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Adventure Canada – Driving on gravel roads

How to avoid getting stuck, getting lost, or getting bogged on gravel roads in Canada.

The best adventures await at the end of gravel rods and gravel highways

Gravel Roads in Canada

It’s important to know that gravel roads and gravel highways in Canada can be treacherous during wet weather and during the winter months. Be aware that the road may turn into gravel as soon as you leave the main highway.

Most roadtrippers travel Canada on major roads, like the Trans-Canada highway which connects east and west and is paved all the way. With a length of over 8,000 km, Trans-Canada is the longest national highway in the world.

Check Canada Trip on paved roads for tips on travelling on paved roads and highways.

Luckily, for us, adventurers and gravel road lovers, many backcountry roads and northern highways in Canada are not paved.

It might surprise you that many long stretches of gravel roads in Canada are designated as highways. A 4×4 vehicle is recommended for some backcountry roads and gravel highways. Always check on road conditions before heading out.

Dempster Highway Arctic Circle gravel road
Arctic Circle, Northwest Territories

What’s the fuss about driving on gravel roads

It has to do with Adventure Canada. It’s our adventure spirit and the love for the backcountry in the first place that makes us travel to off-the-beaten-track places, which means driving on gravel roads. Only plan for this kind of travel if you have plenty of time available to explore your surroundings.

Many of us like to get away from the tourist crowds. Gravel roads and gravel highways let us do just that. That’s where the adventure in Canada begins.

When you plan a Canadian road trip, the travel route most likely takes you to backcountry destinations. Therefore, the chance is that you will drive gravel roads at some stage during your trip. That’s when you will get a taste of a Canadian adventure pure!

This sounds like fun! However, keep in mind that you may encounter extreme driving conditions along the way. Also, be advised that most car rental companies don’t allow their rental cars on gravel roads. Check before you book.

What you need to know about gravel roads

Many of Canada’s unsealed backcountry roads and highways are well-maintained. This is especially true for roads leading to tourist attractions or roads to somebody’s country home.

Here are the facts:

  • Most times a 4×4 car is not necessary. It depends on the time of year you travel and what routes you choose.
  • Gravel roads are vulnerable, especially when they get lots of traffic.
  • Rain can cause washouts, creeks can flood the road, and potholes can remain long after the rain.
Potholes on gravel roads after the rain
Potholes on gravel roads after the rain

Condition of the road you plan to travel

If you are told that a 4×4 vehicle is required, then don’t venture out in your 2WD Dodge towing a trailer. You may not need the 4×4, but it will give you peace of mind. Also, I prefer a car with high clearance. This is not needed for most gravel roads, but it is less stressful when you come across deep ditches and rocks on the road.

I was driving a 4×4 Dodge Durango a few years ago when a rock smashed the air-conditioning line while I was driving on a gravel road.

In Western Canada, I have always lived on gravel roads. Summer driving is not a problem once you get used to the potholes, but after a storm, expect trees on the road. Winter driving can be tough after heavy snowfall. It sometimes takes days before the maintenance crew turns up to plow the roads.

I always had a 4×4 vehicle. It is the only type of car that gives me the confidence I need to drive to wilderness destinations I like.

Most of us in Canada have two sets of tires. We change to the summer tires once the snow goes, which is usually in April in Okanagan, British Columbia. Many people living in high elevations use studded tires to get through the winter safely. The other option is to carry chains.

Most probably you’re planning a Canada road trip during the summer months and therefore don’t have to deal with winter roads.

What if the road is not well-travelled

  • If you want to leave the paved road and drive a gravel road to your destination, check on the condition of the road you want to travel on.
  • Stop in at a tourist information centre, or simply talk to locals. Ask the police officer, the farmer, the person at the gas station, or some guy at the pub.
  • Before you head out on a gravel road check the Government website for weather conditions for the area you want to go.
  • Don’t leave home without a good backroad map.
Canada's northern gravel highways
Canada’s Northern Gravel Highways

Canadian Logging Roads

  • Canada has a large network of forestry. Many of the gravel roads are old logging roads leading to remote lakes and cut lots with amazing views.
  • Locals mostly use these roads for recreation. You usually won’t find information about them in a tourist brochure. Not many tourists venture to these places; they are kind of insider tips.
  • Not all forestry roads are maintained unless active logging is in process. When you drive this kind of backroads early in the season, you are advised to bring a chainsaw, or good handsaw with you, in case there is a tree blocking the road.
  • To start with, make sure you have proper directions and a detailed and current map of the area.
  • If you don’t have experience in driving a 4×4 and you are renting a car, make sure you know how to engage the four-wheel drive.
  • Try not to do a trip like this alone. The best way to avoid trouble is to find someone with another vehicle to accompany you on your drive into the backcountry.
  • If you head out alone, let somebody know what you are up to. Tell someone where you are heading and when you intend to be back/arrive at your destination. When you do arrive, don’t forget to check back in.


Driving in the backcountry gives distances a different meaning. It is best to assume an average travel speed of not more than 50 km/hr on gravel roads. On a good stretch of road, you will most likely go faster, but on a bad road, it will be a lot less than that. In any case, reduce your speed and watch out for potholes.

If you are worried about the road quality, slow down. Think about your vehicle. Spare parts are hard to come by in the middle of nowhere.

Another hazard when speeding on unpaved roads is the danger coming from sharp-edged rocks on the road. The faster you drive, the bigger your chance to have one of your tires split open.

Keep your hands on the wheel at all times and avoid heavy braking and accelerating.


Canada trip on paved roads, mentions cattle and other animals on the road. It’s more likely to encounter wildlife once you leave the highways. Wildlife is plentiful in the backcountry.

Dusk and dawn are the most dangerous times for driving. If you see a deer, bear, moose, or any animal, slow down! Especially the deer; even if they don’t seem to be heading your direction, they have a habit of turning around at the last second to run straight under your wheels. If you see one or two, there are likely to be more.

In areas with a large moose population, beware! Every year drivers get killed because of Moose running into their vehicles.

Grizzly Bears in Canada
Watch out for wildlife at all times

No trespassing signs

Canada is a country with large cattle ranches and lots of private lands. Always respect no trespassing signs. Some roads lead through ranch country which could mean that you are trespassing.

Find out beforehand if you are allowed to drive to a certain viewpoint located on a sidetrack.

If in doubt, get permission! Most large property owners in Canada don’t like trespassers. Landowners like to know who is on their land, just like you would want to know who is poking around your backyard.

Most Canadian Ranches have large grazing leases on Crown land. They move the cattle up to the leased land in late spring where the cattle are free to roam until late fall when there is no grass left.

Note! On Crown land, as well as lease land, you are allowed to drive and camp.

One more thing about driving in the backcountry: you will come across gates. Gates are there for a reason! If they are open, leave them open. If you find them closed, make sure you close them again behind you! And always take your garbage with you if you stop along the way.

Weather challenges

Many backcountry roads are impassable in many months of the year. July until the middle of September is the safest time for road-tripping in Canada regarding the weather.

At any time of year, the weather can change suddenly. A downpour can turn the road you’re on into a mudslide. That’s when you need 4×4! If you come across deep puddles and you are not sure, get out and check on the situation.

For some backcountry roads, a 4×4 vehicle is recommended but you will be okay with any vehicle if the conditions are good. Other roads are for 4WD only. There is always a good reason for it. You may encounter deep water on the road, rocks, and boulders that require high clearance, washouts that normal cars can’t climb through, or steep banks.

Gravel highways after the rain Canada
Gravel highway after the rain

Bogged, what now?

The following advice for driving on backcountry roads in Canada is for the average traveller, not the extreme 4×4 enthusiast. For more detailed recovery methods please consult other websites.

It can happen to any of us. Don’t panic, stay calm! Often it is not as bad as it looks.

Get out of the car, and check on the situation and your options. Stay with your vehicle. unless you know for sure that help is nearby, and you know how to get there.

Basic equipment to have on board when heading for remote backcountry roads

  • Plenty of water and a full tank of gasoline (you will use more than travelling on highways);
  • high lift jack and  base plate for it;
  • long-handled shovel;
  • mini compressor;
  • spare tire;
  • tow rope and snatching strap;
  • basic tools;
  • car equipped with a winch is good to have but in most situations not necessary;
  • cell phone, satellite phone, or Satellite locator device, depending on where you’re heading.

What to do when your car is bogged

There are some basic rules to follow for getting your vehicle free.

  • Don’t spin the wheels and get yourself deeper into the mud.
  • Try reversing before you try to move forward again.
  • If that doesn’t work, use stones, logs or gravel (and your shovel), branches, and grass to try and create a path.
  • You might have to use the jack on a plate to lift the car and put some material under the wheels.
  • Use the carpet out of your car to get some grip, if that is the only option.
  • Don’t despair, keep on trying, it will work.
  • If you have a winch, use it.

You might just be lucky and someone will come along!

In the end, it will be just another experience stuck in your memory, when you think back to your adventure in Canada!

Add adventures to your road trip