How to Plan a Thru-Hike of the GDT
Planning for the GDT is a daunting task. Often while thru-hiking, you can plan how far you want to hike each day and select your campsites based on how you’re feeling; however, unlike other thru-hikes you must be much more organized and have an actual itinerary for much of the GDT. This is because the GDT passes through:
- Five different National Parks of Canada (Waterton, Banff, Yoho, Kootenay, and Jasper),
- Eight Provincial Parks in British Columbia and Alberta (Akamina‐Kishinena, Castle, Elk Lakes, Peter Lougheed, Height of the Rockies, Mount Assiniboine, Mount Robson, and Kakwa), and
- Three Wildland Provincial Parks (Castle, High Rock and Don Getty).
Getting Ready to Plan Your Thru-Hike
All of the National Parks require at least some reservations in order to stay in them, and so do some of the Provincial Parks. This means that in order to plan a thru-hike along the GDT you must know a few things about yourself and your pacing in order to properly plan for it. You should have a good idea about:
- Your average daily pace. If you underestimate, you might end up going too slow for yourself (especially after you feel like you’ve got your trail legs); if you overestimate, you won’t be able to make it to the campsites you’ve reserved for yourself. You need to choose an appropriate pace that works for you so you should probably know what you’re capable of doing; having some prior experience will help with this.
- How much rest you need. Some people are fine with a few nearos and zeroes (hiking a short distance into town or taking a day off in town). Other people require more. Knowing how far you can hike without needing to take a day or two off is important so that you can plan your days in town and maximize them.
- How much food you’re comfortable carrying. Would you rather carry 3 days of food and cover more distance? Or would you prefer to carry 5 days of food and move a little slower? Once you settle on that sweet spot, it can help you to decide how you want to cover the distance between resupplies.
Important Dates for 2021 on the GDT
Reservations are a little later than usual this year due to COVID-19. Here are the important dates and times to keep in mind:
- Jasper, Kootenay, Banff, and Yoho National Parks Reservations – backcountry reservations open April 16th at 7:00 am PST, 8:00 am MST.
- Waterton National Park Reservations – backcountry reservations are accepted 90 days in advance and only via phone – (403) 859-5133
- Alberta Parks – reservations are accepted 90 days in advance.
- BC Parks – reservations are accepted 2 months in advance. Note that BC Parks reservations are open to only BC Residents until July 7, 2021. They open to non-residents on July 8, 2021.
- National Parks of Canada – https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/voyage-travel/reserve
- BC Parks Online Reservation – https://www.discovercamping.ca/BCCWeb/Default.aspx
- Alberta Parks Online Reservation – https://www.albertaparks.ca/albertaparksca/visit-our-parks/camping-in-albertas-parks/online-reservations/
Creating an Itinerary for the GDT
Once you’ve settled on that sweet spot for your daily average mileage, it’s time to start building your itinerary. The GDTA has some excellent resources to get you started with planning. Check out their campground list and their sample itineraries; these are great places to begin with before creating your own plan. I used these to create my own itinerary; below you can find an excerpt of my itinerary (I’ve included a copy of my full itinerary later on).
The reason I made my own itinerary is so that I could see all of my options and then decide which campgrounds I wanted to use. Furthermore, I found that by adding some colour, it made it very easy to see what amenities were available at each campsite as well.
My Numbering System
- The first number is the day on trail. When planning the actual dates, I ensured that the dates lined up with the day number.
- The second number is the starting point option. Even if I had only one option here, I added the number to ensure that the numbering system made sense throughout.
- The third number is the ending point option. If I only had one option here I didn’t include it as an extra number.
My Daily Average
I settled on a daily average of 32 km (or 20 miles) a day because I know that this is a pace that I can keep up consistently. Generally, I tend to plan for smaller days near the beginning of a resupply and bigger days near the end of a resupply so that I move less with more food and moving more with less food.
I copied the classification over from the GDTA Campground list for this one. Here’s a breakdown of the different types of campgrounds:
- 1 – developed, vehicle-accessed, frontcountry campground
- 2 – developed backcountry campground
- 3 – primitive backcountry campground
- 4 – a flat spot suitable for camping
I colour coded the amenities available at each of the sites to make it easy to see what each campsite had. Yes is green, no is red, and maybe is in orange; I only used the orange colour for fire pits because the campground list stated there was no fire pit there. It wasn’t clear whether or not fires were permitted there or not. As always, if you’re going to have a fire in a place without the proper infrastructure, ensure that you leave no trace.
I included whether or not each site was reservable and, if applicable, the cost for doing so. I used this information to build a separate document for my reservations.
My Full Itinerary
Here’s a copy of my full itinerary: GDT Itinerary – 1.5 month plan (2021) w no dates
Creating a Reservation Plan
Once you’ve created an itinerary, your next step should be creating a list of the places where you do/do not need a reservation. This way you can see:
- how many reservations you need to make,
- when the reservations need to be made by,
- what the costs will be to make your reservations,
- the number of reservations you’ve completed, and
- the contact information/where to make the reservation.
Below I’ve attached an excerpt from my reservation planning document so you can see how I organized this.
My Reservation List
I feel like the Day #, park, cost, and contact information is pretty self-explanatory.
Reservation Colour Coding
Beside each of the campsites that I plan to stay at, I wrote whether or not I need reservation. If it wasn’t needed, I coloured it light green. If it might be needed (or would make it nice to have), I couldn’t it yellow. Lastly, if it needed to be reserved I coloured it red. As a result, when I look at my entire list it’s easy to see how many reservations I needed to make.
I wanted to ensure that I had all the reservation availabilities in one place so that I could easily look it up. That way I could easily check when reservations open and set an alarm to ensure that I don’t miss it.
I used this section as confirmations of my bookings. Once I contacted a place and/or heard back from them, I could mark it in green and move on/wait until the next round of reservations came around.
My Reservation List
Here’s a copy of my full reservation list: GDT Reservation List – 1.5 month plan w no dates
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Check out Part 2 of Section C.
I was looking forward to a day off during Section C.
Section B was a wee bit smoky.
Definitely learned a bit during Section A.
Check out My GDT Gear List – Living in Luxury
Read about How to Plan to Thru-Hike the GDT.
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