Considerations for the West Coast Trail
It's a tough one, one in a hundred don't make it. They need to be rescued. That's why there are so many fees. By the time you are done preparing and registering, you laugh at how hiking got so expensive. It's usually free. All the costs are for saving people that don't make it, and for all the trail construction. And there is a lot. A lot of both.
Firstly, consider the one in one hundred statistic. It's really bad. Think of it. Every day sixty people enter. So every two days one exits. Badly. To be rescued requires no little effort. The place is a jungle. It's no wonder that there is supposed cell phone coverage all the way(though there isn't). Still you feel comforted, sitting on the beach, in the middle of the West Coast Trail, marvelling at the serenity of such a remote place, then a coast guard helicopter, combing the coast, lingers past. The comfort and serenity soon pass as you notice two boats, out past the kelp beds, shadowing you as you now walk along the otherwise perfect beach. It's eerie, they move in perfect time with you walking. Then you realize, they are fishing, or sightseeing. Either way, they are not concerned with you, but also oblivious to spoiling the supposed serenity of the West Coast Trail. It's hard to feel like you are days away from civilization, when boats follow you along the coast.
It's hard to get reliable information on injuries and fatalities on the WCT. You might as well start calling it that as it's a hike that requires a lot of studying beforehand. Whenever you hike a long trail in British Columbia and the danger of bears is so overshadowed by other dangers as to be insignificant, you'd better worry. "You need to examine tide charts to determine your route." This isn't an idle recommendation you understand. It's a serious matter. See the thing is. You, me, everybody, gets to a beautiful beach on the WCT, walks a bit. Marvels at how beautiful it is, then gets trapped by the tide coming in. It doesn't just surprise the unwary hiker. Tents routinely become engulfed in water, set up so carefully, so closely to the jungle wall. Imagine waking up to ocean waves soaking into your tent. It seems to happen a lot on the WCT, yet strangely, doesn't seem to phase people. On day one you get used to it. The mantra. To be safe from high tide, look for grass and weeds in the sand, camp there. Grass can't grow if the tide reaches them. You wonder why the ocean battered beach extends past these patches of green if this is true. Evidently, in the winter, stormy weather batters the beach further up. Up where you now safely put up your tent.
This is one of the ironies of the WCT. When they drill into you the need for waterproof this and waterproof that. You assume, it's because of the constant rainforest rain. That's only part of it. There is the engulfing white wall every morning of mist. Cold, wet and ever-present, mist. Damping everything. Don't bring a non-synthetic sleeping bag on the WCT unless you are very careful to keep it dry. Not only can it get wet from careless packing, but also because the air is wet. Foggy mornings happen a lot on the West Coast Trail and if you encounter a few of those foggy, we mornings and constantly rainy days, it will get wet. Then you carry this wet dog around with you for days wondering why you paid $300 for its down lightness, when it's probably going to make your hike miserable. If you are careful, keep everything waterproof with careful packing. Lots of plastic bags or waterproof gear, you should be able to keep reasonably dry and comfortable.
Anyway, on to the considerations...
1. Decide where you want to start and finish. It is remarkably convenient and inexpensive to park at one side and bus or boat to the other. Which one to choose is a flip of a coin. Driving or bussing from Victoria to Port Renfrew, parking, then bussing to Bamfield is cheap and easy. And you have your vehicle waiting for you at the end. The bus is only $75 and departs daily. The main consideration it seems is that the Port Renfrew side of the trail is the most grueling, and therefore good to get over with first. But then, others say that your pack is lighter and your legs stronger at this part if you start from Bamfield. One important consideration seems to be forgotten. The fact that starting from the Port Renfrew side is not only tough with constant ups and downs, but it's dark and relentless in the jungle. You don't see the beach for hours, and when you do it's ugly, rocky beaches. Instead if you start at Bamfield, you see immediately spectacular sandy beaches, breathtaking views and mild, though interesting terrain. It's a worthy consideration to consider your level of excitement after the first day on the trail. From Port Renfrew, tough, ugly and boring, or from Bamfield, breathtaking and spectacular. The quality of campsites is also a consideration.
2. You must have, the ability to weather quite a bit of misery on the trail. That's both the expected and unexpected requirement of the WCT. It's tough, everyone knows that. But it's tough in a way that expectations realize and don't understand. It's wet. Wet all the time. Wet in a way that saps enthusiasm. Tires you quickly. Makes you rush, slip on stairs, jump onto a wet rock that will break your leg. You will cover yourself in a hood and move faster. This is the thing you must brace yourself for. It will be wet a lot. When you are on the trail and it's raining, you are waking up in a damp tent in a fogged in beach. Your stove won't start and you feel heavy before moving. Remember, you have to have true grit. It's wet and cold and miserable all around. But you are full of excitement and strength. Of course it's raining today. If it wasn't it wouldn't be the WCT. Make sure you wake up to this mindset. Because if you don't, well...
If you do, you have true grit. Even if you have to pretend to have it. On the WCT, pretending to have it and have it mix together on mornings like this, and not only make or break how you finish the WCT. It brings out who you are.
You see this is what will be remembered when you look back on your WCT adventure. Who you are. And who you were with. If you've ever had the misfortune but enlightening time to witness someone when it all goes wrong. Or witness when it all goes wrong for yourself and you see how someone copes with helping you. This is a magical event. As horrific and painful as every event you can experience in your life. The way you cope and the way those around you cope is priceless. Whether you, or someone you are with runs into something terrible. The chance is always there. That is why the WCT is so wonderful. That chance is there a lot. But, the chance that you, or who you are with is pushed to anguish is more. And seeing who they are in these moments is something..
3. The other considerations wane in importance. Good hiking boots. Winter ones. Ones that are not mid or low cut. Gaiters, make sure they are removable without having to take off your boots, so zippered. Combine them with good waterproof, gore-tex boots, and waterproof pants or shorts, and a gore-tex jacket, and pack with a secure, waterproof cover and you will be good. One thing that goes without saying, but will be said here. Blisters. Bring duct tape or whatever you have to combat blisters. No matter how tough you are you will get them. And to not mention that here, seems irresponsible.
Here, in comprehensive detail, is a checklist of what you should bring, with explanations of importance if needed...
1. Backpack. An average sized man may choose a pack like an Osprey Xenith 75 or MEC Brio 75 and an average woman may choose the Ariel 75 or MEC Alpinelite 75 for the West Coast Trail. The "75" refers to litres of pack space. So the Osprey Xenith 75 is a 75 litre pack. If you are hiking alone you will be carrying quite a lot and a 75 litre pack may be your minimum(unless you get a lot of expensive and high quality ultra light gear). If you are hiking in a group, you can often share the weight in some creative ways. Most good packs come with excellent rain covers. If yours doesn't, make sure you bring a couple plastic garbage bags to cover or buy a proper pack rain cover from a place like MEC for under $20.
2. Good tent with a good waterproof fly - know how to set it up fast (you'll need to in the rain).
3. Stove, fuel, and 2 lighters and/or matches for when the stove igniter stops working when it inevitably gets wet.
4. Synthetic sleeping bag. Be very diligent in keeping your sleeping bag dry in and out of its waterproof bag. Down bags require a lot of care to keep dry, but if you can keep yours dry it will be one quarter the size and weight of a similar synthetic bag.
5. Sleeping pad. Keep protected from moisture and punctures in a waterproof bag.
6. Pot, pan, plate, bowl, cutlery, coffee mug and coffee maker. One shot coffee makers are available.
7. Two water bottles. Water is readily available on the trail but water is something to just get right the first time as getting it wrong is awful. Don't bring a water bladder unless it is very easy to get to and easy to check, which, by design it can't be. You will be, several times a day, getting water from streams. They are invariably brown. Get over the colour as it's just harmless pigment from the forest. There is the ever-present, real danger of beaver fever. The hilariously named beaver fever, actually Giardiasis, got its nickname from its original perceived cause, drinking from rivers inhabited by beavers that evidently defecate into them. Giardiasis is an infection of the small intestine caused by a microscopic organism (protozoa), Giardia lamblia. Anyway, beaver fever is not really a significant problem as there are so many ways to deal with it. Some are rational and some absurdly irrational. The simple answer is to carry with you, two one litre water bottles and several Aquatabs. For 8 dollars you can get enough water purification tabs to cover you for two West Coast Trail hikes. They are tasteless, but take 30 minutes to be fully effective, hence the two water bottles you should bring. Bring some Crystal Light with you to mask the brownish water and you are all set.
Water filter systems are ridiculous on the West Coast Trail. They are bulky, inefficient, and in a word, pointless. When considering water purification as a hiker, you have to understand the dangers and how best to deal with them. Not purchase an elaborate filter system for $300 because if they sell it, it must be needed. On Vancouver Island, on the West Coast Trail, the risk of Giardiasis, among other things, is there. To comprehensively ensure your protection against these threats requires a solution. The solution, in this case is simple, easy and inexpensive.
8. Bar of soap and shampoo. A small amount of dish soap, but not a dish scrubber, as sand works amazingly well.
9. Very waterproof, high cut, hiking boots. This is extremely important for the West Coast Trail because the trail is largely hiked inland in the Coastal Rainforest of BC. Probably 50% of the West Coast Trail is mud, several centimetres deep. You will enjoy the West Coast Trail far more if you have proper hiking boots. This is the thing most often gotten wrong. Setting out on the West Coast Trail with low cut, not waterproof, hiking boots. You can feel the misery in peoples gaze as they pass by, wet and suffering. I have a theory to why people get this so wrong, and it goes like this. People have a stigma about hiking boots. That they are expensive and uncomfortable, and have to be broken in. For someone about to hike the West Coast Trail, these misconceptions are heard often. They are simply not true. First, expense. You can get a fantastic pair of elaborate hiking boots for around $120. Not a lot considering the importance. Second is the misconception about comfort and the need to break them in. This is an inconvenience that simply no longer exists in the world of hiking shoes. Hiking boots in the modern world, and even high cut, winter hiking boots are astonishingly comfortable, right out of the box. One merely has to try a new set of modern gore-tex boots to see this phenomenon for real. Still don't believe it? Have a look at customer reviews of some and let the incredulity and amazement of the reviews sink in. In short, advice on boots that instruct that breaking them in is essential, is outdated advice and doesn't help you decide on gear to get in a 21st century hiking world.
10. Gaiters. Make sure they are easy to take on and off without having to remove boots. You will encounter deep mud and gaiters that extend at least halfway to your knees will be essential. Remember, the mud you will encounter will often be well above the top of your hiking boots.
11. Flip-flops, sandals. Something to wear when not hiking. There are no longer any river crossings on the West Coast Trail (there are but you have to want to take them), so they are just for the beach.
12. Lots of socks. Thin socks and thick outer socks. Bring way more than you think you will need. A set of each per day on the trail. They don’t take up much room, but are great to have. If your feet are damp, you will blister fast. Foot care, it seems, is very important on such a wet trail.
13. Waterproof pants and shorts. Good waterproof pants or pants made of quick drying material are good to have. Hiking in shorts is preferable. Good, quick drying or waterproof shorts are very important. Remember, you will want to swim a lot. The ocean is constantly inviting and there are plenty of beautiful waterfalls and rivers to jump into.
14. Long underwear and tuque for sleeping in.
15. Rain jacket. Something compact and with a hood.
16. Two quick dry or perspiration wicking shirts. This is an interesting aspect of hiking the West Coast Trail. You will be either sweating and hiking, or not moving and dry. Having one shirt for hiking in is a simple and excellent solution. Wear it all day and wash it every evening when you switch to your dry shirt. Two shirts is all that is needed. Make sure you get good quality, moisture wicking ones and you will be very comfortable.
17. Fleece sweater. A good, super light and super compacting fleece sweater is essential. It won't hold moisture and will keep you very warm.
18. A quick dry towel. Grab one from your local hiking store. They compact into nothing and can be squeezed dry in an instant.
19. Headlamp and extra batteries.
20. Sunscreen, lipsyl and sunhat. This is certainly the most often forgotten, but when the sun comes out, and it surely will, it's sorely missed. Much of the West Coast Trail is along the beach routes. If the weather is good, the sun is marvelous, but relentless. If you don't bring sunscreen you will not enjoy the magnificent sunny beaches, but hide from them. Also a hat, baseball hat, whatever. In the sun you'll use it a lot.
21. Toilet paper and extra plastic bags, hand sanitizer packets.
22. Travel size toiletries in a small bag. Small mirror and razor (if shaving).
23. First aid kit. Among the usual, make sure you have a lot of blister tape. Duct tape works very well. Make sure you have at least five metres. It can be taped around anything, or itself, flat. Make sure you have lots on hand though. Blisters can be awful, but dealt with by taping, they become insignificant.
24. Map and tide tables, WCT permit, money, credit card and ID in an accessible waterproof bag. You will get a map and tide table when you start the trail. Do yourself a favour and get all of this together in a ziplock.
25. Food for the scheduled trip, plus extra for emergencies. 5 metres of paracord for hanging food or for emergencies. Food on the West Coast Trail is another astonishing thing. Always thought of as heavy, inconvenient and not very good. This is another area of hiking that has comfortably settled in the modern 21st Century. You can, astonishingly, unbelievably, eat amazingly well along the trail, and get this. The food is light, compact and relatively cheap. And, as if it couldn't get any better, easy to make and fast. There are so many brands out there, but let’s look at one, Natural High for example. Each packet weighs around 120 grams, which is very little. Think of it. To fully provision your West Coast Trail trip you may need, breakfast and dinner, 14 of these. That's only 1.6kg for all your food. 14 hearty breakfasts and dinners. Hot, light and fast. One great side note, these meals are scent proof in their packaging. To a bear your pack won't smell like three cheese lasagna, but like the not enticing, packaging it comes in. This peace of mind is comforting when you sleep in bear territory.
27. Camera, cell phone (may work sometimes, Canadian cell phones don't seem to work on most of the trail, however US ones do as they pick up the signals from the relatively close towers in Washington State).
28. Reading and writing materials.
29. Tarp. This heavy and bulky item can make a big difference in enjoyment if the weather is rainy, which it almost always is. To have a big tarp in a heavy rain is a massive luxury. Amazing and expensive ones can be found in hiking stores or you can simply scrounge an extra tent fly from somewhere and bring it along. This is the first thing to go up, strung between trees to allow you to set up your camp in a bit of shelter from rain.
This is the end of the packing list. Now, back to the considerations...
4. The consideration that your pack gets lighter as you consume food doesn't add up to what you would think. The reality is that as your pack gets lighter as food gets consumed, it will increase in weight dramatically from the unavoidable moisture picked up. Packing your tent in the rain, which you surely will do, will make you aware of this quickly. In fact, your pack will likely increase in weight as the days go on. In short, the opposite seems more likely, especially in wet weather.