Hiking the West Coast Trail

Port Renfrew, Vancouver Island, BC

Hiking the West Coast Trail - Vancouver Island, BC

The West Coast Trail is located on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada. Considered one of the best multi-day hikes in the world, the spectacular scenery also makes it one of the most well-known hikes. It's the third and southern most section of the pristine Pacific Rim National Park

Stretching for more than 75 kilometers, the West Coast Trail weaves along the rocky and rugged shores from Bamfield to Port Renfrew on the western shores of Vancouver Island. This is a remote location about 2 hours from the capital city of Victoria, BC. The trail is exposed to strong winds and surging tides. Under the protection of Parks Canada, the area is home to some of the oldest trees in the world and is a haven for wildlife, including cougar, black bear and hundreds of species of birds on the Pacific Flyway. Just offshore, migrating Orca and humpback whales feed in the fertile waters.

Thousands of hikers from all over the world come to experience the nearly untouched area and to camp under some of the last remaining ancient forests of the world. To limit the amount of damage to the BC ecosystem, Parks Canada restricts the number of hikers on the West Coast Trail. Trail permits are required for all hikers

The trail is opened from May 1 to September 30. It's recommended to attempt the hike in September when the summer crowds thin out and the weather is warm and dry. Hiking the West Coast Trail is challenging, and, in sections, you'll be pushed to your physical limits. You'll encounter:

  • Towering ladders that take you down deep gorges and up the other side;
  • Thick, lush forests with trees wider than cars;
  • Deep creeks and trenches that you'll cross on fallen logs with no handrails;
  • Endless sandy beaches with the mighty Pacific surf at your footstep;
  • Rocky coastal shelves teaming with sea creatures in the intertidal zone;
  • Unobstructed gale-force winds that blow ashore during a Pacific storm;
  • Mud, oh the mud, deep and thick and unavoidable on the trail!

The West Coast Trail can be hiked in either direction. The northern end is easy for the last 5 kilometers while the south end is twisty, muddy and filled with tree roots and steep sections. Hiking during the off-season is not recommended because of bad trail conditions, heavy storms and a lack of readily available rescue personnel.

A Short History of the West Coast Trail

The West Coast Trail was cut through the wilds more than a century ago to help rescuers reach survivors from the numerous shipwrecks that occurred in the "Graveyard of the Pacific". Over 60 ships met their demise off the west coast of Vancouver Island. The lucky survivors who reached land followed the Lifesaving Trail to safety. Today, it's known as the West Coast Trail and is one of the best outdoor adventures in Canada.

Backpacking trip - West Coast Trail

Fitness

Despite all the warnings about hiking the West Coast Trail, don't get consumed with self-doubt. People with at least a moderate fitness level, accustomed to regular exercise, should have few problems completing the trek. When we were on the trail, we came across:

  • 65 year old men with bad knees hiking with their sons;
  • 45 year old mothers, without their families, who were giddy with excitement;
  • 17 year old kids hiking with their parents.

It's true that the West Coast Trail is 75 kilometers long, but you don't hike it all in one day. Most people complete the trek in 7 or 8 days which breaks the hike up into a manageable pace of about 10 kilometers a day.

To help you determine if you're capable of this oceanside hike, consider the following questions:

  • Do you have a positive attitude? If you're not mentally prepared to 'rough-it' for a week, you'll make yourself & those around you miserable.

  • Can you carry at least 40 lbs on your back? This sounds harder than it really is. Modern equipment is light and durable. Also, you can share the load with the other hikers in your party. Your fitness level for hiking should be at least at a moderate level. Note, walking around the neighbourhood isn't the same thing as hiking; you should be regularly hiking in a natural area, where there are natural hazards, changes in terrain, up and down hills, etc.

  • Do you have common sense? You'll be crossing ravines on felled logs with no handrails. You'll be scaling towering ladders in which a fall could lead to certain death. Do you have enough common sense to understand your abilities - as well as your limitations?

  • Do you want to hike the West Coast Trail to get in shape? WRONG! Before you start the trek, you need at least a moderate fitness level. Attempting this hike in order to get fit is not at all a good idea.

  • Do you have bad joints? We saw people with bad knees, ankles and backs on the trip. They overcame their pain by having the right attitude, lots of excitement and a bottle of Advil.

You don't have to be an elite athlete to hike the West Coast Trail. The keys are to stay hydrated, watch your step, use good judgment and keep a comfortable pace. Oh yeah, having the ability to start a camp fire helps too.

What To Expect on the Trail

The West Coast Trail is spectacularly beautiful, and also very remote. If you decide to hike it, expect to see the rugged beauty of nature along the thin strip of land where the rainforest meets the sea.

The trail follows the coast along the foot of the Pacific Coast Mountains where the open Pacific Ocean meets the Canada's western shores. You hike and camp amongst some of the oldest and only remaining temperate rainforest in the world.

Here's what you'll encounter on this epic hike in British Columbia:

  • Hike amongst the largest, tallest trees in the world. Some of these Douglas fir, Cedar and Hemlock are over 400 years old.

  • Witness some of the unfortunate shipwrecks that made this trail necessary in the first place (the West Coast Trail was formerly known as the Dominion Life Saving Trail). The "Graveyard of the Pacific" claimed over 60 ships (and hundreds of lives) along this coast. You can still see some of the wreckage in the waters.

  • View the beauty of the coast that was carved by the Pacific Ocean. You'll see surge channels, caves, coastal shelves, gorges and waterfalls. The pristine beauty changes as frequently as the tides.

  • Intertidal zone, West Coast Trail
    Walk along the secluded sandy beaches, rugged shores and intertidal zones where the land meets the sea. Even when the trail is full with the maximum number of hikers, you'll enjoy the rugged beauty in solitude. It's a long trail!

  • Learn to read the tide tables for the West Coast Trail. Use good judgement while hiking so you don't get caught by the rising tide.

  • Challenge yourself physically and mentally. You'll be self-sufficient for at least 6 days. Hike at your own pace and endure the fiercest weather in Canada (outside for the Arctic of course).
  • Expect the extremes along the West Coast Trail: extreme natural beauty, extremely friendly hikers as well as extreme storms, rain, mud (and more mud!) and ladder-climbs.

Here are a few things that can not be stressed enough:

  • The trail is not a nice, flat groomed trail. It's rough and slippery and studded with thick tree roots. Expect to fall at least once.

  • Parks Canada warns that the trail is strenuous and difficult, and isn't recommended for beginner or novice hikers. We actually met many regular, not-that-fit people on the trail who were successfully going at their own pace (note, this means that you have to carry more provisions because it'll take you longer to do the trail). They had the right attitude and were well-prepared. But we still highly recommend at least a moderate fitness level to hike the West Coast Trail. You don't have to be able to run 100 km uphill during a heat wave, swim across the ocean using only one arm, or fight off a bear with both hands tied behind your back. Just be used to hiking regularly and be able to carry some weight. See our 'Fitness' section above.

  • Mud, mud & more mud! The region receives over 3 meters (11 feet) of rain annually. Even in autumn, expect to find huge, deep mud bogs on the path. Try not to fall face-first into one (not saying I know anyone who did this)!

  • The good news is that there are very few mosquitoes on Vancouver Island since there's so much salt water around. However, for those who are squeamish, be warned that there are large slugs & spiders in the rainforest. They keep to themselves but don't be surprised if you squash one with your hand while climbing a ladder.

  • Expect some rain and even a storm. The open Pacific Ocean is always nearby.

  • Bring a pair of cycling or workout gloves. They come in handy for the ladders.

  • Crossing a gorge on a log, West Coast Trail
    When crossing ravines on horizontal logs (with no handrails), don't stop to think that if you fell 4 meters (13 feet) to the rocky bottom that it would take hours for the rescue personnel to get to you. Ignorance is bliss (just kidding!). Cross safely and at whatever pace you need to do it, no matter how slow that may be.

  • We encountered warm bear poop on the trail. The fact that it was still warm was troubling. Always make lots of noise because a bear could be around the next corner, and there are plenty of corners and hills on this trail.

  • Bring dehydrated meals. Don't try to save pennies here ... you'll be grateful for a tasty meal after a long hike. And bring more toilet paper than you expect to use. Fair warning!

Hazards of the West Coast Trail - How to Hike It Safely

We've established that the West Coast Trail isn't a little stroll through a suburban park. Each year, thousands of people hike the trail and unfortunately, some are blinded by the excitement and adventure and are ill-prepared or don't heed the warnings. Fond memories can quickly turn into nightmares. Hikers need to be aware of the outdoor hazards that may be encountered on the West Coast Trail. Here are a few:

  1. Plan your hike from May 1 to September 30. The Parks Canada staff supervises the trail during the spring and summer months to assists with emergencies, evacuations and to check permits. Hiking outside of this time is not recommended due to treacherous trail conditions and the wild, winter weather along the west coast. Hikers are frequently subjected to torrential rain, deep mud and slippery rocks. There are no scheduled crossings at Nitinat Narrows and hikers may be responsible for all costs if a rescue party is needed.

  2. Invest in a good pair of hiking boots. A sturdy pair of hiking boots is essential for grip and support. You'll be relying on the soles of your boots in life and death situations, be it clinging onto a rock face in a surge channel or standing on a ladder rung, 20 meters above a landing. Boots with sturdy ankle support will help prevent twisted ankles on slippery tree roots and jagged rocks.

  3. Get a pair of gaiters. Wearing these protective covers on top of the boot help to prevent sand, mud & water from entering. Look for a properly-sized pair that fit from just below the knee and lash under the heel. Ones that close with zippers are often cheaper than Velcro or drawstring ones, but are more prone to getting clogged up with mud & sand.

  4. Expect to be self-sufficient. Plan to carry enough food, clothing and equipment for 5-8 days. Backpacks usually weigh between 30-60 lbs but can be lightened if the load is shared between group members.

  5. Prepare for rain. The west coast of Vancouver Island, BC gets more than 3 meters (yes, 3 meters!) annually. Even in the summer, frequent showers blow in unimpeded from the ocean. Bring appropriate rain gear and place all contents in a garbage bag before packing in the backpack. Carry a single-burner, camping stove (and fuel) as the firewood may be too damp to ignite.

  6. Have a good water purifier. It's impossible to carry enough water for the entire duration so plan on refilling your bottles from the fresh-water streams. You can also boil water before consuming, but that can get tiresome. Vancouver Island is a wildlife haven and streams may be contaminated with parasites and bacteria from these critters.

  7. Bring a first aid kit. Always carry a first-aid kit for bandaging cuts, scraps and blisters. Carry a cell phone for emergencies that may require assistance. The West Coast Trail has coverage from American wireless companies from across the Juan de Fuca Strait but it's spotty in the deep gorges. Roaming charges apply when using the American networks. There is no coverage from Canadian phone operators along this remote coast.

  8. Be cautious - watch your step. There are hazards every step of the way including slippery boardwalks, ladders, rocks, cliffs, logs. Watch for rotten boards on the boardwalks which can break at any moment. Check before placing all of your weight on a ladder rung.

  9. Be wary of the water. People have drowned in these frigid coastal waters. Rogue waves can snatch hikers from the surge channel, tidal benches and even the beach. These waves come unpronounced so always be careful along the sea shore. Make sure you don't get caught in a rising tide.

  10. Dress in layers. Bring lightweight, warm clothing that you can layer and remove easily. Hypothermia can creep up on an unsuspecting hiker, especially when exposed to the wind and rain. Watch for signs of mild hypothermia and prepare to stop it before your condition deteriorates.

Don't be deterred by the thought of these hazards; take this knowledge and plan well. Thousands of other hikers have hiked the West Coast Trail and survived - and even had a good time, too! I know we did.

Our Backpacking Adventure on the West Coast Trail

To hike the West Coast Trail is an adventure into personal accomplishment. The trek is physically demanding (especially during a rainstorm with gale-force winds) and it tests your mental toughness as you trek muddy trails through ancient forests, walk along endless beaches and scale deep gorges on thin ladders.

That's why this 75 kilometer trail along the southwestern coast of Vancouver Island is one of the top backpacking trips in the world and the premier backpacking trip in Canada. It's also why we finally decided to give it a go.

On the trek, you'll follow the southwestern shores of Vancouver Island and have the constant roar of the powerful Pacific Ocean always in the background. You'll feel like you're camping along the edge of the world as you weave along this thin boundary between land & sea.

Hiking the West Coast Trail typically takes between 6 and 9 days (most backpackers do it 7 days). The trail is always muddy but in autumn, after months of bright and sunny conditions, the Vancouver Island coastline is much less muddy. You probably wonder why I keep harping on the mud. It's because there's lots and lots of it ... so ... much ... mud!

You'll hike through a thick temperate rainforest and witness the beauty of the intertidal zone along the rocky coastal shelf of Vancouver Island. Camping on secluded beaches at night under a full moon is unforgettable.

Hikers come to see the remote beauty that can only be found along the coastal shelf. In the winter, western Vancouver Island is pounded by gale-force winds and the giant waves have carved the rough and jagged shoreline out of the thick rain forest. There are waterfalls and gorges, abundant wildlife and massive trees. These giants have thrived in this briny environment. The remoteness of the area has protected them for centuries.

This is one of the best hikes in the world and it starts only 2 hours away from Victoria, BC.

Hikers will find the ever-changing weather a challenge. The area is a temperate rain forest that's constantly shrouded in fog, drenched in rain (up to 3 meters annually) and battered by strong wind. But despite this immense power, the Pacific sunsets make for great photos and even better memories.

The forest is home to an ancient forest that includes old-growth spruce, Sitka spruce, Douglas fir, hemlock & cedar. Some of the largest trees in Canada, and in the entire world, are known to be just near the West Coast Trail.

Here are some of my thoughts about the hike:

  • Purchase a hiking guide specifically about the West Coast Trail for an trail descriptions and more (like the excellent, Blisters & Bliss: A Trekker's Guide to the West Coast Trail).

  • Due to recommendations from others who had done the trail, we went in September. September is supposed to be the best month to do the West Coast Trail. Daytime weather is usually sunny and warm. Fog is common during the morning, rain usually falls at night. Storms can blow in from the Pacific at anytime.

  • Port Renfrew is a VERY small town (Bamfield is even smaller). The hikers in our group first gathered near Sooke (2 hours south of the trailhead) to gather the group and collect supplies.

  • I've only experienced motion-sickness twice in my life - once while taking the bus to the trailhead on a bumpy, curvy road (Victoria to Port Renfrew); the second, leaving at the other end (Bamfield to Nanaimo). Be forewarned!

  • Plan your trip around the full moon to make night navigating around camp easier. The trail is even more spectacular when bathed in cool moonlight.

  • Ladder, West Coast Trail
    If you're scared of heights, you're probably not going to enjoy the many ladders, log crossings, cable-car rides & suspension bridges.

  • Hikers have died on the West Coast Trail. Follow the tide tables, watch out for rogue waves and be careful on slippery logs!

  • You might want to stay a night or two with your hiking group, prior to hitting the trail, to discuss plans, check equipment and supplies, etc. Afterward the hike, you may want to book a few nights somewhere close by (Port Renfrew, Sooke, or Victoria are likely candidates). You'll probably want to relax, sleep (in a real bed!), eat (real food!), and rest your aching muscles. We stayed here.

  • You're going to meet people from around the globe so prepare for lots of conversations!

Useful Contacts

Hiking the West Coast Trail may well be one of the most challenging outdoor wilderness experiences of your life. Everyone we've met who's done the trail has been glad for the experience. We personally loved it - despite the endless mud, the many, many creepy-crawlies that we inadvertantly squashed, the wind gales, and more - it's one of our favourite hiking memories.


View Backpacking the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island in a larger map

 

Check out other outdoor adventures and hikes in BC, or visit scenic stops and viewpoints, or roadside attractions in beautiful British Columbia!