FIVE NEEDS AND FIVE DIDN’T NEEDS FROM THE CONTINENTAL DIVIDE TRAIL
Words and Photos from Tina Currin (@tina)
Hello from mile 2,000+ of the CDT, arguably the most rugged and remote of the “big three” American long-distance trails. As such, there’s a lot of mythology surrounding this trail, including lots of information—and misinformation—to challenge you before your shoes even hit the dirt. Here’s some hard-earned perspective from a CDT southbounder (the correct way, mind you) about things I’m glad I took and things I ditched along the way.
FIVE THINGS I THOUGHT I NEEDED BUT DIDN’T
We’ve all heard the phrase: the shorter the shorts, the faster the hiker. But after a few bouts of sun-induced heat rash on the AZT and the harsh desert section of the PCT, I recalled that pants exist. After all, the CDT is replete with bugs, overgrown sections, and long, exposed miles. But, I discovered that pants are hot, overgrown sections are wet, and anything that could scratch my legs would also rip my pants. I found myself being more delicate with the pants than I was with my own skin, which was irritating for many reasons—like being a constant reminder as to how silly hiking can be. Two hundred miles in, I ditched the pants. I think I go faster now.
#2 EXTRA FOOD AND WATER CAPACITY
Researching the CDT, I read about long carries and arduous hitches. I figured the whole thing would be like the Sierra section of the PCT, but that hasn’t been the case. I’ve found that most food and water carries are totally in line with other long trails. So far, my longest food carries have been less than 200 miles (Montana’s Butte section and Wyoming’s Wind River Range come to mind), but they’ve also been by choice. I could have broken the section up into smaller chunks or taken alternates if desired. Similarly, I haven’t needed any water capacity above what’s been necessary on other long trails, which is about 3 liters worth. What IS true is that towns are usually a decent step from trail, so I’ve gotten used to making small talk on hour-long hitches between resupply stops.
I left the Northern Terminus on June 31st and was happily surprised to find a lack of oppressive bugs. Mosquitos, the worst offenders, were manageable with a combination of long sleeves and by hopping into my tent by dusk. I heard tell of ticks but never saw one. For me, the high-octane, plastic-melting spray has been unnecessary.
#4 GROUND CLOTH
With the lack of humidity and relatively low bug pressure, I thought I’d be cowboy camping all over the place. Turns out, the summer brings so much unpredictable thunderstorm activity, and the fall brings so much dang cold weather that cowboy camping is generally uncomfortable. I ended up sleeping in my tent almost every night on the CDT, so I sent my ground cloth home.
#5 TRAIL FAMILY
I hiked the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails in lockstep with a large trail family, and I started the CDT with a close friend from the PCT. But on the Florida, Arizona, and New England Trails, I primarily hiked in solitude. I’ve done every long trail with my husband, Grayson, so I’m never completely alone—though, for both of our sanities, we don’t really hike together. Due to the CDT’s countless alternate routes, trying to combine plans with someone else is more difficult than it is on other long trails. Maybe you’re more comfortable at altitude, or your trail partner doesn’t mind getting pelted with hail above treeline. Maybe one of you prefers roadwalks, and the other is more of a purist. The CDT is notoriously “choose your own adventure,” and without the same shelter or permit system to clump hikers into natural groups, going separate ways is common. I’ve found it easier and more rewarding to hike this trail mostly untethered.
FIVE THINGS I THOUGHT I DIDN’T NEED BUT DID
#1 SUN UMBRELLA
I never considered myself an “umbrella person” until Hyperlite sent over their version while I was out hiking the Florida Trail. I had a nice rain jacket, so what good would an umbrella do? Turns out, hiking umbrellas are the most magical, multifunctional seven ounces you will ever carry. Heat reduction? Check. Rain repellent? Check. Pack cover? You got it. But I naively thought the CDT might have less, I dunno, sun? Rain? I was wrong. I scooped up another umbrella about 200 miles into the trail, and I never looked back–until I did, at all of the hikers behind me who were somehow simultaneously sun-fried and rain-soaked.
My husband and I are both big proponents of cowboy camping, partly because we’re lazy and partly because sharing a tent with a partner who eats a lot of beans can be distressing. After cowboying our way across the PCT, we figured we’d be doing a lot of sleeping out on the CDT, but a horrible cocktail of cold weather, condensation, and reliable afternoon thunderstorms have kept us utterly tent-bound. We’d never hike without some kind of shelter, but thankfully, we decided to go robust with an Unbound 2P, which has provided us plenty of space—and adequate ventilation—after a long day on trail.
Even though I started my CDT adventure mid-summer, I made the last-minute decision to bring along a lightweight alpha fleece as a “backup” for those “cold Montana nights.” Turns out, every night was a cold Montana night, and a cold Idaho night, and a cold Wyoming night–you get the drift. The CDT frequently hovers between 9,000’ and 13,000’ in elevation, so stiff wind, hail, and even snow are year-round occurrences. I eventually added a heavier fleece top as well as fleece pants for the Colorado section, but I was very thankful that I decided to start the trail with a mid-layer.
#4 WATER SHOES
Ok, so I’m too much of a weight weenie to actually bring water shoes, but given the number of water crossings in both the far northern and far southern sections of trail, it would be righteous to have a pair. This water is snowmelt, and it is cold.
#5 BATTERY RESERVE
Because of the long stretches between town stops (with no roadside McDonald’s to just “dip into” along the way), I’ve found myself using more battery power on the CDT than on previous trails. I also pull higher mileage on this trail, which means more daily podcasts. True, newer iPhones suck more power per recharge than smaller, older versions, and my headlamp and AirPods draw from my reserve, too. I’ve doubled my capacity with two Nitecore NB10000 banks. It’s a smidge lighter than a single, bigger bank, and the failure rate seems lower than putting all of your eggs in a single 20,000 basket.