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Anatomy of a CDT Thru-hike

“Lightening the pack can be a spiritual path. I think this is why Ray's book is raging. He gently brings lightening the pack into the realm of conscious evolution. People are secretly starving for info like this. He brings backpacking into the realm of art. People love this. He's got everyone thinking and questioning assumptions. This is his gift to us all. He is a paradigm buster.”

— Doug Walsh as quoted in Ray Jardine’s “Beyond Backpacking”
in Reader’s Comments

A “thru-hike” is simply walking a trail from start to finish in one continuous effort, instead of hiking the trail in sections over many years. There are currently three big trails in America that are coveted thru-hikes. The Appalachian Trail (AT) on the east coast stretches for 2100 miles from Georgia to Maine through the Appalachian Mountains. The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) on the west coast stretches for 2650 miles from Mexico to Canada through the Sierras and the Cascades. And the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) stretches for 3000 miles from Mexico to Canada along the backbone of the continent (Rocky Mountains).

The Continental Divide Trail is the most challenging long distance trail in America. It is a couple of steps up in difficulty from the Pacific Crest Trail – longer, higher, drier, lonelier, colder. Also, the trail is only 70% complete, which means I will be navigating cross-country by map and compass often. I will begin on Earth Day (April 22nd) on the Mexican border in New Mexico. There, in the desert, I will encounter 100-degree temperatures, rattlesnakes and scorpions. The trail slowly climbs out of the desert and into the 10,000 ft. mountains of the Black Range – Geronimo’s stronghold – where I will encounter potentially deep snow. Then it’s down into the canyons of the Gila River with nearly 200 difficult river crossings in spring snow melt. Then more desert with long waterless sections as I make my way into the San Juan Mountains on the Colorado/New Mexico border in early June.

Much of the trail in Colorado is above tree line. The 800-mile Colorado segment averages over 11,000 ft in elevation. I will encounter potentially deep snow and freezing temperatures in the southern Colorado mountains that will slow progress considerably. If the snow is not consolidated from melting when I arrive in southern Colorado, I may not be able to walk on it without sinking in deeply (postholing). Postholing is generally an intolerable condition which will require me to do what is known as a “flip-flop.” In this scenario, I take a bus from Chama, NM to Lander, WY and begin walking south through the Red Desert in southern Wyoming. 200+ miles of desert gives the snow some time to melt before I reach the mountains of northern Colorado. I’ll continue to walk south through Colorado until I reach Chama, NM. I’ll then hop on that same bus back to Lander, WY and begin walking north from Lander to finish the trail.

However, if I can make it through the southern Colorado mountains in early June, I will continue walking north and reach central Colorado just as summer thunderstorm season is getting under way, and lightning dangers will be on my mind as I traverse the exposed tundra above tree line. Wyoming begins with 200 miles of travel through the trackless Red Desert at 7000 ft elevation. Temperatures will soar up to 100 degrees again and water sources will sometimes be 60 miles apart. Wyoming ends with many miles of high mountain travel through the Wind River Range and the Grizzly Bear country of Yellowstone National Park. Continuing north, Idaho and Montana comprise nearly 1000 miles of trail through many different mountain ranges, sometimes traveling nearly 200 miles without crossing a road. The last 300 miles of trail to the Canadian Border are through Grizzly Bear country. The idea is to get to the Canadian Border in Glacier National Park in September before the winter snows begin in the mountains.

I plan to take around 5 months for this hike (150 days). Assuming no days off, I will need to average 20 miles per day. Since I plan to take 20 full days and around 20 half days off, this works out to a pace of 25 miles per day on the 120 walking days. When you consider the elevation of the trail, route-finding difficulties, rugged terrain, exposure to extreme weather conditions and big elevation gains and losses in most sections of trail, the challenging nature of this hike becomes apparent. And then of course I will be carrying a pack with all the necessary gear and food to survive in the wilderness of the Rockies.

It seems like it would be difficult to accomplish such a hike with a daypack, how can I expect to succeed with a heavy backpack you may be thinking? When most folks think camping, they think comfort and security. The thought is, “I better bring this extra fleece pullover because I may need it.” This philosophy leads to a big pack full of warm clothes, camp chair, heavy sleeping pad, etc. This philosophy works and is totally appropriate for weekend backpacking trips where most of the time is spent in camp. Camp comfort is thus the priority. Generally, you suffer with a heavy load for a short while on the trail and then get to a pretty area, set up a comfortable base camp and relax for a day or two, possibly doing some day trips with a day pack from your base camp. The “I better bring it because I may need it” philosophy does not work for thru-hiking, however.

As Ray Jardine says in his book “Beyond Backpacking,” the correct philosophy for a thru-hike is “If I don’t have it, I don’t need it.” On a thru-hike, most of the time is spent walking. Most thru-hikers walk all day. Therefore, its best to focus on walking comfort. Walking is most comfortable with a day pack, and a 10 pound pack (weight of backpack loaded with all your gear) without food and water is therefore standard for the modern thru-hiker. Such a light pack makes walking all day every day doable and even enjoyable once you are in shape. Even if you don’t train hard before the hike, it only takes 2-3 weeks to get in the kind of shape necessary to nearly forget about your body as you walk all day and enjoy the scenery.

How is such a light pack accomplished? You buy or make the lightest gear possible, and you question everything you consider putting in your pack. Walking all day, all you do in camp is sleep so you bring nothing for your camp but what allows you to sleep soundly and safely. You rarely get cold while walking so you only carry enough clothes to stay warm while walking in stormy weather conditions. It’s normally cold in the morning so I just stay in my bag for breakfast. Once out of my bag, I quickly get dressed, pack my gear and start walking. I walk till my dinner, with small breaks for lunch and snacks. If its cold at my dinner spot, I make dinner in my bag. After dinner, I get up and walk 5 or 10 more miles. Generally, I walk from sunrise to sunset. This allows me to walk 25 miles or more in a single day. I typically walked 30 miles or more per day on the PCT. This high mileage allows me to cover 100 miles in 4 days, instead of 8. Since I only have to carry 4 days of food instead of 8 for a 100 mile section, my pack is that much lighter. With a very light pack, you can leave those heavy hiking boots behind. Ankle support is not much of an issue for someone carrying 15-25 lbs (weight of backpack with gear and 5-15 lbs of food and water). It is said that 1 pound of weight on your foot is like 5 pounds on your back in terms of the energy you must expend to carry it. Going from a 3-4 pound hiking boot to a 1 pound trail running shoe is huge.

As you apply the “If I don’t have it, I don’t need it” philosophy, you question everything. And each item you discard feeds back upon your efficiency because less weight equals more miles with the same amount of effort. More miles means less food you need to carry to cover the distance, which means less weight and so on. Before you know it, you are traveling light and covering 100 miles efficiently and enjoyably. You smile as you walk, passing the folks not looking so happy carrying those heavy loads and suffering through the 100 mile section in 8-10 days because they decided to go slow and smell the roses, and instead get to camp with sore shoulders, too exhausted to enjoy all those camp comforts. The bottom line is, if you are going to walk any kind of distance, go light. If you are out for the weekend, bring the kitchen sink.

A word of warning to the novice or even semi-experienced backpacker: It generally takes years of experience to fine tune your pack weight down to 10 lbs. or less without food or water. The rule of thumb is that if you feel stressed about leaving something behind, take it along. When you have enough experience to not feel stressed about leaving something behind you may do so. Stress is a huge depletion of your energy reserves and can get you into trouble out on the trail by interfering with sound decision making. For an experienced backpacker with a 10 pound backpack 20 miles from the nearest trailhead, a surprise early season snowstorm that dumps a foot of snow is not a life-threatening situation, just a call to focus and be creative with what you have. An inexperienced person in such a situation would experience panic and debilitating fear that would put them at serious risk of catastrophe. If you want to lighten your pack, buy and read Ray Jardine’s book and move slowly – if you are currently packing with 30 pounds without food and water, shoot for 20 or 25 pounds next year, and 15 to 20 pounds the year after that. The more time you spend out on the trail, the faster you will gain the necessary experience to lighten your load. Happy Trails!

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