AT vs. CDT: Making the Transition From One Long Trail to Another

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Gossamer Gear | Aug 31, 2021

By: Carolyn Blessing and Jeff Podmayer

Editor’s Note: Carolyn and Jeff are currently hiking the Appalachian and Continental Divide Trails in 2021 as a way of forming their marriage to one another. You can read about the beginning of the journey here and some thoughts on daily habits as a couple on the trail here. Stay tuned to the Light Feet blog for more updates from them as the miles pass!

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Transitions can be tough. Even when change is constant and can often be positive, parts of us struggle when circumstances shift. We hear people talk a lot about struggling with the end of one long trail. In our case, we wondered what it would feel like to be ending one journey on the Appalachian Trail (AT) while in reality being less than halfway through our larger goal of finishing two long trails this year. The end of one signified the beginning of another huge undertaking—walking the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). 

We mentally prepared a lot for our transition between trails—making big plans for “active recovery.” We had two weeks off and we vowed to eat well, sleep a lot, plan CDT resupplies, connect with loved ones, drink very little alcohol, and go on short walks daily. When it came time to make the transition, we managed only a few of these things—mainly making sure to connect with important friends and family as we travelled from the east coast back out west. 

Nevertheless, we made it to the start of the CDT without a hitch—literally, our family gave us a ride—feeling mostly ready, excited, and only sort of tired. 

The CDT vs. the AT: What We’ve Noticed.

Not following the white blaze.

Right away we were struck by how different it felt to not be following white blazes everywhere. This may seem so fundamental as to not even be worth mentioning, but it was a huge day-to-day reality change for us. 

Rather than plugging ahead with a comprehensive book of notes, we finally had overview maps and were getting to look at them constantly as we made our way. Moving from the logistically easier AT to the more remote and less established CDT caught us off-guard. On the AT, we had lots of town information and options to resupply. On the CDT, comparatively, it feels like a lot more on-the-fly planning, not to mention longer hitches and much less margin for error with food carries.

Terrain and environment.

This is an obvious difference, given the very different parts of the country these trails are in. The ecology, geology, and climate of the eastern and continental divides are vastly different. Because of this, some of our transition included (re)adjusting to dry heat and fires. 

Having lived in California for many years, these elements weren’t new to us. In some ways, we felt comforted by the dusty sage-covered lowlands and the sunny alpine. The wildflowers in high meadows have been unreal, and we see tall peaks now weekly. We are more familiar with the harshness of these landscapes than with the challenges of steep, wet, and forested trails in the East. 

At the same time, it has been a sobering reminder of how climate change is impacting the West. The sky has been hazy and the signs of years-long drought are everywhere. Adapting to these challenges is a big part of walking from Canada to Mexico. 

Leaning into alternates.

There is a lot more flexibility and creative freedom to choose our path along the continental divide. Rather than just one option for a continuous footpath to complete the AT, there are many options for connecting footsteps on the CDT. 

We’ve heard that no two people (unless they’re together) walk the same CDT. This is liberating in some ways, but also brings with it the stress of constant decision-making. For example, we needed to make a big change to avoid fires early on along the Idaho-Montana border. Thus, like many other CDT hikers this year, we embarked on the Big Sky Alternate. Each time we choose our own route, we are trying to balance making this trip our own with our overall goal of completing the CDT. 

Fatigue. 

We are tired. Not completely exhausted, not wrecked or dealing with overuse injuries (thankfully!), but our baseline energy is low. At the same time, we feel settled in. 

We have strong routines at this point: 20-25 miles every day is comfortable. More is not. Less feels short. 

We aren’t crazy hungry and we can resupply and grocery shop with our eyes closed and the food amounts are usually just about right. 

But, overall, we feel ourselves slowing down. It’s been a long time walking. Lots of nights outside and many consecutive days exposed to whatever the weather is doing. This is a wonderful and tiring reality. 

One Step at a Time 

Now that we’re almost two months into our second long trail of 2021, the transition phase is over. Although our shift from the AT to the CDT was initially a bit bumpy, especially with planning around fires, we are excited to be back out West in the mountains. We are looking forward to whatever comes next as we continue making our way south along the divide. 

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Carolyn Blessing (she/her) and Jeff Podmayer (he/him) met working in outdoor education six years ago. In this work they lead one to four week backpacking and rock climbing expeditions in California (often in the Sierra on Miwok, Paiute, and Mono land). When they aren’t working or hiking, they love connecting with friends and family, making pizza, and learning about the world around them.