Category: Continental Divide Trail

ALDHA-W 2013 and a smidge of the Sierra

The sleeping bag speed stuffing event during the Hiker Olympics.

The sleeping bag speed stuffing event during the Hiker Olympics. Anish won the event and eventually the gold.

I attended another wonderful hiker gathering last weekend. The size, format, venue and schedule of this ALDHA-W Gathering seemed just right. Not too big, not too small. Just a perfect weekend of slideshows and hanging out with really great people. You are some impressively strong, skilled and experienced hikers. Hot damn that’s a lot of walking. Thanks for being my friends.

After the Gathering, I spent the rest of the long weekend higher up in the hills. We lunched in Downieville, snacked in Sierra City, camped at Packer Lake (in a fall drizzle), and road tripped through the “lost Sierra”. Ambling around Truckee, Tahoe City, the lake, shopping for a SUP and exploring the Donner party’s history happened too.

Reading small town bulletin boards is a worthwhile way to spend my time.

Reading small town bulletin boards is a worthwhile way to spend my time.

CDT completion certificate

I just received my Continental Divide Trail completion certificate from the brand new CDTC! I think that I applied the day they announced them.

Continental Divide Trail on Facebook

CDT Completion Certificates

CDT friends, the new Continental Divide Trail Coalition just started issuing completion certificates for the CDT. I just filled out my application and you should too! They haven’t started accepting members, but their founding paperwork should be done before too long and I’ll be one of the first people to sign up.

Planning a thru-hike on the Continental Divide Trail

What follows are my thoughts on planning a thru-hike on the Continental Divide Trail. I wrote this for submission in Yogi’s CDT Handbook. The wording and formatting may be awkward. It was written in response to questions that I have deleted from this text. Questions? Please leave a comment!

CDT NAVIGATION

Many CDTers also don’t know squat about navigation. But that doesn’t fly so well out on the divide. It’s not well signed. It doesn’t have a lot of footprints. It’s definitely not always the most major path. It’s often on roads with networks of road intersections. And there often isn’t a single way to hike the trail. On the CDT though, we have GPS. Most CDTers are using GPSs. Yes, it takes the challenge out of it. You look at your screen, see where you are, and see where you need to go. As long as your GPS is working well (it’s not broken, it has batteries, maps and a track), navigating on the CDT is pretty brainless. Hiking the CDT without a GPS requires navigational skill. Having one, not so much. Most people don’t use their GPS all the time. They keep it off and navigate with Ley’s maps and/or Wolf’s guides. Both are outstanding, and if you keep on top of them, you’ll find yourself found.

I’m a skilled navigator and had my GPS on all of the time. And still, I was misplaced about eight times. It’s not big deal. Generally, I just didn’t know where I was, and didn’t want to take the time to figure it out. So, I made a choice, walked on, found out I was wrong and went cross country to where I needed to be.

I brought a compass and I know how to use it. I’ve taught navigation courses before. I found myself rarely using my compass and when I did it was mostly just to orient my map. I’d definitely recommend having a compass. Buy one that has automatic declination.

I brought a GPS. I’m a Map Contributor for Backpacker Magazine (I get paid to thruhike!). I had a GPS on all of the time to collect a map of the trail. You can download it at backpacker.com/cdt (PCT one is backpacker.com/pct). Most people are bringing GPSs. If you do, be sure that it’s a mapping GPS. Have 24k maps loaded on it. Have a track loaded on it. Soon there will be three options of tracks, Out of Order’s, Backpacker Magazine’s (mine) and the CDTA. There is a lot of consider with GPS and it gets complicated quickly.

I’d honestly consider taking an orienteering class if you don’t know much about navigation. Navigating can be a fun, enriching part of backpacking and a class is a great way to learn the skill. I teach these classes, but I’ve never taken one myself.

CDT PERMITS

Nine of us rented a car in East Glacier and drove up to get a permit the day before we wanted to hike. We decided to consolidate our group so that we weren’t taking up a bunch of separate designated camps. The ranger was a nice guy. He was reluctant to let us do the Highline Trail but wouldn’t outright tell us that he wouldn’t permit us for it. After kind of beating around the issue, I asked for his clear opinion. He said: “You’d be stupid to do the highline trail in these conditions.” I think that he was right. Not wanting to carry bear canisters, he had a hard time permitting us to just use camps that had bear lockers. Early in the season, many backcountry camps are designated as being in winter protocol and thus require canisters. The ranger faced that issue and the fact that weekend hikers had some of our needed campsites already reserved. He permitted us anyways by having us sleep in some of the car campgrounds along the way. We would have had a better choice of camps if we’d reserved our permits in advance.

For Yellowstone, I didn’t have a permit and walked into the park to get one at Old Faithful. This was problematic but turned out perfectly. At first, the ranger presented NO options. There simply weren’t any campsites for me to stay at, and I wouldn’t be allowed into the backcountry legally. I was like… “umm… what?!” That’s not really an option… But that’s what her computer was showing her. A big fat, no. I’d heard that other thruhikers were having their permits checked in Yellowstone and that some had gotten large tickets. And then, a bit of trail magic happened. A northbounder came into the permit office to tell them that she wasn’t planning on using a backcountry camp that she’d reserved. She gave it to me. It was the perfect camp for me. For the next night, the ranger decided to lump me with another CDTer. Apparently, they can lump CDTers together in camps without our approval. I’m totally ok with that! I ended up sleeping with a northbounder that night that I’d never met before. It was great. While all of the backcountry camps on the CDT were reserved, very few of them were actually occupied. People reserve them in advance and then don’t actually show up in Yellowstone for their backpacking trip. Yellowstone’s permit system is kind of a mess. I’d reserve my Yellowstone permit in advance next time. I hear that they can be flexible with dates if you have a permit but are there are on the wrong dates.

In Rocky Mountain National Park, I didn’t need a permit as I did it in a day.

THE SOCIAL ASPECT

I hiked with a large group for the first month or so. I found it to be a lot of fun, but hard to be on other people’s schedules. It’s hard to consider where everyone is at with a large group. At times, I felt like I wasn’t being considered, so I separated from the group. Then I hiked with just a partner most of the rest of the trail. Occasionally, we’d have another solo hiker join up with us for a while.

Trail romance is awesome. I was more than willing to compromise in order to stay with people. I hiked with Lost (youngest female triple crowner, I think!), a woman I’d met on the trail. Most of the way, we were simply friends. At some point, that evolved into more than friends. It was great. We didn’t share gear. Our packs were light even with each of us carrying our own stuff. We liked to eat different things for dinner and we were too lazy and cheap to buy a double shelter. Plus, it was less commitment. We didn’t fight. I was bummed a few times when I had to compromise and not walk the actual divide in bad weather because it was too brutal. But it was worth it to be with a partner. If you can find a great hiking partner, I highly recommend it!

I thought about illegals before I hiked. I was pretty excited to hike in a “dangerous” place. During the hike, I encountered some incredulity from New Mexicans and Coloradans when they learned that I was planning on hiking near the border. This fear generally came from people who had no personal experience down there. But as I got closer to the border, I also met concern from actual Mexican-Americans who lived near the border. It seems like there actually is some genuine danger. It’ll be a horrible day if any CDTer ever is robbed or hurt.

I did the official trail to Crazy Cook. I didn’t encounter any illegals. I saw a single set of footprints heading north in the border region. I saw a discarded poncho and a water container used by illegals. I don’t think that illegals hike much of the CDT down there. I didn’t see much evidence of it and it seems like a harder place to cross than most. The trail angel in Deming pushes hard for people to go through his town which he says is “safer”. The trail angel in Hachita says that his area has little illegal problems. I wonder how much of this is bias because each of them want hikers to pass through them. Regardless, I wasn’t worried about illegals on the Crazy Cook route.

I did encounter a lot of border patrol. We had two patrolmen on horses, four on ATVs and one in a truck. All of those had seen our prints and came out specifically to make contact with us. We were also buzzed by two helicopters and a jet. We also so many more border patrol, including military in Hummers. One border patrol guy told me that they were having problems with new rangers shooting holes in our water caches thinking they they were planted for illegals. They were trying to educate their rangers not to do this. We had no problems with this. There was a cache that had a lot of weed in it. That’s cool and all, but I’d strongly recommend against possessing anything illegal in such a heavily policed area!

CDT GEAR

I had an online journal at my own website. I use wordpress, it’s good. Postholer is better than trailjournals.com, but trailjournals has more readership. Even less people will read your journal if you do what I did, and have your own website. Tjs is nice because the “community” follows it. I updated in towns, and sometimes from the trail on my smartphone. I’d do the same thing again.

I had a lot of electronics! I had a smartphone, a SPOT, a camera, an ipod and a steripen. I also carried a tiny set of speakers, from which I played music and podcasts aloud to alert grizzlies of my presence. A smartphone with Verizon is pretty awesome. I had cell service for much of the trail, and could surf the internet from some really remote places. I had a SPOT because I was “working” for BACKPACKER and it was a neat way for people to follow me. My parents loved me having a Spot, and I like the safety that it provides. I carried an iPod in addition to my smartphone. This was pretty redundant, but I liked having something with a long battery life that didn’t drain my ability to use my phone. I carried a camera as well because phones don’t take great pictures. I also had bought an external battery pack that could run my phone, speakers, and ipod. I sent it home because it was extra weight and I didn’t need to charge my stuff between towns.

That’s a ridiculous amount of electronics! In 2011, I’d carry similar stuff. I’ll probably have a SPOT Connect that interfaces with my smartphone. And I might carry the external battery pack instead of the extra ipod. I’ll have to see how that system works though.

I have a high quality point and shoot camera. It’s a Canon S-90 (now the s95). I like photography and Canon’s take great quality photos. I also have a durable, waterproof camera that I chose not to carry because it doesn’t take as nice a photo. The S-95 also shoots RAW, which is cool if you’re a geek.

I spent about $5500. That doesn’t include money my parents spent mailing me stuff. Nor does it include a lot of my gear. I used stuff I already owned, or I got stuff for free from companies.

I hung my food longer than most other people. I hung my food whenever I felt I was in grizzly habitat. I think that was from Glacier to Helena and then again around Yellowstone. The rest of the time, I kept it on the ground, but not right next to my body (unless it was raining, then it was in the tent). I chose this method because others were doing it and because I was lazy. I think that sleeping with your food is really quite risky and in some areas it’s a bad idea. Thruhikers have been attacked while sleeping with their food. I hung my food around grizzlies because I didn’t want to be attacked. I slept with it when there were just black bears because I was lazy and reckless. I didn’t carry a bear canister, but would consider one for Glacier so that you could use campsites that require them.

For purification, I started with a combination of Aqua Mira and not treating. I got sick, perhaps because of water. I then started regularly using Aqua Mira. Then I bought a Steripen, because Aqua Mira isn’t cheap either and I don’t like consuming chemicals. I liked my Steripen. A set of batteries lasted about three weeks. I recommend buying the batteries on Amazon, where they sell for $1 a piece instead of $6 a piece in some stores on the trail. I’d also buy your steripen from REI because sometimes they break and need to be returned. I’d also carry a backup of the chemical of your choice. I’d consider a pump for New Mexico, because sometimes the water is gross down there.

I used gatorade bottles and soft sided bottles to carry water. My carrying capacity varied depending on where I was. In wet areas, I kept two gatorade (or vitamin water) bottles. In dry areas, I went with a two liter soft sided bottle (Evernew) and a one liter Platypus soft sided bottle. That’s five liters, it was generally enough. For a bit, I felt compelled to have seven liters of capacity.

I used three different packs! First, I started with an Osprey Exos 58. It was too big. I was intimidated by the CDT and thought that I needed burlier and warmer gear than I needed. I’d over prepared Then, I had my well used Golite Jam 2 sent out. It just helped to confirm for me that the Jam 2 has weird fit issues. It’s torso was too short on me. So, I bought an MLD Exodus. It’s a good size, but the shoulder straps flatten out quickly. I’ve found my preferred pack system, and I’m thinking of producing it for sale myself.

I used a Tarptent Moment. It was given to me for testing purposes. I like it. A lengthy review is on my website. It’s a darn good shelter for the CDT, if you’re willing to carry two pounds. I’d be interested in a lighter, floorless shelter next hike.

I carried my totally spent Marmot Helium (an ultralight 15 degree down bag). I wished for a new bag that still had loft in the shoulders. I’d carry a fifteen degree bag again. I used a half length ridgerest foam pad. I find it plenty comfy and it is the frame for my pack. In the fall, at high elevation, I wanted a longer pad, but it wasn’t a huge deal. I carried a Gossamer Gear Polycro groundcloth, it’s light, and I only used it when not using my tent.

I generally slept in my clothes. From Colorado to Mexico, I had long underwear that I slept in. I also used a silk liner.

I used an Evernew alcohol stove and pot stand/wood burning stove. It’s not that great, and I wouldn’t buy it. It was supplied to me for testing. It was slow, but really efficient, so I could boil pasta for a solid 6-8 minutes on it. I also used a 0.9liter Titanium pot, a perfect size for me. I don’t recommend going with a wood burning stove for a thruhike. I found that I was too tired to bother with burning wood and much preferred alcohol. I wasn’t able to buy alcohol in Lordsburg so finished the hike by cooking on tiny wood fires.

I rarely cooked, then hiked. I found that I’d rather just stop around 7:30pm and be done for the day. Stopping at 6pm, cooking until 7pm, then walking until dark, rarely gave me many more miles. It’d work well at the beginning of the hike when it was light super late, but at that time, I wasn’t in shape to hike 30+ mile days. Plus, I like having a little bit of time at the end of the day to joke around or read.

I used trekking poles until New Mexico. I kept them because I was used to them, because they help my knees, are good on snow and really help with stream crossings. I got sick of them, and wanted my hands to be free, so I gave them up for New Mexico. I liked hiking without poles, and I’m not sure if I’d bring them again.

I used a silnylon pack cover. It works pretty marginally. It’s waterproof, but collects lots of water at the bottom which makes my pack and gear wet. I also use a Safeway brand trash compactor bag as a pack liner. I replace every two months or so. And then I also keep stuff in waterproof drybags. It’s a little heavy, but I find it necessary.

My favorite piece of gear was probably my SPOT. Friends and family liked seeing where I was camping, and it helped me feel connected to relationships that matter to me.

My iPod, cell phone, speakers, magazines, cards and books were my luxury items. I only had reading materials at the end of the hike, but I love reading on the trail. I like all of these items because it helps me feel like I’m not death marching.

Like I said before, I carried a tiny set of speakers in grizzly habitat. I played podcasts and music over them to alert the bears of my presence. I did this to avoid feeling compelled to shout “Hey Bear!” often. I found that I was hiking and talking with other people most of the time, but if I’d been solo, they would have been great. Otherwise, nothing really unique. But I do think that smartphones are pretty killer for long trails.

I thought that I needed more warm gear and stuff for the CDT. I was wrong. The stuff I used on the PCT would have been fine for the CDT.

I wore long sleeves, both pants and shirt. I did this to avoid skin cancer mainly, but also to protect myself from bugs and thorns. I prefer shorts and a T-shirt, but I’d do long sleeves again.

My warm top was a Montbell Down Inner jacket. It wasn’t warm enough. I also bought a kick ass hooded fleece from Melanzana in Leadville, CO.

I did appreciate having a higher quality rain jacket. I went from a PU-coated jacket like the Marmot Precip to an Event jacket. It was the same weight, but much higher performance. More expensive too, but I didn’t pay for it… I also used really light golite rain pants, that aren’t actually waterproof.

Montrail had cancelled my favorite shoe, so I tried out a ton of shoes before the hike. Myke, introduced me to the zappos.com VIP program on the CDT. It’s killer! The shoes are full price, but if you’re VIP, you get free overnight shipping. This was pretty helpful. Their website said that their VIP program was closed, but I called them, told them what I was doing and they were happy to make me a VIP for life.

I went through six pairs of shoes. But I had to buy a few pairs earlier than I would have. I really needed a new pair in Dubois, but the only shoes in town weren’t my size. So I bought them, and then had better shoes mail ordered to the next town.

I like dirty girl gaiters, but they wear out fast and I didn’t want to spend the money.

I carried a larger first aid kit than most. This might be a reflection of all of the first aid treatment that I’ve given as a guide and my training as a Wilderness First Responder. I carried gloves, gauze, tape, moleskin, tincture of benzoin, antibiotic cream, burn cream, bandaids, steristrips, a semi-permeable dressing, immodium, ibuprofen, pepto bismol, tylenol, vicodin and benadryl.

I didn’t even attempt to keep clean on the trail. I don’t have problems with chafing. But if you want to treat it, zinc works well. Boudreaux’s Butt Paste is one product.

I carried used TP in a ziplock bag to town. Sometimes I buried it. I did this when I was pooping in areas with good soil that see very little use. I’m not a woman, but a lot of burly mountain women that I know like the “Keeper” and dark chocolate during their period.

I put sunscreen on as I want to avoid skin cancer. I was a little lazy about it, but I put it on my face, neck and the backs of my hands.

I wear sunglasses because I want to avoid going blind when I’m older. I don’t use really cheap sunglasses for that reason. You bet, I wear a sun hat. I prefer the Sunday Afternoons Adventure Hat. It provides great coverage, is crushable and does ok when wet. For hunting season I switched to a blaze orange ball cap so that idiots and drunks wouldn’t shoot me. I wish I had a blaze orange Adventure Hat.

CDT CONDITIONS

We had a “heavy” snow year, but snow wasn’t an issue south of Glacier. Sure, we walked across snow in the Bob, but no steep slopes that would have required gear. Sobo in a deep snow year, I was surprised that it wasn’t more of a challenge. Well, that’s except for the deep, new, unstable snow that fell.

I was shocked that we had avalanche conditions. It was concerning that most thruhikers didn’t know squat about avalanche safety, and they exposed themselves to deadly conditions. This is rare, but concerning.

I carried an ice axe and crampons for Glacier, but ended up road walking most of the park. I used both of them going over Piegan Pass and was happy to have them. I’d definitely recommend them for passing through both Glacier and Colorado if there is snow.

I didn’t do any glissading. In general, it’s lots of fun, and can be a great way to get hurt.

Again, I was surprised that we didn’t have worse stream crossings. There were one or two in the Bob where we did “team” crossings. Learn techniques on how to cross streams with groups of people. I don’t think that I had to cross anything that was waist deep though.

I prefer bug free campsites that are LNT and have epic views. Generally, I just camp wherever though.

Mosquitos weren’t as bad as I was expecting. They were worst in central and southern Montana. I was expecting bad bugs in the Winds, but they were mostly gone. I hardly had to use Deet, and I put it on my face and hands. Otherwise, I had long sleeves.

If I hiked again, I’d try harder to stay on the divide, even when conditions were rough in Colorado. I’d also carry a general antibiotic.

I started at Chief Mountain because the conditions warranted it. Plus the ranger said that we’d “be stupid” if we tried starting at Waterton. I’d love to hike from Waterton, but I think that a Chief Mountain start is pretty common.

CDT TRANSPORTATION

I took a shuttle from Utah to Las Vegas, flew to Spokane and got on the late train to East Glacier. From there, I teamed up with other hikers, rented a car, and got an acquaintance to drive us to Chief Mountain. I might consider flying in to Kalispell. Flights from Vegas were really cheap to there. Then I might just try to hitch hike.

Lost and I were the only sobos to hike the official trail to Crazy Cook. I wanted to hike the official trail because I love the CDT, and I preferred a wilderness finish to the pavement at Columbus. I’d recommend Crazy Cook to others, but if I hiked again, I’d probably do Columbus just for a change. I don’t think that anyone was using Antelope Wells.

Three of us paid Sam Hughes $160 total to pick us up and drive us to Deming. He’d have taken $110 to Hachita, but that’s in the middle of nowhere, and there are so many cops around that I wouldn’t want to hitchhike. Sam’s a nice guy, but he’s old and sick. He talked of having a friend lined up already if he ever couldn’t do the shuttles. It turns out that he’s an official, permitted shuttle driver, so he pays extra money to the government which is factored into his price. I thought that Sam had a beefed up truck, but really he doesn’t. I’d consider hiring him for the hour and a half on dirt even if I was having family drive down there with high clearance 4×4. The road truly is brutally rough in places, you could easily do $100 in damage to your car driving it. From Deming, we stayed a night with trail angel El Coyote, then got on Greyhound to El Paso. Greyhound can be a problem. Even with a reservation, it’s often full. We were told that we weren’t going to be able to get on it, but it turned out to have two seats left when it came by. That was critical for us to be able to make our flights out of El Paso. There was a local bus from the Greyhound station in El Paso to the airport, and we got a great deal on a hotel by the airport by reserving online via hotels.com or some such business. We flew Southwest out of El Paso.

I was content with my decision to go southbound. If I hiked again, I’d be open to either direction.

I had two days off, then started working again. I didn’t really have to deal with re-entry but that’s because I don’t do re-entry. I spend most of my life outside.

I’m most likely leaving for the AT in a month. I might do the Hayduke Trail immediately after that. Otherwise, I want to spend a summer in the Sierra and I’d love to move to Bolivia or Nepal. I’m likely to continue being obsessed with backpacking, but I might be done with long distance hiking after these plans are done. I’d like to start long distance bikepacking.

GENERAL COMMENTS

Cooking Crow in Lander had pretty sweet $5 gourmet lunch items. Best deal on the trail was the HUGE “half” of a chicken and mango quesadilla from the main restaurant (whatever it’s called) in Lincoln for only $4! Best burger? Perhaps the same place.

I like the phrase “Embrace the Brutality” but I have some problems with it. Mainly, I disagree that the CDT is brutal. It rarely was for me. Sure, there were some brutal moments (three rain/snow events come to mind) but generally the divide was enjoyable. This phrase helps me feel “extreme”. It helps me feel adequate, capable and special. But I can also feel those things without “proving” it to others. That’s why I don’t feel the need to maximize the challenges I face.

I try to avoid maximizing in my speech. I say simply that it’s hot or cold, easy or hard, and let those words speak for themselves. Avoidance of maximizing, helps me see things more as they really are. I can be assertive in my language without maximizing. The day was beautiful. The weather was rainy. It’s a zen way of seeing the world. Talking of the CDT as “brutal” is inaccurate (to me) and unhelpful.

I enjoy hitchhiking. I like meeting strangers, accepting what’s outside my control and realizing my connection and dependence on others. Generally, I got hitches easily. I even had some remarkable good luck.I shoulder tapped someone coming out of McDonalds, and he was going to the exact trailhead that I need to get to. Twice, I had to wait an hour and a half. Once, I just sat down a read a magazine and someone stopped to offer me a ride. Once, I had a guy show me his gun.

I like zeros. I wish that I could have taken more in Colorado, but I felt compelled to get through the mountains before it snowed. I’d recommend zeroing most places. I enjoyed spending time at both Ghost Ranch and Circle A (most didn’t stop at Circle A, but it was great!)

I could see myself living in Lander, Steamboat Springs, Leadville, Salida and Silver City. I wasn’t a huge fan of Chama. Lima and Leadore are tiny but friendly. I didn’t care for Sawtelle, Mack’s Inn and Old Faithful. Grants is lame, but the trail angel’s there are awesome. Lordsburg is a dump but has great chinese food.

Thanks be to all the Angels! I’d really like to give a “shout out” to Nita for keeping a house for us in Pie Town and Hugo and Carol in Grants for driving around to drop individual water caches for all of us hikers! And of course, thanks to everyone!

My advice for hiking the CDT would be to go Southbound, start at Chief Mountain (Waterton would be better, but conditions make it unlikely), hike via Butte, Henry’s Lake, the Great Divide Basin, do the RMNP loop, do the Grays-Torreys Route, go via the San Juans, and finish at Crazy Cook.

CDT RESUPPLY

From home, I brought food to Glacier and mailed to Benchmark and Leadore. I also had various food items that I couldn’t get on the trail mailed to me. Generally, boxes with shoes or maps also had a random collection of delicious extras placed in them. I ate better because I got organic dried veggies from the farmer’s market, fancy cured meats from Italian deli’s, and dehydrated beans mailed to me. My mom is awesome, and a foodie, so she mailed me delicious stuff. My hiking partner kept having excessive amounts of homemade baked goods mailed to her, which I ate a lot of. From Grand Lake, I mailed a box of food to Twin Lakes. From Salida, I mailed food to Ghost Ranch, Pie Town and Doc Campbell’s. The store in Leadore is run by a very hiker friendly woman who is doing a better job of stocking hiker food, but all of the other places I’ve mentioned here require mail drops. I really liked my food system. I’m pretty burned out on processed supermarket/hiker food. I really appreciated, having specialty items from home. I’d love to eat more beans and rice on the trail, which isn’t available in most towns, but I’m not willing to do mail drops all over the place.

I got sick of bars and all of my breakfast food. I really like eating beans and rice. Unusually, I ate dried kale and chipolini onions. I’m also an advocate for Barilla Pasta Plus, which is widely available, delicious and more nutritious than normal pasta. I’d generally eat something for breakfast (two bars perhaps), have a snack in the morning (a bar, trail mix or chips), a lunch of two sandwiches (meat, cheese, veggies or peanut butter and dried fruit) and flavored rice, pasta or potatoes for dinner. I almost always left town with a bag of chips and a large bag of almond m&ms. I eat a lot of nuts too. Typically peanuts because they’re cheapest.

I was vegetarian for the PCT but not the CDT. I had no problems with it. It was delicious and better for my health and the planet. The meat that I ate on the CDT was typically the worst type of meat. Unethical, and full of additives like MSG, nitrates and nitrites. Eating “trail meat” isn’t good for your body. You can get plenty of protein from nuts, tofu, seitan, tempeh, beans and protein powder.

I wish that I got more care packages. I love them. I got two. Both of which I asked for. My family was excited about my hike, so I “charged” my uncle and grandmother to send me food boxes. I provided some ideas as to what they could put in them, and told them how many meals I could use. I had them mail them to Leadore and Lima. Both are places that I could have bought some food items in, if their boxes were inadequate. I loved their boxes. They were surprises, and delicious. I liked the uncertainty of this approach.

I generally don’t think that bounce boxes are worth it. Sure, it’s nice to mail certain things ahead. I did this with my trekking poles once. I was sick of using them, but didn’t know if I’d like not having them. So I sent them to the next town, via priority mail. When I got there, I decided that I didn’t want them still, so I forwarded them again to the next town for free. At that town, I just forwarded them home. Bouncing clothing and the like can be great.

A standard bounce box is a waste of money. What’s going to be in it? Camera charger? ipod charger? Town stuff like clothing or shampoo? Food? Bug spray? Sunscreen? It can cost between $10-15+ to mail the box each time. Say you do that ten times, that’s substantial money. I carry my chargers, and do without the bounce box. Everything else I just buy when I need it. Saves on mailing, and means that my electronics never goes without a charge.

I think that a bounce box makes sense if you are from a foreign country, or otherwise have no one to mail you things while on the trail. Most of us have people at home that can mail us a few weeks worth of maps and guidebooks every once in a while. Those are also boxes that friends and family tend to put in treats for me. And if I need something like a pair of socks or a supply of some consumable, they can throw it in the box and i’ll usually have it pretty soon. I figure that I save at least a hundred dollars by not using a bounce box.

PCT vs CDT: Comparing the Long Trails

A reader, wrote with questions about the PCT vs the CDT. Here, in my own words, I compare them.

First off, here are general impressions with a slant towards not repeating others. In life, we’re faced with summarizing huge topics in few words. This isn’t that. But when asked how the CDT was, I sometimes answer: “It was superb. I was surprised with how consistently beautiful it was.”

And now.. In too much detail… I delve into it.

What’s the difference?

They are both very similar. The Pacific Crest Trail runs about 2,650 miles from Mexico to Canada. The Continental Divide Trail runs about 2,700 miles from Mexico to Canada. The PCT is in the western states of California, Oregon and Washington. The CDT is in the mountain states of New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. Those in the know might object to my distance of the CDT. People say that it’s 3100 miles long. It is not! I’m not fully sure what the distance is, but the consensus amongst 2010 Sobos was around 2,700 miles. Feel free to leave a comment if you want to know more. Both trails are really long walks. Both go through desert and mountains. Both have bears and snakes. Both have dry and wet sections. Both have lots of information published about them. Both have reasonable resupply opportunities. They are more alike than they are different.

Which one’s better?

There isn’t such thing as a stupid question. Except that one. I don’t have an answer. I loved the PCT. At the time, it was “the best thing that I’ve ever done.” The CDT has not surpassed that, other things have. The CDT was not that quality of an experience for me. The PCT was a paradigm shift. It was a radical affirmation of my love of freedom, my love of backpacking, my love of the west, the wilderness and adventure. I’d already known all of those things. The PCT tattooed them on my soul. The CDT is another imprint. While not as impactful, hiking the Continental Divide was even more enjoyable than the PCT.

Why did I like the CDT so much? Well, it was consistently beautiful. It has been said that the CDT has few “connector” segments. That’s true. So much of it is truly worthwhile backpacking. The PCT has the Sierra, hands down my favorite place on earth. It also has other remarkable places like the lower 48’s volcanoes and Northern Washington. Jim Wolf’s divide trail just has more of it. More beauty. More solitude. More adventure. I liked the CDT for those reasons. Part of that adventure comes from a slightly unjust quirk. The CDT has a reputation of being harder. It scares people. It has as a motto, “Embrace the Brutality.” Yogi also publishes that it’s “the PhD of backpacking”. Such a reputation is intimidating. I was scared. Now, I think it’s baloney. I don’t think that long distance hikers should be scared off from hiking the CDT. It’s not that bad! More on this later.

Importantly, I’d learned more about myself on the PCT and in the living I’ve done between the two trails. I know what brings me happiness (the outdoors and relationships). I know what it feels like to death march. I know when a relationship works for me. I know when to be alone, and when to be with others. So, it’s for personal reasons that I enjoyed the CDT more than I enjoyed the PCT. The PCT was more amazing and impactful, the CDT was more enjoyable.

On the PCT  I hiked with many different people. I made great friends, but I also spent a lot of time keeping pace with people who I’m no longer close to. Relationships were hard out there. They weren’t as fulfilling. Yes, I had many great ones. I hiked with Pepi for a thousand miles. I met Snail, She-ra, Nemo and loads of other cool people. I was a social hiker. But on the CDT, I made a great hiking partner and that’s what made the trip. It’s that pairing of the outdoors and relationships. It’s that golden ticket. Lost is pretty quiet, but I pried her open and squeezed the juice out. We had fun. We didn’t death march. We compromised. We respected each other We laughed. And we stuck together. It was a great hiking partnership, and it made the trail for me.

So, is the CDT harder?

Probably, but they’re both ridiculously hard. The CDT has some steep climbs. Lots of uuuppp and dowwwnnn, especially along the Montana/Idaho border and in Colorado. On the CDT you find yourself hiking really steep sections. Sometimes, it’s because you are going cross country right on the divide. Ridge walking is never graded. Sometimes it’s because you’re walking an ATV track and thrillcraft love steep slopes. In comparison, the PCT has none of that.

Southbound, I hiked a little faster on the CDT. It’s impractical to start much earlier than the middle of June. Right from the start, I felt the pressure of needing to make big miles to get out of the San Juans before it started snowing. On the PCT, you’re supposed to hike slow at first. There is no need to rush into the Sierra too early. On the CDT, we were all doing about 25 miles a day the entire hike. On the PCT, I had a month of 17-21 miles a day to start the trip.

Speed and terrain are only some of the reasons that trails are hard. For me, the CDT was hard because of physical problems. I hurt my leg. I hurt my ankle. I hurt my foot. I got sick. I walked hundreds of miles when I should have been on bed rest. That’s what made it hard. And that’s what it takes for me to be a thruhiker. Perseverance

I also endured more bad weather on the CDT. Generally, it was good. But sometimes, we had really cold rain while walking right up on that crest. It’s high and exposed. It can be harsh. We had some snow. I got hypothermic. I got FAR too close to being hit by lightning. On the PCT, I had less bad weather. On both trails, it was generally, simply beautiful.

I hear navigation…

You don’t really need to know how to navigate on the PCT. The trail is almost always obvious. It’s well marked. You’re hiking with others. You’re following footprints. It’s generally the widest path. Most PCTers hardly consider their maps. Many PCTers don’t know squat about navigation.

Many CDTers also don’t know squat about navigation. But that doesn’t fly so well out on the divide. It’s not well signed. It doesn’t have a lot of footprints. It’s definitely not always the most major path. It’s often on roads with networks of road intersections. And there often isn’t a single way to hike the trail. On the CDT though, we have GPS. Most CDTers are using GPSs. Yes, it takes the challenge out of it. You look at your screen, see where you are, and see where you need to go. As long as your GPS is working well (it’s not broken, it has batteries, maps and a track), navigating on the CDT is pretty brainless. Hiking the CDT without a GPS requires navigational skill. Having one, not so much. Most people don’t use their GPS all the time. They keep it off and navigate with Ley’s maps and/or Wolf’s guides. Both are outstanding, and if you keep on top of them, you’ll find yourself found.

My experience was quite unique. Since I was collecting information for a map, I had my GPS on all of the time. At every intersection, and every time I was misplaced, I’d have to be working with my GPS anyways. I used my GPS for navigating more than anyone. But I’m also a good navigator. I’ve taught classes and guides about it. So for me, I don’t think that navigation on the CDT is hard. Yes, it requires some skill and attention. But hardly more than a general stout backpacking adventure does.

The CDT has a reputation for more wildlife.

One thing that I’ve realized pretty deeply through my travels is that we’re royally screwing the environment. Yes, the CDT has more wildlife than the PCT. But it doesn’t have much! The PCT is pretty barren of animals. The CDT has some more, but it’s no Serengeti Does the myth of the wild seregeti still hold? The myth of wild america is tottering in my eyes. I saw nine bears. One was a grizzly. I saw about as many hunters as elk and deer. I saw about two hundred pronghorn antelope but no herds of hundreds. I saw half a dozen wild horses. Two rattle snakes. Lots of evidence of beavers, but no beavers. Lots of evidence of coyotes, large cats and badgers, but none of them either. I know that wild animals hide. I know that they’re often more active at night. And I know that their population has dwindled greatly. It’s our fault. I’m changing the climate. I’m encroaching on their homes. I’m letting toxins enter the environment. I don’t hunt, but MILLIONS of Americans do. It’s no wonder that the myth of the wild CDT is just that to me, a myth. The best wildlife encounter from the summer was truly remarkable however. I stood and stared for many minutes as four juvenile martens scampered, screeched and stared back from only four feet away.

What about money?

I spent about $1,000 more on the CDT. Hotels were a little more expensive and I shared them with fewer people. I went to a doctor. I replaced my shoes more often, replaced my camera and payed more to get to and from the trail. Personally, I’d be fine with $4500 for the PCT and $5500 for the CDT, but I spent about five hundred dollars more than that.

Let’s talk gear…

What worked for you on the PCT will probably work well on the CDT. Sobo, I stupidly prepared for October at 14,000 feet (Colorado) when I was hiking in June and July in Montana. Go light. It’s not that bad. Except Colorado. Bring more warm clothes for Colorado. I do a light fleece under my rain jacket. I think that’s critical when it’s foul out. That’s a garment that I don’t normally carry in the summer. But September in Washington and September in Colorado? Be prepared.

Otherwise, gear can be the same. Ultralight, fringe stuff works well enough. Go light. Know that there were a few more times on the CDT when I set my shelter up without a tree to be seen. That could be a problem if you’ve got a shelter that requires trees to set up. Some hikers manage it though.

CDT as first long hike?

Doing the CDT as your first long hike is very uncommon. It’s commonly said that you’ll learn skills on the PCT that are useful on the CDT. Sure! One problem with doing the CDT first, is that you might not know some of the tricks. Does that mean that you’ll fail? Probably not. It’d be more of an adventure, it might be too much of a kick in the pants, but you’ll probably be fine. Know that there might not be anyone out there to “show you the ways”. You might flail along without the accumulated knowledge of the long distance community. If you’re someone who like to figure things out for themselves, I think it’d be a grand adventure. Long hikes teach you about your physical limits, your ability to hike through hardship, how to resupply, how to save money, how to be efficient, what informational resources are available, what gear works and is light. If it’s your first thruhike, hopefully you’re not heading out there with 60 pound packs, big leather boots, the CDTA guidebooks, a faulty resupply schedule, not enough water and food and no wilderness skills. You might just have a grand adventure though!

Northbound or Southbound?

My guess is that 55% of people go northbound. People are excited to get started and don’t want to wait until June. Northbound, if there is snow in Colorado when you get there, you might have problems. Many nobos flip ahead, or walk around some areas. A few go through. I haven’t done it, but it seems like there would be some seriously sketchy and steep snow slopes to cross if you are doing Colorado in the snow. Southbound doesn’t have that obstacle. Glacier can be problematic. But there are decent alternates. And it’s short, just south of Glacier, snow shouldn’t be a problem.

Solitude?

There is plenty of opportunity for solitude on the CDT! People sometimes choose to intentionally stick together because if they don’t, they’re not really going to see anyone else. The CDT really is quite empty. The PCT is more social.

How about town?

Both the PCT and CDT have great towns. Enjoy them!

Thanks for reading! Any more questions? Leave a comment and I’ll be happy to try to answer them.

Mapping the CDT

I’m finally in Boulder, CO mapping the CDT. It’s really quite nice to be sitting in front of a computer for a week. A snip of the behind the scenes workings of Backpacker Magazine has been educational. Quality work, I say.

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