West Coast Trail Difficulty and Rescue – When S*&t Goes Sideways

Of course, on the trail, we all wish everything goes perfectly all the time.  We wish that nobody ever gets hurt, everybody has a great time, and it is sunny and there are unicorns prancing around offering to carry our backpacks.  Unfortunately,  the West Coast Trail difficulty is high, so things go wrong.  Often.  So this post, part 5 of the 6-part West Coast Trail blog series, is all about when shit goes sideways.  Because when you’re dealing with the elements like you are on the WCT, sideways is almost a normal way of life. Enter the magic of the West Coast Trail Rescue

West Coast Trail difficulty, West Coast Trail injuries, British Columbia, Canada

The most frequent question I have received since finishing the trail is surprisingly not “Where did you poop?”, but “What happens if someone gets injured?”  Unfortunately, with a trail like the WCT, it is really not a question of if? but When? As of June 28, twenty seven people had evacuated from the trail in the first two months of the 2016 season. That is over a person every two days. By the time we finished the trail, that number was in the mid-30s. People get injured on the West Coast Trail like it’s their jobs. Some of it’s luck, some of it’s lack of preparedness.  And sometimes there were simple ways to mitigate the issues and deal with the emergencies on a multi-day hike yourself with a bit of preparedness. 

How hard is the West Coast Trail?

It’s hard. And I can tell you why: Because shit happens. It doesn’t matter how experienced you are, this trail has so much tricky footing, steep drop offs, ladders and mud that getting to the end is not just strength, endurance and will, but a heck of a lot of luck. If you are not so lucky and the trail gods smite you, getting off the trail is a must. The West Coast Trail is not one you can limp through, the trail is far too uneven and has too many sketchy spots. Did I mention the ladders, holy moly are there ladders.

hiking the West Coast Trail

Parks Canada West Coast Trail Rescue Plan

So how does an injured body gets rescued from the West Coast Trail? At the Parks Canada information centre’s orientation, that in case of emergency, we were to call the medical phone number. Ummm… Is there cell phone coverage out there? No.


So, plan B, (which is actually the only viable plan given the lack of technology)…

How to Get off the West Coast Trail

You or someone you are with gets hurt. Theoretically, the only way to get off the trail is to get to someone on the trail with a radio. This could be boat operators at the water taxis, the rangers at the guardian cabins, or crews repairing the trail. “You will see people out there with radios” said the Parks Canada lady. I didn’t. I did not see one person with a functioning radio just strolling on by. Parks Canada Lady, you’re full of crap. Even the guy at the Nitinat Narrows water taxi didn’t have a functioning radio.  Awesome.

What actually has to happen, is the injured person must get themselves to either a guardian cabin, of which there are only three on the trail, to a lighthouse, of which there are two, to a food shack, of which there are 2, or to either end of the trail. Alternatively, someone from their party gets to one of these places and sends help back.

The West Coast Trail on Canada's Vancouver island is a formidable hike. Making or breaking this 7 day trek is what and how you pack your backpack! Check out my packing mistakes and my wins from my experience hiking the West Coast Trail.
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West Coast trail preparation

It’s a process, with no real clear solution, but the search and rescue people really do the best they can with what is afforded to them, and given the odds, they do a pretty great job. Once a person with a radio is found, the West Coast Trail medevac Zodiak will be on its way in short order. That medical Zodiac zips up and down the 75km coastline, fighting weather, tide surges and gnarly beach landings, pulling people off that trail every day and night. Parks Canada declares the disclaimer at the start: The Medevac might not reach you for 24 hours.  Really, they sound like they normally get out far faster than that. But disclaimers are made for a reason!

The human beings who work this important job are all medically trained to do their jobs, fully examining the injured hiker and getting them the care they need given their situation. Kudos to them!

So whether you trip over a rock and sprain your ankle or fall off a cliff while adjusting your hiking pole, that Zodiak is there for you, eventually.  Oddly enough, both of these two example events happened to Team Buffoon during the hike and only one of the people took that West Coast Trail rescue trip. And it’s not the one you think. People come off the trail for all kinds of reasons, so here are a few: 
West Coast trail information centre

West Coast Trail Difficulty Case Study 1: The Classic Twist

One of the best ways to ride the medevac off the West Coast Trail is to roll over on your ankle.  Finishing the WCT on a bum ankle is impossible, unless you were 25 feet from the end when you rolled it. The rolled or sprained ankle is the most common injury on the West Coast Trail by a landslide, due to the extremely uneven nature of the trail itself. Other causes for these kinds of unlucky injuries are fatigue, heavy backpacks, and lack of mental focus. 

I briefly recounted the saga of Nicole taking the West Coast Trail rescue boat in my previous post on my [intlink id=”1870″ type=”post”]Hiking the West Coast Trail Blog[/intlink], but here it is again.  Nicole, an experienced outdoors person and an in-shape, strong individual started walking on day three out of Tsusiat Falls campsite and within 3 meters had stepped on a surprise root, rolled over on her ankle and was done. Her husband Scott was with her, and he ran ahead to another couple in our party, Joy and Steve, and brought them back to the scene of the crime.

Despite the injury, there was hope Nicole could continue, though the reality of the trail proved this hope empty.  But how to get her off the trail? The closest guardian cabin was 5km away, so the group made for that. 3 hours of hobbling and a radio call to the medical team later, the West Coast Trail medevac landed to assess Nicole. After a thorough check, medical confirmed she was unfit to go on, and like Jeff Probst, pulled her from the game, thereby crushing the dream of being Sole Survivor.

After reshuffling gear, Nicole was taken (with another guy who was pulled from the trail on the same trip, two’fer!) by the Zodiak to the Port Renfrew Parks Canada information Centre.  That guy was taken to a hospital, as he was ill in some way, but Nicole knew what was wrong with her, had been similarly injured before, and was able to drive herself to a hotel. Nicole was the 30th hiker to be taken off the West Coast Trail in the 2016 season, and her story shows how easily it could happen to any of us.

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west coast trail blog

West Coast Trail Injury Case Study 2: The Mystery Gut

The West Coast Trail does not just claim victims by bodily injury, but also to non-diagnosable internal war mongering. While on the trail, you can’t be too picky about hygiene and you do your best to treat your water, but nothing is 100%. The man who got pulled at the same time as Nicole had gastro-intestinal issues so intense he couldn’t go on. My own team mate Joy later was attacked by some sort of gastro bug and only through sheer force of will did she complete the last two days of the trail.

All of the water you drink and cook with is from freshwater streams, but it still needs boiling, filtering, or chemical treatment.  The food most people eat are those dehydrated, lightweight trail meals, full of preservatives, salt, and weird chemicals to make them taste like something resembling cuisine. You can use hand sanitizer, but by the end of the trail your hands and every other part of your body is a festering germ.

These three factors, make for the perfect storm of gastro issues, and while tummy cramps may not seem like something that can take you off the trail…  Well, have you ever tried to climb over logs and roots while having labour contractions? Yeah, not even the lady from A Good Earth was doing that! The fetal position and climbing down ladders do not mix. 

hiking the West Coast trail

West Coast Trail Blog Case Study 3: The Unprepared Parasite

Being unprepared for the trail in any way, could create any number of very dangerous situations.  Every hiker needs to have warm clothing, plenty of high energy food, proper camping gear, and water sanitation tools. Every person also must be physically and mentally strong enough to do the trail.  Nobody should be depending on anybody else to help them get through, or to carry their gear. [intlink id=”1797″ type=”post”]West Coast Trail Preparation[/intlink] is every persons responsibility. 

I met a father and daughter team, who decided to come off the trail at Nitinat as they were moving too slow to finish the trail and still make their commitments back home.  At Campers Cove campsite, there was a rescue of a woman who had done the first two days and just couldn’t mentally or physically continue out of sheer exhaustion. 

In our last campsite on the Trail, we met a prime example of the human being “Most Likely to be Medevac’ed from the West Coast Trail”. See the full tale in [intlink id=”1870″ type=”post”]My Story[/intlink], but Laurel was so unprepared for the elements of the trail, it seemed like that Zodiac was her imminent destiny (Disclaimer: I have no idea if she was medevac’ed or not, I’m just assuming she was). Having zero concept of what you’re getting yourself into before starting the West Coast Trail is the most irresponsible thing a hiker can do, putting yourself and others at risk, and almost guaranteeing resources are wasted to ensure you don’t die. 

Yes, the West Coast Trail Medevac is there in case of emergency, but avoidable emergencies created due to lack of preparedness and naiveté are bullshit.  Clearly I have an opinion on this. There are some very simple tips on how to mitigate emergencies while camping or hiking, so we should all prepare ourselves properly!

Preparation for the West Coast Trail
If you liked this post, you may also like: West Coast Trail Preparation- How to Prepare for the Hike!

west coast trail pictures

The West Coast Trail Rescue is serious process, just as the trail itself is.  Nobody wants to get medevac’ed, I can only imagine it is the most heartbreaking thing. Thankfully Parks Canada has it together enough to know the Trail Gods take their fair share of sacrifices, and that as the caretakers of the Trail, they have a responsibility to provide adequate first aid. The West Coast Trail Medevac team is one to be commended, and we are very lucky that they are there.  

This blog is dedicated to the fabulous, strong, phenomenally intelligent and resilient, Nicole Morgan.

We hiked with you in our hearts.

West coast trail what to bring


12 thoughts on “West Coast Trail Difficulty and Rescue – When S*&t Goes Sideways

  1. When my wife and friend went 6 years ago it was a shit show. My wife sprained her ankle on day 2, and started getting menstrual cramps. Luckily I know how to tape ankles so you can still hike on them from being an army medic and had lots if advil. Unfortunatley that meant me and my friend were carrying her gear the next 4 days. Pack weight went from 75 pounds to about a hundred now. I thought I was in shape from the army but those next 4 days almost broke me. The weight and terrain disintegrated my boots. I had to hold them together with duct tape. Amazing trip though. I would do it again tomorrow! The one thing I tell people who plan on going is pack light. At 75 pounds it was hard but bearable. At 100 it was painful misery. If you can do 40 or under it would’ve been a flawless hike.

    1. Yikes, that is a shit show! We lost one of ours to a sprained ankle on Day 2 as well, maybe that same root! Definitely packing light was my main mistake, in that, I had way too heavy of gear. I couldn’t have cut down much on what I carried because I did need/use most of it, but I just had heavy crap. Next time I hike the WCT, I’ll be packing WAYYYYYYYY lighter, maybe next year 🙂


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