I’m scared of the CDT

Hopeful Triple Crown thru-hiker, Al Marriott a.k.a. “Lookout”, has some fears going into his next long-distance hiking adventure: The Continental Divide Trail.

“There is only one thing that makes a dream impossible to achieve: The fear of failure.”

The Continental Divide Trail. The least popular, least hiked, and least publicised of the three long-distance hiking trails that make up the Triple Crown of Hiking. 3100 miles (4,989 km) of remote and unpopulated trail. Some estimates say only 80% of the trail is marked. That leaves over 600 miles (966 km) of unmarked bushwacking and road walking. And, compared with the AT and PCT, the CDT is relatively light on information, infrastructure, and proximity to major towns and cities.

In a previous post here on The Trek, I likened the CDT to a monster in a cave, with only the glowing eyes visible in the darkness. In that same post, I said that I wanted to go into the cave and see for myself what beast those eyes belong to. I want to hike the CDT and see what all the fuss is about. Is it really as hostile and unforgiving as it is sometimes made out to be, or is it an awe-inspiring and life-defining hiking trail ready for people to endeavour? A path that, with some hard work and determination, rewards those who dare with majestic views, incredible adventures, and solitude that is often dreamed of, but rarely experienced by most of us.

Standing on Grays Peak at sunrise, a week after finishing the Pacific Crest TrailStanding on Grays Peak at sunrise, a week after finishing the Pacific Crest Trail.

Sitting here in the “real world,” I found myself suffering some trepidation. But, it’s not as though I don’t know what I’m in for. I have completed the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail in back-to-back years. Last year, a few days after completing the PCT, I climbed Grays Peak and Torres Peak in the same morning. They are the tallest peaks on the CDT proper. A little taste of what’s to come.

I’ve hiked through the snow in the European Alps, New Zealand, and California. Last year, I was one of the first to complete a traverse of the Sierra Nevada, spending 32 days on snow, with 3 a.m. starts and no visible sign of the trail.

I know about long distances between resupplies. In that same section, some of the resupplies were 8-9 days apart.
I know about water carries. Maybe not as severe as the CDT, but carrying a lot of water over 20 miles (32 km) between natural sources was sometimes a necessity in the Californian desert section.
I’ve hiked in extreme heat in both Australia and the USA.
I’ve hiked alone for weeks at a time, so solitude isn’t an obstacle.

So, why am I still feeling nervous? Maybe it’s the fear-mongering that surrounds this trail in particular. The warnings you hear fired across forums, told in trail shelters, and gossiped around gas stoves: Filtering water predominantly from puddles and cow ponds, lightning and thunderstorms, overbearing heat, overwhelming exposure, snow, solitude, snakes, scorpions, brown bears and bobcats, moose and mountain lions, river crossings, remote resupplies, and venturing into places where no one can hear you scream!

Well, maybe that last one is a little hyperbolic, but the rest is valid.

On the summit of Mt. Whitney in May 2023On the summit of Mt. Whitney in May 2023

Recently, I’ve read a lot of comments about the CDT that seem to confirm people’s concerns. Warnings ranging from the difficulty of the terrain to the isolation driving hikers permanently off trail to seek community, companionship, and conversation.

Someone online warned me that no matter how much snow experience I have, the snow in the San Juan range is like nowhere else on Earth. A substance that makes foot travel almost unfeasible, but for the hardiest of hikers. It seems as though the thin strip of land that the CDT occupies is amongst the most inhospitable in the Contiguous United States.

Well, that’s what they’d have you believe.

“Embrace uncertainty. Some of the most beautiful chapters in our lives won’t have a title until much later.”

Where is this negativity coming from? Certainly not from people who have hiked the trail. These comments are rarely found in the CDT-dedicated Facebook groups and YouTube videos of those who have done it. The numerous Triple Crowners I met last year on the PCT never warned me against hiking it. If anything, they were overwhelmingly positive about the CDT, telling me that I’d love it and that it’s the trail they most desire to attempt a second time.

It seems that those who have hiked the CDT are encouraging more people to do it, not warding us off. So, once again, it’s those with the least experience that are the most negative. A lot of noise from an inexperienced few. Just like every part of every other trail.

Every upcoming section of the AT was going to be the worst. It never was. Meanwhile, on the PCT, the desert was going to sap my soul. Crossing San Jacinto solo was impossible. The Sierra Nevada was impassable. The fires in the north would make a continuous footpath improbable.

And for many out there, those warnings were true. San Jacinto did reroute a lot of people. The fires disrupted itineraries. The snow in the Sierra Nevada encouraged a lot of flip-flopping. But that advice wasn’t one size fits all. I enjoyed the desert, solo hiked San Jacinto in the snow, passed through the Sierra Nevada, dodged the fires, and made it to Canada with a continuous footpath. Many others were able to do the same. I was not the first, or last. Tin Man, a Dutch hiker, finished his Nobo PCT hike without diverting from the trail before I even made it to Washington. Yet, according to the narrative online, before the season started, such a feat was inconceivable.

“The snow is just too deep. A nobo thru-hike won’t be possible in 2023!”, the keyboard warriors screamed, in all caps.

“Putting off an easy thing makes it hard, and putting off a hard one makes it impossible.”

I know to filter out the facts from fiction, guesswork, and rumours – ignoring the exaggeration. So, where did these foreboding feelings about the CDT come from? Is it because I’m not doing a lot of logistical preparation? I do have a habit of thinking, “It’ll be alright on the night.” I did little logistical preparation for both of my previous hikes, and I had the time of my life on both.

I have all most of the gear I need. I teach Muay Thai, so I’m fit and active. Some very experienced CDT and Triple Crown thru-hikers have gone out of their way to help me with advice and offered a lot of useful information. I’ve watched other hiker’s videos on YouTube and read blog posts on this very forum. All of that helped reassure me that it’ll be fine. But a slight anxiety remains.
Maybe I should change my habits. Maybe I should get as close to ready as I can be right now, instead of one hour before my flight.

So, yesterday, I decided to bite the bullet. Let’s lock it in: Buy the flights, insurance, shuttle ticket, new Ursack, and the last little extras I need to add to the kit.

Spending so much money all at once doesn’t feel good. Watching the zeros in the savings account disappear. Especially knowing that’s not the half of it. There are still all of my on-trail costs to come.

My email box started to fill up. Receipts, booking confirmations, e-tickets. OK, that didn’t feel great, but a lot of the feelings I had held prior had diminished.

The contents of my final PCT resupply box in Stehekin, WA.The contents of my final PCT resupply box in Stehekin, WA.

But, now a new worry has struck me: Resupply boxes.

I’ve already seen and experienced resupplies that have little to nothing available. My commitment to a vegan lifestyle exacerbates this. Tuna packs and cheese are staying on the shelf. At a Deli in New York, my sole purchases were a loaf of fresh sourdough bread and a box of cornflakes – the only things I would eat in a shop full of snack foods. You can’t hike with those as your fuel.

A lot of hiker staples contain palm oil, a dangerous crop which, although it isn’t animal-derived, contributes massively to rainforest deforestation and mass deaths of keystone species, like Orangutans. As I actively avoid this ingredient, its presence eliminates some of the otherwise vegan foods, such as ramen, most vegan-friendly protein bars, and Oreos. A further complication to constructing a nutritious meal plan from the selection available at your average Mom and Pop Village store.

If you’re interested in knowing what I eat, keep an eye on my YouTube channel, Adventure Together. I’ll be making regular videos throughout the CDT.

I’ve been in touch with past CDT hikers who have dietary requirements and preferences that make a remote resupply from a gas station or independent grocery store difficult. They all have advised sending resupply boxes. What makes this difficult is that I am based in London. It will be costly to send heavy packages full of food from the UK, and I certainly can’t bring it all with me on the plane. One resupply is heavy enough, let alone twenty-two.

I’ll have to do it when I arrive. All of that organisation crammed into a single day between landing in Tuscon and starting near Lordsburg. Or maybe I’ll just do it in Silver City and make sure I have enough food organised to get me there.

So, now I have a plan. I know what I need to do to be safe. I have the experience. I’m fit and healthy. Everything is booked. I’m ready! But I’m still a little uneasy thinking about starting the trail.

“Fear is like fire. If you can control it, it can cook for you; it can heat your house. But, if you can’t control it, it will burn everything around you and destroy you.”

-Mike Tyson

Last week, one of the experienced Muay Thai fighters I teach had a match. I was the head coach in their corner, and it was my job to get them ready. They’ve been in the ring many times and experienced it all before. They’ve won, lost, and drawn. They’ve dominated and been dominated. They’ve heard some crowds boo their name while other times the crowd has cheered so loudly that you couldn’t hear the announcer. But, as we prepared in the changing room, with the roar of the spectators audible from the arena, my fighter confessed to feeling nervous.

I remembered that for every competition I had, I was also nervous up until the fight started. Up until the moment the bell rang and the referee said, “Fight!”, the fear was always there. And that’s a good thing.

“Fear is a phoenix. You can watch it burn a thousand times and still it will return.”

I felt scared before I started the AT, and I was nervous before the PCT. With both of those hikes, the feelings of apprehension and trepidation dissipated as soon as I took my first steps on the trail. I suspect that it will be much the same with the CDT. After a photo at Crazy Cook Monument, the journey will begin, and my nerves will be gone. My focus will shift from what’s ahead of me to what’s under me. The trail beneath my feet and the long journey I have started. Little things will fill my mind, replacing all of the worries which had held residence up until that point. The feel of my new shoes. Getting used to using trekking poles again. How my pack sits on my shoulders.

“Don’t be afraid of your fears. They’re not there to scare you. They’re there to let you know that something is worth it.”

You need fear. You need nerves. You need to know that there is danger and there are consequences. If you don’t feel that, then you don’t appreciate the gravity of the task you’re about to undertake. You need to control it, though. Don’t let it distract or dissuade you. Let it help you prepare for the worst, not stop you from trying.

The truth is, it’s not a true adventure if you’re not a little scared.

The cliché bookend photo from the PCT's southern and northern terminuses.The cliché bookend photo from the PCT’s southern and northern terminuses.

Al “Lookout” Marriott will be attempting the CDT in late April 2024. He will be writing about his experiences on the trail here at the Trek. Subscribe, to keep up-to-date with his posts. His trail videos will be available on YouTube on his channel, Adventure Together.

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Comments 3

  • Mikelikestohike : Mar 23rd

    “If your dreams don’t scare you they aren’t big enough.” Fear is a motivator, a moral decision maker and many more things. You decide what to do with it. You’ve got all the skills and experience Lookout, get after it. I’m 4 days into the PCT and the weather is more NorCal in winter than desert in the spring. We use our skills and make the best decisions we can. Get at it, you know you’ve got this!

  • Randy Chase : Mar 24th

    Impressed with the addtional palm oil restriction. I will starting my AT hike in 17 days doing vegan resupplies. But the AT is much easier for resupply than the CDT (and I assume the PCT). If I was not on trail this summer, I would offer to help ship. Best wishes Al!

  • JOHN SIMANSKY : Mar 25th

    I was always nervous and fearful of the unknown before every thru hike, haven’t felt that way since my last one, kinda miss it, makes you feel alive. You should do fine, hiking the AT then the PCT is perfect training for the CDT.
    Good Luck.


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