Make It So; Planning a Great Divide Trail Thru-Hike

Planning a Great Divide Trail thru-hike has been a wild ride thus far. Permits, train tickets, kilometers, and the list goes on. There have been days when it has made my head spin, but it will all be well worth it in the end. The GDT is a whole different animal, that’s for sure.

Fortunately, things are starting to shape up for a great summer on the trail.


Serious planning for the GDT started around the new year. Permits for the Canadian national parks open at the end of January each year, so my hiking partner and I had to come up with a strategy for snagging our campsites before opening day. For us, this has been the most stressful part of the whole process. Trying to figure out our hiking speed on a trip that doesn’t always have trail, convert kilometers into miles, then actually get the campsite we want is a headache. Here is how we did it:

Pick a Firm End Date

I am starting grad school in the fall and my hiking partner is a teacher. Luckily neither of us need to be back until the end of August. We picked Aug. 25 as our hard stop date.

There are several end termini for this trail. While Kakwa Lakes is quite popular, it is remote and requires two days of road walking to get a hitch. Our current plan is to end at Mount Robson.

Pick a Loose Start Date

Just like the Colorado Rockies, the first week in July is generally when most hikers start out in the Canadian Rockies because of snowpack. This seemed like a pretty reasonable goal and very doable with our schedules. It will even give us some extra time to leg up before hand.

Pick an Itinerary

OK, so we kind of cheated on this one. My friend ordered a copy of Dustin Lynx’s GDT guidebook, which has example itineraries in it. From step one and step two we can conclude that we have 50 on trail days. Based on our average pace on the Colorado Trail, we feel comfortable using the 40-day itinerary, which boasts five zero days and high-mileage days in the national parks (where the trail is well maintained).

Since it will only take us 40 days for the GDT, we made the decision to start out on the Continental Divide Trail and hike through Glacier National Park first.

Reserve Campsites Based on Itinerary

Basically, we just took the 40-day itinerary from the guidebook and made July 12 equal to day one as this is when we are estimating we will cross the US-Canada border. Using the GDTA campground list, we were able to figure which campsites needed reservations and make a list of which campsites to reserve in each national park along with a date.

Find a Hiking Partner To Make Your Reservations

Shout-out to Carly Swisher! She called in to Parks Canada on Jan. 23 and 24 to make all of our reservations and ended up getting almost all of the spots we wanted. Also, if you like spreadsheets, now is a good time to start using one to keep your reservations organized.


Not sure how this whole permit thing will turn out once we actually get there, but let’s not talk about that right now…

Picking campsites.

Just when we thought we were done… Glacier permits open March 15. Carly and I are just getting started on the planning process for GNP. Honestly, if it’s a huge hassle we might just do walk up reservations. Stay tuned to find out.


While Carly was busy reserving campsites, I was tasked with the rather important job of acquiring a current passport so that they will let me come home when we are done with our hike. My last passport has a super adorable picture of me at five years old looking unimpressed. Believe it or not, the government thinks you should renew your passport when it is almost 20 years old.

5 year old passport picture

Yep. It’s definitely been awhile since I got my last passport.

If, like me, your passport is outrageously outdated, you may know that you have to apply in person to get a new one. For the first time in my life I have been working 8-5 Monday through Friday, so I had to track down a post office that is open for passports on Saturdays. Pro tip: Pick a morning appointment when applying for your passport. It goes a lot faster that way. You will also get brownie points if you have all of your paperwork and photos ready to go. I applied for my passport the first weekend in February and received it two days ago, just about four weeks later.

Passport: check.


One of the original reasons for choosing to spend a week hiking through Glacier was that it would be less of a hassle to get to Glacier than to fly to Calgary, then hitch back to Waterton Lakes. Carly had the absolutely brilliant idea of taking the Amtrak train rather than try to find a flight into Glacier Park International Airport in Kalispell. Unfortunately, it would be crazy expensive as well as a pain in the butt to take the train from Denver to East Glacier, as Wyoming is basically an Amtrak dead zone.

The good news? Carly lives in Oregon. It’s almost a straight shot from PDX to East Glacier on the train. The new plan: mail my “sharp” items to Carly, fly into Portland, then take the Amtrak train (an adventure in and of itself).

We were lucky to find a BOGO deal on train tickets last week, so it came out to about $50 per person. After talking to my family, they were willing to throw some Southwest points my way, so I should be able to get a flight out to Portland for free. Getting closer!

Other Odds and Ends

Permits, passports, and travel to the terminus were the real biggies when we first started planning our thru-hike. We both already have most of our gear and have hiked a trail of a similar length, so now it’s just dialing everything in and working out the smaller details.

Some other considerations for this hike so far:


I was really happy with all of my gear and didn’t mind the weight on my CT thru-hike. However, this trail is going to require climbing over more blowdowns, bigger river crossings, and just be more intense in general. I’d like to go a bit lighter, but don’t really have the extra cash to shell out on a UL pack or tent. I will likely stick with my CT gear list.

I am considering going stoveless because I almost never use it anyway, but I am not convinced yet. Mostly I want it for rainy days and the few fancy meals I bring as treats.

Definitely bringing gaiters. Nothing is more irritating than a sticks in the socks from bushwhacking.

Gear on the CT

If it ain’t broke…


To mail resupply boxes or not to mail? That is the question.

I have flip-flopped on this several times. It is crazy expensive to mail international packages, so regardless I would wait to mail boxes until over the border. I like being able to give myself more variety when sending boxes (a different flavor Pop-Tart every day), but to be honest I’m feeling pretty lazy and will probably just resupply as we go.

Summary: TBD


The constant worry of many a thru-hiker, still trying to figure out how to cover all of my costs. Current strategy: hoard all of the gift cards, don’t spend anything more than I have to for the next three to four months, and apply for as many outdoor grants as possible.

I’m taking tips on this one. Got an idea, let me know.

Andean Cats

One of the things I am super excited about on this hike is using it as an opportunity to spread the word about Andean cats. These really neat cats are endangered and one of the best ways to help them is to let people know they exist (because you have probably never heard of them, right?).

To do: Get something, such as small, felt Andean cat, so that I can take pictures of it in neat places during my thru-hike.

Andean Cat

All in all, the planning process is coming along nicely. T-four months to go.

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Comments 1

  • Josh Johnson : Mar 6th

    You’re not helping my fascination with the GDT … you’re fueling it! Sounds like a solid plan and I can’t wait to hear more.


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