What is the Continental Divide Trail?

The Continental Divide Trail (CDT) is a foot trail stretching from Canada to Mexico through the Rocky Mountains.  This spans the length of the Mountain Time Zone (UTC−06 or UTC-07) in the continental U.S.  

The trail runs through Montana, Wyoming, Idaho (only for a little bit), Colorado, and New Mexico.  The trail is ~85% complete, and estimated at somewhere between 2,500-3,100mi.  A complete end-to-end hike is called a “thruhike”*.  

Note*: I know that “thru” to mean “through” is the essentially the same thing as writing “nite”, “kwik”, “cheez” or “krispy”.  While I’m a big fan of properly spelled words, I’m going to bow to convention here.  

What about the Appalachian Trail?  Or the Pacific Crest Trail?  Why not do those?

Because we did them already.  And can't get enough.

I'm going to grossly overgeneralize here, but most people start with the AT.  And if they really get the bug, try the PCT.  After that, the truly touched in the head hike all three.  And usually in that order.  There is something habit-forming about long distance hiking, and anything but the crown jewels of U.S. hiking won't do.

I've heard it said that the AT is college, the PCT is your masters, and the CDT is your PhD.  

Did you say 'jewels'?  What's a triple crown?

Collectively, the three major long distance hikes in the U.S. is known as the "triple crown".  This is a relatively rare feat, and I would guess that there are fewer than 500 triple crowners.  Though obscure, the meme of the triple crown has really arrived, and has its own wikipedia entry
How long will this take?

Most thruhikes take 4-6 months.  The AT is the shortest (~2,200mi), and usually takes ~6 months.  The PCT is longer (~2,700mi), and usually takes ~5 months.  The CDT (~2,500-3,100) usually takes ~4-5 months.

Of course, some trips are faster, and some are slower but the above estimates are in the ballpark.

For triple crowners, this means that they have had the privilege of spending ~1.5 years hiking the most beautiful parts of the U.S.

How did you find the time to take off?  

There's no good time to take 6 months out of your life to go (mostly) off the grid.  There are bad times and worse times.  It's always difficult to leave your life, but it is possible, especially if you have supportive families, understanding employers, and are at a natural break in your career (e.g., finishing school).  

So you're not hobos? Are you vagrants or something? 

Yes, we are vagrants, but only on the trail.  Nothing like a can of beans warmed by a tire  fire.  Among our most hobo-ish highlights:

  • Sleeping under a highway underpass because there was too much snow to go on.  (This is very loud)
  • Being mistaken for a homeless person by another homeless person. "Looks like you had a rough week.  Can I get you some coffee?"
  • Non-verbal, unsolicited donation of an ice cream sandwich from a suburban family in Lake Tahoe

This may be hard to believe, but away from the trail, we are civic-minded, law-abiding, tax-paying citizens.  We have jobs, go to school, have friends and family.  

Was it worth it to go hobo-ing for so long?

Unequivocally, yes.  If you've ever thought about hiking a long distance trail, then you should do it.   Someday soon.  ASAP.

Hiking the trail is the single best thing I've ever done, and the most life changing.  A few things I've learned:
  • Perspective: Some things are unchangeable (e.g., weather, the height of the next mountain), and you must adapt, and show humility and patience.  Otherwise, your'e railing against the wind and driving yourself nuts
  • Generosity: Meeting complete strangers is always a highlight for me.  Being a city slicker, it restores my  faith in humanity to interact on such an intimate level with people who just want to connect, talk, give you a ride to town, etc.  
  • Teamwork: Hiking a long distance trail with other people is a 5 month exercise in small group dynamics.  We spend a lot of time together, and make critical decisions about distances to travel, where we camp, etc.  It's like a mobile caravan Real World.  We don't always agree, so we do invest the time to process.  That said, I wouldn't have it any other way--travelling with the trail family (sobohobos) is always worth the occasional grief

What's up with your mom? Why did she name you "Steiner"?

Don't talk about my mom! She's a nice lady.  She's a naming iconoclast.

Actually, on the trail, we use our 'trail names'.  

What's a trail name?

According to wikipedia, a trail name is a 'psuedonym' customary to the thruhiking subculture.  Trail names are usually earned or bestowed on the trail. Typically, they refer to an important or memorable experience on long distance hikes, such as the AT, PCT or CDT.  Hikers will introduce themselves, and refer to each other by their trail names.  The custom is so ingrained that on the AT, hikers will sign registers (notebooks stored at waypoints like shelters) with their trail names, instead of their given names.

I've heard this began in the 1970s to protect female hikers from unwanted stalkers, by making the hiker's gender unclear.

There isn't always a lot of agreement on trail names.  Here are some of my general (but not universally agreed upon) rules on trail names:  
  • Trail names are used on the trail, preferred to real names 
  • Trail names cannot be chosen by the hiker, they must be given.  However they can be rejected if deemed unsuitable
  • Trail names can be rejected by the hiker
Earning a trail name is one of the rites of passage of long distance hiking.  We all wear ours with pride, ridiculous as they are.  

And still, some people continue on the trail without trail names, ignoring the custom.

What are some other examples of trail names? 

One of our best friends from the AT, Bouie, had the nickname from his mom.  Frogger was incredible at river crossings.  Sock lost a sock while rinsing in river one day.  It wasn't a memorable experience, but I think the hiker community had decided that he had gone too long without a name, and it was high time he had one.  

One of my favorite trail names from the '05 AT Northbounders is "Celine Dion Sanders".  I always love a good portmanteau.

How many people attempt the CDT every year?

The CDT is the most obscure, and least known of the big three trails.  The number of attempted thruhikers declines in order of magnitude from the AT to the CDT, and follows Zipf's law
  • AT: 10^3 * n
  • PCT: 10^2 * n
  • CDT: 10^1 * n
Where n = {2,3,..8}

So, compared to the thousands on the AT (known as the "herd"), there will likely be in the high tens of us on the CDT together.  The latest count is on the 2013 CDT facebook page, is ~110, which does break my rule above.  But its just a relative measure.  

What do you eat on the trail?  Do you just live off the fat of the land?

I wish.  Reading all those Jack London, Hatchet, My Side of the Mountain books as a child, I thought that the woods was just a cornucopia of berries, nuts and delicious bounty.  That is not the case, at least for a city slicker like me with no foraging or hunting skills.

So, what Gangles and I end up eating is mostly quick to reconstitute foods, dehydrated or freeze-dried.  I could wax on this topic for hours, since thruhikers are universally hungry and always interested in food.  

No, really.  What do you eat?

While hiking all day (~15-25mi per day, 8-16 hours on foot), I've heard that we burn an estimated 4,000-6,000 calories per day.  So, we're pretty darn hungry.  A typical day could look like:

  • Breakfast - coffee  one of the following
    • Instant oatmeal or grits
    • Bagels with cream cheese, cheese, peanut butter, etc.
    • Granola or breakfast cereal with powdered milk
  • Bar 1- one of the following
  • Lunch - protein + starch
    • Protein: tuna fish (+ mustard, mayo), sliced pepperoni, cheese, peanut butter
    • Starch: Tortilla, crackers, pita bread, and other robust, durable baked goods
  • Snack 2: See snack 1
  • Throughout day snacks:
    • Potato or corn chips - perfect mix of salt, carbs and fat
    • Trail mix / GORP
  • Dinner (preferred brand)
    • Mac n' cheese (Kraft preferred)
    • Stuffing (hard to beat Stove Top)
    • Mashed potatoes (instant, Idahoan preferred)
    • Quesadillas - if a good cooking rock is available near the campfire
    • Pasta or Rice sides (Knorr's)
    • Mountain House meals - on a splurge
    • Couscous
    • Ramen
  • Before bed - need calories to burn or will be cold in the sleeping bag:
    • Mini candy bar
    • 1 spoonful of nutella
    • 1 cookie

How about a memorable meal?

On the AT there's the half gallon challenge (eating a half gallon at the halfway point at Pine Grove Furnace, PA).  And on the PCT, the 5 pancake challenge at the Seiad Valley cafe in the state of Jefferson.  But, let's ask  Gangles:
While hiking to Burney Falls in California, we heard from a hiker going southbound, that Burney was one of the rare tourist destinations with a camp-store. Powered by the desire for soda, we ran the second half of the day in order to hit the store before it closed. We quickly realized that this was not just any store; this was equivalent to a trail Neimen Marcus. This place even had a microwave and ice cream machine! My dinner that night was 1 Hungry Man XXL meatloaf meal, 2 ham & cheese Hot Pockets, 1 generic frozen chicken burrito, 2 cans of Sprite,1 hot chocolate made with butter (now that’s a luxury good!) , 1 ice cream Sundae with huckleberry sauce, and a popsicle. Writing this now, that sounds like the worse meal ever. At the time, it was complete bliss. I guess it is all comes down to expectations.

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