The notoriously challenging Great Divide is Canada’s premier long-distance trail. It runs 1133.2km (704.1mi) along the Great Divide between Waterton Lakes National Park and Kakwa Lake Provincial Park. The GDT is more aptly referred to as a wilderness route than a complete trail. There are many sections that are not well maintained or not maintained at all. Route finding, alternates, and bushwhacking are all very necessary components of hiking this trail. It comes with no surprise that Canada’s most sought-after long-distance trail is a rugged one at best — Canadians are, after all, often thought to be igloo sleepers, among other things.
While the GDT traverses five national parks, nine provincial parks, and various other wilderness areas and forest districts, it crosses the divide itself roughly 30 times. Despite being sprinkled with incredible trail sections that are impeccably maintained, the trail can be extremely complex. It is generally reserved only for those who are prepared for obstacles that will bring your pace down to a begrudging speed. Decommissioned trails, wildlife encounters, and difficult creek fords impede daily mileage on a regular basis and hikers need to be prepared for that. The unpredictable weather and brushy trails require more rugged gear than a typical thru-hike calls for. So, if you are planning to hike the Great Divide Trail, you might want to double-check your gear and update your LighterPack before tagging the terminus.
When hiking along the GDT, it is important to know that summer in the Rockies might feel more similar to winter in the desert. Much of the water is glacier-fed and creek crossings can be excruciating. Resupply points and postage can be difficult, which makes bouncing gear up and down the trail a task. The GDT requires gear that can withstand the weather, long food carries, and the rugged nature of the trails.
Whether you are traditional, ultralight, or anywhere else on the spectrum, here are some tips on what you’ll need for the Great Divide Trail.
The big 4 plays a big role on the GDT. Finding the right shelter, bag, pad, and pack for your needs is vital to your success on the GDT. Temperatures can drop significantly at night, and storms may roll in during the day. It is possible to be caught in a snowstorm in the middle of August, and you’ll need to be prepared for that.
Choosing a sturdy shelter that you can pitch well will be extremely valuable on this trail. Many hikers may switch from non-freestanding to freestanding for ease of set-up and stability in foul weather. When booking sites in required reservation areas, tent pads are often designated wooden pads filled with mulch and wood chips. Setting up a non-freestanding tent can become extremely difficult in these areas.
A versatile and well-rated sleeping bag or quilt is important to have when travelling through the Canadian Rockies. Don’t be shy with your temperature rating, you never know when you might need extra warmth. The Enlightened Equipment Revelation quilt is a great option for this trip.
If you are a sensitive sleeper, you’ll want to bring an insulated inflatable pad on this trip. Let’s face it, the Rockies are rocky, and if you are easily bothered by the ground you sleep on, bring something with a decent r-value and comfort level. Closed-cell foam pads are sufficient, but don’t forget that the ground can get chilly!
Choosing a waterproof pack and backing it up is vital in the Canadian wilderness. You’ll be hit with rain, maybe hail, and potentially snow, so you need to make sure your pack can handle the elements. If you are dedicated to a tiny pack, you might want to consider upping your pack volume for extra clothing, gear, and food. The Hyperlite Mountain Gear Windrider is commonly seen making its way across the Great Divide Trail as it is extremely durable and waterproof. If your pack isn’t fully seam-sealed, or if it is made of a water-resistant fabric, consider adding a nylofume pack liner to protect your gear.
There’s a lot of wildlife in the Rockies, and the Great Divide Trail follows major wildlife corridors and migratory valleys. It is crucial to be considerate of this when cooking, cleaning, and hanging food. Bear canisters aren’t very common in this area of Canada, and many places will require you to hang your food properly each night. Any reserved campsite will be equipped with bear hangs or food lockers and a designated cook area far away from camp.
Consider a stove and small pot like a Toaks Titanium 750ml for your GDT hike. Cold soaking is great, but with the possibility of foul weather, a warm meal can really boost morale. Pair this with your favourite spork, and you’ll be glad you chose the stove.
Water is plentiful for most of the trail, so a few bottles and a backup bladder will be sufficient. A filter like the Sawyer Squeeze or the HydroBlu Versaflow are perfect for the GDT but not available in Canada. We meet again, shipping costs.
As for food bags, choosing a durable waterproof bag and knowing how to hang it is necessary. The LightAF Dyneema food bag and bear bagging kit is a great choice for this trip. If you are concerned with wildlife reaching your food, you should consider an Ursack to protect your food from bears and other critters. You will still be required to hang your food but having a puncture-proof bag can provide peace of mind.
The GDT calls for a versatile layering system that can keep you warm and dry in any circumstance. Your regular hiking shirt and running shorts combo is great for standard daily wear, but you’ll have to pack for uncertain weather and build a system that can be easily layered up or down.
Consider some wool layers and extra socks or booties for sleeping and cold weather. Creek crossings can chill you to the bone and having something to layer with can be a lifesaver. A good down or synthetic jacket will get a lot of use on the trail, especially at night. A durable rain jacket and pants will save you when traveling through decommissioned and overgrown trails. Adding a fleece mid-layer or a synthetic hoody will be a great addition to your kit.
Light, breathable trail runners are standard on the GDT, but consider some with a Vibram sole. The Canadian Rockies will devour your shoes so it’s not a bad idea to choose something a bit more durable. Even so, be prepared to lay them to rest at the end of the trek. Rocky Mountains.
You’ll be able to use the Guthook Guides GDT map along the trail. It is a good idea to bring along an emergency locator beacon such as the Garmin InReach Mini. There is essentially no cell reception along the GDT, even at some roads where you might be hitching. Many of the major routes through national parks and remote areas have no service. Bringing along an InReach device can be lifesaving under certain circumstances.
There are only a few spots along the trail where you can make big changes to your gear or visit an outfitter. Preparing as well as possible for weather and rough terrain is the best approach when gearing up for the Great Divide. See the route description of the GDT from 10Adventures to get a better idea of what you’re in for. Feeling prepared? Great. See you out there!