Book Review: Backpacking in Southwestern British Columbia

1,202 words · General topics, Hiking book reviews

If you hike the Lower Mainland and use the Internet you’ve seen the name Taryn Eyton, whose Happiest Outdoors blog is very prominent indeed. Far from the selfie-seeking Instagram influencer trying to get photos on Panorama Ridge and sell t-shirts; Eaton has done the trails, including the unglamorous ones, knows her stuff, and shares her knowledge with the hiking community even outside her website. I also infer from some photos that she owns the same previous-generation MEC TGV 2 four-season tent I do, which speaks well of her taste.

The compliments go up top to soften the blow when I say that I’ve never liked that site: it’s too click-baity, too “top 30” this and “big deals on” that, every keyword carefully inserted where Google will find them. The ratio of useful content to search-engine-optimization is way off.

But she’s got a book out, Backpacking in Southwestern British Columbia, which targets an underserved niche. There are between five and seven million books on hiking in the Lower Mainland, each describing a hundred and some-odd hikes that you absolutely have to do if you’re a walk-to-the-top-of-the-mountain-at-a-35-degree-angle type. There are books aimed at tourists and well-meaning grandmothers, researched mostly from Wikipedia, saying that when in Vancouver you should really try that Grouse Grind thing. There were, however, no good informed summaries on backpacking in the area and, since researching such backpacks means a quagmire of provincial park websites, forest recreation sites, and old Facebook posts, an expert guide would be invaluable.

Eyton is an expert, she’s done ’em all. But a guidebook and a 24-best-Black-Friday-deals blog are two very different things. I bought the book without high hopes: could she really take that expertise and translate it to a more concise, lower-frills context, and make it a success?

Imagine my surprise and delight when the answer was yes.

Eyton deals with only shorter backpacking trips in this book. It describes 40 hikes, of which the longest is a 28-mile option on the Heather Trail in E.C. Manning Provincial Park, and most are recommended for one or two nights. Marathon trips like the Sunshine Coast Trail, the HBC Heritage Trail, and the Stein Valley Traverse are mentioned but not addressed in detail. This does not detract from the book’s primary purpose, for most of those trails have their own separate guides already, in print or online, and Eyton is giving us something new. However, not all long trails are so well-described in the literature, and more-established guides like the Canadian Rockies Trail Guide integrate week-long expeditions and little half-day hikes seamlessly within the same cover. This just means that a second edition has someplace to grow; what matters is she’s already describing hikes that need describing1.

And she does a fantastic job. Flip to a hike and you’ll see a good planning map, a difficulty rating, all the essentials on permits, access, and regulations. She tells you which trailheads are accessible with a normal car, which call for high clearance, which call for four-wheel drive, and where you can park your Mazda 3 and hike if that’s all you have. Important information in British Columbia where you go from “four-lane highway” to “rutted washed-out gravel” in five minutes. This book might be worth the price if that was all that was in it.

Of course there’s much more, just as good. The hiking directions are intelligent and minimal-bullshit. You’ll find details on the available facilities, notes on water when needed, good photos, and suggested day-hike options on the end if you have an extra day at camp. I’ve only done a few of the backpacks in this book, but for those her guidance checks out. Bennett Lake in Pinecone Burke Provincial Park is such a maze that it’s essential to have a trail map: Eyton tells you this, and recommends two good ones. This sets the mind at ease: if he might get lost even with her help, the reader can count on her to say so.

Some Lower Mainland hiking guides are aimed at the fairly hardcore. The venerable 103 Hikes in Southwestern British Columbia is a great book but 101 of those hikes are a pain in the ass. Eyton strikes a better balance which all readers should appreciate. Difficult trails are definitely available, but so are easy ones, options for beginners and options for intermediates, trails when you just want to relax and not cough your guts out climbing sheer slopes.

There are two main reasons to buy a backpacking guidebook. First, because you’re planning on doing a hike and want to know more about it. Eyton’s got the information. She tells you about the challenges in brief, clear terms. There’s no romance, not much prose or style that lets you imagine you’re there, there’s just knowledge. Second, because you have nothing specific in mind, but want to scheme and dream. This guidebook is perfect for that. It’s well-organized, well-referenced, well-thought through. It beats the hell out of finding the website for every provincial park and forest recreation area within a nine-hour drive. It’ll be strange if you read this and don’t find one hike that you’d never really thought of but seems surprisingly interesting.

This book was released in May 2021, during our continuous COVID troubles, so you may rest assured that she does not recommend services already murdered by lockdowns. However, here is another area to expand upon: if her trail descriptions, driving instructions, and basic details are practical, concise, and thorough, her information on the “further resources” errs too far towards brevity. It’s understandable: prices change, companies go out of business, service offerings suddenly disappear (especially nowadays). However, while details inevitably date, the humble reader could use more information on where to start looking for the bus to town, the local taxi service that’s willing to drop you at the trailhead and has a 4×4, the good outdoor shop in Powell River, or all these pieces of local knowledge you only get from trying them.

For example, Eyton suggests the Squamish Riverjet to cross the Squamish River to Tantalus Provincial Park. Their website has nothing about such a service and actually says bags are not permitted on their boats for safety reasons. Are we missing something? Was this a special job, did Eyton find the Riverjet on the Internet and not try it, was the service offered at one time but no longer? The humble reader is reduced to cold-calling, which is not much better than no mention at all. “Contact x for y, in 2020 it cost z” beats a void or a one-link reference.

That’s all the constructive feedback to give, though; this book is excellent. For on-trail updates Eyton also has a page of trail updates which has already taught me something I didn’t know, which only improves on the high value of this book. Highly recommended, and available online or at Chapters-Indigo. I hope for another edition in a few years.

  1. Be aware as well that Eyton uses the phrase “southwestern British Columbia” the way most people around here do, i.e. “not Vancouver Island,” although that is as far southwest as British Columbia gets. Do not grab this book expecting to hear anything about the West Coast Trail.

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