If you have masochistic tendencies then hiking Canada’s famous 75 kilometre long West Coast Trail is for you. Every year approximately 6,000 people attempt it between May 1st and September 30th. It’s almost a rite of hiking passage to be able to say that you survived the trail.

West Coast Trail on the west coast of Vancouver Island

The West Coast Trail offers the best and the worst of hiking experiences. It is stunningly beautiful when the sun is shining and there isn’t a campsite along the trail that doesn’t offer a memorable setting. But if it’s been raining which it does frequently (you are in a temperate rain forest after all) then look out for above-the-knee kind of mud on slippery boardwalks through dark rainforest – and hypothermia like conditions. Obviously people aren’t dissuaded by the negative since you need to book at least 60 days in advance to get your starting dates. 

Here’s everything you need to know to hike the West Coast Trail.

Everything You Need to Know to Hike the West Coast Trail

One of the many long ladders you’ll climb on the West Coast Trail

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First a few facts about the West Coast Trail

The West Coast Trail is located on the west coast of Vancouver Island, several hours by car northwest of Victoria. It enjoys an international reputation for its beauty and difficulty even though it’s only 75 kilometres long. It’s on the wish list of most serious hikers – but even if you’re in great shape plan on anywhere between six to eight days to do it properly. If you do decide to do it outside of the shoulder seasons – be warned that you won’t be alone. Some campsites end up overflowing with people so it may not be the solitary experience you’re hoping for. But it does offer a raft of redeeming features.

  • Enjoy beautiful sunsets on scenic, remote feeling beaches – sometimes with lots of people and sometimes alone – depending on your chosen campsite.
Everything You Need to Know to Hike the West Coast Trail

One of the man beautiful beaches on the West Coast Trail

  • Lunch on freshly caught crab at Nitinat Narrows between Cribs Creek campground and Tsusiat Falls.
Everything You Need to Know to Hike the West Coast Trail

Dining on fresh caught crab at Nitinat Narrows

  • On the food theme again – enjoy something other than what’s in your pack at Chez Monique’s – a restaurant near the Carmanah Lighthouse (bring cash). Plus you can purchase beer and wine here too. (Empty a bottle of wine into your Nalgene bottle for dinner that night.)
Everything You Need to Know to Hike the West Coast Trail

Stopping for real food at Chez Monique’s

  • Enjoy a campfire on the beach every night – if you can get it started. At the very least you can enjoy the beauty of the wild west coast from your campsite.
  • There’s great trail camaraderie. Everyone commiserates about their aches and pains together.
Everything You Need to Know to Hike the West Coast Trail

The campsite after Tsuiat Falls – Klanawa –  is far less busy

Everything You Need to Know to Hike the West Coast Trail

The Tsusiat Falls campsite from the water – it’s one of the busiest

Like everything in life there are a few negatives to hiking the West Coast Trail that are worth knowing about.

  • It’s not inexpensive. Fees include a $24.50 reservation fee, a national park entry pass (new in 2018) plus a WCT Overnight Use Permit ($127.50) along with ferry fees. At both Gordon River and Nitinat River the ferry fee is $20. And you’ll have to get to and from the trailheads. As a holiday it’s not that expensive but as a hike when most are free, it is.
  • The weather is uncertain – even in the height of summer. If you were very unlucky you can end up hiking in rain for the entire time.
  • The West Coast Trail is in a tsunami zone.
"Tsunami Zone"

Tsunami Zone

  • Trails are tough – often slippery, muddy and in poor shape. This might be a positive for people who want to test their mettle. For people with back, knee or ankle problems it can be a tough go. don’t forget the hiking poles.
Everything You Need to Know to Hike the West Coast Trail

Slippery walking is commonplace

Other West Coast Trail Considerations

  • There are long sections when beach walking is an option – and a preferable one to walking in the forest. But it’s the tides that are going to dictate what you can do.
  • You can also expect a good bit of easy walking on boardwalks interrupted by steep climbs on ladders up and down ravines. Your upper body can get a workout too as you pull yourself across streams or surge channels via cable car. Beach walking varies from hard packed to ankle deep sand. Look out for seriously deep mud and slippery logs, even in drier summers.
Everything You Need to Know to Hike the West Coast Trail

Buoys mark entrance and exit points from the beach

  • Decide how many days you want to hike. Do you need a rest day? – and if so then you need to carry more food. Six days is the minimum amount of time I would recommend unless you’re an elite hiker.
  • If you have never backpacked before do not begin with this trail. It will turn you off forever. Start with the easier Juan de Fuca Trail – that also starts/ends in Port Renfrew.
  • Dogs are not allowed on the trail.
  • There may be the odd bear around but we didn’t even see bear scat.
  • Be prepared to climb a huge number of ladders – especially near Cullite Creek.

I hiked the trail a few years ago over the course of six days. Seven days would have been better. You’re much more likely to have a positive experience on the trail if:

  • you’re fit
  • your pack isn’t too heavy (no more than 30-35% of your body weight)
  • you’ve camped before
  • you have a positive mental attitude because there is going to be some hardship
  • the sun shines
Everything You Need to Know to Hike the West Coast Trail

Notice the cable and the basket you pull yourself in

Which West Coast trailhead should you start at?

A lot of effort goes in to deciding where to start. You have two options. Start in the north at the Pachena Bay trailhead near Bamfield; that allows your shoulders and legs to harden up before you attempt the really tough sections. Or begin at the Gordon River trailhead near Port Renfrew and get the nastiest section of the trail over with. I went with nasty first and the only thing I would have done differently is to hike to Thrasher Cove on the first night – only 6 kilometres away. Then if I’d been really smart I would have checked out tide tables beforehand so I could hike a long section of beach (I use that word loosely here) and miss much of the forest walking which wasn’t that interesting. Tide tables are distributed at the mandatory orientation so you can figure out the day before whether the beach is accessible. (Or download them way in advance so you can figure out beach walking possibilities.)

There is no right or wrong, best or worst start/finish – though you do need to either start or finish with a ferry ride so the timing at the Gordon River may be harder to anticipate – and you could end up either missing the boat altogether or waiting for many hours. That was another big reason we started at Gordon River.

"One of the many ladders on the WCT"

One of the many ladders on the WCT

Before you go

  • Booking transportation and organizing logistics needs to be done well in advance. There is a trailbus that offers transportation between trailheads every day. And you can actually get on it in Victoria.
  • Book online or via the call centre with a credit card beginning on January 7, 2019 at 8 AM. You’ll need to know where you want to start, how many hikers there are in your group, the names of emergency contacts – and your preferred choices of start dates.

Most memorable experiences on the West Coast Trail

Some of my memorable experiences are eating freshly caught crab for lunch at the Nitinat Narrows (bring  cash), catching a gorgeous sunset at Crib’s Creek, coming upon cold beer at Chez Monique’s near the Carmanah campsite, hiking through the beautiful Hole in the Wall, talking and commiserating with other hikers and warming up at night by campfires. Some lucky hikers catch sight of breaching whales. Unlucky ones run into bears. And on a hot sunny day there’s nothing that beats a fresh water shower at Tsusiat Falls.

I’m glad I backpacked the West Coast Trail – but I wouldn’t do it over and over again like many people do that I met. Other trails that offer a similar experience are the Juan de Fuca Trail, just south of the West Coast Trail, the Nootka Island Trail on Nootka Island – accessed out of Gold River and the North Coast Trail at the northern end of Vancouver Island.

MAPS of the WEST COAST TRAIL

Everything You Need to Know to Hike the West Coast Trail

Map of campsites on the West Coast Trail

Everything You Need to Know to Hike the West Coast Trail

Location map of the West Coast Trail

If you to decide to go hike the West Coast Trail then you can download my free guide – with itineraries for 6, 7 and 8 days.

Go with a positive mental attitude and you’ll have a great time. Finish it and you’ll knock off one of the top 50 things to do in British Columbia at least according to British Columbia Magazine.

Note: You can also book a trip with a tour company; I have heard great things about BCA Tours.

There is a book – Blisters and Bliss in its ninth edition that is considered the bible for the West Coast Trail – along with a detailed map you might want to have ahead of time.

Everything You Need to Know to Hike the West Coast Trail

When the sun shines the West Coast Trail is a place of great beauty

Click on the photo to bookmark to your Pinterest board.

Everything You Need to Know to Hike the West Coast Trail

Leigh McAdam

Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures
Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta
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Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam

Leigh McAdam is a Calgary based writer, author, photographer and social media enthusiast with over 57,000 followers. Her blog: HikeBikeTravel is frequently cited as one of the top travel and outdoor adventure blogs in Canada. Author of Discover Canada: 100 Inspiring Outdoor Adventures Co-author of 125 Nature Hot Spots in Alberta

Join the discussion 19 Comments

  • Melvin says:

    Wow… it sounds & looks amazing.

    Especiall the first pic as awesome!

  • Andrew says:

    It looks beautiful, but tough, Leigh. Having those restaurants along the way must make for a nice break.

  • Christina says:

    I did it in 2009 with my dad, it was great! We lucked out and the weather was beautiful, and after a few days of crowded campgrounds, so one day we hiked a little further and stayed in a campground all by ourselves!

  • John Klassan says:

    Planning to do it this late summer been getting in to shape lol. I lost 30 lbs and am walking 5 miles a day plus doing a gym work out three times a week. Hoping to lose another 20 lbs that will grt me down to 230 lbs.

  • Caroline Helbig says:

    Thank you! This guide has been really useful in planning our trip, particularly the itinerary advice (we are doing 7 day). We are leaving in a couple of weeks!

  • Caroline Helbig says:

    Thanks. Fingers crossed the nice weather continues!

  • Erik says:

    Me and a friend of mine walked the trail three weeks ago. A nice experience and for the first time we went with packing (tent and food). Particularly the part around Naimo was very cool. Fortunately we also had perfect weather as expected, with sometimes fogging out of the sea and later shining weather with nice skies. For us a high point during our Canada trip. Certainly passed by all the friendly Canadians we met during the draw.

  • Jim McConnan says:

    Two of us hiked it in 1971. there no maps or ladders, cable cars or any assistance whatever. No restaurants, nothing except raw nature.
    The native guy at Nitinat sold us a salmon for $5.00 and ferried us across the inlet. Warm sunny weather every day.

  • Dieter Holdt says:

    Great blog thanks. Wanting to hike Nootka trail, but on a budget and can’t figure out how to get there cheap. Planes and boats are pricey. Any tips?

    • Leigh says:

      @Dieter You could go on the Mountain Equipment Website and post a message in the forum asking to split the cost. That’s the best I can come up with right off the bat.

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