There are a few hikes that are so iconic that they attract worldwide attention from hiking enthusiasts. Many believe in conquering the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) is one of those epic adventures. It is a massive undertaking of epic proportions because this trail is a thru-hiking event. It takes planning, perseverance, and prowess.
Keep reading to learn more about this monumental thru-hike, the gear needed, and tips to get you ready.
What Is the Continental Divide?
There are continental divides on all continents, with many continents with more than one divide. A divide is a boundary where major water sheds separate and flow to different oceans. North America has between three and five. There’s not an agreed-upon number because there’s no one regulation that states exactly what constitutes a divide on water flowing location. In general waters in north America flow either to the Pacific, Atlantic or Arctic oceans.
While there may not be a specific number, there’s an agreed-upon definition. According to National Geographic, “A continental divide is a boundary that separates a continent’s river systems.
In North America, the continental divide that runs north and south along the Rocky Mountains is also a well-known trail called the Continental Divide Trail. This divide separates the water that runs into the Atlantic Ocean versus the Pacific Ocean. This is also where thousands of hikers attempt to conquer one of the most arduous thru-hikes on the continent.
The Continental Divide Trail Guide for Thru-Hikers
Stretching for 3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada, the Continental Divide Trail traverses some of North America’s most scenic and remote terrains. Traveling through New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana, hiking the CDT is not for the faint of heart.
So, where to begin? If you choose to start from the south and head north, which most hikers do, you’ll be starting from the southwest corner of New Mexico. That’s where the state meets the border of Arizona, close to Mexico.
There are three official starting points, all labeled as the southern terminus. Want to be official and document your starting point? Start your journey at the Crazy Cook Terminus. There, you’ll find an official monument. Crazy Cook is in Lordsburg, N. M. This is where you’ll need to decide to walk to the starting point, hitch a ride, or catch the official trail shuttle.
Ending or starting the CDT (if starting north and heading south), your journey will find you 4 miles inside Canada at Waterton Park in Waterton Lakes National Park. Getting to the northern terminus of the CDT will take you through Glacier National Park on the way into Canada, where you have officially conquered one of the hardest thru-hiking trails in North America and quite possibly the planet.
How Do You Access the Continental Divide Trail?
As mentioned previously, accessing the Continental Divide Trail to begin your journey from south to north is near Lordsburg in New Mexico’s boot hill. Or you can begin your journey by heading south from the northern starting point in Waterton Park, just north of Glacier National Park in Montana.
However, with the CDT crossing five states, accessing the trail, if not interested in completing the entire 3,100 miles, can be done almost anywhere along the route. In fact, some thru-hikers actually do what’s commonly called flip-flop hiking. Meaning, they hike certain areas one at a time depending on good weather windows instead of a complete thru-hike all in one swoop.
Whether flip-flopping or just looking to hike a small portion of the Continental Divide Trail, you’ll find several access points in every state. For example, Silver City, N.M., is an easy access point because the trail goes through the town.
Another popular access point is in Colorado’s mountain town of Twin Lakes, which is also a resupply town and right on the trail itself. Other points along the trail are well-known to more than just thru-hikers. For example, part of the trail goes right by Old Faithful in Yellowstone National Park. While we have not completed the entire trail we have hiked many different parts of it as you can access it in so many locations.
Remember that some of the access points along the Continental Divide Trail may start off seemingly easy. However, traversing over 450,000 feet of elevation gain and loss throughout the entire trail is never easy.
What Is the Trail’s Difficulty Rating?
The Continental Divide Trail is not easy. In fact, it is notoriously difficult, known for its long stretches of rough terrain, lack of natural water, and few opportunities for resupply. Even starting in the desert of New Mexico, the hike is not easy because of its remote location.
The lowest point of the entire Continental Divide Trail is in New Mexico at almost 4,200 feet. The highest point along the trail is 14,278 in Colorado at the summit of Gray’s Peak, with several mountain passes along the entire length of the trail itself.
This is not a feat to be tackled by just anyone. Hikers need to be well versed in all-terrain hiking with the ability to hike around 15 to 25 miles daily. Not only that, but everything you have on the trail needs to be carried by you. Granted, there are resupply towns along the route, but you’ll need to be able to support the weight of food, shelter, and water, all while hiking along diverse terrain and in all types of weather, including snow.
While it’s possible to hike the Continental Divide Trail as a beginner thru-hiker, your best bet is to have done some long-distance and other thru-hikes before embarking upon this specific hike. Just as you would train for a marathon or any other physical or mental endeavor, if you plan on thru-hiking the Continental Divide Trail, you must train for this, too.
How Long Does It Take to Complete the Trail?
If you’re completing the entire length of the 3,100 miles in one stretch, you’ll need more than days. You’ll need months.
The average time it takes to complete the CDT is five months. Because the time requirement is so long its almost always hiked south to north so that it can be completed in the warmer summer months. While some have hiked it “backward” as its called, encountering winter weather is a much higher probability and can be dangerous.
What Permits Will I Need Along the Trail?
While five months may be the completion time, you’ll also need time ahead of time to prepare for the hike. One of the steps required for preparing to hike the trail is accessing all the required permits. Or, at the very least, knowing what permits you’ll need along the way if you can’t get them ahead of time.
With the CDT crossing land managed by a variety of agencies across five different states, having permits to hike this trail should not come as a surprise. The four main permits required are a New Mexico State Trust Lands Recreational Access Permit, a Blackfeet Nation Fish & Wildlife Recreation Permit in Montana, and backcountry camping permits for Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks.
You can access New Mexico State Trust Land and Blackfeet Nation permits ahead of time. The two backcountry permits will need to be purchased at a ranger station or visitor center when you arrive at the parks. And depending on where you are camping along the trail, other permits may also be required.
While the above four permits are the official permits required, keep in mind that there will be other access points along the trail that will require you to register and complete self-service applications for permits. The Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail require permits, but they’re free of charge.
How Much Should I Budget to Hike the Continental Divide Trail?
The free permits are nice, but don’t get used to free or low budget when hiking the Continental Divide Trail. Like the required permits that cost money, the gear and everything you’ll need to live on the trail for five months will cost money, too.
However, the best way to look at the cost of a thru-hike is that your life for the next five months is on the trail. And just like if you were living in a stationary home for the next five months, there are living expenses. Those living expenses on the trail are quite different.
Budgeting for gear and food is definitely a necessity. Still, you’ll also want to budget for entertainment and some luxury when you head into town for a resupply or a break from the wonders of the wilderness. Costs for a thru-hike of this proportion can range from $4,000 to $8,000. This all depends on how you want to spend your money and time on and off the trail.
The simplest way to look at budgeting while on the trail is that you’re now living on the trail for five months. How do you want to enjoy it?
What Kind of Wildlife Might You Encounter on the Trail?
Some hikers love to lavish in luxury when it comes time for a trip to town while thru-hiking, but regardless of your spending activity, most hikers can agree that their time spent on the trail will have nothing to do with money. It will have more to do with possible wildlife encounters.
And those wildlife encounters may not always be fun. Watching deer bound through the trees or hawks soaring through the sky is one thing. But coming around a bend and running straight into a grizzly is an entirely different scenario. It’s one full of awe and excitement, but not the kind of excitement most of us want to experience.
Statistically speaking, you’re not bound to run smack into a grizzly. Most hikers won’t even see a grizzly. But bears, moose, bison, and quite possibly wolves are all animals you should be aware of when hiking the CDT. You’ll also want to keep your eyes open for rattlesnakes when hiking through New Mexico and into the high mountain desert regions.
On a more innocent note, other animals you might come across are rabbits, hawks, foxes, coyotes, elk, and mountain goats.
Tips for Preparing for the Continental Divide Trail
You now know what wildlife to look out for, but what other tips are helpful before heading out? Here are some tactics that will keep you safe.
Study Maps Beforehand and Take Maps Along
If you’ve never been good at navigation before, now is the time to get good at it. You’ll need it. The Continental Divide Trail isn’t always well marked. In fact, some sections involve hiking along roads to get you back onto the actual trail.
Snow will cover other sections without tracks to guide you in the right direction. Relying on your cell phone to tell you where to go isn’t always an option. Maps and guides are your bibles when navigating the complex system of 3,100 miles of this thru-hike.
One of the best places to start building your map and guide resources tools is through the Continental Divide Trail Coalition’s (CDTC) website. Here, you’ll find maps and other resources. You’ll also find up-to-date notices on closures and other happenings.
Pro Tip: New to navigation? Use these tips on How to Navigate With a Compass: A Practical Guide.
Get All the Gear
You’ll need a tent or other types of shelter, a sleeping bag and pad, layers of clothing, water purification options, cooking tools, a first aid kit, and personal hygiene items.
Trekking poles are also invaluable tools that make those long miles of uphill and downhill seem much easier. Lightweight and compact gear is great, but it also has to be made of high-quality materials that serve its purpose.
The same holds true for your clothing. Don’t get the cheapest t-shirt on the market. In fact, leave that cotton t-shirt at home. Opt instead for quick-dry items and Merino wool for both warmth and efficiency. And since you’ll be hiking in diverse weather systems, you’ll need rain gear, winter clothing, and winter gear. That winter gear includes an ice ax and snowshoes.
You’ll then need a backpack that fits all those items while also fitting you. It can make or break your trek. If properly sized to fit your body, you’ll be able to hike for miles without feeling like you are carrying the entire world.
The hiking shoes you wear on this hike must fit you like a glove. They need to carry the weight of everything you’re bringing along. Don’t skimp on your hiking boots. You’ll probably go through three to five pairs.
When it comes to cooking and water purification tools, have several options available. Water and food are essential for your continued healthy survival on the trail. Be sure to pack matches, lighters, and other fire-starting options in your pack, along with water filters, straws, and purification tablets. Having options to keep you fueled along the trail will go a long way when you have a long way to go.
As for electronics we recommend having a good mapping program on your phone. We like Gia gps as it’s good for planning and works well offline. You will also need a way to charge your electronics and a portable solar charger is usually the best option. We always recommend carrying a portable locator beacon in case of emergencies for such remote hikes as well.
Pro Tip: You’ll be glad you packed one of these 7 Best Walking Sticks for Hiking on your CDT thru-hike.
Connect with Other Continental Divide Trail Thru-Hikers
Gear and maps are physical items that will help you succeed on the trail, but are you prepared mentally? Even if you are solo hiking the Continental Divide Trail, it’s a good idea to make connections with others, even if it’s just in case of an emergency.
Support from others embarking upon the same journey is just as important as your gear. So, before heading out, take the time to connect with others that have or will be hiking the same trail.
Knowing that others have gone through the same difficulties you’re going through or knowing others who celebrate the same victories you’re celebrating goes a long way. Don’t discredit the power of community, even when hiking in the solitary of Mother Nature.
You can find groups on social media and websites. You can also simply talk about what you’re getting ready to do with others. You’ll be amazed at the community of thru-hikers that want to help you succeed.
How Many People Have Completed the Continental Divide Trail?
It’s difficult to determine the exact numbers of how many people have completed the CDT, but the CDTC has done a pretty good job at trying. According to the CDTC, since 2013, there have been around 50 to 100 people completing the CDT every year. Before that, hikers claiming to have finished the trail were about five to 25 people per year.
What Is the Best Time of Year to Hike the Continental Divide Trail?
If you’re planning a thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail, you need to plan wisely. That way, you’re hiking in the best weather possible. However, regardless of how much you plan, Mother Nature is fickle. You’re hiking across diverse terrain for thousands of miles, so you will encounter snow and rain and heat and cold.
On that note, most hikers head northbound. They begin their trek in New Mexico in April with the goal of finishing in Canada in August or the very latest, September. Starting sooner than April could result in impassable mountain passes in Colorado due to heavy snow. Starting later could result in the same the further north you get.
What Is the Best Segment of the Continental Divide Trail?
One of the best segments along the trail is the Wind River Range in Wyoming, with 19 of Wyoming’s 20 tallest peaks. There’s also Glacier National Park in Montana, with 26 glaciers, and the San Juan Mountains in Colorado, with their jagged snow-capped peaks towering over 14,000 feet.
Experience the Continental Divide
Embarking upon this epic thru-hike over the Continental Divide Trail is an ambitious undertaking you shouldn’t take lightly. Once you’ve prepared for the journey, the only thing left to do is to take that first step.
Also, realize that while planning is absolutely necessary, you might just have to make quick changes. You can have planning, perseverance, or prowess. None of that can foretell what Mother Nature has in store for you for the next 3,000 miles.
So plan for your upcoming adventure. Persevere in the challenges, embrace your prowess, and listen to the trail. Listen to your body also. With all that, those 3,000 miles might just be the best moments of your life.
Is a thru-hike along the Continental Divide Trail on your bucket list? Tell us in the comments!
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