The Sunshine Coast Trail has been on my bucket list for several years and I finally hiked it in its entirety this past summer. You can read my trail blogs starting with Part I, but I also wanted to create a guide to accompany those posts for anyone thinking of doing the trail. I think this is a great trail for thru hikers because while it is long (180km), it’s not life-altering long (like the PCT). But it is still long enough to require considerable advance planning, so here are some things I learned while planning the trek:
The first question to ask yourself is whether you have the experience and ability to hike a trail this long. My longest trail prior to the SCT was 85km, but I’d hiked that distance on 3 separate occasions, so I felt confident that I could attempt 180km. Compared to other popular thru hikes in BC, I would say that the SCT is actually a bit easier (comparing to hikes like the West Coast Trail), but that it shouldn’t be underestimated. I was able to hike at a much faster pace on the SCT than other coastal trails I’ve done, but there is a lot of elevation gain throughout the course of the trail, so you definitely want to be used to climbing mountains before you attempt. However, there are lots of exit points on the trail if it becomes too challenging and the huts can make things more comfortable for newer hikers. That said, if you’ve never backpacked before, get some experience on shorter trails first, or plan to section hike part of the trail instead of the whole thing, because there is a big difference in difficulty when you have to carry all your gear with you, especially on a long trip with heavy quantities of food!
The Sunshine Coast Trail is 178km long on paper, but a bit longer in practice. There have been many re-routes and trail changes throughout the years, so while there’s 178 trail markers on the trail, they’re not all actually 1km apart from each other. I clocked 190km on my GPS when I did the trail. The most notable section is from Tin Hat to Lewis Lake, which is 2-3km longer than indicated, so prepare for slightly longer days than anticipated. In addition, I tracked a cumulative elevation gain of 7500 metres over the course of the trail, so be prepared for a lot of uphill (and downhill if you have bad knees like me).
The trail starts at the far north end of the Upper Sunshine Coast, known as Sarah Point. It’s approximately 50km down the Malaspina Peninsula to Powell River and then the trail meanders through the mountains for another 130km to the trail end at Saltery Bay. The half point of the trail is at Tin Hat Mountain, which is largely regarded as the best viewpoint on the entire trail. There are lots of access points along the trail, but the two easiest are in Powell River (km 50) and Lang Bay (km 150). If you’re section hiking, I’d plan to hike one of these 3 sections, and if you’re thru hiking, these make good resupply points (more on that later).
While you can hike the trail in either direction, the majority of people go from North to South. The trail is set up for people hiking this direction so the trail markers will all be in order. Sarah Point is considerably harder to access than Saltery Bay, so it’s recommended to start at Sarah Point so that you can walk on the ferry when you get to Saltery Bay at the end of your hike and not have to coordinate transportation. For more detailed information about the entire 178km trail, pick up a copy of Eagle Walz’s book, or check out the SCT website.
Time of Year
Time of year can also play a large role in determining when to hike the trail. If you don’t like crowds, then you may want to avoid the summer months and hike in the Spring or Fall. Summer can also be extremely hot and a lot of the streams can run dry in August, making it more desirable to hike in the shoulder seasons. The benefit of hiking in the summer is that you’re likely to have the driest weather, so if you don’t like hiking in the rain, this might be the best option for you, though the heat can be exhausting.
The challenges with Spring hiking are that if you go too early, there may still be snow on parts of the trail and you’re more likely to encounter rain along the trek. Whereas in Fall, you won’t encounter snow unless you go really late, but the streams are more likely to be dry in early Fall and you’re more likely to get rained on in late Fall. I wanted to do the trail in June, but I ended up doing it in August (when it was very hot) and early September (when the streams were mostly dry). But I didn’t encounter crowds during either time.
Getting to the Sunshine Coast was probably the biggest challenge for me and was the most considerable cost of the trip. If you’re going with a group and have more than 1 car, it’s relatively easy, but if you’re alone or don’t have a car, it’s a bit more challenging. You’ll have to either drive or walk on two different ferries (Horseshoe Bay to Langdale and Earls Cove to Saltery Bay) and prepare to shell out $100+pp to take the shuttle to the trailhead. Saltery Bay and Powell River are accessible by transit, but the trailhead at Sarah Point requires 4WD to access. If you have 4WD, that’s great, if not, make a booking with the Sunshine Coast Shuttle. Here’s the options I’ve identified for getting to the trailhead:
- Drive yourself (1 car). Park your car at Earl’s Cove and walk on the ferry, then get the SCT shuttle from Saltery Bay to the Sarah Point Trailhead. If you want to drop off resupplies, then drive on the ferry instead and park at Saltery Bay once you’ve dropped the resupplies and catch the shuttle. Once you finish the trail at Saltery Bay, your car will be waiting for you!
- Drive yourself (2 cars). If you have a rugged 4WD with high clearance, you can park one car at Saltery Bay, drop off your resupplies, and drive your second car all the way to the trailhead. If not, drop off your resupplies and catch the shuttle from Powell River to the trailhead. Collect your car at Saltery Bay at the end of your hike and pick up the other car.
- Take transit. You can walk on both ferries and there is a connector shuttle that runs between the two ferries in the summer. It runs every day except Thursday, but it only goes once per day. Once you get the second ferry to Saltery Bay, you can get the shuttle to pick you up and transport you to the trailhead, or you can take the city bus to Powell River, drop off your resupply, and then get the shuttle to the trailhead. This was what I did on my first attempt.
- Fly. There are several airlines that fly direct to Powell River, but I recommend Harbour Air because it flies directly to the Shingle Mill Pub, which is one of the resupply locations. So you can drop off your resupply when you arrive and then arrange the shuttle to the trailhead. The downside is you can’t fly with fuel or bear spray, but you can purchase both from the shuttle company. This was what I did on my second attempt.
All of these options assume starting at Sarah Point. You can walk off the ferry at Saltery Bay and start from there, but it’s better to take the shuttle for drop off rather than coordinate a pick-up time when you might not know how fast you’ll be hiking. Unless you plan to camp at Sarah Point on your last night and get picked up in the morning.
Once you’ve established you’re ready to attempt the trail, itinerary becomes an important consideration. You can hike the entire trail in one go, or you can make a couple of trips to complete in section hikes, or even day hikes if you’re ambitious and comfortable with trail running. I decided on one big thru-hike, but circumstance forced me to complete it as two section hikes. You want to be realistic about your abilities when deciding how many days to allot for the trip. Because it’s a long trail, there’s a tendency to want to do a lot of kilometres, but consider whether this will be enjoyable over an extended period of time. If you’re hiking solo, it may be easier to hike longer distances, but if you’re in a group, you will naturally need a slower pace. If you don’t have lightweight gear, also consider that packing 3-8 days of food will present a considerable challenge.
Campsite choice is also an important consideration in determining your itinerary. Are you flexible in where you camp? Are you comfortable staying at tent sites, or do you only want to stay in the huts? Either way, plan to bring a tent because the huts can fill up on summer weekends, though users are supposed to prioritize space in the huts for thru-hikers. Determining how many days you have available for the trip can help you determine your itinerary, just make sure to leave enough time for travel to and from the Sunshine Coast as getting to the trailheads can be somewhat tedious.
You don’t necessarily need to pick exactly where you’re going to camp in advance when you draft your itinerary, but it’s good to set some goals so that you can assess whether you’re ahead or behind your targeted pace while on trail. I decided on 10 nights on the trail and planned my itinerary around that. I generally had a target that I wanted to reach every second night and I was flexible on the opposite nights based on how I was feeling. I wanted to stay at Tin Hat Hut and Walt Hill Hut because I heard they were the most scenic, so I set goals for when I wanted to arrive at those locations. It’s also good to know if there’s any sites you want to avoid, so you can plan around that. For example, I really didn’t like Homestead Rec Site or Lewis Point Rec Site.
Definitely pick up a copy of the SCT guide when assessing where you want to stay. Some campsites are more rugged than others and they don’t all have bathrooms, water sources, or bear caches. Water sources are important because if you stay at a campsite without one, you will have to hike with extra water. Likewise, if you’re staying at sites without bear caches, you’ll need to put extra consideration into how you’ll protect your food. See below for more information on both of these items. Even if you plan to stay only in huts, I still recommend bringing a tent with you because the huts can fill up on popular summer weekends. However, if you’re hiking in the off season, generally you’ll be okay. I’m told the huts were extremely busy in 2021, but when I hiked the trail in 2022, they were virtually empty, both in August and September.
Gear is a favourite topic of any hiker. You don’t need expensive gear to go backpacking – I hiked with cheap gear for years and did just fine. But prepare yourself for the weight of it. I’ve invested in some really lightweight gear over the years and it really paid off for me on this thru hike. I was able to hike longer and faster than if I was using cheaper, heavier gear. In some instances I sacrificed comfort for this (a smaller sleeping pad, only the essentials for clothing, a non-freestanding tent), but the comfort of the lighter pack was more than worth it for me.
Fortunately, the SCT is not an alpine hike, so generally you can get away with cooler gear. I always bring a lot of warm gear when I’m going to the alpine, but this wasn’t needed on the SCT, especially in the middle of summer and with the huts. Plus, if you’re doing the hike with a friend, you can share gear to lighten the load. A few things I would definitely still bring include trekking poles, bear spray, and all of the 10 essentials, especially an inreach (or satellite device) and a GPS (or a large power bank for your phone).
Food is one of my favourite topics when it comes to thru-hiking. Some people get really into calorie counting for a big hike, but I’ve personally never found this was accurate for me and resulted in carrying way more food then I needed. If you’ve done some practice hikes, they should give you a good idea of how much you will generally eat and then plan for slightly larger portions sizes or extra snacks since it’s a long hike. Personally I prefer to bring larger meals in lieu of extra snacks. Generally you will get hungrier the longer you hike, so plan for a bit extra towards the end of the trip. Always bring an extra day of food on a trip of this scale in case of emergency.
I’ve been getting really into dehydrating and I prepped my entire menu for 11 days using my dehydrator. You don’t need a dehydrator to do a multi-day trek, but it can significantly lighten your load. The average person carries 2lbs of food per day, but I was able to get my weight down to just over 1lb per day (12lbs for my 11 days on trail). The easiest way to shed weight is through dehydrated/freeze dried meals. I dehydrated my own, but you can also purchase them from a large suite of options at places like MEC, though these are often a little bulkier and very pricey. Before I got into dehydrating, my preference was to stock up on simple grocery store items like knorr sidekicks, of which there are lots of rice and pasta options, or easy dinners like ramen. The trick is finding some way to add protein. Tuna packets are a good option, but a little heavier than dehydrated proteins. Famous foods carries lots of freeze-dried options.
Resupplies go hand in hand with food. If you’re fast, you can probably carry all your food from the start, though carrying so much food weight may slow you down. The two easiest resupply points are the Shingle Mill pub in Powell River and the general store in Lang Bay. Shingle Mill is right on the trail, but Lang Bay involves a 2.5km road walk each way. Because of this, I opted for just 1 resupply at the pub. I carried 4 days of food at the start and then picked up 7 days of food from the pub. Another option is to pre-arrange a drop-off from the SCT shuttle company at any point where the trail crosses a road, but this is a pricey option, so I didn’t meet anyone who utilized it. Both the pub and the general store will hold your resupplies free of charge.
Water Supply – No matter when you hike the trail, water supply requires constant thought. Not every campsite has a water source, so you may need to carry extra water with you if you plan to camp at one of these sites and you need to know where your last reliable source of water is before you get to the campsite. When I hiked in early August, the majority of streams were still flowing, but when I hiked in early September, almost every stream was dry. This meant that I had to get almost all my water from lakes and ponds, meaning I often had to carry extra water and that a water filter was extremely necessary to purify my water. Streams are a higher quality source of drinking water than lakes or ponds, so plan accordingly when choosing your water treatment system. At times I carried 4-5L of water with me depending on my campsite and last reliable water source – 5L of water weighs 11lbs, so it’s a significant addition to your pack!
Bear Caches – Not every campsite has a bear cache. Most of the huts have them (but not all) and most of the tenting sites don’t have them. Pending on location, it may be very difficult to create a bear hang, so it’s recommended to bring either a bear bin or bear bag on the trail. Everyone has different opinions on bins vs. bags. Personally, I think a bin is the safest option, though I opted for the bear bag for weight reasons. It’s almost impossible for a bear to walk off with your bear bin, but it can walk off or crush your food with a bear bag, so I still tied mine to a tree even though it’s made of kevlar and supposedly bear proof. It was never tested.