Hiking the West Coast Trail

Gruelling. Gruelling is the word used to describe the West Coast Trail in the official online guidebook. The trail is a 75-kilometre backpacking trek, situated on the southwestern edge of Vancouver Island. It boasts equal parts beautiful, dense green rainforest sections, ocean cliffside views, mud bogs, old growth trees, waterfalls, and scenic ocean beach sections. It is often ranked among the top hiking trails in the world, as well as the most difficult in North America. The average time to complete the route is six days.

I had the pleasure of completing the trail last August with my best friend Tim, who had suggested we do the trail together the year before. Neither Tim nor I are big hikers. Before this adventure, all of my multi-day trips had been either bike touring, where you are almost always passing through a town, and therefore never far from a trusty Tim Hortons, or canoeing, where the only time you feel the weight of your pack is over short portages.

I had one opportunity to attempt a multi-day hike before the West Coast Trail. In April of the same year my girlfriend and I attempted to hike the Slim’s River West Trail in Kluane National Park. We had wanted to do 46 kilometres in two days and one night, but ended up doing 30 after discovering how agonizing and seriously un-fun hauling 50- plus pounds of gear is.

Thank goodness I happened upon the enlightened ways of Ray Jardine and his ultra-light backpacking philosophy before Tim and I set out on the West Coast Trail. Ultra-light hiking is this crazy idea to pare down your pack weight to just 10 pounds, not including food, water and fuel. Ultimately, this makes a 10-day solo trip possible with a starting weight of 20 to 25 pounds, including everything.

After some research, I went to work sewing my own lightweight backpack, sleeping bag, and tarptent. I also made an ultra-light stove out of a cat-food can. Luckily, Tim was on board for this harebrained scheme, and on the first day of our trip, we each started out with bags no heavier than 19 pounds for six days. What was supposed to be a seriously gruelling experience ended up being completely transcendent and carefree. At times we were sporting our packs over one shoulder, gingerly hopping around muddy sinkholes of death, and merrily trotting along the trail. If we saw a side trail, we would almost always take it. People passing us would gawk at our slender packs. Oftentimes they thought we were attempting to complete the hike in a single day (we were, after all, wearing trail-running shoes).

Beyond the technical aspects of the trip, for someone who has generally lived in the interior of our country, the ocean had a strange and intense pull on my psyche. The smell, sound, and feel of it made me feel oddly at home, like I was coming back after an extended departure. I swam in the turbulent Pacific waters every day of the trip, regardless of how bad the waves were. There was a dense fog for the majority of our hike, which gave the trip an eerie dream-like feeling. That, and seeing sea lions for the first time made me question whether or not I was in the Matrix.

Camping under a tarp is not nearly as scary or uncomfortable as I had feared, and indeed is actually a beautiful experience because you don’t feel like you are cut-off from the world during the night. Waking up and looking around you is profound, in a Walden sort of way.

For anyone wanting to do a long multi-day hike, I can’t recommend the West Coast Trail enough. Hiking through a dense coastal rainforest and on the beaches of the Pacific is mesmerizing and unbelievably pleasing to the senses. And if you decide to try something new and challenging by going the ultra-light way, you may just enjoy it too. 

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