9 Reasons You Should Hike the CDT SOBO
After spending a large portion of the past six years thru-hiking, I’ve come to believe there is no bad way to do a long-distance backpacking trip. Although the cliché “hike your own hike” has taken some flack in recent years, it remains true that one of the best parts of thru-hiking is having the ability to make your own decisions and follow your heart.
That said, I have more or less become an exclusive SOBO thru-hiker over the years. It happens to work better for me, so when I decided to thru-hike the CDT in 2022, I naturally stuck with my SOBO habit. I am so glad I did. Even more than most trails, I advocate hiking the CDT SOBO. Here’s why.
You Get To Start in Paradise
OK, there might not be any white sandy beaches, and you are going to have to bring your own umbrella for your cocktail. Actually, you’re going to have to bring your own cocktail too. There will probably be snow on the ground and maybe an icy creek crossing or two. And you’re almost guaranteed to see a grizzly bear. So maybe not the tropical paradise you were envisioning, but if there is any more majestic way to start a thru-hike than the Northern Terminus of the Continental Divide Trail, I have yet to find it.
The SOBO trail begins in this boring little place called Glacier National Park. I had never been to Glacier before the start of my CDT SOBO thru-hike in 2022, but I had seen tons of pictures and had heard of its grandeur. Let me tell ya, the pictures just don’t do it justice. This place will make you feel like you are walking through a Discovery Channel special.
Glacier does require permits to backcountry camp in its boundaries, which can seem a little daunting with its insane application process. But as long as you are OK with a flexible itinerary, I found that most other hikers and I were able to just show up in the park and jump onto another hiker’s permit or even get a walk-up permit. Because permits allow up to four hikers apiece, this is also a great way to make friends if you are starting the trail solo.
You Hit The Seasons Better
There is no easy way to hike the entire CDT in one season. The CDT is gonna be a beezie no matter which direction you go. But hiking SOBO usually allows you to hit the seasons better… as long as you can hike fast enough.
SOBOs ideally start at the Northern Terminus in mid to late June once the snow has melted enough in Glacier to safely traverse the passes. I didn’t end up starting my hike until July 7th due to late spring snow, and I still hit snow patches on a couple of passes in the park. It was nothing sketchy, though, and since I had a lot of prior snow experience, I felt confident without microspikes. If you don’t have much or any experience hiking on snow, I recommend bringing spikes if it is a high snow year or if you plan on starting early.
But after that, it was smooth sailing (I mean, as smooth as the CDT can get). With my late start, I did have to bust my butt to get through Colorado before the winter snow came.
But Colorado is really the only time constraint that SOBOs have. With most of the hiking there being above 10,000 feet elevation and with the San Juans (the southernmost area) being mostly above 12,000 feet, there is an unwritten rule to make sure you get through the state before October.
I made it to New Mexico on September 30, and the next day the snow started falling. The pictures from the hikers going through Colorado behind me looked exciting at best and straight-up miserable at worst. Even then, there are some lower-elevation alternate routes in Colorado that one can take if the weather takes a turn for the worse.
On the other hand, NOBOs are constantly battling the seasons. If you start in April from the Mexican border, the desert won’t be too hot yet, but you will most likely reach Colorado too early in the year and be faced with horrible snowpack. If you wait until May to start so that you can hit Colorado at a favorable time, the desert will be miserable. And even if you manage to survive these states, the last thing you want to do is hike through Montana in October, so you are still going to have to push to reach the end in time or risk some sketchy conditions in Glacier.
SOBO = Solo
Compared to the PCT and AT, the CDT is pretty dang quiet. Having now hiked all of the Big 3 trails as a SOBO, I can tell you that each one provides the opportunity to make it what you want as a SOBO. If you want to be around people, it’s easy to find a group. If you want to be alone, that’s not too hard either. But the CDT takes the latter to the extreme. I found myself alone probably 95 percent of the time on this trail. I chose to hike my own pace, and if that aligned with others, great! If not, I was more than happy to get lost in my own thoughts.
While I encountered many more hikers than I expected (especially when passing through the NOBO bubble), I still had the trail pretty much to myself most of the time. The exception was when I was passing through touristy areas or on road walks. This solitude made for some epic animal encounters!
Had I wanted companionship, though, I could have easily stayed and hiked with multiple groups I passed through. As more people complete the AT and PCT and move on to what is usually the last of the Big 3 and as this trail becomes more known, I am sure the volume of thru-hikers will continue to increase. However, even though the CDT was originally intended as a SOBO hike, the majority of hikers still head NOBO on it.
You Are a Mystery
While the CDT is becoming more popular, it is still a relatively new and unhinged trail compared to the AT and PCT. Some people will know about this trek you are on. But most will just think you’re another traveler. Which can be quite fun. It’s one thing to be picked up hitchhiking by someone who knows about the trail. It’s quite another to be picked up by a random family in a minivan and blow their minds when you tell them you are walking from Canada to Mexico.
As a SOBO, you are hitting the trail towns in non-thru-hiking season for the most part, which allows you to fit in a bit more with the locals and also take advantage of the only hotel in middle-of-nowhere Idaho not being booked solid as the NOBO bubble passes through. People in Colorado will think you are crazy when you tell them you’re a thru-hiker: “you’re too late, you’ll never make it!” Haha, watch me.
I had my pick of beds in most of the hostels and never worried about showing up and finding a place to stay last minute. While there isn’t much trail magic to be found, if you need help in a town, the trail angels are more than excited to spoil you.
You Learn The Truth Early On
Before the CDT I was pretty much a purist as far as thru-hiking goes. Based on FarOut comments, I can tell that most NOBOs started their thru-hikes with a similar mindset, believing that “the Red Line (the official CDT) is the best line” and shaming all who wandered off the beaten path.
But by the end of the trail, I don’t think I met a single SOBO, NOBO, or flip-flopper who stuck to the actual CDT their entire trek.
All the NOBOs were taking every alternate they could find as they neared the Northern Terminus. Lucky for me, they let me in on the little secret of these alternates early in my hike. Had I gone NOBO myself, I probably would have stayed a purist for quite some time and missed out on some of the most amazing experiences of the entire journey.
One of my biggest takeaways from the CDT was that the Red Line is not the best line. Alternates are your friend on this trail. Some of the most epic climbs and sights of my thru-hike were on alternates, and the sooner you embrace the idea of choosing your own adventure every day instead of just going where FarOut tells you, the more fun you will have.
New Mexico is THE Hidden Gem
I would like to file a formal complaint with the United States for keeping the amazing state of New Mexico such a secret all these years. It was probably my favorite state on the trail, and even though I walked through half of it in the rain due to the unseasonably late monsoon season in 2022, I was still blown away every day by its epicness.
Pine forests, Star Wars landscapes, snow, mountains, the Gila River, every animal you can imagine, cacti, and of course, all the cows. The diversity of New Mexico and the beauty I encountered there left me in utter disbelief when I compared it to my expectations.
Getting to finish the trail in such a unique state and (hopefully) finish the trail in a warmer climate than up north is also a sweet blessing. I was terrified of what the water situation was going to be like in the desert, knowing I would be hiking there in October, but I lucked out with a lush fall and was never short on water.
Even in normal years, there are still plenty of options for water sources (as long as you are OK sharing with the cows), and the water caches within the last 100 miles before the border are pretty dang reliable.
The highlight of my entire CDT experience was 100 percent the wildlife. Never have I had such close or amazing animal encounters as I have on this thru-hike. While the grizzlies were slightly terrifying, I will never forget scaring a mom and her two cubs from 30 yards away. (Spoiler alert: I lived.)
From the bears to the moose to the mountain goats to the javelinas to the eagles and even all the mysterious rodents I will probably never be able to name, the wildlife was EPIC. But going SOBO, you get a special treat: elk mating season.
I spent the southern half of Colorado and the northern half of New Mexico waking up and going to bed every day listening to elk bugling. One of the top experiences of my entire thru-hike was walking into a valley in New Mexico at dawn and having a herd of 30 or more elk stampede into the valley in a line. They all stopped to stare at me as the solo calf pranced through the ranks, and the bull sauntered in and locked eyes with me without a care in the world.
Never have I felt so connected to nature as I did in that moment; those soothing bugling sounds at the end of my hike were some of the most peaceful, fulfilling moments of my thru-hiking career.
Aspen Trees. ‘Nuff Said
OMG aspen trees. Have you seen them? In the fall? In full gold? If you head down the CDT as a SOBO, you will hit Colorado in PEAK aspen season. It starts slowly, and then every day the trees get yellower and yellower and more and more vibrant. I can’t tell you how many pictures I took of these silly yellow trees. And every time you think fall is finally over, you will round a corner and see another grove of these beauts.
There is nothing like the comfort of walking through a gorgeous aspen field as the trees drop their bright yellow leaves of love on your face all day to fill your heart with unconditional joy.
You Will Learn To Love Yourself
Whether hiking with a group or on your own, you will have plenty of time to find yourself with miles and miles of trail all on your own. Even the couples I met spent most of their days hiking alone. Nothing to distract you. No one to save you or tell you to get off your ass and climb that ridiculous mountain. No one to stop the relentless cold or heat. No one to help you bushwack your way back to the trail the millionth time you get lost. But also no one to tell you which path to hike. No one to answer to. No one to comply with. No one to appease.
I would guess that 90 percent of the SOBOs I encountered on the CDT had hiked at least one or two of the Big 3. Which meant they were used to being independent. We enjoyed company when we had it, but no one felt pressured to stay together or create a tramily. We were all out there to find our own way and enjoy every experience we encountered.
On other SOBO hikes, I have felt the desire to get away from people at times, and sometimes that is hard. But the CDT… oh man, it’s almost comical how easy it is to end up on your own. So whether you are ready for it or not, if you go SOBO, you will become your superhero and best friend.
There is nothing quite like accidentally wandering off trail in the middle of nowhere all by yourself and bushwhacking your way back to make you feel invincible. Knowing that no one knows where you are is the most freeing feeling. Learning how to entertain and motivate yourself when you haven’t seen another hiker in days is the shit that makes you tough and teaches you how to trust and love yourself.
If you plan on hiking the CDT this year, I hope this will give you some insight into hiking as a SOBO and give you more confidence in your decision to go in that direction if you were on the fence.
But don’t overthink it; go with what your gut tells you. Ultimately, any way you can get outside, hike, and be part of this beautiful world is the right way. Just start walking, and the trail will provide. And if a SOBO CDT journey is in your gut… just do it!
Featured image: Photo via Jenn Wall. Graphic design by Zack Goldmann.
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