Chances are that things won’t go to plan on a Continental Divide Trail thru-hike. One of the best things you can do to prepare for a CDT thru-hike? Talk to CDT thru-hikers and see what they would do again, do differently, and suggest that others (i.e. you) do.
Questions like what gear do I get? Where do I resupply? Do I need a trail family? Do I have to pay trail angels? And do I have to dig and poop in a hole and then pack out my toilet paper? Yes, you need to pack out your toilet paper.
As part of the CDT Hiker Survey, I ask hikers for advice to be passed on to future CDT hikers. Each of the bullets below is the response given by a CDT hiker. Keep in mind that each response is the advice/opinion of a single person. None should be taken as 100% applicable to everyone on the trail and just because something worked (or didn’t work) for one person, doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you.
- Plan for the worst, but don’t live in it. Did it happen? Congratulations, you’ve prepared. It didn’t happen? You put yourself through all that stress for nothing; worrying didn’t prevent it from happening.
- Compared to the Pacific Crest Trail, the CDT was much more mentally challenging for me. Prepare for long and relatively boring road walks.
- Don’t be afraid to flip-flop if you are uncomfortable with the snow situation in Colorado.
- Get in shape before you start. If you don’t feel confident in everything, that’s okay. You’ll learn along the way. Don’t give up! Find ways to keep yourself going. Save somewhere between $5,000-$10,000 and have money to fall on afterward.
- It’s a trail where you really need to be self-sufficient and I’d say is 3x more difficult, physically and mentally, than the Pacific Crest Trail (in a good way).
- You can research all the pros and cons, but for my money, southbound is the way to go. Having said that, the constant pissing contest between NOBOs and SOBOs is super annoying. We’re all hiking the same trail.
- Make sure you’re prepared both physically and mentally for this trail. It truly is brutal.
- Research proper grizzly country food storage and food prep behavior before your trip. We saw a lot of hikers putting themselves and future site users in jeopardy, some proudly so. There was a lot of misinformation and people making things up out there. When you got to a good tent site, assume someone has recently cooked where you’re about to set up a tent – they likely have.
- Unlike other trails, there are endless ways to do the CDT. Don’t hesitate to adjust expectations. Mental prep is as important as physical, and definitely more important than logistical.
- Circumstances, and your attitude towards them, can change with frightening speed. You can control one of those.
- Be flexible and be patient with yourself. The only thing you are racing is the snow in Glacier National Park (Montana).
- Be flexible. Having been more of a purist on other trails, I gave up on this one and just took routes that were more fun, to save time and to spend more time with friends and in town. I also occasionally skipped highways which I never would have done on previous hikes.
- Go as fast or slow as you feel like, don’t try to hike anyone else’s hike. Take all the alternatives you want, the CDT is all about making your own adventure. It’s okay to take a shortcut if you want to get in/out of town faster, or just make some more miles. Don’t skip sections, try to keep your footsteps connected. Road walking is not as bad as you might think. Nothing will go as planned, the trail will throw you a curve ball every day and that’s the beauty of it.
- It’s cliche to say hike your own hike. But yeah do that. Carry what you think makes sense. Don’t carry stuff you don’t think you’ll use. Hike and camp alone when you want and don’t look back and think you’d do it differently if you could. Decisions are made in the moment based on the emotions you are experiencing.
- Try to come in without a lot of expectations and just let the trail surprise you. I was blown away by a lot of the areas we hiked through and loved a lot of the little towns. I never would have guessed that this would become my favorite trail, but it is.
- When someone tells you something can not be done, go and see for yourself. Nine times out of ten I find my risk does not match their fear. Or I am able to easily mitigate the risk.
- “Embrace the brutality” is real. Set your expectations that this is a hard trail that will test you. It is not the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail. The best thing about the trail is the choose-your-own-adventure nature of it. Use Ley Maps / create your own routes with Gaia. You are given the flexibility to make your route, so do the one you want to do. Don’t get sucked into trail families that you don’t enjoy. If you want to go faster, go faster. If you want to go slower, do that. You don’t owe anyone anything. One mantra of mine was “less ego, more fun.” Just because someone is doing a high route doesn’t mean that you have to.
- Be comfortable with off-trail hiking with little to no tread. Always go into a section with extra maps of the area and bail out routes.
- Don’t be afraid to get off the “official” trail and explore some of the alternates – or, create your own alternate! Especially in Colorado, there are so many peaks and scrambles along the Divide and places you can explore some really epic knife edges and ridgelines, and these adventures were the highlights of my hike.
- Don’t take the Anaconda Cutoff unless you have to. The official trail is beautiful and the cutoff is a painful and boring road walk.
- Don’t rush the Wind River Range (Wyoming). They were easily my favorite section. Plan on breaking it up by going into Pinedale so you don’t have to rush through there.
- The Continental Divide itself offers endless possibilities for alternate high routes and ridge traverses, even when the trail drops well below and away from the crest. Make your own routes, this is your adventure!
- Carry more than FarOut.
- Don’t care about the weight and carry a lot of water. Don’t be the guy who brags about his ability to cross a desert with just two liters of water while complaining about how high his heart rate always was.
- Get as fit as you possibly can, train with a pack, buy the lightest gear you can afford, and buy the best food available.
- If you can train with your pack with 6-7 days of food and a few liters of water, might change how you feel about your current pack. I didn’t have an issue with my pack, but my friend tried to go frameless/non-cushioned/supported hip belt and she quit early on due to pain/injury in her shoulders and ankles.
- Be prepared to change your equipment, as you’ll need different equipment at different points of the trail.
- You will have harsher weather conditions than the Pacific Crest Trail, prepare for that. If going southbound, consider wearing long pants through the Bob Marshall Wilderness, your legs will be grateful.
- Blowdown sections can be extremely sharp; consider long pants — I bled a lot. Make sure your rain pants can be donned without taking off shoes and can be cinched around the waist.
- I was most concerned about the cold nights going into this hike, and I found that it wasn’t nearly as much of a problem as I feared. The only difference between my sleep system on the Pacific Crest Trail and the CDT was that I upgraded to the NeoAir XTherm. It’s hard to say just how much of an impact it had, but from my anecdotal evidence (I am a wuss when it comes to the cold and always sleep cold) this was a very worthwhile decision.
For more on the Continental Divide Trail gear, check out this year’s CDT Gear Guide.
- Bring coconut oil and add it to your ramen. Also, don’t eat too much peanut butter – I ate too much and now I can’t even look at it.
- Keep an eye on your hydration, and always pack yourself a nice snack that’ll pick you up whenever you have a hard day.
- Lander is a nice town, but unless you really want to get the long hitch in, skip it and send a resupply box to South Pass City. The museum there will let you charge electronics. I wish I had done this. Hitching into Lander was a pain in the ass (although my favorite trail angels of all time live there).
- Research resupply stops along the Idaho/Montana border and Colorado as there are many options.
- Boxes aren’t necessary if you aren’t picky. The only box I sent was to Pie Town, New Mexico and even then I got a ride into Quemado so it wasn’t necessary. If you want to eat healthy, boxes aren’t a bad idea.
- Don’t worry about sending too many boxes ahead of time. Research as you go and send boxes while on the trail when you need to. Send to businesses instead of the post office when you can. Post offices in a lot of small towns have horrible hours and it can be difficult to get your boxes when you want them.
- Hitches can be harder in some of the more remote places. If you have the capability to carry more, just carry a bit more and enjoy the remoteness.
For more on the Continental Divide Trail resupply, check out this year’s CDT Resupply Guide.
- If you’re traveling with people who hitch roads or trail and it’s important to you to have a continuous footpath, stay true to yourself and your goals. Remain flexible though – there are more alternates than I thought and some are well worth taking!
- Take your time and don’t follow others. Be your own boss and don’t be afraid to tell others it is too fast for you.
- Take pictures of people, even if you don’t like them or don’t think you’ll see them again. It is nice to reminisce, but also much later on the trail, when discussing who is still around, showing pictures of someone early on can be quite an entertainment.
Trail Culture Advice
- Be strong in making your own decisions. One person’s thrill might be your healthy fear. Be cautious – one moment’s thrill could lead to a lifetime of injury and physical hardship if not even a loss of life. Be honest with yourself- if you’re not enjoying the hike, consider leaving. Time is precious- don’t waste it on something that is not worthwhile.
- Begin the trail by understanding that it is more of an idea than a trail. You want to see the Continental Divide in the USA. Cool, just know that it will be a long time until the trail reaches the level of the Pacific Crest Trail or Appalachian Trail, or other established finished trails. If you embrace that this is a wild adventure and that you are doing something very few people do, then you will have a great time embracing all the highs and lows.
- If you’re having trouble hitching by sticking out a thumb, you can always try straight up asking people at trailheads, etc. Had pretty good success that way.
- Don’t quit in the Bob.
- Protect your enthusiasm. Know that it’ll flag at some point and have some ideas to combat that.
- The CDT will throw everything it can at you, it’ll take “embrace the suck” to a new level.
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