Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail

Anyone 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.

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by Paul Magnanti | 2011-04-05 00:00:00-06

Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail - 3
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!”

Introduction

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)
9 lbs
(I had a digital scale for this kit)

NOTES

  • 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! :)

Photo Essay

Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail - 1
Start of the trail in Glacier National Park. Obviously, the trail must be well marked all the way to Mexico!

Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail - 2
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.

Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail - 4
Heart Lake in Yellowstone reminded me of Maine.

Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail - 5
Temple Pass in the Winds. This is why we backpack.

Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail - 6
I loved the expansiveness of the Great Divide Basin. The Oregon Buttes were a landmark for many pioneers on the Oregon Trail.

Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail - 7
Zirkel Wilderness, Colorado. I’m back home!

Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail - 8
Sometimes my favorite memories are the more subtle ones, like aspen leaves on the trail.

Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail - 9
The snow-covered mountains foretold an early winter, but the views were stunning.

Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail - 10
Peeking out from my snow-covered shelter. Winter did come early! (Sept 21!)

Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail - 11
Snow in the San Juans.

Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail - 12
Interesting trail markers on the CDT in New Mexico!

Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail - 13
Still autumn in the lower elevations of New Mexico.

Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail - 14
One of the reasons northern New Mexico was one of the highlights of the CDT for me.

Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail - 15
Windmills are important to any CDT hiker in New Mexico!

Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail - 16
Not on the “official” CDT, but the history buff in me could not pass up the Gila Wilderness and the cliff dwellings.

Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail - 17
My last full day on the trail started with this sunrise over the Hatchitas.

Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail - 18
At the Mexican border after four months, 2,500+ miles, six pairs of shoes and many Snickers bars!

Final Thoughts

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.


Citation

"Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail," by Paul Magnanti. BackpackingLight.com (ISSN 1537-0364).
http://backpackinglight.com/cgi-bin/backpackinglight/walking_the_backbone_cdt.html, 2011-04-05 00:00:00-06.

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Forum Index » Editor's Roundtable » Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail


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Addie Bedford
(addiebedford) - MLife

Locale: Montana
Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail on 04/05/2011 14:29:25 MDT Print View

Companion forum thread to:

Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail

Johnathan White
(johnatha1) - F

Locale: PNW
Re:Walking the Backbone on 04/05/2011 14:58:15 MDT Print View

Paul, these photos are truly an inspiration, my friend. Thank you.

Mary D
(hikinggranny) - MLife

Locale: Gateway to Columbia River Gorge
Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail on 04/05/2011 15:02:23 MDT Print View

Tears came into my eyes at the shot of the Mt. Zirkel Wilderness (top of Mt. Ethel). I grew up packing through the area every summer with my parents. I last was there in 1987. I gotta go back at least once more!

Bob Bankhead
(wandering_bob) - MLife

Locale: Oregon, USA
Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the CDT on 04/05/2011 15:45:29 MDT Print View

Mags says "Any person who hikes the long trails is asked “Why go?” "

I say, "If you have to ask, you will not understand the answer.".

Nick Gatel
(ngatel) - MLife

Locale: Southern California
Re: Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail on 04/05/2011 16:14:44 MDT Print View

A 3rd CDT gem in one day? What is happening here?

Very good writing, Paul. Wonderful pictures too.

jerry adams
(retiredjerry) - MLife

Locale: Oregon and Washington
re on 04/05/2011 17:12:13 MDT Print View

Nice pictures

I like the evolution of your gear

Daniel Paladino
(dtpaladino) - F - MLife

Locale: Northern Rockies
3rd CDT article on 04/05/2011 17:20:42 MDT Print View

Nick: Its Continental Divide Trail Week here at BPL.

Philip Delvoie
(PhilipD) - MLife

Locale: Ontario, Canada
Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail on 04/05/2011 17:22:20 MDT Print View

Another great article...definitely looking forward to getting out on the trail. Nicely done Paul.

Paul Magnanti
(PaulMags) - MLife

Locale: People's Republic of Boulder
:) on 04/05/2011 18:52:08 MDT Print View

Thanks for the kind words all.

Was a great experience and glad I could share part of it.

Ben 2 World
(ben2world) - MLife

Locale: So Cal
Re: :) on 04/05/2011 19:14:12 MDT Print View

Very, very nice writeup and pics, Paul!!

James Neal
(Laien) - F

Locale: Ozarks
"Walking the Backbone: A Journey on the Continental Divide Trail" on 04/05/2011 20:36:19 MDT Print View

Very enjoyable. Well done.

Dick Beamish
(dbeamish) - M

Locale: Tennessee
Walking the Backbone on 04/05/2011 22:52:28 MDT Print View

Really good article. Enjoyed the pictures

George Matthews
(gmatthews) - MLife
Re: Walking the Backbone on 04/06/2011 11:29:16 MDT Print View

Well done! Thanks.

folec r
(folecr) - M
Awesome pics! on 04/06/2011 18:21:02 MDT Print View

How do you protect your camera? A waterproof case?

carlos martinez
(gokyo) - F

Locale: west coast
great shots on 04/06/2011 21:55:09 MDT Print View

Thank You for the excellent pics/post

Ronald Strickland
(pathfinder)

Locale: USA
onward Rhode Islanders on 04/07/2011 06:58:58 MDT Print View

You the minimalist Rhode Islander done good!

A very well done photo article

Paul Magnanti
(PaulMags) - MLife

Locale: People's Republic of Boulder
this and that on 04/07/2011 07:03:30 MDT Print View

Ron: I think you, Andy and myself are the only RIers to leave the state. ;) (Well, Andy has honorary status..his grandparents are in my home town! :D)

Camera: A ziplock bag Seems appropriate based on the rest of the gear. ;)

John Coyle
(Bigsac)

Locale: NorCal
CDC Trail on 04/07/2011 09:30:52 MDT Print View

Very inspirational Paul, good for you. My grandparents are from Ireland, so when people ask me why I hike, I tell them this Irish saying, "Your feet will take you to where your heart is." My heart is on the trail. Obviously yours is too. Slainte.

Zack Karas
(iwillchopyou@hotmail.com) - MLife

Locale: Lake Tahoe
What the what? on 04/07/2011 09:57:43 MDT Print View

Mags--seeing that photo of you getting out of your tarp made me laugh. Definitely not the same clean shaven guy I saw at POD's and Disco's wedding!
-Zack, of 'Buddha and Zack'

Dirk Rabdau
(dirk9827) - F

Locale: Pacific Northwest
Terrific on 04/08/2011 01:36:17 MDT Print View

What a great piece! Enjoyed it very much....

Dirk