The GDT is an amazing trail and I think it has ruined us in terms of our expectations for other trails in the future. Here are a few resources and our perspective on the GDT. I’ll try to avoid repeating things other hikers have already addressed well – definitely refer to the other hiker journals I have linked below.
For another perspective (and some of the same as well), check out my partner’s reflection on the GDT.
If you have any questions, please feel free to ask!
The GDT website has an abundance of information and is a great starting point for any questions you have.
Hiker journals I found helpful:
These were the only physical maps we brought – there were a few sections where it would have been nice to also have larger scale overview maps, but overall these are excellent and if you don’t plan to do the high routes/alternates, these are likely all you need.
For finding the trail again on the edge of meadows, having the app was amazing. It also has some helpful notes/comments for planning out your days – we did find all the notes about water crossings to make them sound more intense than they ended up being and I believe we went in a fairly average year for water.
A caveat with the app – be sure you know how to navigate with paper maps/compass and be aware of your device’s limitations.
Save a copy of this on your phone – maybe skim through it beforehand, but it is most useful to have on-trail to plan out your days and know what’s up ahead.
Trail closures and reroutes are posted in the group and it can be useful to connect with other hikers.
Most other hikers we saw leaned towards the ultralight/light side of the spectrum, but there were some hikers with more traditional gear out there as well. Generally, I’d suggest trying to get your gear weight down as much as possible – the food carries are long so you want to minimize your weight as much as possible.
Some general things I’d recommend:
- Rain gear – Bring full rain gear (pants and jacket) – you’ll likely encounter at least one day off going through wet brush and the car wash is slightly more tolerable with rain pants
- Headlamps – We didn’t use our headlamps until the last couple of days. Unless you plan to night-hike you can probably bring something super basic.
- Water filter – there’s a fair number of glacial streams, make sure you can backwash/clean your filter
- Canister stove – it’s possible to buy canister fuel in most of the resupply locations, we were somewhat concerned about this, but it didn’t end up being an issue
- Satellite messenger/emergency beacon – We found our inReach to be very useful for getting weather forecasts and checking in on the status of the forest fires.
- Sleep system for couples – For couples specifically, I can’t recommend a double quilt and sleeping mat highly enough!
There are a significant number of sections that are either entirely off-trail or on a very poor trail, so navigation skills are definitely needed. The vast majority of those sections follow nice geographical features though (ridges, rivers), so the navigation is pretty straightforward as long as you can orient yourself correctly.
We brought paper maps, but for navigation during the day, we mostly used the GDT app on our phones. In particular, the app was helpful for navigating when the trail followed ATV trails as they are a bit of a maze and for refinding the trail at the edge of meadows.
You don’t really have many options in terms of resupply due to the spacing. Generally, I’d recommend mailing your resupplies; it would be possible to buy as you go, but it would be very pricey (ie >$10 for a bag of chips pricey in some locations).
If we were to do the trail again, I’d probably mail 10-20% less food than we did. Not because we didn’t eat it all, but because we ended up being bored with some items or not liking them as much as we anticipated. We ended up ditching some items and replacing it with food we bought at every resupply.
Some notes on each resupply location:
Waterton – Surprisingly well-stocked store. Make sure to book a spot in the campground.
Coleman – Stay with Alannah and Dan at A Safe Haven! They are really the only trail angels on the GDT. We got three delicious meals a day (and Alannah is amazing about accommodating allergies and dietary restrictions), laundry, driven to Blairmore to pick up supplies, and last but not least, a dry comfy bed for the night. A Safe Haven is also the only place with a hiker box we encountered on the trail.
Peter Lougheed – Minimize your time here if possible. We found hitching to be a lot more difficult than anticipated for a park and also had a negative encounter with an Alberta Parks Conservation Officer who told us hitchhiking was dangerous and quasi-threatened to send the RCMP by to ticket us. It is possible to take a shower at the Boulton Creek Campground if you want even if you don’t camp there; you can buy tokens at the trading post. Visitor Centre wifi is slooow when people are around, but the speed is pretty decent otherwise.
Assiniboine Lodge – Not a resupply location, but definitely try to time your day so you arrive here when they are open (4 – 5pm). They’ve got tea, cake and beer (and cider and wine). Bring cash!
Banff – Stop by Sunshine Village for lunch, but I wouldn’t recommend going into Banff unless you absolutely have to. If you do have to, make reservations beforehand otherwise you are likely to find yourself spending far more than you are comfortable spending on accommodations. Banff is expensive and busy. We ended up having to stay in Banff to do a phone interview and it was honestly the worst part of the hike.
Field – There are laundry and wifi at the Truffle Pig. Don’t expect to find accommodations here unless you’ve made reservations. I know several other hikers recommended hitching to Golden and taking a zero there – the hostel in Golden is apparently quite hiker-friendly.
Crossing Resort – If you plan to buy as you go, the Crossing is the one location you should send a package to. They have a store, but prices are absurd. There are wifi and laundry here, but it is supposed to be only for guests – we did end up staying overnight here, so not sure how well enforced this is.
Maligne Lake Lodge – Another not resupply location, but they’ve got a cafeteria and small store (no wifi) if you want to take a beer and charge your devices break.
Jasper – Favourite non-trail spot of the GDT. Still a bit touristy, but waaaay less so than Banff. If you are solo, you’ll probably be able to find accommodations, but if you are a couple or group, you’ll likely want to book these in advance. The downtown hostel is the nicest hostel I’ve been at with great cooking facilities, laundry and wifi.
Prince George – You’ll likely need to stay overnight here before catching your transportation home. There are lots of hotels and the bus system is decent for getting around town if you need to.
Permits and Schedule
So booking permits is definitely a hassle – Dan has already written up a great summary about this including a couple sample itineraries, check that out for sure.
Make sure to confirm all the dates and which parks require permits in advance – these tend to change every year. Once you have the dates, book them in your calendar – including the time they open – and make your bookings the second they open.
We did take the approach of booking everything in advance, which worked well for the first part of the trail, but by the end, we were ahead of schedule by a couple of days. I’d highly encourage others to make reservations – many areas aren’t really accommodating to dispersed camping. In particular in Banff National Park, the Rockwall Trail in Kootenay National Park, and the Skyline Trail in Jasper National Park, the trails are very busy and it is unlikely you will find a spot available if you show up without a reservation.
Getting to/from the trail
Getting to Waterton
There used to be a Greyhound bus that went from Calgary to Pincher Creek and then you could hitch from Pincher Creek to Waterton. Greyhound doesn’t operate in Western Canada anymore, so this isn’t an option. Check out the GDT website for most recent updates, but you’re probably in for a long hitch.
Getting from Kakwa
Kakwa Lake is 100km from the highway and 30km from the drivable part of the FSR connecting it to the highway. Unless you have arranged a ride in advance, expect to walk all the way to the highway. We were definitely more optimistic than we should have been about getting a ride early on and we didn’t encounter anyone on the road until we were only ~25km from the highway. It is easy walking and more than doable to do 50km/day and get it done in two days, just be mentally prepared for it.
The Great Divide Trail is an amazingly beautiful trail.
Be prepared for the lows to be as low as the highs are high. The highs are so so high, but you’ll also encounter extreme lows when you are stuck walking on a shitty ATV road or bushwhacking through a soggy non-existant trail or crossing the same river for the fifth time that day. The highs do make it all worth it though.
Finish at Kakwa. This is the final exam you’ve been preparing for on the rest of the trail and you are going to nail it.
And finally, to quote one of the first thru-hikers I encountered online, thru-hiking will break your heart.