Stretching for some 3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada, the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) follows the spine of the Rocky Mountains, passing through Glacier, Yellowstone and Rocky Mountain National Parks. The third leg of the triple crown for backpackers, the CDT encompasses more total mileage and high-elevation hiking than either the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) or the Appalachian Trail (A.T.).
Designated as a national scenic trail in 1978, the CDT is the youngest of our three major thru trails, which factors into its high degree of difficulty. For starters, only 85% of the trail is actually complete. That means that more than 450 miles of the trail require cross-country travel, so your navigational ability and route-finding skills have to be top notch. Even along completed sections, wayfinding can prove challenging.
A Rare Accomplishment
The CDT is a trail for people who love wilderness and embrace solitude. Though officially recorded numbers are low because not all hikers report back, those numbers give a good indication of the trail’s solitary nature. The Continental Divide Trail Coalition (CDTC) lists only about 150 hikers a year attempting the full trail. On the A.T. you might encounter that many people in a single day. And only about one-third as many people, a few more than 50 hikers, have reported successfully completing a CDT thru hike.
To accomplish the feat, you need to be an incredibly resourceful and self-reliant hiker. On the occasions when you encounter someone hiking the opposite way, you don’t merely stop and chat—you debrief one another. You want intel about trail conditions, locations of reliable water sources and how to avoid trespassing on private property. Trail angels are both rare and spontaneous because people who live near the CDT are often unaware of its existence.
Tips from an REI Triple Crowner
Frank Woods, a longtime employee at REI’s Denver store and one of the few people to complete the backpacker’s triple crown, describes the CDT this way: “It combines the eye candy of the PCT with the weather of the A.T. Hiking the CDT will be the most you’ll ever laugh and the most you’ll ever cry.” If this epic thru-hike is your kind of adventure, Woods’ advice below about gear and logistics is worth a look.
If you can average 22–25 miles miles per day, the full trail will take about 5 months to complete. If you plan a slower pace, you risk running into weather complications at the start or end of the trail. Planning and training beforehand requires another 12 to 18 months. We hope this guide will aid you in your preparation and help set you up for success.
Continental Divide Trail Permits
No single permit is available for the entire trail, and the few permits you do need will be primarily for trail sections that travel through national parks. Though you can reserve those ahead of time, the parks also set aside permits on a first-come, first-served basis.
The Permits Needed tab on the CDTC planning page lists contact information for all of the permit-requiring agencies along the trail. Most hikers simply apply as they go, rather than ahead of time, because of the variability of any CDT itinerary.
Where and When to Start and Which Route to Take
Regardless of the direction you choose, you need to be flexible and willing to alter your schedule.
Route options: A second organization, the Continental Divide Trail Socieity (CDTS) has an alternative CDT route. For an explanation about the distinction between it and the route of the official National Scenic Trail, check out the society’s CDT Trail Location page.
Northbound: Most thru hikers start on the Mexico border in March or April. The primary southern terminus is at Antelope Wells, N.M., in a remote location that requires a 4-wheel drive vehicle to reach. The CDTC FAQ page offers details about a shuttle service that’s available. A more easily accessible southern terminus, at Columbus, N.M., can be reached via paved roads.
Southbound: Canadian-border starters aim for late June, but high snow levels, spring runoff and avalanche danger can delay the date well into July. If your trip coincides with this type of lingering snowpack, consider an alternative route that starts at Apikuni Trailhead and travels over Redgap Pass.
The regular northern terminus is relatively easy to reach because it’s along a trail that connects Canada’s Waterton Lakes National Park with Glacier National Park in the U.S.
Flip flopping: Snow can be an issue in both the north and south because some of the highest elevations of the trail are in southern Colorado. Thus it’s also worth considering a “flip flop,” which is an itinerary where you complete sections in non-continuous order so that you can avoid both early- and late-season snowpack.
Maps, guidebooks and other resources: You can find a wide range of planning essentials on the CDTC thru-hike planning page. It’s a smart idea to consult multiple map providers, guidebooks and other resources, too, because the route of the CDT is evolving each year and it’s so much more variable than other thru trails.
Food and resupply points: These are the nuts and bolts of your trip plan, and the details will take substantial research. You can find a detailed list of mail drop points by using the Explore the Trail tab on the CDTC home page and scrolling down to each state along the trail. Note that the majority of resupply points require you to hitchhike in order to reach them.
Buy-as-you-go resupplying: While some hikers preplan, prepackage and premail all of their food, buying food in towns along the way lets you indulge cravings that arise on the trail. You also avoid a menu dictated entirely by what you imagined you’d want to eat months ahead of time.
Another trick is to use a bounce box, a reusable container (often a plastic bin or bucket with a lid) filled with food and supplies that you ship to your first mail drop. When you pick it up, you have the option of buying and adding new food and supplies, and to swap out gear. Then you simply ship the bounce box ahead to another mail drop.
Though local food can cost more, bounce-box shipping fees can be slightly lower than premailing everything because food is often traveling a shorter distance than it would from your home.
Gear weight: Carrying fewer pounds over thousands of miles will add some spring to your step. On the CDT you will see your fair share of ultralighters. Many hikers, though, err on the side of sturdier gear because of the likelihood of severe weather and the certainty of remote, rugged terrain.
Gear know-how: The CDT is not the place to learn how to use critical items like an ice axe, nor for a maiden equipment voyage. Take trips to familiarize yourself with your gear and take classes to ensure your backcountry skills, especially map-and-compass navigation, are honed for the challenge.
Continental Divide Trail Backpacking Packing List
Snow gear: Microspikes (or full crampons), along with an ice axe, are must-haves for snowy sections. Some hikers also choose to carry ultralight snowshoes to avoid miles of postholing. If you decide to save weight on long, hot midsummer sections, you can stow some of your snow gear in your bounce box. You can also ship snow gear home.
Water management: Though it lacks the long desert sections of the PCT, water is nonetheless a major concern for CDT hikers. Along with extra water containers, carrying a filter is highly recommended because many sources will be stagnant water in storage ponds or tanks. The CDTC maintains a water report that includes the latest crowd-sourced data provided by CDT hikers.
Note: Included in this checklist are the Ten Essential Systems you should have on every backcountry trip: navigation; sun protection; insulation; illumination; first-aid supplies; fire starter; repair kit and tools; nutrition; hydration; emergency shelter. To learn more, see our Ten Essentials article.
The CDT Master Checklist
- Backpack (though not mandated, consider one that can fit a bear canister)
- Pack raincover
- Small daypack (optional)
- Tent suited to terrain, with guylines and repair sleeve
- Tent footprint (optional)
- Sleeping bag (suitable for the conditions)
- Sleeping pad
- Traction devices like microspikes (essential)
- Ice axe (essential in snowy sections)
- Ultralight snowshoes (optional)
- Whistle (plus signaling mirror)
- Multifunction watch with optional altimeter
- Knife or multi-tool
- GPS (optional)
- Map(s) and guidebook(s) or route description
- Trekking poles (optional)
- LED headlamp with extra batteries
- Water filter and backup treatment system
- Filter replacement cartridge
- Water bottles or hydration reservoirs
- Extra water storage: 2- to 5-liter capacity
- Stove, fuel and��repair kit
- Matches or lighter
- Cookset, dishes, bowls, utensils, cups (measuring/drinking)
- Bear canister (optional)
- Nylon cord (at least 60 feet)
- Animal-resistant sack for food (optional)
- Repair kits for sleeping pad and other gear; duct tape strips
- Fire starter (for emergency survival fire)
Clothing and Footwear
- Wicking, quick-drying underwear
- Wicking, quick-drying sports bra
- Wicking, quick-drying long underwear
- Wicking, quick-drying T-shirt and long-sleeve shirt
- Quick-drying pants
- Quick-drying shorts (optional)
- Fleece jacket or vest, or insulated jacket or vest
- Fleece pants
- Waterproof/breathable rain jacket suitable for the conditions
- Waterproof/breathable rain pants suitable for the conditions
- Bandana or Buff
- Sun-shielding hat or ball cap
- Winter hat
- Gloves or mittens
- Hiking boots or hiking shoes suited to terrain
- Socks (synthetic or wool) plus spares
- Sandals (for fording streams and relaxing in camp) or water shoes
- Swimwear (optional)
- Lip balm
- Toothbrush with cover and biodegradable toothpaste
- Biodegradable soap
- Toilet paper
- Sanitation trowel
- Hand sanitizer
- Women’s hygiene items
- Personal wipes
- Spare eyeglasses or contact lenses
- Plastic zip-top bags
- Insect repellent
- Bear spray (optional)
- First-aid kit (see our First-Aid Checklist)
- Quick-drying towel
- Camera or video cam and extra memory cards (optional)
- Binoculars (optional)
- Cell phone (don’t rely on service)
- Satellite communicator / personal locator beacon (optional)
- Field guide(s); star identifier (optional)
- Journal, pen and e-reader or reading material (optional)
- Fishing gear and permit(s) (optional)
- Credit card; small amount of cash
- CDT permits (can also be gotten along the trail)
- Trip itinerary left with friend
6,000 calories per day in these categories:
- Breakfast (oatmeal, granola, freeze-dried breakfast, etc.)
- Lunch (bagels, summer sausage, cheese, smoked salmon, etc.)
- Dinner (pasta, couscous, rice, freeze-dried dinner, etc.)
- Snacks (cookies, GORP, jerky, candy bars, dried fruit, etc.)
- Energy gels
- Energy bars
- Electrolyte replacement drink mix
- Extra day’s supply of food (carried on each leg of the hike)