If you are Thru Hiking the Continental Divide Trail in the United States then this comprehensive guide should answer most of your questions, inspire you to get out there and scare the crap out of you.
It includes a daily CDT Blog complete with cool photos, information on how to get to the trailheads at the northern and southern terminus, plus info on maps, apps, resupply, gear guides, permits and guidebooks. If I missed anything, let me know.
Thru Hiking the CDT was one of the toughest thing I have ever done in my life. I documented my hike as a daily journal but over time it grew into a resource for anyone else wanting to hike the trail. I recorded my CDT Thru Hike in my daily journal which included what I was seeing and experiencing on the thru hiking the Continental Divide Trail. Often I was too exhausted to write about the day but I persevered. This is the result.
Anyone contemplating the CDT Thru Hike might find it useful to read all the blog posts listed below. If after reading the blog posts you still have questions then let me know. I would be happy to help any future hiker in any way possible. Just let me know.
I was certainly not ultra light during my thru hike. My Continental Divide Trail Gear List and Continental Divide Trail Gear Review will give you an idea of the what I used and how it performed. My gear is constantly being replaced as it wears out or I look to upgrade. Below I have included reviews of all the best gear available at the moment. I suggest you take the time to have a look.
After making the decision to backpack the CDT it is time to consider which direction to hike. There are advantages and disadvantages of Thru Hiking the CDT northbound, southbound or completing a flip style hike. There is no perfect direction for the CDT Thru Hike. Southbound is the best option even though I hiked Northbound. Make up your own mind.
Hiking the CDT NOBO
A CDT 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.
CDT Northbound Start Date
Most thru hikers start the Continental Divide Trail in April or early May. The ideal start date for thru hiking the CDT Northbound would be 15th April. This would allow someone hiking the Continental Divide Trail northbound to not rush the trail and risk injury.
New Mexico is the cheapest state for the whole trail. Enjoy some rest days. By starting slowly it allows the snow to melt in Colorado.
Flip Flop Thru Hike of the CDT
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.
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.
Hiking the CDT Southbound
CDT 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.
The worst thing about thru hiking southbound on the CDT is the Bob Marshall Wilderness. It is a hard section of trail with difficult resupply options. Made worse by not being trail fit and all the winter storm trees that have blown down have not been cleared from the trail. Making the hike slower than at other times of year.
CDT 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 Trail 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.
CDT Southbound Start Date
Most hikers start their southbound hike from Mid June to the end of June. 15th June would be the ideal start date. The high passes in Glacier National Park will be snow covered for most people starting on this date and the trails through the Bob Marshall Wilderness will be slower going due to all the winter tree blowdowns that have not been cleared. Keep that in mind when you determine how many days food you need. It might be slower going than you think.
How Long Does it Take to Hike the Continental Divide? Trail?
Most thru hikers will take 5 months to hike the Continental Divide Trail. Faster hikers who have completed other thru hikes and are confident in their ability and use ultra lightweight gear will complete the trail in 4 months. Early season snow and the early onset of winter make it almost impossible to hike this trail in 6 months or longer.
Getting to the start of the Continental Divide Trail
Getting to the Southern Terminus of the CDT requires a choice of 3 places to start or finish the CDT in the south. Antelope Wells, Crazy Cook and Columbus.
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.
Getting to the Northern Terminus of the CDT
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. The expensive shuttles used to run from East Glacier to Chief Mountain. But it appears to have stopped running. At the moment it looks like hitch hiking is the only way. They used to 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, Canada there is a shuttle to Chief mountain for those returning to USA after the hike. I hitch hiked and was lucky. The Shuttle runs till mid September when the border crossing to USA is closed. Be sure to check when things close if hiking late or early in the season.
Any updates please let me know so I can update this resource. Thanks.
Trail Towns and Resupply Points
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.
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.
Backcountry 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. Smartphones are very smart nowadays.
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.
Smartphone Apps for Thru Hiking the CDT
Guthook’s CDT Guide
The Bear Creek maps are used on the Guthook App. I found the Guthook Guide 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 Guthook Guide was 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 Guthook App.
Avenza PDF Maps
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.
Pocket Earth PRO Offline Maps
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.
Many people use the Gaia App and rate it highly.
CDT Water Report
The CDT water report has information about the current water availability for the CDT. 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.
Many of the high ridges in the Rocky Mountains of 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.
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. Luck was on my side, I had a close call. I learned my lesson and took precautions after that acts of stupidity.
Hang food and carry bear spray between The Great Basin of Wyoming and the Canadian border.
Rattlesnakes were common in New Mexico and in places in Wyoming. One attacked my GoPro while shooting some close up video! There are also Moose, Bison, Wolves, Wolverines, Mountain Lions and Lynx.
Know Why You Are Thru Hiking the CDT
During times of hardship you will question why you are doing this to yourself. Maybe you haven’t seen another hiker for many days or 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.
If I were 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.
Travel Insurance for Overseas Thru Hikers
CDT Hikers traveling from overseas will need some form of Travel Insurance. I travel a lot, in fact, travel is my life.
When I travel I always use travel insurance to protect me from potentially large medical bills. For the last several years I have exclusively used World Nomads as my preferred company for travel insurance.
They cover Thru Hiking and other adventurous activities in United States that other companies do not cover. Also, they are reasonably priced. Click here to check their prices.
Continental Divide Trail Blog – Pre Hike Information
Continental Divide Trail New Mexico is home to rugged desert mountains and some of the cheapest trail towns on the whole CDT. A great place for northbound hikers to take there time and get trail fit. Southbound thru hikers on the CDT can enjoy fast days with big miles if they so choose, or slow down and enjoy the last weeks on the trail. The many Nation Forests make for great hiking and camping.
The Continental Divide Trail Colorado is the coldest section of the whole trail, both for the northbound and southbound thru hiker. Late season snow and thunderstorms for the northbound thru hiker and cold frost and early season snow for the southbound hikers. Arguably, Colorado is the most visually stunning sections of trail.
The Continental Divide Trail Wyoming is a place for thru hiking big miles. From the flat and easy sections of the Wyoming Basin to the most visually stunning section of the whole CDT in the Wind River Range. And let us not forget Yellowstone National Park. South of Yellowstone National Park is an area with many Grizzly Bears where several incidents have happened. Carry Bear Spray and hang food.
The Continental Divide Trail Idaho brings sections of trails with a seemingly endless rollercoaster of hills. Constant up and down hiking in the hills. Some of the resupply towns are difficult to reach. It is the time when both northbound and southbound thru hikers will need to make big miles to avoid the snows which will be arriving soon.
The Continental Divide Trail Montana has some of the most stunning and difficult terrain. The rugged sections of trail Glacier National Park and the long resupply sections of the Bob Marshall Wilderness are the highlights. It is also a place to beware of Grizzly Bears. hanging food at night is a must.