Note: I hiked the CDT in 2013. A lot has changed since then, and there are much more updated resources now. Still, I know many of you may enjoy reading this. Just know more updated resources exist when it comes to the details. My general thoughts may still be worthwhile.
**UPDATED December 11, 2017**
*please excuse some alignment, sizing, and coloring issues that may have occurred in a site migration after this post was written.
I know how lost and confused I felt when first planning to do the Continental Divide Trail. It can be intimidating and frustrating at first. In the hopes of making it easier on you future hikers, here are some things that may help. With how quickly the CDT is developing, there are many changes from year to year. I will do my best to keep this “advice” up-to-date. I’ve written this with the assumption that most CDTers are experienced backpackers who have done a long trail before. I will not be discussing gear in detail here. If you
are interested in that, please visit my CDT Gear Review or Gear List.
*NOTE: I know there are infinite ways to hike and prepare for the CDT. This is just what helped me, so take from it what works for you.
Yes, I know I’m Wired, so I may be biased, but it really helps to be part of the online hiking community. I know many of you get out there to get away from technology, so I respect that. It won’t prevent you from completing the trail, but it can make some aspects more enjoyable. Some enjoy figuring it all out on their own, but some would rather not reinvent the wheel. It’s a matter of personal preference, but if you choose to get online, here are your options for online networking and communication.
- Find the current CDT class page for your year (and direction!): With how small CDT classes are, this is a great way to communicate as a class. This was most helpful for our class to work as a water/snow/town report. Hikers ahead would post pertinent info for those following and it was a great resource!
- CDT Trail Journals! The CDTC has now created a tab on their site to aggregate the trail journals of hikers. It’s new in 2016, so it’s growing…
- CDT-L: Most are familiar with the annoyances that come with being on a list. If you have the tolerance for it, go for it. There isn’t a lot of action on here, but every so often something useful pops up.
Become a CDTC Member
It only makes sense to donate to a trail that you plan to live on for 5 months. Help to preserve and protect the trail. C’mon, pay it forward. Become a Continental Divide Trail Coalition Member or DONATE to the CDTC!
Peanut Eater’s CDT Planner
A couple years ago, Peanut Eater made a great spreadsheet that can be used to plan resupplies and arrival dates for town. It has been passed from hiker to hiker each year and I’d like to pass it on to the 2014 Class. It is a greatresource that saved me a ton of time! It was created as a Google Doc and I’m sure it can be downloaded as an excel spreadsheet. I am going to leave it as a Google Doc and here is why…as a Google Doc I was able to share my itinerary in multiple ways. I was able to create an itinerary that was open to edit among myself and my fellow hiking partners. If one of us edited it, the changes were made for all of us. I was also able to embed the chart into my blog. If I updated it for myself in my Google Drive app on my phone, the changes automatically appeared on my blog for followers and my resupply person to see. Feel free to download Peanut Eater’s CDT planner here. Just be sure to copy and save your own version in your own drive so that the whole world isn’t seeing your changes. What you are seeing on that planner is what I did as a reference. I found that helpful information to have when it was given to me. There are multiple town options and routes, so change it as you see fit. This is NOT the only way to go and there are other town stops you may choose, but it’s a good start and estimate. I will be doing a town review in the upcoming weeks to help with those decisions. There are few hikers on trail and towns are sometimes spread out, so most hotels will hold packages to make it easy for you. It isn’t necessary to ship resupply boxes to most towns, but I find it convenient. Be sure to call ahead before sending to make sure the place still exists. Plus, you don’t have to worry about weekends! Just be sure stay at the hotel or pay them if something changes…trail karma will get ya!
CDTC Planning Guide
Most of you that hike the CDT have been around the block and don’t need the full bells and whistles of Yogi’s Handbook and Town Guides. In 2018, the CDTC started producing their own guidebook that includes the pertinent trail town information. For those looking for that, the free CDTC Planning Guide is a great resource!
Yogi’s CDT Handbook
Most reading this have seen Yogi’s books before. I can honestly say the CDT Handbook and Town Guide is less comprehensive and reliable than the PCT Handbook. A lot changes from year to year (even month to month) on the CDT and it is difficult to keep an updated printed version. Having said that, I still found both to be helpful enough for me personally to purchase. I’m a planner and it was nice to have most the relevant contacts and info in one location. There is a mileage and data chart that helped me to better understand where the alternates occur and how the mileages differ. It was also nice to hear the opinions from previous hikers about start dates and alternate route choices. It was also very helpful in explaining the procedures for permits in Yellowstone and Glacier and visualizing mileage between campsite choices in those National Parks. There are much fewer on trail tips in the CDT Trail Town Guide and that was a bummer. It was a bit outdated in listing mileages between towns. Bear Creek routes and waypoints are now what many hikers are using to calculate miles and that is not what Yogi uses in her handbook. Maybe it will be in the revised edition, but I don’t think one is expected before 2014. Hikers who had a scanned pdf version of the Trail Guide (which Yogi does not encourage) found it helpful to use as an on trail resource. Honestly, more and more of the trail guides/maps are moving towards resources that can be used on smartphones and updated easily rather than needing to be printed every year. It would be nice to see the Yogi Handbooks move in that direction…but I don’t think it’s going to happen.
Maps, Waypoints, Tracks, & Data Book
This is the most confusing and frustrating part of the whole planning process. At this point, there are two main map sets that hikers are using. Bear Creek(Jerry Brown) Maps & Waypoints and Johnathan Ley Maps. I won’t go into much detail here, but everyone had their own strategy that they were most comfortable with. I liked having the Bear Creek waypoints on my phone/GPS and then having the Johnathan Ley Paper Maps. I talk specifically about how well they worked for me in my CDT Gear Review, so I won’t repeat it here. I should also mention the highly respected “Wolf Guides.” Jim Wolf is a well respected pioneer for the CDT and he created a mile by mile description of the CDT. I don’t know anyone who used them this year, but those who enjoy detail, this is the place to find it.
Um, yes please! I am not good with a map and compass, so having a GPS was great for me. All know their ability level, but I can say that I didn’t know anyone on trail who didn’t use some kind of GPS or app on their phone. New in 2014, Guthook added the CDT to his list of awesome trail apps, so I totally recommend it if you think you want to try just the smartphone as a backup to the paper maps. At this point, I would say that app is the way to go for sure. If you think you’ll be using the GPS more frequently and don’t want to run down your phone battery, I recommend the Garmin eTrex 20 or 30 (I used the 20, but would use the Guthook App today). I used Topo Maps App on my phone as Guthook didn’t exist yet. I started off solely using my iPhone and halfway through the hike, I started using the GPS more as my primary source to save battery on my phone. Is it possible to only use a phone as a GPS? I’d say these days yes. Now there are external batteries that function great to keep phones charged plenty. If you plan on using a Garmin GPS, here are links to tutorials I wrote on how to load the maps, waypoints, and tracks for the CDT and loading topo maps on a Garmin GPS for the CDT.
What Direction to Go? When to Start?…Which Terminus to Choose?
There are two Northern Terminus options and three Southern Terminus options. I’m not going to go through them all other than to say that Yogi’s CDT Handbook explains them well and to look there for that information. I was very happy with my choice of a NOBO hike starting at Crazy Cook April 23rd and finishing at Waterton Lake September 3rd. The totally awesome CDTC now offers a shuttle service to and from Crazy Cook and you can sign up here.
The only permits needed for most thru hikers are in Yellowstone and Glacier up north. There is a spot in Rocky Mtn Nat’l Park that some hikers like to do as an alt, but permitting can be avoided as most thrus are able to hike through that section in a day. For details on the permits, I suggest Yogi’s handbook. It is laid out pretty well in there. If you don’t want to go that route, you’ll need to contact those three locations for details. I will say that the permits do not be purchased before the hike and you can wait to see how you’re progressing and book them a couple towns before. The sooner you book, the better your choices will be.
There are many arguments as to what is considered the “official CDT.” I am not here to argue about the details. At this point, Bear Creek survey has now pretty fully mapped and blazed the trail. It is blazed with CDT signage, so it’s pretty difficult to argue otherwise. The thing is that tradition sometimes trumps that route. 95% of hikers tend to take the more traditional alternate routes. Either way, people claim it as a CDT thru hike because they hiked from Mexico to Canada…liken it to taking the Eagle Creek route to Cascade Locks on the PCT, but multiply it to imagine a much larger alternate route. Where it gets sketchy is that some hikers have taken this as a pass to cut every corner they can saying that they are embracing what makes the CDT unique and “choosing their own adventure.” There is a wide spectrum here in which to land and everyone has their own purity beliefs. I landed in the middle. I wanted to take the alternates when there was something really amazing to see, but I wasn’t interested in just cutting miles…but then there were times when the “official” route would meander ridiculously in odd directions when there was a direct route option. Let’s just say that people got less particular about purity as the hike went on. It makes for interesting discussions and more decision making when hiking in groups, that’s for sure. Jerry Brown from Bear Creek will be adding these “alternates” and their waypoints onto the Bear Creek maps this year. It will be interesting to see how it evolves over the years. Personally, I enjoyed taking the Bear
Creek “official” route and my four major alternates were the Gila Route, Mt Taylor, Mt Elbert, and Cirque Towers in the the Wind River.
Water Concerns & Water Report
One of the biggest worries for CDT newbies is the water issue. First off, there is now a water report that can be found on the CDTC website that wasn’t around the year I hiked. I hiked on a very dry year and would say that the water issues are just one added hurdle to get over. There are caches the first week in New Mexico and that is really nice to have. Sam Hughes maintained them, but I’m sure someone is taking the reins now that he has passed away. Even if the water somehow gets stolen(which did happen), there are plenty of roads for assistance in an emergency. Source quality and the distance between sources will vary from season to season. I had a Sawyer Squeeze and used it for most sources in New Mexico. After that, I’d say I either used bleach drops or drank without treating the water. Personally, I never needed more than 4.5L at once, but it differs per person depending on how much you drink and how fast you hike from source to source. For the really crummy sources, I used a half cut bladder bag to scoop, filtered through my bandana, filtered through the Sawyer Squeeze, then treated with bleach drops. I carried meds for giardia and was very happy that I never needed them. What I carried was metronidazole and flagyl. You can talk to you doctor about the effectiveness of each. I wanted to cover all my bases and just got a dose of each.
The snow experiences are different for each hiker depending on the snow levels for that given year and which direction you choose to hike. This year was a low snow year for Northbounders and I experienced just 8 days of hiking in snow in the San Juans. Other Nobos just a week ahead of me experienced harrowing snow conditions with a late spring snow storm…Southbounders have had it rough this year. The snows came earlier than usual this year and they have gotten pummeled with a lot of snow in Colorado while those Nobos finishing in Montana experienced it in Glacier. What I can say is that this snow is not like the Sierra PCT snow with packed down snow and warm sun blazing on you to keep you warm. The snow is what many call “mashed potato” snow. It is very slow going and you sink deep with each step. What I was least prepared for on this hike was how cold it would be in the snow. Even though it was summer and the snow was no longer falling, the temps were so cold up there that I would often wear all of my clothes through much of the day. As for my feet, that was my biggest mistake. I used my trail runners and running socks and my feet were ice cold and hurt. If I were to do it again, I would at least wear thicker socks or get a pair of SealSkinz or other waterproof socks. I would even consider some warmer shoes if I knew I’d be in it for awhile. Just my two cents on the matter. It’s cold.
I chose to start with friends due to so many unknown factors going into the trail. I quickly found out that the CDT isn’t that big monster I had built up to be in my head. I soon found myself adjusted to the nuances of the trail and felt confident enough to go solo. The CDT is becoming more user friendly and traveled each year. There were plenty of hikers around this year and I overlapped with others both in town and on the trail. If you choose to start solo, the chances are slim that you’ll be alone the whole hike unless you want to be. The main challenge could be boredom so be sure to have ways to entertain yourself on those long monotonous sections.
I did not find the service along the trail to be that much worse than the PCT. I used Verizon that is definitely the best option. There were sections in Colorado where I’d go days without service and the first section in New Mexico didn’t have any, but other than that, it was fairly regular with maybe a few days between service sometimes. Towns were okay, but uploading video was a challenge as most the wifi in towns were very limited. Many motel owners were very friendly and had computers for use if hikers asked.
General Trail Advice
-I had a friend give me some post trail tips about towns and random trail stuff and it was a great pdf to have on my phone as I did the trail. I made my own, “Post CDT Tips for Towns & Trail” pdf that all are welcome to download and use as they see fit.
-The CDT really isn’t as remote and frightening as it’s been made out to be. Now that it is more traveled and mapped out, it is much more hiker friendly. Like most things in life, if you just walk up and try it, it really isn’t that difficult. I you’d like more on what it was like to hike the trail, many have enjoyed the “Reflections on Hiking the Continental Divide Trail” article I did for Gossamer Gear.
-For most hikers, this trail takes a mental toll more than a physical one. Many dropped out due to boredom or just wanting to be somewhere else. There is a lot of monotony. Go prepared with strategies to keep yourself entertained. I found that floating group to group while also getting some solo time was nice. Audiobooks saved me and having a solar charger to be able to listen unlimited was great.
-Don’t stress or plan ahead too much with the routes. You’ll get a feel for it as you hike and it’s kinda fun to decide as you go.
-I always recommend aiming to finish by mid Sept for Northbounders. Snow comes earlier than you think in Glacier and you worked too hard to finish in Glacier and not enjoy it. Finish early, go slow through Glacier, and soak up your well earned reward!
-Enjoy the adventure:)