What I Wish I'd Known Before Hiking the CDT: Idaho/Montana
There’s a feeling that accompanies every thru hike. There’s this moment when the trail starts to feel like home and the prospect of what life was like before the trail or what it might be after the trail seems strange and distant. After a hundred days and two thousand miles of waking up, walking, setting camp, and sleeping, the routine becomes its owns special paradise. I find myself wondering why anyone would want to live a life that doesn’t involve experiences like these.
Most of the lessons a thru hike has to teach come before this moment of existential bliss.
This is to say that by the time I crossed into Idaho and continued north through Montana, I’d pretty well figured out how to hike the CDT. This isn’t to say that the remaining 1,000 miles north of the Wyoming/Idaho border were going to be without their challenge, but it is to say that I felt relatively prepared by the time I got into Idaho.
The biggest variable that I failed to anticipate north of Wyoming however was the weather. This was especially the case the farther north the trail continued, culminating in a total accumulation of six feet of snow falling on the trail over a 10-day period.
I suspect that most anyone who has walked the southern 2,000 miles of the Continental Divide Trail will have the physical ability to complete the final thousand as well. But reflecting back on the things that I wish I would have known before those final two states, these are the points that stand out the most.
1) You’re Likely to See Bears
It doesn’t take a lot of digging through online CDT forums before you’ll come across discussion about bears, namely grizzly bears that populate Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. A lot of perspective Triple-Crowners list Montana grizzly bears as their biggest concern about the CDT. After all, the northernmost miles of the Continental Divide Trail traverse two of the densest grizzly bear populations in the lower 48 United States: The Bob Marshall Wilderness and Glacier National Park.
Although the Appalachian Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail both have black bears, the CDT is the only one of the three long trails to have grizzlies.
I personally began carrying bear spray within the Wind River Range of Wyoming and continued to carry it north from there. In hindsight, I could have easily gotten away with waiting until the final two to three hundred miles of the trail to begin carrying it, but I don’t regret my choice to start earlier. If nothing else, it provided me a sense of security when there was obvious sign of bears along the trail in the form of tree markings, scat, and tracks.
I never actually saw any grizzlies in Wyoming while on trail, but on my hitch back to trail after visiting Jackson, we did see one alongside the road, eating a deer that had been hit by a commuter vehicle. Even though that one was obviously of no danger, since we had the protection of a vehicle, just seeing an animal of that size left me very aware that further sightings were possible at any point moving forward.
So, did I need bear spray south of the Bob Marshall Wilderness? Probably not. But having it was worth the weight, even if all it helped was my mental wellbeing.
Within the Bob Marshall Wilderness (about 200 miles south of the Canadian border) you’re going to get close to some bears. I say this as a statement of fact because I’ve been in “The Bob” after a fresh snowfall. More on the snow later, but I bring it up now because only a fresh snowfall can really lead one to a full appreciation of just how much wildlife frequents the same trails that you’re walking up there. Walking through the fresh prints of both black and grizzly bears for the seven days that I was in The Bob felt like swimming in shark-filled waters. Even if I couldn’t see them, I still knew that they were there. At times, the tracks were so fresh that I could literally make out the individual creases and cracks in the paw-pads and scat so fresh that it steamed.
Needless to say, there are a lot more bears in the northern miles of the CDT than there are down south. In the end, I ended up seeing black bears in all five states of the CDT and grizzly bear (from trail) in northern Montana. I’m sure it’s possible to make it through the entire thing—all 3,000 miles—without ever seeing one yourself, but I suspect that the chances are slim.
2) Hang Your Food
With all this discussion of bears, I’d be failing you if I neglected to mention the (hopefully) obvious importance of proper food storage in the northern miles of the Continental Divide Trail. With more and more people entering the world of thru hiking with the passage of time, that also equates to more people who spread bad habits when it comes to where we eat and where we end up storing our food overnight.
I met a couple on the PCT who either hanged their food every night or at the very least separated it from camp. And when I say “every night,” I mean that without exception, from Mexico to Canada. Alternatively, I have to believe that anyone who’s spent time on a long enough thru hike has encountered the hiker who proudly sleeps with his food tucked squarely under his head every single night from the beginning of the hike to the end.
These two parties represent extremes on a spectrum. The truth is that you probably can and likely will get away with sleeping with your food in camp for parts of the Continental Divide Trail. Those nights shouldn’t be in Montana or Idaho though. Even though the chances of a bear dragging you out of your ultra-lite tent in the middle of the night are probably still slim, the consequences are serious enough to take seriously. And on top of that—it’s happened before. It may not have happened to a CDT thru hiker yet (please correct me if I’m wrong), but it’s happened in places close to and similar to the CDT. So in the end, it’s just not worth the risk.
Know how to hang your food before you start out on the trail and be willing to take the time to do so when it’s appropriate.
3) Montana Gets Cold
I encountered cold temperatures in just about every state along the trail. But what “cold” meant in New Mexico (below freezing) was a lot different than what “cold” eventually came to mean in Montana (sub zero).
We began encountering frost in the very final days of Wyoming. As the trail progressed farther north into Idaho, I distinctly remember waking up to frozen shoes, and by the time Montana came, ice on the outside of the tent became a regular thing to wake up to in the mornings.
It’s worth noting here that my own progress along the CDT in 2019 was severely slowed by the accumulation of snow through much of Colorado which put me significantly farther behind what an ideal schedule would have looked like. By the time I reached Montana it was September, and then I waited and watched in agony as the first major winter storm dropped several feet of snow on the remaining miles of the trail. Ten days later, temperatures dropped to -5 degrees Fahrenheit. Then came the wind. Then more snow still.
All this is to say that the experiences I collected along the northern and coldest miles of the Pacific Crest Trail were of a completely different type than what the Continental Divide Trail had to offer. This was obviously true throughout much of Colorado, as I’ve detailed in earlier posts, but it was a whole different monster in northern Montana.
This isn’t to say that you should fear that section of the trail if you end up there late, like I did. Rather, it should be taken as a way to point you towards gear and progression considerations that you might not have otherwise had the insight to use in your preparation for the trail. For me, when I hit temperatures in the 20’s in New Mexico I was stunned. I had the gear for it, but I still had a lot of nights where I was shivering for a bit before I managed to fall asleep. Then it happened again in Colorado, but at least in Colorado I was smart enough to think about the trail as if it were a potential winter mountaineering trek with some ultra-lite inspiration instead of a true thru hike. So in Colorado I had the gear, but it took a lot of additional weight to make embarking into the Bob Marshall Wilderness after a snowstorm make any reasonable sense.
If you end up in the northernmost miles of the trail in the later stretches of the year, be prepared for snow, be prepared for cold, and learn how to use a “vapor barrier;” I certainly wish I would have done so sooner.
4) Be Willing to Accept the Very Real Possibility of Snow
The Continental Divide Trail is basically the United States’ portion of the spine of the continent that runs all the way from South America to Alaska. It’s a collision line between tectonic plates that caused the earth to raise up just subtly enough to produce this great watershed that we call the Continental Divide.
On a planetary scale, the raised earth of the Continental Divide would be imperceptible, but when you zoom in closer and look at it on the human scale, that raised earth accounts for thousands of feet of elevation compared to sea level. And the farther one travels away from the equator along the Continental Divide, the more that increase in elevation impacts potential for winter weather.
No place exemplified this better for me than Montana.
I went into the CDT knowing that snow was a very real possibility. What I didn’t know was that I’d encounter snow in all but one of the states along the trail (Idaho was the exception) and that the snow that I’d have to deal with in Northern Montana would be worse than any winter weather that I’d seen since leaving my home state of Alaska fifteen years before.
The thought of encountering snow in the northern miles of the CDT was something that stayed with me pretty much every day of the trail. Even in the scorching heat of Southern New Mexico, I still found myself thinking about the potential for Montana snow. Sometimes it’s even what kept me going during those sweltering miles. I’d find myself wondering what in god’s name I was doing walking alone though the open New Mexico desert in 90+ degrees, and I’d just tell myself that it was so that I could get to Canada before the snow. Just keep on pushing now so that you can suffer less in the end.
That was all swell and good as a motivational technique for New Mexico, but when the reality of Montana’s early winters came to fruition for me in September, it was a real paradigm shifting experience.
Within a 10-day period the northern miles of the CDT that I still had to walk accumulated over 6-feet of snow. That was spread out over two separate snowstorms—one at the end of September, and one a week later at the beginning of October—and luckily there was time between for some of that snow to melt and compact, but navigating it was still very close to impossible. And it’s at least worth mentioning that the hundreds of miles of snow that I experienced in Colorado provided fairly minimal applicable experience to the snow of Montana. Simply put, spring time snow that’s left over from the winter is a very different obstacle from fresh snowfall.
I’d seen snow before the CDT. I’d hiked in snow before Montana. And I had zero excuse for being surprised with what I experienced first-hand in Northern Montana. But somehow I put it in the back of my mind. It’s like a lot of things in life—we’ll worry about those things when that time comes, and Southern New Mexico didn’t feel like the time to be worrying about what kind of weather Glacier National Park gets in October.
Here’s what I’m really getting at: I really wish I’d invested a bit more time learning about how to thru hike in worst-case snow situations before I ever got onto the trail. It would have been nice to have had a bit more experience going into the Colorado snowpack, and it would have been nice to at least prepare myself a bit better for Montana.
Fear mongering aside, for anyone who is looking into a future NOBO thru hike of the CDT—do your research on the extreme temperatures and have the gear for them. Be ready for hot weather in New Mexico and be ready for storms that drop 6-feet of snow over the course of a couple of weeks. It’s better to play through those scenarios now than when you’re already in them.
5) Idaho May Have Spared Me Snow, But the Weather Still Sucked
When it comes to weather, the only thing that anyone can say for sure is that, “Individual results may vary.” Ever year the CDT is going to present a unique set challenges to the class of thru hikers who try to walk its length. The year before I hiked the trail, the struggle was heat and all the problems that came along with it. There wasn’t enough water for hikers, the forests became too dry, then those dry conditions led to severe forest fires that closed sections of the trail. Then, in 2019 when I set out on my NOBO hike, the massive snowpack in Colorado and the record breaking early-winter snowfall in northern Montana were the biggest obstacles.
So what you experience in the northern sections of the CDT will undoubtedly be different than what I experienced. But from my very limited exposure to the CDT portions of Idaho and Montana, I can at least say that there is a great potential for terrible weather.
Although temperatures did drop below freezing for me on a few nights along the Idaho/Montana border, I never did get snow until I was well into the heart of Montana. But lord, almighty, it rained in Idaho. In particular, waiting for a hitch into Darby, Montana (right along the state border), I struggled to tell the difference between standing alongside the road and standing in an industrial car wash.
The Idaho/Montana border gave me days of rain without abatement. Whereas I was able to dry my gear out in between rain or snow flurries farther south along the CDT, once I got into Idaho, there were stretches where it was over a week before I really found the opportunity to lay my clothes out to dry alongside the trail.
Luckily however, by the time I reached the rains of Idaho and Montana, I was conditioned to hiking in the rain. Rain will never be my favorite condition for thru hiking—and I worry about the mental stability of whoever feels otherwise—but at least with time I’ve learned to grow used to precipitation.
Just like any state along the CDT, have rain gear that you can be confident in and get some practice with it before starting your thru hike. For me, the umbrella was a game changer when I started carrying it on the Colorado Trail, but others seem fine without one. Whatever makes you comfortable when the sky feels like it’s falling, be ready to put it to use in the northernmost states of the CDT.
6) It’s Worth It In The End
There’s no way for me to explain the person I am today without thru hiking being part of the equation. Thru trails have literally made me into who I am. But of all the trails that I’ve walked in the last ten years since I first got into the long-distance game, the CDT is the one that impacted me the most. It’s the trail that very nearly cost me my life (hopefully my one-and-only SAR experience), the trail that introduced me to my partner in life, the trail that I’d looked forward to the longest, and the trail that ultimately became the greatest physical challenge of my adult life. I just can’t overstate it: the CDT changed my life.
Just like every trail is different for every set of shoes that walk it, I’m absolutely sure that nobody out there will have the same experience along the CDT that I found in 2019, but I still feel in my heart of hearts that the CDT has the most potential of all the Triple Crown trails to change someone’s life. This is by no means an attempt to discount either the AT or the PCT, but there’s something that I found within the challenges of the CDT that felt unlike anything else that I think this world has to offer.
It may have been the longest and most challenging trail of my life, but that’s probably something that made it so special in the end. Even now, almost two years after I started my own walk of the CDT, I’m still looking back and finding new meaning in some of those experiences that took place during my 154 days between Mexico and Canada.
So in the end, it was hard, but it was worth every moment of suffering and more. And I have to believe that someday you’ll feel the same.