Great Divide Trail Pre-Hike 3: Permits

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The GDT uses a patchwork of shorter trails, some of which are well-maintained and popular and some of which are the complete opposite. In most of the parks, camping requires permits that may be of two varieties: 1) random camping permits for less popular trails/areas without maintained campgrounds; 2) campsite bookings for popular, high-traffic trails with maintained backcountry campgrounds (e.g. Skyline) or trails that limit campers to minimize the disturbance to wildlife (e.g. Maligne Pass).

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And then there’s the wildlife that treats humans like rocks.
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Cool as a cucumber.

Though I love random camping, I’m a big supporter of the permit system. Limiting campers and herding them into designated campsites, especially campsites with toilets, is the best way to minimize impact on the environment (especially delicate alpine environments) and wildlife. When I’ve walked through heavily used areas that allowed random and unlimited camping, they often featured catholes everywhere, ragged vegetation and absurdly located tents destroying the feeling of wilderness. If you hate permits, if you must be free to roam and camp wherever you like, there are many, many long trails other than the GDT for you, or perhaps you can identify alternate routes to skip areas requiring campsite reservations, or rush through them in one day. If I meet you on the GDT and you’re not making a good faith effort to obey camping regulations, I will not be friendly to you. I may report you to Parks Canada in an attempt to get you fined, taking pictures of you as you shout obscenities and try to shield your face. Yes, I am that person, whatchoo gonna do about it?

The good news is that the permit system is not some crazy, insurmountable obstacle to hiking the GDT. Most of the campgrounds open for reservations in January, and despite getting my permits for them almost two full months later in March, I was able to make it work with some flexibility. That was also my experience when I lived in the Rockies and spent some of my three-day weekends (thanks, awesome bosses) on the popular backcountry trails in Jasper and Banff. I obtained most of my permits last-minute, but always managed to get a stray campsite from a cancellation. I never got more than one along a trail, mind you, but the popular trails are well-maintained, which enables quick hiking.

Therefore, there’s certainly hope of obtaining last-minute permits and modifying your itinerary if you get slowed down. Logic tells us that giving yourself a reasonable itinerary that will absorb short delays is wise, and unless you’re trying to set a FKT, why would you complain about an extra zero here and there? I recommend checking out the sample itineraries put together by Dan Durston to aid hikers with their trip planning.

One of Dan’s itineraries

‘I hiked x miles per day on the PCT so I should be able to hike x km on the GDT’ may not serve you well as a tactic; hiking on a well-maintained trail requires vastly different amounts of time and energy than bushwhacking and route-finding, as I learned on the northern Heysen! Dan’s itineraries give a rough idea of where the trail may take more time than the distance would suggest, as well as providing information about how to obtain permits for each area.

More detailed information can be found in the recently updated (2018) guidebook by Dustin Lynx. It’s excellent and glossy and I feel sad at the thought of chopping it up to put into my resupply boxes. I’m also sad whenever I see the word ‘Greyhound’ in its transportation descriptions. At some point I’ll need to investigate how to actually get to Waterton.

So shiny.

Due to COVID-19 – my apologies to anyone hoping that I wouldn’t mention that word again until 2.5 months from now, that’s my intention as much as possible – permit bookings for the parks are now closed and will remain closed until at least May. I still have some permits to obtain, so I’ll be waiting for that email stating that reservations have re-opened, or I suppose the alternate grim email stating that the parks will be closed all summer and my reservations have been cancelled. Maybe Parks can use this opportunity to rebuild the bridge over the Athabasca on the Fortress Lake Trail? Just needed to squeeze that in somewhere~

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