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A Quick Guide to Thru-Hiking the Continental Divide Trail

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The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) spans over 3,100 miles from Mexico to Canada and is one of the most significant trail systems in the world. It’s the highest, most remote, and, in many ways, most challenging of our National Scenic Trails. Thru-hiking the CDT is an adventure of a lifetime, but it’s not for the faint of heart. That said, the effort it takes to overcome the challenges the Trail presents are rewarded with unending panoramic views, deep solitude, and an opportunity to be immersed in true wildness.

Long-distance hiking requires a lot of research, planning, and dedication. We put together this guide to help you get started. Below, you’ll find tips about choosing a start date, buying gear, what to expect on the trail, and so much more.

Have you completed a CDT thru-hike or are you planning to go for it? Let us know in the comments below!

Thru-Hiking The Continental Divide

To thru-hike is to hike the entire length of a long-distance trail within a 12-month period. Each year, a few hundred people attempt to thru-hike the CDT, and not all finish. Unlike other long-distance trails, like the Appalachian Trail or the Pacific Crest Trail, there are lots of variations and route choices on the Continental Divide.

One option is to hike the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDNST), which is a route designated by the US Forest Service. It sticks to the Divide as closely as possible, using a network of trails, dirt roads, and paved roads. The CDNST has gained popularity in recent years due to the availability of GPS tracks and maps, and is an appealing choice for purists or those who prefer a more straightforward route.

The other popular option is the CDT route, which is what we’ll be focusing on in this guide. It’s more of a choose-your-own-adventure-style approach. The CDNST and the CDT often share the same track, but this unofficial trail takes advantage of many alternate routes. The resources we recommend below tell you all you need to know about the popular alternate routes.

Both routes are scenic, remote, and challenging. Neither way is strikingly better than the other and both include some road walking. The route choice is usually made due to weather, resupply needs, fires, trail closures, floods, or wanting to see certain highlights.

Using a Jonathan Ley Map while on an alternate route along the Gila River in New Mexico

CDT By The Numbers

  • 2,700-3,100 – Approximate length in miles depending on route chosen (average is 2,800)
  • 5 – Number of states the CDT traverses
  • 150 – Average number of days it takes to complete a CDT thru-hike
  • 24 – Average daily mileage
  • 457,000 – Approximate elevation gain and loss in feet of the CDT
  • 14,278 – Highest point in feet (Gray’s Peak, CO)
  • 4,200 – Lowest point in feet (Waterton Lake, Alberta)
  • $5000-8000+ – Average on-trail expenses
  • 4-5 – Average pairs of shoes a CDT hiker will go through
Nearing the end of our northbound thru-hike in Glacier National Park

What to Expect on A CDT Thru-Hike

Thru-hiking the CDT is incredibly fun, exciting, and awe-inspiring, but it definitely has some specific challenges. It’s not recommended as a first thru-hike unless you have considerable backpacking experience. Ideally, you’ll have already hiked a long-distance trail with similar challenges, like the Pacific Crest Trail, and you should know how to read a map, use a compass, manage resupplies, and deal with water issues. That said, anyone who does their homework and is determined enough can be successful. No matter your experience level, you might enjoy our 21 Tips for the First Time Thru-Hiker post – it’s packed with good information to help prepare you for a long-distance hike. Here are some common things you’re likely to experience while hiking the CDT:

A dirt road leads through a vast basin of sagebrush in Wyoming


Compared to the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trail, a relatively small number of people attempt to thru-hike the CDT each year. Its popularity is growing, but the reality is, you might not encounter any other backpackers on some stretches. It’s important to be self-sufficient and comfortable with limited social interaction. Lots of hikers combat loneliness with a project (keeping a journal or making videos), reading, and listening to music or podcasts. Solitude can be a beautiful thing. Just make sure to take care of your mental health, have a solid logistical plan, and stay on your toes out there.

A tire used as a watering hole for cattle in New Mexico

Big water carries and dry camping

Water availability on the CDT fluctuates drastically based on your start date, snow pack, and the weather. Generally, sources are far apart and unreliable in the desert. Water can also be inaccessible in the mountains when the trail stays on ridges for long periods. We had to “camel up,” and carry six liters of water to make it 20+ miles between sources on many occasions. Lightweight foldable bladders, like Platy Bottles, come in handy for big water carries. The best advice is to stock up wherever you can, never leave a source thirsty, and carry more than you think you need. There’s no guarantee you’ll find water in a source when you get there. The CDT Water Report is a crowd-sourced resource that can be very helpful. Here are some tips for finding water on the CDT in a dry year.

A muddy pond called a ‘tank’ – common water sources in parts of New mexico and Wyoming

Questionable water sources

CDT hikers should be equipped with a water treatment method that can handle heavily contaminated water. For a good portion of the trail, stock tanks are the main watering holes for both backpackers and livestock. Be mentally prepared to drink from mud puddles full of cow poop to stay hydrated. It’s also common to find dead mice, and lizards in CDT water sources (they were thirsty too). It’s part of the adventure! It’s always a good idea to carry a backup treatment, like Chlorine Dioxide pills, since filters can clog and electronics on UV purifiers can fail. It’s all too easy to pick up a nasty intestinal parasite, like Giardia, while thru-hiking the CDT if you’re not on your A-game. We recommend carrying flavored drink packets to make even the foulest water palatable.

Storms and big temperature swings

The CDT passes through a diverse gamut of climates from hot, dry deserts to cold, alpine tundra. Desert temps can fluctuate by as much as 60 degrees from daytime to nighttime. You might need to seek shade and rest during the heat of the day, then contend with freezing temps soon after the sun goes down. The weather also changes very quickly in the Rockies and CDT hikers should expect frequent storms. Spring and summer are monsoon season in the southern states, and torrential rain, hail, and lightning can happen anytime. Be ready for anything even if the forecast calls for good weather. To us, the rapidly-changing weather was exciting, but we were really glad to have our warm down jackets and solid rain gear (including umbrellas).

Post-holing can happen with or without snowshoes in soft snowpack

Snow travel

Snow travel requires excellent navigation skills and a bit of extra gear including an ice axe, snowshoes and/or Microspikes. It burns a ton of calories too, so make sure you plan for a raging metabolism (aka hiker hunger). Whichever direction you hike, you’ll encounter some steep slopes and avalanche terrain with unstable snowpack. Check out our video tutorial on Crossing Snow and Ice Axe Self-Arrest.

Navigating cross-country with a compass in a sparsely-blazed section in New Mexico

Navigation challenges & tools

Though there’s a lot more signage now than there used to be on many parts of the CDT, the frequency and appearance of blazes is very inconsistent. Because of this, you’ll have to pay pretty close attention to your maps or GPS to avoid getting off track. CDT thru-hikers should be confident in their way-finding skills; it’s common to use a combination of maps (or even two sets of maps) with a compass, GPS, and a smartphone with a navigation app for redundancy. This may seem like overkill, but these tools will all come in handy at various times. You’ll be happy you have them when you need them.

A high mountain pass in Colorado

High altitude

There are long stretches of the CDT that stay above 10,000 feet in Colorado, which means you’ll have epic panoramic views for weeks. Unfortunately, the sustained high altitude also means Acute Mountain Sickness – commonly known as altitude sickness or AMS – can be an issue. It’s common to feel more tired than usual, have a mild headache, or to feel like you need to breathe deeper to fill your lungs at these heights.See our How to Train for Hiking & Backpacking Trips Guide for more tips for high altitude hiking success.

Making a sign is helpful when trying to hitchhike


Hitchhiking is part of the adventure for most CDT thru-hikers since many of the towns used for resupply are a very long way from trailheads or highway crossings. We’ve accepted many rides from strangers over multiple thru-hikes and have seen a lot of good in people. We’re really grateful for our positive experiences with hitchhiking, but we definitely recommend being cautious. Never get in a car if it doesn’t feel right. Say you left something in the woods that you need to go back for, tell the car to go on without you, and walk away – you don’t want to take an unnecessary risk. Always stay aware of your surroundings and, if possible, have a partner with you if you must hitchhike. Many of the topics above are covered in more detail in our 20 Tips for Backpacking in the Desert Guide.

One of the nicer flowing water sources in New Mexico


Good planning starts with the right resources. We’ll send you in the right direction to the most popular books, maps, websites, and tools below. We’ll also walk you through the basics of choosing a direction and start date, getting permits, and more.

posing for a photo at the CDT’s Southern Terminus Monument


Most hikers use the following resources to plan their hikes:

Most popular maps/navigation tools (we used all of these on our CDT thru-hike):

NM is a good warm up for harder terrain up north

Choosing a direction

Choosing which direction you want to go really depends on your style, schedule, and what you want to get out of the hike. Most people hike northbound (NOBO) on the CDT, but southbounding (SOBO) is gaining popularity. Here are some things to consider when making your decision.

  • NOBOPros: Can be more social/less solitary, overall temps are generally warmer, NM is a good warm up for harder terrain up north, hiking CO in wildflower season, ending in Glacier NP feels more epicCons: Heat in Southern NM, summer thunderstorms in CO (June/July), need to reach Glacier NP before snow begins in fall, can be less solitary/more social
  • SOBOPros: There’s less rush to finish, aspens turning gold in CO, avoid thunderstorms in CO, more solitary/less social, hiking MT in wildflower season, cooler temps in NMCons: Decreasing daylight every day, trail is difficult right out of the gate (no warm up), cold nighttime temps in CO and NM, need to be through NM before snow begins in fall, can be less social/more solitary, the southern terminus isn’t as epic as the northern one (still exciting though)
  • Flip-flop – A “flip flop” hike is a good option for hikers who wish to avoid as much snow travel as possible. There are multiple flip-flop options. The CDT Planning Guide does an excellent job of explaining the most popular flip-flop methods.
Sitting in the shade of a large boulder to be the mid-afternoon Heat in Southern New mexico

Picking a start date

In a normal snow year, NOBOs start mid-April through mid-May. The goal is to get through Southern New Mexico while temps aren’t unbearably hot, and to arrive at the Colorado border just as the snowpack becomes more manageable. NOBO hikers will generally want to reach the Canadian border by late September before snow starts to blanket the Northern Rockies.

SOBOs start later – mid-June to early July – since they’ll have to wait for the snowpack to melt in Glacier National Park and the high mountain passes of Montana. SOBOs generally want to be through the San Pedro Parks in New Mexico by November.

You’ll need a permit in all National Parks, including magnificent Yellowstone


There’s no long-distance permit to thru-hike the CDT, but you’ll need to obtain some permits for certain areas along the way. Planning ahead helps, but walk-in permits are usually easy to obtain. The CDT Planning Guide gives all the contact info and details, but we’ll outline the basics:

  • National Parks – You’ll need permits to camp in Glacier, Yellowstone, and Rocky Mountain National Park. Click the links for more info. Some parks require bear cans, restrict mileage, etc.
  • New Mexico State Lands Permit – This is required to hike in NM. It costs $35 and is good for a year. Apply for one on the CDTC website.
  • Blackfeet Reservation – You need a permit to recreate on the Blackfeet Reservation. Get your permit here.
  • Indian Peaks Wilderness – The CDT skirts the boundary of this wilderness area, only entering it for a few miles. You only need a permit if you plan to camp in this area, and you can get it here.
  • Wilderness Self-Service Permits – Some wilderness areas have kiosks where you can obtain a required self-issue permit for free.
One of many arrowheads we found along the CDT

Familiarize yourself with LNT

As long distance trail hiking becomes more popular, it’s more important now than ever to help minimize your impact on the environment. Make sure you know and practice the Leave No Trace Principles during your hike. For an in-depth look at what the principles mean for backpackers, check out our Leave No Trace video.

CDT thru-hikers go through an average of 4-5 pairs of trail running shoes


We can’t emphasize enough how important budgeting is and how potentially difficult it can be; many people have to end their hikes early due to running out of money. The average thru-hiker spends $2-$3 per mile (between $5,000 & $8000) during a hike on the CDT for things like motel rooms, food, drinks, and replacing gear. This doesn’t include the initial investment in gear which can set you back anywhere from $0-$5,000+ depending on what gear you have and need (more on this below). For some great tips to make your budget go further, check out our 21 Tips for Backpacking On a Budget post.

There’s a lot to do before you embark on a thru-hike, but it’s all worth it once you get out there

Putting your regular life on hold

Leaving “regular life” behind for five or six months is a big commitment and can be a real challenge. If this is your first thru-hike, you might find it helpful to check out our Quick Guide to Thru-Hiking the PCT or Quick Guide to Thru-Hiking the AT, which go into more detail about the following tasks you’ll need to do:

  • Quit your job/take a leave of absence
  • Autopay your bills
  • Make arrangements for pets
One of our favorite signs in Colorado

Physical prep

Not much can prepare you for hiking thousands of miles over rugged terrain besides just doing it, but training can definitely help. Many people find that their bodies quickly adapt to conditions on the trail once they get started hiking since the difficulty builds gradually (for NOBOs). If you’re SOBO, you’ll probably want to get a little prep in before your start date. Check out our How to Train for Hiking & Backpacking Trips Guide for some great tips to get your body primed for a CDT thru-hike.

A sign along the CDT reviewing the hazards


By the numbers, you’re generally much more safe on a thru-hiking trail than in a big city. Being prepared and knowing what to look out for is important no matter where you are, though, so here are a few tips to get you started.

Dangers CDT thru-hikers should learn to minimize the risk of:

  • Giardia
  • Dehydration
  • Exposure (heat exhaustion/stroke and hypothermia)
  • Overuse injuries
  • Rattlesnake bites
  • Grizzly bear attacks
  • Avalanches
  • Drowning; sketchy river crossings
  • Lightning strikes
Using some water from a muddy rut to cool off to avoid heat exhaustion in the desert

Make a rough itinerary

Do your best to plan out goals for miles per day, town stops for zeros (rest days where you don’t hike), and resupplies before you go. This not only allows you to set a goal for finishing and plan logistics, but you can share it with loved ones at home for their peace of mind. In our experience, friends and family really appreciated being included in the planning process.

A remote section of trail in the Wind RIver Range, WYoming

Consider carrying a personal locator beacon (PLB)

PLBs are a great safety net in case the worst should happen. If you injure yourself or find yourself in a dangerous situation, help is just a button press away. Most PLBs allow friends and family back home to follow your hike on a map in real time which is just plain fun. Our favorite PLB is the Garmin InReach Mini 2 – it uses top-notch satellite systems and has useful features like on-device mapping and two-way texting. If you’re looking for something more affordable, the less feature-rich Spot Gen4 also gets the job done.

Hiking behind a deer in Glacier National Park


There’s a lot of wildlife on the CDT, and most encounters are exciting and enjoyable. You’ll probably see deer, elk, bears, and wild turkeys frequently. If you’re lucky, you might also get a chance to see mountain goats, moose, and wolves. Here are some critters to keep a more cautious eye out for:

A lethargic rattlesnake on the trail in New Mexico


Rattlesnakes are venomous and they’re abundant on certain parts of the CDT. It’s good to have a healthy fear of rattlers, but there’s no reason to be petrified. The chances of being bitten by a snake are very slim. Be aware of your surroundings, scan the trail in front of you, and you’ll be fine. If you do scare up a snake, stay calm and back away slowly. Snakes usually move out of the way once you give them some space. If a snake doesn’t move, bushwhack around it, giving it plenty of room. If you still have questions, check out our video on Snake & Cougar Safety for more info.

A curious chipmunk trying to get a snack


Mice, chipmunks, and squirrels will keep you company along the entire length of the CDT. Make sure to store your food properly or you’ll surely wake up in the night to the scuffling sounds of these night robbers chewing holes in your gear and helping themselves to your precious supplies. Mice also carry disease and can be a real problem near human-made structures like cabins and picnic shelters.

We encountered grizzly bears four times in Glacier National Park, but only saw signs of them in other areas


Bears are ever-present on the CDT. You’ll only encounter black bears on the southern half of the Trail, which pose little threat to humans. Grizzly bear country roughly spans from Wyoming to Canada. These bears can be dangerous and extra precautions should be taken when hiking in their territory. The most important things you can do to protect yourself (and ultimately, the bears) is to carry bear spray and have the ability to hang your food. Check out our post on the Facts and Myths of Bear Encounters for more info. You might also like our post, Does Bear Spray Really Work?

A moose grazing in the distance


Moose can be seen foraging along the trail from Colorado north. If you notice signs of beaver habitat, you’re probably also in moose-country. Moose are massive, powerful animals. They’re not aggressive, but they’ll charge if they feel threatened. Do not approach moose. If a moose is blocking the trail (which they do frequently), go around it, giving it a wide berth. If a moose chases you, hide behind a tree or other large object. They have a hard time figuring out how to get around.

Horny toads are friendly enough, though grumpy looking


Most hikers do a combination of shopping along the way and mailing boxes of food and supplies to themselves. We’ll go over the main pros and cons of each strategy below, but generally we recommend shopping in bigger towns and sending boxes to more remote locations. Because there are so many variables in route-planning, resupply isn’t as straightforward for the CDT as it is for other long trails. We won’t go into full detail here, but Yogi’s Continental Divide Trail Handbook is a popular resource for planning CDT resupply. There’s also a free online tool for printing CDT Mailing Labels for resupply boxes.

We prepared and mailed a lot of our food because we don’t enjoy shopping and repackaging food in trail towns much


Pros: Possibility of having more variety/being healthier, easier for those with dietary restrictions, less work and stress in trail towns, an opportunity for a friend or family member to be involved, making your own food can be fun

Cons: A lot of initial work and planning, you have to keep track of/work with local post office schedules, extra expense of shipping, might be stuck with too much, too little, or food you’re tired of

A few days’ RESUPPLY purchased at a fairly well-stocked convenience store


Pros: Ability to choose what you want when you want it, supports local communities along the trail, avoids shipping costs, no help needed (better option for international hikers)

Cons: Food options can be limited or poor quality (gas stations and dollar stores), more work/stress in trail towns, can be expensive in certain places, lots of packaging and excess food to get rid of

Some hikers don’t prepare anything ahead of time. Instead, they shop in the towns with the best stores and send boxes ahead to themselves wherever needed.

Shopping opportunities are limited or non-existent in some trail towns along the CDT

We recommend sending mail drops to these places since shopping opportunities are limited or non-existent:

  • Pie Town, NM
  • Ghost Ranch, NM
  • Doc Campbell’s, NM
  • Leadore, ID (Bannock Pass)
  • South Pass City or Atlantic City, WY (right next to each other)
  • Lima, MT
  • Encampment, WY (Battle Pass)
  • East Glacier Village, MT
  • Twin Lakes, CO
  • Old Faithful Village, WY (Yellowstone)
  • Brooks Lake Lodge, WY
  • Benchmark Wilderness Ranch, MT
Taking a “dinner break” in grizzly country on the side of a dirt road


Consider your gear and clothing choices carefully for a CDT thru-hike. The gear that worked for you on another backpacking trip or thru-hike might not be adequate for the CDT. It’s a cold trail, and you’ll definitely need a tent or shelter you’re confident using in heavy rain and strong winds. You’ll also want a quality sleeping bag or quilt (most people go with 15 or 20 degree), a warm down jacket, and solid rain gear. Check out our Ultimate Backpacking Checklist to start assessing what you have and what you might need to thru-hike the CDT.

Here are some of our favorite gear items to thru-hike with.



We loved the interior space of the Six Moon Designs Lunar Duo on our CDT thru-hike

Sleeping Bag

Sleeping Pad

Camp Kitchen

Water System

Filling a water bottle at the Gila River in New Mexico


Learn the basics: Backpacking & Hiking Clothing 101: Tips for Creating the Perfect Ultralight Clothing System



The MSR Lightning Ascents are the snowshoes we wish we had for some sections of the CDT

Other Small Items


Thru-hikers must choose calorie- and protein-rich foods that are lightweight and affordable. For some ideas of great hiker foods, check out our Best Backpacking Foods Guide, our guide to making your own backpacking meals, and our Best Freeze Dried Backpacking Meals list.

Armed with bear spray, a GPS, and an umbrella on the CDT

CDT Regions Quick Facts

The CDT is divided into 4 sections. It travels through a multitude of diverse landscapes, weather, and challenges. Below, we’ll outline a handful of fun facts about each section.

Need a visual? Follow along with this CDNST Interactive Map.

Hiking among the vivid colors and towering rock walls of Northern New Mexico

New Mexico – 820 miles

  • New Mexico, the “Land of Enchantment”, is full of rich Native American, Hispanic, and western culture
  • The Southern New Mexican desert is arid, but full of intriguing plants (sage,ocotillo, prickly pear, cholla, datura, and piñon pine) and animals (lizards, snakes, cows, coyote, and wild horses)
  • Daytime temps can reach over 100℉, while nighttime temps can be below freezing
  • Pie Town was settled during the Dust Bowl as a pit stop for travelers to grab a slice of pie. Decades later, the Pie-O-Neer pie shop keeps the tradition alive
  • The CDT crosses an expansive lava flow, El Malpais, and shares a path with the old Zuni-Acoma trade route
  • Mount Taylor is visible from up to 100 miles away
A thunderhead building over The Divide in Colorado

Colorado – 740 miles

  • A lot of the CDT in Colorado stays high and follows the peaks and ridges of the physical Continental Divide, where the trail offers constant incredible views of alpine meadows, moraine lakes, seas of mountains, and valleys below
  • Altitude sickness (AMS) can be problematic for some in this area
  • NOBOs will have to contend with afternoon thunderstorms and lightning
  • The Trail passes numerous derelict cabins, historic ghost towns, and mining operations
  • Grays Peak (14,270 ft.) is the highest point not only along the CDT, but also on any National Scenic Trail.
  • Before entering WY, the Trail loops though Rocky Mountain National Park and the awe-inspiring Zirkels in the Medicine Bow and Routt National Forests
Hiking through the Jaw-dropping Wind River Range

Wyoming – 500 miles

  • The CDT crosses the Great Divide Basin, a vast flat area where water doesn’t drain to any ocean
  • There are some very long dry stretches and road walks in WY
  • The craggy Wind River Range and Teton Wilderness are natural wonders and highlights of the CDT
  • The Green River at the south end of the Wind River Range roughly marks the boundary of grizzly bear country
  • The CDT coincides with the Oregon Trail wagon route and passes through South Pass City, a well-preserved pioneer town that serves as a museum
  • The Trail passes through Yellowstone National Park, a true geological wonder of the world and wildlife haven
Camping at Red Eagle Lake in Glacier National Park

Montana & Idaho – 1,030 miles

  • The CDT edges along the Idaho-Montana border through the BeaverheadDeerlodge National Forest and into the Bitterroot Range, where it intersects the Nez Perce Trail
  • The CDT covers about 110 miles of ground in Glacier National Park, where grizzly bears and mountain goats roam among the incredibly steep mountains and rock monoliths
  • After traversing some of the most remote country Glacier has to offer, the CDT heads down the Waterton Valley River to the northern terminus and Canadian border at Goat Haunt
Celebrating at the CDT’s Northern Terminus

Get Involved

The CDT truly is an amazing footpath and it took monumental effort to turn it from a dream into a reality. Every year, the Continental Divide Trail Coalition, Continental Divide Trail Society, and US Forest Service work hard to maintain and protect the trail for recreation. Here are a few ways you can help and get involved:

Thru-hiking the CDT is a big challenge with big rewards, and we hope this guide helps you plan a successful hike. If we missed anything or you want to share your own CDT experience, leave us a comment below!