Trip Report: West Coast Trail
“When Climbers Go Hiking”
Every now and then we will go hiking for reasons totally unrelated to an “approach”. In this case the hike we hit up was the West Coast Trail, 75 kilometers of shoreline and coastal rainforest trails in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve along the western coast of Vancouver Island, British Columbia. It’s a pretty famous trail, but if you aren’t familiar with it check it out here:
Although The Alpine Start is mostly a climbing site and the West Coast Trail involves no climbing, it is a trip that many, many, many climbers end up doing / being interested in. It is also a good one for alpine climbers to go and do because you will crush it from a “difficulty” perspective, see a lot of things you’ll never see in the mountains (like whales and otters!), and have a great time.
Not exactly your typical Alpine Climbing hiking view, and that’s not a bad thing!
A crew of five of us went during the second week of September with an itinerary of 6 days on the trail and through some miracle had 25 Celsius weather with blue skies almost the entire time. This differs from the norm where endless rain dominates the experience, but we didn’t have any of that so here’s a trip report / my reflections and two cents for one of the most pleasant trips I’ve ever done.
Apparently you can have fun that involves no climbing. Who knew!?
WHICH DIRECTION TO HIKE, UP OR DOWN?
You have two options for starting points on the trail, northern terminus or southern terminus. From the people I spoke to and materials I read prepping for the trip I learned that much like anything else in this world, people have very strong opinions about which is the better start location. The first couple days of the South end are the most work that you will encounter on the entire trip, and the first couple days on the North end are the absolute easiest.
Welcome to the South End. Lots of Roots, Lots of Fun!
Some people I spoke to were adamant that if we started with the “hard stuff” we were certain for failure because we would trash ourselves before a warm up and then have no energy for the remaining trail. Others gave the advice that it was best to get the “hard stuff” over with and start at the South end, and then enjoy the progressive ease of the rest of the trip.
Here’s the thing, having hiked the trail now I can say with confidence that there are no bad choices. The whole trip is spectacular, with plenty of awesome campgrounds and great beach hiking and sights the entire way. We went South to North, and for our crew that seemed to be the best choice and the choice I would make again. We all have done lots of backpacking, are fit(ish), and have our gear systems totally dialed. The beach hiking along the South end was among the most fun and interesting of the entire trip, so it was a pretty awesome way to burn some energy at the outset.
Day 1 from the South End is a pretty kickass way to start the trip.
I can also say that compared to Alpine Climbing in the Rockies… the much hyped “hard stuff” is kind of a non-event. Do not be discouraged by doom-and-gloom people (of which there are a surprising number) who eagerly and totally unsolicited tell you how the South is a total grind/sufferfest. Yes, there are roots and rocks and some elevation gain and loss. It is slippery as hell through some sections and there is lots of mud. But it has beautiful scenery, interesting and fun hiking that you have to pay attention to, and a great way to kick off the trip while you are strong and fresh. Also you aren’t hauling a rope and rack, so what do you have to complain about?
Ladders as a way to gain and lose elevation? Luxury!
We left a car at the Parks Canada office at the Northern Terminus (Bamfield) and then took the bus shuttle down to the south end (Port Renfrew) to start the next day. I would recommend skipping the bus and take the water taxi. The bus ride was 50 bucks cheaper, but it was delayed and kind of sucked scenery wise compared to the boat. Once in Port Renfrew we crashed at the “Hiker Huts” and started hiking the next day.
I would also recommend that whatever you are doing, make sure you reserve your spots and book in advance. Everything was full both ways. This is the disneyland of hiking trails.
PROTIP: if you are leaving a car at one end and starting to hike at the other, get your “Mandatory Orientation” done the same day you leave your car, that way when you are ready to start the following day you can just get to hiking right away.
Hike the beach as much as possible, it’s awesome the entire way.
THE HIKE / ITINERARY
The hike is amazing. The entire thing, the entire time. With 6 days and good weather we had a very relaxed itinerary. Hike a little bit, take a nap on the beach. Hike a little bit, eat at the crab shack, have another nap, roll into camp with the sun still shining and have a bonfire. This is not a trip to try to cover distance quickly on, it is one to take your time and enjoy.
If you look hard enough you can even find some things to boulder around on, although compressed sand leaves something to be desired from a solidity perspective.
I went swimming in every single waterfall and swimming hole we passed. We spent time scouring the tidal pools for ocean life, building sandcastles, climbing around on rocks and taking silly pictures etc.
Tidal Pools make for endless entertainment.
Don’t stress about planning your itinerary in advance for “which campsites do I stay at/how far do i hike each day”. This is your evenings activity each night and part of the fun of the trip is figuring out where you would like to go the next day.
“Where to Go Tomorrow” is a popular topic of evening conversation, right after “holy hell look at that sunset!”
Word to the wise: Work around the tide tables to make sure you try to hike the beach as much as possible. It is unbelievably beautiful, and it is your best chance to see the wildlife of Pacific Rim National Park. While walking along we were lucky enough to spot a pod of Orca’s, sea lions, seals, grey whales and all kinds of marine life in tidal pools. If possible, give yourself enough time to go and explore side trips, because you will see a lot of cool things in the distance that you will want to check out!
Leave yourself enough time each day to go and explore cool side trips.
This trail is busy and you will make lots of trail friends. This is definitely one of the highlights of the experience, and hiking on our same “6 day 5 night” itinerary was a crew of seniors from Seattle. Although we hiked at different speeds, these folks were great company to hang out with each night around the big bonfire. We met lots of cool people from all over the world just by lighting a fire and inviting everyone over.
Our Crew below, Seattle Seniors up top. I hope I’m as fit as these guys when I’m 65+
PACKING LIGHT AND FITNESS / PREP
While we didn’t pack super light, our crew aimed to have as light as we could while still having a few luxuries and being comfortable. The many ladders on this trail are a very easy way to gain / lose elevation, but we saw lots of miserable people suffering their way up and down under the crushing weight of far too heavy and large backpacks. Share gear with your team to make everyone’s bag lighter. My bag was 37 lbs fully loaded with 2 litres of water at the start and 28 lbs at the end of the trip. It was awesome. See the bottom of this post for a gear list.
Lighter bag = More Fun.
Do yourself a favour and don’t make this your first backpacking trip. I would say about 85% of people we talked to who looked like they were having a terrible time had never been on a multiday trip before and had brought too much stuff/the wrong stuff/stuff that didn’t properly fit.
You want to enjoy this trip not suffer your way through it, so do some work beforehand!
I get it, the West Coast Trail is on a lot of peoples “Bucket List”… but take a few trips beforehand and go backpacking a few times. The rescue stats are something like 1 person gets rescued for every 100 that hike the trail. That is a terrible record. Can you imagine if 1 out of every 100 climbers got hurt at your local crag? Also apparently that is one of the reasons the trail costs so damn much to hike. Get fit enough to carry your bag a long distance without getting hurt.
This is definitely a trip worth doing, and it was a nice vacation from sufferfests of alpine climbing. I would love to go back again when there is good weather, take a longer time (something in the realm of 10 days) and bring a good long book to read on the beach.
I could pretty happily hang out here for a book or two.
What about you? Have you hiked the WCT? What did you think? Let us know! If you have any questions about our trip or logistics, feel free to fire them my way.
OSPREY Exos 58 litre Ultralight Bag
Rain gear: Arc’Teryx Theta SL jacket and MEC superlight rain pants
Hiking: Icebreaker T-shirt and Prana Zion zip off pants, OR Helium Hybrid Jacket
Sleeping: Icebreaker Longsleeve and Icebreaker lightweight Tights
Socks / Underwear: 4 pair icebreaker socks (different weights) and 3 pair icebreaker/mec merino underwear.
Warmth: OR Superlayer Jacket, Icebreaker 250 pullover longsleeve, toque, wool gloves, bandanna.
Camping / Cooking:
Sleeping bag: Western Mountaineering Apache Gore WS – 10 (This was overkill, but it was that or my much heavier MEC Hybrid as I only own those. Also it was nice to have the warmer bag for the cold mornings)
Sleeping Pad: Thermarest ProLite Plus
Tent: MSR HubbaHubba (shared with 1 other team member)
Cooking: MSR PocketRocket stove, 1 large canister each of IsoPro fuel and Ultralight MSR cookpot for boiling water (all meals were freezedry / oatmeal that only required water, so no dishes). 1 Titanium Spork. Lighter.
Integral Designs SilTarp 1
Breakfast: 3 x Mountain House Scrambled Eggs, 3 x Oatmeal with tasty additions (hemp, chia, almonds, raisins)
Lunch: Tuna packets, homemade crackers, beef jerky, pita
Suppers: 6 x Mountain House Freeze dry dinners
Snacks: Chocolate bars, fruit bars, skittles, salted almonds
Hiking / Water / Misc:
Gaiters (Highly recommended)
Black Diamond Trekking Poles (BRING POLES ON THIS TRIP.)
Zamberlan Vioz GT Hiking boots (I’ve worn these same boots for 5 years)
Black Diamond VOLT headlamp
Gerber Mini Swagger folding pocket knife
2 Nalgenes (one for drinking while the other was purifying / vice versa)
40 MicroPur water tabs (we did not bring a filter pump, no need on this trip. Fresh water sources abound)
Small first aid kit
Thermarest Z foam sitting pad
Earplugs (highly recommended for light sleepers like me, the sound of waves is non stop)
Baseball Cap and Sunscreeen / Lipbalm
Not quite the same “sufferfest” level as alpine climbing, but that’s okay.