How to Eat an Elephant – Preparing for the CDT
One bite at a time.
Not that I would ever eat an elephant, even if I could – I am vegetarian. I first heard of this while training in youth leadership development as a kid. Like eating an elephant, undertaking the daunting challenge of a thru hike can feel overwhelming, so it’s best to take it in baby steps. This approach works both pre-hike, and during the journey, as each mile is a fresh opportunity to tackle new challenges.
Full lighterpack available here.
What’s up, gear nerds? This is the sexy part for which you’ve all been waiting. I’ve acquired most my gear over years of guiding and thru hiking, with some items being staples that have seen thousands of miles of usage. The entire list is broken down in greater detail below:
Backpack: Mountain Laurel Designs Burn 38l
The MLD Burn is a new addition to my gear list. I do love my Osprey Levity 45, but I wanted something a little lighter for this journey. The Burn comes recommended by a few thru hiking friends of mine.
I’ve had my EE Quilt for years and enjoyed it greatly. My alternate – the Western Mountaineering Alpinlite – is an absolute tank, but I think I’ll use the EE for all trips where temps are above freezing moving forward. My plan is to use the Nemo foamie for New Mexico, and probably most of Colorado, before switching to the Therm-a-Rest Neoair Xlite later. I value the versatility in the foamie (with almost half the segments cut off), which I often use for siestas and lunch breaks. The Neoair is an older model, originally the version designed for women, and cuts off at about my knees. My new addition to the sleep system is the Zpacks Duplex, which is infamous among thru hikers already. I’ve been impressed with its easy pitch and roomy floor thus far.
The MSR stove and Toaks cookpot are also new additions for the CDT. They lack the power and functionality of my previous set-ups but are light enough in weight to make up for it in value. I’ve been an Ursack fan since day 1 and carry it in every wilderness area where bear cans are not required by law. Hot take: hikers who complain about Ursacks usually don’t know how to use them properly..
Gossamer Gear’s Lightrek Hiking Umbrella and Garmin’s Inreach Mini 2 are the only non-obvious choices in this section. I’ve lived in Washington State for a few years now and have lost my native-born Californian tolerance for hiking under the blistering sun. The umbrella will help in that regard (the CDT southern terminus is currently 30-40 degrees warmer than Western Washington this spring). My thru hiking career up until this point has been carefree in the first aid department, but as I grow older, I come to appreciate the fragile and freakish nature of health. The Inreach Mini 2 provides peace of mind for my friends and family, while also giving me a loose blanket of security should something awful happen in the backcountry.
These two items have been staples of mine for years. The Helium rain jacket is a beautiful balance of comfort, durability, and efficiency, whereas the Hooded Flash Jacket is perhaps the finest quality down product I own. I’ve taken both on every thru hike I’ve ever been on.
Thru hikes are among the highest echelon of endurance pursuits one can undertake. With that said, fitness is relative: you wouldn’t expect the world’s strongest person to be a talented gymnast, nor would you expect a professional golfer to be a powerful swimmer. Preparing physically, to me, comes down to three components:
Strength: Hiking is hard enough on its own, but carrying the extra weight of a backpack (no matter how UL) makes things significantly harder. It’s important for hikers to undertake some modicum of strength training in order to develop the greater muscle groups of your lower body to increase hiking speed, comfort, and ability to carry greater weights. Strength exercises (particularly to hips, glutes, hamstrings, and quads) also help prevent overuse injuries such as IT-Band Syndrome and lower back pain. Hiking is the best training possible for a thru hike, but free weights and calisthenics add value to any training regimen.
Mobility: Experiencing an overuse injury on trail isn’t an if; it is a when. Keeping joints, ligaments, and muscles limber and flexible is a crucial step to prevent your body from breaking down after the beat-down that is a thru hike. In particular, hips, knees, ankles, and feet maintenance is crucial. I make it a point to listen to my body and massage aches every night.
Endurance: I saved the most obvious point for last. A thru hike like the CDT is over 2,500+ miles long – calling it a marathon, and not a sprint, is an understatement. Most avid hikers can already hike 15+ miles per day, or even the occasional 20, but the real trick is being able to hike 20 miles per day every day and without pain. I spent the better part of a decade getting strong in the weight room. So, while I haven’t had to worry about my ability to carry a heavy backpack, higher mileage has always been something I’ve had to work my way up to gradually, or else I risk injury. That’s why this spring I tried my hand at my first marathon, with hopes to raise my endurance floor and open my capacity to hit 30-mile days more quickly.
I won’t bore you with resupply strategy or budgeting – there are plenty of articles speaking to those points already. Instead, I’d like to take a moment to acknowledge the less convenient aspect of a thru hike: it holds an inherent level of danger. Sure, the possibility that I’ll get struck by lightning or mauled by a bear are ridiculously small, especially if I take steps to mitigate risk, but they are still possibilities. For this reason, it is important to me to have a safety fund in case things go awry, or in the case of a worst-case scenario, a will to leave my loved ones. Finally, I encourage all hikers to develop a communication plan with their support system while on trail. Itineraries are great, but at the least, before you leave it’s crucial to make an effort to tell those important to you how much they mean to you. Hopefully, you’ll see these people again on trail or when you return, but it’s also possible you will never see them again. The hike will be more fulfilling if you take your first steps with peace in your heart.
Long gone are the days when I could throw my possessions into a backpack and hit a long trail without a second thought. These days I’ve exchanged my sleeping pad for a desk chair. My tent has been swapped for an expensive apartment. I spend more time with my car than with my trekking poles. While I ache for the care-free days of a kid in his early 20s, that’s just not the world I live in anymore. Maybe, just maybe, with preparation and careful planning, I can help recapture a glimmer of that life.
See you on the Continental Divide, folks.