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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Winter Touring Tips

I recently returned from a three-week tour through northern Ontario and Manitoba. I do a lot of traveling, but most of my tours are short weekend hops. I don't often hit the road for two weeks straight, hardly ever in February, and I've certainly never spent much time driving in rural Canada in February. Winter driving in the Canadian north presents some special challenges that I knew I had to be prepared for. So before I left southern Ontario, I made sure to consult with some experts, and I took their advice. It occurred to me that other musicians might find my experience helpful. Here are some things I did to keep safe and warm:

  • Cellphone
    I usually travel alone, so I've always considered my cellphone an absolute necessity for safety on tour. It allows me to call for help if I get stuck on the road, something that's extra important when traveling the Trans-Canada Highway in the dead of winter.

    I knew cellphone coverage could be very spotty once I got out of urban populated areas. On this trip, I found I was out of range for several days through northern Ontario. One day the highway ahead was closed because of a snowstorm and I needed to make phone calls. What to do?

    Skype to the rescue! Skype is a free program that allows you to make phone calls over the internet. I happened to have Skype loaded on my iPhone, and although there was no cellphone signal, the place I pulled off did have wireless internet signal. I was able to add money to my Skype account on the spot and proceeded to make several important phone calls-- notably, "I am stuck on the highway and I won't be able to make the gig tonight." (For what it's worth, Skype is worth having in any case because you can make free long distance calls to other people who have Skype.)

  • Emergency Kit
    I had an emergency kit already, but I checked it before I left and replaced items that were old or didn't work anymore. I also added a few items of my own. My emergency kit included a flashlight, one of those cool foil blankets, candles, matches, a small cooking pot and some instant soups, a snow blindness suit (!), a "HELP" sign, nuts, candies, and energy cookies. I even had a little book with winter survival tips.

  • Snow Tires
    Snow tires make a huge difference to your car's ability to stay safe in winter conditions, and I wouldn't want to be without them for long winter drives in Canada. You pay a small premium, but when you account for the fact that winter tires help prolong the life of your other tires, and that they may save your life someday, they don't seem all that expensive.

  • Block Heater
    Everyone I talked to in Manitoba prior to my trip recommended a block heater, which you plug in at night in very cold conditions to keep your car engine warm. The temperatures in rural Manitoba and northern Ontario can be brutally cold (down to -30 degrees C), and if the engine gets too cold, you can have trouble starting your car. As it turned out, most of the time the weather wasn't quite cold enough to warrant it, and my little Honda Fit did just fine. But I was glad to have the peace of mind in case the temperature turned extra frosty. I carried an outdoor extension cord to plug the block heater in.

  • Winter Clothing
    I made sure to stock up on long underwear and wool socks before I left, and it was worth it. southern Ontario does not get nearly as cold as Manitoba in the winter, and I am sure I would have suffered mightily without my long underwear and wool socks. It was nice not to have to crank the heat up in the car too much when I was driving.

    I also made sure to bring a good parka (I looked like the Michelin Man but I didn't care -- I was warm!), boots, and several pairs of gloves/mittens, some scarves, and hats. I probably overdid in the winter wear department, but I had room in my car and if I was stuck in a situation where I was getting wet, I figured it would be nice to have extras.

  • Don't Drive Too Far; Drive Early in the Day
    I tried to keep my driving distances relatively short. This is a good idea any time you are touring, but especially in the winter. Combine short distances with driving earlier in the day, and you take a lot of pressure off. In most cases I was able to get where I was going in very good time. In one or two cases where I was driving in a little bit of weather, I knew I had time to drive slowly and that I could stop and rest anytime I wanted. It kept me safe and got me to the gigs with plenty of time to spare.

  • Call Your Destination When You Are Leaving
    I usually just jump in the car and aim to get there at the previously agreed upon time. But this trip, since I was driving through pretty isolated areas in winter conditions, I tried to get in the habit of calling my next stop as I was leaving, so they would have some idea when to expect me. That way if I didn't show up they could send out the search party!

  • Drive With a Full Tank of Gas
    I'm not used to driving in rural areas and I'm always surprised at how far you can drive in some parts of Canada without encountering a town, any services, or even another car on the road. I made sure not to let my tank get below half full; had I been driving longer distances I might have even filled up at three quarters of a tank. A full gas tank adds weight to your car, which helps you in bad driving conditions, and if your tank gets too low the gas lines can freeze, which would be a very bad thing.
A final note: although I had to be careful and make extra preparations, my winter touring experience was incredible. It's hard to beat seeing a sundog on the highway between Rossport and Thunder Bay, snowshoeing in Riding Mountain National Park, or gazing out over a frozen Lake Superior on a cold February morning. Not to mention the wonderful generous people I met on my tour. Just a few more reasons I still feel lucky to be a touring musician.

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