“Next time I’m picking the vacation,” was all loving husband could say to me on day three of our adventure hiking the West Coast Trail.
I am not sure what compelled me to drag him (and I) on the infamous backpacking trail that skirts the southwestern edge of Vancouver Island.
Yet, here we were. On a breathtaking trail, with mud under our feet, thunder and lightning in the sky and rain coming down because Mother Nature decided that today (on our 17-km hike day) was the PERFECT day we needed to experience the real west coast.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I absolutely love hiking and prefer to be outdoors as much as possible. We are both avid hikers and the West Coast Trail hit my radar last year when I was personal training a client for it.
The trail is rated as one of the most beautiful and challenging hikes in the world, and I love a challenge.
But, sadly, there are no cute B&Bs on the trail. You have to camp, and camping is not what I do. In fact, it is an activity that I have successfully avoided my entire life.
I am not a powder puff, though. I am pretty tough, mentally and physically, but I stand firmly in the belief that roughing it is a hotel without a gym.
For thousands of years man and woman have evolved from caves, to tents, to Winnebago’s, to motels, to finally, 5-star hotels.
That is, my friend, vacation evolution.
However, here I was in the pouring rain, hiking six to eight hours a day for seven days, with my life on my back and a tent as my home. To make matters worse for those in my closest circle, I also dragged along a good friend of ours who has since vowed to block me from his email (sorry Brodie).
Preparing for the Hike
Preparing for the West Coast Trail: first, the obvious get your body ready for a 75-kilometer hike. This means hiking prior to, and with weight on your back. Hiking with 42 pounds on your back (which is what I started out with) is a whole new ball game. So start hiking with weight at least three months before you go.
Locally we have a set of stairs that a lot of people head to for a workout. I used this as my training ground and then two months prior, every Sunday, we hiked the local mountains. I began with 20 pounds in my pack and worked myself up to 35 pounds.
When in the gym focus on the most obvious muscles, your lower body and core, with a HUGE emphasis on the glutes. I was amazed at how much my glutes worked during the trip.
BEFORE YOU CONTINUE
Let me send you the leg and glute workout I used to get strong for the trail.
Click Here to gain access to the workout video.
I also recommend balance training.
You’ll need to do a ton of balancing on the trail. Whether it’s on boulders, skinny pieces of wood as you jump from one mud hole to the next, or rickety bridges and logs, you need to be able to balance – and balance with weight on your back. Try this workout.
Second, pick which end of the trail that you are going to start hiking. We started north (Bamfield) to south (Port Renfrew). This is the recommended route, according to a lot of books, because the first part of the trail is the easiest giving you time to get your hiking legs and lighten your pack as the trail progressively gets harder.
However, on the trail we actually encountered more people doing it the other way around. Their theory is that they get the hard parts done first.
Personally, I am glad that we did it from north to south, easy to hard. However, everyone has an opinion on this, so do your research and then start on the end that you think is best for you.
FYI: be forewarned, some people are very passionate about their opinions on how you should hike the trail. Case in point, I had one hiker email me quite angry when I wrote a piece about my hike in my newspaper column for our local paper. He believes that the trail should only be hiked south to north and was disgusted that I suggested otherwise. Start your adventure where and when YOU want to. Do not let certain jackasses of the world make you feel that their way is the only way.
Booking the West Coast Trail
Once you figure out your route, you can go online and reserve your place, or head to the Parks Canada headquarters (located at each end of the trail) and enter by standby.
During high season (May 1 – September 30), Parks Canada only allows 50 hikers a day with reservations, and an additional 10 spaces for standby. And, be forewarned, there is a standby list.
When we finished, we chatted with one group of men and they had been waiting two days to get on the trail. So, I suggest reserving your spot online and in advance.
Third, head to the Parks Canada website, check out the recommended gear and follow that checklist. Do not deviate from it. This was complied by pros who have done the trail. So, if it is the middle of August and you are reading “bring a warm hat”, bring one. I wore one most evenings and we were hiking during a heat wave in the middle of August.
The Non-Camper’s Guide to Hiking the West Coast Trail
If you are also like me (and will never camp again), borrow as much as you can from friends, keep an eye on Craigslist, and watch for sales at MEC and Atmosphere (and REI for my American readers) – because hiking the trail can get pretty expensive, awfully quickly.
We were very lucky and borrowed half of the equipment that we needed – again because I knew there would never be a chance in hell that I would camp again.
Additional Items to Pack
I also suggest some of what I call “PJ-essentials” to make your hike and camping a bit more bearable:
- Body wipes (there are no showers on the trail)
- Dry shampoo (I used it more to mask the smell of campfire in my hair than anything else)
- Deodorant – if not for yourself then for your fellow hikers. I kid you not, we ran into one group of guys and I smelled them well before I could see them.
- Moisturizer (no one wants dry, tired-looking skin on the trail)
- Burt’s Bees Tinted Lip Balm – I am addicted to Red Dahlia
- A portable battery to re-charge your phone. No, there is no WiFi, but if you use your phone for pictures you will need to give it some juice at some point. And trust me, you will take a lot of photos.
- Twizzlers – you need a treat at the end of the day, because dehydrated food leaves a lot to be desired
- Glasses – sun and regular glasses (if you wear them). Tick me off, I lost my sunglasses on the very first day!
- If you are a woman, and it is even remotely near your menstrual cycle, bring feminine hygiene products. I also suggest a separate bag that is not see-through to pack out what you use if you do get your period. (Yup, it’s gross, but you have to pack out what you pack in baby.)
- Side note: on the only day it rained for us we also used one of my maxi pads as a fire starter. Sprinkle a little camp stove fuel on a pad and “whoosh” Bob’s your uncle.
- If you are a woman, pantyliners. You are going to spend 80% of your bathroom time in the bush. Now, I personally do not like to use toilet paper when peeing in the forest because now I have to pack it out. So, I drip dry and wear a pantyliner to… well you get the point.
- A ball cap to hide the hideous-looking hair you will have by the end of the week
- More toilet paper than you think you will need
- Biodegradable soap
- A micro-fibre towel
- Two hiking poles (I only took one and wish that I had brought the other one)
- A bathing suit
- A spork that has a long handle. This is crucial if you are eating packaged dehydrated food from MEC etc. The bags are deep and if you have a stupid-ass short spork like I did it will not reach the bottom of the bag. Therefore your food will not be fully mixed and your hand will be covered with your dinner. It’s very irritating.
- Starbucks VIA instant coffee – however, take twice as many packs as the days you are hiking as I found it takes two packs to make one good mug of coffee
- Bailey’s – to make the mornings, and the instant coffee, more bearable (thank you Brodie)
- Electrolyte replacement tablets – this will not only replace all the minerals lost from sweating, it will also mask the taste of the water purifying tablets – because guess what? There is no running water on the trail; you have to seek and purify your own.
In addition, bring cash for the ferry at the Nitinat Narrows and to purchase the amazing and super fresh seafood at the crossing. You will also want to bring big bucks for a cheeseburger at the infamous Chez Monique’s – that was a $70 day for us after burgers, pop, chocolate and rum.
Yes, I bought a bottle of rum, and yes it adds a lot of weight to your pack. At least that’s what my friend Brodie told me because I coaxed him to carry it for me. Brilliant, aren’t I?
What You Don’t Need
- An eyelash curler. You know those questions that fashion magazines ask, “if you were stranded on a deserted island and could bring ONE beauty product with you, what would it be?”. My answer, since I was 16 years old, is an eyelash curler. So, there was no way I was hiking without one. Well, guess what? By day two I did get a poop about what my eyelashes looked like.
What Food I Packed
There are a ton of amazing websites and books on eating gourmet while camping. I, however, work 60+ hours a week and did not want to add dehydrating food for a 7 day trip on my list of things to-do.
So, instead, we bought all pre-packaged dehydrated food from MEC for our dinners, and they ranged from not-too-bad to not-so-good.
My favourite (which completely shocked me) was the Mountain House lasagna with meat sauce. I also really liked the brand, Mary Janes Farm. They make all vegetarian meals and the southwest couscous and lentil soup were pretty damn good.
Do not buy Mountain House Shepard’s Pie though. Just walk right on by that display.
All 7 days we had the same thing. I made individual oatmeal bags for each day containing:
- 1/3 cup quick cooking oats
- 1 tbsp chia seeds
- Dried apples & strawberries
- 1 tsp cinnamon
- 1 pack stevia for me, 1 HEAPING tbsp brown sugar for loving husband
Coffee (2 Starbucks Via packs for 1 mug)
Coffee Mate – apparently you can buy dried whole milk on Amazon. Do that!
Bailey’s for coffee (again, thank you Brodie)
- Mixed nuts – I had also brought 7 Kind bars, but I left them in the truck when I started downsizing my pack (which you will do at least two times before you head off)
With the exception of the ferry crossing day and Chez Monique’s, we had the same thing every day for lunch too and for this meal (if I were to do it again), I would do differently.
- Whole grain tortilla shells with almond butter and dried bananas – not banana chips. I found a company that dries long slices of bananas. They are soft and really good.
What I also wished I had brought, for variety, were cheese and pepperoni, and a few of our hiking mates we meet also had crackers and humus for lunch. But, nonetheless, choose a quick-lunch that does not require a lot of prep, or your stove. It’s a total pain in the you-know-what to set it up for lunch.
- Quest bars – I am completely addicted to these protein bars, and even though they weigh heavy I still brought 7 of them and was very happy that I did.
- A pre-packaged dehydrated dinner-delight
- Tea or hot chocolate and Twizzlers
Clothes I Packed
- Hiking boots
- 2 sports bras
- 2 pairs of shorts
- 4 pairs of underwear
- 3 pairs of hiking socks
- 1 pair regular socks – to wear to bed
- 2 short sleeved dri-fit tops
- 1 long sleeve dri-fit top
- 1 merino wool lightweight pullover
- Rain jacket
- Rain pants
- Camp shoes
- Running tights (these, my camp shoes and my long sleeve dri-fit top were my camp & sleeping attire for the 6 nights)
- Baseball hat and toque
- Waterproof gloves (I am always cold)
What To Expect When Hiking
When hiking, be ready for any weather and condition, and for lots of mud.
In fact, I am considering designing an online fitness program for the trail and one of the workouts would consist of step-ups while standing in three feet of mud, performed for seven hours straight.
What else will you be encountering? Well, ladders for one – over 70 of them, with some of them over 30 feet high. You also have four cable cars and 130 bridges to cross, and a section of bouldering that makes your ankles wish that they stayed back home.
Also expect to meet some very cool people. There are five people, in particular, that I will never forget and I am grateful that I meet.
The first two were a couple of amazing women from our great province of Alberta. They added laughter, humour and wisdom to our nightly campfires.
The other two were a mom and son doing what she thinks will be their last hike together before teenage-hood takes him away from her. Their bond and kindness towards each other really warmed my heart and her son gave me hope for the future (he was such a great kid!).
And, the last person I am grateful I meet was an interesting character from Alberta, where he lives in a small shack with no running water and an outhouse. He was just completing his third trip through the trail in 17 days!
We ran into him a lot during our 7 day hike and finished the last leg with him. He told me that he doesn’t own a cell phone (I doubt he even has a regular phone either), or a vehicle, and he only works enough through the year so that he can head back into the bush. He explained that he didn’t need much in life to make him happy, just a trail and his boots.
I found that inspiring and refreshing, considering everyone else has that gotta-have-the-latest-gadget attitude. In fact, I was a little jealous of him.
Getting Back To Your Car
Wow, getting back to Bamfield (and then out of Bamfield!) was an adventure unto itself. By the time we finished the trail and arrived to Port Renfrew the West Coast Trail Bus was gone, which we knew it would be, so we stayed a night in Port Renfrew.
To get into Port Renfrew from the Parks office all you to do is call Evan. Yup, he’s a one-man taxi service, tour guide, and local dump manager. He’s your rural Uber and small town concierge all wrapped up in a pick up truck.
To reach him, just ask the Park ranger or anyone on the street. Yes, Port Renfrew is that small.
To stay in Port Renfrew I recommend the Wild Renfrew Seaside Cottages. They are beautiful, located right on the water and are only a short walk to the pub (which has awesome food!). In the morning you must have breakfast at The Coastal Kitchen. This was one of the best restaurants we have ever been to for breakfast.
We choose ferry and if I knew how rough the waters were going to be I would have chosen the bus – or walked back.
I was so seasick! For 3 hours I was over the side of the boat throwing up and wishing that I were dead. It was the worst 3 hours of my life.
So, the moral of the story is: if you get even the least amount of seasickness take the damn bus.
Once in Bamfield there are always locals available to drive you from the marina to your car for a few dollars. And then the fun drive home on an 82 km gravel logging road begins.
At first, when loving husband told me were going to be on a logging road, I thought he was joking and when he told me he wasn’t I thought, “well, it can’t be that bad”.
It is. Very bad.
The road is dusty, bumpy and long and we also had the misfortune of blowing two tires. The first tire blown was no problem, because we had a spare ready and waiting. The second was a ROYAL pain in the ass and we had to flag a local down to drive loving husband to the tire store in Port Alberni.
FYI: the truckers along this route are not allowed to pull over and help. So, don’t get angry at them and swear and flick them the finger when they barrel right past you as you are standing there exhausted and helpless. You will want to, but it’s not their fault. The companies they work for have this stipulation.
Oh, and then we got the ferry, only to miss that sailing because it was full.
Like I said, it was an adventure just getting out of Bamfield.
What The Trail Gives You In Return
But, what do you get in return, hiking the West Coast Trail?
Some of the most stunning views in the world, a chance to reconnect with yourself, some quality time with a good friend, the opportunity to share an experience of a lifetime with a loved one (thank you loving husband), the satisfaction of completing something both physically and mentally challenging and a whole new appreciation for running water and Wi-Fi.
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