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Hiking The West Coast Trail:
Best Tips For Success

By Diane Spicer

If you're interested in hiking the West Coast Trail, I'd recommend planning your trip very carefully, step by step on paper before you reach the "real" trail.

To put it mildly, this 47 mile (75 km) long trail is not a straightforward jaunt!

Where is the West Coast Trail?

The West Coast Trail is located in Pacific Rim National Park, in British Columbia (B.C.).

Specifically, it's on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

To a hiker, that means four things:

  • It's hard to get to because it's remote.
  • It's spectacular because it's remote and not on the popular "must do" list of other hikers.
  • This trail faces the open Pacific Ocean, so weather is not only unpredictable, but potentially dangerous.
  • But on clear weather days, WOW!

Vancouver Island hiking could be a highlight of your hiking career.

Rocky outcrop in Deception Pass watersDeep blue sky and deep blue water - so beautiful!

Heads up
about hiking this trail

Are you getting the idea that this rugged trail is not an easy one?

In fact, it holds the record for "highest evacuation rate" for injuries compared to all other national or provincial parks in Canada (and there are a lot of those).

That little factoid should give you pause, and strengthen your resolve to prepare and plan carefully for your hiking trip.

Not to scare you, but medical help could take a long time to reach you on this trail.

And please think twice about taking children or unconditioned teens.

Or pets.

The trail demands good balance, stamina, and mental toughness to surmount wet ladders, logs, rocks while being pounded by coastal storms.

And if that's not enough adventure, throw in wading rivers and using cable cars to cross water!

You don't want to put unprepared, unconditioned loved ones through that, do you?

And in fact, children under 6 years of age are not permitted on this trail.

Something else to know about
the West Coast Trail

This trail is open only for a short season: May through September.

  • I'd take May and September with a large grain of salt, however.
  • Those transition months can bring cold, wet conditions that might make you regret your decision to tackle the West Coast Trail.

While on paper it might take 5 - 7 days, the weather might hold you up.

So as you plan, budget in a few extra days.

  • It's miserable and possibly dangerous to push through weather events just to achieve your "done it in 5 days" self-awarded medal.

If you've never hiked on a coastline, you might be unfamiliar with tide tables, and not in the habit of checking your watch before starting on trail sections.

  • This trail is your chance to practice a new skill!

And now for the bad news

OK, I'm going to be a complete buzz kill now:

You need to make reservations and pay transportation fees (ferry rides are included in your fees).

There is a standby list, if you're even more adventurous than most hikers. Show up and hope for the best!

You also need to complete a mandatory one hour orientation to the trail, scheduled not at your convenience, but according to Parks personnel schedules.

  • And you can only get off the trail at 3 locations. 

Do you see how prior planning is a necessity for pulling off a successful West Coast Trail adventure?

Video to help you visualize this

To make all of this cautionary information come alive for you, watch this Parks video.

How to prepare
for hiking this trail

Now that I've done my best to rain on your parade (just to simulate actual trail conditions), if you're still reading you must be determined to hike this trail.

Good for you! You're going to need that gumption :)

You should have some backpacking experience before attempting this trail, because it's not one to "cut your teeth on".

That means you're familiar with keeping yourself warm and dry in all kinds of weather.

It also means that you understand how to pace yourself, when to stop to rehydrate and refuel your body, and how to navigate safely around trail hazards (missing bridge, trees blown down across the trail, bears or cougars, etc.).

If you've never hiked in a northwestern coastal area, use this handy backpacking gear list from Parks Canada to make sure your hiking gear is up to the challenge of the West Coast Trail.

  • Be sure to add tide tables and a reliable time keeping device to your gear checklist.
  • Using your cell phone as a watch is risky, due to the wet conditions and possibility that a solar battery charger might not get enough sunshine to work.

The West Coast Trail map, also available from Parks Canada, will show you exactly what you're up against.

Or read this book about hiking the West Coast Trail for insider information and navigational tips.

  • It highlights the rich history and culture of the trail, too.

Here's the bottom line for you

Not every hiker is cut out to face the challenges of this brief but memorable trail through some spectacularly wild Canadian country.

Are you?

The bottom line is this: Your skill set needs to be up to the challenge of solving navigational challenges posed by Mother Nature and the moon (tides), as well as the mental challenges of sustained wet, cold weather.

Ah, but the rewards are many! (Bragging rights, if nothing else.)

May your Vancouver Island hiking dreams bring you much happiness.

And if you'd like to post your trip report here, you have not only my admiration for your toughness, but my gratitude as a virtual trail buddy.

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Hiking The West Coast Trail