Photo provided by Dahn Pratt
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Embrace the Punctuality: Thru-Hiking the CDT on a Time-Crunch

Dahn thru-hiked the CDT in 95 days in between spending six weeks off-trail at four different weddings.

Dahn Pratt      Trip Report       06/05/2020
Dahn Pratt
Trip Report
06/05/2020

From late June to early November 2019 I thru-hiked the Continental Divide Trail from Canada to Mexico. Although the time frame of six months looks rather ordinary, I only spent 95 days on-trail, spending six weeks off-trail at four weddings. Getting off the trail for two major breaks made for an interesting and unconventional thru-hiking experience. I learned a lot about myself and my hiking preference from this frenzied hike.

The CDT has a reputation for being a suffer-fest in comparison to other national scenic trails in the United States, often referred to as the PhD of thru-hiking. To complete the trail in under 100 days necessitated averaging over 32 miles a day through often challenging terrain and weather conditions. Perhaps the most difficult part was spending a majority of the time completely alone. Solid weeks would go by of seeing perhaps one or two people, mostly in passing. Some days I would see no one at all.

A rare human sighting in Glacier National Park, MT.

The most difficult part of the hike was not the physical challenges, of which the CDT has plenty, but rather the mental obstacles that are rarely prevalent in our sedentary lives. Lack of comradery for months can really take its toll on you. Humans are social creatures after-all. The ability to commensurate about a harrowing weather experience, atrocious trail conditions, or lack of peanut butter, and celebrate triumphs, gorgeous sunsets, or a really nice spring are part of our shared human experience. The severing of this interaction is very surreal for a mind not adept to seclusion from society.

A brooding sky presents a light show. With no one around to share its beauty, I simply had to smile in silence. Central New Mexico.

Moreover when on a major time crunch, relying solely on yourself for motivation becomes an increasing implausibility. When the weight, magnitude, and sheer length of walking the length of the United States starts to settle in, a dull, but ever present anxiety hovers over every wa(l)king minute, you start to lose your marbles. Perhaps this self-flagellation can be entirely avoided. It is voluntary after-all, or perhaps this is all part of the process of a long walk.

All that being said, this type of self imposed isolation can also be very beneficial. A long distance thru-hike gave me the opportunity to fully immerse into myself, a unique chance to truly get to know oneself.

SOME OTHER BENEFITS OF A FAST THRU-HIKE:

 

Less time in town

  • Increasingly I find myself attempting to escape the grinding banality of modern civilization by retreating into the wilderness. One of the caveats is the necessity of replenishing food, gear, or sleep in towns along the way. On a serious deadline, time not spent hiking looms over you as a wasted opportunity or a potential reason you do not accomplish your end goal.
  • Limiting time spent in town is hard on the mind but can greatly increase your daily average mileage.
  • Most people are familiar with a “zero” (a day of no mileage, usually spent in town) or a “nero” (a short day into or out of town). On the CDT I tried a first for me, a “hero” (hiking into town, doing necessary town chores, and hiking out), essentially a full day of hiking with a brief town stop. This eliminated the need to linger in town, with all of its temptations, and allowed my mileage average to hardly fluctuate.

Less money spent

  • More time spent on trail equates to less opportunity to spend money. I was able to stay solvent during my thru-hike despite a limited budget by never spending a night in town and avoiding restaurants in favor of supermarkets.

More immersed

  • Extending time outside the comforts of modern civilization allowed for a more holistic experience of nature.
  • Limiting distractions allowed for a level of introspection I seldom have with the chaotic and interconnected “inside” world.
  • This immersion allowed and even necessitated a trust of self, as there was no one else to rely on. This made me fundamentally optimistic — you have to be when you’re completely isolated from the rest of society.
  • Immersion also exposed the true scale of one’s surroundings. A recurring thought was, “it’s so vast out here that my problems don’t take up any space.”
  • Taken as a whole, this immersion peels back the layers of self defense mechanisms and societal conformities to reveal that the mask disappears and you transform into your true self. A powerful understanding of your own identity.
Fully immersed while sauntering through the jaw-dropping Wind River Range of Wyoming.

Goal oriented

  • Being on a tight hiking timeline necessitates great discipline. Everyday is an exercise in fighting off the ideas of futility. Being able to self motivate and actualize are skill sets that are transferable but can also be honed while hiking a long trail.
  • The routine one creates while on a trail —  waking up early, limiting breaks, pushing the pace — are a constant act of discipline. Aristotle famously said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.”
Walking by sun-up ensured I had a minimum of 12-14 hours of moving time. Wyoming/Colorado Border.

All of that being said, my big epiphany from this long walk was that true appreciation of the enormity and beauty I was privileged to explore was not fully maximized with my constraints of arbitrary timephrames. I am reminded of a powerful saying from an old and rarely explored Camino (pilgrimage trail) called Via Francigena:

The route, like life, is not a competition. Never get seized by the wish to do too much: your body will soon demand an explanation. Look around, observe, stop and taste. That’s what the route will teach out.

Taking a chance to “stop and taste” some foraged wild morels from a wildfire burn area in Idaho.
Sometimes you have to stop and smell the sulfur. Yellowstone National Park, WY.

Taken as a whole, hiking with a time constraint has some definite beneficial qualities, but if your purpose and passion for recreating in the outdoors is to immerse, explore, and be unhindered from the chaotic society you’ve momentarily escaped from, the idea of a deadline is detrimental to the experience. More often, I find myself suggesting the idea of section hiking, where time and distance play a much smaller role in the adventure you choose to take. Big miles and aggressive hiking is a great bragging right but it’s not the only way to Hike Your Own Hike.


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A trail leads through a grassy meadow to distant blue lakes and tall mountains.
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Continental Divide Trail

Considered by many to be the most remote and challenging of the triple crown trails, the Continental Divide Trail is a 3100 mile adventure through five western states.

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3100 mi (4980 km)    $39.99 full guide
Colorado, Continental Divide Trail
Photo by David Getchel
Colorado, Continental Divide Trail
Photo by David Getchel

Continental Divide Trail

Considered by many to be the most remote and challenging of the triple crown trails, the Continental Divide Trail is a 3100 mile adventure through five western states.

3100 mi (4980 km)
$39.99 full guide
Learn more
Get our trail guide for this area!
About the Author
Dahn Pratt

Dahn Pratt

Dahn was a 2019 Data Fellow for the CDTC, collecting trail data while thru-hiking from Canada to Mexico. Hiking the CDT was part of a larger project, “Chasing Summer”, a 10,000 mile journey through various national scenic trails all over the world.