Canada’s Longest Through-Hike Planning Guide (Great Divide Trail)
A through-hike involves A LOT of planning- the right gear, food resupplies, transportation, and itinerary. Starting the planning always feels overwhelming since most places and names will mean nothing to you at the beginning!
I break the process of planning into 6 steps!
1. Make an Itinerary
Although, I have put together a 30-day itinerary for Sections C to E of the GDT, you may consider doing more or less of the 8-week, 1,113 kilometre trail. The descriptions of each section that I provided in the itinerary will help you make some decisions, as well as Dan Durston’s YouTube videos.
Our choice was determined after Section A (Waterton National Park) was closed for the 2018 season due to fire damage and since Section B was mainly road walking as a connector to an amazing Section C! Now that I’ve hiked Section D, I wouldn’t recommend it for the views. So, inform yourself and decide which sections you plan to complete.
Another crucial aspect to making an itinerary is picking campsites and resupply locations. Unlike other through-hikes, there isn’t a GDT permit that includes camping across all the parks. Instead, all official campsites have to be pre-booked. This is inconvenient and expensive (and something I’m sure The Great Divide Trail Association is working on).
This PDF has all the campsites and resupply points listed to help you decide where to stay based on your desired mileage per day.
2. Book Campsites and Other Accommodation
In order to get the campsites you selected in your itinerary, you have to be online or on the phone at the time that the reservation system opens, which I have listed below:
Mount Robson Provincial Park reservations open October 1, 2018.
Jasper National Park’s backcountry camping open January 23, 2019.
Banff National Park’s backcountry camping opens March 1, 2019.
Kootenay National Park’s backcountry camping open March 1, 2019.
Yoho National Park’s backcountry camping open March 1, 2019.
Mount Assiniboine Provincial Park reservations open April 10, 2019.
Waterton Lakes National Park reservations can be made up to 90 days in advance
Peter Lougheed Provincial Park backcountry campgrounds reservations are available up to 90 days in advance.
Parks Canada no longer issues Wilderness Park Passes that allows for unlimited backcountry camping in Canadian National Parks (a reservation charge was still taken for each booking), so now the price of booking campsites has gone up significantly.
During the 30 days on the trail, we enjoyed 3 nights in a BnB and 1 night in a hostel. Surprisingly, all were out of necessity. There are no campsites in the small town of Field, which is where Section C ends, so a hostel or BnB is your only choice. There also aren’t campsites at the end of Section D by The Crossing, but I found a hostel, and later a campground 12 km away. And the final time was for the night we finished the trail. So, even though having accommodation wasn’t a part of our through-hiking plan initially, we really enjoyed how it worked out. And just like the campsites, book this as soon as possible because the Rockies in the Summer is busy.
3. Coordinate Transportation
After all the work you will put in on the first two steps (shout-out to my hiking partner, Alison), the rest of the planning will seem like a cakewalk. However, start thinking about shuttle transportation like Brewster early since Greyhound is no longer operating. If you have a car, I’d recommend leaving it in Calgary; it’s an easy point to leave from and return to. And if you don’t, plan on flying into Calgary International Airport for the same reasons.
From there, you will catch a bus to your choice of starting point. For us, that was Peter Laughed Provincial Park, the start of Section C. Brewster’s bus service gets as close as we could find at their stop at Kananaskis Village.
At the end of the hike, wherever that is for you, getting back to Calgary will involve a similar process. Ending Section E in Jasper is an easy point to find transportation between Calgary. Since we looked at ending at Mount Robson (and completing Section F), I am aware that Sun Dog Tours stops at the Mount Robson Visitor Centre on it’s way to Jasper and is open to booking that 1 hour ride for you.
4. Gear Checklist
In addition to the usual backpacking gear, some additional considerations for a through-hike are listed below:
Maps! We used Gem Trek maps and to complete Section C to E, we got Kananaskis Lakes, Banff & Mt. Assiniboine, Kootenay National Park, Lake Louise & Yoho, Bow Lake and Saskatchewan Crossing, and Jasper & Maligne Lake.
Food Storage (Most campgrounds in National and Provincial parks will have food storage bins or hangs, but since you will be random camping half the time, bring your own! I tried out the Ursack (bear-proof sack) with OPSak (a smell proof barrier to put in the Ursack- good for preventing rodents) and found it much better than a bear canister).
Electrolytes (I mention this because it’s not on everyone’s typical backpacking list, but it has made a huge difference in my performance and feeling on the trail).
5. Purchase Backpacking Food & Package and Ship Resupply Boxes
A lot of thought should go into this since it is all that you will consume for 30 days. The best (and most obvious) tip is to pick things you enjoy! If it was a meal I hadn’t tried before, the maximum I’d get is 4 (if it sounded really good) compared to at least 5 if it is a meal I know I love.
In terms of the amount of food to bring, I give myself a large serving of oatmeal for breakfast (I make the packets now), three bars during the day (one protein bar (Cliff or Probar), one nut bar (like Kind), and one “other” bar/snack (like Probar peanut or almond butter packets, vegan jerky, Vega bars, GoMacro bars, etc) for variety, a 2-serve packaged dehydrated meal for dinner, and adequate chocolate. This basic outline allows me to be confident that I am getting enough calories.
Then, all that’s left is to get the addresses of where you planned to pick up your packages depending on your itinerary and ship them off.
And don’t forget to:
Write “Please hold for Great Divide Trail hiker” with your anticipated date of arrival.
Note the hours of operation for the resupply locations.
Bring government issued photo ID to pick up your package from post offices.
Another tip! If you plan to drive to Calgary, check whether you are going to drive by or near your resupply locations in Field, Sunshine, etc because you may pass them and can simply drop them off rather than ship them!
6. Be on Your Way!
At this point, all the hard work is done. Get your bags packed, your food ready for the first section, and get ready for an adventure.
If driving into the park, you will purchase a Parks Canada Discovery Pass upon arrival, which is $67.70 per person or $136.40 per car.
Good luck :)