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CDT 101: Explore a Thru-Hike on the Continental Divide Trail

Read Time: Approximately 19 minutes

Thru-hiking the Continental Divide Trail, or CDT for short, is a challenging but rewarding experience that offers hikers an opportunity to explore some of the most beautiful and remote areas in North America from Glacier National Park and the Canadian border to the amazing Rocky Mountain National Parks.

If you’re thinking of hiking the CDT, or are just curious about what it’s like, then this quick guide is for you! In this post, I really want to discuss hiking the Continental Divide Trail along with some tips for a CDT thru-hike, as well as what you can expect from this incredible journey.

As any trail over 3,000 miles will need far more detail think of this as a way to evaluate your knowledge of the areas you will travel through, your gear, and your hiking style before you conquer one of the most scenic and longest trails in the United States.

The first thing anyone considering a thru-hike should do is their research. This post is a great starting point, but there is so much complexity make sure to check out other resources available online and in print that can help you plan your hike.

What is the Continental Divide?

The Continental Divide is basically a breakpoint in the mid-America region where water flows one direction or the other depending on which side of the divide it falls on.

Water that falls west of the divide flows out to the Pacific ocean while the water that falls east of the divide flows out to the Atlantic ocean making the divide a huge split in the distribution of water for the country itself.

The Continental Divide forms a backbone along the Rockies, and hiking its length is an amazing way to experience some of North America’s most stunning scenery.

Choosing to Thru-Hike the Continental Divide Trail

This is an interesting choice, as you may or may not know the CDT is very remote, unlike the AT which is highly tied to access to towns the Continental Divide Trail is almost tied to very few towns in general and is generally regarded as the hardest trail of the triple crown.

For someone who has never thru-hiked before this is probably one of the most grueling trails that you could decide to do as a complete newbie. Not that it can’t be done, it has, it’s just going to need a high amount of skill in logistics and planning versus doing the entire trail on the Appalachian Trail, and somewhat the Pacific Crest Trail.

Let’s take some time to look into some of the more important questions most backpackers will have when they are starting to think and plan for their thru-hike.

How Long Does the CDT Take on Average

The Continental Divide Trail is the longest trail currently in the United States, it comes in at over 3000 miles in length and with a wide range of weather and terrain issues over the length from desert to mountain peaks it takes a long time

For most thru-hikers, this will be a solid five to seven months or sometimes even longer to successfully complete a thru-hike. For those who are gluttons for punishment and with a high mental resolve this trail has been done in under 5 months but this is an exception and not the rule.

Just understand that you are going to be hiking in desert, snow, mountains, high elevation, and so many things that can impede progress that you will want to always keep focus and that mistakes are what will demolish a thru-hike here.

How Much Money Does it Require?

This can vary widely based on what you have already acquired but there are many costs that anyone attempting will need to manage. The big costs upfront will be on buying your gear pre-trail, getting that list of gear assembled and doing shakedown hikes to test and validate each piece, and replacing failures.

But after this, the costs begin to match each other as you will have costs to eat and drink, whether in-town or on the trail, but for town visits, you will have miscellaneous costs like a hostel, motel, or hotel and replacing gear that breaks or need, like shoes.

Lastly, you need to have some invested money ready for when you complete the trail and are heading back home. You will need enough to cover getting re-established like a place to live, food to eat, and then finding employment.

Let’s dig into some of these costs so you can start to think about them in greater detail and plan as appropriate for your planning and preparation.

Pre Trail – Gear

This is a huge cost for those who are planning their first thru-hike, for many this will go into multiple thousands of dollars when they choose good gear, if you buy gear you find it not work for yourself and need to buy more gear the costs can explode fast.

A full set of gear encompasses a huge upfront cost and investment as you will literally be carrying your home with you for possibly seven or more months so you don’t want to cheap out on much of this gear either.

This gear will start with your big three gear where most of the pack weight will come from, your sleep system, your shelter, and lastly your backpack. You want to invest well in these as they will dictate your overall base weight and are the most expensive to replace if incorrectly chosen.

On-Trail – Food & Drink, Lodging, Gear

Once you head out on the trail you start to incur all the costs that come with trail life, you will need to buy food for you to carry on the trail itself which is very difficult on the CDT as many towns won’t have the selection you are used to which leads to many mailing drops to themselves to resupply from.

After this most people want to get into town for a shower and comfortable bed from time to time and once you enter the town is when costs start to go more haywire as many may choose to go to get food, then go to maybe a bar, and the costs can just spiral out of control.

The last big issue is when you have gear that just doesn’t perform up to your needs ad needs to be replaced, whether a gear failure or not sometimes the trail has a way of teaching you lessons you didn’t think about before.

Gear replacement costs in small towns can be incredibly expensive to your wallet and sometimes to your time, many times you may have to order from a company to deliver into a town for pickup if they have no gear shop in town.

Post Trail – Getting Re-Established, Finding Employment

The part that nearly no one speaks to, your costs when re-integrating into society are going to be higher than you think, you have to find a place to live and depending on where this is the costs can be expensive, in many towns, it can be nearly impossible to find an affordable place to live with no job history.

You will need food and as you will have been eating much more calories on the trail which will lead to rampant hunger once you are done hiking your body won’t initially realize this change has occurred.

Lastly, you need to think about how you explain the gap that will exist in your employment history as you need to be able to talk about how the trail and how the time has made you be a better employee, leaning into independence and the mental resolve it builds can help them not view it is “vacation” or as other worse negatives.

Planning Your Thru-Hike

When it comes to planning this hike you need to really decide on which way you will be heading as it will dictate lots of needs including your typical start dates, permits you may need on day one, and allow you to really begin to plan out town stops and mail deliveries.

NOBO, SOBO, or Flip

If you want to start going northbound you will start in a lonely desert overall as you will be hiking with nobody to possibly only a handful of other people, with most starting in late April to early May.

Southbound will start you in the middle of the hiking season so you will have many more people on the trail to hike with, starting most likely in late June to early July.

Lastly is a flip-flop which has you start one way and then while hiking flip directions and hike to the other direction (like start north from Mexico but then 1/2 way flip through and start from the Canadian border coming south), this can be great for those who want solitude but also may have time issues or worries about the weather.

Any way you choose there are many things that go into the decision and it should be a well thought out one as it will have a large impact on your overall experience.

Maps and Navigation

Unlike the other big three trails, the CDT has more of a guideline for the trail as in many places there may not be a simple-to-follow trail but instead a direction you should head, it features alternate routes which can take you to some amazing views.

The CDT also brings with it unique water issues since so much of the trail is exceedingly remote, there will be fewer trail angels dropping food and drink out in the dry areas and you will need to plan your water carries with much more forethought lest run out.

None of this is meant to scare you away but to be realistic in your pursuit requires understanding the possibilities and being well prepared as you can be.

Permits

There are many permits required for this thru-hike so make sure to do your research, the last thing you want is to get caught hiking without the proper permit and face a large fine or getting kicked off the trail.

Some of these permits are required for all hikers such as having a backcountry permit if you plan on hiking in any National Park along the route, this includes Yellowstone National Parks and Glacier National Park.

There are also permits that are required depending on which direction you start, if you start northbound in New Mexico you will need a permit to hike through the Gila Wilderness, and if starting southbound in Montana you will need a permit to hike through the Bob Marshall Wilderness.

If you want to read more on CDT permits then you can check out this post I have on CDT Permits.

Resupplying Your Thru-Hike

A key to a thru-hike’s success is the ability to get the food, rest, and prep work done before heading back out on the trail again. The most important part of this is figuring out how far you will be hiking so you can bring the right amount of food and plan.

This is why the CDT is next-level difficult as there is far less town access in general, then they frequently will have less food choice and selection which leads to the smart planning on sending yourself resupply boxes.

Limited Town Access

As I said above, the CDT has far less town access while also being incredibly longer than either of the other triple crown trails, this makes it much more logistical as you will have longer carries and more miles needed between town visits.

Very Limited Food Selection

Most of these towns won’t have the same variety in their stores you may be used to, some are known as “food deserts” due to the lack of variety and sometimes lack of a main grocery store in the first place.

This can be hard for anyone who runs specific diets with needs, vegan, keto, and all dietary approaches will find this difficult to maintain using only on trail resupply, which is why sending yourself mail drops will become super vital.

Resupply Boxes Can Be Vital

Sending yourself boxes of goods that will be limited on the trail can be a way to easily sustain yourself through the towns with a limited food supply, you can send these to post offices, hotels, and even some hiker-friendly businesses.

This is also a great way to get your favorite snacks that may not be available in town or are just too expensive. For most a resupply is unavoidable to successfully finish the CDT.

Safety on the CDT

Moving onto overall safety and digging into what to look at from a personal protection standpoint, the CDT is one of the more remote trails.

This means you will want to take extra precautions in your equipment as you will have a limited ability to get help in an emergency situation.

Weather

There is a diverse amount of different weather that can hit at a moment’s notice when out hiking the CDT. You will experience everything from rain and snow, to extreme heat and cold, all within the same day in some cases.

This is why having the proper gear for the conditions is so important as you need to be able to protect yourself from exposure which can happen quickly out on the trail.

You definitely don’t want to be caught out in high flats during afternoon thunderstorms where you are the tallest thing for miles around, or you need to know what you have to do when this occurs to maintain your safety.

Terrain

The trail runs from low deserts to incredibly high peaks and everything in between, this means that you will need to pay attention to the terrain and know your limits.

Hiking in low desert areas during the day can be incredibly hot while hiking at high altitudes can cause altitude sickness if not done correctly.

You also have different types of footing to contend with as well, from slick mud to scree and rocks, being able to read the rugged terrain and know what you can handle is important.

You will need to have an ice axe and some microspikes or crampons when in the heavy snow and ice to make sure you can safely navigate these areas, as well as be proficient in their use.

Wildlife on the CDT

Grizzly bear danger can’t be understated, you need to take the proper precautions when hiking in areas they frequent which means having bear spray and knowing how to use it.

There are other animals as well that can present danger such as mountain lions, snakes, and even moose so being able to identify them and what to do is important for your safety on the trail.

Remote

Last but really not least is remote, lots of this trail is located in incredibly remote areas or includes alternate route treks. No towns or reliable communications from cell devices for days or weeks at a time.

This means you need to be prepared for anything that may happen out on the trail, from getting lost, to breaking equipment, and being able to help yourself until you can get help.

Being prepared for the CDT really comes down to your experience level as a hiker and what you are comfortable with, the more you have hiked the less this will phase you.

You HAVE to know your map and compass and have them on you at all times, in addition, EVERYONE should carry a PLB or personal locator beacon like the Garmin InReach Mini, Zoleo, or similar to let friends and family know you are ok and to get help if something truly goes wrong.

In addition, you need to have water filtration and water bottles you can count on and carry a backup treatment like pills in case your filter should break as there are a lot of issues drinking unclean water, especially when you don’t know the water source well.

CDT Sections By State

Now we can take a quick look at how long you will actually be in each state, we are covering the states as if you were a NOBO hiker so if you are SOBO you will need to follow this from the bottom to the top instead.

New Mexico – 795 Miles

Starting at Crazy Cook Monument, the official southern terminus you will start hiking through the New Mexico desert and very dry mountains showing off the challenge to even acquire water early in the hike.

From the start, New Mexico takes you from desert to high peaks with the lowest elevation belonging to the town of Lordsburg at 4189 feet and the highest elevation on Mount Taylor at around 11,000 feet.

You will likely experience a lot of different weather conditions in New Mexico due to the diverse elevation changes, from snow-capped mountains to hot and dry deserts.

Colorado – 735 miles

Colorado is where the trail really starts to get high with most of it above treeline, this can cause some challenges with hiking as you are more exposed to the elements.

There are many alternative route options in Colorado that can lengthen and shorten the thru-hike if you choose to follow them, in the state you are frequently above 12,000 feet of elevation in southern Colorado and around 11,000 feet in the north.

There is a chance to have forest fires force specific diversions in route and in July and August, there are frequently hazardous violent afternoon thunderstorms which can cause a run to shelter.

Wyoming – 513 miles

Moving into the next state, Wyoming is a bit shorter than what you completed in Colorado but don’t let that fool you, hiking here can be just as challenging as the Rocky Mountains from Colorado end and you move into a long desert known as the Great Divide Basin.

The actual CDT forks here into two trails with the shorter side heading through less water availability, or the other trail follows the Wind River Range and climbs up into the timberline. From the Wind River Range forward you have some heavy grizzly activity which means always thinking about food and camp safety.

The trail for Wyoming ends leading into Yellowstone National Park which exits into Idaho.

Montana & Idaho – 358 miles

As you leave Yellowstone you will continue to follow the border of Montana and Idaho which is literally the Continental Divide. This section is full of high grassy ridges along with dirt road walks with scarce water and high grizzly activity.

Montana – 627 miles

As you begin to deviate from the border and into Montana proper you will find there are alternate route options available again to lengthen and shorten your trek, take some time to look into these for the one that fits you, and what you want from your hike.

The lowest point after you move into Montana will be at Upper Waterton Lake at 4215 feet and the high point at 9324 feet in the Anaconda-Pintler Wilderness. The trail continues to Butte and then makes the final turn North to Glacier National Park by way of the Lewis and Clark National Forest and other National Wilderness areas.

Continental Divide Trail Gear

Choosing your Continental Divide Trail hiking gear will be highly personal, but many long-distance trails share a wide selection of gear choice and selection. The focus below will only be on the big three gear as it will be the majority of your weight and if you need to learn about bear cans check out my post here.

Backpack

For most people they will need a larger backpack, in general, to carry more gear for the varied conditions they will encounter, the extra gear can take up more space and weight needs unless you have an exceedingly well dialed-in kit.

Each of the below packs will help be a strong performer for you when choosing to hike on the CDT.

Zpacks Arc Air 50L

Dependable Ultralight
Zpacks Arc Air
9.3/10My Score
  • For those grueling east coast ascents to long water carries across the desert.
  • Featuring custom Curved Carbon Fiber Air Stays, the Arc Air creates a gap between your back and the pack without the need for a mesh back panel.
  • A large stretchy Lycra mesh center pocket is great for quick-access items.
  • Curve is fixed set so airflow can be impeded with too many layers of clothing pushing the gap.

WaymarkGear LITE 50L

Dependable Ultralight
WaymarkGear LITE
9.3/10My Score
  • The LITE is the workhorse of the Waymark line of packs with a total capacity of 50 Liters.
  • The internal frame system, complete with 2 removable stays and a lumbar pad, allow you to comfortably carry 30-35 pounds of gear.
  • Comes with a standard height pocket on the right-hand side angled towards your back, and a tall pocket on the left-hand side.
  • The 50L is all-encompassing so internal and external space so while this says 50L this is broken down into 36-40L internal depending on sizing with the excess space external.

HMG 2400 Southwest 40L

Southwest 2400
9.5/10My Score
  • Three easily accessible external pockets to store and protect your gear.
  • Pair with their unique pods or stuff sacks for a buttoned-up, nearly waterproof kit.
  • External Hardline with Dyneema® side pockets keeps your gear protected and free from any unwanted snags or abrasion.
  • Recently moved manufacturing from the US to Mexico and there has been a notable drop in overall quality, hoping issues are resolved in short time.

To check out other backpacks I view as thru-hiker options please check out the page here where I update consistently as I find better options (opens in a new tab).

Tent

Most thru-hikers will always opt for a two-person (2P) tent as they want the space to spread out in camp after set up, this can help to dry out wet clothing but also give you the space to lay back, roll out sore muscles and relax without feeling too enclosed.

The material of choice is Dyneema, it brings amazing defense to rain and water in general while being the lightest fabric currently available, though this comes at a very large price tag.

To me though price is a little thing overall when you know this will be your home for the next 5+ months meaning the overall cost is less than a 10th of what you would pay for an apartment for a month.

Zpacks Duplex – King of the Hill

Pinnacle 2P
Zpacks Duplex
9.3/10My Score
  • This ultralight tent will allow you to push your limits and hike greater distances.
  • Specifically designed for the demands of long-distance backpacking, the award-winning Duplex hits the sweet spot when it comes to size, weight, and features.
  • Any of the four storm doors can be opened or closed independently. Leave all four open on nice weather nights for a breeze and great views.
  • Communications appear to be amazing or incredibly poor, my personal interactions have bordered on both.
  • Doors don't zipper close, this can take some adjustment for those used to more common closures.
  • The single wall thing does require some getting used to with condensation and clean up sometimes being hard to avoid.

To check out other tents I view as thru-hiker options please check out the page here where I update consistently as I find better options (opens in a new tab).

Sleeping Pad

You will want an ASTM-rated R-Value of at least 4-5 with some going to the 7 rating due to feeling cold or being cold sleepers. The reason you want an ASTM rating is that it is proof that a real rating has been established as many brands place “fake” or “best guess” R-values which can leave you in danger in the backcountry.

Sleeping Quilt

For a sleeping quilt or heavier and more bulky sleeping bag, you will more than likely need to have a 10-20 degree comfort rating for maximum performance in the weather.

You want to make sure that the quilt or sleeping bag choice you make is based on the “comfort” rating though which is the rating where you can lay straight out and not curled into a ball for warmth.

  • Katabatic Alsek 22 – Best Quality (Limited Customizations)
  • Zpacks Solo Quilt – Quick and Fast Delivery (Limited Customizations)
  • EE Revelation – Solid Customization Options (Temps are limited Based so always add at least 10 degrees)
  • UGQ Bandit – Best Customization Options (Longer Ship Times but built to order)

To check out other backpacking quilts I view as thru-hiker options please check out the page here where I update consistently as I find better options (opens in a new tab).

CDT Tips

There are some simple things you can pay attention to which will make the journey far more enjoyable.

Watch Out For Altitude Sickness

This happens too often where people come from lower elevations and start hiking at high altitudes without giving their bodies time to adjust. This can result in a myriad of issues the biggest being cerebral edema which is fluid on the brain.

You can help prevent this by hiking easy for the first few days, not going above 12 miles, and drinking plenty of water each day.

Be Bear Aware

This is pretty self explanatory but as you will be hiking in grizzly territory it is important to take the proper precautions when hiking and camping. This means cooking away from your tent, storing all food properly, and making noise while hiking.

Prepare For Long Water Carries

Know that at times you may need to carry 6+ liters of water and have the capacity to hold and carry that much on you, this is easily done with 4 one liter smartwater bottles or similar and then bring something like a 2L Hydrapak that you can fill to give more carry but for little space and weight.

Expect Very Random Weather

Prepare to adapt fast to ever changing weather, know and have plans on what to do when you encounter a severe thunderstorm, flash flood, or heaven forbid somehthing like a whiteout condition.

See First Hand Food Deserts

Food deserts are something many have never experienced, given how easily we can get the food we want at nearly a moments notice it is hard to believe some people and towns can’t supply this to you.

This is something you will experience on the CDT so make sure to plan and resupply accordingly.

Don’t Skimp on a GPS Locator Device

There are a lot of expensive gear you can probably find a deal on but the one area where you want to make sure you have solid performance with is location services, both to let people know where you are when you don’t have cell but also to notify rescue should somehting go terribly wrong.

Don’t rely on cell service on this trail as you will be rudely awakened from that notion quickly, a Garmin Inreach or similar device is going to be your best friend out here.

Additional Frequent Questions on a CDT Thru-Hike

As I find questions from the comments below or online that align with new people looking to hike this trail I will add them below to help flesh out the topic better and make sure everyone is prepared from a starting perspective.

Final Thoughts on Choosing a Continental Divide Trail Thru-Hike

The Continental Divide Trail is an amazing way to see some of the most beautiful scenery in North America, but it’s important to be prepared before embarking on this journey.

By following the tips in this guide, you’ll be sure to have a safe and enjoyable hike. So what are you waiting for? Start planning your thru-hike today!

Have you ever hiked the Continental Divide Trail? What was your favorite part of the journey? Let me and other readers know in the comments below!