Trip planning the Berg Lake Trail

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I’m planning another trip to Mt. Robson and it always upset me that I didn’t write a blog post about our 50km three-day hike on the amazing Berg Lake Trail in 2015. Then I realized that a combination of planning for this year and recapping last year would create the perfect, informative blog post.
Trip planning the Berg Lake Trail in the Canadian Rockies. Three days of hiking and two days at Emperor Falls Campground.
Trip planning the Berg Lake Trail in the Canadian Rockies. Three days of hiking and two days at Emperor Falls Campground.
This trail has giant cedar and hemlock forests, a section so stunning it’s called the ‘Valley of a Thousand Falls’, numerous glacier-fed river flats and soaring peaks so high you turn your ball cap around backwards to properly enjoy the view – how could we not go back?

 
I’m warning you right now, this post is long and photo heavy … there’s no getting around it. I will do my best to include all of the information I like to see when I’m researching hikes. 
 
I know I appreciate having all the information available in one blog post and I hope you feel the same.
I’ll try to touch on the booking and planning, gear and food prep, the experience and what I’m doing differently this time around and why. I’ve separated the subjects with headings, Booking and Site Planning, Preparation – Gear, Preparation – Food, Photography and The Trail. Feel free to scroll through in order to get what you need from this post.


Booking and Site Planning

 
First and foremost, the trail needs to be booked online here.
 
The vast variety of landscapes in such a relatively short distance is striking.
 
 
Last year we saw what happens when you don’t book ahead. A young couple thought they would be able to get a walk-on reservation. The parks employee at the trail registration desk told them no – with it being the long weekend and blue skies in the forecast – there was no chance and she sent them elsewhere.
 
The rules changed in 2014 – the Berg Lake Trail is now 100% reservable starting the first business day of the new year. *EDIT* The 2017 year will open to booking beginning October 2016.
 
When you book, you’ll need to know your party size and age category of each member (maximum of 12 per party – no dogs allowed) and how many tent sites you’ll need (max of 6 people per tent pad).
 
There are seven reservable campgrounds along a 25km (one way) trail winding along the Robson River through the Canadian Rockies. The first, Kinney Lake is 7km from the trailhead and the last, Robson Pass, sits at 23km.
 
A total of ninety-eight tent pads are dispersed among the campgrounds (10′ by 10′ – one tent per pad).
 
Our tent pad for two nights at Emperor Falls.
 
 
I know, I said one tent per pad. Being slower hikers, we reached our campsite late in the day and all but one tent pad was occupied despite us having two reserved. 
It’s an unfortunate reality – but some people still aren’t reserving on the trail.
 
We fit both of our tents on one pad and after the initial panic, it ended up being awesome. We loved our site and everyone was comfortable.
 
Part of the reason we added a night this year was so we will reach our campsites earlier in the day and can ensure we get our reserved tent pads.
 
Later, we ran into a Park Ranger on the trail and we told her about the booking issue so that they could keep track of the problem. I feel like there should be more signage at the trailhead about the need to book and why.
 
The campgrounds have differing levels of amenities but all have designated tent pads, bear lockers, outhouses and grey water pits. Kinney and Whitehorn have covered shelters and Berg Lake has the fully enclosed Hargreaves shelter.
A detailed pdf of campground descriptions can be found here.
 
The bear lockers are shared with the entire campground so be courteous with how much space you use and how well you are organized. Always pack your garbage out, don’t leave it in the locker.
Outhouse and bear locker at Emperor Falls Campground
 
I bring a 13L dry bag for my bear locker items. Don’t forget to include all smelly items in the bag; lip balm, deodorant, toothpaste, toiletries and all cooking gear should be in there.
 
There are people all over the trail and the campgrounds are nearly 100% booked, especially on long weekends.
 
If solitude is what you want, this isn’t the trail you’re looking for – it’s a world class, world renowned adventure and if you’re looking to be alone in the back-country it won’t happen.
The shelter at Kinney Lake campground was a beehive of activity when we passed by.
 
When we booked our sites we had to consider we only had two nights on the trail and my eleven-year-old nephew was coming with us for his first hike – we were a party of four, three adults and one youth.
From left to right: My son, Colton, Me, Allison and my nephew, Dylan.
 
We also knew we were slow hikers who hated hills – so we planned our two nights at the Emperor Falls campground at the 16km mark of the trail.
 
That distance was attainable and by booking two nights at the same campground our second day would just be day-hiking up to Berg Lake … eliminating the need to pack up camp and carry everything to another location.
 
We were attracted to the smaller size of Emperor Falls campground. With only nine tent pads and no cook shelter, we would get the best of both worlds – enjoying a slightly quieter weekend on an otherwise crowded trail.
 
This year we’re adding one more night on the trail.
 
Our first night will be spent at Whitehorn Campground at the 11km mark. On our second hiking day we will move camp 5km up the trail to Emperor Falls Campground and our third day will be day-hiking to Berg Lake. Our fourth day we will hike from Emperor Falls Campground back to the trailhead – 16km.
 

We did this because of how hard the last 5km of the 16km hike straight to Emperor Falls Campground was. I’ll talk about why later, but spoiler alert … there’s a hill … and probably some swearing.

Hiking Emperor Hill on the Berg Lake trail near Mount Robson in British Columbia.
When your super-fit 21-year-old son leans over and mutters, “Well, that was a challenge.”
 
Definitely some swearing.



Preparation – Gear




Whew … this topic is potentially a tonne of blog posts on its own … being a noob I researched, kept researching, and then read and researched some more.
 

I settled on gear choices that suited my style of ‘hiker who enjoys camping’ and made my purchases over the year leading up to this adventure.

I intend to write a separate blog post on my gear choices specific to this hike. When I do, I’ll link to it here.

So many gear organizing days.
 
Leading up to the big day, I took many trial hikes out back and tested my gear – I cooked meals over several different stoves to find out what I preferred and I set up my tents in the yard as often as I could.
 
But when it came right down to it, I finally just had to trust in my research.
 
Our trial hikes out back sure became useful when we were utterly exhausted and stumbled into camp that first night. I had set my tent up many times before but that night I was all thumbs tent poles … and swearing.

One resource that I find invaluable for organizing my gear is GearGrams … it is an open-source web-based program that you can use to list all of your gear, with descriptions and weights.

And for the geekiest of us, it makes pie graphs!
 
A lot of hikers use it to get their pack weight down as low as possible. I mainly find it useful for inventory and organization.

I just used a simple, inexpensive kitchen scale.



Using this I can build a pack list, chew on it for a while, add and subtract gear and then when I’m ready to go – I pack up my bag while checking items off the list.

 
It also saves me from neurotically unpacking and re-packing my bag just to be sure I have everything.
 
I have no official affiliation with them – but this is such a great resource please don’t forget to throw a donation their way if you end up using them.



Preparation – Food




I cannot tell a lie … I freaked out about food. It is one thing to be responsible for feeding myself but I was taking my eleven-year-old nephew … and he’s Celiac. Again I obsessively researched.
 
The Backpacking Chef’s website became my new bible for dehydrating my own food. The multi-day meal plans are well laid out and easy to follow.
 
I was most attracted to the idea of making my own meals to avoid preservatives and have full control of the ingredients.
 

I bought an Excalibur dehydrator and a FoodSaver and then got to work putting together some homemade meals. Also dried fruits like apples and pineapple work well in trail mix for added natural sugars.

Hiking meals portioned in FoodSaver bags.
A variety of home made dehydrated meals.

I’m hoping to write a post about my food choices for hiking, when I do I’ll replace this paragraph with a link over there.


Coffee was important to me and while I’d normally go with an instant 3in1 for this trip, I took my GSI JavaPress to control the gluten content. I have another post on back country coffee options.
 
I planned for a lot of small snacks throughout the day. We had candy, beef jerky, GORP, chocolate bars, Babybel cheese, dry sausage and gummy bears.
 
We did not starve.
 

Sure, it meant I carried more weight, and I’ll eventually learn to find balance with that but it was worth if for the piece of mind. I probably won’t carry whole smokies the next time but they sure were nice fried up with rice for dinner.

Gluten free hiking menu for two people, two nights on the trail.
Food for two people, three days, all gluten free.
 

Next year I’m going to try using a food thermos to rehydrate my meals. I think I can make breakfast and then add a hot soup to the thermos for lunch, so I don’t have to bring out the stove again.

I wrote a blog post on using a food thermos to rehydrate meals on the trail.

I did an entire blog post on the process over here … at the time of writing this post I’m really pleased with how well it worked out.

Photography




Prepare yourself, the photos are coming, I repeat, the photos are coming … oh, and speaking of photos, I didn’t bring my big camera. I made do with my Samsung Galaxy S5 Active and Canon Powershot SX510 on an ittybitty tripod.

My point and shoot lives in a pouch on my belt and the wee tripod fits in the bag.
 
I came away with plenty of photos and video I am really happy with.

I did play around one evening with a time-lapse app on the phone – Framelapse. It created some great sunset sequences. I want to find more of a balance between photos and videos as I hike more.
 
I may bring a DSLR with me next time, but I haven’t made up my mind yet – it’s heavy. I’m researching the use of a Cotton Carrier system to see if it makes it easier for me to bring a bigger camera system.
 
There sure is something to be said about just being in the moment rather than trying to capture it.
 
But there was so much to capture.
 

The Trail


We spent the night before hitting the trail at the Robson Meadows Campground, across the highway from the visitor’s center. My husband, niece and sister-in-law stayed there while we were on the trail and they quite enjoyed the campground and all its amenities.

The site at Robson Meadows Campground. It’s a beautiful campground with full amenities. Book three months in advance, it’s very busy.

 

Every hiker spending the night on the trail must register at the Mt. Robson Visitor Center and get their passes, in the form of tent tags, within 24 hours of their first day on the trail. You’ll also be required to watch a short, fifteen-minute orientation video playing on a loop in the basement.

The video is cheesy, but on your first trip up you’re pretty terrified you might miss something important.

The actual trail-head is a couple of kilometers further down the road so if you don’t have your own vehicle try to get a ride or you’ll be adding a boring 2km road walk to either end of your trip.

Fitting four and their packs into a small car is not as easy as first thought.
 

The trail-head is busy. It’s the one access point to the trail for all day hikers (day hikers may also have on-leash dogs) as well as multi-day hikers.

We parked our car and suited up.

Be sure that you have your car keys, and that the rest of the group knows where they are in your pack. The same should be said for your first aid kits and any medical supplies.
 

Do we look terrified? ‘Cause we’re terrified.
 

The first 4kms of the trail are like a mini-highway, it’s an old forestry road that climbs gradually through an old growth cedar and hemlock forest. The trees are enormous. Give yourself the chance to enjoy this part of the trail. There is a lot to appreciate and happy hikers all over the place.

The giant cedars surprised us the first time we were here for a day hike. Allison can’t pass up the opportunity to hug them.
 

At the south end of Kinney Lake the trail passes over the Robson River and forks off towards a day-use area in one direction and an outhouse in the other.

Never pass up a chance to …

A lot of day-hikers make this their turn-around point. There is a day-use area with picnic tables along the shoreline that offer a spectacular view of the lake and ridges. I‘d really like to see this area wearing its fall colours

Lunch spot at Kinney Lake on the Berg Lake Trail. Mount Robson Provincial Park, British Columbia.
We visited the day-use area earlier in the season.

The trail continues along the lake, passing through a recent slide with signage warning you to continue moving at a decent pace through the area – follow the flagged passage.


The way becomes far more trail-like and far less oldforestryroad around the lake. However, day-hikers are still all over the place and mountain bikers can continue on until just past the Kinney Lake campground at kilometer seven.

Kinney Lake and beyond.

The trail isn’t technically difficult or requiring of a lot of expertise yet but it is mountain hiking and it’s a steady gain in elevation overall with many flat or downhill sections to mellow out the leg muscles.
 
Just past Kinney Lake campground there is a rack for locking up bikes, beyond this point it is foot traffic only. The trail gets a little bit more technical, but only a little – in that it’s somewhat narrower and uneven. 

*Edit to Add*
If you get to a sign that says “Hiker Flats Open” … go that way! Seriously … flats … they were open in 2016 but not 2015. It was so much easier and the views from the flats are amazing. There is a short but fairly hilly section before coming up to the river flats that can be seen through the trees along this stretch.

Don’t know what we would have done if he hadn’t saved us …

We were surprised by this section only because it didn’t seem like anything we read mentioned just how much cumulative elevation change there was. Technically it wasn’t any one long up or down hill, but there were a lot of ups and downs and we found it tiring.

The one-railing bridges are a little unnerving at first, but they are very sturdy and add to the adventure.

After crossing the river a couple of times on narrow, one-person-at-a-time bridges we came to our first open river flats. I loved these, because, well … flats. 
It’s amazing to stand in the open flats literally surrounded a full 360 degrees by the towering peak. More than once I was nearly overcome with the need to impersonate Julie Andrews.

On the other side of the flats the trail climbs up Whitehorn Hill. This is the first taste of real hill climbing. There are switchbacks for just about two kilometers. They are hard and we took them slow … but don’t fool yourself, they are nothing compared to Emperor Hill.

Whitehorn Hill with the river flats and Kinney Lake in the background.
 

We continued on to Whitehorn Campground, had a quick bite to eat and refilled our water as the next 4km are the only on the trail that don’t have ready access to water. 

I am in love with my Platypus GravityWorks Filter System, 4-Liter. It was perfect for a group of four.

After Whitehorn, along the river, as you enter the ‘Valley of a Thousand Falls’
 

The next section is as demanding as it is awesome. After a short section following the river and another bridge crossing (passing another set of falls) the trail starts its big climb.

On our future visit we’ll hike shorter distances each day. I look forward to exploring some of these places off to the side.

The beginning of Emperor Hill consists of unrelenting switchbacks, it is steep, narrow and a little harrowing in a couple of spots. I can’t lie, there was more than one occasion when I doubted the sanity of the whole trip. 

“What have you gotten yourself and your nephew into?”
 

There was a time when my nephew asked if anyone else was finding the trail scary and we told him to just keep his eyes on the trail and move forward … honestly, we were all following the same advice. 

However, the entire Emperor Hill is not like the beginning and it does, eventually, become treed and less switchback-y.

I have few photos of this section, my attention was on the trail.
And I had to keep telling myself that as hard as it was … grade seven classrooms from various schools have hiked this trail as part of their curriculum for years … well, that and it was 11km back the other direction.
 
I recommend hiking poles for this hike, especially this portion.

 

I know it’s a personal preference but they sure helped me feel more secure on the narrower sections of trail.
 

While the trail continued to climb steadily for the full 4km it did move into the trees and became more secure feeling – there were even a few downhill sections (which we actually kind of stood looking at with exasperation, dreading the downhill knowing we were just going to have to make up the elevation with another uphill). 

When you’re only 1km into the 4km hill.
 

The next time we climb this hill we will make a concerted effort to stop often, and remove our packs to take a full rest before moving on.

Falls of the Pool on the Berg Lake Trail.

I am continually surprised we look as good as we do in this photo, we thought we might be done at this point.
There came a point on the trail when I realized I couldn’t remember not hearing the thunder of waterfalls and it was kind of surreal. It was like the ultimate white-noise machine … that I could hear and feel.
There are falls everywhere. You can feel them with every step along the trail.
But it was the thunder of Emperor Falls that had been calling to me long before I could actually hear it and my first glimpse of them did not disappoint. I had been obsessively watching videos and looking through photos of the falls for months before the trip.
 

Off in the distance (and you can’t help but notice at a considerably higher elevation than you currently stand) you finally catch a glimpse of the magnificent waterfall.

Even from this distance Emperor Falls are magnificent and loud.
 
There were times when knowing I would get to stand directly beside them, unfettered by man-made railings or walkways, was the only thing that kept me going. Emperor Falls called to me the whole way up the hill.

Funny enough, it would be easy to pass right by themas you get nearer the immediate view of them is blocked by the trees.

Which seems odd as they are 150′ tall and loud enough to make it hard to hold conversation – but as you reach the junction that leads off to the falls you can be so caught up in the uphill slog that you miss the sign and side trail on your right. 



I had been waiting months for this. Emperor Falls on the Berg Lake Trail, Mt. Robson in the background.

We took the opportunity to slip our packs off, stash them in the bushes and visit the falls a little lighter.

We were lucky enough with the wind direction that the closer we got to Emperor Falls, the less drenching mist we had to deal with.

Sitting by these falls is magnificent. I have no real words for the experience. It was my Mecca of sorts and my only regret is not sitting there longer. I will on my next adventure. 

When you’re tired enough to have a cat-nap next to Emperor Falls.

We continued back to the main trail, retrieved our packs from the bushes we stashed them in and moved on up the hill. 

There’s a small set of stairs cut into the trail just past the junction that inspired one of my most impressive string of curses to date – and that’s saying something.
 

Emperor Falls campground is 500m further up the trail. In our state, exhausted from a long day (ten hours on the trail) it was truly the longest 500m I’ve ever traveled.

When we got to the campground we tried to find an open tent site as quickly as possible. We needed rest and we needed food. 

Having never done this before, there was a true moment of panic when it became obvious there was only one available site, even though we had two booked. 


It turned out the only site that was left empty was on the one end, right on the river and with an amazing view of Mt. Robson. Our two tents fit snuggly on the one pad, and rules be damned, we set them up as quickly as we could.

The tents were snug on the one pad, but it worked just fine and the only time spent in the tents was for sleeping. Emperor Falls campground, Berg Lake Trail.

After a quiet dinner by the river, we packed up our dinner things and put them in the bear locker. A quick visit to the outhouse, with bear spray in hand as it is a distance to the loo, and then off to bed. It was before 9pm.

Breakfast next to the Robb River, Mt. Robson in the background. Hiking the Berg Lake Trail in the Canadian Rockies.
Our view for all our meals at Emperor Falls camp.

Day two of the hike is where we felt particularly awesome about our planning abilities. While I wasn’t nearly as sore as I expected, the fact that we were leaving camp where it was and day-hiking to Berg Lake was more than welcome.

I had packed a small day-pack like this Marmot Kompressor, and it was a good, no great, idea … a really great idea … my pack is super comfortable but the thought of putting it on again so soon just elicited yet another string of cursing.

We left our packs, tents and sleeping gear behind and on a bright, sunny day made off for Berg Lake.


After the climbing from the day before I think I expected at least a little more but it truly levels out after Emperor Falls Campground. The hike to the lake and back is one of the most enjoyable hikes I’ve ever experienced. 

I will forever cherish the time I spent on the Berg Lake Trail with my son.

Wide open river flats, wedged between cracking glaciers and mountain-tops tall enough to make their own clouds, creates a freedom to spread out and let everyone absorb what they will of the surroundings on their own. It is a humbling place to be.

It’s impossible to capture it all in one photo as you pass through the flats between Emperor Falls Campground and Berg Lake.

We took in the sights around the lake, including one small baby-berg that had broken off of the glacier. We checked out the campgrounds and rested in the Hargreaves Shelter for a snack. 

The sun warmed Robson Glacier all day and we were rewarded with thundering cracks that echoed throughout the valley.

We had grand plans to follow the Toboggan Falls route up to a cave and do some exploring. The routes are well signed and we started our way up the trail … but it was up … it turns out a lot more up than we had any interest in. 

There was a point where my screaming legs just couldn’t take any more and I finally cried uncle, “Guys, this is it for me.” 

The resulting cheer indicated I was not alone in the screaming legs department. Once again, the unplanned resulted in one of the most memorable moments on the trail. 

Another memorable moment on the Toboggan Falls route.

We relaxed on the fairly steep incline with the water running past us on polished rock, leaving no doubt as to why it is called Toboggan Falls.

Toboggan Falls … more uphill hiking, but so worth going at least part way.

I had taken to removing my hiking boots whenever possible and soaking my feet in the ice-cold water and I didn’t turn down this opportunity either

This was the place where my nephew said, “There isn’t anywhere else in the world I’d rather be.”

That meant a lot to me and all of the hill climbing was totally worth just that one moment.

When you just have to sit and take it all in looking down on Berg Lake from Toboggan Falls.

 
We eventually made our way back down, in no real hurry, the bonus to summer days in this area is they are long … daylight starts before 6am and continues until after 10pm. 

This time we made our way over to the shoreline for another snack and rest. 

Instead of taking a dip, I settled on a wander out this far, my legs were numb. Berg Glacier dips its toe in Berg Lake in the background.

It was a good, hot day and part of us really wanted to take a dunk in the lake. The other part of us watched some clouds come down the valley and wondered if we should.

Never underestimate the ability a mountain storm has to surprise you. 
Berg Lake, Mt. Robson, Berg Glacier and Robson Glacier looking back toward the direction of Emperor Falls Campground.

It would be an epically stupid mistake to be caught in a mountain storm right after taking a dip in a glacier-fed lake like that. Especially since we were several kilometers from our gear.

Between Emperor Falls Campground and Berg Lake there are lots of water sources, no need to pack more than a bottle’s worth.

The walk back to camp was more of a leisurely stroll. Again, this day of hiking goes down as one of the best hiking days I’ve ever experienced. 

This kid, though, amazing and on his first real hike, heading back to Emperor Falls campground from Berg Lake.

Back at camp we ate an early dinner, Colton had a nap by the river and we explored around our camp and down-river some. 

We were pleasantly surprised by what we found.

The view down-river from Emperor Falls Campground, above Emperor Falls themselves.

Although, you would think we‘d stop being surprised by the amount of awesome we were surrounded by. But we didn’t. 

Looking back up-river at Emperor Falls Campground. The sites are immediately along the river just as it curves out of sight here.

The others went to bed fairly early and I took advantage of that, staying up to watch the last golden sliver of sunlight lick the top of Mt. Robson. I know how lucky we were to have clear sight of the peak every day we were out there.

Sunset licks the top of Mt. Robson around 10pm.

The next morning we wasted no time getting ready to leave, skipping breakfast for a quick coffee and some handfuls of trailmix. We were unsure how demanding going down Emperor Hill was going to be.

“Thou Shall Not Pass” … excellent opportunity for that line on this surprisingly high bridge downhill from Emperor Falls Campground.

 
There were parts of the trail on the way back down, especially the top parts, that were like a whole new world to us. At this point we were so tired we had almost developed tunnel vision. 

Hiking along a deep valley, the Robson River runs along the far side after plunging down Emperor Falls.

At one point the trail follows along the top of a deep valley gorge. Strangely, you would expect that the Robson River would plunge down and run along the bottom after emptying over Emperor Falls … but it doesn’t. Instead it runs along a ridge on the far side of the valley. It’s a very cool feature.

The hill that took us nearly four hours to climb took us less than two hours to get back down. 

The trip back down Emperor Hill, just above Whitehorn Campground.

 

We stopped for a more substantial feed at Whitehorn Campground before continuing.

It was right after crossing the suspension bridge that our trip took an unexpected turn.

A young man crossed the bridge behind us and then dashed off the main trail towards the ranger station (and radio). My son is a first responder, a firefighter, and flagged the boy down to ask what was wrong.

He was a part of a larger family group and his father had fallen and badly broken his leg at the most dangerous part of the trail, almost 2kms back

My son asked some questions and then sent the young man on to use the radio at the ranger station to call for help. We started emptying our packs to build a quick day-pack of emergency supplies for Colton to take back to the injured man. 

Paracord, tent poles, first aid kits, blankets, compressed foam sleeping pad … it all made it into his emergency pack.

We spent three hours waiting for Colton, who eventually lead the extraction of the injured, but well man off the hill and he accompanied the helicopter rescue crew off the mountain.

We hiked out the remainder of the trail and pushed ourselves hard. We were way behind schedule but made it to the trail-head at approximately 5pm. 

This happy to see the 1km marker on the way off the trail.

It was an amazing adventure, and I can’t wait for our next visit. 

You can see a full Flickr album of photos here. 

 


10 thoughts on “Trip planning the Berg Lake Trail

  1. Thank you for the feedback! I really tried to get an "all in wonder" post in this one. I dislike having to click through several posts to get all of my information.

  2. This has been incredibly helpful! Thank you – headed out next week with our two tween daughters and I feel like I know what I am getting into now 😉

  3. Thanks for posting this….heading up to Berg in a couple of days, with 2 adults an 11 & 8 year old. Hoping the weather is in our favor. Happy Trails

  4. Glad you found this helpful. I hope you have an amazing time. It is a magical place. I just got back from my second trip and will add to the post. Happy trails!

  5. I am so thankful for this post. About 15 years ago my youngest son and I trained and trained and hiked up to the last waterfalls and back in a day. (I do not camp) We lived in Kamloops at the time and I have to say that is the best hike I ever did. Its stunning the entire way. We even saw some kayaks coming down the Robson river we could not believe our eyes.

    I am sure you will have a wonderful time. Thank you for sharing your memories.

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