Wisdom from 2018 Continental Divide Trail Thru-Hikers (Pt. I)

The last trail we are going to address on this Wisdom from the 2018 Thru-Hikers series is the epic, infamous CDT. The CDT tends to be less trafficked and less talked about than the PCT and AT, and we’re thrilled to share this firsthand insight.

Megan “Sourstraws” and “Piñata” Hammond | May 2nd–September 3rd NOBO

Author’s note: I had the pleasure of leapfrogging with Sourstraws and Piñata at the very beginning of my PCT hike—we stayed at Scout and Frodo’s the same night before starting our hikes. Already veteran thru-hikers, they were very willing to answer my rookie questions. When I started this interview series, it turned out Sourstraws is still willing to humor me by letting me interview her about the CDT!

Image courtesy of Megan McGowan Hammond

“…hiking is a part of who we are, so we will continue to prioritize that, even in the real world.”

Favorite trail town and why?
Probably Darby, MT. Lots of good food options, reasonable lodging, and walkable.

What did you do to prepare for your hike that you think directly affected the outcome?
Saved and budgeted. First of all, we saved a lot of money before the trail; I think a lot more than most, which is what allowed us to be able to Triple Crown in three years, but not without being careful financially.

Also, like virtually everyone on the trail, we are privileged. In the off-season, we were supported by family who allowed us to stay and eat for free. A lot of people don’t have that, and it’s a lot harder for those people to thru-hike. I can lecture other privileged, educated white people all day about saving their money, but I’m sure most of my advice is not as helpful to a person from a less privileged background. But I digress.

We worked odd jobs in the off-season to keep us afloat and help fund our hikes. Paul is a chef and did a lot of private work, especially during the holidays. We also worked event-staff type temp jobs around Arizona, because there is a lot of tourism here in the winter. Our original goal was just to hike the Appalachian Trail, but by the time we were in Maine we knew we wanted to do the PCT, and we knew that if we were very careful with our money, we could pull it off. Next thing we knew, we were on the CDT the following year.

We both quit our careers to pursue hiking, so we knew that we should pack in as much as possible before going back to work. We didn’t want to walk away twice—it’s a lot harder to come back from. But we are also in our 30s, so we were a little more established in our fields than if we were younger, which makes it a little harder to walk away from.

And of course, lastly, we didn’t have a lot to tie us down. Our student loans were paid off, our car was paid off, and we had no house and no kids.

What were your luxuries on trail?
I carry a UL air pillow and it’s worth every gram. I also carry a monocular, mostly for birding, but it’s great for observing all wildlife and also identifying hikers off in the distance.

What piece of gear did you bring but not need?
Well, both of my luxury items are wants rather than true needs, but I got plenty of use out of both of them. I actually carried a short-sleeved shirt that I barely wore. I wasn’t sure in the beginning if I’d like hiking in my long-sleeved sun shirt, so I brought the short-sleeved as a backup. I ended up wearing it in town more than on the trail.

What piece of gear did you wish you had?
I wish that before the trail I had gotten the Avenza app and uploaded the Ley maps onto it. The Ley maps offer different information than Guthook, and we only had them in PDF. It would have been nice to have the Ley maps set up with GPS like Avenza, rather than trying to sort through which page we were supposed to be on.

What do you think changed the most about your personality or outlook on life from this experience?
I think most people who come to the trails share a certain worldview, us included—a desire to do more than just work to get money to buy things that in turn you have to work more to afford. And I think the trail only reinforces that for most, so we come back to society feeling a bit like outsiders. But I’m not sure any of that was a drastic change from before. The trail just reinforces that outlook. I’d say the main thing I’ve come away with is greater self-confidence. I’ve realized that I am more capable than I thought I was, that I can handle mental and physical stress better than I thought I could. And that most of my limitations are actually just mental.

The trail has changed our relationship. Before hiking, we both worked jobs with different hours, so we’d go days hardly seeing each other. In many ways, we lived independent lives, and the trail thrust us together for months on end. Aside from just having to deal with the things that annoy you about another person, we both had to let go of our independent goals and learn to work together virtually all the time. And we had to face the ways in which we needed to change in order to make this work. We had some rough days, but we came out on the other side as a team.

Did you hike more in a group or solo (apart from you and Piñata)?
On all the trails, we tend to spend long periods hiking with just the two of us, and other long periods hiking with friends.

What was your trail family like?
On the CDT, we started the hike with our friend Jupiter, whom we met on the PCT. The three of us hiked together until around Leadville, CO, when he took some time off to visit his girlfriend. We then hiked on our own for the rest of Colorado and all of Wyoming. Along the Idaho/Montana border, we met and started hiking with Yoda, and the three of us stayed together over a thousand miles until the border. There are a few other friends that we hiked with quite a bit and I would refer to as trail family, but Yoda and Jupiter are the two we hiked the most miles with.

What was your favorite part of hiking in a group?
Hiking in a group can be really nice because having other people around almost always lifts your spirits. Especially on days with difficult navigation, every extra set of eyes is helpful. And having company helps keep it from getting too frustrating.

Piñata and I really like to hike together and push each other toward new milestones. Whether it means hiking a new longest day or just hiking a little longer than we had planned earlier, we enjoy the independence of it and also the fact that we work together really well. And there’s nothing like having a great view with no one else around but the two of us.

What did you turn to, on a rough day, to keep yourself motivated and driven?
Podcasts, usually. Something that will occupy my mind and hopefully make the time pass a little faster. Or hiking with someone new and different. Conversation with a new person can be so great on the trail.

What do you miss most about the trail (life)?
The connectedness that comes with living outside and being a part of the world.

Now that you’re done a Triple Crown, what do you guys plan to do next?
We’re definitely ready to settle down a bit and be back in our own space. However, hiking is a part of who we are, so we will continue to prioritize that, even in the real world. We use our days off together for short overnight trips, we are planning to hike the Tahoe Rim Trail this fall, and our list of shorter hikes is pretty long: more exploring in the Grand Canyon, the Wonderland Trail, the Sierra High Route, the Wind River High Route, and section hiking the Arizona Trail, to name a few.

What is one piece of advice you would give aspiring thru-hikers?
I think this advice would ring true for most, but especially for women: don’t listen to the naysayers and fearmongers. They don’t actually know what they’re talking about.

Mike “Slingshot” Graham | May 9th–September 8th NOBO

“There becomes a quiet camaraderie that forms when a group coalesces at an epic break spot or unique campsite after a brutal day. Being able to share expansive views, burning red sunsets, or unbelievable stories from the day’s battle—friendship warms you on a cold night.”

Favorite trail town and why?
I think my favorite trail town had to be Steamboat, CO. I had just finished my longest day (43 miles) the night before, and slept in a ditch on the side of the highway so I could get the first hitch into town. The generous hitch I received gave me their card, offered a ride out of town when I was ready, and was a wealth of knowledge about the area. The hotel wasn’t outrageously priced; there is a hot spring, a Big Agnes, a Natural Grocers, and a post office all in a convenient place for a wobbly thru-hiker to be able to rest and recover. On the way out of town, I hiked up Rabbit Ears—the formation whose rocky spires could be seen from miles away through a brilliant rainbow, as I headed back to trail, and toward Wyoming.

What did you do to prepare for your hike that you think directly affected the outcome?
For the CDT, trail prep breaks roughly into three parts for me.

Physical preparation consisted of weight training for roughly four months before the trail. This regimen included consuming plates of cookies and ice cream, and various other high-calorie treats on a daily basis, in an effort to gain mass for the impending starvation mode my body would be switching to within two months. I set out to run (three) 5k’s over (three) consecutive days—the week before leaving for trail. I didn’t expect positive results, but my body responded favorably.

Gear preparation consisted of reducing and refining equipment and clothing that has worked well for me on other trails. This meant enlisting my girlfriend, (and best trail angel and support on trail) Goldie, to sew me a custom 20 degreee sleeping quilt. It is still one of my best-performing pieces of equipment.

Food preparation consisted of purchasing a large variety of trail food, and packing it into boxes to be sent to each town by Goldie, who would also be making and dehydrating gourmet dinners to add to the boxes. Having a hot meal from home on cold nights helped warm the heart.

What were your luxuries on trail?
Some hikers may argue that a stove is a luxury, as opposed to cold-soaking your every dehydrated meal. So call me luxurious. I like hot chocolate, tea, and miso. I would also pack out treats sent from home or friends. I try to keep my luxury items confined to consumables.

What piece of gear did you bring but not need?
For half of the trail, I carried a base layer to change into at night. I sent it home in Colorado.

What piece of gear did you wish you had?
I wished I had brought a different rain jacket. My rain shell was heavily used prior to the CDT and wasn’t well ventilated. This resulted in my puffy layer getting wet and staying wet in the sections without sun.

What do you think changed the most about your personality or outlook on life from this experience?
In my experience, each long-distance hike I’ve taken on has had a large impact on my life—and perhaps that’s why I feel such a strong pull to return to the trail. The PCT helped me be calm in the moment, confident in my abilities, and comfortable being alone. The CDT helped me refocus on what is valuable and important in life. Having to face new challenges every day forces you to continually confront how you deal with problems. I wouldn’t say any of my deeply held convictions have swayed, but my mental disposition in the way I now approach challenges in my life has blossomed in knowing myself better. Part of what holds many of us back is the inability to accept ourselves for all of our faults as much as we embrace each of our strengths.

Did you hike more in a group or solo?
For most of the CDT, I camped mainly with one or two other people. As I gained comfort and speed on the trail, I passed a lot of people, and during these overlaps, I’d hike with a new group for a few days, sharing breaks, trail news, jokes, and sometimes campsites.

What was your trail family like?
On this trail, my trail family was very small but very warm. When coming into town, we would pool our resources to find an affordable place to stay, and divide and conquer the chores so we could enjoy some rest in town.

What was your favorite part of hiking in a group?
There are definitely elements I enjoy about hiking with someone, or in a small group. There becomes a quiet camaraderie that forms when a group coalesces at an epic break spot or unique campsite after a brutal day. Being able to share expansive views, burning red sunsets, or unbelievable stories from the day’s battle—friendship warms you on a cold night and makes us all feel like we belong together in this brutal thing we all hold as something special.

I like hiking alone for many reasons. I love the quiet solitude, interrupted only by the sound of my breath, the earth crunching under my shoes, and the symphony of natural sounds of the complex world surrounding my humble, mobile bubble of existence. I love those small, magical moments when I can glimpse the rare grazing bear, adorable bounding pine marten, or giant moose before they spot me, and the feeling I get when an impressive and expansive landscape unexpectedly rises into view. I like being able to work through problems, conversations, designs, plans, and silly thoughts, interrupted only by the thought—“How far is water?”

Inevitably, striking out on my own quickly transformed into testing limits and creating challenges to push how far, how fast, how much I can do, and an implicit demand to quantify where my threshold is for suffering and pain.

What did you turn to, on a rough day, to keep yourself motivated and driven?
Losing motivation on a difficult long-trail can be the beginning of the end for even the most seasoned hikers. Many factors can start your mind down a negative, spiraling path that’s hard to pull out of. You don’t sleep enough, you never stop long enough, your feet don’t stop throbbing, you’re in a constant state of starvation, you’re miles from any town, the week has been nothing but PUDs, there’s no damn view, it’s hot as hell, there are no flat spots to pitch, you’re exhausted, and your entire body hurts in such a specific and nauseating way. What’s the point?

In order to keep my momentum moving forward, I tend to do a sort of meditation to bring myself back into the moment and reassess my attitude by refocusing on the positive mainstays in my life, and the inspired life I want to continue building once I finish the trail. For this reason, the background image on my phone that lights up at night is of my stunning girlfriend. I’ve found that if I can change the quality of what I think about, it will directly influence the quality of my hike.

What do you miss most about the trail (life)?
I miss everything about trail life. I miss feeling like I’ve earned a stellar view after a brutal day’s climb. I miss being the mysterious piece of filthy hiker trash that quietly rolls into trail towns, seeking ice cream, a warm meal, and a hot shower. I miss having a massive goal in front of me while cruising through some of the most beautiful, ever-changing scenery on the planet, and being able to clear my mind of every distraction, but for the occasional query for water or food. I love the way the trail provides—be it trail magic when you need it, a hidden cooler, an inspiring view, an unlisted shelter, an interesting hitch, or the shocking kindness of strangers. Perhaps I enjoy the simplicity of just being, truly living in the moment, and being able to take the time to fully understand and appreciate what I have.

What is one piece of advice you would give aspiring thru-hikers?
If there’s one piece of advice I’d give to aspiring thru-hikers: Aside from physical endurance, you will have challenges every day you will have to find a way to overcome—through emergency, pain, fear, diffidence, and distrust. Conquering each challenge reveals part of your true character, and in turn makes each following day easier to overcome as those personal obstacles diminish. Keep your head up. Push. Celebrate the victories, great and small.

And for the love of Pete, take care of your poor, abused feet!

Amanda “NoDay” Goldstein | April 18th–September 16th NOBO

“Alone on a rough day, occasionally I would just cry or cuss the frustration out.”

Favorite trail town and why?
There were lots of really awesome trail towns on the CDT. I really like Darby, MT. The town is small and walkable but still has everything you need, plus a great cafe for breakfast and an amazing candy store where you will probably spend too much money. Atlantic City was also cool. You have to send a resupply box there because there’s no grocery store. Really, there’s just the Miner’s Grubstake saloon, but you can stay in a teepee outside the saloon and there are showers and laundry at a nearby campground. I chose to do this and take a nero there instead of going all the way into Lander (also a very cool town, I hear) and it was really fun just hanging with the locals at the bar.

What did you do to prepare for your hike that you think directly affected the outcome?
I prepped eight or so boxes with gear and supplies prior to the hike. I used a combo of friends’ advice plus Halfway Anywhere’s surveys to decide where to send boxes and it worked out well. I also printed out maps but never really used them on the trail. I had Jonathan Ley’s maps loaded on the Avenza app on my phone plus the Guthook app and those were sufficient resources except when it came to fire detours—I used Backcountry Navigator for some of those. That’s about all the prep work I did.

What were your luxuries on trail?
My greatest luxury on the trail was the coconut cream powder and all of the mystery ramens I got from the Asian grocery store that I sent in those eight resupply boxes. Way better than regular ramen. Also, the Nongshim ramen is available at a few of the regular grocery stores along the trail. That stuff is a little more pricey but really good too. On the subject of food, when Clif bars become unbearable, those Gatorade protein bars are surprisingly delicious. My luxury item on the trail was a pair of down pants in Montana. No regrets. I’m a desert rat and I hate the cold.

What piece of gear did you wish you had?
I wished very, very, very badly that I had a head net and proper 100% DEET bug spray in the Wind River Range. The mosquitoes were almost as bad as the northern Sierra on the PCT. Hot damn.

What do you think changed the most about your personality or outlook on life from this experience?
I’m not sure I changed a whole lot as a person on the CDT. But it was a transition time for me. I did a lot of contemplating about my career on the trail, and the trail is ultimately where I decided (albeit somewhat unconsciously) to switch careers from the environmental nonprofit world to the health care world. I don’t think I would have had the brain or balls to make the switch without that time on trail to contemplate.

Did you hike more in a group or solo? What was your favorite part of hiking in a group? Alone?
I hiked about 75% of the trail with a group and 25% alone. I sort of ditched my group in Southern Colorado when I decided I needed to hike alone, then hiked alone for a while, then crewed up with another solo hiker in Southern Wyoming. We joined forces with my original group in Montana and all finished the trail together. We were the International Crew because it was me, a woman from Alaska, and then one guy each from North Korea, Germany, France, and Belgium. There were a lot of international folks on the CDT, mostly from Europe, which I thought was awesome. I liked hiking alone because I got to go at my own pace, make decisions easily, and have solitude, which is what I wanted at the time. But it got lonely fast, and I really, really enjoyed sharing the experience with others.

What did you turn to, on a rough day, to keep yourself motivated and driven?
Another perk to hiking with a group is that they can motivate you on rough days, and vice versa. Alone on a rough day, occasionally I would just cry or cuss the frustration out. Not gonna lie; texting off-trail friends and family was a plus on days with cell service.

What do you miss most about the trail (life)?
I miss the simplicity of trail life. It is such a privileged, unforgettable way to spend five or six months of your life. Nature is awesome, man.

What is one piece of advice you would give aspiring thru-hikers?
My piece of advice to aspiring hikers, aside from the obvious HYOH, is not to be discouraged by any sources of elitism in the thru-hiking community. If someone gives you shit for an 18-pound base weight, don’t take it unless you’re in a lot of physical pain from carrying the weight. Then maybe take it a little. The one other piece of advice: make sure you save up some buffer money for when you get off the trail. The first time I thru-hiked, my bank account was close to zero when I finished the hike and it was pretty stressful trying to find a job right after. Extra money for that post-trail job search period = less stress.

I definitely felt like the CDT was less remote than people make it out to be, and it really hit home just how much we use public lands not only for recreation but as resources (i.e., cattle grazing and timber), and how visible this is on parts of the CDT.

While this was not my first thru-hike, I hiked with people for whom it was their first hike, and screw what people say; it is totally 100% possible to do the CDT as a first thru-hike. I think the important thing on the CDT for people both with and without thru-hiking experience is to listen to what others have to say about their gear choices and experiences, and pick and choose what works for you (Though I do think those with less experience benefited from hiking with those who had more experience.)

Many thanks to all the hikers who let me interview them about their CDT thru-hikes. I’ve always been a little intimidated by the idea of hiking the CDT, so it is comforting to see that CDT thru-hikers are of the same ilk as all the rest of us. It sounds like a wild and wonderful trail. We’ll be revisiting it for the next (and last?) piece in the Wisdom from the Trail 2018 series soon. Stay tuned!

Check out the rest of the interviews in this series:

Wisdom from 2018 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers (Pt. I)

Wisdom from 2018 Appalachian Trail Thru-Hikers (Pt. II)

Wisdom from 2018 Pacific Trail Thru-Hikers (Pt. I)

Wisdom from 2018 Pacific Trail Thru-Hikers (Pt. II)

Wisdom from 2018 Continental Divide Trail Thru-Hikers (Pt. II)

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

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Comments 3

  • Perry : Apr 4th

    I have yet to thru hike although I did section day hike the Florida Trail. I’m always amazed at how much more preparation, physical and financial, I am doing compared to what others are reporting. Hopefully my extra effort pays off in a successful thru hike but I guess if it doesn’t, at least I’ll know I tried.

  • Lyn : Apr 12th

    Thank you for all this great information – very helpful and fun to read!


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