Starting Bike Touring (without needing to know if you like it)

Earlier this year I bought a bike off my friend Jason and started Bike Commuting. I really took to it, and I’ll probably write a guide on getting started on this in future. However, the more research I did, the more and more the topic of Bike Touring came up.

To quote Wikipedia:

Bicycle touring generally means self-contained cycling trips over long distances, which prioritize pleasure, adventure and autonomy rather than sport, commuting or exercise. Touring can range from single day rides to multi-day trips, or even years at a time. Tours may be planned and organised by the participant/s for themselves or organised for a group by a professional holiday business, a club, or a charity as a fund-raising venture.

In other words, bike a long distance wherever you wish, carrying whatever you need for yourself and your bike. People do this for a weekend (like the guide I’m about to write), for a week or two as holiday or perhaps even as a gap year travel or multi-year tour. Biking across counties, states/provinces, countries and continents are all within reach.

Here are just a few people who are doing or have done huge, long distance tours:

  • Geoff Winslow – Biking across the USA as I write this
  • Stephen Cunningham and James Finnerty – Biking from Dublin and London respectively to Beijing!
  • Seth McBride & Kelly Schwan – Just completed their trip from Portland, Oregon to Patagonia, Argentina, and Seth becoming the first person with quadriplegia to complete a Panamerican cycle tour.
  • Tom Allen, who is always sharing his knowledge on how to tour and even how to tour for nothing!
  • Mark Beaumont has set multiple records on his bike touring, and has 2 great BBC Documentaries that are fascinating viewing.

Granted, all of those folks are doing multiple months out out on the road, I’m going to target something more modest, just the two to three day tour that you can do in a weekend for not too much investment.

Assumptions

Although I’ll guide you a bit on some of the more basic items, I’m going to assume that you know how to ride a bike and have ridden on a variety of roads and trails before. This isn’t a complete beginners guide (if you still have training wheels, come back when you’re happily pedaling).

I’m going to assume you either have a bike (most likely), are willing to buy one cheaply or can borrow one.

I’ll also assume you know how to hike and camp by yourself and have the gear available, but this is not a barrier for entry as you will see. You can stay at a hotel, motel, hostel or friend/relative and skip this part.

I’m also going to assume you will start cheaply and upgrade your kit as you like it. There is not too much investment if you buy used and borrow where you can.

Finally, I’ll assume you’ll read around a bit. All of the folks linked above, and many like them, happily share their touring knowledge online. Feel free to use multiple sources as there is no one right way to tour. I’m doing my best to keep to the generic advice that should work for everyone, but it’s still an opinion piece.

Finding a Bike

Let’s just pretend for a second we have a completely free choice. What bike you go on will depend on:

  • What you have available? Do you have a bike that fits you reasonably well and can handle most roads and paved routes with hills comfortably? You are more than likely set and need look no further. Could you commute to work on it? If yes, it should work.
  • What will be your route? Most likely you will start out on a road based bike route with paved roads. For this, a road or hybrid bike is best, but a mountain bike (ideally locking front suspension and a hardtail rear) will do. You could even use a comfort bike if you like it.
    Some of you might want to do loose gravel paths or more backcountry routes, in this case, you’ll likely be looking at a mountain bike but do more research here.
  • What kind of touring? I’ll explain the differences in a minute and this will become clear.
  • What can your bike and you carry? If you don’t plan on camping and will stay near towns, you don’t need much more than a water bottle, energy bar and credit card. However, if you want to stay in tents and self support for a few days, or just want to carry extra stuff, then you will do the more common route, by using a bike rack, panniers (bike bags) and taking your belongings with you. A backpack is a controversial, but possible choice, although many bike tourers will say for long trips they increase tiredness much more than panniers.

For our purposes, our route will be paved roads and well kept trails, we will stay near towns but will camp and we will do self-supported camping (e.g. if we will assume we have to carry what we need).

Now, let’s get back into our guide on doing this cheaply:

  • If you already have a reasonable road-going bicycle – this is very likely suitable for these purposes. I use my daily commuter hybrid bike (details below), but you could use any bike that can reasonably go on the road. Perhaps the few exceptions are full suspension, heavy, downhill bikes.
  • Ask your family and friends (ideally who are similar height, leg length and weight to you) if you can borrow one or buy their unused one at a good discount – again, a suitable road-going bike which can take a rack is what you want
  • All that failed, head to your local Craiglist, Kijiji or Gumtree – best you find a friend who knows about bikes to help you here. You can pick up used touring bikes, hybrid bikes or road bikes fairly inexpensively.
  • Or find your Local Bike Shop, Used Bike Dealer and/or Bike Co-op – might be a bit more costly but usually have been well maintained.

In my case, the bike will be a 2010 Marin Muirwoods 29er, my daily commuter bike. This bike has rack mounting points (threaded holes known as brazons) and I commute to work every day on it. It has a flat bar (aka, a straight bar, just a simple set of typical handlebars) which is not necessarily ideal for long distance touring as your hands might get tired. Many people use use touring/trekking bars or drop barsyou can see both here in this article by Tom Deakins on Sheldon Brown’s site, for more hand positions. Having said that, for a weekend tour, these are just fine.

My bike before I added the rack and panniers

My bike before I added the rack and panniers

I’ll go on with how I equip it later.

What kind of touring?

There are several major groups but you will find that any one tour has some elements of a few of these in it.

Credit Card Touring

This is essentially carrying the very minimum you can. You buy whatever you need, food, drinks and most importantly, accommodation. You need emergency items (first aid kit, flat tire repair etc) and perhaps a change of clothes but you more or less get on your bike and go. Buy meals on the way, but don’t carry more than an energy bar. Generally, you travel as light as possible on these. No tent or camping on this one generally, you stay in motels, hotels or hostels.

Supported Touring

This sits in the middle of the selections as essentially a car follows your route and carries everything you might need. The Tour de France is (in a way) supported touring. Flat tire? Call in the car. Feel hungry? Car hands you a snack. You could even have your lunch in it Need more water? Car gives you a new bottle. You can camp using this method, as the tent can be in the car and can be as large as you like.

Self-sufficient Touring

Here you are prepared to spend a few nights outside if you have to. No support car and no limiting yourself to stopping where you can buy things. You carry your tent (or bivy sack, or covered hammock) and sleeping bag on your bike, you bring changes of clothes, food and a way to cook it, water and a way to purify it, your first aid and bike repair kits and anything else you need to both camp and bike on your bike.

For this option, you really do need a bike rack and panniers. This might be on the rear wheel of your bike but you can add them to the front too. More on this in the equipment section.

Self-sufficient touring doesn’t necessarily have to mean you carry all your food and supplies all the way. Especially on longer trips, you stop at the last town you see, buy your food (and beer) for that evening/morning and then head to your camp site. You can even have dinner a little early and just take snacks. If this sounds familiar, it’s because we just described it in Credit Card Touring, and this is what I mean about all the elements being mixed together in places.

This is the most common form of touring from what I can tell, and the one I’m going to focus on.

Bikepacking

This assumes you are going to go all the way off into the wilderness. In this case, you need to apply all your hiking and camping knowledge and your bike knowledge. The last section about being able to buy things does not apply. This area is a bit beyond my expertise (and I use that term very loosely anyway).

Choosing your route

This guide we’ll assume self-sufficient touring, camping with the ability to stop at shops and buy things along the way.

For your first time, you are best choosing a road route with the following characteristics:

  • Bikeable roads – Most roads can be used by cyclists, but ideally look for separated bike lanes, wide shoulders where bikes are allowed or quieter side roads to take. Believe it or not, many highways do allow bikes (check local laws and regulations), but you might prefer to take a smaller road along the coast or at least have alternatives.
  • Any kind of trip you like – nothing says you have to do a simple there-and-back route on your tour. You can do a loop, you can have your spouse pick you up at the end, you can just go one way and bus or train back.
  • Not too much distance between towns or gas/petrol stations –  Ideally you want opportunities to stop and get some food and water if you feel you need to. Also, you will probably want to stop for a cooked meal or two even if you’re carrying your food. If credit card touring, if anything this is more important.
  • Multiple campsite/sleeping options – Provincial/State Parks are ideal for this. You want multiple options as one might be full so you need to move to another, furthermore, you might surprise yourself how far you go in a day, so if you want to ride on to the next one, you want to know where that is. Some campgrounds offer designated spaces for cyclists, so if you can find those in advance, you have a better chance of getting them even if the regular spaces are full. If credit card touring – pick a few towns with multiple hotels/motels in them and find a few you’d try first.
  • Bike Discounts available – In some cases, a ferry trip with a bike might be free or just the cost of a passenger and a small bike charge. I did a route that had a ferry and saved about $60 on the fare since I was on a bike.
  • Phone coverage – You might feel reassured to know you can call for help, at least the first time.
  • An abort option – I chose an area which had buses to take me all the way home if I absolutely had to.
  • How to get to the start line – It’s perfectly valid to drive your car to the start line, bike for a few days, then drive home. Alternatively, you can very easily take public transport to get you out of the city or over a body of water, then bike from there. Of course, you can start from home too.
  • Optional route to friends/relatives – your first tour could be from your house to a friend/relative’s house, then back (or they drive you or something). If you have a friend who is a few towns away and you feel like you want to take the scenic way, all the better.

I was hunting around the Vancouver, BC area for my first tour and decided that the Sunshine Coast looked perfect for this. Towns were reasonably close and there were lots of small villages, there was a bus service to get me back if I needed it, it was popular with cyclists of all kinds, plenty of campsites and I had been several times before.

To help you find your first route, try a few of the following:

Equipping your bike and yourself

Again, assuming self-sufficient touring with the ability to stop at shops and buy things along the way and you’re going to camp.

Rack(s)

You will need to decide how much you are taking and how many panniers you will be using. With that in mind, head to your Local Bike Shop and find yourself a rack or two that suits your needs. Your bike hopefully has brazons (mounting points) for racks but if it doesn’t, there are seat post mounted rear racks.

Your local bike shop can find a suitable one for your bike. I had to get a wider one due to disc brakes for example, so I ended up with a PlanetBike Versarack Disc rear rack from MEC for about $25. Depending on how much you’re taking, you might also want to look at a front rack.

Alternatively, if you know someone who has a spare rack you can try it by all means. Read the instructions from the manufacturer (check online if lost).

Panniers and Bags

Many tourers go with panniers (otherwise known as bike bags). The most popular as far as I can tell are the Ortlieb Backroller Classic, but that’s $180 for a pair. I do see quite a few people with Axiom panniers as well and the prices are in the same range. I’m not suggesting you get these for your first time, $180 is a bit too much of an investment, but I am saying have them in mind for later and know what a widely well regarded “good” pannier is.

The excellent, if expensive, Ortlieb Backroller Classic Panniers

The excellent, if expensive, Ortlieb Backroller Classic Panniers

Remember, most panniers will work on most racks, and you don’t require brand new panniers for a weekend trip to get a feel for bike touring. So go on your local Craigslist or ask relatives if they have any you could buy cheaply or borrow. You can even make your own out of square buckets (kitty litter buckets).

I personally found my set in my girlfriend’s mum’s garage and she said I could have them. They are older Axiom ones, simple nylon with reflective tape on the rear and hard backs. A big of cleaning later they were perfect for a tour. I even had a (mismatched) set of four of them so I started trying to talk Jason into coming.

For the top of your rack, you should think of adding is a dry bag, similar to the ones kaykers use, to contain your sleeping bag, tent and jacket (I suppose the tent could go on the outside if it had to). This is optional and could even be a thick plastic bag. I was going in summer so skipped this.

Mount your panniers on the side of your bike rack (find out how that little hook at the bottom works) and strap your drybag to the top with bungie cords.

Finally, think about a handlebar bag or other small, quickly accessible, bag for your phone, keys and wallet.

Oh there’s one more thing to mention just as an aside, that’s bike trailers. You can get existing ones, reuse a kiddy trailer or perhaps build your own. A couple who I met built the trailer in the foreground (with solar power) and used a kiddy trailer as a dog transporter, in the background:

Absolutely awesome home built bike trailer

Absolutely awesome home built bike trailer

Sleeping & Camping Gear List

Here is a gear list but not everything is required and these are ideas rather than specific needs. Use what you have first. I had all of this from bike commuting, hiking and camping:

  • A lightweight tent – Ideally split this between you if two people are going. Make sure it’s attached to the bike well. I’m using a REI Quarter Dome T2 Plus but if it’s not too heavy then it will do (just leave your car camping tent at home).
  • Sleeping bag – Also lightweight and compressible. I’m using a Kelty Cosmic Down 4o and love it.
  • Sleeping pad – by all means take your inflatable sleeping mat but I don’t think they are mandatory.
  • Headlamp or Torch – Again, anything and you can reuse a bike light if you like. See my advice below.
  • Cooking Stove and Cookware – If you intend to cook then think about this of course. A hiking and camping stove is a fine choice here. On my first trip, I didn’t bother bringing it and just took more cold snacks and bought hot meals. People talk about the cheapest stove you can make being home made from a can of cat food.
  • Warm Compressible Jacket/Hoodie (waterproof if needsbe) – You will spend your days sweating, but not your evenings. As soon as you get off the bike, put this on. Ideally take something that compresses down, but you can use any warm outwear. Waterproof jacket if necessary for the weather.
  • Fresh Clothes – Cyclists will happily tell you that they can form salt crystals from sweat on their gear. I think a change of clothes is called for! Use gym clothes if you need extra wicking stuff.

Bike & Non-Camping Gear List

I decided to make this it’s own list just in case you are not camping

  • HELMET – Properly fitted and in good condition. Don’t cheap out here.
  • Bike Gloves – To stop blisters on your hands, alternatively any gloves you like, and some people don’t use any.
  • Water Bottles – This doesn’t necessarily have to be all cycling bottles, but you should have some extra water with you as this is a long ride. I took one Camelbak Bike Bottle and two 1L Nalgene bottles, but you could use a few disposable plastic bottles. You could also use a hydration backpack if you liked.
  • Snacks – Grab some energy bars like Larabars
  • First Aid Kita light one to patch you up after a fall or injury. You can even assemble a resealable bag full of essentials if you don’t want to buy.
  • Warm Compressible Jacket/Hoodie – See above, you’ll get cold too. Waterproof if necessary.
  • Fresh Clothes – You don’t want to do laundry every night. Optional if credit card touring but recommended.
  • U-Lock and the keys – I took a Kryptonite Series 2 U-Lock with a cable for this, a recommendation from this awesome Wirecutter review. Don’t leave without your keys. This is one area I do not suggest cheaping out on.
  • Front & Rear Bike Lights – Here I used a MEC Quattro Front Light and PlanetBike Superflash USB Rear Light. There are cheaper options (MEC and REI both have plenty) available if you want but I think the Quattro is a great occasional front light and the Superflash is a great light for daytime attention drawing use. Both are USB rechargeable so you can use your phone charger/laptop to restore them.
  • Sunglasses – Ones that keep the wind out of your eyes. Again, any kind can do this, but the “sporty” kind work best
  • Suncream, Bug Spray – Depending on the area and weather of course
  • Deodorant, Toothbrush and Toothpaste, Lightweight Towel – Very basic toiletries is the point. By lightweight towel, I mean something like this microfibre one.
  • Clothes for the weather – by that I mean a rain jacket if it’s a possibility, a wicking shirt or cycling jersey, shorts, suitable coveralls if needed.
  • Phone, Camera, Headphones, Charger and optionally, External Battery for phone – Your phone is a valuable tool for this sort of thing, great for calling help and having a quick look at a map.You can use Strava to record your route and your stats, but be aware of your battery life (that external battery will help). If you want to take a separate camera, by all means do, but I found myself forgetting to use it.
  • Bike Repair Kit – Spare Tubes, Pump, Puncture Repair Kit, Multitool, Lube and knowledge of how to use them (watch a few YouTube videos). Note that a kit of these items can be less than $20.
  • Some sort of map – be it a well charged phone, a road map or a cycling map from the local authorities. I mention the last one as you can usually get a local area bike map for free.
  • Wallet – money!
  • If you’re crossing a border, passport/travel documents – It’s absolutely plausible to go from Canada to the US, or from the UK to France on a trip like this.

Like I say, those are ideas and by no means an exhaustive nor restrictive list If you’re going from town to town, you can travel lighter and resolve to buy anything you later feel you need. If you won’t see civilization for a few days, take more than you need. It almost goes without saying, adjust the above for your circumstances.

When you pack everything, make sure the bike is equally weighted on both sides.

The packed bike!

The packed bike!

Going on Tour

Pick a few end points and set a conservative, middle and stretch goal for the day. My first day (actually an evening after work) I thought I might be able to do about 20km (two times my normal commute). It turns out I did about 36km and made it all the way from the Langdale Ferry to Sechelt, then on to Porpoise Bay Campground. It really doesn’t hurt to say to yourself “well if I feel like it, I’ll go on to X”.

Food wise, many bike tourers will say that you can grab fast food as your burning the calories. I did treat myself to A&W but also went to Carrot & Bean Cafe for breakfast and felt great. You are burning more calories than you realize. Mark Beaumont, who I mentioned above, had to eat 6000 calories a day when on tour!

Lock your bike up at night and keep warm. I had very little difficulty falling asleep that first evening. Be sure to drink water before you sleep since dehydration takes time to fix in the morning.

The campsite and the bike

The campsite and the bike

Eventually you will get an idea of how far you can go without a break and in an hour. I found myself hitting my overall tour goal in about half the expected time. My second day I planned to go to the far end of the Sunshine Coast.

I planned to do all of the Western end of the Sunshine Coast

I planned to do all of the Western end of the Sunshine Coast

I was in Maderia Park at 1pm, already having done 45km, and decided to bike all the way back to the Langdale Ferry by 7pm! I made it! It was my first metric century (100km in a day).

This story I think sums up why flexible plans are better for bike tours. Part of the fun of them is finding “well this took less time than we thought, so let’s go here as well” and “that was a lot of hills, let’s stop in this town to cool off for a bit”. Honestly, just have a few dots on the map that you might like to see and find your way to them.

Eventually you will see this sight and go "yeah that will take about 4-5 hours, no big deal"

Eventually you will see this sight and go “yeah that will take about 4-5 hours, no big deal”

There is no shame in stopping for a break. If you need to take some time out of the saddle, pull over and have some. You’re not racing and no one is keeping count of the number of times you stop.

Also, get talking to people. Lots of folks will be curious to see what you’re up to with that fully laden bike.

That’s pretty much it. Don’t over think your day. Doesn’t have to be all laid out. Just get on your bike and pedal towards the next place.

Don’t forget to stop in at a few craft breweries on the way. I stopped at the excellent Persephone Brewing before heading to the Ferry.

Check your ferry times before drinking, I didn't and rushed my pint unnecessarily.

Check your ferry times before drinking, I didn’t and rushed my pint unnecessarily.

What after this?

You’ve now got some gear you can start upgrading and hopefully an idea of what you need, want and don’t want on a given day. This is where I have found myself when I write this guide. I plan on:

  • Looking at dedicated touring bikes like the Surley Long Haul Trucker
  • Getting those Ortlieb panniers I mentioned
  • Finding a rack that can take more than 25kg. Axiom have a couple of racks that can do 50kg.
  • Getting a front rack.
  • Looking at one person tents for even lighter touring
  • Seeing if I can do a trip down to California (from Vancouver, BC) on the bike during a work break or extended leave.
  • If I really get into it, check out the the Warmshowers community, that kindly provide free accommodation for touring cyclists.
  • Master the dark art of stealth camping
  • Blog about it of course.

Long Range Bike Touring is popular as it combines the culture and people of travelling/backpacking with the distance covered and achievement that cycling can provide. I wish I had found it sooner.

Acknowledgements and Thanks

  • Everyone linked above – especially the bloggers who are an inspiration on this subject
  • BikeHobo.com and their list of touring links
  • Crazyguyonabike.com for more touring stories
  • CyclotouringBC for guidance on my first trip
  • The many, many forum posts I’ve read on the subject. Online discussions were a big source of knowledge.
  • All of my hiking and camping friends who turned it into a skill you can use every day.

Making your own Backcountry Maps, Waypoints and Route, and using them on your phone

For a while now, I’ve been making maps for my backcountry trips. I’m mainly doing this because, unlike the UK, North America doesn’t necessarily have great maps for every area. Furthermore, I sometimes don’t want to pay for a printed map for a quick trip, or perhaps I’ve not found a single map that shows everything I want, or shows too much. To fix this, I’ve dived into the world of creating your own maps. There are a lot of different tools out there to do this, and honestly no one tool is perfect. Even if it was, there is no one data source either.

What I’ve decided to write is the guide that works pretty well most of the time for:

  1. The Tools
  2. Finding the map source that works
  3. Finding relevant data to overlay on the map
  4. Adding data to the map
  5. Printing a paper map
  6. Generating an output that can be read by most GPS units
  7. Offline Smartphone Apps
  8. Loading your route onto your smartphone

I’ve written this with hiking in mind, but you could use it for pretty much anything… biking, snowshoeing, skiing, camping all spring to mind. I’ve broken it up in to sections you can (kind of) take or leave. For example, if you just want a paper map, just do up to that point, or perhaps you use an iOS device, you can export the data then import it into your app of choice.

Before we start, I also want to be clear that I’m not responsible for the accuracy of the maps or data you choose to use. Be mindful though that any source you pick might not be perfectly up to date, and especially in winter, won’t show current conditions (e.g. recent landslides, avalanche dangers, unmelted snow, road closures etc).

UPDATE 11th September 2015: I wanted to add something here, remember that your smartphone might be your only way to call for help. You should preserve battery life for that possibility. External batteries are available to keep your phone going and much like you take extra food into the backcountry, you should take extra power, more than you need. But fundamentally, this guide is more about making a paper map than it is necessarily about using it on your phone. As I emphasize later, always bring a paper map (which can never run out of battery) with suitable knowledge of how to use it. This is just one part of many hiking precautions, North Shore Rescue can give you direct advice from the first hand experience of a Search and Rescue team on what to do before you leave, please read that.

The Tools

As I said in the introduction, there are loads of tools to achieve the same end. For this article, I’m going to skip the debate for a bit, and just pick a few:

  • For finding sources, importing maps, light editing and printing of your maps: CalTopo
  • For mapping in the backcountry (Android smartphones): Backcountry Navigator

Those two are the main two you will need, but there are a few others worth mentioning:

I might not go into full details on those, but they have guides on how to use them.

Also, I stress again these are not the only tools out there.

Let’s start with CalTopo and search for roughly where you are going.

CalTopo, on the default map layer.

CalTopo, on the default map layer.

Finding a Map Source that Works

I’m lucky, I live in British Columbia, and CalTopo has access to some great maps from DataBC. You might not be so lucky, or might not like what you see, so in the top right corner, you can change your source:

CalTopo Sources

CalTopo Sources

I’m personally a fan of OpenCycleMap (link to the full service), as it tends to have great data, especially for near populated areas, worldwide:

CalTopo set to OpenCycleMap

CalTopo set to OpenCycleMap

But in some areas, not so much:

A little more sparse in this area

A little more sparse in this area

Play around a bit until you find one you like:

This is actually a scan (most of these are). But it does show some extra details (camp sites by the road, ski lifts)

This is actually a scan (most of these are). But it does show some extra details (camp sites by the road, ski lifts)

This one is nice, but I'm going back to the first for now

This one is nice, but I’m going back to the first for now

Don’t get too hung up on this, pick a usable one even if it’s not perfect.

Where to get your relevant data?

You thought I put a lot of disclaimers in about the data sources being more regional than global? Treble those warnings here.

You’re going to have to look for a source of trails, waypoints, routes etc. These can be from plenty of places, find them with Google. Here are just a few that work for me:

For this example, I’m going to use some waypoints from ClubTread, and a route from EveryTrail. This assumes you want 2 data sources (any number is fine). At the bottom of both pages, you will find download links:

ClubTread's download link for waypoints (at the bottom of the page)

ClubTread’s download link for waypoints

EveryTrail's download link (on lower right of the page)

EveryTrail’s download link (on lower right of the page)

2014-06-11 14_01_22-Edit Post ‹ H — WordPress

2 GPX files are yours!

GPX files are the most widely accepted file format for various tools (KML is probably second). For this guide, we’ll just stick with GPX files. It’s important to know that they only contain a small set of objects, like tracks, waypoints and a few others. They do NOT contain the image of the map you overlay them on.

Adding Data to the Map

Back to CalTopo, time to import both those GPX files!

2014-06-11 14_07_24-CalTopo - Backcountry Mapping Evolved

2014-06-11 14_08_36-CalTopo - Backcountry Mapping Evolved

2014-06-11 14_09_48-CalTopo - Backcountry Mapping Evolved

Once the import is complete, our map will show the waypoints above:

Dog Mountain with just the waypoints

Dog Mountain with just the waypoints

Repeat for the other file you downloaded and you’ll get a route too:

Dog Mountain with Waypoints and Route

Dog Mountain with Waypoints and Route

Now is a good time to save your work in CalTopo (creating an account if necessary)

2014-06-11 14_14_04-CalTopo - Backcountry Mapping Evolved

Let’s say you want to add your own objects to the map, you can, in the lower left. For this example, I’ll add a simple marker (lower left of the interface):

You can add a lot of different things to maps in CalTopo as you can see here - but for ease, I'm just going to cover simple markers for now.

You can add a lot of different things to maps in CalTopo as you can see here – but for ease, I’m just going to cover simple markers for now.

Adding a marker

Adding a marker

Printing a Paper Map

Here is where CalTopo really shines I feel. Click Print in the top right corner.

2014-06-11 14_20_49-CalTopo - Dog Mountain

I personally like creating PDFs for this bit, so the guide will show that. The print from browser tool is very good as well and a fine choice, so go right ahead and use it if you prefer.

CalTopo PDF Printing

CalTopo PDF Printing

Hit Generate PDF when you’re ready. You’ll find the result looks better than the preview above:

Screenshot of the resulting PDF

Screenshot of the resulting PDF

Print those and take them with you.

You might want to add some pages or print again for some area maps. It’s easy to make a book-style map for yourself. I recommend taking maps of the area, not just the exact route and nothing else, in case you get lost.

How to make these waterproof you ask? A resealable bag works as good as anything I’ve used.

Need to catch up? Here is a link to the map I was making in the above screenshots.

Generating Output for most GPS Units

Remember GPX files? You’re going to export your own from CalTopo

2014-06-11 14_29_37-CalTopo - Dog Mountain

Export to GPX above (you can also export to Google Earth's KML format if you wish to view your work in Google Earth)

Export to GPX above (you can also export to Google Earth’s KML format if you wish to view your work in Google Earth)

Send the resulting GPX file to your device (check your manual on how to do this).

Using this on your phone

This brings us now to the other tool I really love in wild, Backcountry Navigator. I very much recommend you spend the $10 on the Pro version as it does a LOT for that. You can also quite easily load maps for Offline use (probably not an issue on Dog Mountain, but certainly is when you’re in the backcountry near Pemberton).

Before we start though, let me make it clear that you should always go into the backcountry with a paper map, compass and knowledge of how to use them. Smartphones and non-smartphone GPS devices can and do run out of power, may not be water resistant, be broken in falls or you may have forgotten to set them up before you left. The guide up to this point shows you how, so you have no excuse.

To ensure this part stays up to date, I’m going to link to their getting started guides on how to download maps and use the app: http://support.crittermap.com/forums/21342738-User-Guide

However, here we are  going to import our map data and download some maps for offline use. Do this before going into the backcountry where you will likely not have phone reception or data service.

A prerequisite step, not shown, is transferring the files to your device. Email them to yourself, plug in via a USB cable, use the beloved AirDroid or Dropbox… there are lots of ways.

As I  was creating this, it turned into a screenshot lead tour, so for this next part, here’s a gallery, in step by step order.

When you’re out in the wilderness, you can find your position (well, as good as your phone can tell you) using the options under this menu:

gpsposition-2014-06-11 22_24_08-2014-06-11 21.56.38

Remember: GPS uses considerable power, but will work when you don’t have phone reception (you’d be surprised how many people think you need a phone signal, in fact, you don’t, but you do need data service if you have not stored the map offline).

You’re done

Hopefully now you have a paper map from CalTopo and an Android phone/tablet running BackCountry Navigator with your route and maps available offline.

Remember to waterproof your phone somehow (I just put mine inside a pocket sized MEC dry bag) and bring some extra external batteries with you.

A big thanks to the makers of all the tools and data sources used in this article. Many of them are free, open source or low cost for high value. Consider donating or purchasing. CalTopo’s About Page has details on how the developer likes support, and they have an awesome blog too. Backcountry Navigator is made by CritterMap Software and can be demoed for 30 days and/or purchased on Google Play.

“Brief” Guide to Travelling to Vancouver/Whistler, Canada for Working Holiday

I was recently asked if I could give some advice on coming over to Canada, and the Vancouver and Whistler area, for a Working Holiday. I ended up writing quite a bit so decided to turn it into a post on here for anyone who might find it useful. This guide assumes you’re coming from the UK but can apply to many situations.

PLEASE NOTE: All of this is to the best of my knowledge and a reflection of my experience at the time, which might not be up to date as of the time of writing. Where possible, you should use this as an example or indication for your own research rather than a step by step guide. It is not necessarily comprehensive and is heavily my opinion rather than a balanced set of choices. Especially, some of the Whistler topic might have become dated, so especially there, feel free to verify it against other sources. All of this guide assumes you will do some extra research. It also assumes you don’t have any friends where you are going (if you do, get some advice from them as they will most likely have specific and up to date knowledge).

What I did

I’m currently living in Vancouver and I’ve been here nearly 5 years. Previously, I did a year from October 2005-August 2006, in Whistler. Was absolutely amazing, learned to ski etc. I was warned that staying for summer would mean I would want to stay for good…. so I stayed for summer… and that’s what convinced me to move back again after giving London a go for 2.5 years. I actually did a Round the World Trip (through SEA, Aus and NZ) before I arrived in Canada the second time. Since I moved here I’ve really taken up the outdoor lifestyle.

How did you get your work permit/visa and how did you later get your permanent residency?

Note: when people say visa in a lot of these contexts, they actually mean work permit. I may make the same mistake in this post. In the official language a visa allows you to come to Canada, but a work permit allows you work there. Most UK citizens don’t require a visa to come to Canada, but almost all require a work permit to work. Citizenship & Immigration Canada are the authority on this and it’s where you should check.

Both times I arrived on Working Holiday work permit that I received through BUNAC (this has subsequently changed and you can apply directly now), but the second time, my employer decided to keep me and we went through the BC Provincial Nominee Program. Currently, the working holiday program for the UK is known as International Experience Canada.

This will give you a one year work permit for Canada which lets you do almost anything (there are some restrictions, and some things may require a medical exam, see the link above). You can have up to 2 of these work permits. Note that if you had a “BUNAC visa/work permit” prior to 2011, these don’t count, so you can have 2 more. This is the easiest way to get to work in Canada, but also note space is limited. I’m no expert on the current “best way” to apply, so read some forums. Also note that no company can guarantee you a place in this particular program (link above says so), in other words, know the deadlines and be ready to act quickly (e.g. within minutes) when they come up. As soon as my chance to apply opened up, I lept on it straight away and was done in about 10 minutes.

When you apply, you will likely need to get a Police Certificate (from the UK, these are issued by ACPO). When you send your application for this be sure to get multiple copies (at least two, I recommend three) for later use. They are valid for a year but you cannot get a copy after the initial application without doing a whole new application.

Also, let me make this perfectly clear, you must be completely honest and truthful when applying for your work permit or PR, and must comply with the terms of your visa, as it is currently issued. Both in spirit of the application and work permit conditions and to the letter. Do not come and say “I’m a tourist” then do work under the table, that (and other types of immigration fraud) is illegal and you may be kicked out of the country (yes, deported) and not permitted to return. All that said, most of you won’t break your work permit conditions unintentionally, so don’t be scared you’ll trip over them.

If you want to stay or an employer wants to keep you beyond your 1 year work permit: It doesn’t hurt to know what options are available ahead of time. I generally recommend people go for this if it’s available, don’t let circumstances decide what you’ll do, you can always go back to the UK but it’s not as easy to come to Canada. You probably only need to be aware of them rather than an outright expert (until you need them)

  • First and foremost, go to the CIC and treat their word as law (because it is law).
  • Secondly, be aware of provincial options as well. I actually got my permanent residency through the BC Provincial Nominee Program.
  • Thirdly, check out BritishExpats.com‘s forums as they often have or will give advice
  • Finally, treat everything else with a pinch of salt – remember that not all stories apply to your circumstances. Also, I’m sad to say that some stories/strategies are misinformed or made up to “meet requirements”. Be careful, but keep in mind that this can be done. Be careful about listening to urban legends on how people have received work permits.

A lot of people will say “you 100% must have a lawyer and pay them thousands”, “I got into the country because of a great long lost aunt” or “it turns out if you go to the citizenship office and tap dance on desk, they will give you citizenship if you promise to never come back to the office again” – be sure too officially verify all you are told as being plausible and up to date (e.g. you do not require a lawyer and I did the process entirely without one, family sponsorship is restricted to immediate family and come on you really didn’t think the tap dancing thing was true :P).

Accommodation when you first land

Hostels are a cheap bet, or if you’re lucky you could find a short term sublet or similar.

Accommodation in Canada

This varies from city to city… and the reason you are aware of that is because anyone in a cheaper city won’t hesitate to tell you that it’s cheaper. Vancouver and Toronto are two of the highest cost markets I’m afraid, however, both are still lower than London so that’s good news.

I previously shared a 2br apartment for $600/mo (including utilities). That varies depending on what you want and how many you share with. Students are willing to share with non-students and damage deposits are typically half a month’s rent. Some landlords might be nervous about taking you on without a job, but to be honest, do go hunting anyway. I tried staying in a hostel until I got a job, but it drove me nuts, so I found a place and then was offered a job a week later! I wish I had just looked straight away even without a job. Also note that, like the UK, lots of people leave and start their lease agreements at the start/end of the month, so around the 1st of each month is a hot time to look.

To get actual figures, check out Craigslist or Kijiji. By far, this is where most people find rentals of any kind. If you’re actually on the ground in Toronto/Van, you might find people posting ads up on the notice boards in hostels, and perhaps the local uni’s have their own sites, but these are a distant second place to CL. In Whistler, The Pique (local newspaper) has listings if you cannot get staff accommodation (more on that later), and CL is not as powerful, but not insignificant.

Employment in general

I’ll separate out Whistler/Mountains a little bit from this part as it’s kind of it’s own set of instructions. For other areas, more short term jobs, Craigslist again is a strong contender… but here is a list of places I can think of:

  • Craigslist or Kijiji
  • Working In Canada has a lot of employment data too (job pay rates for example) as well as a very good job searching system that covers many other sites. Also has job market data so that might answer the “how good is the market” question.
  • BCJobs
  • Workopolis – longer term stuff but might work
  • Monster – longer term stuff but might work
  • LinkedIn sometimes has things, again longer term.

For job hunting, there is lots of advice out there, and honestly most of it is similar to the UK. Your CV/Resume is  important and also is what you can prepare in advance. BritishExpats.com even has some advice on Canadian resumes. Some summary points on the whole Canada jobs market:

  • Recruiters are not as powerful as in the UK (to any recruiters reading, you’re great, but this is an overall honest comparative reflection of both job markets). They do work, but I’m yet to actually get a job with them (only a couple of leads).
  • Microsoft Word, Apple’s Pages, Google Drive’s Documents feature… all work for resumes… but whichever you choose, be sure you have a copy.
  • Unlike what a lot of people say, there is no two-page or one-page rule for CVs/Resumes. Use as many pages as you wish, but be concise.
  • I personally have a long version of my resume that I cut parts of out of when I am tailoring it for a specific job.
  • Have a sensible email address (see Technology section). “ponyfan43452@kittenmail.com” does not work for these purposes, “<first><last>@gmail.com” is better and shows some maturity to a potential employer.
  • Keep a record of who you apply to and what you sent them. This helps for all sorts of reasons, but mainly because:
    • If they contact you for an interview, you know exactly what you sent
    • Once you have the job, you know what was in your job description
    • You can reuse parts of your cover letters between similar jobs without rewriting
  • Mention your degree, but summarize your A-Levels and GCSEs as “High School Diploma equivalent – UK A-Levels and GCSEs”
  • For more esoteric UK terms – add the Canadian terms in brackets. Hard pressed on examples of this, there are not many.
  • Have a couple of references ready to go – add “references available on request”
  • If you speak multiple languages, especially French, put that on.
  • For temporary jobs where you are competing against other working holiday applicants – You might want to exchange your UK Driving License for a Canadian one (Ontario detailsBC details) and state you have this on your resume. Getting you UK license back should be easy if you passed your test in the UK.

I want to ski or board, start talking about getting a job at the Mountains!

For Whistler, the above might apply but not as extensively, The Pique is again a place to check (has literally pages of adverts for jobs) and the big employers have job fairs in September/October. Whistler Blackcomb and the Fairmont (hotel) both have these, and both of them also have employee accommodation in Staff Housing. I stayed there and it’s similar to uni halls. Great fun and right on the mountain.

Whistler Blackcomb’s job site is a place to start. Note that WB has a job fair in Toronto in September! They also seem to be active on Twitter. In WB’s case, the job fair is the main way in for seasonal work and how I got my job. Be familiar with the dates of them well ahead of time (I think WB is doing their’s in September).

There are mountains in Vancouver (Mount Seymour, Grouse and Cypress) but I don’t know the recruiting processes or working arrangements for them. They are not as much of a hotbed of travelers as Whistler. There are also options in the Interior of BC (Silver Star, Big White, Banff, Revelstoke and Jasper to name just a few), again, all smaller.Just in case you are comparing an indoor office job at the mountains to an outdoor one.

This is subjective, but I heard a lot of folks who go the outdoor jobs boasting about how they would be on the mountain all season, before the shine came off that apple and the cold, early starts became a cause for complaint. By contrast, I worked in the Finance office and was nice and warm, 8:30 am starts, office banter, better pay and had something I could put on my resume. However, if someone asked me to be a ski instructor… you know I’d take that! The point is be realistic about what you will be doing.

Important Documents to bring

This is what I can think of, again, not exhaustive, so check your documents to see if you need anything else. Bring your:

  • passport
  • work permit letter
  • birth certificate
  • driving license
  • the copy of the police certificate you received for your work permit (you remembered to get copies, right?)
  • actual education certificates (e.g. degree)
  • copies of recent bank statements (in case you need them at the border)
  • UK Credit Card and Debit Card (likely you will a credit card for a few things)
  • UK Cheque Book if you have one (and if you have one, your two factor authentication security device, like this from HSBC UK)
  • professional qualifications and skills training certificates
  • details of your work permit application/IEC application (e.g. the letter they sent you to present at the border)
  • any other important documents.

For all of these documents, scan them (or photos of them if needs be) and keep a copy of them on Google Drive or Dropbox (or a cloud service of your choosing). Do the same with your work permit when you get it (e.g. take a photo of it and upload it). If you find that you’ve lost any of them for any reason, you have copies. This has the added bonus of having copies you can quickly print or email. If you want to encrypt them, use 7-zip.

Luggage … aka you don’t need a backpacking backpack

Before we start, know your airline check in size limits, weights and how many bags you can have. Also, if bringing skis/board/sporting equipment, look up details on how those are brought. On a multi-month trip, it might not be as bad an idea to willingly pay for extra bags.

Remember you will come back with more than you take and some things you may take to Canada and leave there.

I’ve put extra time into these ones because I’m explaining a decision, but as with any decision, your’s may vary.

Your main bag that you check in

For a trip where you are going to live overseas for a bit, unless you specifically plan on doing something that needs an overnight hiking backpack, use a normal suitcase or if you must something like this convertible pack (I used that for the round the world trip, but it would be excessive here). In this case you’ll be going through airports and cities more than you will be in the back of random pickup trucks with seats made out of wood (a story of mine from Thailand). In all likelihood, this will sit in your cupboard for most of the season so it’s not as important to have something you can take through hell and high water. I wouldn’t say a new backpack or suitcase is necessary unless you don’t have one at all.

Update 9th April 2013: I was thinking about this some more and actually wish I had done so on the Whistler trip. Unless you know you will be doing further backpacking-style travel/hiking/similar where the easier carrying will be of repeated benefit to you, having something that packs away nicely to the back of a cupboard or under a bed and can carry A LOT is actually going to be more useful. The best thing I can think of is a somewhat simple duffle bag/holdall, but big capacity and the bag itself doesn’t weigh too much (some suitcases can weigh 7kg, and your limit is probably 23kg!) Here’s the Duffles category at Cotswold Outdoor (UK retailer, who are great and I miss you).

All of these are examples of what I might use:

  • REI Classic Duffle – XL size from REI is 91 litres and USD44 ($25 on sale) – XXL size from REI-Outlet is 150 litres and $32 (but might not be around forever) – REI also sell other ranges of duffles, but you get the idea. I actually have one of these and it packs down into the space of a few folded shirts when not in use. This is a good example of a simple nylon bag (but I don’t know of a UK equivalent – you’ll have to find one).
  • Wet & Dry Bags from Mountain Equipment (UK, sold in Cotswold and others) – 100 litres and 140 litres are both options – GBP 60 (sale price of 100L at Cotswold) to GBP 120 (full price of 150L) – also has backpack like straps. Not sure how much they fold down but they look much more sturdy and are also more waterproof.
  • Looking at Cotswold link above The North Face, Vango, Lifeventure all do similar bags – hopefully these give you the idea.

Your smaller bag – hand luggage for the plane

However, having a multi use backpack as your smaller bag is not a bad idea and I personally would get this before I leave as I can expect to be using it from the moment I get on the ground. I have a Deuter Futura 28 in black (without those green bits on the newer one) which I use mainly for hiking, but if I wanted to I can and have used it for skiing, taking to the office, photography trips, weekends away, biking, walking round town etc. Most airlines will accept it as hand luggage.

However, my advice below about perhaps waiting until you are on the ground stands, so if you wish to wait until you get here, go ahead (don’t over think all of this advice… but then again, I’m overthinking it all as I write this article :P)

As an alternative that’s cheap, light and gets you a bag that uses up all of your carry on space, I have a Cabin Max bag.  They are not as costly, starting at about GBP 20 for a bag that uses all available carry on space. It might be a good choice if you really want to use every last centimetre of space, these use the full 55L, the most the BA hand baggage dimensions allow for at the time of writing. It’s also a price I wouldn’t be too upset about if I gave it away or it didn’t make it back.

One more tip about hand luggage

If you really need space, remember, main airlines let you have one item of hand luggage and one personal item. That personal item is typically a briefcase, purse or laptop bag sized item. I’ve used a smaller backpack or messenger bag before.

As always, check your airline’s rules.

Things to bring

Remember, things like toiletries, clothes, skis, bikes, can be purchased here. So in some ways you might actually be happier saving money in the UK and buying things when you get here when you know the market and what you’ll want actually on the ground. Whistler has lots of sales during shoulder season (the run up to the start of the skiing, before the tourists arrive) and people will happily give you suggestions etc. I actually sent some things home because I wasn’t wearing them as much as I thought. Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) is a great place for outdoor gear as are all the Whistler shops.

This is HIGHLY in my opinion and is not necessarily covering all of what you’ll need, just things that might not occur to you. See the relevant sections of this guide for more advice on all of these:

  • Your paperwork (see above)
  • A full supply of your prescriptions (of any kind) as you’ll be paying for any extras. Same goes for over the counter medicines that you know are absolutely not available in Canada. Bonjela is the only one I can think of. Paracetamol certainly is not one of them, it’s called Acetaminophen over here.
  • Enough toiletries to cover a few days, but not beyond that. When you get here and they run out, buy full sized ones.
  • Travel towel – this proves more useful than you’d think, especially when you first move into a house or are in a hostel. Something like this from Lifeventure or this from REI. A word to the wise, always get the largest size you can (as the largest size is usually “normal” towel size)
  • Interview clothes and decent looking shoes
  • Some normal clothes and whatever shoes you want (hiking boots not necessarily required – you’re not backpacking)
  • Electronics:
    • Your camera! This is one area that you will want to spend a bit more as you will thank yourself.
    • A few memory cards too (cheap on Amazon, usually very expensive in high street shops). If you need advice on which, The Wirecutter has a good SD Card Guide.
    • A laptop – only a laptop is a no-compromise resume writing machine (sorry tablets, I love you but you ‘re not there yet). Make sure it has enough room for all your photos/videos (bring an external hard drive).
    • Travel adapters for UK electronics.
    • Charger for your devices (camera, phone etc) – ideally they are all USB so bring extra cables. I discuss this more in the Technology section below but I recommend this one from Anker + a C7 power cable for the country you are going to.
    • A pair of headphones for the plane – you’re going to want some. In this case, yes your noise cancelling cans are OK, but bring some ear buds as well.
    • At least one “smart” device (smartphone/tablet), two is OK – this can be your smartphone and/or a tablet. I recommend at least one as they are so handy to have (and I recommend lots of apps below).
  • A decent coat to go out in – but just one multi-use one unless you are certain you have the right kit for where you are going. A lot of people brought coats/outerwear for Whistler but then sent them home later.
  • Some multi use clothes – believe it or not, I’d recommend you come with some gym gear and clothes as they can be used for a lot of activities (e.g. downhill biking, hiking etc). Better still if you can bring shorts, longer trousers and a few wicking shirts.
  • Equipment for sports/activities you absolutely love within reason – ok, let’s say you might do some diving because you’re not far from Vancouver, perhaps bring just your mask and dive certs (not your full gear) then rent the rest (for example, from The Edge Diving Centre). Lets say you’re football mad, it’s OK to bring your boots. If you’re going to be playing a much golf as you can… well they are heavy, but you clearly love it, so bring 1 set of your clubs. If you have a great pair of skis that are in good condition bring them by all means.
  • A decent budget – you might not be working for quite a while. Save up with this in mind, and also be ready to live cheaply. Having said that, you’ll want to go out a bit with your new friends and buy some stuff, so budget there too.
  • A padlock for a hostel locker or similar.

Note that there are some optional things (see the sections of the guide) that I’ve not listed in the above.

Optional things to Bring

  • A sleeping bag – I’m including this one as optional as I think a lot of places will give you bedding and if you absolutely must, you can get it. However, if you don’t want to take that chance, then get a very light weight sleeping bag that doesn’t take up much space. Here is an example I came across that looks perfect. If you’re going hiking/camping etc and know you’re requirements are higher than that, then bring a sleeping bag suitable for that.
  • Hiking boots – if you don’t plan on using them for any hiking or where they are required, I would avoid bringing these. Again, you’re not backpacking here. Normal shoes will do unless you intend to hike or use your hikers as normal shoes.
  • External speaker – If you have a small one, bring it. You can also get them here. Very handy to bring a bit of life to your room/appartment when you first move in. Leave this if you don’t have room. Details in the Technology section.

What not to bring

Here are some mistake items, so don’t bring them:

  • Enough toiletries to see you through 12 months. This is wasted space, you can and will buy them here.
  • A pillow – no you don’t need that, too much volume.
  • Kitchen equipment, spice racks, blenders – again, all provided. No.
  • British Treats – e.g. Marmite, Yorkshire Tea, Paxo, proper HP Sauce, Baked Beans – Firstly, Marketplace IGA in Whistler has quite a few of these, as does the British Butcher Shoppe in North Van and West Van. Secondly, give it a few weeks and you won’t miss them.
  • A library of books –  eBooks are a MUCH lighter choice as you only need your laptop/phone/tablet and you usually cannot loose them. This includes travel guides/Lonely Planet. Also, don’t bring your DVD or CD collections for that matter, get Netflix or online music services.
  • Outerwear for any and every scenario – believe it or not, it’s very possible to be too hot on a winters day in Whistler. You don’t need a fur parka fit for the arctic. I usually recommend you come with one all purpose coat and buy ski gear when you get here if you don’t have it.
  • Clothes for every last scenario – some things will have to be multi use clothes. Sorry, no formal dinner wear here.
  • All of your store loyalty cards – come on, they don’t take Nectar points over here. Load them into the Key Ring app on your phone if you want to take a copy (good idea anyway).
  • 19 inch, 8 kilogram laptop with full size external speakers, 3 desktop external hard drives, mouse, keyboard, stand, projector, 20 socket power bar in their own hardened case with room to spare – please put the limits of reason on your technology items. A small laptop (e.g. 13 inch), portable hard drive and travel mouse is much more easily moved around than all of that stuff. If you absolutely have to have external speakers or laptop stand, buy them when you get here from NCIX. Also, you’re going to one of the most beautiful places in the world, I don’t think this going to be a huge part of your life for the next year.
  • “I’ve never done it before, but I’ve decided I’m the world’s greatest photographer and documentary film maker. I’ll just pack 2 DSLRs with 12 lenses and a full size TV camera” – again limits of reason here. If you have a DSLR and want to bring it, by all means do. If you’re an experienced at making films and have the gear that you know how to use, please do again. However, I wouldn’t recommend people run out and buy loads of gear expecting that the knowledge, skill and desire will magically befall them when the plane touches down.
  • “I’m a great scuba diver, so I’ll take 2 tanks, a BCD, regs, mask, fins, weights with me to the Interior of BC for the ski season” – again limits of reason here. I’m using diving as an example of any sport that you might not be doing as much of out here. I’m a diver and I know there isn’t that much diving out there, and I don’t want to haul all that stuff for the few days of diving I might get in for the year. In that scenario, just take your mask, certs and dive log and rent the rest. Even if you’re coming to Vancouver, where there are dive sites, ask yourself if you will be doing enough diving to justify the luggage costs?
  • “I’ll bring rock skis, rock board, a brand new skis/board I’ll get before I fly out and my backcountry gear in case we go there one day” – ask yourself if you can or want to really haul all that stuff? Don’t bring out some rock skis just to destroy them. If you’re getting new skis, buy them here. If you have backcountry skis that will do for inbounds stuff, bring those if you must… but don’t bring them just for a single day.
  • Ski maintenance equipment – you don’t need your own iron and can buy wax.

Things to sort out before you go

I’ve tried to cut this down to stuff that you should do before you leave. However, a lot of things can be sorted out even after you leave. Also, there are some optional things you can do that I’ve skipped.

  • Make sure you have a good, sensible email address before you go if you do not already have one. Not “<myname>likesponies41543125234265@idontlikemeanthings.com”. Something like “<firstname><lastname>@gmail.com” is much more useful, I explain why and how to switch in the Technology section below.
  • Make sure people have your email address – seriously, I bet you’ll find a lot of people do not.
  • Tell people you are leaving – text them and/or email them. Let them know that it’s easier to contact you by email/Skype etc for the next year. If you’re going to do a travel blog, give out the address. If you’re going to use a Skype number, distribute this too.
  • Change your address at your bank, important services, taxes etc – most of you will be moving back to your parents for a week or two before you go, so be sure to change everything from your university accommodation or old house/flat.
  • Make sure your bank accounts, all of them, are in good order. You don’t want to accidentally leave an overdraft unpaid.
  • Discuss with your parents/people living there if they can open your post/mail for you. If they can use a scanner, great, they can email them to you.
  • Cancel or close any unnecessary accounts. It’s easy enough to get a new mobile number and distribute it after you haven’t been in the country for a year(you won’t have been handing out your old one). You also don’t need a gym membership in the UK do you?
  • Write a Canadian resumé (aka CV) and have good version ready before you go. This saves time later and you can edit it when you get here to meet your needs. More on that below.
  • Make sure your phone is unlocked if you are taking it (see Mobiles section)
  • Read the other sections as there is preparation advice in all of them that might apply to you.
  • OPTIONAL: Perhaps give you parents power of attorney to act on your behalf while you are away. In a pinch, they can do some things for you with your legal authority. Consult legal advice on this before proceeding if you are unsure or do not understand. Here is a Citizens Advice UK link.

I want to do a travel blog/avoid mass emailing

I started this one as I was sending out mass emails to everyone… that I was worried would get spammy, and I was really writing them to myself. Beyond that though, it can be a very rewarding experience to do a 2in1 travel diary and mass email. I’m told that people would read my blog to check up on others in Whistler!

Anyway, if you want to do one, I recommend WordPress.com. I’ve bounced around quite a lot of options (including self hosted) but this was the easiest to maintain long term with low effort.

SIN Number

This is the Social Insurance Number, which is similar to the UK’s National Insurance Number or the US’s Social Security Number. You get one from Service Canada and it should be your first move to get one as soon as you can. You need this to work.

Phones/Mobiles

Phone costs are generally higher in Canada than the UK and work very differently. You can bring an unlocked phone from the UK and possibly get a month-to-month contract… but be ready to pay more than you think for this one. Also, unlike the UK, Canada and the US gives a location linked number for mobiles as well. In other words, 604 is one of the area codes for Greater Vancouver, and my mobile number is 604-3xx-xxxx. Also note that incoming calls also cost you money to receive them (although some plans have unlimited evening calls or unlimited incoming calls in your home area).

Get yourself set up on Skype and get some Skype Credit. Optionally, if you want a UK Landline number people can use to call you, look at getting a Skype Online Number (previously known as SkypeIn Number and occasionally called Skype Numbers).

Some folks have asked if they should bring one from the UK or buy one here. Here are some scenarios:

  • I have a fancy smartphone and I want to use it as my Canadian phone: Make sure that it’s unlocked (network unlocked – talk to your mobile network) and can be used in North America, but go right ahead. If you’re keeping your UK SIM active, put it in a cheap/old mobile for now.
  • I have a fancy smartphone and want to keep it as my UK number in Canada but still use it: Honestly, here, get a cheapo phone/use an old phone for your UK SIM while in Canada and use the fancy one as your Canada phone. If you must, be sure that mobile data roaming is off and you only use WiFi.
  • I have a cheap phone of any kind and would like something similar/use my own in Canada: If it’s cheap and you don’t mind, just buy a second, cheap, “burner” phone in Canada and save yourself the hassle of unlocking etc.
  • I’m in the market for a new smartphone that I want to use in Canada and later in the UK: Well you can buy ones in North America and I can’t think of any that won’t work in the UK. NCIX.com sells them and has retail stores in Vancouver. I recommend the Google Nexus 5.

Banks

In Canada there are 2 groups of banks, the Big 5 banks (CIBC, TD Canada Trust, RBC, ScotiaBank and BMO) and then a group of smaller Banks and Credit Unions that vary from region to region. HSBC is here falls in that last category (although it’s getting much larger). All charge monthly fees for an account, and to skip the debate about it, be ready to pay between $10-14 for an unlimited chequing account (e.g. you can do as many transactions as you like with your debit card or from ATMs).

Unlike the UK, the banks charge each time you use an ATM which is not their own. HSBC and many smaller credit unions have an agreement called The Exchange Network which let you use any ATM on that network for free as if it was your own. I mention this because it means that you are more likely find an ATM you can use for free. For example, HSBC doesn’t have a Whistler branch, but BlueShore Financial (formerly North Shore Credit Union) does, and I can withdraw cash and deposit cash at their ATM. Also, if you have an HSBC UK Account, HSBC Canada can have a look at your banking history and get you set up more like what you are used to in the UK (e.g. you can get a credit card etc).

Update 8th April 2014: It’s been pointed out that ScotiaBank and HSBC, and likely others, will let you set up accounts before you arrive in some cases and offer free accounts to new immigrants for a year. Keep an eye out for offers like this (and naturally be aware of their terms and conditions) and go for it if it suits your circumstances.

Also, some banks, including HSBC, will give you a debit card (usually called a “bank card”) right there, on the spot, in the branch that you open your account. Your name isn’t on it but that is OK. Quite handy really. If you ever loose it, you can just pop into your bank and get another straight away.

Food & Drinking

  • Food: It will feel more expensive here. I’ve never fully explained this one but other Expats have reported feeling the same way about going to the supermarket. Eating out seems cheaper than the UK on the otherhand.
  • Booze: Also kind of pricey in the same way.

Travel

  • Air: Bad news, there are not really any budget airlines I’m afraid, not as we know them in the UK. However, WestJet and Air Canada are two among many airlines in Canada. If you can make it, you can also go to Bellingham International Airport just over the USA border for lower cost airlines like Allegent Air.
  • Cars: You can buy a beater and insure it and sell it later if you want to use one for a road trip… not necessary though and insurance is significant. There are also car-shuttling agencies that set you up with people who need their car driven across the country if you want an adventure but I don’t have details.
  • Bus and TrainGreyhound are the main long distance bus service in Canada. Rail isn’t as commonly used but is an option, VIA Rail.
  • Driving Licence: You might want to exchange your UK Driving License for a Canadian one (Ontario detailsBC details) – you can also switch back as easily (I’m told). If you don’t want to swap your driving licence, get a Provincial ID card instead just for ease and so you don’t have to carry your passport.

Healthcare

Make sure you have health insurance for when you arrive and make sure it covers any extreme sports. You can get on the Provincial Health Plan ($60/mo ish) in some cases (check provincial details), for BC: http://www.health.gov.bc.ca/msp/infoben/faqas.html#whp (this has changed from when I was here the first time). Also note that drug costs are not covered like the UK, so if a prescription is necessary, be ready to cover the cost unless your employer provides benefits that cover this.

Technology/Electronics

I could go on for ages about this…

  • Make sure you have a sensible email address. I know “<my name>and<other half’s name>4evr@mylittleponyemail.com” was a good idea when you were 13 and it’s “just the one everyone emails” but you can’t use that for job hunting and might not want to use that when you’re a 20-something doing a job hunt and meeting people who didn’t know you from childhood. You’ll be meeting a lot of new people you will want to stay in touch with and handing this out to potential employers who want to see maturity. It is a good time for something more long term and grown up:
    • Go to Gmail.com (there are others, but I recommend Gmail) and get a new, sensible address, like “<firstname><lastname>@gmail.com”, “<first initial><lastname>@gmail.com” or perhaps “<firstname><last name initial>@gmail.com”.
    • If you have old email accounts, here are 3 ways to move, you can forward them to this new address, or even get Gmail to check them for you. You could also put an autoresponse on the old accounts in addition to this.
    • Change longstanding accounts, like Paypal or other things you want to keep.
  • Make sure your electrical devices will work on 110-120 volts, their labels will usually say 110-240v if they can be used anywhere. Don’t forget travel adapters and put a few in your hand luggage (On some devices, you might be able to full on swap the cable use with them for a US one if you don’t want to bother with travel adapter)
  • You’ll want a decent charger your phone and other devices. With that in mind, I recommend this 5 port charger from Anker (page has links to various countries’ Amazon stores where it can be purchased). You can use the US power cable I linked above with it. Why this one in particular? Because that small, standard sized cable means you are more likely to find a free, single power outlet in a hostel or airport where you can charge everything in one go.
  • A few extra charging cables for your electronics (most phones and tablets can charge off microUSB cables these days, Apple products are an exception, in any case, buy some extras)
  • Bring a decent camera. You’ll thank yourself 🙂 There’s more advice on this point out here than I can ever summarize, but I will say that a tough, waterproof, freeze proof, drop proof camera is an idea if you want to do more outdoorsy things. I have an older version of the Panasonic TS5 that I take skiing, hiking, diving etc… (p.s. remember you could buy it over here or in the USA if you wanted to). The Wirecutter has lots of advice on this and great reviews.
  • Action Camera: Optional, but lots of folks like GoPros. You can buy one here if you want to save space in your luggage.
  • Smartphone (or any phone): See above about Mobiles.
  • Tablets: Consider getting a Nexus 7 or a LG GPad 8.3 if you want a cheaper tablet for when you are here. Or bring your iPad etc… whatever you prefer . If you’re getting a burner phone, you might find a small tablet an asset for those times you miss your iPhone/Galaxy S4. Again, whatever it is, if it can charge by microUSB, that’s better.
  • Laptop: A small 11-13in laptop if you are getting one for the trip – you want something you can easily move but large enough to work on. As you get in to larger laptops, like 15-17in ones, weight becomes a factor to consider, especially if you plan to move about a lot. Honestly, that’s just traveler specific buying hints rather than actual advice. One thing though, honestly, for resume writing and blog writing etc, a laptop is what you want over a tablet (as much as I love them). Also, you don’t need a laptop bag this time round, perhaps bring it in a laptop sleeve.
  • If your laptop will not have enough space for all your photos and videos, bring a portable external hard drive.
  • You can also consider a laptop locking cable if you really want.
  • See if you can find some Facebook groups or online forums ahead of time to get a little more information from people actually doing it or having more recently moved here. This helps because you get a few contacts in the area as well. Here is the one at Lonely Planet’s Thorntree.
  • General travel advice for a sec: If you buy travel books, buy them as eBooks. It’s easier to have a file on your phone or on Dropbox than it is to lug 1kg of travel books around. Also, use Pocket so you can have things waiting for you offline on your phone/laptop. A lot of times I will go to a new city with just things from Wikitravel on my phone for advice.
  • A decent set of headphones for the plane and one of those external bluetooth speakers or similar is a good move for Whistler staff housing (or anywhere). Especially in Whistler we usually looked for such things when we wanted to have an impromptu party/drinking session. Anker has recently come out with this one I might pick up. The Wirecutter has a good guide.
  • TripAdvisor has really decent city maps in their apps. I used these a lot when I drive down to Seattle and Portland. It will do maps of downtown cores etc.
  • If you want an offline GPS for driving or walking around cities, I prefer CoPilot.
  • If you want a backcountry GPS, firstly be safe on your backcountry trips through proper knowledge and training (here is some MEC advice), take a paper map and all the essentials… then you can also supplement (but not replace all that) with Backcountry Navigator for Android. You can also use that for street maps in some areas.
  • PDF Xchange Viewer is free for personal use (download the trial version) and you can save PDF forms using it and also, you can use the typewriter feature to type on top of PDFs even if they are not PDF forms. This has saved me loads of time when form filling and they are nice and clear at the end. Perfect for dyslexics with poor handwriting like me.
  • Back up all of your data, e.g. using Dropbox, Google Drive or better still Crashplan.

How do I actually make a plan for all of that?

You’ve just seen a wall of text and it’s a lot to take in isn’t it?

First thing you should do is accept that you cannot preplan every last move. So in other words, don’t worry that you will be getting on the plane without long term accommodation or a job. Some stuff you will just work out on the ground when you get here, and that’s part of the fun. More rarely will you be able to sort your employment out ahead of time, but in my experience, most employers will not do this without seeing you in person.

However, you can preplan things like getting your SIN Number, picking up a SIM card for your phone, getting a bank account, having your new resume in order, an idea of how much housing will cost, an idea of what jobs you might want and the major employers in some cases.