A Guide to Hiking the Continental Divide

Challenges of Hiking the Continental Divide Trail

Trying to chase a disappearing and often nonexistent trail isn't the only challenge that hikers will encounter on the Continental Divide Trail; they'll also face difficult and often forbidding weather conditions, steep terrain, dangerous wildlife and water shortages. Nobody said the CDT was a piece of cake, and that's partly what gives the few who complete the hike a true sense of accomplishment. Unlike more popular trails, like the Appalachian Trail, very few thru-hikers attempt to hike the entire CDT each year, so you might not encounter many other backpackers on some stretches. That means there is less room for error, because if you make a mistake and find yourself in trouble, there might not be anyone to come rescue you.

The first and most important thing to think about when planning a hike, regardless of the length, is where you'll be able to get fresh drinking water, because out on the trail -- especially at high elevation -- you won't be able to get very far without water. Finding good water is one of the primary challenges that thru-hikers face on the CDT, and because of frequent drought conditions in the Rocky Mountains, the situation isn't likely to improve. Because much of the CDT passes through public lands that are grazed by livestock, experienced CDT hikers have reported difficulty finding water that hasn't been contaminated by farm animals. The best advice is to stock up on water whenever you can find it, and to carry more than you think you'll need [source: Bureau of Land Management].

The weather is always a major intangible when you go on any long-distance hike, especially on the CDT. If you hike the entire trail, you'll be passing through both desert and alpine zones, and you'll likely experience everything from extreme heat to heavy snow, with a few severe thunderstorms sprinkled in for good measure. The key to surviving on the trail is going equipped with the proper gear and knowing when to pack it in when conditions become too treacherous.

Another factor to take into account if you're thinking about tackling the CDT is altitude. Much of the trail is located about 7,000 feet (2,134 meters), and for long stretches of it you'll be hiking above 10,000 feet (3,048 meters). Big mountains are of course what makes this trail exciting, but hiking at high altitude, where the air is thinner and you're closer to the sun, brings a whole new set of challenges. Most people tire faster and need to drink more water at high altitudes. Winds are stronger, and weather systems can blow in swiftly and without warning. And worst of all, hiking at high elevations can also cause altitude sickness, which makes you feel lightheaded and disoriented.

If all of that isn't enough to scare you away from the CDT, maybe this one will: bears. And not those cuddly black bears found on the East Coast. Hikers on the northern stretches of the CDT have been known to encounter grizzly bears, which can be very dangerous. Part of the reason many people are drawn to the trail is the opportunity to view wildlife, but grizzlies are best viewed from a distance [source: AP].