The Continental Divide Trail – The PhD of the Thru-Hikes

Salt Lake City, Sunday Jan. 13: While working on a grant for my PhD dissertation, I thought about the saying of “The CDT – The PhD of the thru-hikes.” In this very first article as part of my CDT 2019 thru-hike preparation, I wanted to give a brief background answering questions like: Where is the CDT and why is it the doctor of the thru-hikes?

The Continental Divide Trail (CDT)

Roughly 3,000 miles that span from the Mexican border in New Mexico to the Canadian border in Montana (or the other way around, depending on which direction you choose to hike). Despite the increasing popularity of the PCT and the AT, the CDT remains fairly unknown. Out of the three trails that have to be completed in order to receive the thru-hiking Triple Crown, it is considered the most advanced long-distance trail.

The Doctor of the Thru-Hikes

I am currently in my second year of a PhD program in Salt Lake City. One of the reasons why I have decided that my next big thru-hike has to be the CDT was because of its reputation to be the PhD of the thru-hikes. When would be a better time than thru-hiking the CDT while you are doing your PhD?

What makes a PhD harder than a master’s program? 1) It takes longer, 2) your overall aims of your dissertation project usually change throughout your program, and 3) you really have to love the project you are working on. Now, thinking about what makes the CDT seem harder comparing it to the PCT and the AT, made me realize that there is a lot of overlap with a PhD program in real life:

1. The Length

It is the longest trail compared to the three US long-distance trails. The total length of the trail is about 3,000 miles, which makes it the only long-distance trail in the US that can turn you into a member of the club of 3,000-mile finishers after successful completion. You can find the official list of 3,000 milers on the website of the Continental Divide Trail Coalition.

2. The You-Will-Get-Lost Myth

Did you notice the word “about” in the last part? There exists a myth saying that only 70% of the CDT is complete. Having done parts of the CDT by thru-hiking the Colorado Trail last summer, I can definitely agree with the statement that the trail is not always very well marked. Do I expect to get lost while thru-hiking the CDT? Absolutely! However, it is not the case that you are bushwhacking with your navigation system for over 900 miles. The 30% that is not completed refers to the many sections of the CDT that follow dirt or paved roads. It is highly recommended that a thru-hiker who attempts to reach the Canadian border in Montana and not somewhere else carries printed maps in addition to the thru-hiker-trusted Guthook app. One example is the free maps put together by Jonathan Ley.

Otherwise, the CDT is also considered the trail of alternate routes. There are five major alternates (Anaconda, Macks Inn, Knapsack Col and Cirque du Towers, Ghost Ranch, Gila River), however, there are tons of other alternates that hikers have taken. Someone who has thru-hiked the CDT in one year does not imply that someone has hiked the same trail in a different year, and even in the same year. This statement is also true for PCT and AT completers: No thru-hiking year is the same.

3. Thru-Hiking Love

You have to love what you are doing whenever you attempt something that takes time. This also applies to thru-hiking. Specifically, completers of the CDT say: The downs are lower, but the ups are higher. As mentioned above, the CDT follows quite a few dirt and paved roads. These and some other parts are considered the downs of the thru-hike, which means that you simply hike without having a stunning view for a while. It is just you and the trail, in this case a dirty road. Compared to downs on the PCT, these are considered to be on a much lower level and challenge your mental strength to just keep hiking through. Having completed the PCT, I cannot think of any sections that were an absolute struggle to get through that lasted for more than one day. However, the highlights of the CDT, which include, but are not limited to the Wind River Range, Colorado, and Glacier National Park, are ranked much higher than any highlights of the PCT and AT. I hope that I will be able to confirm this statement in about six months.

If I am honest, I am a little bit terrified to attempt this thru-hike because of its reputation. Doing a “real” PhD is hard and I expect the thru-hike to be similarly tough. But the beauty of the Continental Divide Trail is that it allows you even more to follow a widespread motivation among thru-hikers: Hike your own hike.

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