Hiking the West Coast Trail on Vancouver Island is one of the most thrilling outdoor adventures in Canada. It also requires a significant amount of planning and preparation. Once our 2021 permits were booked, I spent hours researching the trail and making sure I was ready. If you’re planning a West Coast Trail adventure for the first time, this guide will surely come in handy for you!
Hiking the West Coast Trail is one of Canada’s top outdoor adventures. My friend, Kevin, and I were very lucky to reserve mid-July permits, and I planned the trip from start to finish. This guide includes everything you need to know to plan your first West Coast Trail trip. If you have additional questions, please reach out and I’ll be happy to help.
West Coast Trail FAQs
Q. Where is the West Coast Trail located?
A. The trail is located in Pacific Rim National Park Reserve on Vancouver Island, British Columbia and is in the traditional territory of the Huuay-aht, Ditidaht, and Pacheedaht First Nations.
Q. How long is the West Coast Trail?
A. The official trail distance is 75 kilometres from point to point. However, several sources say at least an additional 85 km.
Q. How difficult or advanced is the West Coast Trail?
A. This is a very technical trail. Some sections might not feel as advanced, depending on your skill and fitness level. However, the often inclement weather, challenging obstacles, and lengthy trail create an advanced backpacking experience overall.
Q. How much elevation gain is there on the West Coast Trail?
A. The highest point of elevation is 230 metres near Thrasher Cove Campground.
Q. How long does the West Coast Trail take to complete?
A. The standard itinerary is around 7 days/6 nights. However, it is possible to finish the hike in more or less days. I completed the trail in 7 days.
Q. Is the West Coast Trail dog-friendly?
A. No, dogs are not permitted on the West Coast Trail, unless they are service animals.
Q. What can I expect while hiking the West Coast Trail?
A. The West Coast Trail is an incredibly scenic coastal trail, with well-maintained campgrounds and useful trail signage. There are several lookout points, lighthouses at Pachena and Carmanah, and likely wildlife sightings along the way. However, the trail also involves technical challenges such as deep mud, tall ladders, slippery boardwalk, cable cars, and overall strenuous hiking. Moreover, these challenges compound with inclement weather, where hypothermia can also pose a threat. There are around 100 ladders, 130 bridges, and 4 cable cars along the trail.
West Coast Trail History
The West Coast Trail is a 75-kilometre, multi-day backpacking route in Pacific Rim National Park, stretching through the traditional territory of the Huuay-aht, Ditidaht, and Pacheedaht First Nations. These nations have always lived on Vancouver Island. Indigenous communities originally developed these walking and paddling routes that were eventually used to rescue shipwreck survivors from the Juan de Fuca Strait. Then sailors dubbed this coastline the “Graveyard of the Pacific.” To reduce the risk, the Pachena and Carmanah lighthouses were built after increasing public pressure. In 1973, the WCT officially became part of the Pacific Rim.
Today, the West Coast Trail is managed in partnership with Parks Canada and the Huuay-aht, Ditidaht, and Pacheedaht First Nations communities. Over 7,500 people hike the trail each year. Please always remember to respect the land and the people who allow hikers to visit this incredible place.
Is Hiking the West Coast Trail for You?
So now it’s time to decide: Is hiking the West Coast Trail for you? Or, in some cases, it could be more about deciding whether this is the right time to take on the trail. Parks Canada provides a useful guide to determine if this hike is right for you.
The physical and mental stress of the West Coast Trail should not be understated. In short, the West Coast Trail is a technical trail that’s not for everyone. I would not recommend this trail for novice backpackers, as there are too many risks throughout. However, for those who have previously enjoyed multi-day hikes and are reasonably fit, the West Coast Trail is likely a great choice.
The West Coast Trail is for hikers who are: 1) Experienced with multi-day overnight backpacking, 2) Able to hike long distances through challenging terrain with a heavy pack and 3) Flexible with hiking plans and able to adjust (depending on conditions).
Map of the West Coast Trail
I’ve created a digital West Coast Trail map that shows the approximate campground locations and other points of interest. However, in my opinion, the Parks Canada West Coast Trail Map is an invaluable resource for finding beach access points and navigating the tides. I wouldn’t hike the WCT without a copy in my pack. Parks Canada provides these maps (free of charge!) at the mandatory orientation.
Best Time to Hike the West Coast Trail
The West Coast Trail is typically open from May 1 to September 30 each year. However, in 2021, it didn’t open until early April. The best time to hike the trail is somewhat subjective, though July and August tend to be preferred months due to sunny and warmer weather. We started our hike in mid-July and only had one day of rain. I’d recommend it.
The trail’s average rainfall is 330 cm per year and heavy rainfall is most frequent in May and June. Fog is more common in July and August. The average summer temperature is around 14 degrees Celsius. The warmest daytime temperature for us was about 20 degrees.
West Coast Trail Reservations
Reservations are a must for the West Coast Trail. There are 70 permits to start the WCT each day: 25 from Pachena Bay, 25 from Gordon River, and 20 from Nitinaht Narrows. You can book online at reservation.pc.gc.ca or call 1-877-RESERVE (1-877-737-3783). You can’t book individual campsites, but instead reserve a block of time from May to September. Campsites are first come, first serve.
Heads up: West Coast Trail reservations are not always easy. In 2021, reservations for the entire season opened on April 30, and limited permits were VERY quickly purchased. Reservations typically open in January for the season from May to September.
Try to be flexible with your dates. Sometimes starting mid-week is a better option for permit availability. Booking for June or September is usually easier, as the weather is more unpredictable. If you don’t get your dates at first, check back for cancellations as they do happen. However, in 2018, the standby option was removed, so you cannot show up at the trailhead without a reservation.
Note: Make sure you set up your Parks Canada account prior to reservations opening. I also recommend using both phone and online to try to secure your spot.
How Much Does the West Coast Trail Cost?
The West Coast Trail is not an inexpensive adventure. Depending on where you’re coming from, there may be additional costs associated with the trip, such as flights, accommodations, and so on. Here’s a basic fee structure for WCT hikers:
|Overnight Use Fee||$130.31|
|Gordon River Ferry Fee||$22|
|Nitinaht Village Ferry Fee||$22|
|National Park Entry Fee|
or Parks Canada Discovery Pass
$70 for 7 days
|West Coast Trail Express||$90|
The West Coast Trail costs at least $358.81 per person without factoring in travel to Vancouver Island. If you’re coming from outside of Vancouver Island, you will need to include transportation, accommodation, and so on.
Read more: Nairn Falls Hike Near Whistler, BC
Transportation to the West Coast Trail
West Coast Trail transportation is an important part of the planning, especially if you’re coming from out of town. After purchasing permits and flights, booking the West Coast Trail Express shuttle was next on the list. We flew into Victoria and spent the night at an Airbnb downtown. The shuttle picked us up at the Capital City Station downtown at 6:30am.
The Ocean island Inn backpackers hostel is an excellent budget-friendly accommodation option and walking distance to the bus station.
Alternatively, if you have your own vehicle, you can drive to either Port Renfrew or Bamfield to drop your vehicle before taking the shuttle to the trailhead. This is a good option to have your vehicle waiting for you at the end of your hike.
Typically, Parks Canada staff at Pachena Bay and Gordon River offer mandatory orientation sessions at 10am and 2pm each day. However, this year orientations are staggered as groups arrived from 9am to 3pm. There was also a short video presentation that hikers needed to watch before arrival. Parks Canada staff still provided updates on current trail conditions, tide tables, wildlife sightings, and other useful information.
You’ll need a copy of your reservation (with the reservation code) to check in at the trailhead and receive your trail permit. I just printed mine and brought it along.
Distances on the West Coast Trail
|0||Pachena Bay Trailhead|
|9||Sea Lion Haul Out Rock|
|9.5||Pachena Point Lighthouse|
|12||Michigan Creek Campground|
|13.7||Darling River Campground|
|15||Orange Juice Creek Campground|
|16.5||Tsocowis Creek Campground|
|18||Valencia Bluffs Viewpoint|
|23||Klanawa River Campground|
|25||Tsusiat Falls Campground|
|29.7||Ditidaht Comfort Camping|
|32.2||Nitinaht Narrows & Crab Shack|
|41.5||Cribs Creek Campground|
|44||Carmanah Point Lighthouse|
|46||Carmanah Creek Campground|
|47||Chez Monique’s Restaurant|
|48||Bonilla Creek Campground|
|53||Walbran Creek Campground|
|56||Logan Creek Suspension Bridge|
|57.7||Cullite Cove Campground|
|62.2||Camper Bay Campground|
|70||Thrasher Cove Campground|
|75||Gordon River Ferry|
7-Day West Coast Trail Itinerary (+ More Options!)
There are many West Coast Trail itinerary options. Most hikers complete the standard 7 days to on the trail, and our trip was no exception. However, faster backpackers can finish in less time, while slower hikers can add additional days to their trip. Further, there’s the option of starting at Nitinaht Narrows to hike either north to Pachena Bay or south to Gordon River.
This is the most standard 7-day itinerary for the West Coast Trail and the route we travelled:
Day 1: Pachena Bay to Michigan Creek (KM0 to KM12)
Day 2: Michigan Creek to Tsusiat Falls (KM12 to KM25)
Day 3: Tsusiat Falls to Cribs Creek (KM25 to KM41.5)
Day 4: Cribs Creek to Walbran Creek (KM41.5 to KM53)
Day 5: Walbran Creek to Camper Bay (KM53 to KM62)
Day 6: Camper Bay to Thrasher Cove (KM62 to KM70)
Day 7: Thrasher Cove to Gordon River (KM70 to KM75)
Depending on your schedule and personal fitness level, you may want to add more or less time to your WCT adventure. The above itinerary is a great starting point, but you could always remove Thrasher Cove (KM70) for a 6-day trek. Alternatively, campgrounds like Orange Juice Creek (KM15), Klanawa River (KM23), Carmanah Creek (KM46), and Bonilla Creek (KM48) are all “off the beaten path” and offer much more solitude. Whatever your preference, the WCT offers 13 official campgrounds to choose from.
There are two ferries on the West Coast Trail: Nitinaht Narrows (KM32) and Gordon River (KM75). Keep ferry schedules in mind when planning your trip. You’ll need to show the operators your hiking permit to board the ferries.
Nitinaht Water Taxi Schedule: 9:30am to 4:30pm (Yell across for a ride if you are coming from the north).
Gordon River Ferry Schedule: Every hour on the half-hour from 8:30am to 3:30pm. Raise the buoy next to the ladder so the operator knows you want to cross.
Nitinaht Lake Water Taxi Schedule: Are you starting or ending the trail at Nitinaht Narrows? You’ll need the water taxi at 9am from Nitinaht Village to Nitinaht Narrows, or 5pm from Nitinaht Narrows to Nitinaht Village.
Comfort Camping Options
The Ditidaht First Nation offers comfort camping options at Tsquadra Point on their traditional territory. Accommodations include 4 tents with wood-burning stoves, wooden floors, cots, and an outdoor deck, and 3 cabins with propane heaters, cots, and table and chairs. To book call 250-745-3999 or email email@example.com.
There are also 4 reservable cabins at Nitinaht Narrows. Cabin rentals start at $150/night and sleep 1-8 people. Check out Nitinat Wilderness Charters to book online.
Safety on the West Coast Trail
Staying safe on the West Coast Trail requires in-depth understanding of the risks. There are several hazards including difficult surge channels and impassable headlands, clearly marked on the West Coast Trail Map from Parks Canada. Several boardwalks have rotted through, and beach shelf/rocks become very slippery in wet conditions. When trail conditions are less than optimal, adjust your hiking pace and pay closer attention to each step. Many emergency evacuations happen due to slips and trips on rocks, ladders, boardwalk, roots, and other trail hazards.
There are multiple small earthquakes on the west coast each year. Tsunamis are possible but are highly unlikely. There are tsunami escape route signs posted throughout the trail. If you feel the ground shake or the water in the ocean suddenly recede, run for higher ground (but do not drop your pack).
Bring a first aid kit along with you. I also highly recommend wilderness first aid training before any backcountry adventure. My first aid was mostly used to prevent and treat blistering. I applied Leukotape (the BEST tape) to my feet each day. I finished the trail with only one unbroken blister. I also highly recommend trekking poles and solid hiking boots that provide ankle support.
Before you leave home, write down your trip plan and leave it with your family or friend. Explain who are you hiking with, where you are staying each night, and when you expect to return. Trip plans provide valuable information that could save your life in the event of an emergency.
Note: Over 100 emergency evacuations happen on the West Coast Trail each season. In the event of an emergency, call 1-877-852-3100 or ask a ferry operator, lighthouse staff, parks staff, or trail guardian for an evacuation. Do not call 911. Evacuations are part of the WCT fee, so there’s no additional cost. Evacuations can take up to 24 hours. Never leave an injured member of your group alone.
Wildlife on the West Coast Trail
The West Coast Trail is home to an abundance of wildlife, including black bears, cougars, wolves, sea lions, and more. One of my favourite sightings was an eagle eating a fish on a piece of driftwood! We also saw a black bear feasting on the beach. Since large predators are roaming the trail, it’s very important to take proper precautions and understand how to respond to face-to-face encounters.
Stay alert. Never approach or feed wildlife. Keep campsites clean and use food lockers—never store food in your tent! Stick with your group and never leave children unsupervised. If you happen to encounter a predator, back away slowly while facing the animal. Make sure there’s room for the bear, wolf, or cougar to retreat. If the predator persists or attacks, make yourself big and fight back, if necessary. Never play dead. Never run.
Our wildlife encounters were very enjoyable and at a safe distance. Most of the time, hikers and wildlife coexist peacefully on the trail, but it’s still important to know what to do when unpleasant encounters happen.
Eating on the Trail
Whether at home or on the trail, meal planning is not my favourite activity. Unsurprisingly, I’ve come to appreciate freeze-dried meals from Backpacker Pantry, AlpineAire, and Happy Yak. However, I’ll be the first to admit that some are DEFINITELY better than others. Still, I love the convenience and packability of these meals and am often willing to pay the price. Though I will admit, there are many delicious backcountry meal ideas and I appreciate the wonderful foodies who share their knowledge with people like me (!). If you make delicious (and easy) meals in the backcountry, I’d love to hear from you. The easier, the better!
Here’s what I brought for 7 days/6 nights on the West Coast Trail:
- Instant oatmeal (16 packets; 4 per breakfast)
- Instant mashed potatoes (3 packets) (delicious breakfast!)
- Peanut butter (small plastic jar)
- Tortilla wraps (large package; shared)
- Sidekicks (3 packets)
- Soup (3 packets)
- 8 freeze-dried meals (1 extra)
- Almonds & cashews
- Chocolate bars (3)
If you’d like to eat out, there are two restaurants along the trail. Carl’s Crab Shack is located at Nitinaht Narrows and you may want to stop for lunch. They serve crab, salmon, potatoes, grilled cheese sandwiches, and more. Chez Moniques is the burger joint near Carmanah Creek. We didn’t stop, but I’ve heard good things!
At the campgrounds, store your food in the food storage lockers. Never leave food unattended. If the lockers are full, hang your food in a drybag about 4 metres off the ground and 3 metres from the tree trunk. Never leave animal attractants in your tent.
I should also note that each campground has a freshwater source nearby. Several freshwater sources are also found along the trail, but there can be long stretches without easy water access. For example, freshwater can be scarce between KM30 and KM40 during dry weather. You’ll want to bring a water filtration or purification system with you. I travelled with my MSR TrailShot filter. Worked great!
Poopin’ on the Trail
So where does one do their business on the trail? Well, there are several composting toilets along the way. Remember to practice backpacker etiquette when using outhouses: keep it clean and close the lid. If you’d like to see toilet locations, check out the Google Map above. You’ll find toilets at every campground except Orange Juice Creek, and there are public toilets at Pachena Bay and Gordon River. There are no public washrooms at Pachena or Carmanah lighthouses.
What to do when there’s no toilet? Dig a hole! If there’s no outhouse nearby, human waste must be buried in a 20 cm (7 inch) hole at least 30 metres (100 feet) from waterways and trails. Toilet paper can be deposited in the next outhouse or burned. Personal hygiene products must be packed out.
West Coast Trail Packing List
In some ways, determining your West Coast Trail packing list comes down to personal preference. There are ultra-light options, of course, but some may choose to bring comfort items for the backcountry. Good rule of thumb: A fully-loaded pack should not weigh more than 20 percent of your body weight.
Here’s what I packed in:
- Tent (2p UL)
- Sleeping bag
- Sleeping pad
- Sleeping bag liner
- Rubber Birkenstocks
- Hiking boots (+ insoles)
- Rain shell
- Rain pants
- Gloves (cable car)
- 2L water (+ Nalgene)
- Bug spray
- Toilet paper
- Toothbrush + toothpaste
- MSR TrailShot water filter
- First aid
- 3 merino wool t-shirts
- 1 long sleeve
- 2 pants
- 2 shorts
- Change of clothes for the end
- 3 merino/non-cotton underwear
- 1 cotton underwear (sleeping)
- 3-4 merino wool socks
- Down jacket
- Fleece sweater
- Zoleo satellite comms
- Canon DSLR
- Wallet (+ ID)
- Parks Canada pass
- Tofino tide table
- Copy of reservation
- Meals + snacks
Next time I wouldn’t bring my hammock, pot (use Jetboil instead), or travel thermos (bring lightweight cup instead). For clothing, I would only bring merino t-shirts (2), long-sleeve (1), pants (1), shorts (1), merino underwear (2), cotton underwear (1), merino socks (3), down jacket (1), and fleece sweater (1). I also bought too much food (which is better than the alternative!), but strategically packing food can shave a significant amount of weight.
Note: If you’re flying from another city/province, you won’t be able to bring fuel or bear spray with you. Downtown Victoria has MEC, VPO, and likely other outdoor stores to purchase after you arrive.
Navigating the tides is a must on the West Coast Trail. There are beach sections that are impassible when the tide is in. You’ll get a high and low tide schedule during orientation, but you have to add an hour to daylight savings. Instead, I brought the Tofino tide table which provides hourly tide levels for each day and is already adjusted for daylight savings. WAY easier. I recommend bringing a copy of the Tofino tide chart with you.
The popular Owen Point near Thrasher Cove (which you will want to see!) is only passable with tides lower than 6 feet/1.8 metres. Based on the tide chart below, on August 13, the best arrival time would be around 8am until about 1pm. Use the tide table and tide information on the Parks Canada WCT Map to decide when the beach routes are safe.
Note: Bring the Tofino tide table with you. It’s SO much better than just knowing the high and low tides of the day. You’ll likely want to take the beach as much as possible. There are forest sections with no alternative, but there are long stretches of beach that make the West Coast Trail spectacular!
West Coast Trail Rules
These are West Coast Trail rules from Parks Canada:
Respect: Show respect to your fellow hikers to ensure everyone has a high-quality experience.
Cultural and Natural Resources: The Canada National Park Act prohibits the removal or damaging of natural and cultural resources within the park (such as marine life, shells, fossils, and plants). Removing man-made objects (i.e. buoys) is allowed.
Leave No Trace: If you pack it in, pack it out. That includes food waste and packaging, wet clothing, and so on.
Fires: Use a stove to cook meals as much as possible. Only use small driftwood for fires below the high tide line. No fires are permitted in the forest.
Camping: Camp on the beach in designated sites, and preserve the sensitive forest environment as much as possible.
Water: Do not contaminate freshwater sources. Wash dishes and bathe in the ocean.
First Nations Reserves and Private Property: Stay on the main trail and respect First Nations reserves, Guardian cabins, lighthouse grounds, and all the people and land along the trail.
Video of the West Coast Trail
More West Coast Trail Resources
There are many useful resources available for first-timers on the West Coast Trail. I read several blog posts from more experienced adventure bloggers, including Your Guide to the West Coast Trail in British Columbia (among others) from Happiest Outdoors and West Coast Trail – What You Need to Know from HikeBikeTravel.
There’s a very popular book called Blisters and Bliss: A Trekker’s Guide to the West Coast Trail that is frequently used for WCT preparation. I haven’t read it, but it comes highly recommended. And, of course, there is useful information in Parks Canada’s West Coast Trail Hiker Preparation Guide.
Are you planning your own West Coast Trail trip? Are there any questions that weren’t answered here? Leave a comment below!
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