Preparing for the Great Divide Trail

by Austin Hager

Wow, was I shocked at how much prep is required for a Great Divide Trail thru-hike.  Still more than a month away from my start date, and I have put in well over 100 hours of preparation.  Between my partner Tanya and I sharing the load, it has been a part-time job for weeks.  This is our first thru-hike which probably means there is quite a bit of overthinking and uncertainty in the choices we are making in our preparation.  Thankfully all of this prep will lead to an experience of a lifetime and I am so fortunate we are in a position to take such a challenge and run with it.  All of this prep can be broken down into 5 boxes, and it feels REALLY good to check them off, knowing we can put more time into the remaining areas of our hike.  There are 5 main things to prepare for: permits, food/resupply, gear, training, and finding an inner purpose for hiking the trail.

The permit system for the GDT seems to have grown into one of the largest grumbles for hopeful GDT hikers.  With an average duration of about 50 days on trail there are a lot of campsites to book, with most of them seeming to have a unique way of booking them.  Since the trail passes through 5 National Parks and 8 Provincial Parks (in addition to several other park-like jurisdictions) there are so many different bookings to make.

My permit experience was frantic to say the least.  When Parks Canada released all the backcountry sites for Kootenay, Banff, Yoho, Lake Louise, and Jasper on the same day it was all hands on deck.  Of our 46 nights on trail, 12 of them needed to be booked on April 16th when the reservations were released.  With over 25% of our hike at the mercy of Parks Canada’s booking system it felt like a make-or-break moment for the hike.  So many of the campsites we needed to book are on some of Canada’s most prestigious and desirable trails.  If we were unable to book certain campsites it would put us in a dilemma: do we hike anyway and knowingly camp without a permit?  Additionally, if we have to adjust some days it could potentially throw off our entire plan for things we already have booked like accommodation for our zero days or other campsites already secured.

With 6 devices all waiting the morning of April 16th we saw immediately how many people were ready to go camping this summer.  With events cancelled, it looks like it’s going to be another Covid summer and people are ready to spend some time outside.  Between our 6 devices we had one spot in the queue system at around 9000, the others ranged between 15,000-30,000.  We created a list of the highest priority campsites to the lowest, so we could tackle the premier sites like Floe Lake right off the bat and theoretically adjust from there.  When we logged on the system was very bogged down, with tens of thousands of people trying to book all sites across the Rockies it reminded me of Burning Man tickets going on sale to the whole world at once.  With Floe Lake and Mary Schaffer in our basket the system went from bogged down to incapacitated.  Time to secure these bookings before all was lost.  After praying we could reach the checkout page we managed to secure 2… 10 more to go..  Unfortunately we did not realize that once you click “checkout” you are put back into the queue system.  By this point another device had reached the bookings page but the website was unusable.  I should mention that during this time we were calling the Parks Canada phone number on repeat for well over an hour, always resulting in a busy signal.  The website had stopped working and the phone lines were down.  My partner had already asked for 8 weeks off and I had planned on ending work mid-June.  Our life plan was at the mercy of this system that was failing to meet the demand of thousands of hopeful hikers.

The Great Divide Trail Hikers Facebook page was our savior.  Countless posts about not being able to book anything through the website, downed phone lines and frustration.  Some GDT hikers had mentioned that if you called the park directly they could book your sites over the phone.  Meanwhile, the website had become an agonizing 3-page loop.  Click the park you want to book, wait a couple minutes, click the access point, wait a couple minutes, click the campsite and then it would timeout.  Restart this procedure and repeat for the following 8 hours.  The parks office seemed like the only available option.  I called Jasper, Banff and Lake Louise and left messages at the backcountry office.  At this point I had fully left my fate up to a voicemail.  In an age of texting, I can’t remember the last time I left a voicemail let alone received a call back.  After a few hours of clicking through the same 3-page procedure I received a call from the Lake Louise office! They were able to book Kootenay, Banff and Yoho for me.  With only some minor changes to our plan.  They weren’t able to book Jasper for me but now we had 8 of the 12 sites booked.

After a few more hours (about 7 after we initially started) the park’s site was slowly coming back to life.  If I selected one night at a time and didn’t try to link them I could successfully add them to the cart.  By hour 8 I had finally secured 3 more sites, one site was fully booked and with the other 11 already booked it was impossible to change our plan.  Skyline Trail in a day was our fate.  Not an ungodly distance but 53km is still a big day, in fact our biggest day on the whole trail.  In contrast to other trails with less bookings I was looking forward to a big day.  Through booking the GDT sites everything has to be calculated, there isn’t really an option to go for the 24-hour challenge and see how many KMs I can hike.  So having a big day, particularly at the end of a section was a challenge I was looking for.

The remaining bookings we have are for provincial parks and aren’t nearly as stressful.  There are more alternate options, and with the Parks Canada sites locked down, what briefly felt like uncertainty is now a firm plan.  8 hours of looking at a screen timing out is plenty of time to question whether this trip is going to even happen.  Thankfully, persistence and help from the GDT community made my permit experience troubling but we prevailed!

The next big chunk of preparation that will likely be the last to finish is our resupplying plan and our food situation.  I have hiked quite a bit but never tackled a thru-hike.  My longest hike was last September when we did a large chunk of Section E, from Saskatchewan Crossing to Poboktan Creek.  About 100km over 4 days.  I have heard of hiker hunger and have experienced increased appetite but I know my hunger level will grow beyond what I have ever known.  Planning for this is planning for the unknown. How much food will I want?  Will I get sick of the foot I pack?  With few options to fully resupply on trail I won’t be able to vastly overhaul my food plan.  I am stuck with my choices for nearly the entire hike.

In addition to preparing our food we also need to mail our boxes to the resupply points along the trail.  Queue overthinking.  With a box filled with food sitting for a few weeks there are so many things that could happen.  It could get lost, get eaten (by humans or other animals), we could potentially need a piece of gear or knowingly be short on food for the upcoming section.  Currently, we are planning for 3000 calories per day in the first section and then 4000 for the rest of the trail.  With another pair of shoes at Saskatchewan Crossing or Lake Louise and a few more pairs of socks.  My naivety is driving me crazy, knowing that after the hike is done future thru-hikes will hopefully be that much easier on the mind.

For our food, we were recently gifted a dehydrator. Currently on a crash course on meal prepping we have tried a few meals at home and were very surprised at how good they were.  Albeit, it did take a few tries to nail down the proportions (usually we just needed to double or triple the spices).  The current plan is to have 4 different dinners: beans and rice, marinara pasta, mac n’ cheese and chili.  We will also be carrying 2-4tbsp per day of olive oil to get an easy few hundred calories.

  1. Beans and Rice: Quite possibly the most famous DIY backpacking meal thanks to Andrew Skurka.  We found some dehydrated black bean flakes from OM Foods in Nelson, BC. Which happens to be our new home come August.  The rest of the recipe is super easy- instant rice, taco seasoning (bulk barn!), and some dehydrated bell peppers and corn.
  2. Marinara Pasta: We made a massive batch of marinara sauce and went overkill on the spices.  A shortage of flavour wasn’t a problem I was willing to risk.  For the pasta we are using orzo, it’s the most dense since there isn’t really any air or wasted space.  Cooking the pasta and dehydrating it makes the rehydrating process much shorter.  We also found 2kg packs of extra-lean ground beef at Wholesale Club.  We cooked it until it was very well done and then dehydrated it.  Once dehydrated and a very unappetizing consistency resembling dog food we crushed it up so it broke down into rice sized pieces.  The marinara sauce turns to a fruit-leather like consistency and rehydrates extremely well.  With some olive oil and parmesan this thing is a calorie bomb!
  3. Mac n’ Cheese: Cheese holds a special place in my heart, particularly after a big day.  As we did with the orzo, we cooked the macaroni first and then dehydrated it again.  The cheese powder we got from Bulk Barn.  We are adding some dehydrated peas for a bit of something green.  Lastly we bought a bunch of ham lunch meat, after finding some big pieces on sale we have moved to buying it pre-sliced to save some time and for better consistency.  Then cut it up into about 1cm square slices and dehydrate it.  A friendly tip- we have been vacuum sealing all of our food.  The ham is very pointy and has punctured the bag several times, we have been double vacuum sealing it and haven’t had a broken bag yet.
  4. Chili: The chili recipe came out of a bit of an experiment.  I made some chili a few weeks ago and was curious about how it would be dehydrated.  All part of our crash course on dehydrating.  I just threw it in and dehydrated the crap out of it.  I poured some boiling water on it a few days later and it came out almost identical to the initial chili!

For breakfast I will be eating a bigger bar like a ProBar or Hornby Organic bar and I am bringing a breakfast protein shake powder to get a few more nutrients.  Tanya is going to eat granola and might bring instant coffee.

For lunch we are planning to do a mix of quite a few things.  Previously on hikes we would bring summer sausage, Babybel cheese, and some nice crackers.  But with the resupply box being mailed weeks before we arrive sausage is out of the question.  Instead we made a big batch of hummus (with low oil) and dehydrated it, it becomes a bit like a dry, grainy dough.  We can rehydrate and add the oil on trail.  We are also buying 400 bars.  It is going to be a small fortune but I am a big fan of eating lunch while walking, or at least decreasing prep time for lunch.  The stove will only be coming out for dinner.  Hopefully this plan will work or we will have to adjust on trail with the little options we have.

Gear. Gear. Gear.
Living in the mountains for almost 2 months requires a certain level of gear to maintain sanity.  Fortunately some of the big purchases have been made in years past.  Tent, pad, stove, and most clothing has already been used and tested to make sure it works for us.  As I have found in the past, just because something is top-rated or it works for someone else does NOT mean that it works for everyone.  I am currently waiting for a new pack to arrive, I have smaller frameless packs for quick weekend trips and larger packs for 5+ days.  However, for the GDT I upgraded to a quilt and am not bringing some luxury items I have brought on other trips.  Now that larger pack is a bit too big.  Queue overthinking.  We are combining Section F and G with a planned duration of 10 or 11 nights, dependent on weather for the Perseverance Alternate.  I have never even come close to carrying that much food so understanding how much room I need in my pack is merely guesswork.  Given my hiker hunger at that point I feel like any estimate at this point will be so far off it is pointless.  Needless to say I agonized over pack size for weeks before finally pulling the trigger.

As the GDT is substantially more remote and less travelled than the PCT, CDT or AT gear recommendations are much harder to come by.  This was a particular hurdle I hadn’t really thought about before.  I couldn’t read through 100 different gear lists to see what the common items were, nor does HalfwayAnywhere publish info on the GDT.  Thankfully the GDTA had a webinar with gear, I really appreciated that they had 3 distinct philosophies behind pack weight: traditional, lightweight and ultralight.  I find I am somewhere between ultralight on weekend trips to lightweight for this thru-hike.  I did have to purchase several new things specific to the GDT, rain pants in particular.  With shorter hikes “dealing with it” is a viable option.  “Dealing with it” means something different when you are hiking for weeks on end and don’t have the ability to reassess or alter the plan.  With such a long hike and so much unknown I find I am packing for my fears a lot more than normal.  While there are some things I could get to shave some grams I have finally reached a point where I think it is good enough and will definitely suffice.  The only problem I think I will have is that I will have too many warm clothes at the expense of a few ounces.

The first 3 aspects of preparation seem to be more specific to the Great Divide Trail.  The remaining 2 are more straightforward and are required for any physically motivated goal. Training being the first.  Until the GDT I had never trained for anything, with the exception of sports teams in high school.  In the past decade my idea of training has been the Nike slogan, “Just Do It”.  No matter the sport or activity, my idea of training was just going out and doing what I wanted to do.  Outside of hiking my life is filled with climbing in the shoulder seasons and snowboarding in the winter.  There isn’t usually a lapse between most of these sports so I don’t usually find the time or the need to go out and train specifically for the next season.  All of this changed for the GDT.

With such a big event looming I want to do everything I can to reduce any possible problems.  The risk of a physical issue on trail can be decreased through proper training.  With the snowline relatively low still training has to look a bit different than going out on big multi-day hikes.  I also have recently started developing a bit of patellar tendinosis which is queuing the overthinking yet again.  I went to see a physio preemptively to let them know what I was going to do and ask how I could best prepare my body.  My training has involved several kinds of squats and stretches for the lower body.  For the upper body I have mostly just stuck with climbing (which also includes hiking with a weighted pack to the crag).  Every week I am also trying to hike 10km twice with about 500m gain.  I will slowly be ramping up these distances over the month.  Part of these hikes will also be working towards hiking 2000km in 2021 which I will talk about in the final section.  My goal is to hike 400km before starting the GDT.  Starting the trail in decent shape will hopefully fend off any injuries and I will have muscles ready to tackle big alpine days.

Finding My Purpose
The final area of preparation for my Great Divide Trail thru-hike was the first part of my decision to hike the trail; finding my purpose.  I know I need an answer to why I am hiking the trail.  When it’s the third day of rain/snow mix and everything hurts I need to be able to answer the question with a meaningful answer.

About a year and a half ago I lost someone very dear to me, she took her own life.  I had never lost anyone that fundamental to my life, nor had I ever lost anyone to suicide.  Her and I both found our love of hiking together and I want to honor her life and celebrate our chapter together while on the GDT.  Had it not been for her I don’t know if I ever would have ventured into the realm of backpacking in the same way, nor would I have had those foundational moments spent in the mountains.

The road through grief is long but creating a plan has been extremely helpful.  It also made me think about the thousands of Canadians that take their own life every year, and how we need to do what we can to help.  I started a fundraiser, with a goal of hiking 2000km in 2021.  All of the funds raised will go to the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.  My goal is $10,000, and I am already over 40% of the way.  I have been working with CASP directly and they have been extremely supportive through the whole process and are cheering me on.  I now have over 40 people pledged and feel the support behind me.  I truly hope that this can be a small shift towards reframing and destigmatizing suicide and starting conversations around mental health.  CASP has some fantastic initiatives they are working on, including a national 3-digit hotline for crisis support.  My purpose for hiking the Great Divide Trail is to help support others by chipping away at the ever growing epidemic of suicide in our culture; through hiking I am motivated to get help for those in need and start the shift of how we talk about and understand mental health and suicide.  I am devoted to facing these problems and won’t turn a blind eye on those that need help.

Despite all the stressful preparation and countless hours spent I couldn’t be more excited to start hiking.  I’ve been working on laying down as many kilometres as possible before the start date and the legs are already feeling strong.  I am very hopeful that many of the bumps in the preparation are due to a lack of personal experience and growing pains of the GDT and the relationship with Parks Canada.  I am happy I am part of the Great Divide Trail community!

Comments are closed.