5 things to know before hiking the Great Divide Trail

IIs the Great Divide Trail (GDT) on your hiking bucket list? It really should be. Stretching 1,100 km (680 miles), this beautiful Canadian hike stretches from Waterton National Park on the Canada-US border to a secluded lake in Kakwa Provincial Park.

It goes through some of the most secluded and wild places in the Canadian Rockies, where you are unlikely to see another hiker. He also explores world famous hiking routes including the Rockwall in Banff National Park and the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park.

GDT has exploded in popularity in recent years, although it was only really open to Canadians during Covid. This fantastic trail will only grow bigger as the borders reopen. However, GDT is logistically much more difficult than treks in the United States. You can’t just book a plane ticket, buy maps, and start walking. The hiking season is short with July and August being the main months to go.

Want to hike next summer? You should start planning now. If you’re up for the challenge, here’s what you need to know.

Expect plenty of time in the Alps surrounded by high peaks, glaciers, and stunning scenery.

1. You must plan your permits in advance

The GDT authorization process is confusing, complicated and frustrating. Rather than a single blanket permit for the entire trail, you need separate reservations for each individual campsite. Some of these campsites are in provincial parks, others are booked through the national park’s online website, and some require calling backcountry offices. This means that you have to find several different reservation systems.

It would also be wise to book accommodation in town well in advance. GDT Trail towns are popular tourist destinations, and cheap accommodation in Banff and Jasper can disappear quickly.

READ NEXT – The Great Divide 101 Trail.

In practice, this means that you need to know where you sleep on each night of your hike. The Great Divide Trail Association has sample routes on their website. I highly recommend taking the relaxed (69 days) or medium (48 days) routes, and cooking a few extra days in town in case you are late.

Sample routes show the popularity of campgrounds, daily distance, and notes on trail conditions. If you are an experienced hiker you might think the average schedule is too easy. Please read the field notes below before deciding to go with the quick program, as GDT does not lend itself well to high mileage days.

No trail, no problem! Sometimes the GDT fights and swears a lot. Sometimes it’s a nice trip across the country.

In normal years, reservations for Mount Robson Provincial Park open in October of the previous year, and reservations for the national park open in January (although both opened later during Covid).

Popular spots can be booked in seconds, so it’s worth planning your route well in advance. If you avoid the bubble (on the GDT, that means around 10 hikers) that starts around July 1, you may have a better chance of reserving permits that are in high demand with hikers, like the Six Passes alternative to Jasper.

It is also useful to check that you will not be crossing the most popular sections during long weekends. If you are traveling internationally, remember that Canada has different holiday weekends than the United States. You might end up with short and long days due to the permit system, but that’s part of the increase in GDT.

If that doesn’t seem worth it, you might want to increase GDT instead. Section B (from Coleman to Kananaskis Lakes) does not require a permit. Sections F and G (Jasper to Kakwa Lake) only require a few permits that are easy to obtain if you are not restocking at Mount Robson Provincial Park.

One final note: do your best to get both permits, then stick to your schedule. Yes, it is frustrating, difficult and boring. But GDT is growing fast, and your actions have an impact on trail running. Don’t be the reason Parks Canada is cracking down on future GDT hikers.

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Tornado Saddle is a famous steep climb with no trail but lots of scree.

2. The field will kick your butt

Trail conditions on the GDT vary widely. Knowing what is in store is important so that you can properly plan permits and replenishment. The terrain ranges from perfect smooth trail to bushwhacking through alder trees with no trail, signage or other navigation aids. GDT hikers should be comfortable with off trail travel, bushwhacking, and scree.

You should also be aware that all of these challenges will slow you down. a lot. Alder trees in the Amiskwi Valley north of Field and the Jackpine Valley south of Kakwa make travel at 5 km / h impossible. Steep scree in the first two northbound sections (La Coulotte Ridge and Tornado Saddle in particular) can take almost a day to cross.

Conversely, the well-traveled trails in Waterton, Banff, and Jasper National Parks are easy to navigate, despite good elevation gain. Normally I needed most of the day to cover 25-30 kilometers, despite coverage 25-30 miles per day on other trails. (Ed. Note: This approximately translates to a 40% reduction in typical mileage.)

GDTA routes include notes on difficult sections of the trail. The Guthook app also marks a few difficult sections with exclamation marks (but does not have this warning for all difficult sections). It is a good idea to read blogs / guides or talk to successful hikers to make sure your schedule is not too busy and that you know the challenges of each section.

However, keep in mind that GDT changes quickly. In 2021, hikers faced newly washed bridges from flooding, but were also pleasantly surprised by trail maintenance crews who were working to clear some of the worst alder trees on a notoriously slow section.

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A smoky sunset over the Howse River floodplain.

3. It’s a long way between replenishments

One of the challenges of hiking a remote trail is that replenishment options can be scarce. On my 2021 hike, my shortest food haul was six days. My longest was 14 years old.

Some refueling points have been closed due to the Covid. Flooding closed a trail to another refueling point at Mount Robson. However, carrying a lot of food is a reality of the GDT hike.

Despite the distance of the trail, most major towns (including Coleman, Banff, and Jasper) have good grocery stores. However, the smaller replenishment points are extremely expensive and don’t offer a lot of options.

READ NEXT – Refueling on the Great Divide Trail

Consider sending a box to Peter Lougheed Provincial Park (if available: not an option in 2021 due to Covid restrictions), Field, Saskatchewan River Crossing Resort, and Mount Robson Provincial Park Visitor Center (not an option in 2021 due to flood closures).

It’s also a good idea to carry some extra food, no matter how heavy your pack is. It can be incredibly difficult to get to town on the GDT. The trail just doesn’t go through as many roads and side trails as other long distance trails. Hikers can be delayed due to weather conditions, elevated river crossings, or simply poor trail conditions. It’s hard to cut short sections and scoop up more food if you find yourself running out of food.

The weather can be a huge challenge. A late August snowstorm made hiking difficult for a few days in 2021.

4. You need serious hiking skills

GDT is not an easy hike. However, the challenges are part of what attracts many hikers. The exact difficulties will vary from year to year as the weather in the Rockies is very changeable. In 2021, the extreme heat in July turned to early snow in August. In other years, a persistent snowpack or rainy weather can challenge hikers.

Most hikers use both GPS and maps to stay on the trail (or navigate when there is no trail). I used the cards from Ryan Silk printed at home and Guthook. GDTA offers a list of other map options on its website, along with downloadable GPS tracks.

Hikers should be confident in their skills to:

  • River crossings, including glacial rivers
  • Navigation, especially off-road or through thick brush
  • Bear safety (GDT is home to many grizzly bears)
  • First aid and repair of equipment (getting to town is difficult in the event of a problem)
  • Snow safety, if you are starting early or hiking in a year of heavy snow
  • Hike in all weather conditions, from 37C / 100F heat to rain, thunderstorms and snow
  • Dealing with fire and smoke closures

You can also add a few items to your gear for this trail. I took my normal ultralight setup with the addition of rain pants (for smashing the bush through a wet brush) and bear spray (for obvious reasons). When I hike the GDT again I will send myself extra layers for all sections after mid August to stay safe during the first snowstorms.

Since the GDT is so far away in several sections, you can’t just escape into town if you find yourself overhead. Make sure you’re up for the challenge before you attempt a hike.

great division trail

Beautiful ridges, magnificent passes and magnificent mountains. The Great Divide Trail is perhaps the prettiest hike.

5. How amazing the Great Divide Trail is

Almost every point on this list is a challenge or an issue if you want to walk the GDT. But this trail is definitely worth it.

The scenery is world class and you can walk through breathtaking views every day. There are lots of wildlife (notable sightings from my hike include eight bears, a lynx, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep). Other than a few short sections there is tons of seclusion. There is a small community of support trails.

Every day is beautiful, even on the most difficult sections. Of all my hikes, the Great Divide Trail is my favorite. It presents just enough challenge to make it fun, and the payoff is one of the best scenery in the world.

Logistically, the GDT is a tough hike. There is a lot of homework that hikers should be prepared to do before they even set foot on the trail. However, if you’re up for the effort, this beautiful trail just might be your new favorite hike.

The selected image: Photo via. Graphic design by Chris Helm (@ chris.helm).

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