A Summary of Backpacking in Banff

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“The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.”

Over Labor Day weekend I had the pleasure of visiting Canada for the first time. (I know, who hasn’t been to Canada?! -THIS GIRL-) My friends and I decided to give a go at backpacking in the Canadian Rockies. Spoiler alert: It was an……experience…..

But we’ll get back to that.

Canada has Rockies too?
Indeed it does. The same chain of mountains that runs through the western United States continues into Canada. Between the provinces of Alberta and British Columbia there are about a million (factual number, not an estimate) parks where you can explore the Canadian Rockies. On this trip I was in Banff National Park.

 

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I still can’t get over how massive the mountains are, and it makes me doubly excited to see the Himalayas.

While the US counterparts are at a higher altitude and physically a bit more challenging because of that altitude (camping at like 10,000 feet and peaks at like 14,000 feet vs camping at like 6,000 feet and peaks at like 10,000 feet), I think the Canadian Rockies are more prominent in the landscape and a tad bit more scenic. They REALLY tower over you. Also unlike Colorado, the Canadian Rockies are in ~grizzly country~.

Hard pass. Haven’t you seen The Revenant?
It was literally all I could think about the entire time I was hiking (although more along the lines of “DEAR GOD, PLEASE LET A MAMA GRIZZLY PUT ME OUT OF MY MISERY”). So while all my research told me I’d PROBABLY see a bear at some point, I did not see ONE bear on this trip*.

* Hindsight Note On That Topic: The documentary Jumbo Wild, on Netflix, takes a look at grizzlies and their shrinking habitats and is a must watch for anyone visiting grizzly country.

Ehh, maybe…What made you want to brave the grizzlies?
Okay. On a personal level I REALLY needed redemption after the Colorado Rockies kicked my ass**.

** Sidebar Psych Evaluation: My relationship with hiking is very masochistic, especially hiking at elevation. I REALLY fucking HATE it in the moment, but I just keep coming back for more. I’m not a competitive person but there’s something about hiking…I think because it’s such an introspective activity where it’s just you vs. the mountain. And it’s not a good feeling to lose to the mountain so you push yourself in ways you’ve never done before.

Back on topic, I also wanted to see (and float on) the picturesque and shockingly colored lakes Alberta is famous for. And the northern lights. I just want to see the northern lights.

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~Imagining~ I’m floating on the shockingly blue lake because it was too cold to ACTUALLY float on the shockingly blue lake.

Picturesque lakes? I can get down with that. What else is there to do in Banff?
It is very much an outdoor adventure paradise: hiking, backpacking, kayaking, mountain climbing, snow sports (in the winter). Don’t get the wrong impression that it’s this giant untamed wilderness, there are towns and ski resorts EVERYWHERE if hiking isn’t your thing, but people really come here for the outdoors.

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Hiking, all day, every day.

So what exactly did YOU do?
Backpacking. This was my second time in life backpacking (after an overnight in Yosemite) and like my 3rd or 4th time hiking in mountains (flat lander lyfe).

We decided on the Sunshine Lodge to Vista Lake thru-hike, a 3 day/~24 mile hike. I naively thought it would be a pretty easy valley hike, maybe with a couple of ~uncomfortable~ moments.

Spoiler alert: It wasn’t.

In actuality it was a “climbing AT LEAST one mountain pass a day” kind of hike. Translation: Like 4 grueling hours going uphill and 3 slightly less grueling hours going down everyday. To add insult to injury it was cold and rained (and/or snowed depending on the altitude) every day, which completely knocked the northern lights off the schedule.

But it wasn’t JUST mountain passes (although it felt that way). You hike through a lot of forests, through alpine meadows, along turquoise lakes, underneath massive snow covered mountains, there was even this insane rock slide terrain you hike down at one point…really you see it all.

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From mountain valley to lake front all in a single day.

And on our last day we hit all the typical tourist roadside hot spots.

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It was cold in the beginning of September?
Apparently global warming does not affect Alberta. (JOKING. It does. It affects the whole planet.)

Not only was it quite cold, ESPECIALLY at altitude, it also snowed.

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That sounds really intense.
Backpacking is an intense activity. It can also be meditative, awe-inspiring, and enlightening. I’m not going to try to write the book on backpacking because there are tons of great resources on the topic. But I will leave you with this quote from a really good article I recently happened across:

“To be frank, backpacking can be miserable at times even when you are fully prepared. It pushes and stretches you in ways only it can. Misadventures and mishaps will most definitely happen, I know I’ve experienced my fair share. But at the end of the day I’m grateful for every opportunity to step into the backcountry and see things few people have the privilege of seeing and the chance to feel alive by going right to the edge of my limits. Plus the air is fresher out there, and that’s pretty nice too.”

The article is fantastic if you’re interested in getting into backpacking. And the Outbound is a great resource for outdoor enthusiasts!

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Really hated my backpack in this moment.

BACK TO BANFF. Is it expensive?
Yes and no. The Canadian dollar is worth SLIGHTLY less than the US dollar, so instead of airport cocktails being like $15, they’re like $12. Basic things in Canada, like food and knick knacks, ended up being a little cheaper.

Accommodations, especially outside of Calgary, were pricey. Like I said earlier Alberta is LOADED with fancy resorts. You are either sleeping in a tent on some mulch or in a plush room with a hot tub. There is no middle. That being said after 2 nights of sleeping in the cold and hiking through rain we were more than happy to drop $400 on a hotel room with a hot shower.

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Loving the beds and the showers and the moose pop art. $400 well spent.

Transportation was on par with US prices. And I think if you want to hike around Banff you’ll either need a rental car or a taxi ($$$$) to take you to the trailheads. For the more adventurous there’s also hitchhiking. Our hike was a thru-hike and we left our car at the trailhead, so we were kind of concerned about getting back to our car at the end. But hitchhiking was simple and the couple that picked up my friend were apparently very accommodating and interested in our adventure!

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That’s the way to snag em’!

Camping in Banff is actually pretty expensive (on top of all the gear you need to buy if you don’t already own it). There are fees to enter the park. You have to get permits to hike in the backcountry. You have to pay for each night of camping. Cheaper than a lodge but it definitely added up. I didn’t realize how regulated camping in Banff was, like I thought Yosemite was bad but Banff made Yosemite seem like a cakewalk. You have to reserve your permits MONTHS in advance because the popular hikes WILL sell out. You have to reserve a tent pad for every night you’re going to be in the backcountry, because you are not allowed to camp outside of the designated campgrounds. It is definitely on the stricter end of backcountry regulation.

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TECHNICALLY you are only allowed 1 tent per pad, but it was dark and raining and no one cared.

Not to say that regulation is a bad thing because it does protect the parks to a degree. But the tent pad thing was really annoying.

Sounds like an adventure and I want to do that too!
It’s certainly an adventure. If you really want to check out the Banff backcountry you should immediately decide where you want to hike and reserve your backcountry permits.

So our hike, Sunshine Lodge to Lake Vista, went something like this:
Day 1: Sunshine Lodge (~5,500 ft) over Healy Pass (~7,700 ft) to Egypt Lake Campground (~6,000 ft) – ~8 miles
Day 2: Egypt Lake Campground (~6,000 ft) over Whistling Pass (~7,500 ft) to Shadow Lake Campground (~6,500 ft) – LITERALLY A MILLION MILES, but they’re mostly flat so there’s that.
Day 3: Shadow Lake Campground (~6,500 ft) over Gibbons Pass (~7,500 ft) then descending to Twin Lakes (~6,800 ft) and going back up Hell Pass (unofficial name, ~7,500 ft) then a knee/toe destroying descent to Vista Lake (~5,200 ft) then ANOTHER tiny climb to the road (~5,500 ft) – ~9 miles

 

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I think we were logging like 20,000+ steps/day for any FitBit fans.

The trails are marked and you’ll probably see other hikers. It’s a pretty straightforward hike with A LOT of strenuous ascents and descents. If I were to do this hike again, God forbid, I’d do it over 4-5 days instead of 3.

Basically it was just walking all day through pretty places, setting up camp, repeat. Over the course of 3 days I hit every stage of hiker’s remorse pretty much on a daily basis:
Stage 1: Regret or “Why the fuck am I doing this?!”
Stage 2: Delusion or “We’ve definitely gone like 5 miles right? We should be done soon?”
Stage 3: Anger  or “FUCK EVERYBODY. I WILL KILL SOMEONE.”
Stage 4: Breakdown or “THIS IS HOW I DIE.”
Stage 5: Acceptance or “I might as well fucking finish this thing now, I did not walk up THAT for nothing.”
Stage 6: Hindsight or “Oh wow I guess it wasn’t THAT bad.”

It really would’ve been downright pleasant if not for that goddamn backpack. But really this is the kind of trip you reminisce on with your friends in 40 years
“Remember that time we backpacked through a blizzard at night?”
“And some other low points: India’s backpack made her nauseous, Katie was crying the whole time, Kyle DID NOT sleep well, Brian had to use plastic bags as socks and Annie’s flights all got cancelled.”
“And some high points: Brian and India had some fantastic karaoke going on, Kyle pooped with eagles and marmots, Katie found a headband and Annie was in outdoor heaven!”

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Definitely a trip for friends!

What were your favorite experiences?

1. Late Night Flight and the Northern Lights (couldn’t get a picture of it though.)
One of the things I was most excited to see on this trip was the northern lights. I don’t often find myself at northern light latitudes, and the only other time I did was during the summer solstice when it never got dark. So I was cautiously optimistic for this trip! Until the weather forecast came out as 90% chance of rain.

Just by happen stance I ended up on a night flight from Toronto to Calgary. I’d planned to drug myself and sleep through this flight but on the ramp I overheard two kids talking about seeing the northern lights from the plane window and this flight suddenly became the most important thing. I did fall asleep for the first half, but I obsessively checked the window for any sign of the northern lights every time I woke up. Then I saw them!!! They were very dim and cloud-like and I almost thought I was dreaming…but if I stared hard enough I could see them moving.

So I’ve still never seen them from the ground BUT AT LEAST I HAVE SEEN THEM WITH MY OWN EYES ONCE. And definitely book night flights and window seats when traveling in the aurora altitudes.

2. Lake Louise Sunrise
Waking up for scenic sunrises is not fun. I like it in theory but I hate it in reality. Nevertheless, I was going to deal with it because sunrise on these lakes can be nothing short of STUNNING. So we woke up at an ungodly hour, drove up in the sleepy silence, moseyed on over to the lake in the frigid morning air, and discover the mountains are COMPLETELY hidden behind the clouds. Like sunrise ambitions DESTROYED. But there was just something about the whole atmosphere of the lake so early in the morning. The light was still super cool and the clouds created this ~mood~. We didn’t get a glorious mountain sunrise, but I still REALLY enjoyed the moody sunrise.

 

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We left to sight-see elsewhere with plans to return to Louise in the afternoon, hopefully without the cloud cover. And afternoon Louise was a completely different place. The parking lot was like the mall on Christmas Eve. There were people EVERYWHERE. SO. MANY. PEOPLE. I couldn’t believe it was the same lake!!! I didn’t even realize that many people KNEW about Lake Louise! I mean I knew it was famous but that crowd was insane. And, as we’d hoped, the morning clouds had burned away to reveal these massive mountains around us. I just wasn’t expecting any of it; I was blown away by the transformation from sunrise to noon, and VERY grateful that I got to experience the lake before it turned into a madhouse. I actually ended up liking my cloudy pictures more.

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Same lake, different coffee…

3. Gibbon’s Pass
I thought our trek was going to be a nice, easy, valley hike. And I was…annoyed…when I realized that no, we would be climbing at least one mountain pass everyday. The climbs were grueling. And I think that just made reaching the top that much better. You get AMAZING views AND the satisfaction of completing something that was very difficult for you! Like knowing you could’ve turned around at any point, but sucked it up and continued on.

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The pictures just don’t do it justice! Half of the beauty is the experience of emerging from forests into this open expanse, something EVERYONE should experience for themselves.

And all of the passes had amazing views. But Gibbon’s Pass was especially worth it. The mountains around it were extra majestic.

4. Moraine Rockpile
Anyone who’s serious about travel and the outdoors knows Moraine Lake. It’s iconic. And almost as iconic is that “photo of [person] standing with their back to the camera in front of Moraine Lake”…

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I tried it.

And you always see that exact view so I had no idea what Moraine Lake looked like BEHIND that vantage. OH WAS I IN FOR A SURPRISE.

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IT’S A GIANT ROCKPILE. As a very novice climber it was EVERYTHING. My body was destroyed but I saw that rockpile and was reborn.

Runner Up: MEC
MEC is the Canadian version of REI. And any outdoor store is like the Toys ‘R Us’s for adults, or the Best Buy’s for techies. But when the line at MEC got kind of long there was an all-call for all employees to open a cash register. I think my mouth actually hit the floor. Like stores actually open cash registers when they get crowded? America TAKE NOTE.

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What places were overrated?

1. LAKES THAT REQUIRE BACKPACKING.
All of the lakes were pretty and whatever (eyeroll), but none of them were special enough for me to hike 7 hours with 40 lbs on my back to see. You can literally see the same thing on the side of the road pretty much everywhere else. Don’t backpack JUST to see a ~remote~ lake, backpack for the challenge and the mountains and the meadows and the passes. It’s a different game in the summer when you can swim in the lakes, THEN they might be worth the effort.

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I JUST WANT TO SWIM IN YOU.

2. Tim Hornton’s
I don’t know what I expected…But it’s basically Dunkin’ Donuts with a different name. They do have a glorious breakfast sandwich with hash browns and some kind of buffalo sauce.

What did you miss that you’d like to see next time?
1. Mt. Assiniboine
When planning we looked at the Assiniboine trek as an option. And if we had more time I definitely would’ve championed that hike. Assiniboine is the Matterhorn of the Canadian Rockies. It’s really a stunning mountain and I’d love to hike to it on a future trip.

2. Jasper
We stayed primarily in Banff on our trip but a few hours north you can find Jasper, one of three dark sky preserves IN THE WORLD (the other 2 are Kerry, Ireland and the Namib Desert in Namibia). Definitely a MUST for anyone who loves admiring the night sky. And there are also some great hikes in Jasper.

3. Swimming in the Lakes
On my trip the weather was sucky, but if it was sunny I’d KILL to float around in all of the lakes. Especially after a day of hiking.

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This is the closest I got.

Favorite:

Meal?
I learned a lot about my body on this hike. Most important being that I don’t get hungry while hiking (and therefore DO NOT need to pack 10 pounds of food for 3 days). So eating was NOT a big part of this trip. That being said, I did try some yummy things on the non-backpacking days:

1. POUTINE
My introduction to poutine was with poutine flavored Ruffles (pretty yummy). And followed up with a fantastic Thanksgiving supper themed poutine from Banff Ave. Brewing Co. It had gravy, turkey, peas, cheese, CRANBERRY SAUCE, oh my god. It was life.

2. Sriracha Basil Caesear
Also at Banff Ave. Brewing (disclaimer: It’s the only restaurant I actually tried) was the Sriracha Basil Casear, one of the best bloody Mary’s I’ve had in my life. DEFINITELY TRY IT.

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The brunch spread. Just missing mimosas.

Campground?
I don’t think I saw enough different campgrounds to fairly judge this, but of the few we passed on our hike Egypt Lake was the nicest. It was nestled neatly in the a valley with great views of the surrounding mountains. It was also pretty big with a nice amount of space between tent pads. AND there was a log cabin, nice to have the option of making friends with the lucky people who reserved it first. You still had to deal with those pit toilet abominations, but tolerable because the campground was so nice otherwise.

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Catching some rays at Egypt Lake Campground.

The other campgrounds were smaller and very nestled in trees, so you didn’t get those great mountain views when you woke up.

Activity?
Sleeping. I swear I slept SO WELL every night. Even better than at home on my memory foam mattress. There’s just something about swaddling yourself in a sleeping bag in absolute darkness with the rain pattering away above you.

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MY SUENO IS MY HAPPY PLACE.

Scariest Hike?
Honestly, they all had their moments. Between out of body experiences after an unexpected altitude gain, precarious descents down rock piles, narrow trails over steep cliffs, and the constant fear of stumbling upon a grizzly bear I was always a little bit on edge.

Place to Photograph?
If the weather had been nicer I would’ve had A BALL on the mountain passes. The views were just incredible.

Otherwise, Lake Louise at sunrise was moody perfection. Nice even light, low crowds and some of the most amazing blues I’ve seen in my life.

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So now you have an idea of things to see and do in Banff, but what should you bring?

What items are you glad you packed?
RAIN PANTS. I’m always on the fence about packing rain pants because they seem so extraneous, especially if it doesn’t rain. But I literally did not take my pants off on this trip. And they were covered in mud by the end, so I’m doubly glad I had them to protect my base layers from grime.

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Rain pants. Iconic.

2L Collapsible Platypus Bottle. I decided to experiment with the Platypus bottle on this trip and was SO GLAD I had it. I also had a 2L hydration bladder that I used exclusively while hiking and a 1L Smartwater bottle that I used for gatorade (and eventually a hot water bottle heater). The Platypus was nice to store my potable water for refills and for cooking (I ended up supplying water for the whole group at dinner). Admittedly to save weight I could’ve just used the Smartwater bottle, but it was nice to have a separate cache of portable water.

Camp Clothes. I packed a set of clothes with the intent to not wear them outside of sleeping. Base layer, socks and down jacket. And knowing I could change into dry clothes at the end of the day was like a beacon of light. Sleeping in damp clothes is NOT fun and the dry clothes were well worth the extra weight.

What items do you wish you’d packed?
HAND WARMERS. I will not camp in cold, wet conditions again without a stockpile of hand warmers. You don’t feel cold while you’re hiking but as soon as you stop for a break it hits you like a train. A simple hand warmer in my pocket would’ve made all the difference.

(While I learned my lesson in Iceland, my boy scout friend always scoffs at them but  wishes he’d brought a) Sleeping Pad. I literally cannot overemphasize how important sleeping pads are in cold weather camping. You WILL shiver ALL NIGHT if you sleep on the ground. My friend eventually used an emergency blanket on this trip which he swears was 1000x better at the expense of being noisy as fuck. So there’s that.

Waterproof Gloves. I was so proud of myself for FINALLY bringing gloves on a hiking trip (after subjecting my hands to all kinds of torture). And that pride rapidly deflated when 4 hours into Day 1 the gloves were soaked through and my fingers were going numb from the cold. And the pride eventually disappeared when the gloves were virtually unusable for the remainder of the trip (read: dead weight). Lesson learned, nothing less than waterproof gloves.

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Everything was wet and the sun was never out long enough to dry it!

What did you bring back with you?
Life lessons and new awareness about myself that can only be learned through experience. 🙂

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Contemplating everything Banff has taught me.

In Conclusion:
Banff was definitely a challenge for me. But I’m okay with that because that is how we grow.

Over 3 days I was constantly pushing myself to levels I didn’t know I could reach. I wanted to quit, oh did I want to quit, but when your only option is forward you’d be surprised at what you can accomplish.

And while I didn’t get the great pictures I was hoping for (for whatever reason, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry”), I did come away with a fantastic story and priceless memories. Which I guess some people think are more valuable than the photos. But I’m a photographer and I really did want the photos. ~Next time~

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Would you go back to Banff?
Definitely! There are so many hikes I want to do! In the best case scenario I could live in Alberta for a few months so I really have the time to experience all it has to offer. 4 days was NOT enough.

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