How to Safely Hike the West Coast Trail (Vancouver Island, BC)
Crossing a ravine on a toppled log. The creek is about 4 meters below, the log is slippery and there's no guardrails. Welcome to the West Coast Trail!
Each year, thousands of people hike the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island, BC, Canada. Unfortunately, some trekkers are blinded by the excitement and adventure and don't heed the warnings before hitting the trail. Fond memories quickly turn into nightmares of injury and personal suffering.
Hikers need to be aware of the outdoor hazards that maybe encountered on the West Coast Trail. Here are a few:
- Only hike from May 1 to September 30. The Parks Canada staff supervises the trail during the spring and summer months to assists with emergencies, evacuations and to check permits. Hiking outside of this time is not recommended due to treacherous trail conditions and the wild, winter weather along the west coast. Hikers are frequently subjected to torrential rain, deep mud and slippery rocks. There are no scheduled crossings at Nitinat Narrows and hikers may be responsible for all costs if a rescue party is needed.
- Good pair of hiking boots – A sturdy pair of hiking boots is needed to provide grip and support. You’ll be relying on the soles of your boots in life and death situations, be it clinging onto a rock face in a surge channel or standing on a ladder rung, 20 meters above a landing. Boots with sturdy ankle support will help prevent twisted ankles on slippery tree roots and jagged rocks.
- Get a pair of gaiters – Wearing these protective covers on top of the boot help to prevent sand, mud & water from entering. Look for a proper sized pair that fit from just below the knee and lash under the heel. Ones that close with zippers are cheaper than Velcro ones but are more prone to getting stuck with mud & sand.
- Be self-sufficient - Plan to carry enough food, clothing and equipment for 5-8 days. Backpacks usually weigh between 30-60 lbs but can be lightened if the load is shared between group members.
- Prepare for Rain - The west coast of Vancouver Island, BC gets more than 3 meters (yes, 3 meters) annually. Even in the summer, frequent showers blow in unimpeded from the ocean. Bring appropriate rain gear and place all contents in a garbage bag before packing in the backpack. Carry a single-burner, campfire stove (and fuel) as the firewood may be too damp to ignite.
- Have a good water purifier - It’s impossible to carry enough water for the entire duration so plan on refilling your bottles from the fresh-water streams. Use ceramic filters, chlorine tables or boil water before consuming. Vancouver Island is a wildlife haven and streams may be contaminated with parasites and bacteria from these critters.
- First Aid Kit – Always carry a first-aid kit for bandaging cuts, scraps and blisters. Carry a cell phone for emergencies that may require assistance. The West Coast Trail has coverage from American wireless companies from across the Juan de Fuca Strait but it’s spotty in the deep gorges. Roaming charges apply when using the American networks. There is no coverage from Canadian phone operators along this remote coast.
- Watch your step – There are hazards every step of the way including slippery boardwalks, ladders, rocks, cliffs, logs. Watch for rotten boards on the boardwalks which can break at any moment. Check before placing all of your weight on a ladder rung.
- People have drowned in these frigid coastal waters - Rogue waves can snatch hikers from the surge channel, tidal benches and even the beach. These waves come unpronounced so always be careful along the sea shore.
- Hypothermia – Hypothermia can unsuspectingly creep up on an hiker, especially when exposed to the wind & rain. Watch for signs of mild hypothermia and prepare to stop it before your condition deteriorates.
Don’t be deterred by the thought of death or severe injury while hiking the West Coast Trail. Knowing what hazards that may be encountered let’s people plan in advance for situations that thousands of others hikers have encountered and survived. See if you're tough enough for the toughest hike in Canada.
Get more insider tips on Canadian Adventures at Scenic Travel Canada.