A Guide to Hiking the West Coast Trail

The West Coast Trail takes about one week to hike and is considered one of the world's most scenic trails. See more national park pictures.
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The West Coast Trail (WCT) is a 47-mile (75.64-kilometer) hiking trail that traces the scenic southwestern edge of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The trail passes through the rugged coastal territory, climbing up several ladder systems and crosses some of the Pacific Northwest's most striking beaches. The trail, which typically takes about one week to complete, is generally regarded as one of the world's most scenic hiking trails.

Historically, the WCT was part of a chain of ancient trade paths that were used by the Huu-ay-aht, Ditidaht and Pacheedaht First Nation tribes before Europeans ships began coming to Vancouver Island (and the trail still passes through tribal land). As ship traffic in the region increased, so too did shipwrecks. In fact, the coast off the southwestern edge of Vancouver Island is so treacherous that sailors knew it as "the graveyard of the Pacific." In 1891, the Carmanah Point Lighthouse was built to help guide ships, and a telegraph wire was strung along what would ultimately become the trail [source: Parks Canada].

The construction of new lighthouses didn't make the waters off of Vancouver Island much safer, though. Tragedy struck in 1906 when the SS Valencia sank near Pachena Point, taking 136 lives with it (only 37 passengers survived). After an investigation, a Canadian federal report called for a new lighthouse to be built at Pachena Point, and for a life-saving coastal trail with six shelters and provisions for shipwrecked sailors. After World War II, navigation technology had improved enough that the trail became obsolete, and by the middle of the century, trail conditions deteriorated. By the late 1960s, nature lovers began hiking the trail again, and in 1973 the WCT was designated a recreational hiking trail.

The trail is now part of Pacific Rim National Park, and several thousand people hike it every year (in 2009, for example, 5,842 hikers registered to hike the trail). But that doesn't mean that just anyone can throw on a pack and hit the trail. Hiking the WCT requires a good deal of planning. The trail is in much better condition than it was 20 or 30 years ago, but it's still challenging for most hikers, and it's probably too much for a novice to tackle. To get the most out of the WCT (or any trail), hikers are advised to do their homework and fully prepare for the trail, and to take their time when out on the trail.

What to Expect on the West Coast Trail

The West Coast Trail is without a doubt one of the best long hikes in North America, but it isn't for everyone. Like the waters off the coast of Vancouver Island, which have claimed more than 400 ships, the trail can also be treacherous. It's closed from October through the end of April, so if you're planning to hike it, you'll have to do so in the late spring or summer.

Although winter is typically the rainy season in the region, strong storms can occur in the summer too, and when it does rain, the trail becomes muddy and river crossings become more dangerous. The number of rescues has spiked in recent years, mostly resulting from hikers hurrying and not exercising proper caution [source: Leadem].

One of the biggest hazards a hiker can encounter on the WCT is hypothermia, which is when core body temperature drops below 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 degrees Celsius). Vancouver Island is in what's known as a temperate rainforest, and as such it tends to be very cool and damp, even in the summer, creating ideal conditions for hypothermia.

If you reach a hypothermic state, your brain typically becomes clouded, causing you to make poor decisions that can make a bad situation worse. The best way to prevent hypothermia is to bring enough warm clothing and rain gear, and to put warm clothes on when you're resting [source: Leadem].

Some other hazards can vary from season to season and day to day. Slipping and falling on wet or uneven surfaces is probably the No. 1 cause of injury on the trail, and it can only be avoided by taking it slow and knowing your limits. There are several creek and river crossings that you'll encounter; some can be crossed with a cable car, but other crossings must be made by foot on the trail, which can be difficult and dangerous due to slippery rocks.

And to make the trail more accessible for recreation, Parks Canada has installed several ladders that climb up some of the steepest portions of the trail. Some of them are about 100 feet (30.48 meters) tall, and several of them are tightly bunched together. When it rains, the ladders can become very slippery, and wearing a heavy backpack only adds to the difficulty.

Hiking West Coast Trail: Preparing for the Hike

The West Coast Trail isn't the type of hike you can just make on a whim; it's a serious trail that requires some serious preparation. Like any multi-day backpacking trip, you'll have to plan out your meals for each day and pack the right clothes and camping equipment for both hot and cold or rainy weather. But beyond the typical preparation you might do, Parks Canada requires anyone who camps overnight on the trail to obtain a permit and take an orientation course.

We know: You're an experienced hiker who has probably seen it all. So why do you have to take the orientation course? As we mentioned earlier, rescues have been on the rise on the WCT, and the orientation course is aimed at addressing safety issues and reducing the number of injuries on the trail.

In addition to making sure that hikers are prepared, the other main objectives of the WCT orientation sessions are to give visitors a general overview of the trail's history, to issue permits and perhaps most importantly, to collect money (hiking the trail isn't free). For every person that hikes the trail, Parks Canada collects a $127.50 overnight use fee and a $24.50 reservation fee. And you'll also have to pay $16 for each of the ferries to take you across Nitinat Narrows and the Gordon River.

In terms of gear, these three items are an absolute necessity on the WCT: good hiking boots, rain gear and a waterproof tent. All hikers have their own preferences when it comes to boots, but because Vancouver Island is often very moist, the boardwalks, rocks and ladders that make up the trail can be very slippery.

To avoid injury you'll want to wear sturdy boots with good tread and ankle support. Having adequate rain gear and waterproof tent is both an issue of comfort and safety; water-soaked clothes -- particularly cotton -- can cause hypothermia in the wrong conditions. You'll also want to pack lightweight, high-calorie food and a backpacking stove. And finally, you'll need a well-stocked first aid kit, cash for emergencies and sunscreen.

Hiking West Coast Trail: Main Routes

Just 60 people can start the West Coast Trail hike each day -- 30 from the north and 30 from the south.
Just 60 people can start the West Coast Trail hike each day -- 30 from the north and 30 from the south.
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You can either begin the trail at Bamfield heading south or start at Port Renfrew on Port San Juan Bay and head north. The north end of the trail (toward Pachena Bay) is generally easier than the south end, so if you want to ease yourself into it, it might be wise to begin at Bamfield -- and remember, because you'll be carrying all your food, your pack will be heaviest at the beginning. Sometimes, though, permits for only one direction are available, making the decision much easier [source: Bannon].

To get to the trailhead, you can fly to Victoria, the capitol of British Columbia and the biggest city on Vancouver Island. From there, you can take a shuttle bus to the trailhead. If you choose to drive, you can park your car at one end and take a shuttle bus to the other trailhead so that it's waiting for you when you finish (and so you don't have to hurry or risk missing the shuttle bus)[source: Derworiz].

Water is a major feature of the WCT, and occasionally, heavy rains and floodwaters will make creek crossings impossible. If you encounter a surging creek or a beach that's flooded at high tide, Parks Canada advises you wait for water levels to become safe, and to undo the hip-belt on your pack so you can slip out of it more easily if you do fall.

The more enjoyable way to make a river crossing is by cable car -- if you like staying dry, that is. Cable cars ferry a maximum of two people across at a time; gravity will carry you to the middle of the river, and you must pull yourself the rest of the way.

Several portions of the WCT can be hiked along beaches instead of on muddy forest trails. But if you take the beach route, you'll have to cross beaches that are covered at high tide, so you will need to read tide tables -- which give the height of the water level in both meters and feet and a corresponding time -- in order to know when you can safely cross. You can obtain tide tables at the Fisheries and Oceans Canada Web site, or in print from Volume 6 of "The Canadian Tide and Current Tables."

There are also two tide stations on the trail, one at Port Renfrew and one at Bamfield. When hiking in the summer, you will have to add one hour to the tide tables to account for Daylight Savings Time [source: Leadem].

Hiking West Coast Trail: Camping and Accommodations

Tsusiat Falls is a popular beach for camping along the West Coast Trail.
Tsusiat Falls is a popular beach for camping along the West Coast Trail.
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If you plan to hike the West Coast Trail, you'll need a good waterproof tent, because there are no roofed shelters along the trail. And because you'll be carrying all of your food, rain gear and other necessities on your back, it would be wise to bring the lightest tent possible (most backpacking experts suggest carrying less than one-third of your body weight for men and one-quarter for women).

As we mentioned earlier, several thousand people hike the WCT every year, and to lessen the impact on the vegetation surrounding the trail, Parks Canada requests that hikers practice low-impact camping. On the WCT, that means camping in designated campgrounds wherever possible. These larger campgrounds feature outhouses, bear boxes for food storage, and they're very popular among hikers. The best way to ensure that you make it to an established campground each night is to carefully plan out how far you'll hike each day in advance [source: Parks Canada].

If you can't make it to an established campground, pitching a tent on the beach is a good option because it limits your impact on vegetated areas. But to avoid being surprised -- and soaked -- by the changing tide, be sure to set up camp well above the high-tide line. In a typical 24-hour day there are two different tide changes; be mindful of this if you plan to camp on the beach, or else you could find you, your tent and all of your gear unexpectedly swept out to sea in the middle of the night.

Campfires are permitted below the high-tide line on beaches, but they aren't allowed in the forest, or anywhere else on the trail. Parks Canada asks that hikers use only driftwood that is thinner than their wrist for fires (don't go chopping down trees or tearing off limbs), and no trace of the fire should be left after it's extinguished.

There is one place where you can leave the trail to sleep on a bed, if you're missing the comforts of home. The Ditidaht First Nation tribe is now renting luxury tent cabins at Tsquadra, which is just a short walk from the main trail. For $60 per night, the accommodations include a four-person canvas frame tent with wide cots, wood-burnings stoves and wood floors. It may sound rustic now, but after a couple of days on the trail, those tent cabins will probably look like The Ritz-Carlton [source: Derworiz].

Author's Note

The way people who have hiked it describe it, what with the ladders, cable cars, bridges, slippery terrain, tides, floods and mud, completing the West Coast Trail sounds more like running a Medieval gauntlet than recreation. But I'm sure the challenge makes finishing the trail feel that much sweeter. As someone who has spent a lot of time in the Pacific Northwest, the West Coast Trail is definitely on my list.

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Sources

  • Aitken, Wayne and Foster, David. "Blisters and Bliss: A Trekker's Guide to the West Coast Trail." Heritage House Publishing Co. Oct. 31, 2010.
  • Bannon, Robery J. "The West Coast Trail: One Step at a Time." oneSTEPOUTings Press. Aug. 7, 2008.
  • Derworiz, Colette. "Escape from the West Coast Trail." Edmonton Journal. June 2, 2012. (June 13, 2012) http://www2.canada.com/edmontonjournal/news/travel/story.html?id=31d2d233-e8b2-47cf-91f1-600fa1404819&p=3
  • Leadem, Tim. "Hiking the West Coast Trail: A Pocket Guide." Greystone Books. March 8, 2006.
  • Parks Canada. "Pacific Rim National Park Reserve West Coast Trail 2012 Hiker Preparation Guide." 2012.