Any serious hiker has heard about it. Copies of hiking books worldwide have it circled, dog-eared, and highlighted. As of this decade, conquering that one epic Canadian trek – rated by many as one of the best hikes in the world – has been plonked in seemingly endless backpacker bucket lists.
Built in 1907, the West Coast Trail, which meanders for 47 miles along the south-western edge of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada, is widely agreed to be one of the world’s most difficult hiking routes. It was originally called the Dominion Lifesaving Trail and was created solely as a means of providing access to stranded sailors whose ships had wrecked on the vicious coastline. This area is infamously nicknamed the Graveyard of the Pacific and has claimed thousands of lives over the last few hundred years.
The rich history of the trail doesn’t end here, however. The route also sweeps over multiple First Nations archaeological sites, covering the land of the Pacheedaht, Ditidaht, and Huu-ay-aht tribes. Forestry within the area has proven to be so temptingly beautiful that regulations have been put into place to keep curious hikers from trespassing along ancient Ditidaht soil. If you feel the need to venture into the maze of red oak trees and off the beaten path, feel free to book a guided tour through their traditional lands before heading into the trail.
The highlights of the trail
Now that you have some background behind the beast, let’s talk about how this old rescue trail managed to become a staple in every backpacker bible.
The attraction is a no-brainer. Incredible flora and fauna line the coast everywhere you look. Bald eagles, grey whales, orcas, sea lions, common starfish, banana slugs, and molluscs are familiar friends you’ll almost certainly bump into along the way, while cougars, bears, and wolves are potential foes which you must keep an eye out for. Parks Canada will mark the areas on the map where you should proceed with caution (the trail is within the Pacific Rim National Park).
Landmark attractions to look out for include the Pachena Point Lighthouse, which was constructed in 1906 to help prevent the alarming number of shipwrecks along the coast, and Carmanah Lighthouse, where weary hikers can visit a quaint family labyrinth decorated with the skeleton of a whale.
Carmanah’s incredible lookout point is complete with a telescope usually focused on a rock which is popular with sea lions. Close to this lighthouse is an unlikely burger shack smack in the middle of the beach named Chez Monique’s. Once you’re sure you’re not hallucinating you can order some much needed grease – and a side of red wine if it takes your fancy.
Owen’s Point is an infamous point of the hike where hikers must time their arrival according to the tide-charts, or else suffer waiting to negotiate the intertidal sea-caves, which are impassable when the tide is too high.
The ‘hole in the wall’ is another wonder of mother nature, featured on the official WCT map: wander through a crevice of stone hollowed out by centuries of Pacific Ocean repeatedly hitting the cliff face.
Multiple waterfalls are hidden within the lush landscape between the cable cars that hikers must use if they choose the inland path, but one of the best views of the hike by far is of the Tsusiat Falls, unmissable from the beach. Here, campers can wash away days of grime beneath a rainbow glimmering in the mist.
Whales, rainbows, and waterfalls aside, you will also pass many run-down shelters. These are the remnants of telegraph stations and today house helpful park rangers who will warn you if there’s been a wolf sighting up ahead.
One great thing about the WCT is that you can really make it your own. When we – four relatively fit and experience adults – completed our trek in July 2014, it took us a total of eight days and seven nights. More leisurely hikers may take 10 days to finish, while some gung-ho athletes might jog through the entire thing in 24 hours. While the average time is 7 days and 6 nights, I recommend planning for a day or two extra: there’s no point in rushing through your hike and forgetting to stop and smell that ocean air once in a while!
This guide is geared towards 8 days. Make your adjustments as necessary.
Below, I’ve provided some tried and tested methods of packing, eating, surviving, and (most importantly) enjoying your West Coast Trail experience.
Where to start?
First thing’s first: pick your poison. Hikers may start from one of three access points: the north end via Pachena Bay, the south end via Gordon River, or, as of 2014, for those who aren’t interested in hiking the whole trail, right in the middle via Nittinat Narrows.
Here are the pros and cons of starting either north and south, so choose carefully:
North (Pachena Bay):
Pros: Start hard, end easy! The last 12km of the hike can be completed in 6 hours or less. Good idea so that you’re not fighting through every last step.
Cons: The beach access up until Cullite Cove is an obstacle course of boulders and logs, while the inland route has many ladders and a steep incline that will leave you gasping for breath.
South (Gordon River):
Pros: Whales. Get ready for two of the most beautiful camping spots on your first few nights!
Cons: It only gets worse from here. If you’re tuckered out after the first half of the hike, mercy on your soul once you get past Nittinat Narrows, where you’ll encounter ladders, boulders, mud and elevation galore.
Make sure you reserve a place
Once you’ve chosen your entry point, get busy making reservations: if you don’t book on opening day, March 1st, you might be left without a spot. Each hiker needs one Trail Use Permit which costs $275, and two mandatory ferry rides which cost $15 each. If you book online through Parks Canada, these will be included in your final fee. Online bookings will receive two free waterproof maps, whereas walk-ins will purchase them for about $4.
Getting ready for the hike
The worst thing you could possibly do in preparation for the WCT is… nothing.
The last thing you need is to be stuck in the middle of nowhere with no toilet paper, no rope, or no waterproofs. Pack and unpack at least three times – once on your own, once more with your entire group so you can disperse group gear, and once more to nail down the non-essentials and crack down on the weight.
Keep in mind the golden rule of hiking: if you’re a man, you should carry no more than 1/3rd of your body weight, and if you’re a woman, no more than 1/4th.
- Waterproof tent + fly
- Water purification equipment (iodine tablets, water filter, ect)
- Hiking poles (Collapsable reccomended)
- Waterproof hiking boots (goretex)
- Signalling device for emergencies (radio, cellphone)
- Sleeping bag + sleeping pad (equalatorial temperature will do)
- Watch / timetelling device (essential for tide tables)
- Lighter / waterproof matches
- Lightweight stovetop + fuel
- Garbage bags for packing out
And here are other important items to consider:
- Waterbottles, Camelback, or Platypus
- x1 Fleece, baselayer, or warm clothes
- Hiking socks (these will be your best friends)
- x1 Long Pants (for keeping out mosquitos and mud)
- Moisture-wicking t-shirts (no cotton!)
How to get there
There are many ways to get to each trail head. You can drive out to Vancouver, take the ferry to Victoria, and proceed to Port Renfrew campground where you can park your vehicle to start at Gordon River in the south. Once you reach the north end of the trail in Pachena Bay, you’ll exit into the tiny village of Bamfield and can take a shuttle bus back to your car.
Alternatively, you can fly to Victoria and take the shuttle bus from either village to either trail head. We found the cost of driving to be considerably less than the second option when splitting the cost of gas.
Do you have what it takes?
If you’re planning on hiking the WCT as your first big hike… you may want to think again. This trail requires at least 6-8 hours of vigorous activity a day, and while Olympic pre-training isn’t necessary, I’d highly recommend a little pre-exercise. A month before your start date, make a training schedule for yourself. Injury is common on the trail – don’t be that 1/20 hikers who must be rescued by a national park warden on a helicopter or a boat!
Above all, though, have fun! This is an experience you will never forget.
About the author
Sonia Hrynchyshyn is a young traveler, aspiring journalist, and professional opportunist. In 2014, she embarked upon a journey in hot pursuit of all the things she feels are the shortcomings of the education system: travel, well being, and spirituality. Check out her travel/photo blog and goodreads account here: girlseekingworld.wordpress.com