The Great Divide Trail Planning: The Hoops and Hurdles
Any trip that is two months long is going to have some hurdles. When you are hiking that entire distance it’s multiplied, also only having cell service a handful of times through that whole stretch will definitely lead to a few speed bumps. There are two major hurdles I have found so far in planning the GDT hike: resupplying and reservations.
Planning our entire meal plan for 46 days of hiking is daunting. Will I get sick of the stuff we make? Will some essential piece of gear break? Will we have way too much or way too little food? Resupplying this year is particularly difficult.
In most cases we can mail our boxes to either the post office as general delivery or to the accommodation we have booked in town and they will hold our stuff. But one particular spot we are resupplying at is Boulton Creek Campground, which is a car-accessed campground. In a good year, I heard they can be dicks to GDT hikers, which boggles my mind because we are stopping to spend a ton of money on food/beer/gear and taking up very little space. I have also heard stories of them accepting boxes for hikers in the past, but then throwing them out before the hiker arrives. I’m not sure I could keep my cool if that happened to me.
Boulton is at the beginning of Section C, so our 2nd resupply. If we hiked 350km (220miles) to find out we don’t have any food I would lose my shit. This year, however, the small store in the campground is closed and they will not be accepting boxes for hikers. It is a remote campground: the closest town is about an hour away and there is no cell service.
We haven’t entirely figured out our plan yet, but some extraordinarily amazing person has volunteered to drive out to the campground three times per week to drop off boxes for hikers. We just have to mail the boxes to her house. That is what I’m talking about!! I couldn’t believe the generosity! That is likely going to be our plan. Long story short, it’s not as easy as just walking into a town and hitting up the grocery store.
The biggest shit show of them all. The dreaded Parks Canada reservation system. I want to preface this by saying every employee I have ever interacted with at Parks Canada has been exceptionally helpful and they were all very friendly people. I have absolutely nothing against any Parks employees.
Many thru-hikes across the world allow hikers to apply for a particular pass that allows them uninterrupted hiking and camping throughout the entire trail. Most thru-hikes traverse through numerous provincial/state parks, national parks, and protected areas, so this pass is a game-changer. Since most of the time plans change and we plan on hiking from sunrise until about one hour before sunset, our planned distances can’t always be 100% accurate. The GDT and Parks Canada do not offer this kind of pass.
I don’t want to sound like an elitist prick, but offering a pass for thru-hikers sure would be nice. In general, I can comfortably say we will be spending vastly less time in each campground, following Leave No Trace (LNT) principles and covering substantially more ground than most people out for weekend trips.
So what does that mean for us? We have to dive into the battle for highly coveted campground reservations with tens of thousands of other people. With several parks having separate booking days, we have to keep a pretty tight schedule on when the campground becomes available. The most dreaded day of reservations was April 15: Banff, Kootenay, Yoho, and Jasper National Parks all released their reservations the same day.
We logged on 15 minutes before they were released and were placed into a queue system. We were ready to go to cyber-war. We had two phones, three computers, and several browsers open on each device to increase our chances of the best spot in the queue. Once seven am hit, our lowest spot was 9000, our highest was over 29,000… So we closed our high numbers and focused on the spot at “only” 9000, thank god it was on a computer and not a phone. Then the wait began.
Our estimated time was over an hour. One hour of sitting in front of a screen watching our number shrink and shrink, knowing that these were all bookings being filled. The stress was building, we had already booked our accommodation for our resupplies and our zero days. Also, when planning out our hike we weren’t really focused on days of the week, they would soon become arbitrary and ambiguous after hiking for over a month. Not to give too much away but we unknowingly planned on hiking one of the most popular trails in Canada over the August Long Weekend.
We had already laid out our plan of attack. Adding each campground to our basket based on the popularity of each trail. Frustratingly enough, many of these belong in different parks so you have to back out of one park to add a reservation to another park. Incurring a reservation fee of about $10 every time. Once it was our time to log in, we were off to the races! Off to the world’s slowest race. The system was completely overburdened.
We managed to add two extremely popular campsites and then the whole system was incapacitated. Every time we would click a link it would take well over one minute to load the next page. One more click, at least one more minute. After three clicks it would time-out and we would start over. Time to pay for our bookings that we currently had in our cart, as we didn’t want to lose them. Two bookings down, thirteen to go.
This process of clicking through three links and restarting the procedure continued for no less than eight hours. I have a new understanding of monotony. Thankfully the Great Divide Trail Hikers Facebook group was lighting up like the 4th of July. Someone mentioned that we could call to reserve our campsites. The main 1800 number was down but the parks could be contacted individually. I made the call and left a message. To my surprise, I received a call back about three hours later!
Some of our campsites had to be changed but we had planned secondary and tertiary backups. In only one instance we were kinda screwed which was the campsite on the Skyline Trail in Jasper over the long weekend. That meant a 53km+(30mile+) day in one shot. Thankfully it will be right before we get to town for our one and only triple zero. So our bags would be light without all that food and the idea of pizza and a personal pitcher of beer will (hopefully) be enough motivation to crush it out.
Pretty much all of our bookings are now made and the idea of the hike is even more securely set in my mind. It feels way more real. I also feel like I have a bit more swagger walking around knowing it’s happening June 27th!
Side Notes and Other Reservation Hurdles
A couple of other side notes regarding reservations if anyone is interested in hiking the GDT. The GDT has several alternate sections. In most cases, this is a high-alpine ridge walk that is very exposed. One of the most popular and desirable is the six-passes alternate. Which is exactly as it sounds, right before our 53km day in Jasper we are taking an off-trail route-finding alternate that ascends six passes over 30km (20miles). That will add to the devotion for cold beer and pizza. Only one party per day can enter this area as it is a caribou habitat (also called reindeer!). These permits can only be obtained by calling the Jasper backcountry line; we were lucky enough to get one on the day we wanted!!
Secondly, every campsite you book has to have an “access point” or trailhead you are approaching it from. Since we are thru-hiking we won’t be using these access points. The Parks Canada online reservation system doesn’t care. You have to put an access point for each campground, which means a unique booking and that lovely $10 reservation fee.
Additionally, there are some limits as to how far away they will allow campsites to be booked. We have a couple of days where we planned to hike 30-40km (20-25miles), Parks Canada does not think that is possible in the daylight hours so it cannot be booked.
The only way to avoid all of these annoying extra $10 fees and planning to hike any distance past 20km (12miles) is by reserving it by phone. Which could be 3 different parks you have to call, on a day when all the reservations are released at once. Hence the perk of having a Thru-Hiker Pass. If you are reading this, Parks Canada, please consider something… Anyway, it’s all in the past now, all we have to do now is plan literally everything else.
Any stupid questions?
I have had tons and tons of questions about the hike, particularly about what we will be eating, wearing, doing all day (besides hiking). I am going to try and answer all of these with the posts, but if you have any questions please leave a comment! You probably have a question other people are wondering about.
Thanks for reading!
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