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.
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.
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.
Just got some dates for my trip to Boulder. I’ll be working at the Backpacker offices the last week of January. The goal is to process all of the data that I collected into sweet, sweet goodness. Look for a track of the trail, waypoints and POIs and some interviews and such in the magazine and online in the coming months. Friends in Boulder, I’d love to see you!
Lordsburg. It’s dumpy.
Lordsburg, where I settled into two hotel rooms before realizing that they were unacceptably filty, bug infested, and broken. Lordsburg, where there really wasn’t anything going on. Lordsburg, where the dump of a chinese restaurant, turned out to be delicious. We’d hemmed and hawed about even going in. We *knew* it’d be bad. It was only $4.50 and the food sat under heat lamps that didn’t even look strong. But the friendly, straight from the east, via the west coast, family cooked up a delicious portion. Wanted something in the buffet? They probably didn’t have enough under the lamp to serve you, but they’d cook it up for you fresh in three mintues. It was awesome. We ate there twice.
Hiked on. Again, the red route. It was pretty much just following posts from here on to the border. They were pretty newly placed. They were pretty easy to follow. Later we saw a sign stating that they were placed every twenty yards. It was more like every 100 yards in the begining. And then it turned to every 1/4 mile, and then in some sad places, every 1/2 mile. It should be obivious that you can’t see one post from the other when they’re a quarter of a mile away. It was somewhat frustrating. Again, no footprints. No faint foot path. In one section, not even any information from the guy who makes the maps. No one who had hiked it had reported back anything about it. We were the ones to find the water sources and report to the mapmaker their quality and location. It was good hiking. I was happy to be doing that route instead of the commonly done road walking. I like the offical route to Crazy Cook.
It flet like snake habitat, but I saw only one tiny snake. It felt like “illegal” habitat, but I saw only one set of sneaker prints heading northbound away from the border. I did find an abandonded poncho and someone’s water jug that’d been painted black. They do that so they’re not carrying a big white object as they move through the night.
We had numerous encounters with border patrol. First, two guys on horse back who’d been following us for a while. Then helicopters. Three of them. Not sure if they were really out flying for us, but i’d like to think that the fighter jet that buzzed our heads was dispatched in our direction. Also, four guys in body armor on ATVs. And a guy in a truck. Each time, they’d been dispatched specifically to intercept us. They weren’t out there just wandering around. They knew we were there, and they came looking to see who we were. Each time: “Will you state your citizenship?”, “Can I see the bottom of your shoes?” Once: “If you like walking so much, you should come work for us.” hmm….
And then we were done. I walked from Canada to Mexico. I finished the CDT! It was good. Like chocolate ice cream. I had fun. I’m a little sad. Lost and I are parting ways and that’s a bummer. She’s been a great friend over the months and a killer hiking companion.
We got a ride away from Crazy Cook with Sam Hughes. Fugitive was there too, we met up with him on the last morning. Sam is a nice guy. The dirt road to Crazy Cook really is pretty bad. You can drive a stock, 4×4 pickup down it, but be prepared to damage your truck. It costs the three of us $160 total to be picked up at the border and driven to Deming. You could easily do more damage than that to your truck. I’d hire Sam. He dropped us off at Walmart.
The guy in front of me was buying a shirt. He bragged to the cashier that he was famous. “A nobel peace prize nominee”, “a motivational speaker”, “going to hollywood to make a movie”, “and author”. I held back a laugh, feeling sure that he was blowing smoke. Then he asked me if my chocolate cream pie was my favorite flavor. (It’s not). Then he bought it for me. Who the heck does that? What’s his story? Some famous dude isn’t bragging to the walmart clerk in Deming while shopping for clothing. And why buy my pie? I’m just some grungy dude. To top his tales, I said: “I just walked from Canada to Mexico.” It was true. It was all true. Turns out that the guy was http://www.bryantmcgill.com He’s what he said he was. And he bought me a pie. He’s also the guy that a podcast that I listened made fun of a while ago. From his website, he looks like the epitome of cheese. And he bought me a pie. It was a great finish to the trail.
I am now done with the CDT. Stayed with trail angel El Coyote last night. On a bus to El Paso in two hours. Then tomorrow, flying to Utah. It’s my birthday the next day. Then a day to unpack and repack. And then my next trip. I don’t quite do re-rentry. I backpack full time. Tuesday is work. Work = backpacking. I’m looking forward to being back.
Life continues and the trail stays within.
Left Silver City on a road walk. I continue to not be a fan of road
walking. Sure, sometimes it’s nice to have easy going miles on a
quite, unused jeep road. You can walk side by side. You can switch
sides when to walk on smoother tread. You can shut your mind off and
just walk. But highway walking? That sucks. We did a bunch of it. Ten
miles? Then turned off to the right on a good quality dirt road for
another bunch of miles. It was the start of our own adventure.
No other southbounders (and I bet, few northbounders) hiked the way we
hiked. That’s a little strange because the only radical thing that we
did was to stay on the official trail. We hiked the “Red Route”. No
one else did. Turned off the highway, onto that dirt road, at a huge
mine site. Kind of cool seeing the oversized earth moving equipment
moving around the site looking like tiny toys.
Camped that night up at Mud Spring, in a mountain range that I’ve
already forgotten the name of. Besides having to drink directly from a
cattle trough that had no inflow, it wasn’t a bad site. Then, a little
after midnight, calamity struck. Lost and I bolted upright with a
sizeable FIRE burning right next to us. FIRE! Holy hell! Within a half
a second of waking up, it grabbed Lost’s burning pack to pull it
farther to safety. Regretably, I hadn’t seen that her pack was already
aflames. The FIRE! panic switched to pain and greater fear. I burned
my hand! Water! Sure enough, grabbing a burning pack isn’t a good
idea. I now had melted plastic all over my hand. SHIT. I could prolong
the writing of this, simply because I’m a fan of myself. And being
badly burned is an important event in my eyes…. But… Well… I
peeled off all the plastic. It was mostly superficial. I had partial
thickness burns on two of my fingers, and a number of burn blisters.
It took a vicodin and some time to ease the pain enough to go to sleep
again. Lost, lost a lot of important and expensive stuff in the fire.
The entire bottom of her pack burned, as did her iPod, camera, cell
phone, some food, and various odds and ends. Not good at all.
Remarkably, she fashioned a fix for her pack and we could continue the
thruhike without interuption. We guess that she’d lit some duff on
fire hours before while cooking. It smoldered for hours, then burst
into flames when the wind picked up later in the night.
That’s definitely the big story of the section. On other topics? The
mountain range with Jack’s Peak was small, but quite nice. It was
novel hiking trail that was mostly well built and always well signed.
It was novel hiking trail that had seen no footprints for months. We
left the mountains and did some desert walking. We drank out of
another cattle trough. Two in a row. That one had a solar well near
by, but those don’t work when you’re there only in the dark hours. We
learned to hate grass seeds. More bothersome than cactus spines, these
tiny grass seeds would go right through our shoes, into our socks and
into our feet. Their needly quality called for immediate stopping. It
was so sharp and painful that we had to remove them instantly. It was
at it’s worst just north of Lordsburg, but continued for dozens of
miles south of there as well.