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10 Tips for Backpacking the West Coast Trail

Numerous adventurers claim the West Coast Trail is a double threat: the most beautiful and most difficult trail in the world. The legendary West Coast Trail isn’t that tough if you’re prepared and have good weather, but the latter is a BIG if. Never underestimate the coastal rainforest challenges of torrential rain, mud, and tides! While you can’t control the rain, if you mind the tides and avoid injury, your trip will be memorable for the right reasons. Beach walks, camping on the beach, and seal watching were my favorite parts of the trip.

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Since the challenges of rainforest backpacking are unique, I give you my Top 10 Tips for Backpacking the West Coast Trail:

  1. Start from Gordon River (south end): The first 6 km to Thrasher Cove is the nastiest, rootiest section of the trail, so I say get it over with when you have fresh legs! After days of rain, the trail was a thick, soupy mess that sucked at our boots with every step. Guess how long it took to complete this part? 6 km! Imagine going this slowly on your last legs, after a week on the trail! No thank you!! If you start at Gordon River, you end your hike with long stretches of sandy beaches and boardwalks.
  2. Read the tide tables and respect the sea: Read it again. Read the tide tables and respect the sea! This could save your life. At Thrasher Cove, some soaked hikers straggled in to the nearest fire around 10 pm, exhausted and chilled. They had taken a “short cut” around Owen’s Point just after high tide, as it got dark. Fortunately, high tide that night was only chest high and they hadn’t fallen in a surge channel and been pulled out to sea! They were also lucky no one suffered hypothermia! According to Parks Canada, 80-100 hikers are evacuated from the trail each year, many suffering from hypothermia. Do not try to get through Hole in the Wall, around Owen’s Point, or across surge channels when the tide is not in your favor.
  3. Be prepared for mud: The West Coast Trail wins the award for most epic mud hiking! Mud halfway to your knees is common and all surfaces, mud covered or not, are slippery. Logs, tree roots, and ladders were so treacherous, it’s amazing only one out of six of us was hurt (my friend fell off a log and hit his head). Instead of scrambling around puddles and widening the trails, step through the middle of puddles as there are often things to step in to prevent you from sinking too deep in the mud. Use hiking poles to help you stay balanced (but pack them away when you have to climb one of the dozens of ladders or ride cable cars). To keep dry, wear waterproof boots and Goretex gaiters. Short gaiters help if you tend to run warm.Carry extra socks and plastic bags too in case the linings of your boots get wet, as well as a pair of hiking sandals that can get wet.
  4. Start early each day: I am not a morning person, but starting early meant catching the sunrise, getting a good campsite, and more time to relax at the end of the day. Depending on the tides, you may also have more chances to hike on the beach or visit the Hole in the Wall. *Note that Thrasher Cove and Tsusiat Falls are very popular and tend to fill up quickly.HikingTheShelfWCT
  5. Pack enough food: Pack at least 3 snacks per day (granola bar, protein bar, chocolate bar) as you will need the extra calories, then throw in a few extra. Some extra food is also important in the event you must stay on the trail longer than expected. According to BestHike.com, you may ship food to Chez Monique for pickup (km 44.5). You can also purchase snacks and meals there.
  6. Carry cash: Bring at least $60 so you can treat yourself on the trail! It’s West Coast Trail tradition to stop for a cheeseburger and beer at Chez Monique (km 44.5), salmon/crab and baked potato at Nitinat Narrows (km 30), or a burger and beer at Edgar’s on the Beach (km 29.5). Expect to spend $25-30 on a meal and drink. I indulged as I have never been able to buy food on a backpacking trip before and can say the high prices were totally worth it!
  7. Have a backup plan: Once you start the trail, you are committed; there are only three official trailheads: Gordon River (km 75), Nitinat Narrows (km 30), and Pachena Bay (km 0). Your only other way off the trail is by boat or helicopter in an emergency evacuation. Carry a cell phone, marine VHF radio, personal locator beacon (PLB), or satellite phone with solar chargers or extra batteries so you can call for help if needed. We knew from a friend that there was spotty cell phone coverage along the shore, so one member of our group carried a satellite phone. Practice using signalling devices before you go (know how to signal SOS) and talk to your group members about when to call for help. Discuss what kind of injuries would warrant evacuation? Keep in mind that it could take up to 24 hours for help to arrive so if someone is in rough shape, don’t wait to make the call. Finally, if you are able to make it to a designated campground or Pachena Point Lighthouse, it will be easier for rescuers to find you.
  8. Carry First Aid and know how to administer it: I recommend Wilderness First Aid Training so you can assess how severe an injury is, stabilize, and safely transport a severely injured hiker. Your first aid kit should include Advil, a knee splint, Benadryl, any medications you require (epipen, asthma inhaler), moleskin or blister pads, nail clippers and tweezers.
  9. Bring waterproof matches and waterproof firestarters or fire paste: There is something psychologically satisfying about a fire at the end of the day, even if it’s raining. Keep matches in a waterproof container and bring another fire igniter just in case (lighter, flint and steel).
  10. Book a motel at the end of the trail: If time and money allow, a hot shower and real bed feel pretty awesome after 5-7 days of backpacking!ChezMonique

Finally, as on any hike, practice Leave No Trace. Pack out what you brought in to keep the area pristine and safe for others. There are a LOT of bears on the Island and we do not need to encourage them to hang around camp for meals.

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