Gord and I planned our first West Coast Trail experience for nearly a year and August 13-19 2015 we did it! Leading up to the hike I tried to find answers about fuel, bug spray and itineraries for daily hikes and meals. Now that I have experienced the trail I wanted to share some of that knowledge for others who would be looking for the same details.
By the numbers here was our West Coast Trail hike: total distance of 75 KM covered in 25 hours and 43 minutes of hiking time. In that time I took nearly 222,000 steps and we spent six nights and seven days on the trail.
We went South (Port Renfrew/Gordon River) to North (Pachena). There weren’t any compelling reasons to go the other way for us, but the appeal of attacking the harder terrain (60KM to 75KM on the trail) first was a bonus. When the Gordon River ferry drops you off on the trailhead you are overwhelmed with the age of the forest, the scale of what you are up against and feel a bit like storming enemy territory as you and your other ferry mates hit the trail.
Years of alpine hiking prepared us for this hike. What elevation gains there were in this section was done over a well groomed trail with roots and more roots. We saw everything the trail had to offer on day one, with rotted boardwalks, tricky roots, mud and ladders. Having long legs and poles helped us navigate the roots and mud with ease but you still had to plan your steps because the roots are slippery and we were only a misplaced foot away from a serious injury.
Owens Point Detour
We went from Gordon River to Thrashers campsite for the first part of our hike. The Parks Canada orientation said that however long it would take you to complete that part of the hike would be equal to how long it would take to go from Thrashers to Campers Bay. Seeing as we had only been hiking for under three hours we opted to carry on and go to Campers Bay. The tides were favorable so we did the beach access route, which would allow us to see intertidal rock formations at Owen Point.
Leading up to Owens Point we had to navigate huge boulders, large trees and many slippery sections. This was a very slow and difficult section of the trail. It was a choose your own adventure through a maze of obstacles and we often had to back track to try another route. After a sweaty hike to start the day we showed some exhaustion in this area so going slowly and placing your boot with confidence helped us arrive at Owens Point in one piece.
Unfortunately the tides weren’t low enough to walk around Owens Point, and the only time they would be was at 8:20AM, so we had to get creative. After a few failed attempts of trying to crouch along slippery sections of rock (and I had my closest call of the trip in this area and I was saved only by a well placed foot to break my fall, but my pants, bag and tent sack all suffered cuts from sliding down a rock). Gord found a rope marked with a buoy which allowed us to get to the western most part of Owens Point. From there he found another rope that led up over the caves of the Point. After some discussion and testing the rope without the bags we scaled up the rope and trusted our lives to whoever placed it there before us.
This taught of a valuable lesson: rope with buoy’s nearby were to be explored and not ignored. They were an evacuation route if you couldn’t proceed further. They also offered the option of doing the hike with a bit of danger.
Once we climbed up the rope we hiked through a well marked path and then took a rope down to the northern part of Owens Point and we were back on the trail. Not everyone would be physically capable of doing this rope section. Those who can’t would take off their shoes and walk around the Point to find an area they could climb back up to. Owens Point is worth the visit but only if the tides are favorable or you wish to be creative with how you experience it.
From Owens Point to 66KM (or Beach Access A) we were on the ocean shelf and able to move with greater speed and confidence. Surge channels were common but if the channel couldn’t easily be stepped over there would be an inland route to avoid the hazard. The difficult areas of the West Coast Trail typically had multiple ways of getting around them. With nearly 400 people on the trail at any given time odds are someone found an easier route, so take your time to look around and see what other options exist before doing something dangerous.
We arrived at Campers Bay to find the site very full (a lot of southbound hikers were set up here) and we tucked ourselves in by another tent and weren’t sad to leave the site in the morning.
With the first day, and hardest section, behind us we were treated to days with a quicker hiking pace and the ability to hike until noon and set up camp. It was common for us to arrive when others were taking a lunch break and have a few hours of solitude at the site before campers would be arriving for the night.
Where did we stay?
We set up camp at the following sites:
- Night 1, Thursday August 13: Camper Bay
- Night 2, Friday August 14: Walbern
- Night 3, Saturday August 15: KM40
- Night 4, Sunday August 16: Tsuisat Falls
- Night 5, Monday August 17: Tscocowis
- Night 6, Tuesday August 18: Michigan
We preferred the solitude and luxury of Tscocowis. We set up right by the water fall and the site was nearly empty. After that, our next favorite spot was KM40. There were no other tents on the beach and even though we were in the ‘drought zone’ there was a water source a few hundred meters away. Walbern and Michigan are favorites because of getting a sheltered spot in the trees that offered a little more room than other sites and had a good amount of privacy.
Tsuisat Falls was our next favorite site and could have easily been contending for first overall if distance to toilets and bear lockers could be improved. Finally, rounding out the list was Camper Bay. If we arrived earlier to Camper Bay we may have been able to find a place that was secluded or sheltered, but we didn’t have that luxury so it suffers in last. The weather greatly impacted how we enjoyed these sites, being able to sit on the sand and watch whales is more enjoyable when it’s sunny and hot outside.
The further North we hiked the faster our times got and the more relaxed we became with how far we hiked in a day. We sped up our hiking pace and were able to cover pretty significant ground on the hard pack sand, boardwalks or just moving quicker with a lighter bag.
What did we see?
From Walbern north we saw all sorts of activity in the water. We would see a blowhole followed by the backside of a whale. We definitely saw orcas and the whales may have been grey or humpback. Bald eagles were present in the woods and slugs, lots of slugs. Sea otters ran by our site at KM40 and the sea lion colony at KM10 was fun to watch.
We saw bear cub tracks by the Uzbekistan wreckage, and when we got off the trail head there was a confirmed sighting of a bear in that area. We noticed moose tracks and the seclusion of KM40 lead to my paranoia that a mountain lion was watching us, but thankfully we were not able to confirm this.
On the trail you will find 70 ladders, 130 bridges and four cable cars. In most situations you have to use all of them, but with the drought on Vancouver Island the streams weren’t flowing as much as usual so we would walk through shallow water to avoid the cable car.
The cable car was our least enjoyable obstacle on the hike. With the two of us and full packs we added 500 pounds of weight to the car, and not all of the cars moved easily. We used the cars at Cullite, Carmanah and Klanawah. The worst of these was Carmanah. The car didn’t rest back in the middle so we had to pull it the entire distance to get the car to us and using the rope inside the car is tricky when it’s fully loaded.
We weren’t able to find a way for both of us to pull on the rope so we would take turns hauling ourselves across the distance. Given the option of removing our boots to walk across a stream or taking the cable car we would always choose the stream crossing.
What did we eat?
We have experience packing for two night/three day trips so tripling that was simple enough but we wanted variety in our meals so we had a different supper each night.
On weekend hikes we typically have more than enough food but on the WCT we packed perfectly, and we finished the rest of our trail mix at the as we walked to the finish line at Pachena. However, I was often hungry and could have used more food. For my future reference, I will pack a fourth meal of granola and powdered milk to act as a post supper snack because our three meals a day wasn’t enough to offset the calories I was burning.
Here is a table showing what we ate on which days.
The suppers I prepared were Coconut Curry Soup and Ramen Packet Seasoned Quinoa, however I used Couscous on this trip because Quinoa has a longer cooking time. The recipes are from DirtyGourmet.com and there are other good meal options to explore there.
By the Carmanah lighthouse you will find Chez Monique and at the Nitinat Narrow ferry you will find a crab shack. We opted for Chez Monique and for $25 we got a fully loaded burger. Thankfully the burger patty was a good size and the fixing on top of the burger justified the cost. We skipped the fresh crab because for $35 we weren’t sure it was for us. However, you could get a potato for $3 or smaller eats for a little less money. We had planned on eating at the crab shack but when we didn’t we ate further in to our food reserves, but we encountered a southbound hiker who wanted to unload some weight with trail mix and nut bars so we gladly accepted them and used that food to supplement our change in meal plans.
What is the most essential piece of gear?
Poles. Without a doubt this is the most important accessory to bring on the hike. I used two telescopic Leki walking sticks and Gord used a single ski pole. Whatever your preference, bring a pole. I was happy to have two poles when navigating slippery rocks or when I needed to propel myself in thick sand and Gord was quite capable of getting around with a single pole. You will find a use for a pole each day, and even if you don’t use it to get up and down broken boardwalks or pivot around a mud hole with exposed roots you can use it to swat cobwebs that are across the trail.
The next most important piece of equipment was gaiters. Gaiters combined with waterproof hiking boots give you a feeling of invincibility and even though you should avoid stepping in large mud puddles, this combination gives you the forgiveness if you happen to step in to a five inch mud pit. On the sand the gaiters prevent annoying grains from getting in the boot and aggravating your foot.
Another benefit is that with the underbrush wet from the overnight mist or a recent rainfall the gaiters prevent your boot from getting fully soaked before it’s too late.
I debated on ankle high water proof hiking boots or shoes that could dry quickly and opted for the protection of the boot. Because we only had to walk in mist my boots never got too wet that they were damp by morning so my Keen boots were perfect. The high ankle support was appreciated when navigating boulders and roots. Doing the trail in trail shoes may have saved some weight but it could have been at the cost of injury.
After that you need to have your standard affair of quick drying clothing, rain gear and clothes to switch in to after you have finished hiking.
What did I bring?
My entire gear list can be found on LighterPack here. Refer to the image below to see how my gear was separated in my bag. After all of the gear was sorted out and necessary clothes set aside for the hike the pack weight (without water) was around 43 pounds. The pack didn’t start to feel lighter until the halfway point. The consumption of food made it easier to pack the bag up every day as the dry bags fit easier in to the pack.
On the topic of fuel, Gord and I both use JetBoils. We plan our meals around them and it works for us. Other people may use other food preparation methods so when it comes to fuel this may not apply to everyone, but for our week in the woods we each had a Primus 450 can and it was more than enough. The canister was just under half full at the end and we were able to deposit them with the Parks Canada office at Pachena.
We used the JetBoil to prepare at least six cups a water each day. Over the course of six days, or roughly 36 cups, this amounted to 8.5 litres of water we boiled. A smaller canister of fuel may have worked but when it comes to your primary source of food preparation we didn’t want to be shortchanged. If you find yourself low on fuel there is a box at Chez Monique where you can pick up extra fuel.
I brought bug spray but didn’t encounter enough mosquitoes or bugs to apply it. Gord received a few mosquito bites but they were mostly uncommon for the week on the trail. The time of year you hike may impact your decision to bring extra bug repellent or not.
We relied on a SteriPen to sterilize the water, but when that failed we had to use tablets for treatment. It was good to have a backup plan because technology can, and does, fail in the woods. Our typical watering holes were streams that were flowing at a good pace so there wasn’t a lot of visible bits in the water. Only a few times did we have to get water from a less reliable source, and this is when a water filter would have been useful, but the extra weight wouldn’t have been justified with how infrequently it was needed. I brought the bottom half of a 500ml water bottle to scoop water out when the water wasn’t deep enough to place our Nalgene bottles in, so consider that as an addition to your gear.
What did I leave behind?
Bear spray. We had this debate 12 hours up until we departed Victoria and decided to leave it behind. Because we flew in to BC we couldn’t bring bear spray with us, so whatever we bought for the trip would likely get left behind and be a wasted expense. With nearly 400 people on the trail at any given time we took our chances and left the spray behind.
We overheard recommendation from Victoria MEC that said that it is difficult to use bear spray effectively. The distance at which to fire and potential of aggravating the bear or spraying yourself is too risky and the best line of defense would be to follow the safety tips given at the Parks Canada orientation.
We used the West Coast Trail Express bus for Victoria to Port Renfrew and then from Bamfield to Victoria. Because we flew in to Victoria there were items I didn’t want to carry on the hike with me so I paid the $20 to have a bag checked with the WCT Express team, which was awaiting us when we got off the trail. The bus ride back from Pachena to Victoria was long, and only made longer because of a detour with a nearby forest fire, but there are few options getting to and from the trail (hitch hike, bus, leave your car at a lot) so choose whichever fits your comfort and schedule.
The WCT was a unique experience and I am glad to have done it. The West Coast offered more than rocks and roots, every day we would walk through a changing landscape and have to remind ourselves that we were on the same trail. There is a lot of beauty along the Pacific Ocean and even on poor weather days the sights were amazing.
That said I didn’t find the hike overly strenuous or challenging. I will admit that some areas were harder than others but they were manageable and I never found myself hating what I was doing. If we ended up on a hard section of the trail it was because Gord and I followed a rope, or we opted for beach access instead of the safer forest route.
We were well prepared for the trip. We handled all obstacles that appeared and the trip was more a vacation than a challenge, which was a nice bonus. The first day hiking to Camper Bay was the most difficult but it wasn’t the hardest hiking I have done. If each day was a repeat of that day then I would have ended the trip tired, sore and probably with a few more bumps and bruises. As it were, we planned to be on the trail for a certain amount of time and to avoid arriving ahead of schedule we kept our hikes short and relaxed in the afternoon.
The WCT can be seen as a right of passage for young graduates or a challenge for those looking to celebrate a milestone birthday. That doesn’t diminish the beauty and wonder you will find on the hike. This is a bucket list kind of hike and would encourage everyone to try it. We were fortunate to have great weather in a summer that had a drought, and next year could be constant rain and the conditions could greatly affect the experience.
Plan for the worst, give yourself time on the trail and if end up with good weather then build a lounge chair out of driftwood and watch the whales.