Sunday, September 30, 2018

CDT Part 9: Wrapup

The sun shone directly into the plane's windows, blinding me and the other passengers. I quickly closed the windowshade as my flight home took off from the Denver airport. A few minutes later I opened the window to look out over the Rocky Mountains. Directly below me, I saw a jagged ridgeline. A ridgeline I knew. A ridgeline I had walked. I saw that class III traverse and the steep ascent of James Peak. I'd been there. I'd walked it. And I'd walked everything to the north and south, as far as the eye could see.

That's the moment that it really hit home. As a matter of practice, I avoid dwelling on the enormity of a long hike because it's usually a dispiriting thought. In that moment, though, I was able to reflect on on the hike as a whole.

Usually I like to have these blog posts have a theme or a story, but not today. What follows is a random mishmash of random CDT related stats and thoughts. Sorry guys.

Pacing and timing

Prior to the CDT, I was a bit concerned about my pace. The CDT measures in at about 2,900 miles and the hiking season is only about 5.5 months in a normal year. I ended up completing the trail in just under five months. A faster than expected pace, combined with an early start, allowed me to complete the trail just after Labor Day. 

Overall, I was happy with my pacing and timing. I started on April 10, which would be very early in a normal year. However, this year was not a normal year. Southern Colorado recieved only about 50% of median snowpack over the winter, which meant the high country was accessible much earlier that it normally is. I still arrived a bit too early (a late-season storm dumped a couple of fresh feet in early May) and ended up waiting a week for more snow to melt. However, I enjoyed the challenge of navigating through the San Juans in the snow. It was tough, but doable. It tested the skillset I've worked toward for several years.

The not-hiking part

In general, I employ a slow-but-steady hiking strategy. I'll never be the fastest hiker, but by limiting off-days and striving for consistency, I can make solid progress. On the AT, for example, I took just six zero days - days on which I did not hike at all. On the CDT, however, I took significantly more: a total of 16 zero days.

New Mexico: 2
Colorado: 13
Wyoming: 1
Montana: 0 

Immediately, the 13 in Colorado stands out. Seven of those days were spent waiting for more snow to melt, and during that window, I took a trip to southern Utah with a few other thru-hikers, where we did a leisurely backpacking trip. Even after factoring those seven days into account, though, I still took six zeros in Colorado. 

I hit my stride in northern Colorado and only took one zero in the second half of the trip, in Pinedale, Wyoming. I did take a few short "nero" days in Montana, where I hiked maybe five miles and spent the rest of the day in town. Overall, though, my progress became much steadier as the hike progressed.


I'll admit it - the CDT was quite a bit different than I expected. When I first became interested in the CDT, it was still a fairly young trail. Many roadwalking, bushwhacking, and navigational challenges awaited hikers, only the hardiest of which could reasonably be expected to complete the trail. The trail's unofficial motto, "embrace the brutality", says it all.

Coupled with the CDT's reputation was my own experience. In the five years since the AT, I had done off-trail routes in various parts of the West. I'd done ridgeline traverses of the Winds, Beartooths, and Absarokas. And most significantly, I'd done the Hayduke Trail. I knew what to expect from the CDT - at least, I thought I did.

I was dead wrong. The CDT, while certainly less developed and defined than, say, the AT, is still a trail for the most part. Most of it has established tread on the ground. It's oftentimes signed or marked. Logistics are fairly easy and straightforward. And, for those who choose to use it, there's a smartphone app that basically eliminates all the navigational challenges one might otherwise face.

The end result was a little bit of disillusionment on my part. I had expected a 3,000-mile Hayduke, and I got... well, not that. Sure, compared to the AT and PCT, the CDT is a little rough around the edges. But, in terms of on-trail experience, it's a lot closer to the AT than it is to the Hayduke. The whole "embrace the brutality" thing may have been true a decade ago when it was coined, but is increasingly outdated these days. I definitely had to make a conscious effort to come to terms with this new reality. Don't get me wrong; I loved the CDT. However, I had to remind myself to appreciate it for what it is, not for what I had originally wanted it to be.


Navigation is the big scary bugaboo in the minds of a lot of prospective CDT hikers. There are basically two map sets.

CDT Maps by Jonathan Ley: The Ley maps have been around for approximately forever. They were published in the early 2000's after Jonathan hiked the CDT himself. Each winter, he updates the maps using hiker feedback and comments and makes them available for free to next year's hikers. While I had a few nits to pick with the maps, they were extremely useful. While other tools and resources make things easier, it is possible to make it to Canada with only his maps if needed.

  • Offer lots of different route options, on the macro scale (Gila River vs Black Range) and the micro scale (The trail routing here is completely ridiculous, just cut straight across the river and pick up the trail on the other side)
  • Provides valuable beta on the reliability and quality of water sources (although that beta might be from 15 years ago at this point!)
  • Points out oddities along the trail and things worth seeing


  • Scale is too zoomed-out to do any serious, heavy-duty navigational work
  • "The line" is often slightly inaccurate. Makes it very difficult to ascertain exactly where the trail is, even with a GPS
  • "The line" is dark and thick, and often obscures the topographic/road/trail information on the base USGS map - the exact place where you'll be walking
  • Doesn't differentiate between trail, road, and cross-country travel in any meaningful way
Guthook CDT App: I can't offer too much commentary on the app since I didn't use it. But according to pretty much everyone, it's accurate and helpful. One specific criticism I did hear of it - it doesn't have nearly as many alternate routes as Ley's maps do, and its trail corridor is rather narrow - if you have to bail, you'll quickly run off the edge of your maps. 

I try not to be too much of curmudgeon when it comes to electronic navigation. GPS is a great tool, and is incredibly useful at times (say, when you're in the clouds above treeline and can't see more than 15 yards in front of you). At the same time, electronic navigation is more prone to failure than analog maps are (skill of the user notwithstanding). My personal philosophy: if I'm ever in an environment where my survival depends on staying found, I will always bring two independent sources of navigational data. One can be electronic, the other, analog. When it's 30 miles to the next water source, getting lost is not an option.

What's next

Well, there's another long hike on the docket for next year. Plans are still solidifying, but it's a trek I'm really excited about. In the meantime, I'm spending the fall catching up on all the things I didn't get a chance to do over the last five years - spending an extended holiday season with my family, doing a few hiking trips that have been on the back burner for years, prepping for the aforementioned long hike. Stay tuned for more!

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