One of the most important decisions to make when planning a thru-hike of the Continental Divide Trail is direction of travel, which is a critical component of selecting a start date.
Planning the Continental Divide Trail
In contrast to my Appalachian Trail thru-hike, where I arbitrarily picked a start date of six weeks after deciding to hike the trail; and for my Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike, where a small amount of deliberation brought me to starting on the same date as my AT hike, the CDT requires much more consideration.
The largest weather constraint the CDT brings is snow, which is largely unavoidable due to elevation, location, and the available time window.
If traveling northbound, while there is opportunity for snow at the higher elevations of New Mexico, snow is almost guaranteed in the San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado. Accordingly, the recommended entry date for Colorado is around the first week of June. Once through Colorado, the “deadline” is winter weather in Montana. As with northbound AT and PCT hikes, winter weather suggests completion by mid-September.
If traveling southbound, a start date of between mid-June and mid-July is recommended, depending on snow levels, and in any case, means starting the trail when there’s still snow on the ground in Glacier National Park. One then wants to be far enough south in New Mexico before the higher elevations see snowfall in September and October.
Weighing the Factors
I strongly considered a southbound hike for the CDT. The primary reason in favor was my concern about being able to complete the much longer CDT in the five month window (April through September) that would be required for a northbound hike. (It took me exactly six months to hike the 2650-mile PCT, and being conservative, the CDT would add at least a couple of weeks to that.) However, the average daily distance hikers travel on the CDT is higher than on the PCT, partially because the CDT has a lower rate of elevation change than the PCT. A SOBO hike would also give me a couple extra months to pad out my bank account before starting. And it would also allow my partner, CareFree, to join me at the start of the hike.
However, going northbound presented a number of advantages. It would be consistent with the direction of my AT and PCT hikes. With the CDT being even more exposed than the PCT is, being able to hike while facing away from the sun was also a significant consideration. With either NOBO or SOBO, due to visa and/or job requirements, CareFree wouldn’t be able to join me for the entire trail anyway. And a couple extra months wouldn’t make that significant a difference for my bank account. Most significantly, though, I’m not a huge fan of hiking on snow, and starting in Glacier would mean I’d start off with snow right at the beginning.
All the factors considered, it will definitely be a northbound hike for me.
With that decided, though, the next question becomes, when will I start? If the CDT were like the AT or PCT, that would be a simple matter. But the CDT is different, in that there are multiple possible routes, which vary fairly significantly in total distance. And that needs to be decided (or at least planned for) before deciding when to start.