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A Victorian’s guide to hiking the West Coast Trail

The trail isn’t for the faint of heart—or for those who want to stay clean—but it offers much in return

By Jolene Rudisuela
August 24, 2022
Travel
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

A Victorian’s guide to hiking the West Coast Trail

The trail isn’t for the faint of heart—or for those who want to stay clean—but it offers much in return

Travel
News
Based on facts either observed and verified firsthand by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

A Victorian’s guide to hiking the West Coast Trail

The trail isn’t for the faint of heart—or for those who want to stay clean—but it offers much in return

By Jolene Rudisuela
August 24, 2022
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A Victorian’s guide to hiking the West Coast Trail

Early on a Friday morning in late July, I sat buzzing in the passenger seat of my car in a Sooke parking lot—hiking boots already on, 30-pound backpack flopped over on the ground—as I waited for the bus to pull up that would take me and my cousin to the Gordon River near Port Renfrew.

The jitters weren’t from nervousness—I was ecstatic. Because, friends, I was finally hiking the West Coast Trail.

The West Coast Trail has been on my backpacking bucket list from the moment I first found out about it. It’s a trek that had consumed my thoughts since I booked my permit in January; a trail that I spent far too many hours reading about on online forums.

The 75-kilometre trek between Port Renfrew and Bamfield in the traditional territories of the Pacheedaht, Ditidaht, and Huu-ay-aht First Nations is a test of endurance and perseverance. Trekkers climb up and down dozens of towering ladders in the lush remote forests, wade through ankle-deep (sometimes knee-deep) mud, navigate weather-worn (sometimes broken) boardwalks, and walk along some of the most stunning beaches and rocky, coastal landscapes on Vancouver Island.

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The West Coast Trail has become world-renowned amongst outdoor enthusiasts, forcing a capped permit system to reduce overcrowding and wear on the trail. Between May and the end of September each year, between 7,000 and 10,000 people from around the world hike the iconic route. This year, for seven days, I was one of them.

There is a lot to do to prepare for the trek, and more still that can go wrong. This is not where to look for a detailed breakdown of each day on the trail, but here are some tips from a first-time West Coast Trailer. 

A sunset enjoyed from Thrasher's Cove campsite. Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily

First things first: learn from my mistakes

It was about 9am on the morning of Jan. 21, a typical rainy Island Friday, when I logged onto my computer. As I read through my morning news briefs (ahem, subscribe to Capital Daily, if you aren’t already), I realized, in horror, that the Parks Canada West Coast Trail permit reservations system had opened an hour earlier.

The first thing wanna-be West Coast Trail trekkers should know is that you absolutely need a permit to get on the trail—and permits sell out fast. Especially if you want a prime start date in July and August (when the weather is warmest and trail is at its driest), those coveted spots could be gone within minutes. 

So, remember to note the date permits go on sale well in advance, and add it to your calendar so you don’t forget. As you might’ve already guessed, because of this blunder, I did not get my preferred time frame as I scrambled to get onto the Parks Canada reservation website. But my cousin and I did come out with a respectable mid-June start date. If in a bind, the wetter months of May and September that bookend the season don’t often fill up completely—but prepare yourself for rain. 

The problem with booking a week-long trek months in advance, though, is that things can change in that time. My cousin and I had to cancel our original start date because of a sudden health issue, and we are far from the only ones who have a change of plans. 

If you miss the reservation opening date, or want to book a more spontaneous trip, permits become available again throughout the summer as hikers cancel plans. Check the Parks Canada reservation system frequently as dates will open up occasionally, or lurk in the various West Coast Trail Facebook groups to snap up cancelled permits. 

As an accomplished lurker, I pounced on some late July permits up for grabs—and back to planning we went.

Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily

Getting there

Islanders prepping for the trail have it easy. We don’t have to deal with ferry rides, costly flights, or the fear of losing expensive backpacking equipment in an airport somewhere. 

But the trailheads at Gordon River near Port Renfrew and Pacheena Bay near Bamfield are still a bit of a journey if you’re coming from Victoria. 

While some get family members to pick them up or organize vehicle swaps with hikers headed in the opposite direction on the same days, it’s also common for people to pay to park at either end and take the West Coast Trail Express between the parking lot and trailhead. As I live in a one-car household with my partner, my cousin and I opted to take the West Coast Trail Express both ways. 

When we got on the bus on our way out, we were surprised to see it completely full of hikers. But by the time we got to the Gordon River Parks Canada office, us and another couple from Edmonton were the only ones left. Everyone else was hiking the shorter but also well-travelled Juan de Fuca trail. 

If the bus is the route you want to take, I’d recommend booking in advance. While the bus may very well have room for some hikers without reservations, it’s better to be safe than sorry. 

The potential for injury

As soon as we unloaded off the boat that had shuttled us the short way across the Gordon River to the trailhead on our first day, we were greeted with our first ladder. Climbing straight up 50 feet into the rainforest, it was a daunting sight. 

Perhaps more daunting was the group we met at the shore waiting to take the boat back to the other side. Mud-caked boots, a torn backpack, and scratched shins offered us a glimpse of what we were in for.

“Prepare yourselves for personal growth!” one member of the group yelled at us with a smirk as she boarded the boat. 

We adjusted our backpack straps one last time, with a little bit of new trepidation. And then, one by one, we started to climb.

The West Coast Trail—or as my cousin now affectionately calls it, the West Coast Obstacle Course—is not for the faint of heart. With over 100 ladders scattered throughout the forest trails, along with slippery tree roots, muddy bogs, slick boulders, and massive logs, the trail can sometimes be more about your will to push through than it is about physical strength and stamina. 

There are ladders aplenty on the West Coast Trail. Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily
Some boardwalks allow you to speed through muddy, rooty sections. Others, not so much. Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily

All that to say that this is not a trail for beginner hikers—something that the Parks Canada guide who did our orientation at the beginning of the trail made sure to make very clear. 

Each year, about one in every 75 hikers doesn’t make it to the end, largely due to injuries from slips and falls, exhaustion, exposure, or illness. On top of Parks Canada’s official numbers Carl Edgar, who runs the Crab Shack and the ferry service to the middle entry at Nitinaht Lake, says he evacuates about 200 people each year that don’t factor into Parks Canada’s tally—many of them just get to the middle and feel they can’t go on. 

Many of the most challenging sections are made even more difficult and dangerous in wet conditions. Sandstone tidal shelves seem to take on the texture of ice when wet. Even the boardwalks, which are meant to reduce trail wear and ease travel, become deceptively slippery under the slightest rain. A momentary lapse in concentration and a bad foot placement can end a trip in seconds. 

In May, a man from Texas made headlines when he slipped while walking on a log, piercing his eye and brain with a branch. While this was definitely a freak accident, he is just one of dozens of injuries each year for similar reasons. 

The trail also brings the potential for wildlife encounters. This summer, one campsite was closed due to bear activity, and another was also being frequented by a black bear. As we approached the end of the trail, we passed many hikers who said they had seen it. We didn’t run into the bear, but were keenly aware of its presence. For nearly the whole day we would periodically see bear tracks in the mud and sand.

A bear track on the beach. Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily

My cousin and I finished the trail with no major wildlife encounters and no injuries, but we each did have a few slips and falls that could have easily ended differently. At the end of each day, our feet dragging and our bodies tired, we were certainly happy to see our camp. 

What to pack

The definitive guide to the West Coast Trail, Blisters and Bliss, isn’t called that for nothing. Walking kilometre after kilometre with a heavy pack on your back is already a perfect recipe for blisters—and that’s without the very real possibility of getting sand in your boots. 

On our fifth day, as we waited for our orders of halibut and buttered baked potatoes at the famed Crab Shack in the middle of the trail at Nitinaht Narrows, we watched as a group of four women peeled off their socks and gingerly added bandages and tape to their blistered feet. (And no, this did not ruin our appetites as we awaited the freshest meal we’d eaten in days.)

As someone who has a history of toe blisters on backpacking trips this is something I absolutely wanted to avoid, and after extensive research ahead of the trip, I clicked “order” on a pair of toe sock liners. The thinking was that having fabric between my toes would prevent the friction that leads to blisters. 

Putting them on felt wrong, and adding my normal hiking sock layer overtop felt bulky, but my feet survived. And as silly as they looked, I credit these socks for keeping me 100% blister free for the entire 75-kilometre journey. 

One of the most important considerations while preparing for the trail is to have hiking boots or shoes that are comfortable, and that you are confident will be able to carry you the whole way. This means trying out and breaking in your footwear ahead of time (even if you feel a bit silly decked out in full hiking gear for a walk around Thetis Lake).

Aside from the other hiking essentials of food, sleeping set up, and clothes, we packed a Swedish dishcloth that proved extremely effective for wiping condensation off the tent accumulated from a night sleeping beside the ocean. A cheap plastic rain poncho proved to work better than my rain jacket at keeping me dry after a long day of trudging along the beach in the rain. And snacks of chocolate and Fuzzy Peaches kept our morale up and gave us a little boost when our feet didn’t seem to want to walk anymore.

Our favourite campsite: Tsusiat Falls. Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily

At the end of the day, everyone has different preferences in terms of gear and supplies. The more backpacking trips you go on, the more you can hone your gear list and what works for you and what doesn’t. 

Oh, and you’re not going to save much weight by only bringing half a roll of toilet paper, as was suggested to me online. You don’t know what might happen out there. Just bring the full roll.

Take your time

There were certainly some hard days and some moments I thought I couldn’t climb another ladder, but I can say without a doubt that the unparalleled beauty of the West Coast Trail made every step worth it. 

Every beach was stunning in its own unique way. Tidal flats filled with more creatures than I could possibly name stretched for miles. Secluded waterfalls crashed down into perfect swimming spots. Ancient trees towered above.  

Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily

I have never seen so much beauty as I did on that one week on the West Coast Trail. And while a seven-day trek may seem long to some, it went flying by. 

My biggest piece of advice for wanna-be West Coast Trail trekkers is to take your time. Take in the incredible scenery, explore the tidepools and rocky shelves, and be in the moment. 

I don’t know when, if ever, I’ll hike the trail again, but I’m glad to have not rushed what is for many the “trip of a lifetime.”

Before I knew it, on day seven, we were hiking out of the forest onto our final beach stretch at Pacheena Bay. A couple exploring the beach with their dog sidled over to us and asked, “Did you just hike the West Coast Trail?”

“We sure did,” I replied, a big grin creeping onto my face. That smile stayed there for days.

We couldn't stop smiling after finishing the trail. Photo: Jolene Rudisuela / Capital Daily

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A Victorian’s guide to hiking the West Coast Trail
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