Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness

Big Sky RV Park is awesome! I’d read on the CDT southbound Facebook group, where the more up to date trail info is posted (and moderated by some crazy Jesus wacko). $18 for camping and shower, they also have a laundromat.

Downtown Anaconda.

Downtown Anaconda has been restored and preserved to look as it did around 1900.

Well, I can stay the night and decide in the morning what I’ll do next. Rest or keep going? I thought to myself. The siren call of clean clothes and feet proved too strong to resist, and I spent two nights at the RV park. After paying a couple visits to the pizzeria and eating a massive amount of food, of course. My hiker hunger hasn’t fully set in yet…but I think it’s coming.

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Spotted this walking around town. 

In a perfect world, I’d hang out in town until 5pm and then hike off into the sunset. Technically the sun doesn’t set here until 10pm, but in New Mexico in November I think that’ll be more apt. Sleeping in the woods is just more relaxing, but it’s 15 miles from here before camping is a viable option.

What the hell, I’ll just zero here. Winter is coming, but I’m making good time.

The barista at the cozy coffee shop on the main street definitely thinks I’m a hobo, and I don’t blame her. The last time I trimmed my beard and cut my hair was a couple months ago in the Peruvian Amazon. She seems relieved when I pay with cash and don’t start yelling about being possessed by evil government spirits (witnessed that on the PCT in Ashland, Oregon).

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Walking on the highway out of Anaconda. 

Anaconda is long and narrow, but all the places I need to visit are within a half hour walk of the RV park. It’s a pleasant place to take a day off, walking around town getting errands taken care of and watching the new Game of Thrones episode at the library. There’s no shortage of local diners where everyone seems to be a local and the waitress asks, “What can I get for you, sweetie?”

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When possible, I took side roads paralleling the highway so as to avoid traffic. 

The locals think it’s obvious from my accent that I’m not from here, and a lot of them (plus a lot of people from north of the border) ask if I’m Canadian. Calgary is called “the city” in northern Montana, and I’ve heard that further south that title will go to Salt Lake.

The owner of the RV park is super friendly, showing me how to lock up the office so I can use the laundry machines after he goes home for the night. While waiting for my clothes I befriend a retired second grade teacher from Wisconsin who’s on her annual summer road trip with her husband, and she seems amazed that I’m walking across the country (even more when I mention that it’s my second time doing so).

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The divide is somewhere around here. The trail doesn’t always follow it exactly, but it’s usually very close. 

In the morning, fully rested and semi-clean, I set off on the 10 mile road walk out of town. It’s a mile to the grocery store, where I stock up on victuals, and another 15 minutes to the gas station at the edge of Anaconda.

Arming myself with some snacks and a cup of Mountain Dew, since I remember my father saying that has the highest sugar and caffeine content of just about anything out there, I lay out my provisions on the sidewalk in front of the gas station.

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Taking refuge from the rain, with my feet helping me stay on a semi-steep slope. The day before I stood under the shelter of some branches during a severe albeit brief hailstorm and stayed dry. 

100 miles to the Idaho border and my next town stop…will this be enough? The eternal question. It’s so hard to gauge how much food I’ll need on each section.

There aren’t any customers inside, so the cashier comes out to chat and ask about the hike. She wishes me well when a car pulls up and a couple guys file inside, and I head off on the highway.

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Looking off at some storm clouds. 

Like on the road walk into town, multiple locals pull over to make sure I’m doing okay and that I have enough water. Montanans are so friendly!

It starts to storm when I pull off the highway and onto a dirt road, but I’m just so happy to be off the pavement and back in the woods that I couldn’t care less.

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A trail marker.

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The trail was really well maintained in this section. 

I camp by picturesque Storm Lake right after the storm, which seems appropriate. 25 miles in less than 11 hours, not bad. I crawl into my warm, dry sleeping bag just as the rain picks back up, falling asleep to the rhythmic drops falling against my tent.

I wake up at night hearing an animal running around. I think I hear voices yelling at it to shoo, and I bolt upright. Something is in my food, which I hung from a nearby tree! After a few seconds I realize the sounds are coming from the opposite direction of my bear hang, and I go back to sleep. Not my problem.

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Lots of water in the mountains here. 

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The wildflowers were in bloom at the higher elevations.

It’s cold and wet in the morning, and I have trouble motivating myself to leave the dry warmth of my down sleeping bag. Eventually I do so, and fill out a registration form for the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. Never done that before, but there’s no CDT permit like there is for the AT and PCT, so I decide to play it safe. And there’s a big registration desk in the middle of nowhere, so maybe it’s important.

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I camped at this lake. You can see the ripples of the raindrops in the water. 

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At least it wasn’t too hot and sunny! 

Entry location? Canada, I scrawl. Exit? Mexico. Where will you camp each night? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ How long will you spend here? As long as it takes.

Who knows if anybody will actually read that. I hope so.

The Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness is amazing, hopping between alpine passes above the treeline with lush, lake strewn valleys in between. The trail is well maintained, and I cruise on the soft dirt beneath my feet. Every night I camp by a picturesque lake with snowcapped mountains looming above me.

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High ridgelines. 

I see few other hikers here, and even go 41 hours without seeing another human. It’s surprisingly not strange to wake up and go to bed without seeing another person, maybe because there are so few people on this trail and I’m used to the solitude. I love feeling like I have the woods to myself, but it’s also nice running back into Vanne. A 60 year old section hiker from the area, I met her previously in Helena National Forest and I enjoy talking to her for an hour.

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Morning on the CDT. 

On my last full day on the trail before getting to the highway and the Idaho border, I stop as a small black bear runs 30 feet in front of me. We stare at each other in mutual shock for a split second before he bolts off. A few minutes prior I’d been wishing I had a coffee, but that episode does the trick of waking me up! I haven’t even left Montana yet and I’ve already seen five black bears and a grizzly since Glacier.

Helena and Deerlodge National Forests

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The general route of the Continental Divide Trail through Montana and Idaho.

The thought of getting to town with all the restaurants closed was just too painful to fathom. Rather than try to hitch a ride on the highway at 8pm, I laid out my sleeping bag in a bush to get out of the wind and hoped no animals would harass me. None of the windbent, scrawny trees were ideal for a food hang, so I just hung my smellables from a branch and hoped for the best (no bears got past my shitty bear hang, success!).

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Smoke from the fire near Lincoln.

The smoke had cleared up dramatically from the previous night and the wind had quieted. It was peaceful in the early morning as I worked my way down a series of switchbacks in the green tunnel to highway 200, my first paved road in eight days.

Seeing the cars whizz past at 70mph was a bit of a culture shock, and my heart was pounding as I stood by the asphalt with my thumb out. Best road to town, but a hard hitch, my guidebook advised. Hitching is kind of nerve wracking the first time, but after doing it a couple of times on a hike I think nothing of it. Statistically, I’m way more likely to get hit by a car than have an issue with a hitch.

 

After 35 minutes of standing by the highway I’m in the car of a retired geologist, whizzing down the highway 18 miles to Lincoln.

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High on the divide.

Where East Glacier was touristy, Lincoln is redneck. And I mean that in the best way possible. Redneck beats touristy any day of the week. $8 gets you camping, wifi, and a hot shower at the RV park, and I get to journey to the trailer park for the town’s only laundromat.

“BULLSHIT, BONNIE. BEST KEEP YOUR DAMN CHIHUAHUA AWAY FROM TIGGER IF YOU KNOW WHAT’S GOOD FOR YOU!”

“I OWN THIS PLACE AND IF YOU DON’T WANNA BE HOMELESS TONIGHT YOU BETTER KEEP YOUR CAT AWAY FROM HIM!” Trailer park entertainment came free with the laundromat, where I think if I touched anything I’d probably get tetanus.

I’d planned on leaving town early after a restful night in the quiet campground, but it’s not until noon when I hitch a ride back to Rogers Pass and the divide. I’m still able to do 17 miles by 7:40pm.

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View from the trail.

It’s hot and dry on the continental divide above the treeline, but even in the green tunnel of the forest the trail has got its own special charm. It’s peaceful, and I’ll see at most one other person a day. The constant solitude and prospect of not seeing anybody for days on end was a little discomforting before getting on trail, but it’s now my favorite aspect of the CDT. I hate everyone ❤️

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Water cache laid out for hikers.

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Some road walking.

Once again I find myself standing by the highway early in the morning, pack on the ground and thumb out as cars zoom past me. Hitching already feels pretty natural at this point in my hike.

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Not shown: how goddamn hot it is.

Basically my life right now is walking a marathon a day, trying not to get lost, sleeping in the dirt, and hitchhiking to and from small mountain towns. I’m fine with that.

After 25 minutes a car pulls over. Gonna give me a ride or…oh shit, government license plates. Wondering if I’m about to get ticketed for soliciting a ride, I walk up to the car.

“Heading to Helena? Hop in!” the federal prosecutor calls out, and I oblige.

“You’re on the right track. I used my 20s to do stuff like this, though I sailed the Pacific and rafted the Colorado rather than hike across the country,” he told me. “I went to law school in my 30s, and I have no regrets about taking time to do the things I wanted.” He then insisted on getting me a coffee before he headed over to the courthouse and dropped me off downtown. This was a nicer welcome than all the people who think I’m homeless and avert their eyes. Montanans are so friendly!

I head to the cafe my guidebook recommended to get a smoothie and wifi.

“You hiking the CDT?” another patron asks. I chat with him and his friend about the hike, and he gives me his number.

“If you want a ride back to the trail, just call me and my wife or I will take you back up,” he adds. No need to stand by the side of the highway and hitch!

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In Helena I ran into Murphy and Movin’ On, two of the people I did the Bob Marshall Wilderness with.

Helena is spread out and, I think, the largest town I’ll visit on trail at 31k inhabitants. But it’s surprisingly pleasant, with pedestrian areas and lots of hipster cafes.

It’d be even better if there were a hostel or campground, but I’m not interested in getting a motel room so I call up the cafe dude and get whisked back to the CDT.

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Back on trail! 

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Glad this was here, definitely thought I was on the Appalachian Trail. Not sure why they put this in the middle of the woods far from the road. 

Somewhere in a jungle gym of blowdowns I get off trail and have to spend 20 minutes bushwacking back on. I take a wrong turn an hour later, getting my flashlight out since it’s now dark. I’d like to just camp, but I’m almost out of water and need to get to the stream just a mile away.

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More road walks. 

Walking the dirt roads, I get the feeling that I’m being watched. I hear a branch break along with something moving about 100 yards or so behind me. I stop, and whatever is out there stops too. I walk some more and it picks back up, stopping when I do.

This happened once before, back in northern California on a stretch of trail with lots of reports of getting stalked by cougars. I take a deep breath, yell a lot, and just keep going. I set up my tent, hang my bear bag, and get to sleep by 11pm.

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Morning on trail. 

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Not as dramatic as Glacier, but still quite nice. 

It’s hard waking up the next morning after going to bed so late, but I’ve gotta make the miles so I don’t run out of food.

This section involves a lot of forest walking, which would be fine if it weren’t so goddamn hot and dry. The waterless stretches are up to 20 miles, for which I’ll carry 3.7 liters.

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The road walk to Anaconda was mostly like this. 

Like almost all other hikers, I’m taking the Anaconda cutoff. Although the divide curves around towards Butte, it’s possible with 20 miles of highway walking to cut across west towards Idaho and rejoin the divide near the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. It saves four or five days, giving more time to take scenic detours in Wyoming and Colorado.

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Filtering water from a cow trough with my pack and trekking poles in front. There was a jet of water from a pipe above the trough, so it wasn’t disgusting. 

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Walking along the highway to Anaconda in the evening. 

The Bob

I keep on comparing myself to how I was by the end of the PCT: ridiculously strong and constantly ravenous. In both respects I’ve been falling short of what I remember. Of course, I’m forgetting how long it took for me to build up my trail legs, and for the hiker hunger to set in.

Waiting for a train to pass at Marias Pass, the last time we see motor vehicles from the trail for quite a while.


Leaving the motel room around 7:30am, I head across the street to find Murphy and Movin’ On getting ready for the day outside of Brownies.

“It’ll be nice setting off with a big group,” Murphy mentioned. This next stretch of trail goes 180 miles, or 8 days, before intersecting with a paved road and a hitch to the small town of Lincoln. The Bob Marshall Wilderness Complex, or “the Bob” as it’s more popularly known, is one of the largest roadless wilderness areas in the lower 48. And it’s also home to around 900 grizzlies. Safety in numbers is the general rule in grizzly areas. And although I enjoy my solitude more than most, going 8 days without seeing another human is pushing it. Plus I sleep better in groups when I know there are grizzlies around, which is somewhat irrational considering 90% of encounters are on trail.

The Chinese Wall, one of the highlights of the Bob.


I’d originally planned on eating a big breakfast before heading out, but as per usual I just wasn’t hungry right after waking up. Brownies has breakfast burritos, so I bought one rather than get a sit-down meal. Someone’s three legged dog was hopping around the porch, so I was entertained while I made sure I had everything.

We had great weather in the Bob, with only a few storms.


The way out of East Glacier is on a dirt road, where I passed Phoenix and Mad Science stealth camping on a golf course. It’s wonderful seeing familiar faces from the PCT, and I think I would’ve been better off discreetly camping rather than staying in an expensive motel with others. I’d heard about a nuisance bear and a pack of Indian reservation dogs that harassed campers, so maybe not.

I reentered Glacier National Park for 13 miles, meandering along streams in thick forest. It’s hot, and the undergrowth rakes at my legs. But I’m enjoying it all, amazed for the 300th time at how much difference a day off can make on my feet.

Hanging my food so the animals can’t get it.


Murphy, Movin’ On, Dingo and I take a break at a picnic table in a campground across the highway from the Glacier exit. We’re finally in Lewis and Clark National Forest, and will be hitting the Bob the next day. We raid the pit toilets for a little extra toilet paper, trying to gauge how much we’ll need for 8 days, and set off.

There were few people in the campground, and nobody once we leave it on an obscure trail heading south. Prints and scat of bears, mountain lions, and wolves are everywhere, and I feel better knowing the three others are just ahead of me. I meet up with them right as we get on an alternate route along the river bypassing the main trail, which is overgrown and has been described as a “jungle gym of fallen trees.”

A rare trail sign.


The alternate is great. My feet are screaming after almost 24 miles, but we push on wading across the river every few minutes until we find a nice, overgrown and abandoned campsite for horse packers.

“This looks just like the campsite in The Blair Witch Project where they hear their missing friend screaming all night, and then wake up to find his teeth in front of the tent in the morning,” I casually mention over my ramen noodles dinner.

Heading up the divide.


“What a delightful thought,” Movin’ On replies.

“I bet we walk four hours and end up back where we started,” I add as we’re all falling asleep. I always think of that low budget independent film while camping.

The next morning I’m out of camp and on the trail before any of the others are awake. It’s eight hours before I see two other thru hikers, the first people I’ve seen all day. Though plenty of evidence of mountain lions, bears, and wolves.

Murphy and Dingo chatting after we cowboy camped.


I persuade Funny Bones and Stomper, both older guys, to camp with me in what I’ve heard is a great spot near a stream. I don’t like camping alone with grizzlies, and they’re both hurting after pushing through thick brush, so it works out. There’s a loud thunderstorm for 20 minutes, starting right after we get in our tents.

I’m again out of camp before the others are awake, and I run into the three others I’d camped with the previous night. I hadn’t seen them for 24 hours, but somehow they’d passed me and set up camp 2 miles down the trail! The CDT is weird, such a labyrinth of various trails. I’m constantly getting out my paper maps and compass, using skills I learned on Boy Scouts to make sure I stay on the right path.

We spent so much time walking along rivers in the Bob.


Early morning is my favorite time on trail, and that’s the key to making big miles. Movin’ On, Murphy, and Dingo all walk together while I prefer to hike solo and meet up with them for breaks.

We take the Spotted Bear Alternate, which is supposedly more scenic and saves us 16 miles. It’s 135 miles to the remote Benchmark Wilderness Ranch, where we’ve all sent food packages, and then another 60 miles to the first road where you can hitch into town. On such a long stretch, and so early in the hike, we’ll take every advantage we can. It’s a little nerve wracking knowing that if something goes wrong out here you’re screwed.

Cruising along.


We camp together, and I rest better in a group. At least until a psycho deer runs through our camp all night and tries to reach my food bag in the tree. The deer chewed up Dingo’s trekking pole handles during the night, but on the PCT I heard stories of people waking up to deer licking their face. Quite a wakeup call.

I don’t see the others all day, camping beneath the Chinese Wall. One of two people I see all day is some dude with llamas, and is apparently something of a trail celebrity. He seemed really lonely, but I wanted to make some miles and after 10 minutes of conversation plugged onward.

A clear day on the divide, walking above everything.


Camping solo in grizzly areas has been easier than I thought it would be, mainly because I’m so exhausted and immediately drift off to sleep. And in the morning I always find myself very close to the other three I’d spent most of this section with.


As we get closer to Benchmark, and our resupply, we start to see more hikers (like a couple every three hours). We cowboy camp by a river, despite having just seen three black bears and a mountain lion. Nothing attacks our faces in the night, and we get up periodically to watch the billions of stars in the night sky. 

View in the morning from one of our campsites. It was somewhat chilly at night, since we were around 7200 feet.


Posing for a photo at Benchmark Wilderness Ranch, where we walked to from the trail along an unpaved, little-trafficked road. 

The packages were kept in the locked box to prevent bears and other animals from getting into them.

The porch was where the packages were kept, and I definitely took advantage of the shade there to take a siesta.

Dingo walking back to the trail along the road from Benchmark.

Lots of wide open spaces on the CDT.

I descended from the divide to get water and take a break here. The wind up above was pretty intense.

Seeing the sun, the little red dot in the upper part of the photo, blocked out by smoke was a little concerning.

Once I got service, about a half day’s walk from highway 200 and the 18 mile hitch into Lincoln, I was able to figure out that the smoke and fire were not coming from near the trail. Since it was getting late, and I didn’t want to get to town after the restaurants had closed, I laid out my sleeping bag in a cluster of low hanging trees to get shelter from the heavy wind. No tent that night, which helped me get up and do the 40 minute walk to the highway without having to do much to break camp.

I’ve had a great time on this section, but I’m definitely ready to take a day off in town. And although I enjoyed seeing others a lot, I think I’d like to get some solitude over the next week.

Glacier National Park

My second day on trail the sun and birdsongs had me awake by 5am. With only 16 miles to my next campsite (in the national park you can only camp in certain campsites, which you must reserve beforehand), I spent a few hours chatting with the other long distance hikers before finally hitting the trail.

Stoney Indian Pass. 

Stoney Indian Pass, which the rangers told me needed ice axe and crampons, was kind of a joke. There were small patches of snow that were easily navigable, and no big deal at all.

The quality of trail was pretty hit and miss. In some places it was overgrown by brush, which scratched up my bare legs, but above the treeline it was perfect.

Overgrown trail.


Glacier National Park seems to be incredible vistas with miles of dull forest trail in between.

On the PCT, a much more frequented trail, I would run into other thru hikers every couple of hours near the Mexican border. Nobody but thru hikers is out hiking the SoCal desert under the relentless sun and border patrol copters April through June. In contrast, Glacier seems to mainly be the thoroughfare of couples and groups of friends out for a hike of anywhere from one night to a week.

Walking along the lakeshore.


The second day on trail was phenomenal, and I was just so happy to be back on a long walk. The third day I began to have some doubts. Would I be able to make it to warmer New Mexico before winter hit? Would I be alone for the next five months? Could I get over Piegan Pass without falling hundreds of feet down snowy slopes?

Another spectacular vista in the park.


It’s hard to get 5 months off to just go hiking, and since all the stars had aligned for me to do the CDT this summer I decided I might as well enjoy it whether or not I was solo for the whole time. The fourth day, shortly after realizing I was fine going months without seeing others, I ran into my first thru hiker. Because of full campsites, his Glacier permit had him hiking north through the park and then hitching back to the south to continue his southbound hike of the continental divide.

There are tons of different route options on the CDT, and this was a more scenic path I opted to take.

“There are two women going to Mexico just ahead of you!” he told me, and which I heard multiple times a day thereafter.

Upon reaching East Glacier, my first town stop, I was ready to take a break. My feet and legs were killing me after going up to 25 miles a day, so I opted to stay a day and a half in town to rest up. Brownies, the main hiker hostel, had and was everything: laundromat, cafe, pizzeria, restaurant, hostel, hotel, and grocery store. I love it when I can just hang out on the front porch of a place in a small town, eat, and just people watch!

Perfect time for wildflowers at the higher elevations.


My fears of being lonely on this trail came to naught, for there were 11 thru hikers in town at the same time as me. There are probably close to 20 more within a week ahead of us, and more behind.

Walking by the road to the Many Glacier Campground, where I spent a night. There was a restaurant run by my old Yellowstone employer there, and I was able to resupply, eat dinner, and have breakfast before getting back on trail. Although most of my nights were spent in backcountry campgrounds far from the road, I spent two nights in developed car campgrounds.


I finally got to meet the two women a half day in front of me that I’d heard so much about, Murphy and Movin’ On. They met on the Appalachian Trail and did 900 miles of the PCT before bailing because of snow. Movin’ On is a grandmother, and Murphy used to be a third grade teacher. They’re both pretty cool. 

Just trudging along. My feet were killing me at the end of each day.


I got dinner in town with a woman I worked with at Yellowstone who’s now a backcountry ranger in Glacier, after which I got to hang out with hikers I know from the PCT who are out on this trail this summer. 

Hardly any snow left because it’s been so hot lately, up to 90F/32C every afternoon! When I got to the East Glacier post office the postmistress took one look at my ice axe and crampons before saying, “Honey, I’ve shipped my fair share of these things over the years. Just hand them to me and I’ll get them to Ohio for you.” I definitely looked crazy walking around town with an axe. 

CDT: The Beginning

CDT start photo at the Canadian border!

The Pacific Crest Trail Association provides thru hikers with a single, free permit that allows camping almost anywhere along the 2660 mile route. The Continental Divide Trail has no analogous arrangement, although camping permits are only needed in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks.

Going to the Sun Road, Glacier National Park.

My father, in his infinite greatness, drove me 2000 miles from Ohio to Glacier, after first driving to and from Vermont for my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah.

Planning to start in Glacier and head south from the Canadian border to Mexico, I arrived at the St. Mary backcountry office. At 6:50am, 10 minutes before opening, there was already a line of backpackers hoping to get camping permits, 50% of which are kept for walk-ins. I was number 19.

The route of the CDT in Montana.

“We want to do a part of the CDT,” a group of four guys in front of me told the ranger.

“Sure, we can get you the last one from Chief Mountain Pass on the low route,” she replied. Fantasizing about throwing them all into a volcano for getting the last permits and messing up my plans, I tried not to scream as they told the ranger they had plenty of snow and ice experience….from Michigan. There aren’t any f@#king high elevation passes in Michigan, let alone mountains!

“Uh, I’m not sure I should give you guys this permit,” she replied slowly. I don’t know how the rest of this trainwreck unfolded because the other ranger at the desk motioned for me to come forward.

It’s generally a good idea to hang your food so bears can’t get it. In the park, Glacier provides bear hang poles.


Most of the people in front of me (which was everyone, since I was last) asked the rangers to make them an itinerary, which is difficult when they provide no further input. I sympathize with the rangers, since I too would be hesitant to give a backcountry permit to people of unknown abilities who obviously have no interest in planning ahead. They were banished to the corner to look at the map with campsite availabilities and then come back.

The backcountry rangers in American national parks are usually phenomenal, and after a few minutes of chatting about trail conditions I had permits to do a slightly nontraditional route starting from Waterton Lakes National Park in Canada. Starting from Waterton is much more scenic albeit not typically  accessible for a couple more weeks. Yay for unseasonably hot weather and snowmelt!

After a weekend in Vermont at my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah, my father in his infinite greatness drove me 2000 miles to Glacier. With the permits taken care of we spent the rest of the day hiking and driving along the Going to the Sun Road, the park’s main thoroughfare. Then the next day, July 1st, we crossed the border into the Great White North.

Canada Day!


That happened to be Canada Day, and doubly special for being the 150th anniversary of Confederation. Hopefully an auspicious start!

We picked up a couple hitchhikers along the way to Canada, dropping them off at the Chief Mountain Border Crossing on the American side. One of the pair happened to be Anish, who as the holder of the unsupported speed record for the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails is something of a celebrity in the long distance hiking world.

Crossing into Canada was quick and easy, and after a short drive we entered Waterton Lakes National Park. Canadian national parks are free in 2017 in celebration of the country’s 150th anniversary.

“OH GOD THERE’S A BEAR!” I heard while waiting for a large group in front of me to enter the trailhead. They hurried back and decided to go watch the Canada Day parade instead.

Bear survivors bravely plotting their next move.


My dad spotted two hikers coming down the trail less than a minute later. They hadn’t seen anything, so we figured I’d (probably) be fine.

The American border is about 4.5 miles from the Lake Bertha trailhead in Canada, and I couldn’t have asked for better weather. Clear skies, warm temps, and a well graded trail made for smooth sailing.

Passing lots of families enjoying the perfect day alongside Waterton Lake, my prior nervousness was morphing into excitement. I was a little concerned about some of the higher passes in Glacier, for which I had an ice axe and microspikes (basically lightweight crampons).

The trail to the American border while still in Canada.


It’s only been two years since I started my last trans-America hike, but this feels different in some ways. As the trail turns to shit and gets overgrown by ferns I don’t wonder if I can do this, and I’m not overwhelmed by the enormity of what I’m about to do. I’ve done it before, and I will do it again. I know there will be times when I’m so lonely/hungry/hot/swarmed by mosquitoes/hobbled by blisters/etc. that I’ll get frustrated and overwhelmed. But that’s part of the experience, and it’s worth the discomfort to spend five months exploring America’s vast wilderness and small towns.

Grizzly warnings. I carry bear spray and hope not to use it.

There are a million of these signs telling hikers entering the US to report to register at the border station.

Hiking along.

I just enjoyed the moment, and reveled in being outside and disconnected from the rest of the world.

I camped at the customs and border patrol station, which nearby had a pavilion with flush toilets and electricity. Pretty fancy.


View from the Goat Haunt camping area at sunrise.

There were shelters at Goat Haunt, but I set up my tent in the grass because it’s not free standing and wouldn’t stay up on a concrete floor.

By pure coincidence, I shared the backcountry campground with one of my favorite hikers I met on the PCT. Sass and I corresponded pre-hike, but I had no idea she was hiking the Pacific Northwest Trail to the Pacific (like the CDT, the PNT starts in Glacier). We spent hours chatting, and she introduced me to a couple other PNT hikers she’d met while doing the CDT last summer. Mermaid was 60, and her hiking buddy Beacon was probably around that if not older. Both have many, many thousands of miles of backpacking experience, and I think the latter has done the CDT four times. I love chatting with older hikers. 

The Things I Carry – CDT Gear List

How much does your pack weigh?

I’m constantly getting asked what my pack weighs. This is a little difficult to answer because:

  1. I don’t walk around carrying a f@#king scale.
  2. It’s constantly changing.
  3. I have to carry it no matter how much it weighs, and sometimes ignorance is bliss.

When fully loaded with food, water, and other gear my pack rarely weighs more than 25 pounds (11.3kg). The precise weight of my pack can fluctuate dramatically. I may have to carry up to a week’s worth of food in Wyoming’s Wind River Range, but in Glacier National Park lies my shortest stretch between stores: 11 miles (18km), or about four hours. On a similar note, walking those 35 miles (56km) between water sources means lugging a lot of H2O, with my general rule being 1 liter per 5 miles (8km). Sometimes water is plentiful and I don’t carry any, just filtering some when I need to.

I’m constantly taking off and putting on various articles of clothing, which further changes the weight of my pack. In Glacier I may or may not be carrying an ice axe and microspikes (like crampons but smaller), which at a couple pounds (~1kg) are really heavy. From Canada through northern Wyoming, areas frequented by grizzlies, I’ll be carrying bear spray on my belt.

Are you ultralight?

Not in the typical sense of the term, which usually refers to dry weights of fewer than 10 pounds (4.5kg). To get that low you have to make some sacrifices on quality of gear and bring a lot less stuff. The former can be accomplished through using cuben fiber shelters and packs, which aren’t terribly durable. Having spent 12 months working in Yellowstone during college, I know that the Rocky Mountains can be an unforgiving and harsh environment. I’m not taking chances when it comes to being unprepared on the CDT, which often follows the exposed continental divide ridgeline.

The list below can and will change as the trail goes on, and I’m not always carrying everything described here. It depends on trail conditions and hosts of other factors. But it’s a good guide to what’s in my pack.

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My pack and assorted other items drying out in Arctic Sweden.

 

Backpack

Zpacks Arc Haul 62L – 24 oz, 680g

Zpacks is a fairly small operation run by some guy in Florida. Few companies make backpacks for people my size (or lack thereof). On the PCT I used a similar pack from the same company, albeit lighter and made of cuben fiber. That material didn’t prove to be terribly durable, and the shoulder straps were torn and coming off within the first six weeks. I’ve had this pack for a year and a half, having opted for a more durable plastic-like material. I used it for 10 weeks hiking through Iceland and Arctic Sweden, and again for six months in South America (Patagonia and the Peruvian Andes). It’s completely waterproof, and my stuff stays dry during storms without any liners.

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My tent in use in southern Peru. It’s fairly spacious inside for a one-person tent, and I can fit both myself and my pack inside.

Tent

Tarptent Protrail – 26 oz, 740g

I had a Tarptent Notch beforehand, which I used on the PCT, the Arctic, and South America. I collectively spent around 9 months in that tent, and it was starting to give out by the end. This new one is fairly similar in that it saves weight by using trekking poles in lieu of separate tent poles. I’ve only spent about 7 nights in it, but this nylon shelter kept me warm and dry in some fairly intense storms at 15,500 feet (4700m) so I’ve been pretty satisfied.

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Zpacks solo down sleeping bag.

Sleeping bag

Zpacks down 10F/-12C bag – 22.6 oz, 640g

I brought a 30F/-1C bag on the PCT and it was nowhere near warm enough, so I changed to this one in late 2015. This bag kept me toasty during nights that were well below freezing in the Arctic and Tierra del Fuego.

Cooking and Food

MSR Pocket Rocket – 3 oz, 85g

This is probably the most popular stove I’ve seen on the trail. I’ve been using this since southern California on the PCT, and I’ve had no issues since then. It uses gas canisters, which I’ve found to be pretty easy to find almost anywhere in the world.

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My cooking set at work in the Cordillera Huayhuash, Peru.

330mL pot and lid – 2.6 oz, 75g

I got this for a few dollars from Walmart and used it on the PCT, in the Arctic, and in South America. It’s served me well and I have no complaints. I usually just boil water and add it to my food in a plastic bag, which means I don’t have to clean the pot or hang it in a tree with my food whilst around bears.

Plastic spork – 0.4 oz, 11g

A friend of mine I’ve known since middle school gave me a spork for my hike! I’m excited for it to make the journey from Canada to Mexico.

REI waterproof 10L nylon sack – 2.3 oz, 65g

This will be my food bag, which I’ll hang in trees out of reach of bears when appropriate. We’ll see if it’s actually waterproof during the first storm on trail.

Waterproof matches – 0.6 oz, 17g

In South America I had a lot of issues lighting my stove with ineffective, cheap lighters. So I’ll be using these matches probably until I run out and forget about how much I hate lighters.

Fuel canister – 12.8 oz, 360g (when full)

Isobutane-propane canister with a screw-on top. A full canister generally lasts me about four weeks, and decreases in weight over that time. I only cook dinner, and usually that’s just to boil water.

Electronics

Amazon Kindle Paperwhite – 7.2 oz, 200g

I bought this for my 2015 PCT hike, and it’s served me well in the almost 30 countries and 2+ years since then. This thing seems almost indestructible, and the battery life is still strong. I read a lot, especially on my hiking breaks, in my tent before going to bed, and in cafes on my days off. I have dozens and dozens of books on this thing at any time, and I love being able to get new releases on the trail or in faraway corners of the globe.

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My luxury item on trail.

Wall adapter and charging cords – 3 oz, 85g

This keeps my shit charged, and thus my sanity intact.

Anker 10,000 mAh portable battery – 6.4 oz, 180g

See above.

Earbuds – 0.2 oz, 6g

I got some off Amazon for around $10, and they’ve been surprisingly high quality and semi-indestructible.

Huawei Honor 8 with case

This cell phone replaced my 3.5 year old iPhone. I’ve had it about three months, and have subsequently become an android convert. This serves as the depository for all my music, podcasts, and audiobooks with the help of a 64GB SD card, tripling the device’s storage. I’ve also downloaded the Guthooks CDT app, with topo maps and my phone’s GPS hopefully helping me from becoming lost and dying of thirst in the wilderness.

I got an American pay-as-you-go SIM card from H2O Wireless, which leases bandwidth from AT&T towers. Verizon is much better on the trail, but is also more expensive and this phone is incompatible with their network. It costs $27 a month for 3GB of data with unlimited calls and texting. By American standards that’s a decent price. When I leave the US I can just stop paying each month, since I don’t have a contract. I miss paying less than $10 a month for cell phone plans in Europe and South America.

McMurdo Fast Find 220 – 5.3 oz, 150g

This is a personal locator beacon (PLB). If something happens, I can press a button on the PLB. The device will send my GPS coordinates via satellite to local search and rescue, and immediately notify my parents. Because the CDT is relatively remote and can have long stretches without seeing anybody on trail, I decided to carry a basic PLB. I previously rented and carried one on Stewart Island, where I did a week-long hike off the southern coast of New Zealand’s South Island.

Petzl e-Lite headlamp – 1 oz, 30g

A new, lightweight headlamp since my old one died in Peru. I’d had the old one for years and it was held together by tape, so it was probably time to get a new one anyways. The new one has an option for red light, which doesn’t destroy your night vision. I mostly use my headlamp at night, when I’m paranoid about bears and will snap awake at a twig breaking and flash it everywhere in a panic.

Worn Clothing

Alpaca wool gloves – 1.2 oz, 34g

I bought these for $3 from some woman at a market in Peru. They’re surprisingly warm.

Alpaca wool hat – 2 oz, 57g

Also bought this at a market for just a few bucks.

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My shoes.

Altra Lone Peak 3.0 Trail Runners

Switching from boots to trail runners was so worth it. They’re much lighter, and they dry out in minutes when they get wet. It’s a lot easier on my body than heavier boots. At least 99% of thru hikers eschew boots in favor of trail runners or tennis shoes.

North Face fleece – 7 oz, 200g

I’ve taken this on every trip since the PCT, and it’s somehow withstood all the crazy wear I’ve put on it.

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Toe socks look crazy but seem to help prevent blisters.

Injinji toe socks – 1.4 oz, 40g

These are my liner socks. Since using these I haven’t had a single blister.

Darn tough hiking socks – 2.2 oz, 60g

These are my outer layer of socks. They’re 65% wool, 31% nylon, and 4% spandex. At the recommendation of other PCT hikers, I picked these up in California and have been using them ever since. The company is based in Vermont, and the socks are supposedly actually made there.

Patagonia Nano Puff Jacket – 9.6 oz, 270g

I’ve totally worn out two of these synthetic jackets already. Considering I’ve worn one almost every day for 2.5 years in climates ranging from the Arctic to 1000 miles off Antarctica, I feel like that’s not terrible. There was a 50% off sale for men’s small, which I hope to be a little more durable than the boy’s XL size I wore previously. It’s proven to be extraordinarily waterproof and warm on previous hikes.

REI midweight long underwear bottoms – 6.2 oz, 175g

These are pretty lightweight and kept me warm on the PCT, in the Arctic, South America, and on cold nights in former Soviet republics with awful heating. They were on sale for less than $11 at REI. Being able to wear clothes for 14 year old boys has saved me tons of $$$.

REI tech hiking shirt – 5 oz, 140g

Basic synthetic shirts have served me well in the past, especially since they dry quickly. After wearing the same shirt almost everyday for 11 months I decided to get a new one.

Salomon running shorts – 3.8 oz, 110g

After having issues with hiking pants rubbing my waist raw on the PCT, I switched to basic running shorts for the Oregon and Washington sections. They worked out great on that trail, and I appreciate the weight savings from the liner (no need to carry underwear!). I’ll probably switch to long pants for the New Mexico desert section, which has some prickly brush. Until then, I can combine these with long underwear and/or rain pants for warmth and brush leg protection as needed.

Trash bag for clothes storage – 1.6 oz, 45g

Basic and lightweight solution for keeping my clothes together when in my pack. At night I put all the clothes I’m not wearing into this and use it as a pillow.

Extra pair of liner and hiking socks – 3.8 oz, 110g

I like to change out my hiking socks every couple of hours, which also gives me the opportunity to air out my feet.

Random Other Stuff

Deuce of Spades Trowel – 0.6 oz, 20g

I’ve never been able to dig a decent cathole with my shoes or trekking pole.

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A pretty indestructible sleeping pad.

Small z-lite sleeping pad – 10.2 oz, 290g

After my inflatable sleeping pad punctured for the second time, I switched to this on the PCT and haven’t looked back. Almost every thru hiker had one, and it doubles as a seat on hiking breaks.

Frogg Toggs rain jacket and pants – 10 oz, 280g

This lightweight and not terribly durable rain suit served me well on the PCT. If needed, I have a sturdier (and heavier) raincoat I can have mailed out to me from Ohio.

Toilet paper – 1 oz, 30g

Pack it in, pack it out. Toilet paper can take a long time to decompose in many environments, so I pack it out in a ziploc bag and dispose of it in town.

Pocket knife – 0.8 oz, 23g

I’m not really sure where I got this, but a small knife always comes in handy in the backcountry.

Small first aid kit

Just some alcohol pads, band-aids, thread, and needle. The latter two I use more than anything else, mainly to fix rips and tears.

Random toiletries

I have a refillable 60mL sunscreen tube, travel size toothpaste, a travel toothbrush, chapstick, and hand sanitizer.

Wallet – 1.5 oz, 40g

Small ziploc bag with a credit card, debit card, national American ID card that’ll get me in and out of Mexico, and small amounts of cash. I hardly ever use cash in the US, but some places in the middle of nowhere don’t take card. My Schwab debit card refunds me all ATM fees from anywhere in the world (saved me $1300 in South America!).

Mosquito headnet – 1 oz, 30g

Please, God, never make me have to use this.

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Studying the (paper) topo map in Iceland.

Paper maps – variable weight, up to 5 oz, 140g

Electronics can fail, so it’s good to have a backup. A veritable trail angel named Jonathan Ley updates CDT maps and routes every year, and has them available for free online. I ordered them printed from Yogi’s Books and sent to my parents’ house in Ohio. I’ll carry a few sections of trail maps at a time, mailing them to myself throughout the trail and getting rid of the old ones in town as appropriate.

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My water filter of choice.

Sawyer squeeze water filter – 3 oz, 85g

I’ve done thousands and thousands of miles of trail with this, and I’ve been pretty satisfied. You don’t get the taste from using bleach or other liquid-based purifying schemes, and it can turn brown water clear. That’s pretty nifty. I use a 1.5L Evernew plastic water bladder to help filter. I just put the dirty water in the bladder, screw the Sawyer Squeeze onto the top of the bladder, and squeeze the bag until the water has all come out.

Two disposable plastic water bottles – 1 oz, 30g

These are lightweight and found pretty much everywhere.

Prepping for a Five Month Walk

One of the most frequent comments I get about preparing for a long distance hike like this is: That must take so much planning!

Yes and no.

My last semester at Ohio State, where I completed my undergraduate degree in geology, I spent many dozens of hours reading absolutely everything re all aspects of a successful thru hike. The internet is host to a plethora of past thru hikers detailing everything from gear reviews to resupply details on countless blogs, forums, and Facebook groups.

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Laundry time in Washington on the PCT, about four months in.

Having done a five month hike once before, I really don’t need to do that again. The planning has thus been pretty easy. Many of the people I met on the PCT have done the CDT, and have been an invaluable source of information on such a relatively unfrequented trail.

Plus, I’ve been through all this before. I already know what socks and shoe combo helps me avoid blisters, how often to take a break to avoid injury, the point after which I get sick and tired of pop tarts (4 days), and the like.

That being said, I’ve opted to get some chores done before I hit the trail. Namely prepping mail drops.

Photo from Connor

Yogi’s Continental Divide Trail Handbook has been an invaluable research in planning all this. It’s also the only regularly updated guide out there, as far as I know. She did a great job putting together tons of info on hiking the CDT.

There are three main methods of resupply on a long distance trail:

  1. Buy food in town.
  2. Make food packages beforehand and have someone mail them to your location on trail.
  3. Buy food in town, but mail yourself resupply packages to locales with inadequate options or to avoid a difficult hitch.

Option three is my preference. In my opinion, it’s much easier to hitch into town and buy food for the next section from the grocery store. Sometimes that can be a small gas station store a five minute walk off trail, or hitching 15 miles when the trail intersects a road to a supermarket in a town.

Fun fact: Not wanting to walk on an exposed ridgeline during a thunderstorm, I waited out the bad weather while eating ice cream directly from the carton outside such a gas station in northern California. Some woman gave me $5, and a guy from the restaurant next door gave me his leftover fries.

I like having my dollars (after 21 months abroad it still seems so weird to be using USD) go to local businesses, and it also lets me adjust based on my tastes. One complaint I heard frequently on the PCT from those who mailed all their food for the five months was about repetitiveness. They quickly got tired of poptarts, trail mix, etc.

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Hanging out in a cafe during an unplanned town stop in Wrightwood, California on my 24th birthday. There was a snowstorm.

However, sometimes resupplying as you go just isn’t practical. It’s a difficult hitch to get to town, the general store doesn’t have much food, or you just don’t want to go into a larger city (i.e. Ashland in Oregon; after spending 4.5 months on trail, it was a bit of a shock to step off the bus in downtown Vancouver). Making packages along the way and sending them out can be a headache, especially when all I want to do in town is gorge on food and rest. So I’m making up some food drops, which my father has graciously offered to mail to me from Ohio. It’s a lot easier to do this when I have access to a car in Columbus, population 1.4 million, than on foot in some remote Wyoming town.

Here’s my resupply strategy, which will almost certainly change. Italics denote where I’ll be sending a package:

Montana/Idaho (the MT/ID border is the continental divide for a while, so I’ll be in both states)

  1. Show up at Canadian border with enough food for 29 miles.
  2. Many Glacier, Glacier National Park – Convenience store. Resupply for 56 miles.
  3. Two Medicine, Glacier National Park – Convenience store. Resupply for 11 miles.
  4. East Glacier, Glacier National Park – Small grocery store. Resupply 135 miles.
  5. Benchmark – Pick up box, 59 miles to next resupply.
  6. Lincoln – 20 mile hitch from Rogers Pass, resupply 67 miles.
  7. Helena – 15 mile hitch from MacDonald Pass, resupply 79 miles.
  8. Anaconda – on trail, resupply 101 miles.
  9. Darby – 30 mile hitch from Lost Trail Pass on Highway 93, resupply 123 miles.
  10. Leadore – 14 mile hitch, looks difficult (can call the Leadore Inn for a ride, $20). Pick up box, 56 miles to next resupply.
  11. Lima – 19 mile hitch, pick up box. 71 miles to next resupply.
  12. Sawtelle Resort, on trail. 38 miles to next resupply.Wyoming, third state!
  13. Old Faithful, on trail. 25 miles to next resupply.
  14. Grant Village – 7 mile hitch, resupply 79 miles to Dubois. – I worked here four summers in college, and am incredibly excited to go back to the mistake on the lake.

Wind River Range – Very remote and one of the scenic highlights of the trail. Can break it up and go off trail to go to Pinedale, or just do the whole thing in one go and carry more food. Carry a week’s worth of food and do an extended trip through here??

  1. South Pass City, pick up package. 119 miles to next resupply. Get rid of bear spray here? Think it’s the end of grizzlies.
  2. Rawlins, resupply on trail. ~150 miles to next resupply, can break it up by hitching into Encampment (looks like a hard hitch with poor resupply, probably not worth it).Colorado
  3. Steamboat Springs – 20 mile hitch, resupply 124 miles to Grand Lake. Looks like lodging is expensive.
  4. Grand Lake – Hostel and camping here. On trail resupply.
  5. Breckenridge – A couple hostels here. Buses between all the towns.
  6. Twin Lakes – On trail,resupply for 84 miles. Looks like lodging is pretty expensive.
  7. Salida – 21 mile hitch, resupply for 101 miles. Looks like the town has a nice hostel.
  8. Lake City (or Creede? Farther but looks a similar driving time) – 17 mile hitch, resupply for 118 miles. Hostel and camping.
  9. South Fork (or Pagosa Springs?) – 20 mile hitch, resupply for 64 miles.New Mexico
  10. Chama – hitch 12 miles, resupply for 93 miles.
  11. Ghost Ranch – on trail, mail food package with 54 miles of food.
  12. Cuba – on trail, resupply 118 miles.
    • MUST GET PAST MT. TAYLOR BEFORE WINTER!!!!! Should be good as long as I get through by the first week of October. Then I can take as long as I want to get to Mexico.
  1. Grants – on trail, resupply 101 miles.
  2. Pie Town – on trail, mail package here. Supposed to have great pies, but not really anything else. 140 miles to next resupply, but can break it up in Reserve (hard hitch).
  3. Doc Campbell’s – on trail, mail package here. 154 miles to next resupply.
  4. Deming – on trail, resupply for 58 miles to Palomas, Mexico.
  5. Columbus, NM, USA/Puerto Palomas, Chihuahua, Mexico. End of trail! Catch a train to New Orleans.

FAQs on the CDT

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The Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and Appalachian Trail are the three main long-distance walks in the US. Together they’re known as the “triple crown” of American hiking.

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.

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The Appalachian Trail’s unofficial motto. The CDT’s is Embrace the brutality, since it has the reputation of being a pretty difficult trail.

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.

Which direction? 

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.

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More or less the route I’ll be taking, heading south from Canada to Mexico.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Iquitos, Amazon

May is usually the dry season in the mountains north of Lima, but the locals said that over the past few years the seasons have been getting increasingly unpredictable. Although May is technically towards the end of autumn down here, because I’m in the tropics there’s really only an alternating wet and dry season. The weather forecast for the Cordillera Blanca, the next locale on my trekking wishlist, showed an abundance of pretty awful storms coming my way. It took about 15 seconds to decide to find something else to do for my last week in South America.

My hotel in Huaraz was by the market, away from the main “tourist” area. Since leaving Argentina for the comparatively impoverished Bolivia and Peru I’ve been opting for my own room in locally owned hotels, which often run from $3 to $15 a night. Cheaper than a bunk in a hostel in Patagonia! I’ve consequently had very little contact with anybody who’s not from here. I’d gotten a lot of my travel advice from other backpackers in hostels, so without this source I perused my Lonely Planet Peru guidebook and the Google Flights site.

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Iquitos, in the Amazon, is the marked in red on the map of northern South America.

Flying in Peru is dirt cheap by American standards, and my guidebook’s description of Iquitos in the Amazon kept rising to the back of my mind, so I was excited to find $120 round-trip tickets to there from Lima.

With a population of half a million, Iquitos is the largest continental city with no access to the outside world by road. The only ways to get there are by plane or boat, with river access on the massive Amazon. It’s a popular stopover for backpackers taking weeks or months to traverse the continent from the Andes to the Atlantic, spending days at a time in hammocks on large riverboats plying the Amazon.

From the comfort of my fairly luxurious $15 hotel room in Huaraz I was able to arrange and pay for everything on my smartphone. I booked a ticket on Cruz del Sur (means Southern Cross, and there are so many bus companies named this on the western side of the Andes), which is the nicest of the gringo-class buses. Large seats, two bathrooms on board, and no stopping every 10 minutes to load and unload goats in Andean villages. Definitely worth the extra $12 for the 9 hour ride to Lima, the last 2.5 hours of which were just spent in the sprawling capital’s traffic.

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Taxis have been so cheap in Peru that I’ve been taking them in lieu of public transit. In Lima I used Uber to minimize my chances of getting robbed by taxi drivers with machetes, and similar apps in other cities. My ride from the Iquitos airport to the hotel cost $3.

The flight to Iquitos took only 90 minutes, and it was nice not to have to deal with border controls on this national flight. I picked up my bag in the tiny airport and headed outside, where I was swarmed by taxi drivers. They were all charging $3 for the 6 mile (10km) ride downtown, which is the rate that signs in the airport advised.

As Iquitos has no roads to the outside world, there are virtually no cars. Instead, everyone rides a motorcycle or takes a rickshaw (motorcycle with a cart attached) around town. Just sticking out my hand I never had to wait more than 10 seconds for a rickshaw to pull over. Even at the gringo rate the rides were cheap, and I always took the first price. It usually came out to around 30 cents a kilometer.

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At first I thought the cat on the left, lying on the floor of the Central Market, was dead. It wasn’t, but rather was taking a siesta in the oppressive midday humidity and heat. Thankfully, I took the advice I read online and got a room with air conditioning. It was a godsend.

I took a rickshaw ($1.50) to the north end of town on the banks of the Amazon, where I caught a boat ($1) 15 minutes to Padre Cocha. Multiple villages are linked to Iquitos by boats, and the transport to Padre Cocha departed about every 15 minutes in each direction.

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The “dock” at Padre Cocha, a village on a tributary of the Amazon.

It was a 15 minute walk from the village to an endangered animal rescue run by a kindly Austrian woman, who with the help of western volunteers was nursing ocelots, jaguars, pocket monkeys (adorable little things that fit in your hand), and the like back to health.

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Walking through the village of Padre Cocha.

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More of Padre Cocha.

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A graveyard just outside the village. It was so hot.

It would get oppressively hot around noon, but thankfully there were numerous ice cream shops all over town with strange flavors. The fruits available in the jungle were totally different from what I was used to, and the ice cream shops took full advantage of this. I definitely ate a lot of scoops of the camu camu flavor.

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It was a holiday in the province, and so all the government employees marched down the main boulevard. Some of them goose stepped, which was a bit unexpected.

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The city abruptly ends at the Amazon River and jungle. I took this photo of a young couple paddling out of the settlement from downtown.

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Belén, a 20 minute walk outside of the downtown area, is home to some floating slums. There’s also a market in the area, which during the wet season is reachable by canoe. When I went to Belén the market was easily walked to, and I couldn’t find the jaguar teeth necklaces I’d heard about. I did see an endangered species of alligator on a grill.

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I climbed to the top of a church’s bell tower and took this photo in the evening as a storm was rolling in. You can see where the city abruptly ends and the verdant jungle takes over.

Four and a half days in Iquitos was plenty, and by the end I was looking forward to getting out of the humidity. But it was definitely worth a visit! I don’t think I could ever deal with the incredible heat of a trans-Amazon journey.

Trekking the Cordillera Huayhuash

Overview

The Cordillera Huayhuash, a comparatively small mountain range measuring at just under 20 miles (30km) in length, has some superb high altitude trekking. The trails wander from valley to valley over mountain passes of up to 16,400 feet (5000m), rarely dipping below 13k feet (4000m).

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Huaraz, a town of about 100k nine hours north of Lima, is the trekking hub for the Cordillera Blanca and Cordillera Huayhuash. The former lies to the north of Huaraz, and the latter to the southeast. Both mountain ranges have trailheads easily accessible by public transit from Huaraz.

Organizing

The full Huayhuash Circuit tends to take 10 to 14 days, and the vast majority of hikers hire locals with mules to carry their belongings, cook, and do all other camp related chores. They hike with light packs, often starting around 8am and finishing by 2pm with one pass a day. I saw no other independent trekkers during my six days on the trail, but I found the ordeal pretty easy to arrange on my own. I carried all my belongings and managed two passes a day, finishing an extended route in 6 days.

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The first 7.5 miles (12km) are along a road.

Safety

The Huayhuash used to be home to an outpost of the Shining Path, a communist terrorist organization responsible for the deaths of almost 70,000 people. It was largely eradicated by President Alberto Fujimori in the 90s. Up through the 80s hikers were ransomed by the Shining Path, and you can visit their old camp near the trail (I didn’t realize I was so close to the guerilla outpost until afterwards, or else I would’ve gone to visit if feasible). In the early 2000s multiple hikers were murdered in robbery attempts on trail, which prompted the government to close the area for a few years. Nowadays the locals charge small amounts of money to cross their valleys as a form of “protection fee,” and the area is very safe. I ended up paying about $45 over the entire trip in these fees and had no issues whatsoever.

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The hotel owner thought I was totally insane for trying to do the hike in fewer than 14 days, especially without mules carrying all my stuff. “You know, you should really consider taking a raincoat with you,” he admonished. Did he really think I wouldn’t take a raincoat on a 6 day hike?! As I do with most people in life I just smiled, nodded, and ignored him.

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Two hikers in the distance heading along the road towards the trail.

He insisted on accompanying me to the main road to help me hail a taxi to take me to the terminal for my 5am bus. The taxis in Latin America are known for ripping off gringos so this was fine by me, and he negotiated the lofty sum of $1.25 for the 12 minute ride. Huaraz, where I based myself, has an abundance of tuk tuks and taxis roaming the streets and honking at anything that moves in the hopes of getting customers. The only other time I bought a ride across town, which took all of 10 minutes, the driver quoted an opening price of less than a dollar. So I just took him on it (though in bigger cities I use uber or its Latin American equivalent; way safer and cheaper than anything I could get with pale skin and green eyes).

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The entrance to the hike passes along mining areas, where employees seemed shocked that my pack weighed less than 25kg/50lbs (my pack with a full complement of food and water weighs around 20 pounds/9kg maximum). This sign is boasting that they’ve been 0 days without an accident, and have only had 85 incapacitating accidents.

The bus took two hours to reach Chiquian, where we stopped for an hour before continuing another 2.5 hours to the village of Pocpa. The whole trip cost about $9, and there were four Germans and one other American on board along with tons of villagers. Two of the Germans immediately lit up cigarettes upon disembarking at the end of the ride, which was a bit impressive considering we were already at around 13k feet (4000m). They ended up hitching a ride and skipping the first part of the hike, whereupon they set up camp at 2pm. I would get so bored spending 18 hours a day in camp, which seemed to be the norm for everyone else.

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I get a lot of flak from Europeans for wearing shoes instead of boots, but I haven’t had blisters in 2 years. Plus they dry out in 10 minutes in the sun if they get wet.

 

Rather than camp where the road curves away and the trail begins, I opted to head over the first pass and take a detour off trail. The other American on the bus was going to do the same detour and I found him pretty obnoxious, constantly bragging about how little he pays locals on his trip through South America, and to avoid spending the next week with him I went back to the official route.

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Taking a breakfast break in the morning as I head up to the second pass.

There are official campgrounds you’re supposed to stay in rather than wild camp, but this wasn’t enforced (partially because there’s hardly anybody out there). I got to the Mitucocha “campground” at dark and found it to just be a fenced area that was locked. The idea of being locked in a pen didn’t appeal to me, so I just camped a few minutes’ walk away. I spent every other night in the official campgrounds, largely because they had flush toilets, but only saw others one night.

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It would often be sunny in the morning and cloud up over the day.

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I had to take a lot of rest stops when climbing up to the passes.

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Looking back down the valley on my slow but steady way up the pass.

The second night, at Huayhuash Camp, I was surprised to find almost a couple dozen hikers after seeing very few people all day. I have a theory that the locals assign the village idiot to man the camps and collect the fees, which seemed to be confirmed by the Huayhuash attendant.

“There are lots of bad people around here. But don’t worry, I’ve got my rifle and if they come and try to take your shoes I’ll just-” he then mimicked holding a rifle and shooting people in the hills for much longer than was necessary to prove his point. Not that I was concerned somebody was going to steal my filthy shoes.

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Cooking my ramen noodles in Huayhuash camp.

“And I’ll lock the gate at night so nobody can get in,” he added. He must’ve noticed my disbelieving look, since he changed the topic pretty quickly. I wasn’t sure a gate, standing in the middle of a field with large openings on either side and a fence that just stopped after a few meters, would keep anyone out.

“Oh, you’re 26? I’m 30!” I would’ve guessed closer to 50, but I was hoping that if I gave monosyllabic answers he’d just leave me alone. After a few minutes it worked.

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Lake Viconga. The Shining Path camp is really close to here. I took a break on the ridge and was unfortunately joined by the local fee collectors, who asked me three times over the course of an hour how many people were behind me. If they asked for a fourth time I was going to say 7.5 people would arrive at precisely 12:42pm, but they seemed to take the hint when I ignored them after repeatedly saying I still didn’t know. The guides of the hiking groups were pretty cool and I enjoyed talking to them, especially when they trash talked their clients.

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The view from my tent the third night. A fox walked right in front of here shortly after I took this photo.

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A view from a pass on the third day.

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The clouds looked ominous so I hurried down the pass, hoping not to get caught in a storm at high elevation with no shelter.

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I didn’t know it at the time, but I was heading up the wrong valley.

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Still in the wrong valley, but it was pretty. I spent half a day there and retracing my route, after which I headed straight to the village of Huayllapa through a storm. At the village’s only store I talked to the owner, who told me he’d give me a room in his hotel for $3. The room looked like the cellar from the Blair Witch Project, but the bed was comfortable and I got out of the rain.

 

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Heading through the valley.

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Descending from the higher route to the valley. The storm let up for a bit.

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This dog followed me for two and a half days. I hate dogs.

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Most of the time there was a trail that was easy to discern.

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Walking in the clouds.

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The early morning views.

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One last view of the snowcapped mountains.

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The very last pass! I got cell service here for the first time on the trip, so I made a reservation for a hotel room for when I got back to Huaraz.

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Llamac, the end of the hike. A bus leaves for Huaraz every day at 11am, and I arrived at 4pm. I wandered around until I found a “hotel,” where the very kind owner charged $12.25 for a room, two meals, and a large hunk of cheese. I have no idea why she had so much cheese, but she had me help carry the cheese to the bus for sale in Huaraz. Really good cheese, wherever she gets it from. In the village of Huayllapa you can supposedly resupply, but they only had crackers. After spending two days eating just crackers, I was glad to get hot meals in town.