Hear are a list of Tips for Thru Hiking the CDT. I plan to keep this updated in future years as a resource to budding CDT hikers.
NOBO vs SOBO vs FLIP
There are advantages and disadvantages of Thru Hiking the CDT northbound, southbound or completing a flip style hike. There is no perfect direction for Thru Hiking the CDT. Southbound is the best option even though I hiked Northbound. Make up your own mind.
A northbound hiker is plagued by the possibility of late season snows in the San Juan Mountains of southern Colorado. Then there are the many thunderstorms in northern New Mexico and Colorado.
Hiking in the snows of the San Juan mountains is no joke. It honestly scared the crap out of me. I am not a mountaineer. It felt more like Thru Mountaineering the CDT than Thru Hiking the CDT. I nearly set off 4 wet snow avalanches in one day it was time to bail from the mountains and take the lower Creede cutoff route.
The trail both humbled and disappointed me when I had to bail off the trail. My safety was more important to me. It is only a matter of time before a Thru Hiker dies while hiking early season in the San Juan mountains. Don’t plan on starting in Colorado before 7th June at the earliest. Be warned.
Thru Hiking the CDT northbound has several advantages that the southbound hiker does not have. It gives the hiker the opportunity to start hiking slowly. Plenty of low miles at the start to allow their body to adapt to big miles. New Mexico is also very cheap in comparison to the other states, so spending an extra night or two in a hotel to rest early on in the hike is cheaper than the other states.
This is a successful method that many hikers take advantage of every year. The hiker starts hiking northbound in New Mexico. If Colorado has a big snow year the hiker flips north to Montana. This is a great option for hikers who lack confidence or experience hiking in snow. The San Juan mountains of Colorado is no place to learn about hiking in snow. The hiker that flips north will have their trail legs. Then there is the long daylight hours. That combination equals the ability to make big miles. But flipping north has the disadvantages. It will cost money to travel to Montana. Maybe your hiking buddies that you have met on the trail do not want to go with you. Worst of all is the trail will finish at some road junction somewhere rather than at a monument at the border.
Southbound hikers are also plagued with the possibility of late season snows on the passes in Glacier National Park. The hiker must start at a time when it is safe to travel but early enough to give the hiker enough time to get through Colorado before winter sets in. Southbound makes for very cold weather in Colorado. Early season winter storms in Colorado can force the hiker off the trail or worse. Imagine having to road walk around all the most amazing mountains of Colorado and Northern New Mexico because of early season snow. It is a possibility and might be a safer option than risking a hike in deep snow.
If I was Thru Hiking the CDT again I would go southbound. Why? I think the chances of a successful hike is increased. Colorado will be brutally cold which I dislike. I would gear up for the cold in Colorado. Hiking southbound means being a little more trail fit at the start of the hike in Montana. Long daylight hours should equal reasonably big miles.
Getting to and from the trail
There are 3 places to start or finish the CDT in the south. Antelope Wells, Crazy Cook and Columbus. The most common option to get to or from the southern terminus is to take the Amtrak train to the town of Lordsburg, New Mexico. Then take the CDTC shuttle Lordsburg to Crazy Cook.
Antelope Wells is another option. It is on Hwy 81 right at the Mexico border. A hitch or private transport would be the only viable way to get there. It is also the end or start of the Great Divide Mountain Bike Route that parallels the CDT.
Columbus is just north of the Mexico border with Greyhound buses servicing the area.
There are two places to start or finish in the north, Waterton Canada or Chief Mountain. The easiest way to get to or from the start of the trail would be to take Amtrak services to East Glacier, Montana. Then there are the expensive shuttles that run from East Glacier to Chief Mountain. These shuttles start on May 15th and finish on September 30th which also corresponds with the dates that the USA/Canada border is open at Chief Mountain. In Waterton there is also a shuttle to Chief mountain for those returning to USA after the hike. Late season hikers like myself were unable to use any shuttles as they had closed for the season. Anytime after the first week in September and you may be out of luck. Closing times vary from year to year, it seems.
Trail Towns and resupply points
What towns to buy, what towns to send packages. I used a combination of buying food in town when there was a decent resupply (I am not a fussy eater) and mailing food packages to myself. I faced a problem on the CDT. Small town USA is rather crap for providing good nutritious food. Many times a grocery store didn’t anything remotely healthy. No fruit and no vegetables. Everything was packaged crap food. My body suffered from poor nutrition after about 2000 miles. In a desperate moment I ordered protein powder and a large box of Mountain House meals to add at least a little nutrition to my diet. It did work. Amazing how nutritious food can make a difference with energy levels. For a complete guide to resupply on the CDT, including towns, mileage, mailing addresses and phone numbers, click the link below.
Yogi’s Continental Divide Trail Handbook (Yogi’s CDT Handbook) is really the only real option for planning a hike of the CDT. Unfortunately it is showing its age. It claims to be updated every year but many including myself suspect the updates are lazily done. Many a CDT hiker in 2016 was left frustrated. However, it does have a lot of info on trail towns and planning. In that regard it is a necessary item to have. But is it worth the price? A PDF or Kindle version would be a great idea, maybe one day.
Permits for Glacier NP and Yellowstone NP
Glacier National Park has a reservation system for all the back country campsites. Southbound hikers have it easy. They can pre plan their arrival dates and organize permits over the phone. Northbound hikers have two options. Call ahead and book their sites or turn up at the Back Country Ranger Station at Two Medicine and arrange for permits. Both systems are not ideal but it is the only way.
Permits for Yellowstone National Park are slightly frustrating for the CDT hiker. Mostly because it can be hard to call ahead and pre plan what campsites they will be in. The most common option is to camp just outside the park and hike into the nearest back country permit office to organize permits. Northbound hikers must hike 27 miles to Grants Village. Southbound hikers must hike 18 miles to Old Faithful Village.
There are two maps that are available for navigation on the CDT. Ley Maps and Bear Creek Maps. Both are available in digital or paper form.
My iPhone was my only form of navigation aid when I hiked the CDT in 2016. I was in the majority. Less than half the hikers bought paper maps with them, even fewer had a compass. As for the use of a dedicated GPS unit like a Garmin, I only spotted one person using one on the CDT in 2016.
Times are changing. Technology is changing. Using the inbuilt GPS on the phone is the future. I am one of the many that are embracing the future. But is has also created a false sense of security for many hikers. Technology can fail. Paper maps can blow away in the wind. The art of reading contour lines and navigating with a compass and map is lost among many a Thru Hiker. Not taking paper maps, a compass and a knowledge of how to use them is potentially setting up a Thru Hiker for disaster. Be warned.
To protect my technology I used a backup battery to keep things charged. More importantly I used a LifeProof Case to protect the phone. A broken phone equaled a broken hiker.
The Bear Creek maps are used on the Guthook App. I found the App rather annoying on the CDT. It was not as good as the GutHook App I used on the PCT in 2015. But it has everything a hiker could want. The main failing of the App is the lack of water sources listed. Unless a water source is directly on the trail it is generally not listed. Therefore water that is 1/4 mile from the trail is unknown to GutHook. Rather annoying. Also, not all the alternates are listed on the App.
This app is free, so are the Ley Maps. Download the App and search for Ley Maps CDT. Turn on the location services for the App and you have a free mapping App for the CDT. The advantage of the Ley maps are the alternate routes and mentions of water sources not listed on GutHook. The thing with the CDT is the alternates are often times a more scenic option or a short cut on the trail. The ‘Official CDT’ is not always that scenic.
To navigate around towns and get me off trails in emergencies or to detour around fires I use an Offline Topo called Pocket Earth Pro. I download the whole state topo map to my phone. If I need to bail off the trail, this is my go to map. It also shows hotels and restaurants ect. There are a lot of handy Wiki Travel links on the offline maps with info such as historic sites.
An essential app to plan and prepare for the trail. Want to know if a winter storm is on its way or hurricane force winds. Also has a great weather radar. Only works when there is cell phone signal or wifi.
A great app to use for gazing into the night skies. Set it up to tell you what constellations you are looking at, or where the planets are. It also has a calendar to advise when the next meteor shower will rain down on earth.
The best app for touching up photos. It is cheap and does a great job. I use this app to touch up many of my photos before I post them.
Kindle Reading App
No need to bring your heavy Kindle with you on the trail. Download the Kindle App and sync all your books onto your phone. Also, there are a heap of free books to download. Click the link below to download the free Kindle Reading App.
The CDT is quite a dry trail. Every state on the trail has long sections with little water. The deserts in New Mexico are dry in many places. Cattle ponds and electric windmills are the only water sources for many miles. In general I believe the water is better than on the PCT.
Many of the high ridges in Colorado also have sections of little or no water. The great basin in Wyoming is notorious for long sections of little water. The same is true for the ridge top walking in Idaho and Montana. Suffice to say there are a lot of dry sections on the CDT. Things are not made any better by the poor mapping of water sources on GutHook. They rarely map any water that is not directly on the trail. Further info on water is contained on the CDT water report. Ley maps also lists many of the water sources.
Hiking through the San Juan Mountains of Colorado in late May or early June is no joke. They are a serious mountain range. I felt like I was Thru Mountaineering. A late season snow melt will mean many potentially dangerous situations. Many an experienced snow hiker has been humbled by a combination of dangerous snow, bad weather and slow travel. Northbound hikers should consider starting into Colorado after 7th June. Every year is different but it is almost guaranteed that there will be snow to deal with. The southbound hiker has the advantage of only really getting a short section of snow in Glacier National Park. Mainly at the Passes. 15th June is generally accepted as the safest start date SOBO.
Thru Hiking the CDT puts the hiker in a position to have wildlife encounters. In 2016 two Thru Hikers where mauled by Grizzly Bears on the CDT. Both lived to continue hiking. The attacks occurred in the same area between the Wind River Range and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. Possibly by the same bear.
The hikers, Zorro and Smiley were hiking solo and the Bears attacked with little warning. I met both these hikers while on the trail. Smiley had particularly nasty puncture wounds on his butt.
I had a Grizzly Bear walk past my tent in the same area as I slept. The following morning I discovered the bear tracks only 20 feet from the my tent. I had my food in my tent and was not carrying bear spray at the time. I had a close call and took proper precautions after those acts of stupidity on my part. Hang food and carry bear spray.
Rattlesnakes were common in New Mexico and in places in Wyoming. There are also Moose, Wolves, Wolverines, Mountain Lions and Lynx to contend with.
I’ve saved the most important for last. The most important question a hiker of the CDT must ask themselves is the reason why they are there. During times of hardship you will question why you are doing this to yourself. Maybe you haven’t seen another hiker for many days and have survived a winter snowstorm and are running low on food with many days to hike to the nearest town. Have a serious think about your reason to hike the trail. For me it was always about the nature, the scenery, the wildlife and the challenge of completing a hard thru hike.
5 Favorite Days Thru Hiking the CDT
If I was Thru Hiking the CDT again
If I was Thru Hiking the CDT again what would I do differently. Firstly, I would prefer to be Thru Hiking the CDT southbound. It offers a better chance of success for the hiker who has a bit of trail fitness. Secondly, I would send more food boxes with nutritious meals to some of the small towns in Idaho and Montana. Thirdly, I would spend less time in the trail towns of Colorado, they are expensive. And finally, I would take more neros and less zeros. I had lots of zero days in the trail towns.