This page is quick record of my GDT blog posts from the 2017 GDT Yo-Yo, followed by some advice for potential GDT hikers.
Pre-Trip Overview and Gearlist
Trip Report: Section NOBO A
Trip Report: Section NOBO B
Trip Report: Section NOBO C
Trip Report: Section NOBO D
Trip Report: Section NOBO E
Trip Report: Section NOBO F & G + SOBO F & G
Trip Report: Section SOBO E
Trip Report: Section SOBO D
Trip Report: Section SOBO C
Trip Report: Section SOBO B
Trip Report: Section SOBO A
Post Trip Stats on Wildlife, Miles etc.
What’s the GDT Like?
It’s wild, hard and awesome. Compared to the PCT, the actual trail is much less consistent and moderately more challenging per mile. Large parts of the trail are nice walking, but there are also steep ridgewalks with no trail, very brushy sections, some road, seriously wild valleys with little discernible trail and some tough fords. So you’ll need to be capable physically and mentally, and have at least a basic competence for navigating and making route choices.
The GDT gets more difficult as you walk north, so if you start at the south end you’ll have time to hone these skills before you get to the hardest parts. Hiking SOBO is jumping in on the deep end, while hiking NOBO will steadily mold you into a capable outdoors person if you’re not already. Overall, you’ll probably move about 70-80% as fast as you would on a good trail like the PCT, but some days are just as fast while others are 50% speed.
Just a few years ago, the GDT was really hard because large sections of the trail had fallen into disrepair. However, since 2014 the GDTA has been improving the GDT at an amazing speed. New trail is being built around road walks, cairns have been added to alpine routes, brushy sections have been cleared and the trail has been re-routed around some bad parts. Over the next few years it will continue to improve at a high rate as new sections of trail are finished to replace roadwalks (Section B), and some new routes are finalized that offer spectacular alpine(Amiskwi, Maligne) and floodplain walking (Howse) around some of the brushier sections.
Aside from the actual footpath, the scenery on the GDT is consistently world class. Everyone who hikes it agrees that these mountains are incredible. We loved the PCT but the GDT scenery is on another level. Jaw dropping almost the whole way. And many of the areas it goes through are truly wild. Unlike most other trails, days where you don’t see anyone else are common.
Who Should Hike the GDT?
If you like to be challenged and find fulfillment in persevering through something hard, then you’ll love the GDT. It will test you, but it will also reward you big time with incredible views and wildlife encounters. Compared to other long trails, expect lower lows and higher highs.
If you want everything to be good all the time, and will get upset when the trail disappears into a thicket of willows or has a hundred logs across it, then you won’t be impressed with the GDT. You need to have a bit of tolerance for suffering. I liked the GDT better than the PCT, while my wife Tara preferred the reliably good tread of the PCT.
If you’re in between and don’t like hard stuff, but can handle some, then you’ll probably shed a few tears along the way but will end up loving the experience.
Where should I finish?
Kakwa for sure. The last section from Robson to Kakwa is the ultimate GDT experience in that it’s the hardest but also the wildest. The Jackpine valley and a few other parts are a slog, but the Jackpine alpine, Big Shale Hill, Morkill Shoulder and Surprise Pass are some of the most amazing places I’ve ever been. Yeah the walk out the Walker FSR is a bit long (~70km) but it’s easily worth it. You’ll probably catch a ride for the last half, so you’re looking at 1-2 days walk out a logging road in exchange for the probably the wildest travels of your entire life. Just do it.
What are the hard parts?
About 50km into the trail is La Coulotte Ridge, which is the most rugged stretch on the entire official trail. This ridge is only 7km but it goes over 5 peaks where you gain and lose about 1000′ on each. 4 hours is a good time for this section. Other than some alternate routes, it doesn’t get more rugged than this.
The most boring section of the GDT is the stretch from km 100 to 200. This section uses mostly logging roads and ATV trails, so it’s a bit of a let down. The GDTA is building new trail that will avoid the second half of this once it is complete around 2020. For the first half, you can take a high route alternate (Barnaby Ridge) to avoid some of the road but it’s rugged like La Coulotte ridge plus adds some scrambling, so most likely you won’t mind a bit of road once you finish La Coulotte.
The most brushy trail is in the Amiskwi and Jackpine valleys. The first 20km up the Amiskwi (Section D, immediately north of Field, BC) has a lot of deadfall, then alder and then willows. None of it is that bad except for the last 1.5kms leading up to the first ford of the Amiskwi River. The willows here are over the head and incredibly thick. Thankfully this is short and you can detour around in the adjacent meadows. The Jackpine (Section G) is better now that the first third has been re-routed to the alpine for 2018. Once you do drop into the Jackpine valley, it’s not as bad as the Amiskwi but it’s longer – there’s a solid day of brushy trail as you head out the Jackpine valley and over Little Shale Hill. It’s only really bad in patches, so you can still average 2 – 2.5km/hr. Once you get atop Big Shale hill you’re free.
The absolute worst part of the GDT is probably the Howse valley with it’s infinite deadfall. There is 5-10km of trail here that is truly terrible, but thankfully there is an excellent and spectacular alternate route on the floodplain. This floodplain alternate has been added to the GPS track for 2018 and I beg you to take it. Otherwise your legs will end up bruised and cut like this:
What resources should I use?
We used the Ryan Silk maps + GDT app + Lynx guidebook chapters cut apart and put in our resupply boxes. Ryan’s maps are excellent and free. Essential. The GDT app was helpful for trail beta but we used it mostly for fine-scale navigation (e.g. unexpected trail junctions) where the paper maps were too low resolution to be helpful. So you could use the free GPS track of the trail instead, but the app is nice.
The 2nd edition of the Lynx guidebook, which we had, is mostly a detailed description of the route, so not much fun to read ahead of time, and not that helpful en route if you also have the Silk Maps and GPS track. Much of the info was redundant. There is a new version (3rd edition) of the Dustin Lynx guidebook coming out that supposedly reduces the overlap with the app, so I expect this will be a nice resource. I think this will be more geared towards planning your hike, so this might be nice to pick up and read ahead of time for things like planning your itinerary.
What is the best resupply strategy?
Send boxes. You can resupply at all of the stops, but the limited selection and high pricing will make you wish you mailed food.
The first town is Coleman and it has a large convenience store. Some hikers detour a few kms down the road to Blairmore to proper grocery stores, but Coleman is a nicer town with a good bakery (Cinnamon Bear) and cafe (Crowsnest Fly Shop and Cafe), plus A Safe Haven B&B will treat you like heroes with great wifi, laundry, 3 meals and a bed for an insanely low price. Just send a box to Coleman and relax on your day off.
The food selection at the next 3 stops (Peter Lougheed, Field, Sask Crossing) is very limited (convenience stores) and either expensive (Lougheed), really expensive (Field) or outrageously expensive (Sask Crossing). Mail boxes.
Jasper is the only town you can resupply in without feeling like you’re getting robbed. It has two small grocery stores with okay selection and only moderately expensive prices. While you can resupply here, mailing a box is probably cheaper even after postage, and shopping beforehand means better selection and more free time on your day off for relaxing.
From Jasper, I recommend doing the long haul all the way to Kakwa. You can mail a box to Robson but it’s pretty far off trail (25km x 2) and a fit thru-hiker can pull 25 – 30km per day in this section, which means 10-12 days of food which is a lot, but do-able.
The permit thing seems like a huge pain?
Yeah it’s a pain, but thankfully you can do more of it online for 2018 so it’s way better. The trickiest part is sorting out the permits and fees for the National Parks, so I’ll deal with that first.
For National Parks, there are three different fees: entrance fees, backcountry fees and reservation fees (charged for booking backcountry sites).
The entrance fees are charged daily and the rates are about $10 per person or $20 per group for most of the parks on the GDT (Banff, Kootenay, Yoho and Jasper), while Waterton is slightly cheaper at $8 per person or $15 per group. Fortunately you can buy an annual pass which covers all of this – called a Discovery Pass – which is much cheaper since on a GDT thru-hike you spend ~20 days in the National Parks. A Discovery Pass is $68 or $137 for a group pass and you can buy one here.
The situation isn’t quite so simple for the backcountry fees. You are supposed to plan an itinerary for your trip, and then reserve sites for each night, which involves paying backcountry fees of $10 per person per night, plus a reservation fee of about $12 per booking (a booking can not include multiple parks, so you need one booking per group per park, or about 3-5 bookings for the entire GDT).
I’m torn on the campsite reservations because you should have them, but if you pre-book them all there’s a good chance that you’ll be off schedule and your reserved spots will sit empty when someone else would have liked them. We did the reservation thing and it mostly worked. I think the best option is to plan an itinerary, book your spots, make an honest effort to be on schedule, and then if you end up off schedule just roll with it (stealth camp or wait until later to set up camp once you’re sure there are vacant tent sites). Other options that are not legit, but have been done, are (1) not to book anything and just be stealthy and (2) just book the popular areas. Regardless of whether you’re booking everything or just the popular areas, the popular spots are what you need to be concerned about in the months leading up to your hike. These are described below.
But first, to get started with all this, you need an itinerary for your trip, which is actually the hardest part. Even if you aren’t going to book anything, it’s a good idea to have a rough itinerary for your trip. Thus, I’ve come up with a suggested itinerary for you that takes into account how difficult the terrain is. This is shown further down this page. Start with this and then use the Campsites lists on the GDT website to tweak it as you wish.
With your itinerary roughly figured out, now you can make your bookings. You can do almost all of them online for 2018. A big reason for all the permit whining from past years GDT hikers in that prior to 2018 the past you had to call each park individually and play phone tag for days with staff that often didn’t know what they were talking about, so the permit thing is easier now. You can book Banff, Kootenay and Yoho here, and Jasper here. The only National Park that you can’t yet reserve is Waterton, and even then, by this time it re-opens post Kenow Fire, that should be up and running. In the mean time, you can find detour options around Waterton to join the GDT here.
As mentioned, when you make your bookings the fees are $10 per person per night, plus a $12 reservation fee per park. In the past people have purchased something called a Wilderness Pass that covers all the backcountry fees (but not the reservation fees), but it was phased out in 2017. If you’re frugal, you can also fine tune your itinerary to avoid camping in Waterton and Yoho and reduce those National Parks nights even further.
While you are required to have reservations for every night in the National Parks – even in areas where you are legally allowed to “random camp” rather than stay in designated campgrounds (basically section D), the areas that you really want to pay attention to are the ones that are actually busy and do book up, which is only about 7-8 nights on the GDT. These areas are:
1) Your first couple nights in Waterton (section A)
2) From Sunshine Ski Resort through the Rockwall (section C north of Mt. Assiniboine)
3) In Jasper Park south of the town except the Maligne Valley (most of section E )
So those are the spots to worry about when the reservations first open. Jasper reservations open first (January 24, 2018), and the rest (Banff, Kootenay, Yoho) open March 1, which you can book online finally. Waterton is a wildcard for 2018 because the park is still closed due to the Kenow fire. Out of everything, the Skyline trail in Jasper (immediately south of Jasper town) fills up the fastest by far, so be on this spot early and also book the rest of yours sites in Jasper south of the town. If you’re too slow to book the Skyline trail, you can detour around but this 45km is the fastest walking on the GDT, so you can crank it out in a day if need be.
While you can book almost all the sites online now, there are a few sites that are not on the website (Section D, Jasper north of town). You are supposed to call in to the visitors centers to book these, and you should do that, but I wouldn’t be in any hurry to do this as these areas are very remote and will not be busy at all. Hypothetically, if you were to not reserve these areas, the odds of getting into trouble would be incredibly small (i.e. zero).
So to recap all of this, you want to (1) plan an itinerary, (2) book your Jasper sites when those reservations open in January, (3) book the rest of your sites in Banff, Kootenay and Yoho when those reservations open March 1, (4) buy a Discovery Pass sometime before you go.
Outside the National Parks, you will still in provincial parks from time to time. Some of these parks have camping fees ($5 – $10 per site typically), so just carry a bit of cash with you. The only Provincial Parks that require reservations are some of the sites in Mt. Assiniboine, Lougheed and Mt. Robson. The info on reserving these parks is on the GDT page, but most likely you won’t be staying Lougheed and in Mt. Assinboine you can stay at Porcupine which is reservation free. So you might want to book a site in Mt. Robson, particularly if you’re going to hike out the Berg Lake trail to resupply.
This itinerary is a good starting point for the average thru-hiker. Note that the distances here are based on the older milage estimates, which are about 10% too generous, so the actual distances are a bit shorter. The GDT website should be adding 40, 50 and 60 day itineraries soon, which will be even better for planning.
You’ll want to customize this depending on your speed, amount of zeros and whether you’ll hitch some road in sections A, B and F. To make your own itinerary, have a look at the campsite list on the GDTA website and put together a rough itinerary based on whatever speed you think you can average.
Day 1 – Waterton townsite to border and back (12km, no reserve)
Day 2 – Akamina Creek (24km, no reserve)
Day 3 – Lone Lake (20km, reserve Waterton)
Day 4 – Scarpe Pass (24km, no reserve)
Day 5 – West Castle Rd (14km, hard miles, no reserve)
Day 6 – Lynx Ck (34km, easy miles, no reserve)
Day 7 – Arrive at Coleman (32km, easy miles)
Day 8 – Rest day in Coleman (0km), can hike out 5km to McGillivray to camp
Day 9 – Random camp around km 190 (36km, easy miles, no reserve)
Day 10 – Dutch Creek (31km, easy miles, no reserve)
Day 11 – Hidden Creek (23km, no reserve)
Day 12 – High Rock (27km, no reserve)
Day 13 – James Lake (33km, long-ish day, no reserve)
Day 14 – Random camp around km 325 (30km, no reserve)
Day 15 – Arrive at Peter Lougheed (25km, no reserve)
Day 16 – Rest day at Peter Loughheed (0km)
Day 17 – Palliser River (28km, no reserve)
Day 18 – Big Springs (31km, reserve Banff)
Day 19 – Porcupine (30km, no reserve)
Day 20 – Egypt Lake (29km, reserve Banff)
Day 21 – Floe Lake (34km, reserve Kootenay)
Day 22 – Helmet Falls (29km, reserve Kootenay)
Day 23 – Arrive in Field, BC (37km, easy miles, no reserve)
Day 24 – Rest day in Field, camp at Amiskwi Bridge (d1) (2km, no reserve)
Day 25 – Random camp around km 600 (30km, hard day, no reserve)
Day 26 – Cairnes Creek (38km, easy miles, no reserve)
Day 27 – Random camp on Howse Floodplain, (27km, hard day, reserve Banff)
Day 28 – Arrive at Sask Crossing, BC (18km, no reserve)
Day 29 – Rest day, hike to Owen Creek (6-8km, several spots, no reserve)
Day 30 – Pinto Lake North (26km, no reserve)
Day 31 – Cataract Pass (24km, no reserve)
Day 32 – Jonas Cutoff (37km, reserve Jasper)
Day 33 – Mary Vaux (31km, reserve Jasper, book as “Maligne Pass North”)
Day 34 – Trapper Creek (26km, reserve Jasper, book as “Maligne Pass North”)
Day 35 – Tekarra (37km, easy miles, reserve Jasper)
Day 36 – Arrive in Jasper (24km, easy day, no reserve)
Day 37 – Rest day in Jasper
Day 38 – Miette River (41km or 19km if hitching, reserve Jasper)
Day 39 – Colonial Pass (31km, reserve Jasper)
Day 40 – Slide (28km, no reserve)
Day 41 – Timothy Slides (36km, assumes no Robson resupply, reserve Jasper)
Day 42 – Jackpine Mountain (24km, no reserve)
Day 43 – Jackpine River (26km, hard day, no reserve)
Day 44 – Morkill Pass (28km, no reserve)
Day 45 – Sheep Creek (28km, no reserve)
Day 46 – Kakwa Lake (30km, stay in cabin, no reserve)
Day 47 – Random camp along Walker FSR (35km, no reserve)
Day 48 – Exit to civilization
Total Reserved Nights: 9
Cell Coverage and Wifi
There’s not much cell coverage on the GDT. The only 4 places that do are Waterton townsite, Coleman, Field and Jasper. Once you’re more than 5km from these towns, you’ll lose coverage. No cell coverage at Loughheed or Sask Crossing.
Many businesses in Waterton have wifi (Subway, coffee shops). In Coleman the bakery has wifi and A Safe Haven B &B has awesome wifi. There’s none at the flyshop cafe. At Lougheed there’s very slow wifi at the Visitor’s Center. Useable but tedious. At field there is Wifi at the Truffle Pig, and at the cafe. At Sask Crossing the wifi is $10 per day and incredibly slow. It often doesn’t work at all. Instead of paying, there is a public computer with internet in the lounge below the pub. In Jasper lots of places have Wifi but most of them are poor. Tim Horton’s worked okay. The Wicked Cup coffee shop had the fastest wifi. We didn’t go to Robson but we hear they have wifi there.
Shoot me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll add them.