121 | Being an Untourist in Canada

untourist in Canada
Picture this: the open road stretches before you, leading to a land filled with breathtaking landscapes, diverse cultures, and hidden gems waiting to be discovered. Canada, the Great White North, renowned for its natural wonders and warm hospitality, becomes our playground today. But instead of following the usual tourist trail, we're going to embrace a different kind of exploration – one that emphasizes freedom, authenticity, and the joy of discovery.

 In June we crossed the border into Canada.  Last year when we were testing the potential of a gap year we were hosted Banff & Lake Louise Tourism and while it was lovely, I also learned that we prefer a different kind of travel.  Yes, Banff was gorgeous AND we found so many other places and experienced a different kind of beauty that reinforced that we prefer untourism.  I continue to reflect and refind what untourism means but I knew the second we arrived at Moraine Lake that I wasn’t there to check the bucket list.  This episode will walk you through how we are exploring Canada a bit differently this year and with a keen awareness of our untourist tendencies.  

If you have never heard of untourism I like to refer to it as traveling deeper for a more immersive experience into the destination community.  It also reflects socially conscious travel by combatting over-tourism, supporting local small businesses, and an overall more expercial-based.  I do offer a free Beginner’s Guide to untourism if you’d like to dive deeper into this topic.

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Website for this episode: https://ordinarysherpa.com/121
Blog Post: 5 Tips for Crossing the Canadian Border
Free Download: Beginner’s Guide to Untourism

First and foremost I must share that while I have significant experience traveling (by airline with kids, camping, International travel, and RV travel) I can’t begin to express that so much of what I have learned has come from the community of sherpas who were ahead of me on this journey.  While I can scour the internet and do research sometimes you simply have to connect with a person to get your specific question answered.  This episode and the corresponding blog post: 5 Tips for Crossing the Canadian Border were inspired by specific questions people have asked me, largely because it’s hard to find the answers to these questions.

I had heard horror stories of crossing the border and being that we were traveling in an RV with 3 kids and a dog. I figured there was more to figure out.  The hard part I answer in my blog because those were the questions I literally spent days trying to find answers to.  Crossing the border into Canada is much easier if you follow these 5 tips, which at a high level are:

  • Know your Port of Entry.  I kid you not the only way I could find these was going to our National Geographic Road Atlas (Adventure Edition)* and look at the State map to see the flag symbols.  We have crossed the border in North Dakota, Montana, Idaho and Michigan the last 2 years and have found while the experience is similar they have nuances. One of them being their operating hours.  If you can find that ahead of time you won’t be surprised at the border.  I think most of them operate until 9 PM. A few are 24 hours. 
  • Required Documents: The easiest way to travel is for everyone to have a passport.  I share tips for traveling with kids and dogs that I won’t go into on the podcast.  Getting the kids passports last year has also encouraged us to consider more international travel.  There were not any covid requirements this year like we had last year with the ArriveCAN process.  But that would be something to keep an eye on.  
  • Know what’s Prohibited: Again I go into much more depth in the blog post. The 2 that I would highlight are fruits, poultry and dog food.  Regardless of what it is, my overall tip is keep all food in the original packaging.  We were only questioned on a few things and voluntarily discarded some items.  Personal travel does have some limitations for food that I was initially worried about traveling in the RV, but we were fine and still well below the limits. 
  • Phone SIM Cards, GPS & Kilometers are some of the things that quickly caught us off guard.  Yes I knew all of these things in advance and you forget how ingrained some of the modern conveniences are.  We decided not to upgrade our phone plan to cover travel across the border, but instead went with a prepaid local Lucky card.  The SIM card was $10 and then you can choose the plan based on the amount of data you want while you are traveling.  The service was good most of the time, but keep in mind many places we have been traveling do not have service.  We travel in airplane mode most of the time to conserve our data and try to use local wifi when accessible. 

    The first Speed Limit sign of 100 km/h had us all raising our eyebrows.  The $1.64/L of gas also had us thinking gas was cheap for a split second.  The are multiple conversations to consider.  1 Mi = 1.6 KM so in my head I said the speed limit was essentially 2 ⁄ 3 of the posted speed in mph (roughly 70 mph).  Liters to gallons is still confusing because there is 1 gallon= 3.79 Liters, but you also have the CAD vs. USD exchange rate. 
  • Which brings me to currency.  We use travel rewards through credit cards and most do not have foreign transaction fees, so whenever possible we opted to use our credit cards.  Travel Tip: At the ATM if you do go to pull local currency, have your financial institution do the exchange rate not the ATM card.  They will ask a question and it’s always confusing to me, but ask yourself which one uses my bank. 

Beyond the border crossing there are several other things you can do to have a more authentic travel experience.  

Some of my favorite places to go to help inform the local culture are the local grocery store, local outdoors store such as the bike shop, and indie bookstore or public library.  You can learn a lot simply by looking at what’s available.  In one grocery store we noticed an entire aisle of asian spices and sauces in a community of less than 1000 people.  It was really interesting to me.  I also noticed that Lychee (which was a fruit we tried from a farm stand in Hawaii) was available.  Or that several grocery stores and bakeries offered Namino bars and butter tarts.  All of these were an invitation for further discovery.  We have found local trails at bike shops or stories from local authors.  

Some of the places I would share we’ve had really awesome untourist experiences were at Wasa Lake Provincial Park in British Columbia where we camped.  They had TONS of first come first served sites available, a pump track for biking, several great beaches both for swimming – as well as a prime spot for stand up paddle boarding.  The funny thing about Wasa lake campground is that all of their “pit toilets” actually flush, are incredibly clean.  We stayed there on our way to Golden, BC – which I highly recommend over Banff.  You have access to 5 different National Parks, it’s a much smaller town but without the tourist feel.  Golden Vistors Center also has an App that is really good to help you navigate the options.  When we came through Golden last year – we walked the river walk, were mesmerized by the covered bridge and the story that erected that bridge, the outdoor community, the bakery and bookstores were great.  I remember very fondly looking at my husband saying “I could live here.”  We have an affinity for smaller towns and love the good-hearted nature of adventurous friends.  We felt that very quickly when we visited Golden so we knew we could skip Banff and come straight here this time.  Not to mention the Kananaskis River is the Glacier Ice Gatorade blue- I got thirsty every time I walked past it.   

I think something different about being an untourist is rejecting the notion that everything is a YOLO (You Only Live Once) or Once in a Lifetime experience.  Wanderlust Heidi had this notion that I always wanted to experience new places and do different things.  I have begun to reject that mindset and embrace experiencing things differently “the next time.”  Along the Icefield Parkway up to Jasper we decided to stay longer at a Provincial Recreation Area that we camped at overnight last year.  The bear activity was pretty high and there were several things along the parkway that we didn’t get to experience last year.  I refer to this area as Saskatchewan Crossing because it’s pretty remote and there weren’t many guides helping us navigate this area beyond the information panel at our campground.  

If I was making suggestions for where to stop along the parkway they would be Peyto Lake (it’s a short, paved but uphill hike), Mistaya Canyon (no tour buses go there and most people are ready to get to the Columbia Glacier.  I actually would skip Columbia Glacier (especially if you have seen a glacier before – If you want to have untourist glacier experience head to Alaska), and the skywalk (which is actually several KM away from the glacier).  They are both extremely touristy.  If you want to see STUNNING waterfalls – the Athabasca falls and Sunwapta Falls are my suggestions.  At Sunwapta Falls do the lower falls hike and just keep going because you’ll get there and think you’re done, but if you follow the fence you will easily see 4-5 more falls and they are even better than the first.  In Jasper my favorite hikes were The Valley of Five Lakes and Old Fort Point Trail are both stunning for different reasons.  The Valley of Five Lakes will require some bug spray, but the views of the teal green waters get better with each lake.  I should note Parks Canada also host the Red Chair adventures and places two Red Chairs strategically of the beaten path and both The Valley of Five Lakes and Old Fort Point are hosts to the Red Chairs.  Old Fort Point Trail is amazing for the views of the entire area for miles, plus there are some resident Big Horn sheep that like to hang out up there.  It is impossible to describe the feeling and the views when you summit that hike.  By the way, this is an episode where you are going to want to click over to the show notes because EVERYTHING I am talking about is linked – including these hikes.  

Having visited the Saskatchewan Crossing last year another key point in untourism is to Leverage What is Available to You.  Both the Thompson Creek and Whistler Campgrounds boasted nature time.  If you listened to Episode 105 with my 7 YO Son or Episode 106 with my 11 YO Daughter you heard that the Creek at Jasper was one of their most memorable adventures, and it didn’t cost us anything more than the stay at that campground.  I would echo a similar experience this year. Both Saskatchewan Crossing and Jasper was where the opportunities for what I am calling Wildhood began – having unplanned, unorganized time in nature.  The kids simply explored and I sat back and observed.  Having the time and space in your schedule to just be allows the kids the freedom to explore and create.  It might just be the most memorable thing from the trip. 

Our trek up the Alaska Highway or Alcan was new territory for us.  While there wasn’t traffic per say, it was clearly the Interstate of RVers to Alaska.  My untourism tip is be willing to not follow the crowd.  It was really clear from our visit to Laird Hot Springs (which I do recommend for a hot springs experience) that we were not like most others there.  We didn’t need to “make time” and could feel the energy when it was time to stop and linger.  Building in an extra day – especially on long road trips to have a down day and not drive was really energizing for all of us.  We opted to go the more scenic route from Whitehorse, in the Yukon Territory up to Alaska by way of Haines Junction.  The Yukon does an amazing job of offering First Nations experiences and our first exposure was at Da Ku Cultural Center which shares a building with the Kluane National Parks visitor center.  When we are exposed to new things as we travel we try to practice unschooling and allow curiosity to offer an invitation for discovery.  I have learned so much and am inspired to keep learning more about the 14 First Nations of the Yukon.  We have read several books and we continue to learn from others’ experiences.  

Key Takeaways

  1. Know just enough about your route and the communities you will visit to be excited, but not so much to overwhelm you.  Use the Sherpa Philosophy to ask those ahead of you for tips or specific questions you aren’t finding the answers to. 
  2. Some of my favorite places to go to help inform the local culture are the local grocery store, local outdoors store such as the bike shop, and indie bookstore or public library. They offer a local perspective and offer a unique invitation for discovery. 
  3. Travel destinations are not once in a lifetime experiences, reject that mindset and allow yourself the ability embrace experiencing things differently “the next time.”
  4.  Having the time and space in your schedule to just allow the kids the freedom to explore and create. Leverage the resources that are currently available to you.
  5. Be willing to not follow the crowd.  

Where to Listen

Apple Podcast, Spotify, Stitcher,  Google Podcast, anywhere podcasts are played