Discovering Ontario – Travel tips for going up North

As a Hamiltonian Native who has explored South Western Ontario pretty extensively, I’ve never traveled North of Lake Superior. What sprung this travel to the North, real estate. It is no longer affordable here and when I Googled “Homes for under 50K” an article by Narcity popped up and listed this little town called Manitouwadge with some cute affordable homes.

Manitouwadge is about 4 hours north of The Soo (Sault Saint Marie). It a mining town like many towns up north are. It is currently undergoing a housing boom and some urban revitalization. I saw this as a great opportunity, adventure, and way to experience something new. I’ve never done a long drive in Ontario, so I took some time off, invited some family members to join me and we headed north to look at properties.

Now, it was risky traveling during November as snow is inevitable, but I was lucky that we had an uncharacteristic mini-heatwave. I also thought that I could just Google my questions about traveling this route and get clear answers. That was a little more difficult that’s why I decided to write a post about my experience and give my top 9 tips if you are going to travel north during Covid. 


Tip #1 – Talk to someone who has already traveled this route or is from Northern Ontario

This almost sounds like a no-brainer, but getting someone’s experience first hand is so valuable. I was lucky to connect with someone who has driven this route and lives up north. She told me not to drive at night because there are Moose on the road. Can you believe it? Moose! Her big tip for me was to break up this long drive and stopover in The Soo (Sault St. Marie) for one night and then travel up to Maintiouwadge the next day. This was valuable information especially that it is winter and it gets dark earlier. Also, because you never know the weather north of the North Shore I got my winter tires put on my car just in case.

Tip #2 – Take advantage of loyalty programs

I would take advantage of the loyalty programs where you can collect points. I was shocked at the amount of Esso gas stations on this route and wish I was part of their loyalty program to take advantage of the points. As a loyal BonVoy member I was able to collect some points at the Marriott hotels in The Soo and Sudbury. 

Tip # 3 – Do not rely on the internet, reception is limited

Before embarking ask your cell phone provider if you are able to get reception north of Barrie. If you are planning on using your cell phone as a GPS to find your way you might be SOL because you will not have service in certain parts of your long drive. So, I would recommend bringing a GPS. Also, because the reception is limited finding a consistent radio station will leave you with patches of listening to static. This might be the time to upgrade that Spotify account so you can use it offline.

Tip # 4 – Fill up whenever you can

Although there are Esso Stations on the highway, they are far and few between. I was so used to traveling East where En Routes are every 60 km and thought there would be the same along this route. I was wrong. There are small towns with a population of around 500 people. If you blink you will miss areas to stop and fill up. It is not guaranteed that you’ll have another one for another 80 km. So when there is a place to stop and fill up do it. Also because of the time of year, a lot of things are closed for the season. So bring a portable gas can just in case.


Tip # 5 – Pack lots of food

I would pack as much food as you can. As mentioned above, a lot of things are closed for the season. And because of COVID you might not be able to dine in anywhere. And if you do find a to-go place, it won’t be fast. Expect to wait in some pretty long lines. I would pack a mixture of good and bad snacks. The type to keep your blood sugar up and your tummy happy. If you can fit a cooler in your car, bring it. You can always stop and make a sandwich if hunger strikes.

Tip # 6 – Play games to pass the time

Now, I spy will be a little boring as everything looks the same, but I did create some fun games for me and the family to pass the time. The first was counting all the Inukshuks I saw on the highway. I counted approx 270 going up to Manitouwadge. I also started counting all the deer and moose signs. It just keeps things interesting when the radio is silent.

Tip # 7 – Give your passengers jobs

It’s hard being the captain of the ship but that’s why you have crew members to help you out. Give your passengers appropriate jobs so everyone feels that they are contributing to the journey. I gave my niece the job of capturing content for our social media channels. I gave my mother the job of the chef, letting us know what the menu for food was for each day. And my cousin got the job as co-navigator so I wouldn’t have to rely on knowing how far it takes to get from one point to another.

Tip # 8 – Plan some mini sight seeing on the way

As this was the first time all of us traveled this north, I decided to plan some fun areas to visit. We stopped in Parry Sound, Sault Saint Marie, Pancake Bay, and Sudbury. You don’t have to do a lot. I would even ask your passengers if they have something they want to see or capture. It makes it more fun when everyone is participating in the trip.

Tip # 9 – Know your limits and listen when your passengers needs to stop

I was so determined to make it through one long stretch. I wanted to drive 5 hours straight. But, I kept hearing my passengers say, maybe it’s time to give the “car” a rest. What they were really saying is that they wanted me to stop. So I found a place for us to stretch our legs for a bit. It is a team effort and everyone’s voice matters.

I really enjoyed my road trip with the family. Because of the second wave and more lock downs are in effect, I think I will be discovering more of northern Ontario. And very soon become one of them.


Richelle Sibolboro
Richelle Sibolboro

Design strategist and content creator for hire with a passion for arts and culture specifically in design, architecture, and travel. She has produced content for designboom, Azure magazine, Open City Projects, Digifest, and World Design Weeks. Follow her on Instagram and LinkedIn.

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