What I Wish I’d Known Before Hiking the CDT: Colorado
Updated: May 6, 2020
There’s no way to ever fit an entire thru hike into a book, much less an article or a blog. You’d need a series of books if you really wanted to get it on the page, but I struggle to believe that even a thousand pages would be enough to fit it all. There’s too much that happens on a long trail—the ever-changing environment, the internal struggles, the physical hardships, the hunger, the thirst, the ecstasy, the agony, and the ten thousand other things that are happening all the while.
So, when I set out to create a list of the things I wish I’d known before hiking the CDT, it dawned on me fairly quickly that the only way to keep it manageable would be to stay superficial (mostly), and break it into sections. As such, what you’ll find below is the second installation of a five-part series. The first Installment focused on New Mexico; if you haven’t already, I hope you’ll consider giving that a read, as the trail itself is very different between these two states.
I’d also like to reemphasize that this piece is based on an exceedingly small sampling of the Colorado CDT. Admittedly, this is all based on a single thru hike of the Colorado Trail and one hike of the CDT (the Colorado Trail and the CDT overlap for around 300 miles). With that in mind, I’d also like to emphasize that the group I hiked Colorado with was amongst the first to follow the CDT high route all the way through the state that year, and so we have some fairly unique insight into what the earliest passable conditions in Colorado can look like.
Finally, I want to note that this list is far from complete. On the one hand, I think that it’s too long and says too much, but on the other, it somehow still feels like a mere hodgepodge of ideas without any real organization or unifying theme. Both of those things are probably true though, and I doubt if it’s any more possible to prepare oneself for the challenges of a thru hike by reading about it than it is to prepare to be in the NBA by reading a book written by someone who once played professional basketball. The real lessons are the ones that you’ll undoubtedly learn firsthand through your own trials and errors. Still, there are things that I walked out of Colorado knowing that I'd been ignorant towards before starting into the state, and if I would have known them, it would have made the miles and my life a lot easier. It’s for that reason that I’ve put together the following--an abbreviated list of 21 things that I wish I would have known going into the Colorado miles of the Continental Divide Trail.
1) There Will be Snow (A Lot of It!)
I knew that the snow in Colorado was going to be amongst the greatest challenges that I’d encounter along the entire CDT. There’s no way around it; snow on the CDT is just more difficult to work around than the snow that hikers can expect to encounter on either the PCT or the AT.
For those who are unfamiliar, the CDT mostly crosses desert miles throughout the majority of New Mexico. Then, rather than slowly gaining in elevation, the trail jumps straight into elevations exceeding 10,000ft, where it remains for much of the state of Colorado. There would be a lot fewer challenges involved if that elevation were slowly gained over a few hundred miles, but the CDT isn’t about convenience or ease. In a lot of ways, the CDT represents everything that is antithetical to convenience or ease.
So picking a start date for a northbound CDT hike means starting late enough that the snow is at least passable once you arrive at the NM/CO border, but not so late that you’re ruining your chances of having enough time to make it to Canada or melting under the sun in southern New Mexico and the Great Divide Basin of Wyoming. Start too late and you’re screwed in southern New Mexico, Wyoming, and at the finish of the trail; start too early and you’ll fight cold temperatures in New Mexico and potentially hit Colorado during a time of year when it still looks like the middle of winter.
There is no easy solution to this dilemma. It’s about planning out as much as you can and being willing to let the rest of it ride in the hands of chance (or God or Alah or whatever you want to believe in or call it). Some years the snow in Colorado is worse than others, so you’ll have to go with the best information you have for the year you’re planning your hike. Ultimately, you’ll probably be best served by picking a “rough” start date of April 20th, then adjust accordingly. If the snow in Colorado isn’t too bad by the spring, consider starting earlier. If the snow is worse than normal, start a bit later and take your time in New Mexico.
It’s for this reason that so many people hike the CDT as a “flip” or a “flip-flop” hike. There are a lot of different variations on how to “flip” hike the CDT, so for now I’ll refrain from explanation and focus exclusively on trying to make your walk of the trail a continuous, unbroken path, to the extent that may be possible possible.
As for the advice that I wish someone could have given me before I started out on the Colorado portion of the CDT: When you arrive at the New Mexico/Colorado border, there will be snow. There will be a lot of snow. There will be more snow than you ever thought possible to hike through. Don’t kid yourself… there’s going to be a lot of snow.
Some people used skis to get through the South San Juan Mountains, some used snowshoes, some used crampons, and some went through Colorado without any additional traction or footwear than they carried in New Mexico. I’ll talk more about that in a later point, and for the time being, I’ll just say that you should go into the southern portions of the Colorado CDT with some degree of winter mountaineering experience.
Here’s some perspective: Although I went into the CDT knowing that the snow situation in 2019 was amongst the worst that the state of Colorado had seen in recent memory, it still ended up being much, much worse than I’d imagined it to be. I expected stretches of trail in southern Colorado that would be melted off by the time I arrived. There were almost none whatsoever. In the first stretch from Cumbres Pass to Wolf Creek Pass (the first Colorado section), we saw maybe six or seven total miles of trail that wasn’t completely covered in snowpack. Everything else was still buried in snow. Then, the section north of there (Wolf Creek Pass to Spring Creek Pass) we went over 100 miles with no clear trail.
It should also be noted that I started from the Mexican border about three weeks later than the majority of NOBO CDT hikers that year. I started on the 10th of May, whereas most people started sometime in the latter half of April.
If the day comes when I am blessed with the opportunity to hike the CDT again, I’ll likely still hike it NOBO, but I’ll do so with the intention of taking on Colorado as if it were a winter hike, even if I arrive there in mid-June like I did the first time through (I started into Colorado on the 15th of June).
2) An Ice Axe Could Save Your Life
I carried an ice axe with me when I was hiking the High Sierra portion of the Pacific Crest Trail too, but it wasn’t until walking the Colorado portion of the CDT that I came to learn how important a tool it can be. I’d done the training on how to self-arrest before the trail. I’d watched the videos on how to use an ice axe and how not to use one. But when I really thought about it, my experience with an ice axe was fairly minimal going into Colorado. I hadn’t ever seen trail conditions where I needed one to stay alive. By comparison, after finishing Colorado, I felt like an ice axe guru. That thing had saved my ass enough times over that it became one of my most cherished pieces of equipment, and it still hangs on my bedroom wall as a commemoration of what was one of the greatest challenges of my life.
I cannot over-emphasize how crazy the snow situation was along the Colorado portions of the CDT in 2019. Although I saw patches of snow on the PCT that could have necessitated an ice axe if I’d ever fallen, on the CDT it was the complete opposite; I went literally over 100 miles without seeing any dry trail on the CDT. I went the entire PCT without falling down (Seriously; the whole thing!). On the Colorado CDT however, I slipped and fell, and subsequently needed an ice axe to keep from sliding down mountainsides multiple times every day! I also watched the others in my party do the same as we all became very good at self-arresting in very short order.
If you’re on the fence about whether or not an ice axe will do you any good on the CDT (after all—you may have carried that thing through all those PCT miles without ever actually using it!), I’m going to highly encourage your bringing one.
And while we’re on the topic, if you’re not already carrying heavier-duty hiking poles, Colorado might be a good time to start. I have traditionally carried ultra-lite carbon fiber hiking poles, and I find that they break very easily while hiking in snowpack. Case in point: I broke my first hiking pole on the CDT within the first 5 hours of hiking the South San Juan Mountains of Colorado, my second one just a few hundred miles later (again in the snow), and then broke another set in the snow that I encountered in northern Montana. It would have saved me a lot of time and money if I’d just invested in a stronger (and maybe heavier) set of poles before reaching the snow.
Regardless of what you do with your hiking poles however, bring a damn ice axe! It could very well save your life.
3) A Lot of People Will Take the Colorado “Low Route”
Every year is going to be a little different on the CDT. In that way, it’s the same as most thru hiking trails in the United States. Some years you have to contend with a lot of snow; other years it’s about long distance waterless stretches and forest fires. No two years are the same, so as I go through this discussion of Colorado, it’s especially important to remember that the year I walked the CDT was one of the worst snow years in the trail’s history.
The year you end up hiking the CDT will undoubtedly be different from my experience. With that in mind however, I think that there are still a few things to be learned from my snapshot of the trail.
There were not a lot of people who stuck with the official CDT “red line” route through the state of Colorado in 2019. It should be emphasized that exceedingly few people hike the entire trail via the official route, but in Colorado, one of the main reasons why people follow alternate routes is because of the challenges associated with snow in the higher elevation portions of the state. Put simply, sticking with the official route in Colorado means gaining a lot of elevation very quickly. High elevations mean cold temperatures. Cold temperatures mean snow. And snow, as I’ll discuss a little later on, means saying goodbye to your 30-mile days that you grew to love so much during your month in New Mexico.
A lot of hikers reached Colorado during their NOBO hike and then skipped up to Lander, Wyoming to begin a SOBO hike through the Great Divide Basin and south to the Wyoming/Colorado border. Others went through the first stretch of the South San Juan Mountains (Cumbres Pass to Wolf Creek Pass), and then dropped into one of the lower elevation routes from there.
Shoot… there are a dozen different route combinations that you could take to get through Colorado. The main point that I want to make here Is that not a lot of people stick with the official route through the state due to snow. If you can do so safety, I will say that the Colorado high route offers some of the most amazing scenery and landscapes that I saw on the entire trail, but it comes at the cost of a lot of snow navigation, bitter cold nights, and the need for an ice axe throughout much of the day.
In the end, this comes down to the same “hike your own hike” conclusion that all of these points eventually reach. But it would have been nice to know, before reaching the Colorado CDT, that there aren’t a lot of people who follow the red line, and that doing so myself meant breaking a lot of trail through a lot of snow without a lot of company, but for the group I was with when I started into Colorado.
4) The Colorado “High Route” May be Challenging, but It’s Also Rewarding
I want to be careful here and not advise that anyone hike into conditions that are unsafe. Encouraging otherwise is far outside of my intention. I do however want to give some perspective on the benefits to taking the more challenging “high route” through the southern portion of the Colorado CDT.
My experience with snow travel before the CDT largely stemmed from experiences growing up in Alaska and climbing mountains in the winter months because my home town wasn’t near a ski lift and heli-skiing options were way too expensive. I’d crossed a few glaciers, and I’d thru hiked across my fair share of snow before embarking on the CDT. Looking back at my experience compared to the conditions that I encountered in Colorado however, I can now admit that I was slightly under-prepared for some of the conditions that I encountered out there.
For a point of comparison, one of the other hikes with whom I teamed up to tackle the South San Juans had hiked the Pacific Crest Trail in 2017—a year that was infamously terrible in regard to snow in the Sierras. I went in with some experience from Alaska, he went in with experience from the PCT, and we were both left pretty dumbfounded in a few spots along the Colorado CDT. It was, as some people had warned, a bad year to be hiking the South San Juans. It was really, really bad.
We wanted to at least try though, and so we pushed through and broke trail for hundreds of miles. And once you get to a certain point, you’re somewhat forced to carry on through to the next trail town. This happened to us on multiple occasions in the South San Juans, when we encountered obstacles that were bigger than we’d anticipated (high-risk avalanche spots, massive cornices, vertical snow shelves, snow bridges over rivers, white out conditions, dangerous traverses, etc.), but couldn’t turn back because that stretch of trail is so remote and far away from bail-out options.
Okay, okay, okay… enough of the “be afraid; be very afraid” rhetoric. I have no interest in making the trail sound more challenging than it needs to be. The whole point that I set out to make here was that although the “high route” through Colorado is indeed challenging and potentially dangerous, when I look back on the memories that I have from that stretch of trail, they’re some of the fondest I have from the whole CDT. Yes, the miles were more challenging, but those challenges brought me much closer to the couple of people that I hiked that stretch alongside, the photos were almost as beautiful as the Wind River Range of Wyoming, and the challenges made for some pretty cool stories once it was all over and done.
I personally love hiking through solitary country. I took on hiking partners for this stretch of the trail out of concern for all of our safety. But hiking with a close-knit group is very different from hiking on a crowded trail. Except for those with whom I was hiking, we never met another thru hiker in the southern portion of Colorado until arriving in the resupply town of Salida. The isolation from the rest of the world was one of the things that I went out to the CDT looking for, and I found it in Colorado in a way that left me absolutely satisfied.
Everyone will have to make their own choices regarding which route to follow through southern Colorado, but if you were to take any advice from me (which is something I can’t generally recommend), I’d say to consider your options carefully, and if you have the skillset and the gear for snow travel, consider finding a partner or two and enjoy the adventure of the high route.
5) Snowshoes Were Mostly Useless
^ (Note the snowshoes strapped to the top of their packs rather than on their feet.) ^
There was a great debate underway as I approached the New Mexico/Colorado border and prepared for the snowy conditions that I’d encounter north of Cumbres Pass. The thing everyone was asking was if it’s possible to get through the snow, what’s the most efficient way of doing it? Snowshoes? Crampons? Overboots? Skis?
By and large, most people I met seemed to take snowshoes into at least the southern portions of Colorado. Then, as time went on, I met fewer and fewer people carrying them anymore.
Based on what I saw and experienced, snowshoes were not particularly useful in Colorado. I went into the southern portion of the state with two other hikers who were carrying them, but since I was not able to get a set in Chama, I decided to try the first Colorado stretch without them. Within only a few hours it had become clear that snow shoes were not going to be the magical tool that was going to get anyone through that portion of trail. For the most part, if the crust on the surface of the snow was thick enough to support you with snowshoes, then it was usually strong enough to support you without snowshoes. Alternatively, in the places where I broke through without snowshoes, my hiking partners broke through even with them. So they didn’t make much of a difference at all, except that the people I was with who were carrying them ended up having to just that—strap them to the top of their packs (see photo above) and shoulder the extra weight.
Although I had snowshoes shipped to Pagosa, Colorado so that I could have them available to me moving into the longer snow-covered stretches of trail, after seeing how useless they were to my hiking partners in the earlier miles of Colorado, I decided not to take them, and the two I was with who were carrying them at first, promptly shipped them home as soon as the opportunity made itself available.
All that is really just a long-winded way of saying that snowshoes were not useful in the Colorado miles of the CDT that I experienced. Snow conditions were different enough in northern Montana that they may have been useful farther north, but in Colorado they didn’t seem to help all that much and seemed to just be more weight to carry.
6) Microspikes Helped but Weren’t 100% Necessary
A friendly reminder that all of this “advice” is based on my personal experience and is going to apply to everyone differently. That said--once Colorado was all over with, I actually did not find microspikes to be nearly as important as I expected they’d be for me.
While I ended up hiking most of southern Colorado with an ice axe in hand and put to use very regularly, microspikes mostly served the purpose of making my pack heavier without a lot of added benefit. For the first 80 miles of traversing through the snowpack, I went without using spikes at all. Then, mostly because I realized that it was pointless to carry them without ever using them, I started donning them in the early hours each morning. By starting in the early hours of the day, it was more possible to cover miles without having to post-hole. Not long after sunrise, the snow would melt to a point where post-holing was the only option. In those early miles of the day, when kicking steps into sidehill traverses was impossible, the micro spikes were helpful. In any other conditions however, I was just as well off without them. As such, if I were to do it over, I’d think long and hard about whether or not spikes would be worth the weight, and I might opt for leaving them at home.
If you end up hiking the CDT on a year with a little less snow and hit Colorado a little earlier than I did (I entered the state on June 13th), your window of walking on the snow before it softens up for the day will likely be longer and spikes might be more useful to you.
I should also note that one of the others I hiked through the South San Juans with weighed far less than me. While I was normally able to break the surface of the snow and kick steps into the traverses, she struggled to do so and stated several times over that microspikes were life-savers for her. So if you’re taking that into consideration, spikes will likely be more useful for lighter hikers, where someone like myself who weighs around 185 pounds, they weren’t really worth their weight.
7) Early Morning Starts Were Important
Before the CDT I had never hiked in conditions where early-morning starts were so necessary. I understood, at least on a basic level, how much easier it was going to be hiking on the snow before it softened up under the mid-day sun, but until I’d actually experienced it firsthand, it was impossible for me to appreciate the importance of stating early in the snowy sections of Colorado.
As a NOBO CDT hiker, most nights you’ll get temperatures that drop below freezing, and when that happens, it causes the surface layer of the remaining snowpack to refreeze. That snowy crust will then remain frozen for at least the first couple hours of the following day until melting and bringing you back into post-hole-hell.
Some hikers I met later in the trail recounted stories of “alpine starts” as early as two or three o’clock in the morning. Although there may have been advantages to taking such an extreme approach, I found that the value of sleep went up directly in correspondence with the miles we ended up covering in Colorado. Said differently, we were so damn tired at the end of the days in Colorado that waking up at three in the morning was basically impossible. Instead, we tried to set our alarms for 4:30 most mornings and aimed to be on trail by 5am. That didn’t give us a lot of hours where we could float above the snowy crust, but it was enough to make it worth the effort. By staying above the crust, we are able to cover nearly three miles per hour in some instances. Post-holing conditions on the other hand sometimes slowed momentum to an hour per mile!
So although waking early to temperatures that are still below freezing and getting on trail before even getting to enjoy a cup of coffee sucks, it was a struggle worth going through and ultimately had a lot to do with keeping the “high route” a viable option.
8) Colorado Is Cold
Is it dumb for me to even be writing about this? Is this basically the same as calling water wet and the night dark?
So I’ll just keep it brief and say that it was cold enough throughout the southern portion of Colorado that several inches of fresh snow fell overnight in the latter part of June, evening temperatures were as low as 15 degrees, and wet feet were just a fact of life while we were out there.
It was cold in Colorado.
Going into that part of the trail in the future I’ll probably be bringing multiple sleeping bag liners, become more familiar with how to layer a sleep system with a “vapor barrier,” and bring a better set of long underwear.
Colorado’s cold my friends.
9) It Might Snow
Okay, so I knew that there would be snow on the ground when I reached Colorado, but I didn’t know that active snowfall and accumulation would be something that I’d need to prepare myself for while hiking in June and July. Now that I’ve looked back on the historical low temperatures and snowfall totals that the South San Juans receive, I actually feel like I made it through relatively unscathed by comparison with what I could have gotten.
The snow I saw fell mostly on the 22nd of June, but it hit at such an inopportune time, as our party of three had just arrived at a section of trail known as the “Knife Edge” right as white-out conditions surrounded us, turning a dangerous section of trail into a stretch that was both scary and dangerous.
There’s not much more to say on this point, except that if you’re going into the San Juans, plan on snow, no matter what time of year you’re hiking it. If you’re hitting those mountains early in the season, be prepared for conditions that could turn very deadly very vast if you’re not adequately prepared for them.
10) Travel in Groups in Colorado
Like I’ve said time and time again, your job is just to hike your own hike. I’m only here and writing this because even with all the preparation that I put into the CDT, I was still surprised with some of the things that I found along its miles, and I felt like there were ways in which I could have been better prepared.
If you’d have asked me at the start of the trail whether or not I had any plans of taking on a hiking partner between Mexico and Canada, I’d have told you that I doubted it. I had nothing against hiking in groups, and I figured that at some point along the way I’d share at least a few miles with other hikers. I just didn’t gravitate to hiking with others when the choice was there. As such, I hiked solo for almost the entirety of New Mexico and only took on a hiking partner at the Colorado border because it didn’t seem safe to venture into the mountains alone with so much snow still left over from the previous winter. There had only been a few groups who had made it through the first section of Colorado when we began north from Cumbres Pass, and I’d only found one report from someone who did it solo. From all the accounts I could find, people were advising either “flipping” past Colorado to hike it when the snow situation improved, or traveling with caution and as groups.
I started into Colorado with one other hiker and then two others joined us by the end of that first day. The four of us continued to and through Wolf Creek Pass, and then one split off to take the “low route” into Creed when the opportunity became available. I then ended up sticking with one of the others for the entirety of Colorado to the Wyoming state line.
As someone who has long since considered himself a solo hiker, it was strange to get used to hiking with others, but I was fortunate because the group I ended up hiking with through southern Colorado became some of the best friends I’ve ever had in my life. In addition, it would have been inconceivably dangerous to traverse that portion of trail alone given the extreme temperatures and other added challenges associated with winter navigation through high elevation mountains.
In a couple of spots, even with others, I was forced to question whether it was safe for us to have continued on the official route in spite of the high snow year that preceded that hiking season.
Although I’m sure that it would be wonderful to experience the South San Juans by oneself, if you end up hitting that stretch while snow conditions are still bad from the winter before, consider doing it with at least one or two others for the sake of everyone’s safety.
Oh—and make sure the others you’re with have the equipment that they’ll need and that they know how to use a damn ice axe!
11) I Sure Wish I Would Have Known About Overboots!
Now that I’ve argued that crampons and snowshoes weren’t of much use from what I saw in the South San Juans last year, here’s something that I do wish I’d have brought with me: Overboots. I suppose that there would have been a bit higher likelihood of my having brought them along
if I’d have even know of the existence of such a product at that point in the trail. Unfortunately, it wasn’t until some extremely bad winter weather hit me in northern Montana that I started looking into the gear list that Trauma & Pepper used in their 2015 winter thru hike of the PCT. They basically said that overboots were life savers to them on that trip, and as such, I picked up a pair to finish the CDT.
That is to say that I’d never heard of overboots when I set out into the Colorado CDT. If I’d have known what they were, then I might have at least given their inclusion in my gear list a little bit of consideration.
For those who are still unfamiliar, overboots are basically a full-on weatherproof boot that you can wear over the outside of your traditional trail runners. They basically turn your trail runners into waterproof boots.
Since I didn’t have them when I hiked Colorado in the early summer of 2019, one of the biggest challenges that I faced was having wet feet literally more than 90% of the time between the southern and northern Colorado borders. I tried to change into a waterproof version of the trail running shoe that I’d been wearing up to Colorado, but my foot was not at all having it, and as such, I ended up traversing all of Colorado in non-weatherproof trail runners. Additionally, since the majority of the miles in southern Colorado were covered in snow, that meant having cold and wet feet for most of the state.
It’s something that you can almost start to get used to as time goes on, as thru hiking has a special way of making ordinary discomforts far more tolerable, but if I could have had a way to keep my feet dry and warm through Colorado, I would have been so much happier!
The brand of overboot that I did finally end up using in northern Montana was NEOS. They are about a pound each, but are worth the weight in the snowy sections. They mean you can cross rivers (of up to 15’’ deep) without getting wet feet, you can post-hole through snow all day, and if you do manage to keep your shoes dry throughout the entire day, it won’t be so challenging to get your foot into a rock-solid frozen shoe in the morning.
They’re worth the weight. They’re worth the cost. Look into overboots.
12) Colorado Snow Hiking is Not Thru Hiking; It’s Mountaineering!
I really don’t mean to beat a dead horse at this point, but if I’m going to make an honest list of the things that I wish I had known going into the Colorado miles of the CDT, I have to include this one.
I had done a fair share of thru hiking before setting out on the CDT, and somehow I had fooled myself into believing that having 5,000 miles underfoot meant that I was going to be prepared for anything that I would find on the Divide. What I failed to realize was that in two different portions of the trail (southern Colorado and northern Montana), the task that I was undertaking was far less like thru hiking and far more like mountaineering.
Thru hiking is about being able to make big mile days, day after day. When that kind of progress, which you’ll likely achieve in New Mexico, slows down to a pace where you struggle to even meet twenty miles in a day, it can feel really devastating. Those miles in the South San Juans were by far the most physically taxing miles that I’ve ever walked, but unlike in most of the miles that I’ve ever crossed on a thru hike, effort did not correspond with progress. The end of a 20-mile day in Colorado felt like having walked a 35-mile day in more ordinary trail conditions (I'm really not exaggerating).
That was a really hard emotional challenge—to realize that these miles were going to be hard-earned and slow. I wanted, with every bit of my being, to be through Colorado once I was in the midst of it. But faced with the reality that I was going to be stuck in those snowfields for much longer than I would have opted if given the choice, I had to find a way of changing my perspective on how many miles I felt like I should be covering in a day.
Once I came to the realization that this was no longer “thru hiking,” it allowed me to see things differently. I stopped defining what I was doing as “thru hiking” and started calling it “mountaineering.” With that in mind, it made it hurt less when I gave the all of my being just to cover 16 miles in one day than it would have if I was still in a traditional thru hiking mindset (whatever that even means).
13) A GPS Watch Was Extremely Helpful!
A few people have asked me about how I navigated the CDT, and to be honest with you, I’m hesitant to open up about that. I know that the responsible answer is to tell you that I navigated via map and compass or at least that I had map and compass as backup, but the truth is that I exclusively navigated from end to end via digital mapping. I did carry maps and a compass for the majority of the trail, but I honestly never used them over the course of my 154 days on the CDT.
Instead, I did like most people for the majority of the trail and used the “Guthook” app for a lot of my navigation. But for the Colorado miles, I opted for another tool that I carried with me throughout the CDT: a Garmin Fenix 5X GPS wristwatch.
I started using the Garmin Fenix 5X as a fitness tracking tool around a year before setting out onto the CDT. I enjoyed having it with me so much when I hiked the Colorado Trail that, when it came to preparing for the CDT, there was no question that I’d bring it along. I loved having it as a tool to track my miles each day, and it has some other features that were also quite useful to me (24-hour heart rate monitoring, resting-heart rate measurement, elevation tracking, etc.).
The reason that it was so nice to have in the Colorado portion of the CDT was because throughout most of the southern portion of the state, there was no indication of a visible trail whatsoever. In a lot of places, my best guess for how much snow was left on the ground was well over ten feet (double or triple that in some places!). So navigation meant consulting maps and GPS tracking every thirty seconds in some instances. Other times it would be about pointing down a valley or up to a ridge line, deciding how the trail might lead up that way, and follow whatever route was most efficient given the snow that we had to battle through.
Having a GPS unit on my wrist made navigation, especially in the snowed-in forest miles, far easier than it would have been without. I was literally able to hold my wrist to the side, and look back and forth between the “trail” and the GPS reading to navigate through the woods.
It wouldn’t have necessarily been “impossible” to get through those sections relying on paper maps alone, but it would have taken a lot more time and presented a lot more challenges. We live in a beautiful era now where GPS technology is not only available to the general public, but it can literally fit into a wristwatch if you need for it to. So consider bringing a GPS tracking unit of some kind if you’re hitting Colorado while there’s still snow covering the trail. I had never needed one on any thru hike before the CDT, but I was lucky to have it when I needed it. And it came into play again in northern Montana during some bad snow storms too. I should also note, and tag this onto an earlier point about hiking in groups, that having someone with you who is also checking their own mapping system every now and again is a good way to ensure a "measure twice; cut once" philosophy to navigation. There were several times every day in Colorado where, even with GPS tools at our disposal, I'd find myself heading off in the wrong direction, only to be corrected by my hiking partner, or vice versa. Having someone else who can cooperatively find the best way through the snow covered miles is going to save you a lot of wasted energy in the end.
14) Be Aware of Avalanche Conditions
Simply put, I cannot recommend that anyone hike into the Colorado CDT if there’s still snow in the South San Juans without first having a fairly solid understanding of avalanches, what conditions cause them, how to avoid triggering them, and how to safely navigate through mountains that may have risk of avalanches. I was fortunate in that I grew up in Alaska, and well before I was ever interested in long distance hiking, I was obsessed with backcountry snowboarding. Out of necessity I’d learned everything that I could about avalanches and how to avoid getting caught in them when I was relatively young. I never could have imagined how much that skillset would come to my aide in attempting to hike the CDT all these years later.
After a CDT hiker was extracted from the South San Juans by Search & Rescue in the early season of 2019, there was a lot of tension in the online thru hiking communities about when it would be safe to call that section of trail "passable" again. A few people had gone through the southernmost portion of the Colorado CDT before I set out into it, and all of them agreed on several things; amongst them, the importance of having some preexisting skillset in winter mountaineering, specifically in regards to avalanche safety.
I was fortunate in that there only ended up being a single portion of the trail where extra precaution had to be taken to guard against triggering an avalanche, but there were a lot of places nearby the trail that would have been difficult to cross if the trail had climbed that ridge instead of this one.
Having that knowledge before starting into the South San Juans literally meant the difference between being able to get through Colorado safely and having to go at it blindly. Knowing beforehand what kinds of conditions were conducive to the production of snow slides gave me the confidence to proceed into Colorado knowing that I would be able to accurately assess the safety along the way.
If you don’t already have experience in identifying conditions that could lead to an avalanche, consider hiking snow-covered sections with someone who does. Being buried in an avalanche is not only a bad way to end your thru hike; it’d be a pretty awful way to die too.
15) 20-Mile Days Become Nearly Impossible in the Snow
I love a 30-mile day just as much as any thru hiker. I might even go so far as to say that I like them more than some. But when it comes to the snowpack of southern Colorado (I should note that you’ll hit snow in other parts of Colorado too, but the South San Juans are the most traitorous), any hope of a 30-mile day needs to be left behind. I must emphasize once again that this whole piece is based on the subjective experience of just one hiker who hiked these miles only once, so maybe there is some way to cover big-mile days in the Colorado snowfields; I’m just not privy to knowing how one might go about doing so.
It would have been nice if I could have carried with me a more reasonable expectation of the miles that I hoped to be able to cover in Colorado. Somehow, even knowing that there would be snow in Colorado, I had convinced myself that the 750 miles of the New Mexico CDT would be enough to condition my body to be able to make long miles every day no matter the conditions farther north. At worst, I figured, if the snow ended up slowing my pace, then it probably wouldn’t be by all that much. I thought that maybe with a bit of added effort I’d at least still be able to get 25-mile days.
When It came down to it however, it was a struggle most days to get even 20 miles. The snowpack in the South San Juans was unrelenting and made it hard at times to even cover one mile in an hour. The worst full-day on trail that I experienced in Colorado was right at 16 miles. And I have to remind you that those were some of the hardest-earned miles of my life.
As I mentioned earlier in this piece, treat the snowed-in miles of Colorado like they’re something different than thru hiking. That alone was enough to get me through, and hopefully it’ll do the same for you.
16) “Harder” Doesn’t Always Mean “Worse”
For all the bad that I’ve said about hiking the southern Colorado miles of the CDT in the spring, I feel like I’ve completely failed to acknowledge just how much of a positive experience it was to be out there in those specific conditions.
If you’re coming to the CDT looking for the easiest of anything, you’re barking up the wrong tree. In a lot of cases, the CDT seem to go up a mountain ridge, specifically because it’s the least efficient way to get between two points. The trail itself is known for its brutality. So if you’re one of the twisted souls who actually wants to spend their summer baring the elements along one of the most challenging thru hiking trails in the United States, then you should also be the type who can embrace the challenges that you’ll find in Colorado.
I feel like I did a fairly solid job of trying to keep my worries of what it would be like hiking through Colorado until I was pretty much all the way through New Mexico. It just didn’t make any sense to me to be wasting my time worrying about what it would be like some 500 miles up trail when I had more immediate challenges that existed in the meantime. So I thought about New Mexico while I was in New Mexico and worried about Colorado once Colorado was under my feet.
On the rare instance when I did let my mind drift north to the snowfields of Colorado, I felt some uncanny sense of fear and anxiety. All anyone was saying about Colorado was how impossible the trail still was and that going north from Cumbres Pass was a suicidal proposition. And that’s exactly where all that fear and anxiety was stemming from—the fears of others, passed down to me.
I’ll be honest in saying that, once I started into Colorado, it was indeed more physically challenging than I could have possibly prepared myself for, but it was still possible. In the midst of crossing through the South San Juans, I realized that I’d probably never undertake a challenge for the rest of my life that would ever be as difficult as what we were doing by trying to stick to the official CDT in those kinds of conditions.
What I didn’t realize until it was over however was that some of the greatest memories that I have from the entire trail came from the same places that were so challenging. It seems, looking back on it now, like the greater the challenge, the greater the memory. So although much of what I’ve written here has highlighted the challenges and dangers of hiking the southern Colorado CDT, I would be failing you and the trail both if I failed to acknowledge the beauty of those high elevation snowcapped mountains.
17) Some people make it through Colorado “early.” Some People don’t.
This could probably be an entire book unto itself—the question of how early is too early to try crossing into the South San Juans? The same debate exists on the Pacific Crest Trail in regards to how early a hiker should expect the High Sierras to be passable, and in both cases, the answers are mostly the same.
If possible, hikers should wait until later in the year (July-September are usually prime hiking in Colorado), but when it comes to trying to thru hike the CDT as an unbroken path, you probably won’t have the luxury of waiting until the “ideal” months; you’re going to need to get through as early as possible in order to have time to make it through the three northern states of the trail.
Over the years I’ve heard plenty of stories of hikers who were lucky enough (and in some cases, extremely skilled) to make it through the High Sierras when that entire stretch of the PCT was still under snowpack. Similarly, people have made it through the Colorado CDT in early-season months that boggle my mind having seen what the trail looked like in June and July. In some cases, people can hit the snowpack when it’s still cold and not have to post-hole, and if they get lucky enough to avoid the severe winter storms that can become deadly in high elevations, they can get through the dangerous stuff relatively unscathed.
When it comes down to it though, even with a lifetime of experience and preparation, mountains can be pretty unforgiving in the colder parts of the year.
My advice, as someone who trekked into the South San Juans a bit earlier than he probably should have, is to err on the side of caution. Big mountains bring with them big challenges. Don’t get yourself in over your head.
18) Many People “Flip” Around Colorado
This is a fairly well-known point, I believe. Even knowing that many people would flip around Colorado and come back to hike it when the snow was melted however, I was astonished to see just how many took that approach. I should acknowledge, once more, that 2019 was an especially terrible year to hike the CDT in terms of the snow that was still heavily accumulated throughout much of Colorado, but even on a “good year,” it’s somewhat common for hikers to reach the New Mexico/Colorado border and skip up north to hike the Great Divide Basin before that area gets too hot.
My personal take on the “flip vs. don’t flip” debate is that you should do whatever you damn well feel like. If the importance of hiking the CDT as an unbroken path is a big deal to you, then maybe it’s worth the extra challenges that you’ll encounter by doing so. Alternatively, if it’s more about enjoying the experience and getting to see different parts of the CDT while they’re in their prime, then flipping is probably the way to go. Hike your own hike. Do your own thing. Don’t let the opinion of someone else (myself included) be the thing that sways you to do one thing or the other.
That all said, as someone who stuck to the official route and tried hiking the trail as an unbroken northbound path, I found the challenges to be worthwhile. I met a lot of other hikers who flipped around Colorado, some of whom regretted their decision while others were grateful to have done so.
The big thing is, just go into it with a general game plan that you’d like to follow. Have a plan for whether or not you’ll flip up north, how you’ll get there, what sections are in good condition at that time, and who you might be able to travel/lodge/hike with throughout it all. Maybe I’m just a planner, but that’s what worked best for me.
19) I Hope You Brought Bug Spray
I’ve heard of some people who can’t wear deet. It messes with their skin or something.
Every night I spend camped in mosquito country, I kneel down in my tent after the sun is down and I say a little prayer for those kinds of people, because I don’t know how I’d survive mosquitoes if I couldn’t use deet. Granted, the stuff is absolutely terrible in almost every way, except for its ability to make mosquitoes leave you alone. It’s basically a toxic chemical that is so noxious that it will literally melt the paint off of your vehicle or burn a hole through your rain jacket if you’re not careful, but I’ve done the analysis in my head enough times to feel like I’m making the right decisions: putting deet directly onto my skin might not be healthy for my skin, but letting mosquitoes bite me without some chemical form of defense is no good for my mental health. So I’m willing to soak up the chemicals and thank the door Lord (or whomever invented deet) that I always have that little spray bottle tucked safely in my pack.
Some people go the bug net route, some people have other clothing options that keep mosquitoes off. Having grown up in the state that calls mosquitoes their unofficial state bird, I feel like I’ve done enough trial and error to say that I know what works best for me.
In fact, I’m such a big believer in deet that I carry one of the small spray bottles with me any time I go out backpacking, including the sections of thru hiking trails that are not known to have bugs. It doesn’t weigh much, and the value of having it at your disposal when you need it is worth the little bit of weight that it makes up.
When I get to places where the mosquitoes or gnats are really bad however, I switch to a full aerosol can of mosquitoes repellent. I just can’t overstate the value of having bug protection when the bugs get bad. It could literally mean the difference between losing your mind and making it through the trail alive.
Bug Dope = Good Mental Health
As for Colorado specifically, you may or may not have to deal with mosquitoes, depending on when you get there. A lot of the people who made it through the state before I arrived reported no bugs at all, but then when they got up to Yellowstone it was the worst they’d ever seen. Then I experienced the exact opposite—there were some spots in central Colorado that were extremely bad in regards to the mosquitos, but the rest of the state wasn’t too much of a problem at all. The place where it was really bad for me (which is admittedly where the above photo was taken) was the Wind River Range of Wyoming in August. More on that in a later installment.
20) Wear Sunblock! The Snow is Bright!
I don’t know that we need to go into a lot of explanation of this one. Just as remember though, as you head into Southern Colorado you’ll not only need warm gear to keep from freezing at night; you’ll also want sun protection. Unlike in New Mexico where the concern was from overhead, in Colorado you’ll be having to protect yourself from the sun above as well as the reflection of the sun off the snow below. Have a good pair of sun glasses, have a wide-brim hat, and wear sunblock. My partner and I both ended up with pretty nasty sunburns after the six-day stretch from Wolf Creek Pass to Spring Creek Pass, in spite of the fact that we had overcast skies on a couple of those days. We also stopped to reapply sun black at least a couple of times each day, and even with that, we still ended up a bit toasty.
Be smart. Cover the skin you can cover. And have sunblock for whatever you can’t cover.
You’ll be grateful you did.
21) It Takes a Lot of Energy to Climb Mountains
Did I really need to hike the CDT to figure this out? Probably not. And to be real, I obviously went into the CDT well aware that there was a direct correlation between a trail’s vertical profile and the amount of energy it takes to walk said trail. But even with that in mind, the amount of caloric expenditure that we saw in southern Colorado was like nothing I’d ever experienced before.
I mentioned earlier in this piece that it’s incredibly frustrating in southern Colorado to be expending so much energy and seeing such slow progress, but that’s just the way it goes. Hiking a dry trail (like you'll find in New Mexico) is just a world of difference from the experience of post-holing up mountains (like you'll find in Colorado).
It’s hard to know exactly how many calories we were burning through, but I will say that adjusting what I carried in my food supply was a game-changing decision. Whereas I was able to get through a lot of New Mexico while feeding off of relative garbage foods (candy bars, processed meals, and a lot of refined sugar products that severely lacked in nutritional value), when it came to Colorado, I made a point to focus on foods that were high in nutritional density, and higher in fats. In short, I wanted to pack as much caloric and nutritional value into as small a space as possible. Going into Colorado already meant having to increase my pack weight to account for the added winter-gear that I had to carry to make it through the cold nights, but then I also ended up needing more food, especially foods of higher quality than what I’d normally carry for a trail.
Some of the foods that became my staples: salami, pure honey, hemp seed meal, cuscus, pistachios, coconut oil, dried fruit, almond butter, meat bars (I’m a big fan of Epic), tortilla shells, and Oreos (not organic, not sugar free, not healthy, but they do a lot for my mental health in the mountains).
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Now that I have that all laid on the page to look back on, I feel simultaneously as if I’ve done too little and too much all at the same time. I honestly don’t get the feeling that reading this could have made my trek through the Colorado CDT any easier, but again, I don’t know if any article or essay is ever going to ease in the process of hiking hundreds of miles through snow-covered mountains.
The best you can do, I suppose, is to take on Colorado like you would any other mile of trail: you go in as prepared as possible, you try to make good choices regarding your personal safety, and you take pretty pictures along the way. I underestimated what I’d find in the southern Colorado portion of the Continental Divide Trail, and as such, I think that a lot of what I’ve listed above has been a reflection of that lack of preparedness. I absolutely despise the culture of fear mongering that many of us have encountered before if we’ve spent much time on a long trail, and so I want to work hard to ensure that what I’m doing here is not just perpetuation of fear. I want for people to have an accurate picture of what some of the trail conditions can be like in Colorado without it being all about doom and gloom.
In earnest, some of the most beautiful scenery that I found along the CDT was in the isolated mountains of Colorado. Every one of the pictures that came from those miles of trail had to be earned, but that’s the story of the entire trail. Nothing ever comes easy on the CDT, and let us thank our lucky stars that that’s the case, else-wise the CDT would be as packed as the AT and PCT have become.
It is ultimately possible to make it through the state of Colorado by following the “high route,” but it takes a bit of skill and a bit of luck to do it safely. So if you stick with the official route, plan accordingly and know how to use an ice axe before you get there. If you end up taking one of the lower elevation routes though Colorado, that’s okay too. I wish that I had more that I could say of the low elevation alternates through Colorado, but since I haven’t walked them personally, I can’t have much of an opinion on them.
Let us also remember that a lot of thru hikers will do a “flip” or a “flip-flop” hike of the CDT, and that’s just as good as any of the other options that exist out there.
So hike your own hike, choose your own route, and try not to get yourself stuck in the mountains. The backcountry in parts of Colorado may be beautiful, but they’re indifferent to your wellbeing. Make sure that safety is a priority, and plan from there accordingly.
No matter your route though, take a lot of pictures. You’ll appreciate them once it’s done.