West Coast Trail – Vancouver Island – An Overview

My two sons (Josh and Justin) and I hike together.   We have researched and planned on and off for two years to hike the West Coast Trail.  As we live in Manitoba in different communities, travel logistics around vacation times, family and work commitments dictate windows of opportunity for our hikes.  We finally settled on the dates of Friday August 26th, 2011 (travel day & arrival for orientation) to September 4th, 2011 (day to travel home).  As we had not done this trail before, we gave ourselves 7 days plus one extra in case of bad weather.  Our plan was to be off the trail on Sept 3rd.

This POST is an OVERVIEW of the WCT that includes some logistics, suggestions, costs and contact numbers/websites that should help you determine if this is the trail for you, and if so, what are some of the things you can expect to encounter.

Following this post, are a series of posts detailing a day to day account of where we walked, what we saw, what we liked and other highlights.

This is a physically demanding trail for serious backpackers and is not for people looking to tick this off their “bucket list”, settle a bet or who just ignore the continued warnings about trail difficulties.  It is well worth your time to research the blog sites, websites and books that are available, as these are put together by people who have walked the trail and know what it entails.   The trail varies significantly depending on the weather – a little bit of rain does not significantly alter the trail, but a lot of rain (which happens frequently in this area – it is a rainforest after all) will change the trail to a point where you might have to decide to hunker down and wait it out, or head out to the nearest trail head and finish the trail another day.

Some of the sites I found very helpful were;

Parks Canada Pacific Rim site – http://www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/bc/pacificrim/activ/activ6a/v.aspx

Hike Bike Travel website – http://hikebiketravel.com/eguide-store-bike-tours-adventure-travel-hiking-walking-tours/canada/west-coast-trail-hiking-tour/   I would suggest downloading their full 12 page Information package.  Very informative along with suggested itineraries for 6, 7 and 8 day trips.

Blisters and Bliss – A Trekkers Guide to the West Coast Trail by David Foster and Wayne Aitken – this book in my opinion is a must as it details the trail whether you are starting at the north or south trailheads.   These guys have hiked this trail often so know their stuff.  I advise taking the book along with you as it has valuable information in it that you will not remember when you need it most. You can buy it from their website direct http://members.shaw.ca/blistersbliss/  or you may find it in your local bookstore, Amazon etc.

There are many other sites and resources, but this will get you started.

On our hike, I would estimate conservatively that 20% of the people should not have been on the trail – and it was in decent shape!   They were struggling along at the north end where the going is somewhat easier and still had the south end to navigate.   Many had not used their gear previously (I saw many very new pairs of boots, and even some running shoes on some hikers), were not aware of the basics of firelighting, and were carrying packs with things hanging off them from all sides.  The various types of clothing I saw ranged from those who had obviously hiked before, to those who thought what they wear on a normal day would suffice on the trail.

The most important thing on this trail will be your outlook – and your ability to take things in stride when they don’t go your way, or the weather closes in, or you misjudged the tides and have to backtrack, or maybe you lose some gear along the way.   One of the things we found out at the first site that was different from other hikes we have done, is that while this might be considered wilderness – it may not be so for many of you.   For instance we arrived at our first site and set up our tent.  At that time there were maybe 3 groups set up there with about 12 people in total – nice place to camp we figured.   By 6:30 pm, there were over 60 people on the site and every square inch of space had tents on it.   Hardly a wilderness experience if you are thinking you will be alone.  The trail itself is not crowded but you meet people along the way on the whole trail.

After doing the background research, you need to be honest with yourself about whether this is the trail for you.  This includes questions about your hiking experience, fitness level, previous injuries (back or joints), camping experience in a wilderness setting, quality of gear, preparedness for injuries and inclement weather and First Aid capabilities.  Do you  mind heights, walking across logs with no handrails, navigating cable cars, numerous ladders at varying degrees of straitness (up and down) and river crossings?  Oh yea and mud – that can be very deep in places.  I am not trying to scare you off, just want to make sure that you understand what you will encounter.  Can you manage 5-7 days without a shower (there are rivers, waterfalls and small ponds where you can wash off or freshen up, but the water is not heated – or warm actually).

If you are hiking with a group – have you hiked together before?  This may not be a trail to hike with others who don’t know each other, as things such as hiking speed, wakeup times, food prep, camp setup and takedown and sleeping arrangements can become a real irritant after a few days.

Even with planning and preparation you will find that;

  • you get very muddy
  • your feet get wet – and sore
  • parts of the trail are a ways from the water
  • beaches are nice to walk on, but often are quite soft so your calves get a real workout 🙂
  • you spend a lot of time looking down so you don’t end up face down
  • your shoulders will ache and if wet could blister
  • there is always one more ladder to climb


So now that you have decided to do this hike, where do you get the information you need?

Reservations are found at the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve website, and can be made by phone or on line.  We did ours on line.  This is what you will find on the website.

Pacific Rim National Park Reserve of Canada

West Coast Trail Reservations

Planning your trip

West Coast Trail  http://www.pc.gc.ca/pn-np/bc/pacificrim/activ/activ6a/v.aspx

| Description | Features | Policies |
2185 Ocean Terrace Road, Box 280 Ucluelet, BC
The West Coast Trail is a 75 km (47 miles) backpacking trail found within Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. Located on Vancouver Island’s west coast hikers start the trail at either Pachena Bay – Bamfield (North end) or Gordon River – Port Renfrew (South end). The trail is an adventure with risk. It is a difficult coastal hike not recommended for inexperienced backpackers, hikers with reoccurring injuries or children under 12. Average time for the hike is 6-7 days.
RESERVATION SEASON: Call Centre open: April 1 – Sept 13 Reservable Dates: June 15 – Sept 15 * Reservations are not taken outside the June 15 to Sept 15th period.
The WCT is open May 1 to September 30. The WCT is closed to overnight use between October 1 and April 30th.

Maximum group size is 10.

Entrance points are Pachena Bay (Bamfield/north) and Gordon River (Port Renfrew/south).

All overnight users require an Overnight Use Permit.

In the shoulder season between May 1st and June 14th and Sept 16th to the 30th Parks Canada discontinued the reservations and the standby system as demand did not warrant the need.

During the peak season, June 15 to Sept 15th, Parks Canada allows up to sixty overnight hikers to start the trail each day. Thirty from the Pachena end of the trail and thirty from the Gordon River end of the trail.

Hikers in peak season can make a reservation or go on the standby list

To be put on the standby list hikers request to be added to the standby list when they arrive at the WCT Information Centre. Wait times range from 0-2 days.

Reservations can be made up to three months in advance of the hike start date.

  • Hikes starting in June can be reserved as of April 1, 9 AM
  • Hikes starting in July can be reserved as of May 1,
  • Hikes starting in August can be reserved as of June 1
  • Hikes starting in September can be reserved as of July 1

Hikers can make a reservation by phone or through the internet.

DAILY DEPARTURES : 60 hikers per day (30 from Bamfield and 30 from Port Renfrew). * Reservable: 50 hikers per day (25 from Bamfield and 25 from Port Renfrew). * Standby: 10 hikers / day plus any spaces available due to unused reservations quota. Register for standby spaces in person at a WCT Information Centre. Standby spaces are allocated at 12:30 PM each day.
Children on the WCT: Parks Canada does not recommend children under 12 hike the WCT. Children under 6 will not be issued a WCT Overnight Use permit.
Driving Directions:

Drive times: * Pachena Bay – Port Alberni (logging road) (2 hrs) * Pachena Bay – Duncan (logging road) (3 hrs). * Pachena Bay –Nitinat- Port Renfrew (logging road) (3 hour) * Port Renfrew – Victoria via Highway 14 (2 hrs).

Juan de Fuca Express Water Taxi: 1-888-755-6578
http://members.shaw.ca/berry5868/juanfuca.htm  (Port Renfrew – Bamfield)
Lady Rose Marine Services (Passenger Ferry): 250-723-8313 or 1-800-663-7192 (April 1 – Sept 30) www.ladyrosemarine.com  (Port Alberni – Bamfield)
Nitinat Lake Water Taxi: 250-745-3509 (Nitnat Lake –Nitinat Village) Nitinat Village is a small, remote community: an overnight stay may be required.
Tofino Air: 1-888-436-7776 or (604) 740-8889
www.tofinoair.ca  (Between: Vancouver-Bamfield-Tofino)
West Coast Trail Express Bus:1-888-999-2288; 1-250-477-8700 www.trailbus.com
(Victoria – Nanaimo – Port Alberbi – Bamfield – Port Renfrew – Nitinat Village)

Booking your spot for your hike can only be done 3 months in advance (unless you want to take the chance to show up and get one of the few open spots).

Some things you need to know when booking are ;

  • what is your preferred start date
  • if that is not available, have one or two alternate dates
  • how many days will you be on the trail?  It is possible to do the trail is 4-5 days but most plan on 6-8 days.  The biggest issue is really the transportation at the trailhead you end at.  If you have booked for a 7 day trip and you get out in 5, there may not be any way you can get on the bus or boat – this would mean having to camp a couple of nights near the trailhead, or hope a spot opens up to get you back to your vehicle
  • how many in your party
  • are you starting at the south trail head or north trailhead (south is a bit more challenging of a start and you will have a full pack load,  north is a bit easier to start and you can start directly from the Orientation building as the trail is right there.  The Gordon River trailhead is a short water taxi ride from the Port Renfrew Parks building, and there is no way to start from this end without the water taxi.  If it is later in the day, the taxi has a time at which it stops taking people across as it is too difficult to make it to Thrasher Cover before dark)

We did our reservation online at 9:15 am PST on June 1st through BC Tourism.  Once booking was completed we received this confirmation email that also included some helpful guides:

This is an automated email. Please use the appropriate Contact Information noted below for any questions or comments.

Thank you for booking your vacation with Tourism BC. During your visit, please feel free to visit one of the many Visitor Centres located around the province. The counselors will provide you with valuable tourist information and advice. These centres are identified by their distinct blue-and-yellow ‘I’ logo.

Important Documents
West Coast Trail Prep Guide FR
West Coast Trail Prep Guide ENG
Bear Brochure ENG
Bear Brochure FR
Cougar/Wolf Booklet FR
Cougar/Wolf Booklet Back ENG
Cougar/Wolf Booklet Front ENG

West Coast Trail Other :Obtaining Your Permit: Reserved spaces must be claimed by 12:00pm on the hiker’s start date at the WCT Information Centre. Hikers with reservations who arrive after 12:00pm on their reserved start date must contact the WCT Information Centre to prevent their reservation from being given to hikers on standby.

Port Renfrew/Gordon River 250-647-5434 Bamfield/Pachena 250-728-3234 Orientation session: All hikers must attend a 90-minute orientation before they are issued a WCT Overnight Use Permit. Orientation times 9:30, 1:00 & 3:30 at the WCT Information Centre.

Children on the WCT: Parks Canada does not recommend children under 12 hike the WCT. Children under 6 will not be issued a WCT Overnight Use permit.

Pets and firearms are not permitted on the WCT. Maximum group size:10 hikers . For all general information, please visit http://www.pc.gc.ca/pacificrim  or contact the park at 250-726-4212. Hours of operation and fees may vary.

West Coast Trail Online Cancellation :Cancellations may be made up to 21 days prior to departure date. Cancellation fee of $23.81 per hiker plus $6.00 per booking apply. Only the West Coast Trail Overnight Use Fee is fully refundable. Within 20 days of confirmed departure date, the Overnight Use Fee of $127.50 and Booking Fee of $23.81 are non-refundable. All reservation, change and cancellation fees are non-refundable. Reservation changes made up to 21 days prior to departure are subject to a $6.00 change fee. No change to confirmed departure date is allowed within 21 days of departure.

Deposit :Full payment of reservation and Overnight Use Fees are taken at the time of booking. Ferry Fees are paid at the WCT Information Centre during the hiker orientation session. Methods of payment taken at WCT Information Centre: Cash, Travelers Cheques (Canadian funds), Visa, Mastercard or American Express

Once the booking was done and confirmed, we could proceed with making flight arrangements (too far to drive and we figured we would be too tired from driving from Winnipeg to have a decent start to the hike) as well as any hotel reservations we may need.  We also needed to book seats on the bus to get back to our vehicle at the south end.  When booking on the boat, there is a requirement for a minimum number of people.  At the time we checked, there was only us and we would have had to cover the cost of the rest up to the minimum.  We decided to be safe and book the bus.  At the time we boarded in Bamfield, there were no vacant seats.

Now that you have got all of this done, you need to plan the other parts of your trip;

  • which camp sites are you planning on staying at?
  • are you ready for a rain delay – it can make the trail almost too muddy to travel, or in some cases, the rivers rise quickly and a crossing should not be attempted until the water drops back down.  This could take a day.
  • if you plan on walking the beaches, it is advisable to download the tide tables in advance so that you at least have some idea as to whether the camp sites you have picked will allow you to get across the beach in time before the tide comes back in.  If you don’t get across the beach, in some cases there is no place to wait it out and you will have to make a fast backtrack to a safe spot and wait hours for the tide to go back out.   This is a very important point and should not be overlooked.  It might mean you need to get up at 5 am to be on the beach by 6 am.
  • See the above site www.hikebiketravel.com or the Blisters and Bliss book for suggestions on 6, 7 or 8 day itineraries.  If these don’t suit you, then work with the WCT map to find alternative camping sites.

The West Coast Trail can be started from either the south trail head (Port Renfrew) or the north trail head (Bamfield).  It is purely a matter of whether you want to do the harder part of the trail (south end) first with a full pack, or start at the north end of the trail (easier walking for first day or two) and hit the south end with lighter packs.   We decided on starting at the south end.  Might as well get the full experience.

To see our day to day travel notes and pictures, please follow the blog starting on WCT Day 1.

About trailsandtrips

I am a consultant in the forestry and environmental fields and spend my recreational time in a variety of outdoor activities such as hiking, backpacking, canoeing, kayaking, snowshoeing and cross-country skiing.
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3 Responses to West Coast Trail – Vancouver Island – An Overview

  1. Thank you for mentioning my website and guide.Much appreciated.

    Have you thought about doing the North Coast Trail??

  2. Thank you very much for your link to my blog (www.hikebiketravel.com). I hope your readers find the info useful and a few of the photos inspiring.
    Have you thought about hiking the North Coast Trail? That one is on my list now.

    • Hi Leigh

      it is on the long list of trails still to do. I like you blog and the many others who also contribute. I just started my blog last year and have a number of trips to still put on it (hiking, canoeing and kayaking). Did you ever hike the Mantario trail on the border of Mb and Ontario? It is fairly rugged as well and is in the Canadian shield so good walking along bare rocks following a chain of lakes. About 65 Km and in the Whiteshell Park area

      I appreciated finding your WCT brochure as it was another piece of info that certainly helped fill in some of the blanks. will check out some of your other posts as i get time.

      the blog i am doing on the WCT is pretty detailed and is day by day. Expect i will get a day out of the system every one or two days. Takes some time to get the pictures into it along with the story

      take care


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