Where and what is the CDT?
The Continental Divide Trail (or CDT for short) is one of the US’s National Scenic Trails. It follows a route close to the US Continental Divide, through the Rocky Mountains of Montana/Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico.How long is the CDT?
The Divide is over 3000 miles long, but the trail is somewhat shorter. The route I took was somewhere around 2700-2800 miles. Since some parts of the CDT are not complete or officially designated, the length is not easy to pin down. Plus, I hiked a number of alternate routes which added or reduced the total mileage.
How many people do this each year?
Of the 3 longest US trails, the CDT gets the least number of thru-hikers. Although, the number is increasing each year. In 2001, I estimated that about 15 people hiked the length of the trail.
When did you start and finish?
I started on June 14, 2001 & finished on November 9, 2001. Just under 5 months on the trail. I took few “days off” along the way.
How many miles per day did you hike?
For a full day of hiking I averaged about 24 miles. The mileage varied quite a bit depending on the terrain. Some of the trail is very steep, some of it is at high elevation, some of it is cross country, some of it is on roads… all of these things can speed up or slow down one’s pace. The furthest I hiked in a day was ~37 miles, my shortest day of full hiking (when I wasn’t headed in or out of a town, or limited by the NPS) was about 15 miles.
How much did your pack weigh?
Without food and water, my pack weighed about 19 pounds. With food an water, I’d say it averaged about 30-35 pounds.
How did you keep yourself supplied?
The CDT passes through or near a number of towns along the way. Many of those towns had groceries which I bought as I went. In the smaller towns, which had no groceries, I had to mail packages of food to the post office c/o general delivery. I also had a “drift box” which contained my maps, some extra shoes, an extra shirt, and a few other misc. supplies. I forwarded this to ~every other town as I went.
What kind of map/directions did you have?
There are a couple different guidebooks for the CDT. I used the guidebooks published by the CDTS / Jim Wolf, and found them quite accurate. For maps, I downloaded all the USGS 1:24000 maps I needed from Topozone.com & printed them on an ink-jet at a scale of ~1:60000. I had about 220 maps in all. I also supplemented these maps with some forest service, BLM, and other maps which I mostly bought along the way.
Did you hike south to north? north to south? does it matter?
I hiked from North to South. The snowpack up north was light in 2001, which greatly helped with the start. Generally, one starts in mid-late June for a southbound CDT hike… Late April to early May for a northbound hike.
What is the weather window like on the CDT?
Southbound, if you get through the bulk of the San Juans (say Wolf Creek Pass) by the first week in October, I’d say you have a 75% chance of getting through without any real winter-snow problems. Those odds go down by 25% increments each additional week. Northbound, the same kind of rule applies to the border of Canada, starting with 25% the second week of September. All of this is just a really rough estimate of course.
Did you hike alone?
I hiked with others (who I met along the way) until northern Colorado, I hiked the rest of the trail alone.
Did you see a lot of wildlife?
I saw all kinds of things… to name a few: Bighorn sheep, mountain goats, black bears, grizzly bears, marmots, pikas, ptarmigans, elk, mule deer, wild horses, pronghorn, badgers, pine martens, snowshoe hares, jack rabbits, coyotes, a desert tortise, a skunk, a short-tailed weasel, beaver, moose, countless chipmunks and squirrels, all kinds of hawks, eagles, and songbirds, lots of really funky insects, and even some fish and frogs.
How did you keep your journal?
I kept notes as I hiked, and took photos (which I mailed home). I wrote-up the journal after I finished the trail.
How did you take your photos & get them on your site, etc?
I used a film camera for the hike & sent the film home as I went. I scanned and annottated them when I put together the site. Many of the wide-aspect ratio photos are multiple 35mm shots that I spliced together digitally.
Why did you do this?
That’s a complicated question, and the answer is equally complicated. The simplest explanation? Life is made from experiences and I hope to have as many as possible.
Do you have any other hiking plans?
The next long (or not so long) hike I do will probably be outside the US… but I really don’t know.
I want to hike the CDT or some other long trail, where do I start?
There’s a ton on information on the internet, so I won’t cover that. But wherever you live, there is probably somebody in your area who’s recently hiked one of these trails, I’d suggest contacting them… invite them to lunch… ask them face-to-face questions to see if this is something that’s really “for you”. Most people who’ve hiked these trails are willing to help – but keep in mind that you’re only getting one person’s opinion that way – there area thousand ways to hike a long trail, all of them are correct.
You might consider hiking just a section of long trail. If you’re thinking of hiking farther some day, consider hiking when the bulk of thru-hikers are coming through – talk to them, ask them questions.
You don’t have to be an “outdoor stud” or in “olympic athelete shape” to hike one of these trails. If you can make it past the first couple weeks, you’ll probably notice that your body will adapt.
Remember, the hardest part of hiking any of these long trails is taking that very first step – after that, it’s just a lot of walking.
Should I hike the CDT as my “first thru-hike”?
I get asked this question from time-to-time. The first thing I’d say is “hike your own hike” – you are the ultimate judge of whether you can pull-off the CDT as a first thru-hike. Many people have done this successfully. That said, if you’re not sure, having doubts might be an indication that you need to think about it, and consider some things…
One of the hardest parts of doing a thru-hike is keeping your head in it. This seems like an odd thing to worry about when you’re back at home, planning… all excited about the adventure to come. But, after a week of slogging through rain, post-holing through snow, getting misplaced, frustrated, and not seeing or meeting any other hikers, one’s attitude can quickly change. You might be living in your own mind for days at a time – think about it… have you ever done that? met nobody for days at a time, while doing something physically challenging that most people think is nuts? You have to fill your head with something… It helps immeasurably to have someone to talk to – someone to share the experience with. Talking to other hikers who are going through the same experiences will give you some idea if you’re on the right track. If you just spent a few frustrating days in the mountains, it can be really reassuring to learn that others are having a similar experience. Or, it can be educational to learn they were better prepared – you can then pick up some ideas to make your hike more enjoyable. There are just fewer people hiking the CDT, and while those numbers are increasing (thereby increasing your chances of meeting & hiking with others), there is a good chance you’ll be hiking hundreds of miles alone – and a good chance that those miles will be near the start of your hike – just where it can be the hardest. Of course, if you WANT to hike alone, you’ll have no problem doing that on the CDT.
When I hiked the PCT, I started with a number of other hikers who were coincidentally on the same schedule I was on. I had like zero experience with this whole thru-hiking thing when I started the PCT. I learned a ton just by watching others and talking to them – things like which equipment really worked, how & why to stretch, what was good to eat, how to plan a day, how to plan-out a section, what to do about blisters, why zero-days are important, etc. I’m not sure if I would have had a successful hike had there been no other hikers… maybe, but it probably wouldn’t have been as enjoyable. I didn’t really feel completely confident until a month had passed.
Most of the people who hike the CDT have already hiked another long trail, so the general attitude and “trail talk” is a bit different. There is less discussion among hikers about basic “how to” things, and more talk about specific CDT logistics (and “remember on the PCT…” discussions…). That said, hikers are generally very eager to help other hikers, so if you have questions and there are people around, you’re likely to get some really good advice. You just might feel like a little bit of an outsider at times – that’ll be less of an issue as the miles roll by. After a few hundred miles or so, you should have the kinks worked out, be pretty experienced, and feel less like “the new person”.
As far as scenery & wilderness experience go… both the PCT and CDT are outstanding. (I can’t comment on the AT, as I haven’t hiked it). There are a few “boring bits” on the CDT (i.e. roadwalks or forested tunnels), but whether you enjoy those depends greatly on your attitude. If you just remember that – “hey, I’m WALKING across the frickin’ country!”, those bits become more enjoyable. Plus, there are more than enough amazing things along the way to make you forget about the less amazing stuff (i.e. the road walks near Rawlins & Pie Town, etc).
No matter how much you plan beforehand, there are things you’ll learn about yourself and the trail that will change your plan while you’re out there – count on it. It’s important to have a plan, but also plan that your plan will change.
So, is the CDT right for your first hike? That’s something only you can answer. If you have your heart set on it, there’s really only one way to find out – put on your pack & start walkin’!
What did you do about Grizzlies?!??!1
Here is some information about coping with bears out on the trail. Most of this information is specific to grizzlies, some pertains to both grizzly and black bears. If you want to learn more, I’d suggest the book: “Bear Attacks: Their Causes and Avoidance” by Stephen Herrero
- I always tried to make noise when walking through areas where visibility wasn’t good & seemed like good grizzly land. I started out singing, but that quickly got old… then it was just more of a “NUP!!!”. every now and then. If you feel embarrassed making funny noises in the woods, I can’t help you. I only saw a couple “probable” grizzlies when in north Montana, neither were in places a bear could’ve heard me (by a waterfall & in the rain). Bells are said to be rather ineffective as they aren’t very loud & not at a good pitch for bear’s hearing. Bears don’t have good eyesight & need clues as to what you are. If you’re sneaking around in the woods, they may think you’re a deer or something. Of course, making noise will reduce your chances of seeing other wildlife, but that’s just how it goes I guess.
- I never cooked where I slept in griz country.
- I never “slept out” in griz country. That thin nylon might not seem like much protection, but to a curious bear in the middle of the night, it’s another obstacle – would you rather have a bear sniffing around your tent/tarp, or your head?
I hung my food when I could. I know a lot of lightweight backpackers shiver at the thought of carrying 4oz’s of perlon, but it made me feel better. Plus, hanging kept my food away from mice – a problem in northern MT. It only takes a couple minutes to hang food… what else are you so busy doing out there? The rope came in handy for a few other things too.
- I carried a small can of pepper spray. It was not the standard “Lysol-can-sized” monster, just a little “lemon-spray-sized” thing ($7 at an army surplus store). My theory was that although I didn’t have much range with the thing, it might be effective if a bear was right on top of me… If I had been attacked, I’d have had to wait for the bear to get very close, possibly knock me down first & get its head down close… I don’t know how effective it might have been, but it made me feel better. If you do carry pepper spray, make sure the safety won’t go off accidentally! (I used some duct-tape to make a secondary safety), and make sure it’s accessible at all times – I wore mine on my chest harness – it’s worthless buried in your pack. If nothing else, the pepper spray at least gave a “final proactive option”… of course, I would have felt safer & had more options with a larger can.
- I often slept with the pepper spray in my chest pocket, so I wouldn’t need to reach out of my sleeping bag to get it.
- I almost used the pepper spray on a couple stray dogs… Plus, it made me feel safer when hitching.
Bear Encounter Decision Matrix
- If it’s a mother & cubs, try to back away slowly & avoid a direct stare. If she charges, stand there, she may bluff 10 feet before she reaches you. If she knocks you down, play dead, laying face down, forearms over your head, legs together, pack ON. The bear will likely leave once it no longer sees you as a threat (you may still wind up injured though)
- If it’s just a random solo bear, try to back away slowly & avoid a direct stare. If it charges, stand there – don’t even take one small step back, as the bear may consider this a cue that it can “take” you. The bear may bluff just before reaching you. If it knocks you down, you’ll have to make a judgement call. If you play dead, the bear may loose interest, or the bear may see you as food & start eating you. My plan was to go to pepper spray before that happened… right around the knock-down stage. (my personal natural instinct is to try and intimidate the bear at first, but that’s just me, I’m probably stupid)
- If you encounter a bear feeding on a carcass, back away. If it sees you and comes your way – climb a tree (at least 20 feet to be safe), use pepper spray, try to keep a tree between you and the bear, fight back if attacked… do not play dead!
- If you’re being followed by a solo bear, then it already knows you’re there & is curious. You have to do something, you can’t just keep walking, because it will keep following. Confront the bear & treat like a “random solo bear”. Your best bet may be to try and intimidate the bear as it gets close.
- If at any point, a bear tries to eat you – fight, climb, run, anything…
Some thoughts on grizzlies and bears in general
- Grizzlies tend to have a “buffer zone” of around a hundred yards or so. If you’re outside this zone, it’s a lot easier to avoid a bear. A grizzly will rarely kill someone instantly (it does happen though) – in fatal attacks, it’s much more common for the bear to bat the person around a lot, leave them alone, then maul them repeatedly when they try to run. That said, the bear may do significant damage in an initial rush – rip a scalp off or something.
- I have had some luck intimidating black bears with hiking poles & “threatenting” postures & loud noises. The jury is out as to whether this is as effective with grizzlies – in some cases it may backfire.
- If you see a big sandy bear in grizzly country, don’t try and figure out if it’s really a grizzly, just treat it like one. The differences are not always immediately evident, even to experts.
- The grizzly is expanding its range in the northern US rockies by quite a lot in recent years (according to a biologist I met who was studying bears in the Bob)
- Standard procedure for dealing with “problem bears” (in GNP and in most fish & game jurisdictions) is now to release them near where they were trapped & shoot them with pepper spray & bean bag guns & sick dogs on them – all in an effort to give the bears a negative association with humans. They don’t just relocate problem GNP grizzlies into the Bob, no matter what the locals say. If a bear causes repeated problems, it is destroyed. (I think they only get 1 strike… maybe 2?)
- In very rare cases, there just isn’t anything you can do. It’s your time to go.
- If you encounter a Chicago Bear… try to scramble out of the pocket, they’re not very good at catching slippery quarterbacks, and would likely have trouble with a nimble-footed hiker.
What equipment did you bring?
Here’s a fairly complete list…
I used slightly different equipment on the CDT vs. the PCT. I made most of the changes to reduce my pack weight. I also wanted to try a few new things to broaden my horizons a little. Everything worked out pretty well.
I used an Arc’teryx Khamsin 52.The pack was about 4000ci, and weighed about 4 pounds empty.The top-hat that came with the pack was a bit heavy, so I made a replacement which saved about 4-6 ounces.The pack worked great.I especially liked the side zipper on the pack.This allowed me to get stuff buried in the bottom without removing everything else.I found the suspension very comfortable as well.Some people have reported that the 52 suspension doesn’t fit their back well.I think this may be partially due to improper fitting.I found that I had to pay careful attention to the tension on the load-lifter straps (the ones above the shoulders).A lot of people like to yank these as tight as possible in order to ease the stress on their shoulders.If this is done on the Khamsin 52, it warps the backrest and drives the top of the pack into the shoulder blades.I had to change the tension on these straps periodically as my pack weight fluctuated.
I used the same Feathered Friends Swallow that I used on the PCT. The bag worked fine, but after two long trails, it’s pretty trashed. The dryloft shell has delaminated rather extensively. This doesn’t affect the performance of the bag too much, but it does reduce the water repellency of the fabric. Down bags last a long time, even with heavy usage. I’ve found that washing the bag periodically is essential to keeping it nice. (If you have a down bag that you feel is “dead”, get some down soap and follow the instructions – be sure you rinse very thoroughly).
I switched to a home-made tarp on the CDT. The design of the tarp is essentially the same as the one created by Henry Shires. The tarp is set up as an A-frame, with mosquito netting hanging from the edges. I changed a few things (used Velcro & made it slightly taller). I used my hiking poles as the main supports. I used a painter’s plastic drop-cloth as a ground sheet. The tarp and ground sheet weighed about 1 pound. I also had to carry 8 tent stakes, which added about 4 ounces. I picked up some titanium tent stakes on the way – they were fantastic, they “go into” anything and don’t bend.
I started out with a pair of Solomon gore-tex mid-weight boots, which I wore to Mack’s Inn:place>. I had intended to change to sneakers once I got out of the snow, but the boots were working so well, I wore them till they were trashed. At Mack’s Inn, I switched to a pair of New Balance 765? These were awesome shoes. I wore them to Lake City, and probably could have worn them all the way to the Mexican border. At Lake City, I changed to a pair of Solomon Inca Low’s. This was the exact same design that I wore for much of the PCT, and they worked well. Solomon doesn’t make this design anymore though.
I also wore a pair of Superfeet insoles – one pair for the entire trip. The superfeet were amazing. I used the blue variety, designed for use in addition to the shoe’s existing insole. (I’ve found that green superfeet have almost no padding in the toe area. By using the blue superfeet, I could take advantage of the toe padding on the original insoles.) On the PCT, I couldn’t feel my feet by the end. On the CDT, I had zero foot pain or numbness.
I started out with an Olympus Stylus Epic, the same one I used on the PCT. This is a great camera, it’s a simple “point & shoot”, it has a good lens for its size, and its very lightweight. It uses standard 35mm film. The camera is somewhat weather resistant as well. It’s not resistant to being dropped on concrete though. I switched to an Olympus Stylus Zoom 80 in southern Colorado – as great as the Epic, plus a 2x zoom lens. In other places, I used various disposable cameras. I would have liked some type of polarizing filter, but they’re just not available on point & shoot cameras. I didn’t want to carry a heavier camera.
I used 1 liter plastic water bottles – the type used for bottled water. My pack had an outside side-pocket for easy access to water. This setup was a bit lighter than using a camelbak.
I wore ankle gaiters in order to keep rocks and dust out of my shoes. I started with a pair that I made. These lasted until central Wyoming, then I switched to some ‘rugged spandex’ OR ankle gaiters. Those lasted the rest of the trip. Ive never had good luck with the snaps on OR gaiters though they always seem to break rather quickly. I had to change the understraps every 4-5 days – sacrificed the cord I used to hang food for this purpose.
I started out with a 3/4 length blue foam pad. It was flat and rather useless by the time I reached Butte. I switched to a ridgerest that lasted the rest of the trip (although I threw it away at the end it was trashed)
I started out with the same hat I had on the PCT, but lost it in Glacier NP. I bought a straw “sam snead” hat in Lincoln. The hat held up great, although it did get a bit smelly. Alas, it was taken straight up to hat heaven by the wind. I finally got a Columbia broad-rim fabric hat for the rest of the trip – loved it.
I used a home made alcohol stove. The design I used is the one posted on www.pcthiker.com. I used JB weld to hold the two halves together instead of tape. One stove lasted the entire trip.
I used an Evernew Titanium pot. They last forever.
My favorites are Smartwool socks.
I used a home-made poncho. It fit over my entire pack and body. I figured out a way to lash it down so it didn’t flap in the wind. The poncho kept me dry, even in the snow and wind. It was a hassle to take a break while wearing the poncho though. (had to “un-lash it”, etc)
This is a list of everything I brought with me (note some items changed along the way as indicated)
In Backpack – Arcteryx Khamsin 52
- Food bag (OR, large, held up to 7 days worth of food)
- Socks, 3-4 pair (I like fresh socks!)
- long-sleeve mid-weight polyester shirt
- light-weight capiline pants
- Nylon windbreaker
- Moonstone windstopping thermal pullover jacket
- Nylon windpants (non-coated)
- Rain poncho
- Warm hat
- Sun-protecting hat
- Cookpot (contained stove, windscreen, stove stand, and spoon)
- 16oz bottle of methyl alcohol (stove fuel)
- PUR hiker water filter
- 30 ft of 3mm perlon cord
- Sleeping Bag
- 1.5 liter water bottle
- ziploc bag with maps, papers, journal, a pen
- 1 liter water bottle – in side pocket outside pack
- 1 small can of pepper spray – clipped to chest harness
- Strumstick (attached to outside of pack)
- Ridge-rest foam sleeping pad (attached to outside of pack)
- 2 bandanas
- plastic garbage bag for pack cover
- I added some fleece pants in Colorado
In top-hat of Backpack
- a book
- 1 small nylon bag containing:
- headlamp – Petzl tikka LED lamp
- flea comb
- small swiss army knife (the smallest one they make)
- cigarette lighter
- ~5 feet of duct tape
- small length of heavy duty thread
- a couple sewing needles
- small bottle of DEET
- 2-3 safety pins
1 small nylon bag containing
- small bottle of H2O2
- small tube of Vaseline
- dental floss
- powdered toothpaste- eco-dent
- small elastic bandage
- small piece of soap
- bag of: no stick pads, band-aids, butterfly bandages, gauze, blister-care products (compeed & curad)
- Various maps