If you’ve ever wondered what kind of a place Newfoundland is for hiking and backpacking, you can find here some general info on the island and insights into the Long Range Mountains and the International Appalachian Trail as it goes along.
Terrain & Relief
Newfoundland is all woods, rock, water & marsh. Human habitation is limited to the coastal areas, it doesn’t go far inland. The rest is mostly unfenced wilderness that may look awesome in the map for the wild bound hiker but is not too welcoming for actual hiking: the thickly packed spruce and birch boreal woods leave little room for moving human bodies.
Newfoundland is geologically old. It’s been shaped by glaciers, then water. The relief is hilly and smooth in the grand scheme, usually rocky or marshy underfoot. Steep relief is found on the coastal cliffs as well as along the western mountains where glaciers flowing into the gulf of St. Lawrence carved deep fjords.
The mountains in Newfoundland have been heavily eroded. Forget about pointy peaks, the mountains are rather flat upland regions reaching no further than 800 m high. They’re still key for the Newfoundland environment as well as for backpacking: even at those modest heights, the uplands hold a tundra-like environment different from the boreal forest below, making room for a set of wildlife often found only at higher latitudes. From a backpacking perspective, the tundra is far more hikeable as the vegetation is not as thick.
My trip in 2017 was planned along the Long Range mountains in western Newfoundland. This is the longest upland region in the island and the only one with some hiking “infrastructure”, in a wide sense, even if it only means rough ideas about where to go through. The rest of this text will refer to the Long Range exclusively, i.e. I’ll stop talking about places I don’t really know.
There aren’t many trails in Newfoundland and no long distance trails except for the T’Railway (old railway line) along the main transport corridor across the island and the East Coast Trail in the Avalon peninsula. Trails in the Long Range mountains are usually day hikes or short access trails. The core of my trip was over trail-less terrain with some sections over access trails as well as dirt/tarmac roads that I needed to link sections for a continuous route.
Tarmac roads were not too busy, still awful to walk along, just for being roads, shaped for vehicles, not humans.
I walked the roads just for my love of the idea of travelling from A to B solely on foot. That’s what this whole site is about.
Dirt roads were quiet and nice walking, if only somewhat monotonous, not only for the design but also for the inevitable shape of the land that would turn them into a corridor through the dark, endless boreal forest. I got some 4WD traffic, not really a bother.
Dirt roads were a relief from the constant battering of the trails and trail-less sections, both physical and psychological.
The Trails I walked were all access trails to/from the mountain sections. They were cut through the thick vegetation in the lowlands wherever there wasn’t a better alternative such as a barren or a bouldery canyon floor.
These trails were an absolute life saver on what would have been a nightmare march otherwise but they were still very poor for European or North American standards, i.e. don’t expect an easy to follow, wide path. In the woods sections, access trails would be just wide enough to avoid the tangle effect. In the marshy/grassy areas, the actual track would almost disappear.
Trail markers were simple hi-vis tape in various states of conservation. Some tape would be lost, markers were often quite far apart. Some guess work was sometimes required.
Cairns were present occasionally but they were rather anecdotal, not consistent enough to be useful for navigation for any significant amount of time. They often make for nice pics though:
Most of the trails I walked (Lewis Hills, Blow-me-Down and North Arm areas) were developed by the Newfoundland IAT chapter group. They do an amazing job given the difficult terrain, the remoteness and their limited resources. I was thankful for every track and every single marker I found and appreciate the great effort behind them all.
The best trails I walked were in the Gros Morne National Park along the Northern and Long Range traverses. The terrain and the idea were the same as above but the resources available were obviously better.
Trails are often boggier than the ground they go through because of the usual tread concentration effect. This is particularly annoying in wooded sections where the only reasonable way through the bush goes across a mud pool of unknown depth. Very few of the trails I used had infrastructure like wooden platforms over the mud pools or marshy areas.
The core of this trip was off-trail, which is a pretty natural way to go in places like Newfoundland.
The land would be quite universally hikeable if it wouldn’t be for the vegetation so the whole idea of any progress while off-trail is getting away from vegetation. You have a few allies in this fight:
- Peridotite is an igneous rock very rarely found on the earth’s surface and which is apparently rather toxic to plants. Peridotite landscapes are often barren and make for excellent hiking ground, given the alternatives.
- Canyons usually show a wide, flat, bouldery bed which is hikeable in low water. I can’t imagine such places when full of water but I guess it’ll happen sometime along the season. In the summer, most of it is dry.
- Riverbanks and lake shores in low water conditions will be bouldery but may still be better than fighting woody tangles.
The ground is often boggy or marshy, wet feet are guaranteed. I could keep dry feet for a good while when over rocky ground, mostly in the Lewis Hills and Blow-me-Down areas. There’s clean marsh water as well as muddy bog water.
Highland marshes had this particular configuration that I’ve only seen in Newfoundland with a myriad of small pools separated by grass bridges that were reasonably dry to walk over, at least in the summer.
Hiking consistently off-trail brought my average speed down to around 2 km/h. Going through vegetation required Ghandi-quality patience and hopping over stony ground required close attention. While the rock hopping was fun and provided for good progress, it’d get tiring when it would go on for hours. It also meant a huge toll on knees, calf and quadriceps.
I suffered a major tear in my right calf just 10 km from trip’s end, my first ever muscle injury of that kind.
Being a true wilderness environment with little to no human pressure, backcountry camping is only limited by the ground underfoot1. It was mostly straightforward, sometimes tricky to find a good campsite.
I never camped in the woods. It’d have probably been possible to find a spot despite the thickness but it’d have hardly been the best alternative unless in very wild weather. Other than the protection they’d offer, the woods were dark, gloomy and buggier than the open spaces. When I needed protection from wind, I looked for it on the relief.
I mostly camped in the highlands and the canyons. In both cases the challenge was to find sheltered spots and suitable ground.
I didn’t go through really wild weather but I did have some windy nights where a sheltered spot made a big difference. The highland plateaus are very exposed places. The canyons appear more protected and they surely are but sometimes they would also channel the wind making things hardly any different or maybe even worse than higher up.
The highland plateaus can get really flat and featureless for long sections. If there’s any chance of wind, I’d recommend a bit of planning ahead (2 or 3 hours should be enough) to camp where there’s better chance of some relief. This is easily spotted on any good map.
Ground can be 100% unsuitable for camping for surprisingly long stretches when it gets barren and bouldery so you find no soil and the rocks are too big to lie on top. This can happen both in the highlands and canyons. The altitude is hardly a factor in the absence of soil, it’s more about the toxic nature of the peridotite rock wherever it is present.
Soil would eventually appear, even in apparently peridotite-dominated sections. It was usually easy to find grassy spots/areas, they could be too marshy but there’d usually be places dry enough for a good pitch. When in peridotite country, look out for the green.
In barren areas, there might be gravelly spots where camping would be very nice except for the difficulty to stake down, using big rocks would probably be the best bet then. No shortage of big, dense, heavy rocks, if only a bit rough edged.
Vegetation would hardly be a problem in the high plateaus. I tried to camp on simple grass to avoid damage to more complex plants, I occassionally needed to set up on stems but I was always able to avoid shrubs.
On the canyons, vegetation was usually trickier as the grass/shrub ratio would be much lower. It could take a while to find a suitable spot but something would always show up.
Weather and climate
Newfoundland is usually thought of as a very northerly place with a very northerly climate. This is only half true: it’s actually not any notherly for European standards, being roughly the latitude of northern France but while the Gulf Stream warms things up in Europe, Newfoundland gets the cold Labrador stream instead.
Newfoundland is very cold in winter, think Baltic Sweden/Finland. Winters are long and the place gets lots of wet snow.
I’ve only been to Newfoundland in high summer. What I’ve found is actually quite nice backpacking weather: mild heat and reasonably stable conditions.
I don’t have it clear where the prevailing weather systems come from but they do come during the summer and rain/wind is always a possibility. You need to check the forecasts as much as you can’t rely a lot on their accuracy, it seems the weather is rather changeable.
When it’s warm and stable, it can usually get uncomfortably warm for backpacking to the point of getting very sweaty but nothing really serious. Warm, stable weather is mostly fine backpacking weather but throw some breeze in the mix for just about perfect conditions.
When it rains, you usually get wetter from the vegetation than from the rain itself. If hiking over rocky terrain, things get a bit slippery, a rather serious concern in the remote areas, particularly if you hike alone.
I took rain as a serious show-stopper to the point of taking an on-trail zero day once. I didn’t have to go through many rainy days though.
Fog is a rather common happening and a potential concern in the highlands, particularly regarding navigation. I was navigating entirely on smartphone mapping and GPS for most of the trip due to my lost luggage, lost paper maps. Be it main or backup navigation means, GPS makes foggy conditions far less of an issue. As long as the weather is not too harsh and the main problem is lack of visibility, highland conditions are quite good for GPS use.
Newfoundland is known for extremely wild weather. I haven’t found any in two multi-week visits. I guess summer is not only the warmer but also the quieter season.
Moose and caribou are the clear stars of the Newfoundland hall of fame. They’re big, beautiful animals and they’re rather easy to spot. From my limited experience, I’d say you’re almost guaranteed sightings of both as soon as you spend any significant amount of time outside. Bears are present but they’re much more hideous, I haven’t seen any in my two visits to the island. What’s more, I haven’t seen any trace of bears, nor prints neither scat. Moose and caribou, on the contrary, are very easy to see traces of, both prints and scat, they’re all over the place.
Moose are found apparently everywhere, both highland and lowland. Caribou are more selective and they only like the more extreme environments of the high plateaus. While moose are mostly on their own, caribou roam in herds.
I found both moose and caribou just mildly shy. My impression is that they would get alert upon meeting humans, trying to find out which animal that was if it wasn’t clear straight away, then leaving rather quietly. Both moose and caribou are hunt in the season.
Birds are a highlight in Newfoundland, particularly in the coast but also along the Long Range mountains. I couldn’t actually name any of them but I fondly remember those in the marshy areas that would get aggressive in my presence or this other bird I never spotted, living in tree areas and whose singing would be my utter best company many evenings in camp as well as during the hiking.
There’s also ptarmigan in the highlands. They’ll hold their grounds until you get close enough to be a potential problem, then noisily fly away, giving you a bad scare. This is common ptarmigan practice but these particular ptarmigan would show a very interesting behaviour that I haven’t noticed anywhere else where baby ones would fly out in a escape course and parents would remain around me, often crawling or doing short flies in front of me, trying to anticipate my own course, or so it seemed, eventually flying away in a different direction. It looked like they were exposing themselves to a potential danger trying to protect their offspring. It happened several times.
Toads are in full show. They are found in damp, non-marshy areas. I found a huge display of them in different colours and patterns. Sometimes there were so many I had to pay attention to avoid tramping on them!
Newfoundland is a tough playground but it’s very unique, a real wilderness in the mid latitudes! and the rewards may be well worth all the effort. As I write this, I have it clear it did for me.