As part of the Continental Divide Trail Hiker Survey, I ask hikers what their lowest moments on the trail were and when, if ever, they encountered a situation where they felt legitimately afraid or in danger.
The CDT has a well-deserved reputation for not being the most beginner-friendly or hand-holdy trail. This reputation is well-deserved. A lot of it may make you wish you had never set foot on the trail in the first place. A lot of it may be right.
Every year, Continental Divide Trail hikers tempt avalanches, dehydration, hypothermia, angry bears, nice bears, bad drivers, forest fires, and more. I don't want to try to scare you out of a CDT attempt, but I do want to remind you that it's not all beautiful views and good vibes out on the trail. The trail does not care about you or your feelings and you would be wise to remember that.
WARNING! If you are worried about a loved one hiking the Continental Divide Trail or you have doubts about whether you want to undertake this journey yourself, you should probably stop reading now (or maybe you should definitely read this).
Unsafe Moments – Terrain
- A falling tree almost killed me at the Wyoming-Colorado border and I almost got struck by lightning on Mount Elbert (Colorado).
- There was a stretch above Elbow Lake where the trail was snow-covered and exposed, so if one slipped, it was into the ice-covered lake. Also, past there, a spot where the trail threaded two ponds, but we couldn't tell because of the snow.
- Hail/lightning storms above treeline in Colorado. Excessive snow in the South San Juans and Lake Ann Pass.
- Snow-covered ledges in 60 mph (97 km/h) wind in Colorado
- During a lightning storm where a bolt of lightning struck the trail 200 yards (183 m) behind us while we were cowered under clumps of sagebrush.
- Caught in freezing rain up high at 12,000 ft (3,658 m) on the Divide.
- Running to a gully to get off high ground to avoid lightning.
- Really hot and windy conditions in the Great Divide Basin (Wyoming). The wind broke my tent poles and I was constantly worried about water.
- On a high plateau in the San Juans with hail, heavy rain, and lighting and no place to go for cover.
- Crossing the Sun River in Northern Montana. There was a huge rain swell and I got swept away in the river.
Unsafe Moments – Animals
- I definitely had some bearanoia in grizzly bear territory.
- I was awoken at 3 AM by two mountain lions fighting outside my tent.
- Seeing mountain lion while I was pooping.
Unsafe Moments – People/Town
- We felt unsafe in Cuba, New Mexico. That town is sketchy.
- The outskirts of small New Mexico towns were sketchy.
- On the bus ride from Santa Fe to Ghost Ranch, there was a man on drugs at the bus stop who was completely enraged and had an axe in his back pocket. I thought he was going to murder me in broad daylight.
- The driving skills of people who gave me rides.
- We had one really sketchy hitch.
- Getting picked up by a drunk driver.
- Getting a ride back to the trail and was driven off the road by the driver’s family member. Dropped off several miles outside of town and had to walk back.
Lowest Moments on the Trail
- After leaving Lima (Montana), I got into a funk because I had come such a long way and still had a long way to go. I knew I just had to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Being alone can make the CDT challenging.
- Trudging through the Gila River bushwhack/riverwhack and having to dodge poison ivy the whole time. I have no idea why so many people seem to love the Gila.
- Several times I felt like hiking the trail had become a job and it was very difficult mentally to stay focused and want to continue.
- Taking bad beta from locals and trying to bushwhack Grays Peak (Colorado).
- When I became violently ill (both ends) for an entire day due to what I assumed to be food poisoning. Was later tested and it was not giardia.
- Finding out my best friend has stage 4 cancer.
- A cold, windy, rainy 10 miles (16 km) south of the road to Lima (Montana). My rain gear was not in good shape, and I was miserable for half a day.
- Walking back up Highway 50 to the trail after not being able to figure out where Monarch Lodge was (Colorado).
- Hiking through the pain of my injury and feeling frustrated with not having a clear source for injury.
- When I had steep, hard, high angle, ice-covered slopes to cross while alone. I got snow-paranoid.
- The three days before the Creede Cutoff. Bad weather and family issues.
- After a huge snowstorm in early September, we had to hike through sections of huge blowdowns. Progress was slow and there was cold rain for a few days. When we got through the blowdowns, we reached a fire closure and had to reroute into town and miss a section.
- Two nights of really bad mosquitos.
- When each of my trail buddies quit.
- Trying to persevere through terrible mud on steep terrain where I was only going 0.5 miles per hour (0.8 km/h). I wanted to be anywhere but there at that moment.
- The desert section in New Mexico was a rough ending. The only reason I'd rather go NOBO.
- Going Southbound, I decided to road walk from Doc Campbell's to Silver City to save time. The road killed my sore feet and I found all the possible water sources dry.
- Sprained my ankle badly when I was still 50 miles (80 km) from the next town.
- Never had a low moment except when frustrated with the lack of trail signage… the CDT is the worst when it comes to signage.
Have your own tale of woe from a Continental Divide Trail thru-hike? Leave a comment below and warn future CDT classes of the awfulness that awaits them on their thru-hikes.
Support the CDT Survey
I get a lot of people asking every year how to support the surveys and beyond sharing them with your close-knit bubble of weird hiker friends, the best way to support the Continental Divide Trail is to donate on Patreon. You'll get access to exclusive posts, discount codes, live streams, and super extra cool stickers so that everyone will know how cool you are.
If you're not into Patreon, that's cool, you can always Venmo @halfwayanywhere or PayPal email@example.com
This is not expected. The data collected in the CDT Survey will always be free and accessible to everyone who wants/needs it. That said, your support is very much appreciated and helps to pay the website (and survey) bills.
Continental Divide Trail Survey Collection
Planning to hike the CDT next year? Enter your email below to participate in next year's CDT Survey.