Planning for the Continental Divide Trail can seem overwhelming if you've never done a long-distance hike before. What gear do I get? Where do I resupply? Do I really have to dig a hole and poop in it and then pack out my toilet paper? Yes, you really do.
The truth of it is, you don't really need to do that much to prepare for a thru-hike on the CDT (unless you have some complicating factor such as a medically-restricted diet). One of the best things you can probably do for yourself is taking the advice of former thru-hikers and learn from their failures (and successes).
Fortunately, for us, as part of the CDT Hiker Survey, I ask hikers what advice they have for the future generations of hikers. The result? A wealth of information and advice on how to properly (and improperly) make use of your time on the CDT.
Table of Contents
Continental Divide Trail Planning Advice
- Be diligent when it comes to planning before you go, but realize that you can only plan so much. Don’t overthink it. Regardless of how much you’ve planned ahead of time, you’ll always have to make adjustments to your setup and gear and hiking strategy once you’re on the trail. And that can be part of the fun.
- Avoid “blow by blow” video trail descriptions. They are spoilers. Seek to see the trail from your lens, not in advance from others.
- Do your research on the trail, the alternates, the towns, and your options; but don't plan. The CDT is about exploration and choosing our own adventure, and being able to make spontaneous (but educated) decisions on the fly is part of the fun.
- The CDT cost me more than the PCT – in part because there are fewer trail angels and staying in town gets expensive when you're paying for a hotel every time. I would have budgeted an additional $1,000 if I did it again.
- Try to save twice as much money as you think you need. Double your PCT budget! You need a LOT of town time on the CDT.
- Plan all you want but this thru-hike will test your ability to be flexible and adaptable. The CDT is fucking crazy.
Continental Divide Trail Attitude Advice
- Don't participate in fear-mongering of trail conditions. People almost always fear monger to justify their own decisions (flip-flopping, leaving the trail, etc.). It's good to know your own comfort level, assess the conditions, and only do what you are comfortable with.
- Don't overthink it, just go. Take more money than you think you'll need.
- Please don't encourage or buy into any of the fear-mongering, there is so much of it! Assess your own skill level and determine for yourself what you are comfortable with. Don't lie. Put your phone down in those areas without tread, take a compass bearing and follow the path of least resistance. Seriously, brush up on navigation techniques and stop relying on GPS quite so much, because sometimes it is off!
- Being open-minded to road walks and route finding is crucial.
- Be mentally prepared to hike/camp alone.
- The CDT is truly a choose-your-own-adventure hike. Don't be afraid to leave the official trail behind in order to go hike something that sounds more fun.
- Being afraid is okay, and usually, it’s actually a good thing. Just don’t let the fear freeze you.
Continental Divide Trail Hiking Advice
- Plan less, but be prepared for exposure and cold. It really felt like most of the trail was not in trees, which was awesome, but challenging. Wind, thunderstorms, and sun.
- Don't underestimate the Basin (Wyoming). No shade, nasty water, not as flat as one would expect.
- Knapsack Col was sketchy with loose rock. I loved it, but others literally cried after it. But don't let that discourage you from doing the Cirque des Towers. It's not comparable difficulty wise and is way easier and more scenic.
- Hike the damn trail. Don't skip shit just because it seems lame. You don't know until you go. Seeing the stuff between the highlights is the point of thru-hiking.
- Whatever you do, enjoy the trail! If you are not coming directly from another thru-hike, don't be in a rush for the first 500 mi / 800 km – there is snow ahead of you and you will avoid trail-ending injuries like stress fractures.
- Call it a day if the conditions seem deteriorating.
- If it's a high snow year, don't fool yourself and hope for the Colorado snow to melt in time for you to get there. It won't. And you'll think – “yeah it can't be that bad. I did the PCT yada yada.” The San Juans will throw shit at you like you haven't experienced before.
Continental Divide Trail Gear Advice
- Disregard all trail/gear related videos where the author uses the word “I” and/or “my” more than 10 times in the first two minutes.
- Keep the pack weight low but not stupid low.
- Beyond having decent gear and enough water, don't stress about planning.
- Don't skip the snow, if you have the proper gear it is great.
- Carry duct tape, you will need it
- Go light. Somewhere between Boy Scout prepared and stupid light.
- Trail neros and zeros are worth planning between every resupply.
- Lots of shoes are comfortable. Make sure they are durable as well.
- “Experts” at the outdoor stores that have not thru-hiked are not reliable advisors.
- Waterproof socks for the snow. Crying helps sometimes. Wet wipes on the ass do wonders to prevent chafe.
For more on the Continental Divide Trail gear, check out this year's CDT Gear Guide.
Continental Divide Trail Resupply Advice
- Don't hang around Cuba any longer than necessary.
- Eat a lot more than you think you need to, even if you’re not losing weight. And if you’re unhappy, eat more.
- Don't eat old pizza.
- Relax, be flexible. Send fewer boxes, you can always resupply at a gas station.
- Always pack out extra food.
- Eat better on the trail, get used to wet feet, drink real coffee.
- Enjoy those towns! I loved so many of the towns we visited and the people in town had so much to share.
- Gorge yourself every time you're in town. It's worth it.
For more on the Continental Divide Trail resupply, check out this year's CDT Resupply Guide.
Continental Divide Trail People Advice
- It’s all about the people, not the miles. Be good to people.
- Appreciate every part of the adventure off the trail as much as the thru-hike. Hitchhiking and talking to the locals, even the crazies, were probably some of the most enjoyable moments of my time on the CDT.
- Felt like thru-hikers are starting to expect and be entitled to trail angels time and magic – don't be that hiker and wear out the communities along the way.
- Hitchhike and have conversations. There are some amazing people out there!
- Don't spend all day deciding if you're going to take a zero or not. It's boring to listen to and you'll probably take it in the end.
- Hike your own hike. Be focused on having fun and don't feel pressured into doing something that you personally don't wanna do.
- Hike your own hike unless doing so makes you an ass. Then just try to be a somewhat decent person.
- If you are inexperienced, as I was, find an experienced and generous teacher early on and listen well.
- Get at least some people to hike around if not with. It helps tremendously near the end as everything starts to wear down. Morale is an important factor.
- It’s about the people – find ones you can laugh with when it gets hard.
Continental Divide Trail Southbound Advice
- Try to get permits in advance for Glacier National Park. Otherwise, you might end up with a permit giving you too big of days.
- For SOBOs, beware of low temps even in mid to southern New Mexico at night/morning. It was below freezing 30-40% of the time. Don’t send your warm stuff home!
- If possible wait to see if it's a better year for NOBO or SOBO.
- Consider going SOBO unless you really like snow.
Top Continental Divide Trail Advice
- Plan less. Play more. The double-zero is the new near-o, especially if it's a high snow year and you're in New Mexico.
- It’s windy, lonely, and overall unforgiving.
- Pay attention to the weather and take it very seriously.
- Take more time in New Mexico, it goes by fast. Don't be afraid to go against the grain and leave your group if it means hiking what / where you want.
- Keep your expectations in check, and stop talking about your Instagram every 30 seconds.
- Accept alternates. It’s still a thru-hike even if you made it up.
- Take all advice from other hikers with a pinch of salt. You know your body and what you're capable of doing! Don't let what other hikers are doing affect your hike.
Continental Divide Trail Survey Collection
- Continental Divide Trail Survey Results
- Continental Divide Trail Survey: The Gear Guide
- Continental Divide Trail Survey: The Resupply Guide
- Continental Divide Trail Survey: Suffering & Despair
- All CDT Hiker Survey Posts
Planning to hike the CDT next year? Enter your email below to participate in next year's CDT Survey.
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