"Lessons from the Continental Divide Trail" [Part 1 of 3]: The Practical
Updated: Dec 16, 2019
There is no singular reason for why I spend months on end hiking across the country. There’s no singular reason for why any of us do it. Rather, there’s an ever-growing list of reasons to do it. For me it started simple: I wanted to see if I had the physical stamina to walk a trail for 800 miles. It started simply with that one simple reason, but along the way I picked up more motivation to keep at it. I saw witnessed the sunsets, summited the mountains, drank from the streams, and walked through forested miles after the first frost of the year. And with time, these became my reasons to thru hike.
I can’t tell you the reasons why anyone else choses to spend their lives on these ridiculously long trails that sometimes stretch on for thousands of miles. All I can do is give you the list of reasons that motivate me to get out there and do it again and again.
And of all those reasons that I could point to, one of the biggest reasons that I continue to thru hike is because of the lessons that the trail has to teach. Long trails do that for a lot of hikers, and although we all walk those miles for our own reasons, we all walk away from a thru hike having learned at least something along the way.
Some of these lessons are about the practical stuff—the “how much water to carry” category.
Then there are the lessons that we learn about ourselves along the way—“What does it mean to be lonely?” for example.
And then there are lessons about the world and life as a whole—“What do we share in common with the bear or the snake or the fish or, for that matter, the forest?”
To fully understand the things that a long trail has to teach, you need to go out there and experience it for yourself. But not everyone has the luxury to be able to take 4-6 months off just so they can go live in the woods and learn from the trees. As such, while the miles have passed under my feet, I’ve constructed lists of the points that I feel like I should take back from the trails that I’ve walked. And the Continental Divide Trail being as long as it is, had plenty to teach.
This is by no means an exhaustive catalogue of everything that the miles imparted on me this summer; however, now that some time has passed since my finishing the Continental Divide Trail, these are the lessons that stand out most when I look back on those 156 days.
Never underestimate an umbrella on trail.
This is really a lesson imparted on me by the Colorado Trail, but the Continental Divide Trail only further reinforced the importance of a lite-weight umbrella on a long hike. In the sun, it keeps you cooler, and in the rain, it keeps you drier. What more could you possibly ask from a single piece of equipment when your life literally depends on staying dry and cool?
For years I refused to carry one—thinking that they were too “froo-froo” (to quote another thru hiker). I figured that I didn’t need an umbrella if I had a good hat and proper rain gear. The hat kept my face shaded and the raingear kept the rain off my skin (mostly). I couldn’t justify carrying another piece of equipment when I had gear served the same purpose. Adding an umbrella to my pack would have been redundant, and redundancy was to be avoided at all costs when thru hiking.
Then I started to wonder if maybe I was missing something.
I was twelve-hundred miles into the Pacific Crest Trail when a micro-burst storm broke loose and pounded the trail with raindrops that felt like fists. The storm didn’t last long, but it hit fast enough and dumped enough water in that time that it was all I could do to try and get my rain gear on and find shelter under a tree. If with the little bit of warning that I had before it began, it was hard to go from my normal hiking attire to rain pants, rain jacket, and pack cover without getting wet in the meantime. In the heart of the downpour I felt like I had a Walmart poncho in the midst of a typhoon. I came out the other side frazzled, damp, and slightly discouraged.
But then I met another hiker who had gone through that same storm. While I was struggling to find shelter under trees, all he had to do was pop open his umbrella. No rain jacket. No rain pants. No pack cover. Just the umbrella.
That’s where the seed was first planted.
After some miles and consideration, I finally started carrying a collapsible umbrella myself, and I never looked back. All it took was one season of training for the Colorado Trail during passing burst of rain for me to be completely convinced that the umbrella is the way to go. I wonder anymore how I ever thru hiked without one!
To be clear, I still carry lightweight rain gear on thru hiking trails. In severe rain I want to have layers of protection if I’m going to be out there for a week at a time. But I can no longer count the number of times that a flurry has passed overhead and instead of donning all that rain gear, I just throw open the umbrella and I’m good to go.
For all the ounces I’ve shaved off my base weight over the years, the umbrella is one thing that I’m happy to have added to the pack for any long trail moving forward. What do I care if people think I’m just a “froo-froo man” with his cute lil’ umbrella? So long as I’m staying dry out there, then I’m the last one laughing.
Monsters are real.
Over my years of thru hiking, I’ve come to learned that there are fears which we carry with us from childhood that serve no use to us as adults. After you’ve met a few trail angels who were so kind as to offer you a ride into town or free food to help you along the way, you realize that “don’t take candy from strangers” can go out the window. Once you’ve walked the same dirt road for fifteen miles without seeing another soul, you disregard the ubiquitous advice to “always look both ways before crossing the street.”
But there are still some things that we pick up from childhood that serve us just as well on the trail as they ever did when we were little. And amongst the ones that still hold true on trail there’s this: Beware of the Boogie-Man. Monsters may be real after all. And that creak in the night might not be so innocuous after all.
Anyone who ever told you that monsters aren’t real never camped in grizzly bear country.
Grizzly bears do not give a s**t about you, your thru hike, or your fears. Let me be clear about this: bears can kill you and bears can eat you. You cannot outrun bears and you cannot out-reason a bear.
Want a recipe for a nightmare? Go camp in grizzly country. Take the time and effort to hang your bear bag far from camp. Now wake up in the middle of the night and remember that candy bar that’s still nestled in your front pocket.
I’ve been there more times than I care to relive. I’ve spent the evening lying awake and imaging what it might feel like to be mauled in the dark of a moonless night. I’ve considered what might go through my head in those moments before I die. I’ve had that nightmare too many times.
Don’t believe in monsters? Hike into the Bob Marshal Wilderness after a fresh snow, count the hundreds of bear tracks, cook a nice warm dinner in your tent, and then try to sleep at night as you remember that a bear’s nose is 200 times more sensitive than that of a bloodhound. Every sound you hear for the rest of the night, whether it’s a rustling leaf in the wind or the shuffle of a mouse through underbrush, will sound to you as indistinguishable from the sound of an 800-pound monster coming to eat you like a pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving.
You’ll play the scenario through your head again and again, trying to imagine what it would feel like to have a full-grown, adult grizzly bear pull you out of your tent in the black of the night, and you’ll wonder how long it takes to go from realizing that you’re being mauled to the point where you’re actually dead. It probably won’t take that long. But it will take longer than you’ll care to endure.
Monsters are real.
Snakes don’t care about you.
This year was a hard one for the CDT. Between the snow that remained in Colorado from last winter to the early-season blizzards that pounded Northern Montana, there were plenty of reasons to have to call it quits before reaching the trail’s end.
I met hikers this year who had to quit for a lot of different reasons. For a lot of them it was repetitive use injuries. For others it was an acute injury. Some just couldn’t handle the solitude of the trail. And others couldn’t take the extreme weather of the CDT compared to what they’d encountered on the AT or the PCT. Looking back on it now, I’m actually shocked that I managed to make it from terminus to terminus without throwing in the towel; lord knows that there were times when I gave it some thought.
But of all those valid reasons for not finishing the CDT in 2019, you want to know a reason that nobody uses to explain why they quit the trail early?
Nobody left the CDT because of snakes.
I was terrified by the prospect of running into a rattle snake on trail when I first moved to Arizona from my home state of Alaska. How I ever got over that fear and went on to develop a passion for the desert backcountry is beyond me, but somehow emerged.
This is to say that I know what it’s like to be afraid of snakes. Alternatively, a lot of time has gone by since my first run-in with a snake on trail, and I so now I can say that I know what it’s like to not be afraid of them anymore (mostly).
I had an instance right when I was getting into backpacking near the Verde River in Arizona where I stepped over a rock and damn near got myself bit by a rattlesnake. For the next 50 miles of that hike I was so terrified of where my feet were landing that I nearly had a nervous breakdown.
Once, while turning over a stone to build a fire pit in the Kaibab National Forest, I heard the sharp, distinct sound of a timber rattlesnake underneath. My fingers had been inches away!
I know what it feels like to be afraid of rattlesnakes. They’ve slithered through my sleep and painted nightmares.
But I also know what it’s like to not be so afraid. Those are just the stories of when things nearly went bad. As time went on and miles passed underfoot, I began having more and more encounters with rattlesnakes, and with time I found myself becoming progressively less afraid of them. Sometimes they’d rattle at me; often they wouldn’t. Sometimes they’d coil; other times they wouldn’t. At no time however did I ever feel like I was in all that much danger from them excepting that one time near the Verde River.
Then one day I realized that seeing a snake was really more of a blessing than a curse. If I’d wanted to stay away from everything that’s wild, then I could have lived life in a bubble or a cubicle—those places would have kept me plenty safe from snakes and scorpions and grizzly bears and spiders. I didn’t choose those paths though; I chose the path that leads into the wild and into places where I could have the rare chance to see something like a snake or a mountain lion or a fox or a bear. It just took me awhile to realize that these were unique sightings to be cherished instead of feared.
That snake that’s rattling at you from the trail—next time you see him, remember that he wants as much to do with you as you want to do with him (or probably less). Ultimately, he just wants to be on his way, and you want to be on yours.
So take your pictures, send them home to mom when you get back to cell reception, and count yourself as lucky that you just had a near life experience.
Oh—but here’s the other things that you should know about snakes if you’re thru hiking in the southwest. Contrary to popular belief, a rattle snake can strike about 1/3 its body length. A large portion of rattle snake bites (around 30%) are “dry bites” where no venom is injected. If you get bit however, get to the hospital immediately… no matter what. Snake bites can cause both neurological damage and tissue damage, and you don’t want either! But a rattle snake isn’t going to chase you. Leave it alone and it’ll tend to return the favor.
The water situation on the CDT isn’t all that bad.
This one’s more specific to the Continental Divide Trail than the other points I’ve listed so far. But I went into the CDT thinking that scarcity of water (especially in New Mexico and the Great Divide Basin) would be among the biggest challenges of this trail. Instead I found that the availability of water on the CDT was never any worse than what I’d seen on the Arizona Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail. My longest CDT water carry was around 25 miles, and only once did I think that I was going to have to go more than 30 miles without water, although I ended up finding some 22 miles into that stretch.
It should be noted that the 2019 season was significantly wetter than the years before, so I may have seen the water situation at its best, but at no point did the water-carries ever strike me as being too daunting. Most of the time I was able to get by with just two liters at a time, but at most I carried four in some parts of southern New Mexico and in the Wyoming basin.
These days thru hiking has become popular enough that there are systems of mostly-well-stocked water caches on long trails like the CDT. And although you should never bet your life on a water cache, with the advent of current thru hiking apps like “Guthook” where users can regularly update the status of water cache points, I can say comfortably that most of the time ya’ don’t need to worry all that much. As time goes on water caches seem to be becoming more reliable. More people are learning about thru hiking trails and volunteering their time to keep cashes stocked.
I’m not saying that it’s “easy” to ration water on the CDT, per se. Even for me there was a time or two on this trail when things got a bit thirsty. But if you’ve hiked the PCT or the Arizona trail, then I think you’ll have no problem whatsoever on the CDT so long as you practice a bit of conservative common sense.
Like everything else in this world however, perspective matters immensely. If all you’ve hiked is the Appalachian Trail, then maybe you’ll disagree with my assessment of water out here in the West.
Either way though—carry a reliable water treatment system if you want to be sure not to get sick. I carried both a Sawyer Squeeze water filter and Agua Mira drops. Does everyone treat their water so diligently? No. But not everyone wears condoms either; we all take risks in life.
It’s important to be able to hike alone.
I struggled with whether to add this to the “Practical” list or the “Universal” list of lessons from the CDT. Really it fits both categories fairly well. In the end, my choice to list it here was arbitrary.
The lesson is simple though: There are times on trail, and there are times in life, when you’re going to have to go it alone. I personally reveled in the solitude that I found in the New Mexico portions of the Continental Divide Trail. There were many occasions where I went days without seeing another human. And when I did occasionally cross paths with other thru hikers, most of the time they were doing their own thing and I was doing mine, so we eventually went on our separate ways after a quick exchange of pleasantries.
On the CDT there seemed to be a general agreement that solitude was just one of the factors that a hiker has to deal with along the way. People would still connect and hike in pairs or groups, just as I’d witnessed on other trails, but overall I found a lot more opportunity for time by myself than I’d ever experienced before on a thru hike.
But I met several people out there who nearly lost their minds because of the isolation. I have to wonder if these were people who had ever tried spending extended time by themselves before the trail. Some people aren’t comfortable with their own inner dialogue. Personally however, I figure that little voice inside is going to be there whether you acknowledge it or not. So why not get comfortable with the sound of your own breathing? It’s the one thing that always has and always will be with you to your dying day.
It’s important to be able to hike with others.
They say that “If you start the CDT alone, there’s a really good chance that you’re going to finish the CDT alone.” Although I started and finished the trail alone, between Mexico and Canada I met scores of people along the way, some of whom I now consider to be the best of friends.
I went into this trail expecting that I’d need to be okay being alone for long periods of time on end; I didn’t realize that I’d need to be able to hike with others along the way as well.
I overgeneralized when I was going into this trail. I thought that all that mattered was my ability to get by and stay sane without the company of others. But when the time came to begin hiking the Colorado miles of the CDT this year, which were still covered in snow after a record-setting winter and spring had turned the state into a winter wonderland, I had to accept that hiking alone was no longer wise or safe.
And so I teamed up with one other hiker, which then turned into three other hikers, and didn’t hike alone again until the state of Montana—some 1,500 miles later.
Looking back on it now, maybe it would have been possible for me to get through the trail as a hermit like I’d done on the Colorado Trail. But after everything that I experienced with the friends I met along the CDT, I wouldn’t take it back if I could. There are parts of me that wonder what it would have been like if I had remained alone from start to finish, but when I’m being honest with myself, I have to admit that my 156 days on the CDT this year would not have been nearly as memorable if I hadn’t been able to let go of the thought that I always had to be a solo hiker and let others into my world.
Water will keep you alive so long as you know where to find it.
There’s this psychological phenomenon that scientists call the “hot/cold empathy gap” where we fail to understand how bad a situation is—even if we’ve already been in that situation before—unless we are currently facing it. I can sit here and tell you about all the times that I have run out of water on trails, I can try to remember what it was like to think that I was going to die of thirst in the Grand Canyon, and I can even recount the multiple days that I’ve had to walk to get to the next water cache. But none of that will really get you to feel what it was like to be there first-hand. You have to be there for yourself to really get it. Even looking back on it myself, I can barely empathize with the experience of having been there first-hand.
If you want a preview of what it’s like to run out of water on trail through—just hold your breath for a while. Do you feel that point where it’s no longer easy? Keep on holding. Becoming uncomfortable now? Keep holding. Keep holding until that point where you can see the end; where you know that you only have a little bit left in you. Now imagine that same feeling for hours or days on end. That’s what it’s like to run out of water on trail.
It’s funny how quickly your priorities shift on a long trail. You stop worrying about taxes, politics, and social media pretty quickly. Those concerns are replaced first and foremost with figuring out where you’re getting your next water and then secondarily where you’re getting your next food.
Having fun on the trail so far? Doesn’t matter. Fun or not, you need to know where you’re getting your next water.
Do you have enough food to get to the next resupply town? Doesn’t matter. Without water that food is going to do more harm than it’ll do good.
Do your feet hurt? Doesn’t matter. Your hurting feet are a discomfort; you go too long without water and you die.
If you thru hike for long enough you’ll grow comfortable with your relationship with water. You’ll adjust to it sometimes being the first thing you think about in the morning. After you’ve been in one close call with water shortage, you’ll promise yourself that you’ll never let it happen again, but it still will. It always happens again. It’s a boom and bust cycle: you carry too little water for just one day, and for the next 500 miles you carry an entire extra liter. But after long enough with that extra liter, you’ll start cutting it closer and closer with your water carries until the whole cycle repeats itself again.
If the trail hasn’t taught you the value of water yet, then just give it some time. It’s a lesson we all learn.
And while I’m at it—carry water treatment. Oh, I know; I’ve heard of that guy who never filters his water. I heard that he does just fine. I heard you might not need water filtration like everyone seems to say you do.
Well… I’ve also met plenty of people with giardia. Enough to learn vicariously through them that I don’t want to go through it myself. One of the best things anyone ever told me about water treatment was this: “Now that I’ve caught giardia once, I know that I can’t catch it again. Not because I have an immunity now, but because it was so terrible the first time that I’ll never let it happen again.”
I’ll personally save myself the trouble of catching it even once and just avoid it all together.
Carry enough water to keep yourself alive and know how to treat it!
Nothing on trail is as bad as the snow.
This speaks for itself. I had hiked in temperatures that exceeded 115 degrees. I had hiked sections of trail that gained more than 10,000 feet in a single day. I’ve hiked in rainstorms. I’ve hiked in sand. I’ve hiked in mud. I’ve hiked in mosquitos.
I’ve hiked through a lot.
And although I’d hiked through some snow before setting out on the CDT, I had never thru hiked in anything comparable to what I encountered this time around. Hiking the trail in 2019 was perhaps a bad decision in hindsight. It was not only one of the worst snow years for getting through Colorado, but since the winter hit so early in the northern states, getting through Montana was close to impossible after mid-September.
All told, I ended up hiking more than 600 miles through snow during my walk of the CDT this year.
Now that those miles are behind me, in addition to more than 7,000 other trail miles that I’ve put underfoot, I can say with confidence that nothing on trail is as bad as the snow. Once you’ve post-holed through a couple of hundred miles, then you can understand it too. Nothing is as bad as the snow.