Annie at the CDT end.


The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) runs 5000km from Mexico to Canada, following the Continental Divide of the Americas along the Rocky Mountains. It traverses this mountain range through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana.

Officially recognised as a National Scenic Trail in 1978, the notion of the CDT was, and remains, to allow people from all walks of life to experience the natural beauty of the Rocky Mountains and to conserve its natural, historical and cultural landmarks. The trail passes through a diverse landscape, from the arid desert of New Mexico, commonly referred to as the “boot heel”, to the awe-inspiring mountains of Colorado. Today the trail is internationally recognised as one of the foremost long-distance hiking trails in the world.

I first heard of the CDT when researching the Pacific Crest Trail, which I completed in 2016. It is a natural choice for a second thru-hike¹. I was drawn to the diversity of the landscape and the romantic notions of walking through America’s wild west.

Most hikers will hike the whole trail in a five- to six-month period from April to September (northbound). I hiked the CDT in 2019 over a 5-month period. While the trail is a mental and physical challenge, my advice is to not be overwhelmed by the magnitude of the endeavour. While previous experience is great, I met hikers on the trail who had no hiking experience who not only loved it, but also completed it successfully.

There are many different logistical approaches to hiking the CDT, however there is general information that is applicable to every thru-hike. Here I will go over some of the most common questions I get asked about the CDT.


Wyoming.

CDT Resources

These are multiple resources that are useful in preparation and throughout the journey.

Continental Divide Trail Coalition

The Continental Divide Trail Coalition (CDTC) is the official CDT organisation. It works directly with property owners, US Forest Service and other federal land management organisations. It is a great starting point if you are interested in hiking the CDT. There is a plethora of information on the website https://continentaldividetrail.org/. It is here that you can arrange permits, transport to the beginning of the trail and water caches.

Guthooks

Guthooks is an app that can be downloaded to any smartphone. It is arguably the most valuable electronic resource.

Guthooks uses GPS navigation and does not require phone service to be used. It costs USD$62.99 (at the time of writing) for the whole thing or USD$14.99 for each state. The app is broken down into sections from one major town to the next. The first section is free, so you can see how the app works before having to pay. Developed by thru-hikers, it is easy to use and has reliable up-to-date information on the following:

  • Maps
  • Alternate routes
  • Route closures
  • Elevation profile
  • Campsites
  • Trail notes
  • Water sources
  • Towns – Accommodation, food, post office hours, transport to and from
  • Trail angels²

I used Guthooks throughout the whole trail. This requires a smart phone and because I would have it on most of the day, I also needed a battery pack to charge my phone.

While Guthooks is not essential for the trail, it is incredibly useful. I did not meet another hiker who didn’t have it.

CDT Facebook Page

A CDT Facebook page is created every year, e.g. Continental Divide Trail Class of 2020. The page is a platform for up-to-date information and a networking space for fellow hikers and trail angels that is specific to the seasons, people and trail conditions of the year.

CDT Blogs

Many hikers write really informative blogs while they are on the trail. Reading blogs is a great way to get practical and logistical information. It is also a way to get a feel for the culture of thru-hiking and what it is like to hike a long-distance trail physically, mentally and socially. The best way to find blogs is to do a Google search.


Best Visa for Australian Citizens Doing the CDT

The best option is the B2 visa: it is a tourist visa that allows a stay in the US for six months. Visas are subject to the criminal background, etc. See https://www.ustraveldocs.com/au/au-niv-typeb1b2.asp for more information.


Annie at the CDT start.

Getting to the Continental Divide Trail

The CDT can be hiked in either direction. I chose to hike northbound, beginning at the southern terminus on the US Mexico border. This is the most popular direction.

There are three southern starting points – Columbus, Antelope Wells and Crazy Cook – all located in the southwest corner of New Mexico. The most popular and most official of the termini is Crazy Cook. This is where I started.

Crazy Cook is located near the small town of Lordsburg, New Mexico. Major cities near Lordsburg to fly into are El Paso, Albuquerque, Sante Fe, Phoenix and Tuscon.

I flew Melbourne&mdashLos Angeles&mdashEl Paso. From El Paso I was able to get a 3-hour bus to Lordsburg New Mexico.

The Crazy Cook Monument is roughly a 3-hour drive from Lordsburg. The most popular way to get to the southern terminus is the CDTC shuttle. This costs USD$120 (at the time of writing) and can be booked here: http://continentaldividetrail.org/southern-terminus-shuttle/. It is possible to get your own transport. I was able to arrange a lift on the CDT Facebook Page with another hiker who was starting on the same day.

I recommend arranging transport from Lordsburg to the trailhead ahead of time. The road is rough and has very little traffic. If you are arranging your own transport, a 4WD is recommended. A vehicle with a lot of clearance is necessary.


Resupply.

Resupply/food on the CDT

The most common questions about the CDT I get asked are to do with food/resupply. It should be no surprise that a good menu is one of the most important aspects to a successful thru-hike. Not only is it important to meet adequate dietary requirements, eating well can also be a source of great comfort and pleasure.

To resupply food there are three options – pack food ahead of time and have it sent in the mail, shop from the supermarkets in town or a combination of both.

I sent one food resupply to the privately-owned campground Ghost Ranch New Mexico. There were no shops to resupply from there, but they did have an office that accepted mail for CDT hikers. Other than that, I resupplied from supermarkets. Sometimes these were more like general stores with limited variety, but I made do.

Don’t get overwhelmed by thinking you need to have your menu and resupplies planned out for the whole trail. It is unrealistic to stick to a schedule the whole time. While resupplying can seem complex in the beginning, it soon becomes second nature. Once I was in town, I would look at the section ahead and calculate how many days of food I needed. See our Lightweight Food For Hiking blog post for tips on what and how much food to carry. I would always pack a couple of back up packets of noodles just in case my estimates were off.

The trail crosses a road that would go to a town with a supermarket every 5-ish days. The longest food carry I had was 7 days.

If you plan to have all your food sent out to you in the mail for the whole trail, there are several factors to keep in mind.

  • You will need to know someone who is able to send out the packages for the duration of the trail. It is important that this individual is reliable and reachable as they will need to send the packages at the right time for you to receive them.
  • Cost – post can be expensive depending on how far away the packages are being sent.
  • Post office hours. You'll need to time your arrival in town with the post office's opening hours. I saw hikers wait in town for a whole weekend waiting for packages to arrive.
  • Be sure to pack a variety of food. You will get sick of eating the same thing and preferences will vary depending on the conditions.
  • Along with food, it is also a good idea to pack other supplies like extra zip lock bags, toiletries and new gear.

I chose to buy food along the way because of the cost and flexibility. It is important to me to eat as much fresh food as possible while hiking, this would not have been possible with resupplies sent in the mail, not to mention I had no contacts in America that I knew well enough to ask such a task of.

It is possible to get much of your food from Hiker Boxes³ as long as you aren’t picky. I would always check the hiker box before I resupplied.


Water on the CDT

Most of the CDT has daily water access. There are sections in New Mexico where a water cache service is made available through the CDTC for a small fee of USD$10. I highly recommend this service as it avoids unnecessary long water carries.

To purify my water, I carried Katadyn Micropur Forte Tablets. You could also use a filter. Many of the water sources are used by animals and require treatment.

Most hikers will use a combination of drink bottles and water reservoirs. I used 2 x 1.5L bottles and a 2L Platypus soft bottle. Any system is suitable as long as you have capacity to carry adequate water – 4–6L water capacity is recommended, although this may vary depending on where you are on the trail.


Hitching.

Hitch Hiking on the CDT

The best way to get into town is to hitch hike. This is what I did almost every time I went into town. Occasionally for less travelled roads, a lift with a trail angel could be arranged. While hitching can be daunting at first, it is a necessary aspect of thru-hiking and soon became something I was comfortable with. I rarely waited longer than 30 minutes to get a ride.

There is a good hitching culture in the US, particularly in mountain towns where most locals are outdoorsy types. It is good to trust your instincts hitch hiking; I have turned down rides because I was uncomfortable with the driver.


Hiking in Bear Country

Black bears are in every state along the CDT. They are rarely aggressive and are for the most part more interested in trash cans than a hiker. They are most likely to show aggression if you are between a mum and her cubs. If you see a black bear, keep your distance as you would any large animal with claws. The times I crossed paths with black bears, I did not feel threatened and was happy to observe (from afar).

From Wyoming north, brown or grizzly bears are commonplace and the risk of a grizzly attack should not be underestimated. Most of the time grizzly bears will only attack a solo hiker, so hiking in groups is recommended. Most attacks occur when bears are taken by surprise or feel threatened, so if I was hiking solo through grizzly country I would periodically yell out or sing.

It is required to carry bear spray through Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. Bear spray can be purchased in most towns in these states. Make sure you know how to operate the bear spray; tutorials can be found easily on YouTube. Bear spray should always be within reach. You can buy spray holders that strap to shoulder straps of your pack. I kept mine in my drink bottle holder on the side of my pack, which I could reach easily. I would sleep with my bear spray and take it with me when I wasn’t carrying my pack e.g. toileting.

It is not required to carry a bear-proof food bag or hard-sided bear cannister, but it is recommended. I used an Ursack and this was the most popular choice. You can also carry a bear cannister, but these are heavy and bulky. They do however make a good seat. The Ursack is an extremely abrasion-resistant bag. It has a drawstring system that is difficult for bears to get into. While the Ursack will prevent bears from getting into your food, it does not stop the bears from finding the food – because of this, I lined my Ursack with a scent-proof bag (this is essentially a very heavy-duty zip-lock bag).

Some campsites have bear boxes to keep your food in or poles where you can hang your food. Most of the time I would hang my Ursack from a tree. Never sleep with your food or anything with a scent. I kept all my food, cooking gear and toiletries in my Ursack. Soon this became routine and actually served as an incentive to get out of my sleeping bag in the morning for my coffee!

Yellowstone and Glacier national parks both require you to watch a video on bear safety.

Make sure you are diligent in following these safety practices. While it was scary at first, I soon found walking through bear country to be a humbling reminder that I was a guest in a truly wild landscape.


Somewhere between Idaho and Montana.

CDT Permits

You cannot obtain an all-encompassing permit for the whole CDT. Each permit has to be obtained individually.

Permits are required for the following:

  • Glacier National Park
  • Yellowstone National Park
  • Rocky Mountain National Park – The RMNP only requires a permit if you are camping in the park. Because the CDT only goes through 25 miles (40km) of the park, most hikers will get through in one day and avoid the permit.
  • New Mexico State Lands Permit – Can be obtained ahead of time from the CDTC website.
  • Blackfeet Reservation and Indian Peaks Wilderness – The CDT only goes through both these areas for a few miles, like RMNP they only require a permit if you are camping in them.

Gear for Hiking the CDT

Footwear for the CDT

Most thru-hikers, including myself, will opt to wear trail runners because they are light and comfortable. The Salomon Pro 3D or the La Sportiva Ultra Raptor are suitable options, they both offer more support than most trail runners and have an aggressive tread that will last longer and give more traction on slippery terrain.

Another option is a lightweight boot, such as the La Sportiva Pyramid, this is a happy medium of added support through the ankle and body of the shoe while not adding too much weight. Few hikers go for a heavyweight boot, but it can be a good option if you are carrying a heavier pack, have a history of ankle or knee injuries or simply prefer a more supportive boot.

Regardless of the shoe you are using, they will most likely need to be replaced. I hiked in 3 pairs of the same model of trail runner.

It is an option to get different shoes depending on the section of trail. A trail runner is perfect for the heat of New Mexico where the terrain is mostly flat and dry. A boot would be more appropriate for the steep terrain of Colorado or Montana.

I recommend a good quality, medium-cushion sock that will withstand as many kilometres as possible without getting holes. Socks will have to be replaced along the way. A synthetic or a wool/synthetic combination sock that will breathe well and dry quickly is ideal. A good option is the Bridgedale Hike Mid Performance Sock. I carried two pairs of hiking socks and one pair of thick warm socks to sleep in as I get very cold feet, these can also be used as a backup pair of hiking socks. I find that having warm feet improves my overall temperature and comfort level. Small luxuries like a pair of sleeping socks can be integral to the experience and completion of a long-distance hike.

Washing day.

Recommended Clothing for the CDT

I was able to carry the same clothing for the entirety of the trail; some people will change their clothing along the way depending on the location and season. For example, carrying a lightweight 2-layer jacket in New Mexico then switching to a heavier 3-layer jacket in Colorado. Most hikers I encountered were like me: opting to carry the same clothing throughout the whole trail.

It is important to have clothing that offers sun protection – a lightweight shirt, shorts/pants and a sunhat. For warmth you will need a set of thermals such as Icebreaker 260 tech leggings and crew top as well as a good fleece or insulated jacket. A down jacket has the best weight to warmth ratio and is what I used. The Mont Zero Ultralight Jacket is a good option. It is important to note that down will not work when wet, whereas a synthetic option such as the Rab Xenon Hoody will. Lightweight down jackets are also not as durable as many of the synthetic options.

A good rain coat is a must. There are good lightweight 2-layer options, such as the Outdoor Research Helium II Jacket. However, if you are after a jacket to last the whole trail, a more durable 3-layer rain coat is recommended: the Outdoor Research Optimizer is a fantastic option for a lightweight, breathable three-layer jacket. Gloves are also essential, I suggest Outdoor Research Vigor Midweight Sensor Gloves.

I carried a dress to wear in town. This was great for when I had to do laundry. Some hikers would choose not to carry town clothes and would wear their wet weather gear or a towel while doing their laundry.

Below is a list of all the clothing I carried.


New Mexico.

Sleep and Shelter

A good quality down sleeping bag rated to at least -10 is recommended, the Mont Helium 600 is a great option. Keep in mind that sleeping bag temperature ratings are a general guide. Men and women have different ratings and some people feel the cold more than others.

A sleeping mattress can be just as important when it comes to temperature. There are plenty of great lightweight options such as the Exped Synmat HL (available in different sizes) or the Thermarest Neoair. I prefer an air mattress over a foam mattress for smaller packed size and greater comfort and warmth.

There are great campsites along the CDT. I never had a problem finding enough space for my two-person shelter. You will need a good quality 3-season shelter. The Mont Moondance tent is a great option because of its balance of weight and durability. I like to use a two-person shelter when hiking alone because it means I have the luxury of extra room and I can have all of my gear in my tent with me. Of course, it means carrying more weight.

The dry conditions of the trail mean that often it is possible to sleep under the stars. This is referred to as “cowboy camping”. Because of this, I carried a Tyvec ground sheet. You can purchase Tyvec by the metre from most hardware stores in America. It was a light and inexpensive addition to my gear that proved invaluable – a popular choice among thru-hikers.

Navigation

The trail itself is very well marked and maintained. Guthooks is what I and most other hikers used for navigation; however, in case technology fails, it is a good idea to carry maps and a compass. Make sure to get a compass that will work in the northern hemisphere. Maps can be obtained from the CDTC website.

Safety

A PLB (personal locater beacon) is an absolutely essential item. While many sections of the CDT have phone service, you should not rely on this alone. No matter how prepared you are, you can never discount the fact that you may need a rescue.

Make sure to have your PLB registered with your personal information, test it before your trip and be aware that different brands and models have different battery lives. See our blog post on PLBs.

First Aid

Depending on your individual needs, your first aid kit may vary. I always carry sunscreen, lip balm and tape for blisters. Other items such as personal medication and insect bite cream can be tailored to fit your personal needs.

Colorado: When Annie walked the CDT in 2019, it was a high snow year.

Miscellaneous

Most thru-hikers use a simple, single-compartment roll-top pack. Be sure to chose one that is durable and comfortable enough, with handy pockets. I carried a 65L hiking pack, but you need to choose the right capacity for how much stuff you need to carry.

Trekking poles are not for everyone, but they have become an essential piece of gear for me. They are great when hiking in uneven terrain, particularly over such a long distance; your knees and ankles will thank you! They can also be used to set up shelters such as a tarp.

While some hikers use trekking poles or tent pegs to dig cat holes, this can be time consuming and less than ideal if you are in a rush. I use the Deuce of Spades trowel. At just 17g, it is very light and compact and easily slips into a heavy-duty zip lock bag with toilet paper. See our blog post on correct toileting procedures.

I always carry hand sanitiser with me. I use it after toileting and before eating. It gives me an air of civilised cleanliness even in the stinkiest of times.

I carried a bum bag. I used this while I was hiking every day mostly to keep my camera in, but it was also great to have in town.

I had Kahtoola Microspikes and the Grivel Ghost Ice Axe sent to me once I reached Colorado. I found these items absolutely necessary. While 2019 was an extremely high snow year, I would suggest that at the very least, microspikes are essential no matter what the predicted snow is.

Sunglasses are also essential, I suggest polarised.

Keep in mind that you can always purchase gear online and have it sent to you if you want to make adjustments or replace items.

See the rest of my gear list below.


CDT Gear List

Sleep and Shelter


Eating and Drinking


Other


A long-distance hike such as the CDT can seem like an enormous undertaking. It is easy to be put off by the magnitude of the trail. One of the best things that comes with taking on a challenge that by nature takes a long time is that there’s no way to not be present in the moment. Taking it one day at a time makes 5000km easier to conceptualise. If you are at all interested in hiking the CDT or any long-distance trail, I encourage you to do your research, get in touch with other hikers through blogs or social media and don’t be intimidated by the length of the trail. The most important thing is a desire to be there. If you are researching the trail chances are you already have that desire.

Completing the CDT, I was filled with gratitude to be able to bear witness to such natural beauty. Something I was not expecting was the incredible cultural experience of walking through small-town America. The trail takes you to places that are well and truly off the tourist highway. I had the opportunity to interact with people with whom I would never usually cross paths with and experience the social diversity that makes the American cultural landscape so unique.


Annie Trumble,
Bogong Equipment


  • ¹thru-hike: An established end-to-end hiking trail or long-distance trail, usually going through a country. The term is most commonly used in America in association with the Appalachian Trail (AT), the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT).

  • ²trail angel: A person or group that assists hikers with basically anything, most commonly transport to and from the trail head and accommodation in towns. Trail angels also help out by leaving water caches on dry sections of the trail and other such conveniences. Trail angels are a huge support throughout the trail and a major reason why the community and infrastructure that surrounds the trail is so strong. Trail angels sometimes charge a fee or ask a small donation, most of the time this is to cover costs like petrol.

  • ³hiker box: A box located at many of the places in town that a hiker would frequent – e.g. hotel/motel, post office, campground, information centre. As a hiker you can leave anything and take anything from a hiker box. It is not a trade system – if you have nothing to leave you can still take. Most of the contents of a hiker box are unwanted food and gear.



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