Suitably contemplative-looking pose. I am really thinking “Where the heck am I?” or “I hope my three liters of water does not fall out!”
On July 1, 2006, I was at the northern terminus of the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) located in Glacier National Park. A long brown path lead before me… taking me wherever I chose. In this case, I chose the Mexican border at Antelope Wells. Four months and many footsteps later, I arrived.
My journey on the Continental Divide Trail was perhaps the most difficult of all the long trails I’ve hiked, and perhaps the most frustrating as well. It is a trail that is not completed, involves frequent route finding, and is still rough around the edges.
The CDT was also perhaps the most rewarding of the trails I’ve hiked:
- I saw a grizzly bear in the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
- I heard the howl of wolves in the wild.
- I cherish a memory of being on top of Temple Pass in the Winds one glorious morning.
- I stood on a ridge in Montana and Idaho and saw NOTHING around but for the mountains.
- I looked over the snow-covered Colorado Rockies and again fell in love with my chosen home.
- I caught the most intense sunrise of my life in New Mexico, as I started my last full day on the trail.
The rawness, intensity, wildness, and the rough edges are indeed what made my time on the trail so rewarding.
Why the Continental Divide Trail?
It would be misleading to deny that part of the allure of doing the CDT was finishing the Triple Crown of backpacking. It certainly was an achievement worth striving for. Being able to complete the Appalachian, Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails was more than just having a tchotchke on my wall, however. The real reward was being able to experience living in the mountains for months at time not once, not twice, but three times. I feel fortunate to have had the time, money, health, and desire to have extended outdoor journeys.
And how to spend time in the outdoors? By hiking through my adopted home in the West.
Far different from the dense hardwoods, green cover, and crowded spaces of my native Rhode Island, there is something about the wide open spaces and austere beauty found in the western landscape that appeals to me. I now consider Colorado and surrounding areas my home.
And what better way to see my adopted home then to walk it one step at a time?
The Gear Used
After many years and miles of backpacking, I have become a minimalist in terms of the gear I use. I prefer this term to ‘ultralight’ or ‘lightweight,’ as it is more reflective of my philosophy. I take only the gear I need for a given trip for my own personal comfort, safety, and fun levels. The emphasis is not on the most expensive (or even the lightest) gear, but the gear that does the job for me and does it well for a particular trip. Some of my gear and clothing is from MontBell, some of it is from the Army surplus store.
On the CDT, my base pack weight hovered around 9 pounds. The ubiquitous blue foam pad from XYZ Mart, a lightweight aluminum pot from the thrift store and a polyester dress shirt comprise my kit. On social backpacking trips (more camping, less hiking) the base pack weight is heavier (a box of wine adds weight!).
Overall, my gear reflects how I enjoy the outdoors: I use the gear to spend time in the outdoors. I don’t spend time in the outdoors to use gear. Keep it simple. Make it work. Let me enjoy myself. And my gear for the CDT allowed me to spend four wonderful months walking the backbone.
Below is a glimpse at my evolving gear list to give you an idea of how I went from traditional backpacker to a more minimalist (some would say ‘dirt bagger!’) approach for the CDT.
|Vermont’s Long Trail 1997||Appalachian Trail 1998||Vermont’s Long Trail 1999||Pacific Crest Trail 2002||Colorado Trail 2004||Continental Divide Trail 2006|
|BACKPACK||EMS 5500 (1996 Model)||EMS 5500 (1996 Model)||Camp Trails Scirroco (3500 CI)||LWGEAR – One Pound Pack (all mesh)||LWGEAR – One Pound Pack (all mesh)||Six Moon Designs Essence (2006 Version)|
|SHELTER||Walrus Swift||Walrus Swift||Walrus Swift||Campmor 8×10 Silnylon Tarp||Oware 5×7 SilNylon Tarp||Six Moon Designs Gatewood Cape|
|SLEEPING BAG||Feathered Friends Hummingbird||Feathered Friends Hummingbird||Feathered Friends Hummingbird||Feathered Friends Hummingbird||Feathered Friends Hummingbird||Feathered Friends Hummingbird|
|SLEEPING PAD||Z-Rest||Z-Rest||Z-Rest||Z-Rest||Z-Rest (cut down)||Generic blue foam pad (cut down)|
|COOKING||MSR Alpine Cookset||MSR Alpine Cookset||K-Mart Alum Pot||K-Mart Alum Pot (a little beat up)||K-Mart Alum Pot (really beat up)||K-Mart Alum Pot (a friend says it should be thrown away!)|
|MSR Whisperlite||MSR Whisperlite||Alcohol Stove||Alcohol Stove||Alcohol Stove||Alcohol Stove|
|HYDRATION||2x Nalgene Bottles||2x Nalgene Bottles||2x Gatorade bottles||2x Gatorade Bottles||2x Gatorade Bottles||2x Gatorade Bottles|
|1-gallon Plastic jug||Nalgene Cantene||Nalgene Cantene||Nalgene Cantene||Nalgene Cantene|
|PUR Microfilter||Polar Pure||Polar Pure||Polar Pure||MP-1 Tabs||Iodine Tabs|
|JACKET||Generic Fleece Pullover||Generic Fleece Pullover||Generic Fleece Pullover||Marmot Driclime Windshirt||Marmot Driclime Windshirt||MontBell Light Shell Jacket|
|RAINWEAR||Windpants||Windpants||Windpants||Windpants||MontBell UL Rainpants||MontBell UL Rainpants|
|PVC Rainjacket||PVC Rainjacket||Generic Nylon Rainjacket||Generic Nylon Rainjacket||GoLite Wisp||GoLite Wisp|
|FOOTWEAR||LL Bean Cresta Hikers||LL Bean Cresta Hikers||Asolo 535s||various running/trail shoes||Nike Air Pegasus||various running/trail shoes|
|BASE PACK WEIGHT (estimated)||30 lbs||28 lbs
(weighed at Boiling Springs ATC office)
|17 lbs||13 lbs||10 lbs
(I had a digital scale for this kit)
(I had a digital scale for this kit)
- I did not include most of my clothing, as that has changed very little from 1997. I still hike in shorts, wear generic polypro, and wear a synthetic hat. I may wear a long sleeve shirt, wear sunglasses, and/or use a boonie hat for sun protection. I also use running socks with lighter footwear. Other than that, my clothing hasn’t changed much.
- I used the same sleeping bag from 1997 until 2006. It really is worth paying more money for a good bag, and I did put some new down in it after the PCT. After the CDT, it was time for a new bag.
- Also not included are the weights of sundry items that were reduced because of equipment used. (A plastic bottle vs. a metal bottle for fuel, for example.)
- My full gear list reflects my May 2009 gear.
Looking over my list, you can see a big drop from my AT gear to my Long Trail 1999 gear. After humping a 50-pound pack over the mountains for over 2,000 miles, I vowed to NEVER DO THAT AGAIN!
My shorter hikes (the Long Trail and the Colorado Trail) were used to refine my techniques a bit. My current gear list is more or less reflective of my 2002 PCT gear list, but with refinements: frameless pack, down bag, trail shoes instead of boots, alcohol stove, and aluminum pot. I can picture doing all my future long walks with my PCT 2002 gear. I would not want to do any of my long walks with my AT 1998 gear!
After the Long Trail in 1999, there was a gradual decline in my base pack weight. I am at the point where I can only get lower if I spend more money for shaving ounces rather than pounds and/or going more minimalist and choosing my seasons with care. It gets to the point that I have to ask myself how much money and effort is worth spending to lose more weight in my pack? I’m lazy and not very motivated, mind you! :)
Start of the trail in Glacier National Park. Obviously, the trail must be well marked all the way to Mexico!
Home-sweet-home for four months. A Gatewood Cape was quick to set up, simple to use, and worked well for my ‘hike all day and camp less’ style of backpacking.
Heart Lake in Yellowstone reminded me of Maine.
Temple Pass in the Winds. This is why we backpack.
I loved the expansiveness of the Great Divide Basin. The Oregon Buttes were a landmark for many pioneers on the Oregon Trail.
Zirkel Wilderness, Colorado. I’m back home!
Sometimes my favorite memories are the more subtle ones, like aspen leaves on the trail.
The snow-covered mountains foretold an early winter, but the views were stunning.
Peeking out from my snow-covered shelter. Winter did come early! (Sept 21!)
Snow in the San Juans.
Interesting trail markers on the CDT in New Mexico!
Still autumn in the lower elevations of New Mexico.
One of the reasons northern New Mexico was one of the highlights of the CDT for me.
Windmills are important to any CDT hiker in New Mexico!
Not on the “official” CDT, but the history buff in me could not pass up the Gila Wilderness and the cliff dwellings.
My last full day on the trail started with this sunrise over the Hatchitas.
At the Mexican border after four months, 2,500+ miles, six pairs of shoes and many Snickers bars!
Any person who hikes the long trails is asked “Why go?” There are many answers: the physical challenge, being immersed in the wilderness for months at a time, the joy of seeing new sights every day, the camaraderie of people we meet along the way.
Ultimately, the reason I go is for the journey itself.
I hiked the CDT during the bicentennial of the Lewis and Clark expedition. When I finished the CDT, the words of Meriwether Lewis during his own travels in Montana came to mind: “As we passed on, it seemed as those scenes of visionary enchantment would never have an end.”
I think that is why many of us walk the long trails: to continue the scenes of visionary enchantment. We don’t want them to end.
And we hope to see them again in the future.