Thru-hiking the Continental Divide Trail: tips and common questions

Welcome back on Apache Pine’s Blog. Of course, after talking about the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Coast Trail, it is time for the third one of the crew: the Continental Divide Trail.

Today we will get to know better this third stunning US thru-hike, which is not only one of the best thru-hikes in the US, but also one of the most beautiful thru-hikes in the world.

As every other thru-hike, it is very important to get there ready, knowing what you are going to face and knowing how to get ready for it. So let’s start from scratch and let’s get to know something more about it. We’ll discover some tips to prepare for the Continental Divide Trail, we will answer some frequently asked questions and in general we’ll create a small guide to hiking the Continental Divide Trail from which you can start to gather information and get ready properly.

Things to know before hiking the Continental Divide Trail

Also know as the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, this thru-hike is the third one of the Triple Crown of long-distance hiking in the United States. It is 3100 miles long and it crosses the United States from North to South - or the other way around, of course - passing through five states: Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and our beloved Idaho.

As the majority of thru-hikes, the Continental Divide Trail is too a combination of different other shorter trails, roads and passes. And for those who can’t get enough, it can be continued crossing the Canadian border all the way to Kakwa Lake, north of Jasper National Park.

In general, it is known for being a rather wild, remote and unfinished thru-hike, requiring many exploring and surviving skills to be completed. Indeed, it’s not always so well marked  and that’s why, as we will see, it requires extra studying.

It’s nothing like the Appalachian Trail. It does have some similarities with the Pacific Coast Trail, but in general the tree of them all have their singularities, which means that if you hiked one of them you are not necessarily set and prepared for the other two. 

How long does it take to hike the Continental Divide Trail

So this is probably one of the most fundamental questions when it comes to organizing a thru-hike: how much time will it take to hike the CDT? Outstanding performances aside, it normally takes about six months to complete the Continental Divide Trail.

Always remember that everyone hikes their own hike and that it might take you less or more time according to your own needs and your own goals. A good thing can be to allow always an extra couple of weeks to your plans in order to leave space for changes and unforeseen events.

When is the best time to hike the Continental Divide Trail

This, of course, depends a lot on the direction you decide to take. Generally speaking, the CDT is a long-distance trail hiked between April and November. However, because of the many different longitudes and altitudes it crosses and the different kinds of climates, timing is crucial in order to avoid big snow storms or incredible heat.

For those who decide to hike the Continental Divide Trail from North to South, then the best time to start is late April, generally finishing in September. If you start earlier, the risk is to encounter snow in in the San Juans of Colorado, if you end later, the same snow can hit you in Montana. Thru-hiking with snow can be incredibly hard and energy draining, besides requiring a much heavier and bigger load because of the kind of gear.

For those who want to hike it from South to North, then the advice is to start in mid-June and finish around November. If you start earlier, the snow will be met in Montana, whilst if you finish later you will meet it in Colorado.

One thing is for sure, snow will be the one component that should determine your timing and around which you should plan your hike.

The majority of thru-hikers state that SoBo is the best direction to take when it comes to the CDT, first and foremost because of the risk of late snow that could occur in the San Juan Mountains and that really is no joke. However, this too is a matter of choice. Thru-hiking is such a personal experience that objective information can relate only to a certain extent, leaving to each one the freedom to make their own choice and deal with the consequences.

That’s why studying the trail properly, getting in contact with other thru-hikers and in general knowing as much as you can allows you to make the best decision for yourself.

What route should I choose to hike the Continental Divide Trail

Because of its “unfinishness”, the Continental Divide Trail doesn’t really have a precise, well-marked and determined route to follow, which means it is subjected to a lot of variants, none of which is more official than the others. Moreover, the CDT is characterized in some sections by a variety of routes according to weather conditions, resupply, floods or trail closures in general.

At the same time, there is a track that was defined by the USFS, the United States Forest Service, which is the administrator of the trail, that has been created thanks to the many maps, GPS tracks and additional markings. This new track is longer and more panoramic and is known as the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail. Despite being quite similar to the “original” trail, it does involve changes and deviations, creating a division within the Divided between those who attempt to hike to “classic” CDT and those who opt for the CDNST.

The main diversity could lay in how well the trail is marked: the CDT is most definitely less organized and defined than its “new” version.

What is a Continental Divide

For those of you who think that the reason behind this name is that this long-distance hike divides the United States in half, it’s not actually like that.

That's where geology comes in: a Continental Divide is an actual and physical land formation that parts the main waterways of a continent. When it comes to North America, the Continental Divide starts in Northern Alaska and goes all the way down Mexico’s Sierra Madre, following, as the trail will show you, the Canadian Rockies, the Rocky Mountains and runs down the five States that the CDT crosses. In South America, for example, this same phenomenon happens in the Andes.

So one could really say that the Continental Divide Trail could be much longer than what it is and who knows, being it so full of variants, maybe one day it will be!

What do I need to hike the Continental Divide Trail

Besides the basic thru-hiking gear, being the Continental Divide Trail such an adventurous and unpredictable one, make sure to be geared up for long days in the wilderness and for orienting. A good compass, a proper bush knife, a first aid kit, a water filter, a watch and a whistle should not miss from your list for any reason. Last but not least: maps. Not just a random, approximate map, but a proper, detailed and reliable map that won’t show you just the trail and its proximity, but the whole area, so you will be sure to always have a good overview of where you are and what your alternatives are in case of need.

Where do I start to organize for the trail

Gathering information, of course is the first step. This can mean many things. So start from joining the community. Og course, get in contact with people who already hiked the CDT, so that they can give you all the tips you may need, but not just them. Get also in contact with those who intend to do the same thing as you: sharing the information you find during your research will make it easier for everyone to get ready.

Being part of a community will be particularly important also during the thru-hike itself. If you are experiencing difficulties, doubts or you simply want to understand if your thoughts match that of others, you can get in touch with your community and find help, support, advice or simply a ear.