The Pacific Crest Trail technically ends at the Canadian border, but there’s still a 15km walk to the closest road. Within 36 hours of stepping onto Canada’s Highway 3 in southern British Columbia, I’d hopped on the daily three day train from Vancouver to Chicago to pick up my visa from the Spanish consulate. Somewhere in the endless plains of North Dakota, I started researching the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).
Two years and 28 countries later, I’m just a couple weeks away from setting foot on the CDT. I’ll be blogging my journey on the trail and hope to be updating this every few days from the trail.
As this is the first post, it’ll be a bit longer. I’m hoping to answer the typical questions and blank faces I get when I mention that I’ll be walking from one end of the country to the other. I’ll upload more posts over the next couple weeks detailing exactly what I’m bringing, how I’m prepping for this, and other related stuffs.
What is the CDT?
The Continental Divide Trail, or CDT, is a hiking trail running the length of the American Rockies from Canada to Mexico. It follows the continental divide as much as it can, and thus involves a lot of walking on ridges at higher elevation (up to ~14k feet, or 4270m).
Unlike the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails, the CDT isn’t quite finished. This means that there are parts with extensive road walks, both dirt and paved. Furthermore, there’s no set route and any two thru hikers may consequently walk a fairly different trail. The length thus varies depending on what alternates one chooses, with the total distance racking up to somewhere between 2700 and 3100 miles (4300-5000km).
What do you do for food?
Although the CDT is comparatively remote, I’ll be able to hitch into town to buy food and take a break every five days or so. Sometimes there’s a small store in the middle of nowhere and you can buy basic provisions there, and other times I’ll have to mail myself food. The towns on the CDT tend to be much smaller than those on the PCT and AT.
What will you eat?
Non-perishable foods with high calorie contents. My general rule is not to bring anything with fewer than 100 calories per ounce (300 calories per 100g). The US is junk food mecca and grocery stores are absolutely massive, so this is pretty easy to manage. The only meal I cook is dinner, which is usually noodles or instant mashed potatoes. The rest of the day I’ll periodically eat a bunch of snacks, oftentimes peanut butter, pumpkin seeds, granola bars, and the like.
Have you read Wild?
Yes, I read it in my apartment in Madrid after having completed the PCT. This is a different trail, and unlike Ms. Strayed I didn’t shoot up heroin the night before starting my hike (she did about 40% of the trail, which is still a great accomplishment). I admire her ability to channel her grief from her mother’s death into written word, and do think she’s a skilled writer, but Wild really is not a good representation of trail life.
Where do you sleep?
I’ll be in my tent pretty much every night (though on the PCT I usually just rolled out my sleeping bag and slept under the stars).
Isn’t it dangerous?
Statistically I’m much safer on the trail than I am in an American city. Because this trail is more remote and less traveled than others I’ve done recently, I will be carrying a personal locator beacon (PLB) in case of an emergency. The PLB can connect to satellites to send my coordinates to search and rescue if something happens.
What if it rains?
I get wet.
What about bears?
There are grizzly bears in parts of Montana and Wyoming. I have hundreds of miles of solo backpacking experience in grizzly areas. As long as you take basic precautions, such as carrying bear spray, hanging food and scented items in a tree 100m from the tent, and making noise in low visibility areas, you probably won’t have any problems. Twisting an ankle is a much more likely issue than getting mauled by a bear. Bear spray has been shown to be more effective than firearms.
I’ve opted to hike southbound from the Canadian border to Mexico. Starting in Canada lets me avoid the snow issues in southern Colorado that northbound hikers face in early June, as well as that state’s monsoon season. Colorado is one of the scenic highlights of the entire trail, and I want to be able to enjoy it in autumn without excessive snow.
There are some seasonal constraints with this. Southbounders must wait for the snow to melt in northern Montana, which generally means start dates of late June or early July. Then begins the race against winter, with the completion of Colorado recommended by the first week of October to avoid getting snowed in. Once you get through Colorado, you can generally do the New Mexico desert at your own pace.
At the end of the CDT you can cross into Mexico for the day to get real Mexican food! I’ll be bringing my passport card to do this (Americans can enter Canada, Mexico, and the Caribbean by land and boat with this card; it’ll double as my ID for the trail).
Another big reason for going southbound was that it let me spend an extra two months in South America visiting Iguazú Falls, Bolivia, and Peru.
How long will it take?
It took me 4.5 months to hike the PCT. I expect it to take me approximately 5 months to hike the CDT, though we’ll see.
What do you do all day?
Walk. I typically get up at sunrise and am hiking within 30 minutes of waking up. Depending on the terrain, I’ll walk for two hours at a pace of 3 miles per hour (5km per hour) and then take a short break. Rinse, wash, repeat all day until it gets dark. I listen to a lot of podcasts and music while hiking, or just enjoy the sounds of nature (though after a couple weeks this can get quite boring, hence the podcasts). I go to sleep at sunset.
On the PCT I walked up to 33.5 miles (54km) a day. Going 25 miles (40km) a day doesn’t stress out my back and feet nearly as much as higher mileages, so I’m hoping to not do more than that each day on the CDT.
What do you carry?
I’ll be doing a post soon with a list of everything I’ll be carrying including photos, weights, and description.
Why the f#@k would you do this?!
This is actually my second time walking across the continent. I thru hiked the Pacific Crest Trail from Mexico to Canada in the summer of 2015. I miss being on the trail a lot and had such a fun time there that I’ve spent most of the past two years wanting to do it again.
- Long distance backpacking makes me realize how little I need to be happy, and I appreciate modern physical comforts much more than I would otherwise. Plus, it’s really nice to disconnect from the political shitstorm for a while and instead focus on my feet, the weather, and the beautiful scenery.
- It’s the right time because of health, time off, and finances. I don’t know what kinds of commitments I’ll have in the future, when it could be much more difficult to take five months off to do something like this. I’d rather not be one of those people who later wishes he’d done X, Y, and Z when he had the chance.
- The others I meet on long walks are pretty cool.
How do you keep your phone charged?
On the PCT I would charge my phone twice a week or so when I got to town. It was nice not being wired. This time I’ll be bringing a small battery to charge my phone, which will be my GPS, music depository, and podcast player.
How often do you have cell service?
I expect to have service once or twice a week. It could be more or less than that depending on where I am on trail.
How much does it cost?
I’ll be tracking this and post the results at the end. I anticipate it costing around $3500 for my five months on trail. I’m honestly not sure, but it’s not that expensive to walk all day and sleep in a tent. Most people’s budgets get drained by alcohol and motels, neither of which I use much. On the PCT I tended to spend much less than others. I prefer to stay in campgrounds while in town, eat a ton, and then head back to the trail.
Why don’t you just fly to Mexico?
That’s really not the point of this. I was asked a similar question many times on the PCT.
That sounds so physically demanding!
It is, though mainly just at the beginning. The difficult part isn’t so much walking a marathon, but rather getting up day after day and doing it over and over. After a few weeks it becomes much more of a mental challenge. Dealing with the aches and pushing through the monotony of doing nothing but walking is the real challenge.