5 Things You Should Know Before Hiking the Great Divide Trail

Is the Great Divide Trail (GDT) on your thru-hike bucket list? It really should be. Stretching over 1,100 km (680 miles), this stunning Canadian hike runs from Waterton National Park on the US/Canada border to a remote lake in Kakwa Provincial Park.

It traverses some of the most secluded and wild places in the Canadian Rockies, where you’re unlikely to see another hiker. It also explores world-famous backpacking routes, including the Rockwall in Banff National Park, and the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park.

The GDT has exploded in popularity over the last few years, despite only really being open to Canadians during Covid. This fantastic trail is only going to grow as borders reopen. However, the GDT is much more logistically challenging than thru-hikes in the US. You can’t just book a plane ticket, buy some maps, and start walking. 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 ready to embrace the challenge, here’s what you need to know.

great divide trail

Expect lots of time in the alpine surrounded by high peaks, glaciers, and gorgeous scenery.

1. You Need to Plan Your Permits in Advance

The GDT permit process is confusing, complicated, and frustrating. Rather than one overarching permit for the entire trail, you need separate reservations for each individual campsite. Some of these campsites are in provincial parks, some are reserved through the online National Park website, and some require calling backcountry offices. This means you have to figure out multiple different booking systems.

You’d also be wise to book town accommodation 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 Trail 101.

In practice, this means you need to know where you’re sleeping every single night of your thru-hike. The Great Divide Trail Association provides sample itineraries on its website. I highly recommend following either the relaxed (69 days) or average (48 days) itineraries, and baking in a few extra days in town in case you get off schedule.

The sample itineraries show campground popularity, daily distance, and notes on trail conditions. If you’re an experienced thru-hiker, you might think the average schedule is too easy. Please read the notes on terrain below before you decide to follow the fast schedule, as the GDT does not lend itself well to high mileage days.

No trail, no problem! Sometimes the GDT is bushwhacking and swearing a lot. Sometimes it’s beautiful cross country travel.

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

Popular spots can be booked up in seconds, so it’s helpful to have your itinerary planned well in advance. If you avoid the bubble (on the GDT, this means about 10 hikers) that starts around July 1st, you may have more luck booking permits that are in high demand among thru-hikers, such as the Six Passes alternate in Jasper.

It’s also helpful to check that you won’t be traveling through the most popular sections on long weekends. If you’re traveling internationally, remember that Canada has different holiday weekends than the US. You’re likely to end up with both short and long days as a result of the permit system, but that’s part of hiking the GDT.

If this doesn’t sound worth the trouble, you might want to section hike the GDT instead. Section B (Coleman to Kananaskis Lakes) does not require any permits. Sections F and G (Jasper to Kakwa Lake) only require a few easy-to-get permits if you do not resupply at Mount Robson Provincial Park.

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

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Tornado Saddle is a famously steep climb with no trail but plenty of scree.

2. The Terrain Will Kick Your Butt

Trail conditions on the GDT vary wildly. It’s important to know what’s in store so you can plan properly for both permits and resupply. Terrain ranges from perfect, smooth trail to bushwhacking through alders with no trail, flagging, or other navigational help. 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. Alders in the Amiskwi Valley north of Field, and the Jackpine Valley south of Kakwa make 3mph travel impossible. Steep scree in the first two sections northbound (La Coulotte Ridge and Tornado Saddle in particular) can take most of a day to traverse.

Conversely, well-traveled trails in Waterton, Banff, and Jasper National Parks are easy to make miles on, despite still having a good amount of elevation gain. Normally, it took me most of the day to cover 25-30 kilometers, despite covering 25-30 miles per day on other trails. (Ed. note: This roughly translates to a 40% reduction in typical mileage.)

The GDTA’s itineraries include notes on difficult sections of trail. The Guthook app also marks a few difficult sections with exclamation points (but doesn’t have this warning for all challenging sections). It’s a good idea to read blogs/guidebooks or talk to successful thru-hikers to make sure your schedule is not too intense and that you know the challenges of each section.

However, keep in mind that the GDT changes quickly. In 2021, thru-hikers had to deal with newly washed-out bridges due to flooding but also had the pleasant surprise of trail maintenance crews working to clear some of the worst alders on a notoriously slow section.

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A smokey sunset on the Howse River floodplain.

3. It’s a Long Way Between Resupplies

One of the challenges of hiking a remote trail is that resupply options can be few and far between. On my 2021 thru-hike, my shortest food carry was six days. My longest was 14.

A few resupply places were closed due to Covid. Flooding closed a trail to another resupply point at Mount Robson. However, carrying a lot of food is a reality of hiking the GDT.

Despite the remoteness of the trail, most of the larger towns (including Coleman, Banff, and Jasper) have good grocery stores. However, smaller resupply spots are extremely expensive and don’t offer many options.

READ NEXT – Resupply on the Great Divide Trail

Consider mailing a box to Peter Lougheed Provincial Park (if available: this was 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 flooding closures).

It’s also a good idea to carry a little extra food, no matter how heavy your pack is. It can be incredibly difficult to bail to town on the GDT. The trail just simply doesn’t cross as many roads and side trails as other long-distance trails. Hikers may find themselves delayed due to weather, high river crossings, or just poor trail conditions. It’s difficult to cut sections short and pick up more food if you find yourself running out.

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

4. You Need Some Serious Hiking Skills

The GDT is not an easy hike. However, the challenges are part of what attracts many thru-hikers. The exact difficulties will vary from year to year since weather in the Rockies is very changeable. In 2021, 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 trail (or navigate when there’s no trail). I used Ryan Silk’s Maps printed at home, and Guthook. The GDTA has a list of other map options on their website, as well as downloadable GPS tracks.

Thru-hikers should be confident in their skills in:

  • River crossings, including glacial rivers
  • Navigation, especially off-trail or through thick brush
  • Bear safety (the GDT is home to plenty of grizzlies)
  • First aid and gear repair (getting to town is tricky if something goes wrong)
  • Snow safety, if starting early or hiking in a high snow year
  • Hiking in any weather condition, from 37C/100F heat to rain, thunderstorms, and snow
  • Dealing with fire closures and smoke

You may also want to add a few things to your gear for this trail. I carried my normal ultralight setup with the addition of rain pants (for bushwhacking through wet brush) and bear spray (for obvious reasons). When I hike the GDT again, I will mail myself extra layers for any sections after mid-August to help stay safe in any early snow storms.

Since the GDT is very remote in several sections, you can’t just escape to town if you find yourself in over your head. Please make sure you’re ready for the challenge before attempting a thru-hike.

great divide trail

Beautiful ridges, gorgeous passes, and stunning mountains. The Great Divide Trail might be the prettiest thru-hike.

5. How Amazing The Great Divide Trail Really Is

Almost every point on this list is a challenge or problem if you want to hike the GDT. But this trail is absolutely worth it.

The scenery is world-class, and you get to walk through jaw-dropping views every single day. There’s plenty of wildlife (notable sightings from my thru-hike include eight bears, a lynx, mountain goats, and bighorn sheep). Apart from a few short sections, there’s tons of solitude. There’s a small, supportive trail community.

Every day is beautiful, even on the most challenging sections. Out of all of my thru-hikes, the Great Divide Trail is my favorite. It features just enough challenge to make it fun, and the payoff is some of the best scenery in the world.

Logistically, the GDT is a challenging thru-hike. There’s a lot of homework that thru-hikers have to be prepared to do before even setting foot on the trail. However, if you’re willing to put the effort in, this stunning trail might just be your new favorite thru-hike.

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

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