10 Things I Wish I Knew Before Hiking the CDT
Having already hiked the Pacific Crest Trail twice, as well as the Arizona, Tahoe Rim, Colorado, and Appalachian trails, I finally set foot on the CDT this past summer to complete my Triple Crown. With so many miles under my belt, I assumed one more little 3,000-mile hike would be a breeze… but boy, was I wrong.
I finished the trek, had many amazing moments along the way, and also learned several lessons the hard way. So now I’m gonna tell you all the things I probably should have known before I hiked the CDT so that maybe you can be just a tad bit more prepared than I was.
1. The “red line” is not the “best line.”
FarOut is basically the thru-hiker bible. You will hear thru-hikers refer to the main CDT as the “red line” because that is the color of the trail in FarOut. On previous thru-hikes, I was determined to hike as much of the actual trail as possible instead of opting for alternates, shortcuts, or blue blazes. I went into the CDT with the same mindset.
But I quickly learned that the red line isn’t always the best option. The CDT stays within a mile of the actual continental divide whenever possible, which is great in theory but doesn’t always equate to the best or most logical track. No, my favorite parts of the trail weren’t on the official CDT—they were on alternates.
Alternates provide opportunities to choose your own adventure. Sometimes we take alternates because the main trail lacks water. Sometimes we take them to avoid PUDS (pointless ups and downs). And sometimes we take them to explore cool side trails that lead to better views or experiences than the red line.
Choosing your own path every day brings a sense of freedom. You are in charge of your destiny. Tired and want an easy day? Take a road alternate. Bored of the farmland and need an adventure? Scramble up a ridgetop alt.
If you dig through all the waypoints on FarOut, you’ll find plenty of comments detailing some of the alternates. I also recommend downloading the free Jonathan Ley Maps from Avenza. These maps not only show you some of the most common alternates with GPS location, but also give good intel on why to hike certain routes over others. Ley maps even show some water sources that might not be listed in FarOut.
2. The desert doesn’t suck.
Hiking SOBO on the CDT meant starting in Glacier (definitely one of the most remarkable parts of the trail) and ending in New Mexico (which I assumed would be flat, empty, boring, hot, and dry). I figured, “Hey, the desert might not be epic, but at least it will be easy at the end!”
Boy, was I wrong. Having never set foot in New Mexico before and now having hiked across it, I would like to ask the United States why they have been hiding this gem for so long. I loved the PCT desert and the Arizona Trail, but the New Mexico section of the CDT blew my mind.
It is high desert, and it is beautiful. When I passed through this fall, I was treated to pine trees, mountains, and yellow aspen. I would climb big mesas with the most beautiful views and then drop back to the endless canyons and rocks of the desert floor like something out of a Star Wars movie.
While I know the desert is a lot hotter for most NOBOs, I went through in October during a late monsoon season. I probably got rained on half the days I was in the state. But when the sun was out, the weather was glorious. And when the sun set, the temperature dropped, and I quickly curled up in my tent, only to get out to pee and stare at the glorious starry night sky.
Due to the late monsoon season, water was rarely a concern. Every source listed in FarOut was flowing. Moreover, plentiful cow troughs in the waterless areas provided surprisingly decent water. Just north of the southern terminus, the water tanks do become scarce, but some very diligent trail angels seem to keep the caches well stocked.
3. It’s either hard or it’s easy (but mostly, it’s hard).
Truth be told, I didn’t actually do that much research on the CDT before I set out. But after multiple thru-hikes under my belt, I wasn’t too concerned about just showing up and figuring it out along the way. Which, more or less, totally worked. What I wasn’t prepared for was how freaking hard this trail is.
Since the CDT has less elevation gain/loss per mile than the PCT and AT overall, I didn’t think it would be that hard. I assumed the “hardness” factor would be from frequent exposure at high elevations, long food carries between resupply points, navigation, and the possibility of bad weather.
But the reason the overall elevation gain is lower than the other trails is basically because of New Mexico. New Mexico is pretty flat overall and includes a lot of road walks. And the other states also contain a decent amount of road walking, which skews the numbers. But when you’re not road walking, you’re usually climbing straight up and down mountains.
I would constantly look at my elevation profile for the upcoming day and see I had maybe 6,000 or so feet to climb over 25 or 30 miles. Not too bad, right? Except when 2,000 of those miles occur in a two-mile stretch, often climbing on loose rocks or ankle-rolling tundra. Pure torture.
I never appreciated the gentle grade of the PCT as much as I now do after completing the CDT. Even the AT, which is basically rock climbing in Southern Maine and Northern New Hampshire, still seemed easier overall than the constant ridiculous climbs that this trail provided seemingly out of nowhere.
4. The animals aren’t actually all trying to eat me.
I started my SOBO hike in Montana’s Glacier National Park, aka grizzly central. Helpfully, I also binge-watched multiple episodes of the show “Alone” on the Amtrak ride to Glacier, specifically Season Eight, which takes place in grizzly country. I got off the train beyond excited to start the trail, but also slightly terrified of the massive beasts that awaited me.
And wouldn’t you know it, on the very first night, a grizzly wandered into our campsite. After that, we were on edge for the next week or so, expecting a bear around every turn. But after no more grizzly sightings, I slowly started to get more comfortable. By the time I saw my next grizzlies (a mama and two cubs that I startled from 30 yards away) in Yellowstone, I calmly walked away even as she sniffed the air in search of what surprised her.
I walked past multiple moose, elk, snakes, javelinas, and goats throughout my thru-hike. The wildlife was by far the highlight of my adventure. Having 25 elk stampede into a valley I was walking through and stop to stare at me was one of the coolest things I have ever experienced.
But no matter what the media tries to sell you, the wildlife of the Rocky Mountains isn’t out there waiting for a chance to eat you. Most animals just want to be left alone. Unless you are actively pursuing a bear or moose, it will leave you alone the majority of the time. Be smart, but don’t be scared. Remember, bear attacks make the news because they happen so rarely.
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5. It’s actually not that desolate.
Everything I had heard about the CDT led me to believe that I would be wandering around in the middle of nowhere and never see anyone. While I did have some quiet days on the trail, there was only one day where I never saw another soul.
Fewer thru-hikers attempt the CDT compared to the PCT and AT, especially southbound. Outside of the national parks and touristy areas, I didn’t see many day hikers or weekend backpackers either. But since the trail does end up on a lot of jeep and logging roads, I saw a decent number of hunters and people on side-by-sides.
I also had the idea that carrying food for week-long stretches was going to be the norm. In fact, the longest food carry I had was only six days, and the majority of my food carries were just three to four days. Which meant I was hitting civilization (if you can call a town of 50 people in rural Idaho civilization) more often than expected. I definitely never felt lonely or like I was all alone.
If the trail continues to grow in popularity, which I’m sure it will, the desolation will surely become less and less of a concern. While I hiked with other thru-hikers off and on for some sections, I spent most of the trail on my own. This was mostly because I just went at my own pace and didn’t worry about being part of a group. If it worked out that I was around other hikers, great! If not, I enjoyed that just as much. But had I been looking for companionship, it would not have been hard to find hiking companions.
6. The weather rules.
No matter what the weather report says, there is always a chance of rain on the CDT. Being that the trail more or less follows the continental divide where the weather is always dynamic, storms could pop up out of nowhere, any time of day. Lightning could crack at six a.m. only for the sky to clear an hour later.
Despite your best-laid plans, mother nature is in control on the CDT. Sometimes that means having to be flexible when the weather gets interesting. That could mean double zeroing to wait out a storm in the San Juans., pushing big mileage to get through the Gila before the next storm floods all the crossings, or altering mileage to avoid exposed ridgelines during thunderstorms.
I walked through massive hail storms as the sun beat down on me, my body covered in sweat. Ridge walks with 60 mph wind forced me to walk sideways to combat the force. Conditions in the desert veered from hot and sunny to freezing within minutes of sunset. I experienced snow in New Mexico, downpours that lasted days, and thunderstorms popping up every afternoon while stuck above treeline. The weather on this trail certainly kept me on my toes, but that’s part of the CDT’s cham.
7. The “trail” sucks.
Hey, I’m just here to tell you the truth. The CDT is amazing in many ways. The views, the wildlife, the people, the amazing places you stumble upon that you never could have imagined existed. But the actual, physical trail? It sucks for the most part.
This kinda makes sense. This is a new trail compared to the PCT and AT, and obviously, it is less traveled compared to those two. Until a couple years ago, the number of thru-hikers who completed the CDT was next to nothing. The CDTC (Continental Divide Trail Coalition) is still a small force with limited funding.
Like most long trail builders, they took pre-established trails and connected them as best they could. Sometimes sections are linked by roads that aren’t ideal for hiking. Other times they are connected by single track. However, often that track is just a trail of rocks or is so unmaintained it is hard to follow. Switchbacks basically don’t exist; you’re gonna climb straight up and down every hill in sight.
Granted, the tread significantly improves in certain areas, like in national parks and on the Colorado Trail. However, the rest of the trail is infrequently trafficked or maintained. You’re gonna be staring at the ground a lot trying not to roll your ankle (but you still will).
And ohhhh the blowdowns.
In some sections, you climb over a downed tree seemingly every 100 feet. I often wondered how much elevation gain and loss the blowdowns would add to the CDT if they were accounted for. The good news is you get to really work on your parkour skills. And get ready for some bushwhacking. Especially for the southernmost 100 miles. Nothing says fun like trying to find your way through a field of cacti and rattlesnakes!
8. Resupplying is easy.
Along with expecting to be totally alone on this venture, I had also heard that I would need to send boxes in places. As someone who enjoys planning as little as possible, I figured I’d ship myself boxes from the trail as needed.
I did have friends send me care packages at different points. But honestly, I never failed to find either an adequate resupply in town or a ride to somewhere with better options. Granted, I’m not very picky and tend to live off pop-tarts, trail mix, and ramen regardless. So resupplying out of convenience stores wasn’t a problem for me.
Anyone with strict dietary needs would likely have a harder time. Some towns might only have one restaurant or store—but hey, food is food! One does have to be more aware of hours in small towns. Everything might be closed if you roll into town late. On certain days of the week, the only restaurant in town might be closed. But as in most small towns, the people are friendly. They’re usually willing to accommodate a hungry hiker if you call ahead and ask them to stay open a few minutes late.
Hitching to and from town sometimes took longer than I wanted, especially in places like Wyoming, where the closest town was an hour away. However, people are just as nice on the CDT as they are on any other trail I have hiked. I always managed to get a ride.
9. You’re gonna have to hustle.
Having become accustomed to the SOBO way of thru-hiking over the years, I knew that was how I would hike this trail. And I am so glad I did. While this trail was originally conceived as a SOBO trail, it is more frequented by NOBOs, especially in recent years. I attribute this to the fact that most people have hiked the AT or PCT before attempting this bad boy. Since most hikers go NOBO on those trails, they just follow suit for this one.
Many 2022 NOBOs were still in New Mexico this spring when a 200-mile trail closure forced them to either road walk around the fires or skip up to Colorado. With the late spring snow this year, most NOBOs reached Colorado only to face high snowpack in the San Juans. Some pushed through, but most skipped it, not wanting to put themselves at risk on terrain that is treacherous even without snow.
Even in normal years, it’s common for the Colorado Rockies to hold onto snow into July. This puts NOBOs at a disadvantage if they don’t have snow experience. Going SOBO, I had a much better weather experience, but it wasn’t without its sacrifices. I had planned to start the third week of June, but with the late spring storms, Glacier was still a mess. Postponing my start to July 7th left me with minimal snow in Glacier and beautiful weather (besides the usual daily afternoon thunderstorms).
But it did mean I had to kick my butt into high gear for the remainder of the trail.
The unofficial rule for SOBOs is to get through Colorado before October. It can snow anytime, but usually, October is when the real storms come. I didn’t take any zeroes until I hit Colorado and was averaging 30 miles a day besides town days. It kicked my butt to not only do such mileage day after day without rest, especially on the crazy terrain of the CDT.
I got through Colorado on September 29th (having taken three zeroes in CO, mostly to wait out storms). It started snowing on October 1st. At this point, most of the other SOBOs were behind me. From their pictures, it looked anywhere from downright freezing to horrendous. The CDT is practically all above 10,000 feet elevation throughout Colorado. The San Juans (the most southern portion of the state) are mostly above 12,000 feet and above treeline. I don’t have to tell you how NOT fun it is to be freezing or wet at that elevation.
No matter what direction you hike the CDT, you’re going to battle the seasons and the snow in Colorado. Luckily low routes exist to take you around some of the higher sections in CO, but you will definitely be missing some of the most epic parts of the trail.
10. It’s beautiful and brutal.
You get the views that no one else does, but boy, are you gonna have to work for them. If I could have taken this trail slower, I would have camped at every exposed ridgetop I could. The nights I did were the most epic I have seen. I saw so many breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, not to mention the clarity of the stars in Wyoming without any kind of city within hundreds of miles. I’ve never felt as connected to nature as I did waking up and going to bed listening to elk bugling.
But some of those climbs will literally bring you to tears. You will often wonder how the CDT could hate you enough to make the trail go where it does. You will mutter “OMG” under your breath as you stare at the most gorgeous scenery you can imagine and then a minute later scream “WTF” at the absurdity of the trail. I loved some days on the trail and hated others. But I supposed that’s like any thru-hike, isn’t it?
The CDT was unlike any other thru-hike I have done. Overall, it was the hardest one I have accomplished, both mentally and physically. I learned so much along the way and definitely would do a few things differently had I known what I know now. If you’re planning on hiking the CDT, I hope you take these lessons to make it the best experience possible. Or if not, at least make all the same memorable mistakes I did.
Featured image: Photo via Jenn Wall. Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.
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