull over and check booking.com on my iPhone, and settle on the Sierra Inn, which has a room available for $71 Canadian.

I have a momentary thought that I should have brought somebody with me to keep me warm between the cold hotel sheets. The bitter cold is such a shock to my system. But it’s so nice to be in a real bed after being in my car for 31 hours!

A sad consequence of sitting for so long in my car, with my heated seat on, is that I have a second-degree burn on the back of my upper thigh. When I undress in the hotel, I realize I actually have blisters and a deep hole in the skin.

I’m hoping to make it to Calgary tomorrow in 11 hours.