Today, in my final WCT installment, I tackle the logistics. There are a lot of logistics (and associated expenses) involved in hiking the West Coast Trail.
Booking the Trip
Permits are required to hike the WCT. Only a limited number of permits are issued per day to prevent nutso traffic on the trail. I believe purchases go on sale some time around March for the upcoming season (the trail is only open from the beginning of May to the end of September).
We had been toying with the idea of hiking the West Coast Trail for awhile, but we didn’t actually take charge until mid-May. By then, most dates had already sold out. The end of September was the only option, and the only direction that was available was north to south. This made all decision-making very easy on us. It also brings me to my next two points: time of year and direction of hiking.
When we booked our permits, the total came to $181 per permit (this includes the two mandatory ferry crossings along the route)
When to Hike the Trail
I was hesitant about booking a trip at the end of September. I don’t like being cold and the fall months can be extremely rainy. I considered postponing for another year for a shot at more optimal mid-summer dates next year.
I got over that pretty quickly when I realized that sure, I could end up hiking seven days in the pouring rain at the end of September – but I could also end up hiking seven days in the pouring rain in the middle of July. It’s the West Coast Trail, and it will rain when it wants to.
So September it was. And it didn’t rain too much. And it wasn’t cold. And there were no bugs! And it actually wasn’t terribly crowded either – perks of hiking in the “shoulder” season.
The cons? Most of the campsites had very little firewood left this late in the season. The shuttle (the West Coast Trail Express) was running on a reduced schedule – more on that in a moment.
Conclusion: there are pros and cons to hiking that trail at any point in time. The best time to hike it is whenever you can.
North to South or South to North. I hear this can be a touchy subject.
We hiked North to South by default because it was all that was available. I haven’t experienced it the other way, but my impression is that hiking North to South provides a more balanced experience. The “easy” bits at the north end are tough because your pack is heavy and you’re not yet accustomed to hiking all day long. The “difficult” bits at the end are a breeze because your pack is ~10 pounds lighter and you’re practically a professional hiker. I imagine that hiking South to North would result in a REALLY tough first day or two, and a REALLY easy last day or two.
If someone asked me to recommend a direction, I would say North to South was a great option for me. But if South to North was the only option available, I wouldn’t hestitate to hike it that way.
Cars and ferries and shuttles, oh my. There are two primary challenges to planning transportation and timing on the West Coast Trail:
- Since this is a point-to-point hike (as opposed to one where you end up right back where you started), you need to figure out how you will get back to your car once you’re done.
- The mandatory trail orientation takes place at 10 AM and 2 PM (at least it did this season). You may attend the 2 PM session on the day before your permit allows you to permit.
Regarding #1, the solution seemed pretty straightforward to me. We drove to Port Renfrew, which is where we would end up at the end of our hike. We parked our car in the parking lot across from the end of the trail ($35 for the week or $7 per day). We then hopped onto the West Coast Express shuttle, which took us up to Bamfield, where we began our hike. I booked our shuttle tickets ahead of time ($85 per person including taxes), so I knew that in the shoulder season, the shuttle only ran on odd-numbered days. This worked out with our schedule, so it was no problem. However, we encountered several people who hadn’t realized this ahead of time and were thrown off – either required to start their trip a day late and having to rush through it, or having to camp an extra night at the end instead of going home to shower.
Regarding #2, we opted the complete the orientation the day before in Port Renfrew. This allowed us to catch the shuttle the next morning and start hiking as soon as it dropped us off. The alternative would have been to attend the 2 PM session in Bamfield, but this would have delayed the start of our hike by about two hours.
Whatever you do, I would highly recommend arranging it so that your car is waiting for you when you finish the hike (rather than having to shuttle back to your car at the end). We met too many people that were rushing to make their shuttle time. Having your car at the end means that you can speed up or slow down without consequence.
One last note: I had ready that taking a water taxi was an option. We wanted to book this, but it seems that no operators were running this year. We phoned one operator who offered to do it for $1,000+, which was out of our budget.
How Long to Take
Most people hike the trail in 5 nights/6 days, 6 nights/7 days, or 7 nights/8 days.
The only circumstance I would consider hiking 5 nights/6 days is if I had limited vacation time. Doing the trail in 6 days is doable, but your days are longer and you have much less flexibility in terms of the tides. You want to wait for the tides because the beach hiking is the best!
For our group, 6 nights/7 days was the perfect amount. It allowed us to take our time in the mornings, to stop at lookouts along the way, to speak with the people we met along the trail, to enjoy the hot lunches when we could, and to walk on the beach.
I would recommend 7 nights/8 days for groups that want to enjoy the hike but aren’t sure about their fitness level. If you haven’t done something like this before or aren’t in the best shape, then slowing down is a good idea. Speeding up only increases the odds of hurting yourself or falling in the mud a million times.
The number one most important aspect of planning your West Coast Trail trip is picking the right person or people to do it with. No question.
We met many solo hikers out on the trail. If you are confident in the outdoors and have experience backpacking, this would be a very cool thing to do. You’re never really alone on the West Coast Trail and you meet plenty of people along the way.
We also saw a lot of couples hiking together. This could be fun or could be terrible, depending on your relationship. Cedric and I did a LOT of hiking just the two of us last summer, so we wanted to add a few more people to the mix this year.
We chose to do the hike in a group of four. This worked out really well for us. It allowed us to spread out the gear a bit, which slightly lightened our packs, and it made cable cars sooo much fun.
How many people you hike with isn’t the question – it’s who you choose to hike with. Go with people who are excited for the hike, who generally have a positive attitude, and who have the same hiking philosophy that you do (e.g., someone who wants to start hiking at sunrise versus someone who likes to sleep in and take their time around camp in the morning). I’m lucky that the three people I hiked with were fun, entertaining, and eternal optimists. It made the hike very enjoyable.
As you may have gathered by now, hiking the West Coast Trail is not cheap. My expenses included:
- The permit
- Gas for the car
- The ferry to and from Vancouver Island
- Eating out the day before and morning of the hike
- Parking the car at the trail head
- A night of camping in the Pacheedaht camp site
- The shuttle
- Meals along the way at the Crab Shack and Chez Monique’s
- Food for our trip
- Picking up some key pieces of gear
- A guide book
Not all of these expenses are mandatory, but even if you keep it to the bare basics, it adds up. Still, it was cheaper than most week-long trips I would take. And it was absolutely worth every penny.