In my last blog post, I wrote about all the experiences I had on the second leg of my journey solo-hiking the Cape Scott and North Coasts trails, the good, the bad, and the ugly. In this blog post, I'll unpack the entire experience, discussing the highlights, the challenges, tips for the trail, and the lessons I learned, both inner and outer. But to start off, here's my video/photo journal of my entire experience if you're interested in checking it out:
Cape Scott/North Coast Trail vs. West Coast Trail
Last year, I hiked the West Coast Trail Check out my blog post about that journey. It was an amazing experience that I would remember forever. Certain elements were challenging, but they were all within my comfort zone, allowing me to fully absorb all the beauty of the trail as I solo-hiked the whole 75km length in 71 hours. I remember many moments when I let the beauty of what I was experiencing wash over me, crying tears of gratitude for being able to be there in those moments. Don't get me wrong. I wouldn't not call it an "easy" trail, but all the challenges were ones I expected and was prepared for.
The Cape Scott Trail, on the other hand, was a little too easy for my taste, while the North Coast Trail... involved a lot more swearing.
The Cape Scott Trail would make an excellent hiking experience for anyone who is relatively fit, doing a multi-day backpacking trip for the first time. The trails are clearly marked, there are interesting things to see, potential wildlife encounters, bear boxes, water sources and outhouses at all the campsites, and if you run into any trouble, the ranger station is relatively accessible at Nel's Bight. But for me, it didn't push me enough, even with me solo-hiking and clocking 25km or so a day.
The North Coast Trail was a completely different animal, described by many as being like what the West Coast Trail was like back in the 70s. There was a tangible shift in the terrain of the trail as soon as you got past Nissen Bight that starkly contrasts with the Cape Scott Trail. There are way more challenges, including muddy sections, slippery rocks and roots, overgrown bushes along the trail, felled trees that require you to climb or redirect, places where the trail isn't so obvious, uneven hiking surfaces along the coast, uneven/unstable coastal terrain that's hard on the joints, and more potential for wildlife encounters. On top of that, there is less information out there detailing what to expect from the trail, making it hard to mentally prepare. If something bad does happen on the trail, there are also less people around to help you (rangers and other hikers), and of course, no cell phone reception, making a well-stocked first aid kit and a satellite phone both important gear for emergencies, especially for me who was flying solo.
On my shuttle ride back to my car, I chatted with my driver about hikers hiking the North Coast Trail. He told me there were a lot more hiking it this year than in previous years, presumably because the West Coast Trail was closed. I had encountered many hikers who had chosen to hike the Cape Scott and/or North Coast Trail because they had to abandon plans to hike the West Coast Trail due to its closure as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. I commented that my experience seemed a lot more challenging on the NCT over the WCT, and that many people I had seen on the trail were carrying way heavier bags than what I thought was safe for that trail. He replied: "You're the first person I've seen this year who packed appropriately for that hike," referring to the size and weight of my pack.
The shuttle driver told me about other hikers who he had picked up who were a day late for pick-up, having hiked at a slower pace than they had anticipated. Another group was completely muddy and miserable having gone on what they had described as "the worst hike they had ever gone on," (*They started from the opposite end I started, at Shushartie Bay.) One guy in the group also had a massive rash running all the way up and down one side of his body, having fallen into the mud during their slog through the bog section at the start. The driver explained that there are a lot of cedar trees in that area, which gets into bog's water and mud. Cedar is toxic to humans so immersing yourself in that water can cause major skin irritations like rashes.
During my own hike, nearly everyone I encountered was carrying massive, heavy pack. One guy even had an axe strapped to his (Why?!?). I also came across a pair of hikers who told me that one of their members who was hiking further back with the rest of their group, having injured her ankle in the first kilometre of their hike. My eyes widened at that and I responded back, "She should probably re-consider trying to finish this hike."
Cape Scott Trail vs North Coast Trail: Which Should You Hike?
If you're thinking about hiking one or both of these trails this year as an alternative to hiking the West Coast trail, read through this section fully before making your choice.
Most people who hike the North Coast Trail end up planning to hike both these trails, but there is also the option to start at the Cape Scott parking lot and hike only the CST as an out and back, possibly including part of the NCT before hiking back to the car. This is likely the best option for the vast majority of people, based on average hiker fitness, hiking gear, and temperament for adversity. Most people who hike the WCT are up for a challenge, but they want the challenge to still be closer to their comfort zone. They want the experience to be more of a celebration of life by way of a magical trek through some of the best coastal landscapes BC has to offer.
While the Cape Scott Trail is not as challenging as the West Coast trail, and in my opinion, not as beautiful, it is far less likely to push people past their breaking point after which the hike is no longer a fun experience. The North Coast Trail, if ill-equipped in terms of physical and mental states, as well as backpacking gear, poses a much greater chance of doing so.
Another benefit to starting at the Cape Scott parking lot and focusing the the CST is that it is a LOT cheaper, dispensing with the need to pay for the water taxi and shuttle (costing around $325 CAD), which are necessary for doing the NCT as a thru-hike. All you have to pay then is the backcountry camping fees, which are only $10/night.
That being said, if you and your group are experienced backpackers, injury-free, are comfortable with the discomfort and the wide variety of difficulties that a rugged wilderness trail can bring, and want a higher level of challenge to put yourself to the test, the North Coast Trail is the better choice.
Tips for Tackling the North Coast Trail
So you've decided that you're up for the challenge of hiking the North Coast Trail? Great! Now take the time to mentally and physically prepare for your trip. Here are some of the most important tips in my mind that I would like to impart from my own experience:
1. Hike from the Cape Scott parking lot (not the Shushartie Bay entrance). This is one of the best decisions I made in terms of minimizing factors that can really make you regret a hike. Starting at Shushartie Bay puts you on the most miserable part of the trail right at the beginning, which can set the tone of the entire hike. It is emotionally demoralizing to slog through that bog, which can affect your energy and cause tensions in your group that are hard to recover from. Also, even if you wear gaiters and waterproof boots, there is a good chance that they'll soak through, even if it's not raining. You have no choice but to hike through mud and water for those first 8km, and once waterproof boots soak through, they're likely to stay wet for the rest of your hike because you'll continue to hike in them and hit patches of water throughout the trail and it's just not warm enough for them to dry after you finish hiking for the day. This not only adds weight to your boots, which tires you out faster the more you hike, it also brings you to blister country, or possibly rashes depending on how much cedar exposure you get. It's also a breeding ground for bacterial infections if any of those become open wounds. By starting at the Cape Scott Parking Lot, you leave hiking the long stretch of bog till the end when it doesn't matter as much if your boots soak through because you'll be done.
2. Choose the best route for your entire group. With any multi-day hike, you should choose a route that is manageable for even the weakest hiker in your group. There are a number of ways to go about doing the North Coast Trail that can make it easier or more challenging, depending on what you want. You can focus on just hiking the North Coast Trail alone and leave out hiking the full length of the Cape Scott Trail, all the way to the lighthouse. On paper, this cuts down the distance by nearly 20km. Alternatively, you can choose to hike only a section of the North Coast Trail, like to Shuttleworth Bay or Cape Sutil then hike back to the Cape Scott entrance. This may add kilometres to your hike, but will spare you having to hike the worst section at the end, as well as save you money by not having to book a water taxi and shuttle.
3. Lighten up. While it may not be practical for everyone to go ultralight like I did, you should still do your best to minimize your pack weight. Your base weight should definitely be kept under ⅓ your body weight, but if you can, I would recommend trying to get it under ¼ your body weight or less, if possible. The main things is to choose the lightest possible materials for your "big three" (i.e. your pack, shelter, and sleep system), to bring items that have multiple purposes, like using trekking poles as part of your shelter, for example, and to only bring what you truly need. It helps to go through your last trip packing list and eliminate anything that you didn't end up using (unless it's something that is for emergency use only). Here are more tips for lightening up your pack. You can also check out the book Ultralight Backpacking Tips for more info.
4. Be prepared for emergencies. Because there is no cell reception, and not as much help available directly on the trail, you need to have the ability to handle emergencies as they arise. Make sure at least one person in your group is trained in first aid, and have a first aid kit that is well-equipped for a more demanding hike. Read more about what to bring in a hiker first aid kit. In addition to having a first aid kit, you need an animal deterrent system, which may or may not include the following: a loud emergency whistle or air horn, bear spray, a bear hang bag with 50 feet of line, odour-proof bags for food and toiletries, a pocket knife with a locking blade. Because I prefer to carry less weight, I use a combination of storm whistle and knife, keeping both easily accessible for emergencies, over bear spray, and focus more on prevention tactics. Lastly, this is the kind of trail that you want to have some sort of satellite communicator for, especially if you're hiking solo like I was. Even if you're hiking with a group, a major injury on the trail may require someone to be airlifted out, if you have to hike to a ranger station or wait for someone to come who has a satellite communicator, the extra wait could be a matter of life and death for certain medical emergencies. On a trail like the NCT, you definitely want to turn up the volume on your emergency system. Hope for the best, but be prepared for the worst. I used one of the lightest options on the market, the Garmin InReach Mini, which connects to your cell phone. (*Note: You also need to make sure you have a battery and charging cable to keep all your safety tools usable.)
5. Set an intention. A challenging hike like the NCT is more likely to push the limits of your comfort zone, and the views on the trail may not be enough on their own to make the demands of the hike worth the effort. Setting a personal intention, like putting outdoor skills to the test or disconnecting from the comforts of daily life, can help serve as a reminder of the less tangible benefits you get from "type 2" fun, i.e. something that isn't fun to go through at the time, but becomes more fun in retrospect. (Read more about the three types of fun and how they relate to outdoor adventure.)
6. Have an exit strategy. When I say an exit strategy, I'm not referring to your logistical plan for getting back to your car and driving home. I am referring to how you re-acclimatize yourself from trail life to regular life. The shift can be disorienting, but if you do it right it can be a fun, illuminating and rewarding experience. I'll go into more detail in the next section.
Getting Off the Trail
My original plan was to go and camp at Elk Falls Provincial Park, a car camping park, for one night before heading back to the Nanaimo ferry terminal. But as soon as I was back to cell reception, I found out there was a chance of rain and that the park I had chosen didn't have shower facilities. I dropped that plan and booked a room in an AirBnB in Campbell River. I wanted nothing more than a hot shower, a meal I didn't have to cook, and a comfortable bed. Once I hit Campbell River, I headed to a grocery store and picked up foods that made it easy for me to prepare a delicious, low-carb meal with minimal effort, as well as a nice bottle of red wine.
I also wanted to be able to journal about my experience in comfort, so that I could start to mentally unpack everything I had gone through to help ease my transition back to my normal life. I did also go for a walk on the gentle nature trail at Elk Falls Provincial Park the next morning as well before heading to the ferry, which was a nice way to keep my connection with nature before going back to my every day life.
Even with the transition day, it still took a few days before I started to feel normal again. Having been booked for a day of motion capture work the day after I got home wasn't ideal, but beggars can't be choosers for performance work at the moment, so I had to take it. If you have the option, I would suggest having a day or two to relax, unpack, clean up and put away your gear, and spend time with family/friends/pets. Be sure to spend some time writing your thoughts and/or thinking about what your time on the trail meant to you and what takeaways you might have, moving on with your life.
The Long-Lasting Impact of Facing Adversity in a Pandemic World
In addition to embracing solitude in nature and exploring my relationship with the universe, which are always intentions for my yearly solo backpacking adventures, one of my intentions for my trip was to challenge the boundaries of my comfort zone. It was a good thing I did as this was definitely one of the key benefits of my experience. While my journey on the Cape Scott and North Coast Trails ended in a bit of a shit show, and the whole experience was far from what anyone might call a "vacation," going through the adversities the trail threw at me was more valuable to me than anything I would experience lying on a beach somewhere. As I said in my video journal on my way home, "It may not have been the hike I wanted, but it may have been the hike I needed." That is to say that my experiences on the trail taught me a lot of lessons, more than any relaxing vacation ever could.
The COVID-19 world pandemic has challenged us all, pushing the boundaries of our comfort zone in our daily life for the past several months. Personally, I lost the option to do stunt or any other film work, I had to close my martial arts school, I had to cancel several trips, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to safely see my parents, sister and other family members in Ontario again.
Hiking the North Coast Trail put me into a state of present-mindedness rarely experienced in daily life. Life is simple on the trail. You have to hike to your daily destination, eat, hydrate, set up shelter and sleep, then do it all again. You become even more present when you’re facing adversity, like trying to find a trail, facing potentially dangerous wildlife, or keeping calm under unpleasant physical burdens.
Once you get through those adversities, you realize how clever, strong, and resilient, you can be when push comes to shove. And when it's in the context of a wilderness experience like hiking the North Coast Trail, you come away with a greater appreciation of the comforts of home, your bed, your shower, running water, easy access to food, and of course, the support of your family. And within the context of the current pandemic, you also get the realization that maybe having to hole up in your home and follow physical distancing protocols aren't the worst things one can face in life.
Now over to you. Have you hiked the North Coast Trail? What advice would you have for people considering taking on the challenge? Please share your thoughts in the comments so everyone can benefit from them. :)