Thru-Hiking the Continental Divide Trail was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. This post is my advice for future Continental Divide Trail hikers. The CDT pushed me harder than I knew I could be. It left me with a profound feeling of awe for the wild places still in existence on our fragile planet.
I journaled daily on the Continental Divide Trail and uploaded a series of blog posts at the trek.com. The posts there give a good understanding of daily life from the CDT.
There are Very Few Hikers on The Continental Divide Trail
My first Thru-Hike was the Appalachian Trail so I knew the CDT was going to feel wilder and be less populated than the AT. The Appalachian Trail is one of the most hiked trails in the world. On the CDT we could be hiking for days and not see another soul. If things were to go bad on the Continental Divide Trail it’s possible you’d be on your own.
You’re passing through some of the remotest wilderness in the country. Be aware you’ll be spending A LOT of time alone on the CDT If you head out solo. If that’s what you are looking for then be ready to embrace it. I enjoy some solo trail time but was thankful to have a group of friends around me.
“Embracing the Brutality” – The Extremes of The Continental Divide Trail
The CDT earned its motto “Embrace the Brutality” because of the variation in terrain and environments you have to deal with. Desert hiking with few water sources and 100-degree temperatures is a challenge. That challenge is compounded when the next stretch of trail is on high mountain ridges covered in snow with freezing rain blowing in. Going from one extreme to the next on the Continental Divide Trail is one of the biggest challenges. My advice for future CDT hikers is to be mentally prepared for the variation and have all the gear necessary. This variation in conditions is also what makes the CDT so exciting and fun to tackle.
Don’t Listen to the Fear Mongering (too much)
In preparation for the CDT, hikers will hear all sorts of stories and fear-mongering from the trail. Only some of it is worth heeding. The thru-hiking community has a dirty habit of blowing some scenarios out of proportion. There are real, legitimate risks to hiking the Continental Divide Trail. There are also real, legitimate risks to driving on the highway every day. It’s important to do your research on the CDT and know exactly what you’re up against. Take overly aggressive “advice” with a pinch of salt.
Send Yourself Resupply Boxes but be Aware You can Find Basic Resupply in Most Places
We sent ourselves a lot of resupply boxes on the CDT, almost 50% of our resupplies were sent out to us. For many sections its absolutely necessary to send yourself boxes. In other sections, it’s very beneficial to have a box sent out but not 100% necessary.
Towards the end of the hike, I was sick of the food inside my food packages. Chomping the same old protein bars made me want to cry.
I was surprised to find basic resupply options at most key points along the way. In most of these scenarios, it was possible to get the essentials, even though the options were limited. As the trail continues to grow in popularity, the infrastructure for hikers will also grow.
Major differences between the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail
There are endless differences between the AT and the CDT. My guess is that people reading this post may have already thru-hiked the AT. I want to highlight some of the differences that stood out for me having first thru-hiked the AT then next tackled the CDT.
Bigger Miles and Longer Days
The average days hiking on the CDT started at around 7 and finished around sunset. Averaging 20-25 miles. On the AT I would casually wake up whenever it felt good and hike 10 to 13 miles. I stopped hiking at 4 or 5 pm regardless of how much daylight remained. It took me 6.5 months to hike the 2189 miles of the AT vs just 4.5 months to hike the 2700 mile CDT. My mindset and approach to hiking the CDT were a lot more focused and serious. This desire to push yourself is a natural evolution on a second thru-hike.
The Humid Hell of the Appalachian Trail vs the Dry Happy Hiking of the CDT.
One of the things that made the AT so challenging for me was the relentless humidity of the trail. I’m an Englishman that’s used to grey weather and rain. Despite a good amount of traveling in warm climates I am not acclimatized to hiking in 100% humidity. It kicked my ass.
It is not the same story on the Continental Divide Trail. Temperatures were higher on the CDT but there was very little humidity. Dealing with glaring sun exposure presented problems, but once you stopped hiking your sweat would dry. As opposed to the AT, when you were wet with your own sweat you would stay wet. Gross.
Spoiled by Trail Culture
In almost every way you’re spoiled on the Appalachian Trail. Looking back to the AT 2015 I didn’t realize how good we had it. For the first half of the AT it was surprising if we didn’t get Trail Magic every couple of days. On the CDT I can count the number of times we got trail magic on one hand.
People are less aware of the CDT than the AT. And less likely to pick up hitchhikers. They aren’t aware that the trail exists and the trail crosses roads that are more remote and further from the towns. You can find almost everything you need in towns on the CDT. There isn’t the same, established trail culture you find out east though. There are almost no dedicated hiker hostels or hiker run facilities like there are on the AT.
I found the Continental Divide Trail easier than the Appalachian Trail
This may come as a shock but I found the CDT easier than the AT. I’ll outline the different reasons here.
Where my Head was at, Emotionally and Psychologically
I was a very different person when I started the Appalachian Trail in 2015. In the four years, that’s passed since the AT I’ve continued to battle my demons. Despite many a setback, I’ve made progress. I was a wandering soul that needed to wander and the AT gave me a path to follow and a direction to take.
Two years later on the CDT, I was approaching the trail with a very different mindset. I had more confidence inside me. Knowing I’d previously completed a thru-hike. I had a passion inside me, to see truly wild places and be humbled by the scale of the mountains. I had focus in me, to create things and share them with people (you). To inspire and encourage.
The Beauty of the Continental Divide Trail
The beauty of the wild places we passed through on the CDT reconfirmed my love for long-distance hiking. The Appalachian Trail’s famous “green tunnel” is famous for a reason, it’s true. There are some beautiful spots on the AT but a lot of the trail is quite boring and gets repetitive. I swore never to do another thru-hike after the AT, despite having an amazing experience. Stepping out on the CDT I knew things would be different but I had doubts.
Day one leaving from the Canadian border and hiking Glacier National Park crushed that doubt. I’ve seen some amazing stuff in my life but day one on the CDT and I was already blown away. The CDT passes through such varied and impressive terrain. It kept me entertained and inspired to push forward from start to finish. I finished the CDT tired and ready for a break but inspired to continue long-distance hiking in areas that awe me with their beauty.
The Second Thru-Hike is Easier than the First
It goes without saying that the second thru-hike is easier than the first. You know what to expect, you’ve done it all before and you’re more confident. Looking back in hindsight I laugh at a lot of the ways I approached the AT. Despite having some things dialled in like my gear, my mental game was lacking. Rarely did I hike more than 12 miles in a single day on the AT. I wondered if it was because the AT was “way tougher hiking” than the CDT?
My friend Neemor confirmed that no it’s not. We both hiked the AT in 2015 and he returned in 2017. He confirmed that our slow pace on the AT was because we were noobs. He crushed serious miles from day one leaving Georgia. Experience builds knowledge. Let’s see if my third Thru-Hike and Triple Crown attempt on the PCT goes even better than the CDT.
Gear Advice for Future Continental Divide Trail Hikers
I’ve released a number of videos on my Youtube channel related to the gear I carried on the trail. I encourage you to check those out. Generally I was super happy with the gear I took out on the trail and only switched out a few items along the way. Here follows a few notes of interest.
At the end of the hike I carried a reflective Umbrella. I wish I ‘d had it from the start to combat the brutal sun exposure in the burn areas of Montana. Those first weeks and at several points on the trail the sun exposure was intense. Despite using a shirt with long sleeves and sunscreen, I still got sunburnt. The temperature under the umbrella was also lower, making it more comfortable to hike in the heat of the day. I always thought trail umbrellas were unnecessary. But for hikes with serious sun exposure, I’ll be bringing an umbrella along.
I’m a little annoyed at myself for not carrying an emergency beacon on the CDT. Pre hike me was trying to save money and justifying it by saying, “everything will be fine, I don’t need one”. I didn’t need one and everything was fine but it VERY easily could not have been. That’s the point of an emergency beacon. I’ve since picked up a second hand Spot messenger. I’ll be carrying it on this summers trip and on every serious hike I go on in the future.
A Warmer Sleeping Bag
I definitely underestimated how cold it would be in Colorado. Starting the trail I carried a 10 Degree Revelation Quilt from Enlightened Equipment. I was managing to stay warm but on the coldest nights and once we were down into Colorado, I was cold.
We toured the Big Agnes facilities and they generously gave me a sleeping bag to use when they heard my predicament. The bag they gave me was the Orno UL Zero Degree and despite the extra weight, I had no regrets carrying it. It was luxuriously warm and the mummy design didn’t feel restrictive coming from a quilt. My advice for future Continental Divide Trail hikers is to bring something rated to at least 10 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer if you sleep cold.
Gear I Ditched
As with any long distance trip you tend to take more things than you need and lighten the load along the way. Here I’m going to give a short rundown of things I ditched and why.
I read a lot and carried my Kindle for the entire Appalachian trail. We were hiking later into the evening on the CDT and I didn’t have much time to read. I ditched the Kindle and compromised by reading on my Phone instead.
Goretex Rain Jacket
I started the trail with my old Marmot Goretex Jacket from the AT. I quickly realised that I wanted to have rain pants with me but I didn’t want to spend much money. I decided to ditch the Goretex and go with nude dude Frogg Toggs. I didn’t regret my decision, carried them the entire way and loved them.
Bear Spray, Micro Spikes and Ice Axe
These three items are essential for certain parts of the trail but as soon as I did’t need them I ditched them to reduce the weight and bulk of my pack.
So that’s all my advice for future Continental Divide Trail hikers. The CDT was everything I wanted from a trail and I have very fond memories of my hike. Following these guidelines and practicing all the standard procedures for a thru-hike you can’t go wrong on the CDT.
If you have further questions for me or any of your own tips for CDT Hikers then leave a comment below. To see a full breakdown of the gear I used on the CDT, check out this video. Thanks for stopping by, Pie