The Great Divide Trail is a 1,200km (or 750mi) hike which traverses the Canadian Rockies through the most spectacular mountains and scenery this part of the world has to offer.
It is an extremely fun hike, unique in so many different ways, and challenging. It took us 42 days, starting July 21st and finishing September 1st.
At the US border just north of Montana and Glacier National Park, the GDT begins where the Continental Divide Trail leaves off. Sharing the same terminus one could conceivably do a truly monster thru hike of more than 6,000km (or 3,700mi) by connecting the two, starting at the Mexico Border and hiking far north deep into Canada.
The Great Divide is a hike that is almost incomparable to others when it comes to the landscape. With glaciers on nearly every peak, wide braided river valleys, and awe inspiring ridgelines to navigate there aren’t many other places I know of that really come close to what you’ll find here. From unique views, challenges, environments, and animals… this really is a top tier trail, and one highly worth going after.
All of this beauty can’t come lightly however, as on this trip you’ll find a lot of difficulties as well. I actually wrote an entire guide on how you can hike this trail, which you’ll find here. Today we want to highlight those difficulties, and specifically how just a few good choices in the gear you use can totally eliminate a lot of them as being a concern.
So what makes this trail different?
Why can’t I just use the same gear I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail with?
- Grizzly Bear and Moose habitat for the entire duration of your hike.
- Bushwhacking and off trail travel is common in nearly every section.
- Highly unpredictable weather, with rain being a frequent, and cold.
- Temperatures into the 20s at night, with a chance of snow even on summer days.
- High alpine sections above tree line making any bad weather that much more foreboding.
- Truly remote sections which cross no roads, have no cell service, where help would not easily be found.
All of these challenges are not that bad! If you show up prepared. So let’s talk about some gear, and how it makes all of this a whole lot easier.
1. Patagonia Torrentshell – A Robust Rain Jacket
My first top gear pick for the Great Divide Trail is a robust rain jacket, and specifically the Patagonia Torrentshell. Though I think any truly robust rain jacket will do. The one thing you want to avoid is bringing that flimsy ultralight rain jacket you’ve already used on two other thru hikes. This is not the time or the place!
You’re not going to be bushwhacking everyday, but there’s certainly enough of it where I personally would not trust a fragile rain jacket on this trail. It’s going to rip, you’re going to get wet, and you’re going to be put into a bad situation. In the past all of my worst experiences hiking come from being wet and cold. This time I learned my lesson!
A Froggtoggs could work, my partner wore one, but maybe don’t. Same goes for the Montbell Versalite or an Enlightened Equipment Visp. I think for this hike you want a 3L Gore-Tex kind of jacket instead. Something that will withstand the bushwhacking, and something that you can really trust to keep you dry in the worst of conditions. If it’s going to rain for multiple days, and you have to go over high alpine passes then down into valleys full of soggy bushwhacking, you want a jacket that will make you happy and safe in those kinds of conditions!
So I went with the Patagonia Torrentshell. There are other jackets in the same class and of the same style that would be lighter, but many of those are 200 dollars *more* than the Torrentshell! So for a budget option comparably, it’s really an awesome, fully featured, robust, and lightweight piece of gear.
- 14oz (or 396g) for a size Large. Not the lightest rain jacket in existence, but also not the heaviest. I feel that given the features, durability, price, and waterproofness the weight is quite good. The lightest comparable jackets will only be a few ounces less, and significantly higher in price. The Montbell Storm Cruiser is 10oz, and the Arc’teryx Beta is 10.6oz.
- Retails for 179$ and can be found much cheaper on sale, I got mine for 20% off, and have even seen 30% off more recently. By comparison the Arc’teryx Beta is 400$ (and doesn’t have pit zips), and the Montbell Storm Cruiser is 350$. I don’t think either of those ever go on sale. The price in the end was what sold me on the Patagonia vs any other model or company.
- Pit zips! A rain jacket is almost worthless to me if it doesn’t have pit zips, as they are so incredibly essential to vent heat when hiking and wearing a waterproof garment. I don’t care how ‘breathable’ Gore-Tex is advertised to be, it will never be as breathable as pit zips when you’re working hard climbing a mountain.
- Big pockets to store items in the rain. Great to keep hands warm in the cold rain, or to store a phone and headphones while on the go. Many ultralight jackets shave weight by not having pockets! So this was a very welcome feature for me.
- 3 Layer shell which is very reliably waterproof, and durable. This is a jacket I felt I could trust in an all day rain to keep me dry. While on other trails rain may not be common, or may be short lived, the GDT has the potential for rain any day of your hike. We got lucky with only 9 days out of the 42 of our trip, but I have friends who hiked in a different year who had 30 days of rain out of the 35 they were out there.
- A highly reputable company makes it. Patagonia is well known for their environmental activism alongside their high quality gear. It’s a company I am happy to support and recommend to others.
At 14oz I wouldn’t carry this on the Pacific Crest Trail or another trail which receives so little rain, but for an Appalachian Trail thru hike, wetter environments, or the Great Divide Trail? Absolutely, it was great and I really did love it. It has all the features I would ever want from a robust rain jacket, and at a great price for such a top quality item.
- Check out the Patagonia Torrentshell here
2. Senchi Alpha 60 Hoodie – A Jacket You Can Hike In
When I started the Great Divide Trail I had an Enlightened Equipment Torrid Jacket, it’s a puffy jacket that’s great in wetter climates due to the synthetic insulation, and it’s very warm. When I got out on this trail though, I immediately wished I had brought a fleece as well. Everyday I watched my partner hike along in the cold mornings, happily in her fleece, while my jacket was too warm to hike in.
My top choice would have been the Senchi Alpha 60 Hoodie, a fleece made using Alpha Direct, a fabric that is highly breathable yet will still provide warmth. The perfect item for cold mornings, evenings, or to layer under your rain jacket. My partner wore one for the entire 750mi Great Divide Trail, and then another 310 miles on the Superior Hiking Trail in the fall. She loved it, and I was extremely jealous. So I bought two.
A puffy jacket is great when you’re static. If you’re at camp hanging out while preparing dinner, taking a break in the shade, or if very unexpected weather comes along a puffy jacket is bar none going to be your warmest option. The majority of people carry one, and I think you likely should carry one too. The Enlightened Equipment Torrid is my choice for its light weight, and synthetic insulation (which is warmer and safer when wet). A puffy jackets downfall is while hiking. It’s just too warm. So I think having an ultralight fleece is the answer, the lighter the better.
The Senchi Alpha 60 Hoodie is what I would choose because it is by far the lightest option available. Allowing you to hike with it on and not overheat, which opens a lot of doors. Earlier starts to the day, more miles in the evenings, a better layering system when it’s extra cold or raining. I wished I had one of these every day of the Great Divide, and that’s why I feel it’s worth having on this list.
- 4oz (or 113g) is ridiculously lightweight for a fleece. There is nothing else on the market that is comparable, and it isn’t close. Since this is an extra layer it’s nice that you would never even notice it in your pack. If the weight were doubled (or tripled) like many other fleeces out there, I’d probably be telling you to leave it at home. But this one hits that sweet spot.
- Highly Breathable allowing you to hike all day in it without overheating. The main benefit of a fleece over a puffy is the ability to actually hike in it, given the breathability of this fabric there is no better choice. Wind will cut right through this, so in the windiest of situations I’ll just put on my rain jacket instead. For everything else, fleece is the way.
- Good for layering in a multitude of conditions. In the rain you wear your hard shell, at camp you wear your puffy, hiking you wear your fleece. But what if we combine wet and cold, or cold and windy? The puffy and hard shell alone are limiting as you’ll either be too cold wearing just the shell, or too hot wearing just the puffy. I think the Senchi fleece allows for more comfort, in more situations. Laying underneath your rain coat on a cold and wet or windy day for that bit of extra warmth.
- Optimal for weather conditions along the GDT. While a down insulated garment is terrible for wet or humid conditions, a synthetic fleece shines. Cold and wet is a dangerous combination, so having something that will still be warm when wet is not only helpful for overall safety, but also comfort. Hiking through bogs, fording rivers, being high above tree line exposed to the elements, it’s nice to have something that can do it all.
I don’t think this is the most durable of fabrics just by looking at it, but then again my partner did wear it for over 1,000 miles and hers still looks good with not a single rip or tear. Still I would probably be mildly careful with it while bushwhacking.
Right now this fabric is very popular with multiple small cottage companies making jackets out of it. Not much differentiates one from another aside from colors, and slightly different cuts in the fabric. This works greatly to your advantage as there are a handful of businesses who are all using the same material and basically making the same thing. I chose Senchi specifically because they were the first to popularize the material, they offer the most color combinations, and I like how theirs look the best.
In the end, this is the lightest weight possible fleece jacket on the market. Great for hiking in, great for layering, small and packable, and perfect for the environment along the GDT.
- Check out the Senchi Alpha 60 Hoodie here
Or the multitude of other brands that make a similar product.
- Senchi Alpha 90 Hoodie (warmer)
- Alpha Cruiser by FarPointe
- 1/3rd Zip Alpha Pullover by Vado Apparel
- Alpha Rip-Back Hoodie by Beyond the Trailhead
3. Bear Spray – Protection & Peace of Mind
From your very first day on trail until your last, you are in grizzly bear country. These aren’t the small black or brown bears along the Appalachian Trail, these are a much larger and more concerning animals which take a little bit of extra planning on your part to go about hiking through their habitat safely.
I personally would not hike this trail without bear spray, and I am not kidding. I’ve hiked in grizzly country before without it, and was so unbelievably stressed everyday knowing that I had no course of action should I come across one of these bears. Every blind corner, every berry patch, every loud river obstructing my hearing. Even if you never see one, just having bear spray at the ready will make your life so much better while out on the Great Divide for the peace of mind it provides.
Keep the bear spray in an easily accessible place, like a shoulder strap pocket or strapped to your waist. If you do come across a grizzly you want it to be fast and at the ready. I’ve seen more than a handful from a distance, and have been really close to two of them. It is scary to be so close, and you don’t want that moment of closeness to be the time where you have to fumble to get it out. Quick and easy, otherwise you might as well not have it.
- 13oz (or 368g) is not the lightest piece of gear out there, but I feel it’s worthwhile for the peace of mind, even if you never see one.
- Sold everywhere, from gas stations to grocery stores, you will see bear spray everywhere in the Canadian Rockies. So I recommend getting it a day or two before you start. You can’t bring this across an international border, so might as well buy it in Calgary, Waterton Lakes, or Jasper before you begin.
There are smaller and lighter canisters available, but for me this didn’t feel like the time to be saving weight. Especially considering there have been GDT hikers of the past who have needed to use this when confronted with a bear charging them.
- Check out Bear Spray here
4. Ursack Major XL – A Bear Proof Food Bag
So we’ve got some big fun bear friends roaming around, we’re in very remote far off places, how should we go about storing and protecting our food supply?
Myself and 99% of all other GDT hikers go about this by using an Ursack Major XL, a highly durable, bear resistant, 15 liter food bag. The alternatives are to either hang your food, carry a bear canister, or to rely on bear lockers at campsites along the way.
- Hanging your food. The Great Divide Trail is not the most conducive to a bear hang. Being that you are often above tree line there are many camps I can remember where we didn’t have any trees around us at all to hang from. Other times when we were surrounded by trees, they were too small or skinny to do a proper hang from or between. You could, and I know people who have, but you’re making your life so much harder for nothing.
- Bear Lockers. Many campsites along the GDT have bear lockers, giant metal boxes that a bear cannot get into, which hikers then store their food in overnight. These are wonderful and we certainly used them when they are available. But they aren’t always available, they’re not even usually available. Entire sections where you won’t see a single locker, and thus is not something to rely on.
- Bear Canister. A large cylindrical thick plastic object, with a child lock kind of top to it. You store your food inside, a bear cannot open it, and a bear cannot break it (unless they roll it off a cliff.) I do use these when mandated like in Yosemite National Park on the PCT, but they’re heavy, bulky, annoying to carry, and I don’t believe they do a much better job than an Ursack would when used properly. Since they are not required here, the weight savings and comfort of an Ursack is preferable. Some do still carry bear cans though, as they are marginally easier to use. The problem in the end is that the largest bear can is only 11 liters, and you would struggle to fit enough food in it for multiple sections along the GDT. The one person we did run into who was using these, was carrying two of them! Just get the Ursack.
So the Ursack is the best choice here as it is lighter and much more comfortable than a canister, it is much easier compared to hanging a bag from a tree, and we simply can’t rely on bear lockers. The Ursack process was pretty great, and considering the benefits, we carried and used them each night happily. I even think I’ll be using mine again when I do the Continental Divide Trail, as that passes through grizzly country in Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho.
It is recommended that you hang your Ursack about 5ft off the ground. This is so that a bear cannot simply stand on and crush the contents of your bag. Maybe it goes without saying, but attach your Ursack to a sturdy tree as well, and not something dead or easily broken. Of course, you also want to be sure that your bag is tied about 100-200 feet away from your camp in case a bear does get curious.
- 8.5oz (or 240g) is pretty lightweight considering the amount of protection and peace of mind this offers.
- 15L total capacity for the Ursack Major XL is the perfect size for this trail, I never felt like I had to skimp on food to make it all fit, and I only once filled the bag up even close to the top. With sections longer than 200km without resupply, the size here is quite important.
- Easy to use, in just a week you’ll be an absolute professional at the knots and all of this will be second nature.
- Comfortable in your pack, like a normal bear bag would be. Compared to a large cylindrical canister, the Ursack is a dream.
- Keeps bears from getting at your food! The most important aspect of these is the protection, and if used properly I trust that they are more than enough, and why nearly every other GDT hiker uses them.
To tie an Ursack you will want to use a combination of two different knots, and with just a little bit of practice both of these will become supremely easy!
- Triple Overhand Knot – We used the triple overhand to close the bag itself, being careful to not leave any space or slack where a bear could potentially get a claw in to loosen it.
- Figure Eight Knot – We used the figure eight to tie the bag to a large tree, 5 feet or so off the ground, and 100 or more feet away from our camp.
If used properly this is the perfect food solution for a trail that passes through grizzly country. We had bears come through camps, had many close calls, and even spooked a grizzly from no more than 40 feet away from us at one point. They’re out there, and you will see signs of them nearly everyday. The Ursack Major XL is something I highly recommend, and would not hike this trail without.
- Check out the Ursack Major XL here
5. Satellite Communicator – Safety in Remote Places
The backpacking world has changed quite a bit since I first got into it a decade ago, and one of the biggest changes I’ve noticed is the advent and common use of satellite communicators. Even just a few years ago, I would only see a handful of them on trail. These days? It seems like one out of every three hikers I pass has one, and good on them!
When it comes to your safety and your life, this is a very small item that could literally save it should something unexpectedly terrible happen. Beyond that even, they have a bunch of other really cool and useful features too!
Right now there are three extremely popular models on the market. I have seen all three used out on trail and all three are talked about highly!
The Great Divide Trail is a remote experience, you will almost never have cell service, and it would be extremely difficult to find help should something go wrong. Many sections don’t cross roads or even come close to them, and side trails ‘out’ could be extremely long, and potentially more treacherous than the trail you are already hiking. Having the ability to use one of these devices to call for help is huge in a place like this!
Truly regardless of trail, I would recommend a satellite communicator anyway, but especially so for the GDT. Despite how prepared or experienced the user there will always be things out of your control. From injuries, to weather, animals, rivers, sickness, gear failures, other not so friendly hikers, snow travel, getting lost, the list goes on. Having the ability to call for help no matter where you are is huge! And that’s just one benefit of these.
- Ultralight weight as the Inreach Mini weighs just 3.5oz, the InReach Messenger weighs 4oz, and the Zoleo weighs 5.3oz. Incredible to pack so much function into such a tiny package.
- Call for help made easy in even the most remote locations. Ove the past few years I’ve seen first hand this function being used a great number of times. From near hypothermic hikers, a couple people who had sprained or broken their ankle, a hiker who had slipped down a snowy mountain. Help was on the way.
- Check the weather! In my opinion this is almost cooler than everything else, the ability to check the weather without cell service. You may not need a rescue anytime soon (I sure hope not!) but you will want to check the weather all the time. Whether you’re going over an exposed alpine pass, or deciding whether you should push for some extra miles. Maybe it’s raining in the morning and you don’t know if you should get up and hike in it, or wait it out. Being able to check the forecast without cell service is incredibly helpful. Especially on such a trail like the Great Divide.
- Communicate with friends and family. Again, how amazing it is that you can message friends or family with no need for cell service with devices like these. Do you have people in your life who are concerned not hearing from you for prolonged amounts of time? Do you want to message a friend behind on trail about conditions? Maybe hearing from a loved one will give you that boost to enjoy life to the fullest out there. These satellite communicators got it.
- Location sharing. Let others know where you are with an interactive map. It’ll show where you are in the mountains at any interval of time you would like. From setting a record where GPS verification is necessary, to showing family where you are and that you’re still moving strong.
These devices may be my number one gear pick for this trail. The safety and peace of mind, the weather reports, the messaging. Incredible.
We did not have one of these, but we did have an SOS device where it’s only function was to call for help. It sure would have been great in so many situations to check the weather, or message someone. We did not have that capability.
It was funny whenever we would run into another hiker we would always ask if they knew the weather. Almost without hesitation everyone we asked pulled out their Garmin or Zoleo, and told us to just hang on a second before giving us a full hour by hour and weekly forecast.
- Check out the Zoleo Satellite Communicator, the Garmin InReach Mini, and the Garmin InReach Messenger here.
6. Bug Headnet – Sanity in Lowlands
When you’re not above tree line in some beautiful alpine expanse…. you’re down in the valley following a river, or tramping through some kind of swamp or bog. At times we joked that this was not the Great Divide Trail, but instead the Great Bog Trail. Unfortunately, these lowlands can lead to some gnarly bugs!
We got lucky with a dry year, and so the rain or bugs weren’t as bad as they have been for others who hiked in the past. I wouldn’t bank on having our experience, and instead prepare in the small way of carrying a bug headnet. Save your sanity, and add this small ultralight item to your pack!
I have been using the same Sea to Summit Bug Headnet for nearly a decade now and it’s still going strong. From the Florida Trail, to the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail, and beyond. It’s such a tiny thing, that can really make a big difference in enjoyment.
- 0.9oz (or 25g) is super ultralight! And it packs down extremely tiny as well. You won’t even notice you’re carrying it.
- Protection from bugs. Mosquitoes, black flies, whatever it may be. Given all the lowlands this trail passes through you’ll be happy to have such a thing while hiking or on a break.
There’s really not much to say about a bug headnet. This is one of those things you hope not to need, but would be silly to go without. Many trails in dryer environments, you could leave it behind entirely. For a trail like the Great Divide, it’s best just to have it in case you do run into a problem.
- Check out the Sea to Summit Bug Headnet here
7. Two Pairs of Shoes – Replaced Halfway
On this hike we both used Altra Lone Peaks, I don’t think it maters so much what shoe you wear, the important thing is that you replace them about halfway through.
This is worth mentioning because I know a lot of thru hikers will see that 750mi (1,200km) total distance of this trip and think they can save some money by only using one pair of shoes. It is not uncommon to have a pair of trail runners last 700 miles, so what’s the deal?
First, I don’t think anyone should stretch shoes beyond 400-500 miles regardless of trail. You’re loosing tread and grip, loosing cushion and comfort… all the while you’re shoes are falling apart allowing dirt in and other things which could cause blisters on other problems. An old shoe will cause you to walk differently, and is much more likely to cause an injury, even if it is still ‘walkable’.
Many trails I think you can get away with this, but along the GDT (especially in the northern sections) you really want your shoes to be working for you and not against.
So hey, replace your shoes. I replaced mine in Jasper (838km / 520mi) as there are tons of gear stores around town, but wished I had sent a new pair to Sask River Crossing instead (649km / 403mi) as that section between those two places I was really sliding around and felt like I was going to hurt myself.
- River Crossings. The northern most sections have the most river crossings of them all, and that’s really something you want good tread on your shoes for. These are fast flowing, knock you off your feet kind of rivers, so any extra grip you can get is worth it.
- Loose scree fields. Often times you’re above tree line, ascending or descending on loose rock. Traversing on loose rock, sliding on loose rock. While other trails have well worn paths to follow, the GDT often does not. Which makes it fun! But also means less stable footing.
- Remote areas. So much of this hike there is very little access, you are far from roads, far from towns. Much more so than on other trails where if something were to go wrong, you could more or less easily get out to fix an issue. If your shoes are failing you in the final sections, there is no easy way back to civilization to find a replacement. Given the difficulty of this trail it’s best to replace sooner, rather than later.
- Steep trails. If you’ve done the Long Trail of Vermont, or some sections of the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire and Maine… The Great Divide is often much closer to the steepness of those trails than anything else. Straight up, straight down. Sometimes it felt like I could just slide down, and many times I did without wanting to! The steepness of the grade means any dwindling tread on your shoes is really going to be exacerbated.
- Swampy slip n slide. And of course the most fun part, the bogs and lowlands! Sometimes you sink into the mud, sometimes you fight to slide across it. Extra tread and new shoes will give you the grip needed when traversing these already frustrating sections.
I recommend using a lightweight breathable trail runner instead of a boot or anything thicker. A thin shoe will dry faster which is a huge bonus given all the wet sections, rivers, and bogs you will be going through. It is also unsafe to take shoes off for river crossings as they provide protection and grip, so best to keep them on, but have something that will dry out again shortly after.
- We both wore Altra Lone Peaks and were happy with them
8. Pants – For the Rain or Bush
The majority of people who hike this trail will either wear pants for the entire duration, or carry rain pants.
I think the rain pants are a fantastic idea as they serve double duty. You can wear them in the cold exposed alpine if a storm is rolling through, saving yourself from some not fun experiences. Then you can also put them on when encountering bushwhacking sections. How nice, rain and cold solved, and bushwhacking solved. No more painful scratches will have you flying past people like me who chose to wear shorts and have to be extremely careful and go slow.
I bought a pair of hiking pants (not rain pants) in the town of Jasper, and at the very least that is what I will recommend to you. Those final two sections of F and G are by far the worst when it comes to bushwhacking. If you’re trying to save weight and fly free with shorts most of the time this is what I would do. But it is undoubtably safer and more comfortable to just pack some rain pants instead, carrying them the entire trail.
I did not mind hiking in pants for that final stretch even though I am endlessly a shorts person, and it really did make my life unbelievably easier when it came to brush. My partner on the other hand started the trail with rain pants, and was very happy to have them in both the storms we encountered along the way, as well as the brush.
- One somewhat popular model would be the OR Helium Rain Pants. I don’t think they are the most waterproof, or the most durable, but they are ultralight weight and will do what you need them to throughout this trail. By comparison, my partner wore a pair of Arc’teryx rain pants which are triple the price, heavier than these, and she ruined them all the same by the end.
- Then of course Patagonia who makes the jacket we talked about earlier, also makes some rain pants in that same style. Check out the Patagonia Torrentshell Rain Pants here.
I hope you have an amazing time on the Great Divide Trail and in the Canadian Rockies, it really is such a special gem of a hike. Fun and challenging in all ways with beauty unparalleled.
The gear I recommend here I very much so believe will make your life significantly better while out on trail. Coming into this one with the proper gear list can make a huge difference in enjoyment and safety so I hope you take these suggestions to heart.
Thank you for reading, I’ll catch you in the next one!
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