A Guide to Hiking the West Coast 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.