UPDATED May 24, 2016
Thinking about doing the Great Divide Trail? Not sure if it’s the hike for you? Wondering what a GDT hike involves? Well, you’ve come to the right place. I’ll do what I can to keep this as concise and informative as I can. I know this can seem exhaustive, but it saves me time in the long run as I get many emails and questions, so I try to cover all the bases here of what people might ask.
My Great Divide Trail Experience
I feel like my hiking partner (Elizabeth) and I had one of the most fortunate and optimal experiences anyone could have on the Great Divide Trail. Many things came together to make it a really great experience. Mainly, the weather! Probably the key ingredient to a good GDT experience is less rain. I say less, because the rain(and possibly snow) is inevitable. We were lucky to have less rain AND a low snow year coming into the hike, so our stream crossings were less intimidating too. Overall, there was a decent amount of rainfall this summer along the GDT, but we were lucky to thread the needle on many occasions. Hikers within a week or two of us in either direction were not always as fortunate with weather and it definitely impacts the enjoyment of the hike. The clearer conditions also gave us the ability to do the highly recommended high route alternates. These alternates were some of my favorite experiences along the trail and gave the added bonus of avoiding the low route that was often in a lot of wet brush and mud. We were just extremely lucky with timing…and also fortunate to have each other to keep things positive when those inevitably cold and wet days or moments would come. The other ingredient that greatly impacted our hike was that the Great Divide Trail Association did major trail work on some of the most overgrown sections right before we got to them. It was like the green carpet was being rolled out and it was wonderful to benefit from all the hard work of those trail volunteers! The GDT surpassed all my expectations and I had built it up pretty big in my mind. It has set the bar for what I want in a thru hike. It had just the right balance of community, challenge, clearly defined trail, alternate routes, cross country, and solo hiking. More improvements are being made each year, and I highly recommend getting out there before the rest of the world finds out about it!
There are a few resources in development that could come to fruition in the next couple of years (and I will update this as those come along), but for now, this is what I recommend using. Again, I am the type of person who wants as much beta as possible, so this is a more exhaustive list than most would want or need. I know of a hiking couple that didn’t even hardly use the guidebook this year, and just figured it out on their own with rough maps. It’s a matter of personal preference, but here are the options.
-GDT Thru-Hiker Facebook Group
New in 2016! The GDT now has a Facebook group so hikers and supporters can communicate in one group! Here’s the link to join and be in the loop with everything GDT.
-Great Divide Trail Association
First off, if you hike this trail and don’t DONATE to the GDTA, a grizzly bear WILL attack you…go ahead and test that theory if you like, but it’s true! Seriously, the GDT is a young trail in need of a lot of support. Canada does not have the government funding that the US does for trails, so that makes donations that much more essential. DONATE what you can and/or become a GDTA member. If you live near the trail, offer to volunteer!
My personal opinion on resources is that I can’t wait for the day that all of the resources are combined into one comprehensive guide on the Great Divide Trail Association website. I do feel like it may be headed in that direction and the GDTA has done amazing things with just a few volunteers. I am in awe of the time and effort given by them and the incredible progress that has been made in a recent resurgence of the GDTA. Their website is a great resource and basically has everything there you need to hike. I am just expounding on what they already have and putting it in one post. I have trouble reading and found the layout to be confusing and a bit of a seek and find, but I think that may just be me personally. All you need is linked on the GDTA page! There is also a list of journals from past hikers and they would love to add more if you’re planning to hike and journal online. I especially enjoy the interactive map they have of the trail and track available for download, that I will elaborate on later.
-GDT App & Guidebook*
There is currently a free app in production that is testing mode this summer(2016). It will not be available this summer. Check back right here for more details if/when it becomes available. If all goes as hoped, it will be a combo of a GPS with a track and guidebook with trail descriptions.
Dustin Lynx published the GDT guidebook, Hiking Canada’s Great Divide Trail in 2000, and it was revised in 2007. We had the great opportunity of meeting Dustin Lynx during our hike and I really appreciate what he did with this guidebook. The book is outdated in some areas where the trail conditions could have changed for the better(trail maintenance) or worse (fire/flood damage), but overall, I found it to still be very applicable as the route has barely changed. Dustin does a great job of concisely describing each section and how you would experience it as you hike through it. Some of the shortcomings are that when he gathered this information in the late 1990s, the distances and waypoints were not collected using the precise mapping tools that we have today. The distances are sometimes longer or shorter than noted (nothing greatly significant) and the waypoints were done on a different grid (or whatever it’s called), so the waypoints available for download (I will mention later), are not exact. That is a minor problem as most are easy landmarks that are easily located without the need of a GPS for assistance. The general maps in the book are drawn maps, so you will want a separate set of actual maps.
Trail Beta Notes From Previous Hikers
One of the best supplemental resources I had on the trail were the beta notes from previous hikers that have been passed on from year to year. It’s very helpful to read where other hikers had rough navigation or weather, and also get thoughts on the pros/cons of alternates and route choices. I highly recommend hiking with these notes. Please feel free to contribute and pay it forward for future hikers after your hike. Contact me if you’d like to edit this document.
–Ryan Silk’s Maps
A lot has developed since I hiked the GDT in the map area. Ryan Silk has created maps that have gotten really great feedback and seem to be the ones to use.
-Zdenek Sychrava’s Website & Maps
Zdenek Sychrava hiked the GDT in 2014, and most of it again in 2015. The trail is basically his backyard and the GDT has become his current passion. He will probably be out again in 2016, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some kind of stellar resources come out of all his research in the next couple of years. You’ll notice in my daily blog entries that I used Zdenek’s elevation charts for my hike. There are no elevation charts in any of the other resources, so THANK YOU for that Zdenek. I found his GDT Map List to be more understandable than the one on the GDTA’s site (more on that below). NEW FOR 2016…Zdenek made Maps!!! (more on this below in “other maps”).
Basically, I recommend that you go through everything under his GDT Resources tab. If you go through Zdenek’s blog, I found it very helpful Thank you for doing all this voluntarily Zed and for paying it forward to future GDTers! I highly recommend that you follow his blog to be apprised of any updates or announcements. I will update here if I hear of anything. Zdenek was a huge personal resource to me, and having seen some of the things he’s produced for himself, I truly hope he takes the leap to share them with the public…yep, I’m calling you out Zed! YOU ROCK and I think you’ve found your niche!
-Ben Mayberry’s Maps & GDT Resource Package
If you look around for GDT info, you may come across the name Ben Mayberry. I was able to get my hands on his Maps and Resource Package, but since then he has been MIA and seems to have dropped out of contributing to the GDT beta. His resource package was most helpful, but it was outdated. The GDT 2015 crew submitted updates to improve on the package with no response, so I would consider his materials non-existent until further notice. I’ve linked his website that has his email if you wish to try to contact him. Yes, a bummer, but great that there seem to be other more updated resources in the making for 2016.
-GDTA KML Google Earth File
First off, it is not a necessity to have a track to hike the GDT. The GDT is mostly on either road or already existing trail. The track definitely does come in handy for those sections that are not as clear, but it isn’t essential. I love the embedded map on the GDTA website! They give a detailed description below the map on how to view all aspects of the map along with how to download the track. It’s really fun to view each section and get an idea of where things are and the terrain it goes over. WARNING: The track is a compilation of many hiker’s contributions, and it seems that some of it is a drawn in track in certain places. Do not rely on this track as an exact path to follow and only use it as a general guide for many of the cross country situations. Sometimes the track isn’t even on the correct side of major streams, so be aware of that and don’t blindly follow the track. I was fortunate to have a personal track from a previous hiker that was very helpful, but he wants that track to remain private. I do know that the President of the GDTA will be hiking the trail for the second time this coming summer and I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of these discrepancies are fixed by the summer of 2017.
So there are a lot of different maps people can use for the GDT. A complete listing can be found on both the GDTA’s site and Zdenek’s site. Zdenek’s is laid out in a more understandable way and helps you to see which maps cover which sections of the GDT trail. I found it very helpful! As of 2016, here is what I’d recommend…use Gem Trek, Nat Geo, and Zdenek’s maps. Within Zed’s GDT Maps pdf, he has a nice chart showing which sections need which maps. LOOK AT THAT CHART in his maps and it will make more sense! Zed’s maps only fill in the gaps where Gem Trek and Nat Geo don’t cover the trail and they stop at Mt Robson. I really liked the GemTrek maps, but they are not essential. They are not solely intended for the GDT, so they encompass larger parks areas that just coincidentally have the GDT marked on them. I liked seeing the whole park and sometimes we used them for extra exploration. The ones we found that we used the most were the Waterton Lakes, Banff & Mt Assiniboine, and Jasper. Good luck if you want to print off the free Natural Resources Canada GeoGratis maps…I didn’t have the patience to figure it out, and when E did, they were NOT worth it!
-Downloading Free Canada Topo Maps for GPS
Some are familiar with my guide on downloading free maps for a Garmin GPS. Unfortunately, that that method does not work to download topo maps for Canada. Brian “Buck-30” Tanzman has awesomely written up tutorial on how to download these maps if you’d like free maps. If you’d rather buy them from Garmin, you want to order the Garmin West Canada Topo maps.
Should I Hike With A Partner?
It is completely doable to hike the GDT solo. In fact, it may be a very pleasant experience for some. I’ll tell you why I personally found having a partner to be an advantage on the GDT. First off, grizzly bears. E and I saw no bears. We don’t know if that’s because the noise of two hikers and conversation scared them away, or if it was just a coincidence. Also, we slept much better at night with another tent nearby than we probably would have in grizzly country alone. Hanging a bear bag is a pain…even more so in cold wet brush. We shared this responsibility with E hanging most nights and me retrieving. It seems like a small thing, but it was a nice luxury to team up on the bear hanging. There were some very uncomfortable moments being very cold and very wet…having another person there to go through that with really helped both of our morale. Having two sets of eyes to find trail and navigate during the cross country or brushy sections really helped. Finally, the GDT will be epic at times. Sharing that with a great partner will only make it even greater! So, you see where I’m coming from with this. I would prefer a partner on the GDT. However, it definitely wouldn’t stop me from hiking the GDT if I didn’t have someone to hike with. To each their own and you all know your own wants/needs. If you want that solo experience, by all means, go for it!
Grizzly Bear Strategy
We didn’t want to take any risks with the bears. We didn’t carry a bear canister, but we did hang most nights and used OPSAKs to keep our food as odor proof as possible. I talk about them more in my 2015 gear review. We both carried the 8oz Counter Assault bear spray. We did make dinner near camp, but not in camp. We walked a good distance away from camp and made sure we were downwind of camp to cook. Really, there are so many little things that could attract a bear that it’s hard to know where to draw the line…I was paranoid about inflating my sleeping pad after dinner because I worried that my breath smelled of whatever I ate or minty toothpaste. I always blew up my sleeping pad before dinner. Then there was my clothing I cooked in…do I hang that too? What about my jackets and beanie!? If my food was in my pack and side pockets all day, shouldn’t I just hang it all? All of this runs through your head and you just have to decide what helps you to sleep best at night. Btw, bear spray can legally be driven into Canada from the US, but cannot be brought back into the US…and as a side note, DO NOT try to fly Air Canada with your hiking poles…learned that one the hard way on the way out.
What About Rain & Brush?
I’m not gonna lie, there is rain (and possibly snow!) possible every day on the GDT. There is no way to avoid it. For us, the rain would usually be a light rain sometime overnight. We were thankful for that and that it wasn’t raining as much when we hiked, but it did make all the thick brush wet and the car wash effect took place. We would be drenched with soaking wet shoes sometimes just minutes into the early morning hiking. Having dry shoes the second half of the hike was an anomaly. There is no avoiding it and trail runners or a lighter boot are your best bet if you ever want them to dry out. We both used Sierra Designs Hurricane Rain Pants and I really like them. E has found that they can wear easily in the crotch and wetness can seep through, but hers were used when she got them. I used a heavier rain jacket than usual and was very happy with the Montbell Torrent Flier! I also used Nitrile medical gloves over my gloves to try to keep them dry and create a vapor barrier for added warmth. E used her older Marmot Precip rain jacket and it was really wearing thin. She was able to add a poncho she found and loved using that for added protection and warmth. She used nice warm fleece mittens that I envied on those really cold wet days. We both used umbrellas and swear by them for sanity. Here is a link to how to attach umbrellas to a pack and walk hands free. We even found that we could prop them over us in trees during lunch, if needed, for a dry break. All of my gear is reviewed in detail on my 2015 Gear Review. Zed found this video from 2014 hikers Leif and Elina that is perfect in showing the variety of experiences on the trail. That is the type of brush and stream crossings you can expect. Thanks for letting me share this Leif and Elina!
There aren’t many options to choose from along the GDT, so everyone tends to resupply at the same places. The complete list and details are in Mayberry’s Package and on the GDTA’s website. Many are directly along the route and you hike right though, so that’s super convenient! You’re going to want to send to most places either because of insanely high prices or because there is no place to buy food. The only places I’d consider not shipping would be where you could get to a grocery store at Blairmore/Coleman(neighboring), Banff, and Jasper. They might be a bit pricey though. Our mailing strategy was that we were able to drive over the border with all our food boxes and then mail them within Canada. There is a post office in Waterton Lakes, but the one in the neighboring town of Pincher Creek is a larger post office with less routing, so we chose to go there to mail. Also, Pincher Creek is a larger town with a WalMart to do all your resupplies from if you need to do that. We were able to ship all 6 boxes for less than $100US. As for fuel, we both used alcohol stoves and were able to buy in towns with gas stations, which were most. We either found denatured alcohol or a HEET equivalent which is gas line antifreeze that come in small black bottles. Warning, don’t buy the ones that have benzene. It will turn your pot black and has a strong odor.
Being Wired, I just wanted the phone plan that would give me the works and that I wouldn’t have to worry about minutes or limitations. I found out that the Telus network is the one to get, so I got lucky and was able to get at local to add me to their Telus plan(THANK YOU Dave!) while I was in Pincher Creek. I did have to get the plan and a new SimCard in Pincher Creek at a place called the Phone Lady. If you do use a local’s phone plan, they have to come to the store to make this happen in person. For most of you, you will probably just choose a basic plan you could get at WalMart. I can’t remember which one E chose, but be sure to read the fine print! They can be tricky saying there is unlimited on things, when what they mean is that you can purchase an unlimited amount. It doesn’t come unlimited unless you keep paying more. I found wifi available in most places we stopped, but often too slow to load a blog post. That’s where my Telus plan came in handy. If wifi was too slow, I just did it directly using my own data.
There are a lot of public, paid, and reserved campsites along the GDT. They are not the only option unless you are in a National Park (not sure about Provencial Parks as they vary) so know that there are more places to camp than the campsites listed on the GDTA site and Zdenek’s website. The pro to sleeping at the campsites is that there were often nice eating areas, in protected areas for foul weather, and had pulley systems to easily bear hang. The con is that other people may be there, they tend to be quite wooded without views, and more animals may frequent an area if they are accustomed to people camping there.
Ok, I will admit that this is one of the things I find to be the most overwhelming. I was extremely fortunate that E handled this part of the planning. THANK YOU E!!! Here is what E has to say on the matter. “One of my goals while creating our itinerary was to have as few reserved campsites as possible, so I strategically chose sites where we could freedom camp or walk-in for $5. I reserved 9 sites the entire trail: 2 Banff, 2 Kootenay, 4 Jasper, 1 Mt. Robson. The GDTA campsite list is fabulous! I would have been lost without it. So much good information in one place. I made two phone calls to backcountry offices (Banff and Jasper) and one online campsite reservation (Mt Robson-Berg Lk area). When required to leave a message for Banff and Jasper, I was skeptical that anyone would get back to me in a timely manner, but I was pleasantly surprised when they did.” She totally rocked it!
In most cases, we do not like to plan out everyday, but for this hike we sorta had to have a general plan to ensure that we hit our permitted campsites on the exact date. Our strategy was to plan on the low end for mileage to buffer for weather or anything else that might come up. If we got to town early, we got bonus time in town. It worked out well and I think E planned for about a 30km (19mi) average, but that will be different for everyone. I recommend starting by going to the GDTA’s listing of Campgrounds along the GDT. Download that pdf and note the campgrounds that require a permit. That will give you a start and from there you’ll follow the process through each park’s website. E was able to book through Banff & Jasper backcountry offices for even the smaller parks that border them, so that will save time. You need to do this months in advance as the fill up early! Honestly, once we were out there, we found that many people do not seem to make reservations and many stealth or use the campgrounds without a permit. Rarely were our campgrounds completely full…but maybe that was just a coincidence for us. I’m not saying to completely disregard the system, but I am saying that there does seem to be some possible wiggle room if you find yourself off your expected schedule.
Dustin Lynx’s guidebook and Ben Mayberry’s GDT Package contain many alternate route options. E and I did just about all of them we wanted to do. Most require clear weather as they tend to be high route alternates, so sometimes the weather will dictate your choice. Overall, I felt like the high routes were what I was out there to do. Yes, the low route brushy stuff might have been quicker, but that wasn’t our goal. Those alternates were some of the highlights of the trip! I will be adding my detailed thoughts to Ben’s Package, so here I will just link the alternates we did do. I can say that I didn’t regret a single one, but that they may not be for everyone.
-Jackpine Mtn High Route (partial)
-Surprise Pass High Route
-Providence Pass High Route
What About that Field Section?
As you research or hear about the Great Divide Trail, you might hear about a section that is no longer maintained that is basically a wall of brush and water crossings. It is the section from Field to Saskatchewan Crossing. For us, this 71mi section took 4 days and was not as horrid as we imagined in our minds. You can read here what that section is like, but I found it to be worth doing to connect our footsteps. Yes, brush is annoying, and we did experience some of it in very cold wet brush. I would not want to do that section in back to back days of rain! I will say that going through that made us appreciate even more what we got the rest of the trail. We both felt like it gave us a new perspective and made the later challenges seem less taxing. Some hikers have tried creating various routes to go around this section or skip it altogether, but there has yet to be an alternate that anyone can say is worth doing over the original route. While we were in that section, we tried to imagine how it would feel without the brush and it would actually be a pretty nice section scenically. I will add that the GDTA has slated a section of this, the David Thompson Heritage Trail and stream crossings, for major trail work next summer. They plan to clear out that section of the trail and put bridges over two of the more intimidating crossings along the whole trail.
What Ending Do I Choose?
Once you look at the trail in detail, you will find out that there are multiple ways to end the GDT.
Option #1-Mt Robson: The most common ending is at Mt Robson. It is a very popular destination for tourists and is an 18mi side hike off the GDT. It is a nice place to end a trail and an easy place to get a hitch out.
Option #2-Kakwa Lake: The guidebook has the GDT ending at the remote Kakwa Lake. Looking at the GDTA map, you can see this section if you click on the sections of the map. For us, it was an additional 8 days and 136mi northbound of fairly relaxed hiking (there could be a ton of brush if you don’t take high routes) to hike from Mt Robson to the point that a car could pick us up after Kakwa Lake. Had we not had a car to pick us up, we would have had to add another day or two and 45mi of dirt road walking to get out. Now you see why so few do that final leg. For us, it was one of the best and most remote legs of the entire hike! We only saw 1 pair of horsepackers between Robson and Kakwa Lake! We loved ending the hike in this way, but it could be a VERY different ending if this section was done in foul weather and a lot of rain. We had pretty much perfect conditions for this stretch. It is remote, in that, less people are out there, but we were surprised to find clear trail for much of the way. It is a choice all will have to make and some may not even decided until they get to Mt Robson with all the factors involved.
Option #3-Grande Cache Alternate: This alternate was hiked by a couple in 2013 and Zdenek tested it out this past year, but has yet to post about it. I’m sure he would give beta to anyone really interested in it. Again, you can get a good visual by clicking on the sections on the GDTA’s interactive Google Map. This route basically forks east just before reaching Kakwa Lake to eventually end a the town of Grande Cache. This is one way to do a hike further north and end at a more populated area, but it will take at least 10 days for most people I believe.
Option #4-North Boundary Trail: Another option, done less frequently for those wanting to hike back to Jasper, is that the North Boundary Trail connects at the Robson junction and that would create a loop back to Jasper.
Whew, hope all that info is helpful!