Preparing to Hike the West Coast Trail

WCT_landscapeI saw a great video recently about the West Coast Trail (WCT), the challenging 75 km backpacking trail that runs along the west coast of Vancouver Island. The video showcased the best parts of the trail; its beauty, the fantastic scenery and the camaraderie that comes with sharing this type of an experience with others, but did not focus on the tough parts of the adventure. The slog. Hiking in the rain. Pulling your water out of streams. A week without creature comforts. Ladders, ladders and more ladders. So naturally, someone made a comment on the video, indicating that while it is an amazing hike, it can take months of preparation to get ready for it, and (I’m paraphrasing) it is not for the faint of heart. I was surprised at some of the responses to this comment. A number of people weighed in saying that they had done no preparation and handled it fine. Or as long as you were in good shape, it was nothing to worry about. They suggested that the person who made the original comment was exaggerating the difficulty of the trail, or, at the very least, the time required to prepare for it.

This whole exchange got me thinking about the whole idea of preparation, and what that means. Having hiked the entire trail once and part of it a second time (we’ll get to that story later), I believe that preparation encompasses much, much more than just being in “hiking shape”. Being in good physical shape is definitely part of it, but there’s also being prepared mentally, not only in attitude, but for what personal challenges you might face along the way. There’s being prepared gear-wise – do you have the equipment you will need for a safe and pleasant experience? What about being prepared skills-wise? Do you know how to filter water, pitch a tent, use a camp stove or make a fire? The key to being prepared for a hike like this is to know yourself, your limitations, and most importantly, to know what you don’t know. I’ve outlined below what I think is critical when preparing to hike the West Coast Trail; I hope this helps you plan your hike of a lifetime!

Know what you’re getting into

IMG_0343One of the biggest mistakes you can make is tackling a hike like this without having an idea of what lies ahead. Gather as much information as you can on the trail. Read guide books (the quintessential guidebook for the WCT is “Blisters and Bliss” by David Foster and Wayne Aitken). Check out Parks Canada’s website. Review blogs. Talk to people in your network who have hiked the trail before. Know what you are getting into and what your own personal limitations or reservations might be, and craft strategies to address those. Do you have any physical issues that might require special equipment (a knee brace, etc.)? Are you afraid of heights? Is this your first hike of this type? Are you strong enough to hike rugged terrain while carrying all of your gear? Asking yourself these types of questions armed with knowledge of what the trail is like will allow you to focus on the areas of preparation you will need to succeed. Also understand that despite diligent research, you may encounter the unexpected, so you need to be prepared for that. For instance, encountering wildlife such as bears, cougars and wolves is a distinct possibility – knowing that and dealing with it are two different things. Here is my handy checklist of what you definitely should know before hitting the WCT:

  • There are 3 points of access (and egress) to the West Coast Trail; the north end, the south end, and the Nitinat Narrows. Some favour hiking north to south, as you build up your muscles and confidence on the “easier” section of the trail before tackling the tougher stuff. Others prefer getting the tough stuff out of the way early. There are arguments for both. Whichever you choose, be sure to make an informed decision.
  • It could rain for the entire duration of your hike. The first time I hiked the trail, we got lucky and had no rain. The second time, it rained quite hard prior to our hike and some on the first day. The amount of mud the second time around compared to the first was astonishing!
  • You have to carry all of your gear, food and clothing on your back. There are no garbage cans along the trail, so you are expected to bring out what you bring in. An extra-large Ziploc bag to stow garbage comes in handy.
  • There is no running water, so you must be prepared to pull your water out of streams, filter it and treat it.
  • There are (thankfully) composting toilets at each campsite. They may not always be pretty, but they are there. Be prepared to climb either stairs or ladders to check them out.
  • The terrain is rugged and varied. On any given day you could be facing deep, muddy bogs, a slippery ocean shelf, boulder filled beaches, soft, energy-sucking sand, stories of seemingly unending ladders, broken down boardwalks and hidden, muddy tree roots.
  • This is the wilderness. “Encountering local wildlife” could mean bears, cougars, wolves and mice, not just the party dudes who arrive with a 40 pounder of whiskey.

Train, train and don’t forget to train

H&SOnce you understand what lies ahead, you can focus on getting yourself into the best physical condition possible before the hike. Before my first hiking trip a number of years ago, I asked my physiotherapist if he could recommend any exercises that I should be doing to get ready for my trip. His response was simple, but made a lot of sense. “The best training for a hike is going for a hike”. Here are a few tips on training:

  • Hike with a pack as much as possible. Start off light, but continue to add weight as you progress, and be sure that you hike as much as you can with your full pack weight. Your center of balance, stance and emotional outlook can be impacted by the amount of weight you are carrying, so be sure to get used to it. To paraphrase an old election saying, “hike early and hike often.”
  • Focus on the areas you identified in your research as issues for you. If you are afraid of heights, try to find trails with limited exposure to get you acclimatized. If you haven’t camped in 25 years (which was my experience), do a few trial runs with the tent. I recognize that this particular point is a case of “do as I say, not as I do”, but it’s important nonetheless. My hiking partners will tell you that my trial run consisted of an overnight in the backyard of our family cottage, during which I lasted about 2 hours in the tent before I threw in the towel and went into the cottage. However, what I learned during this experience was that using a bunch of wadded up clothing shoved into a stuff sack as a pillow was not going to cut it; I needed to buy an actual camp pillow. And that it’s much easier to sleep outside on hard ground after an exhausting day of hiking.

Make sure you have the right gear

I could write an entire blog post about the pros and cons of certain types of gear, what my favourites are and why, but I’ll leave that for another day. Instead, I’ll list the general philosophies that I think should govern your gear decisions for the West Coast Trail (okay, and maybe I’ll slip in just one or two specific recommendations).

Gear Philosophy 1 – WEIGH YOUR GEAR
IMG_0230You’d be surprised how much a couple of hiking outfits, sleeping bag, food and sundries adds up on the scale. Be sure to weigh EVERYTHING you intend to take and make smart and ruthless decisions about what you really need. If you have two items that serve the same purpose and one weighs less, TAKE THAT ONE. If you are hesitating as to whether you really need a particular item, leave it at home. Share gear (stove, tent, water filter) with your hiking companions whenever possible.  And remember, water weighs 2.2 pounds or 1 kg per litre! Don’t forget to factor that into your total pack weight. I’ve read that your pack should weigh no more than one quarter to one third of your body weight. Mine weighed about 20% of my body weight and it STILL felt heavy, especially on Day 7. Do your back a favour and keep your pack as light as possible, without sacrificing necessities.

Gear Philosophy 2 – FIELD TEST YOUR GEAR
Now that you have that fancy new camp stove, water filter, or those top of the line hiking poles, be sure to use them before your trip. Being well versed on the use and care of your gear will save you time on the hike and make for a more relaxing experience. Also, make sure you hike in all of the clothing you intend to bring. Surprise chafing is not something you want to be dealing with on the WCT. And although it goes without saying, break in your hiking boots before your trip, but ensure that they still have a decent tread to deal with slippery surfaces.

I do have a couple of specific gear recommendations I’d like to include. Go with a synthetic filled sleeping bag. If down gets wet, it stays wet and weighs you down (pardon the pun). Steer clear of cotton (for the same reason). Wool and dri-fit are your friends on the trail. Bring hiking poles. They are indispensable for stabilizing yourself on tricky parts of the trail, and come in handy for testing the depth of mud bogs. Bring a good quality head torch and extra batteries. It is PITCH DARK at night on the trail, so you’ll need one for twilight water runs and late night trips to the bathroom. And remember, keep your gear as lightweight as you can.

Brush up on your camping skills

campingIf you are anything like me, and your camping experience consists of driving up to a nearby campground and overnighting in a tent or trailer with all the comforts of home, be sure to brush up on your back-country camping skills, as it can be a very different animal. Use your stove, learn how to build a fire (just in case) and read up on basic first aid. Practice setting up and breaking camp so you become efficient at getting up and out in the morning, as you may be racing against the tide or the sun to meet certain milestones. (Apologies to my hiking compatriots – I never got really good at breaking camp quickly. Next time! :-))

Be mentally prepared to stay

HHH_960x720The West Coast Trail is not easily accessed, and also not easily exited once you have started the journey. Other than leaving at the Nitinat Narrows Trailhead (33 km from the north, 42 km from the south) or being medically evacuated (not recommended), once you are on the trail, you are effectively committed to completing it. Half the battle of tackling (and enjoying) an arduous hike like this is learning how to remain positive, even when things are rough. Having the right mental attitude and seeing obstacles as challenges to overcome as opposed to barriers to success is key to finishing the hike, and relishing the experience. Ernest Shackleton once said “Difficulties are just things to overcome, after all.” If you approach the hike with that kind of attitude, it will keep you going, even if you get stuck under a rock (happened to me), are thigh deep in mud (happened to my husband), or fall flat on your face/back/side (happened to all of us). Curse or vent when you need to (and believe me, I did) but then put a smile on your face, cross that hurdle off the list and keep on trekking.

Be mentally prepared to leave

Once we’d made the decision to exit the trail, we took full advantage of being finished!

Most of this blog has focused on making sure you are fully equipped to start, enjoy and finish the West Coast Trail. However, it is also important to be prepared to leave the trail early, before you complete it, if circumstances mandate it. On our most recent West Coast Trail hike, my husband took a hard fall on a slippery boulder on the beginning of our second day and sprained his ankle (although we didn’t realize it at the time). By Day 3, he was in a great deal of pain, the ankle was swelling and his pace was slowing down. We made the decision to exit the trail at Nitinat Narrows before our hike was complete. We knew the terrain was only going to get worse from there and it would be dangerous to continue. So we wished our intrepid hiking partners luck and arranged to meet up with them in Victoria in four days. When you put so much planning, training, preparation and anticipation into a trip, it is not easy to make the call to end it early, especially when it is something you are doing as a group. However, the risk of further injury was too great. Even if we hadn’t already hiked the trail once and crossed it off the bucket list, we still would have made that call. And you need to be prepared to do the same if needed. There’s always another trip.

Final word

5 Hikers_closerMy final point about preparing to hike the West Coast Trail is – be prepared to savour the experience. This is truly a world-class hiking trail that traverses a beautiful and rugged part of Canada. Its challenges only make the accomplishment of finishing the trail that much more satisfying. If you decide to embark on this journey, be sure to reflect on the experience as you live it, and enjoy the little things along the way. You won’t be disappointed!