Maps and Crap

Disclaimer: I'm not really going to talk about the second part of this entry's title, I just thought it was a good name. I just don't really like maps. But! For those of you who may be disappointed by that, you weirdos.... I've got good news, I probably will discuss personal hygiene eventually. It's hard to write about walking across the country without the topic coming up at some point....

What I am going to discuss, is the "work" I've been doing for the last few days (disclaimer: I'm not talking about selling t-shirts, sorry again, weirdos). A 3,000 mile trek along the Rocky Mountains is no small feat and there is a certain amount of "planning" required to pull it all off. However, we're talking about a really long walk. We are not landing a personal space craft on the moon.

Here's how I "plan" a long hike.

(Disclaimer: I'm going to speak specifically about the CDT here, but this method is essentially the same for any trip.)

First. You need some maps. On the Continental Divide Trail you really have three options.

  1. Get yourself a copy of Jonathan Ley's free maps.
  2. Get yourself a copy of the Bear Creek maps.
  3. Get a whole bunch of US Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management Maps.

Whatever the case, before you can really wrap your head around anything, you need to be able to see it. Concrete. On paper.

There it is. The Mexico / New Mexico border is on the top left -- the Montana / Canadian border is on the bottom right. Ready? Set? Go!

So you get your maps. I personally have chosen to use Jonathan Ley's free maps. Cheap? Well, yeah, aint no harm in that. But, having hiked the Pacific Crest Trail using a slightly higher quality map set than Halfmile's free maps I found that while my maps may have had more detail, Halfmile's free version had notes written right on the margins of the map. Let me explain. My maps showed all sorts of little details and such, which is great. Halfmile's maps may have missed some of these nuisances, but he collected and updated hiker comments and threw them straight on to his map. Maybe you see a spring listed, well Halfmile tells you right in the margins about the reliability of this source based on previous hiker experience. Jonathan Ley's maps are similar in this nature. Oh, and did I mentioned, they're free. All he asks for is a small donation to the hundreds of hours he pours into the creation of these maps. As far as option three goes, sure, you can go through a hundred different government agencies and buy all sorts of super detailed and large sized maps, but who's got time to do that? Not me. I'd rather be hiking.

Meanwhile, you need to get your gear in order. I carry an ultra light kit. I imagine my total pack weight, without food or water, will be seven to eight pounds. It does not matter what my pack weighs. Your gear doesn't get you to the finish, you do. Here's what I suggest, use what works for you, and what you've used before. I certainly didn't start my first long distance hike, the Appalachian Trail, carrying only seven pounds. If I had, I'm sure I would have been miserable and maybe even have quit, because I did not go into that hike with enough experience to properly use gear more complicated than what I was carrying. As I hiked I was able to strip down what I had, observe other peoples gear, and come to conclusions concerning what was working and what wasn't, within my own comfort range. Light weight gear can be as effective as heavier gear -- if and only if it is a comparable item. A 4.3 oz cuben fiber tarp is not at all the same as a double-walled free-standing tent. The tarp requires careful campsite selection and proper pitch. The double-walled free-standing tent is essentially bomb proof. You can pitch such a tent nearly anywhere without suffering many repercussions.

Like I said, a cuben fiber tarp is not bomb proof.

Anyways, get your gear together. When possible, use light gear -- it is easier to hike when you are carrying less weight. But do not be lured into using gear that you are not comfortable using. Backpacking can take you to remote places where evacuation can be difficult, don't put yourself into an unsafe situation.

Hopefully by now you've got some maps. At this point it is appropriate to freak out a little bit. Your maps alone probably weigh about five pounds! You won't be familiar with the layout and flow of the maps and you may even have trouble reading them. Here's a hint. It doesn't matter. You'll be reading them one at a time. Go ahead and leaf through them, pour over them if you want. It doesn't matter.

What does matter, is that you don't decide you're going to carry five pounds of maps at one time. So, what do you do? You need to mail these maps to yourself at strategic points throughout the trail. And by strategic, I really do mean arbitrary. Any place is as good as another, as long as you are relatively certain you will be going there. The CDT has a billion alternatives and the trail is constantly re-routed, such that nobody really knows where it is on a day-to-day basis nor does anyone agree on mileage. So, here's what I did. I looked at my maps and said, "man, these are heavy, I don't want to carry more than a sixth of this at one single moment." Then I looked at my wall map where I very well can't accurately judge mileage between two locations, it doesn't matter, and picked six locations the are spaced "equidistant" from each other. Ta-da! I had a resupply strategy.

Next, I consulted a combinations of Yogi's Guide ( and the internet to be sure that none of my "strategically" placed resupply locations were not on any alternates. I haven't decided which alternates I will and won't take. Therefor, the simplest way to manage that and maintain my flexibility, is not to mail anything anywhere that I'm not certain I will be. If one town happened to be on an alternate, I simply moved either north or south to the nearest town that was not.

Next, consider any terrain or weather based issues. In the case of the Continental Divide Trail, the major weather related concern is crossing the San Juan Mountains in southern Colorado. At this point in the hike the trail climbs to high elevations where snow will inevitably still lie. Therefore, cold weather gear and even an ice axe may be necessary. So, make sure one of your mail drops goes to a location just prior to hitting this section of trail. Make that a mail drop as well.

Then, consider the following issue. Are there any places where I cannot get any sort of food and cannot bypass? In the case of the CDT, I determined there were a couple, as in two. I'm not a picky resupplier. I've resupplied from convenience stores before, and while it isn't a great option, it can and will work. On the other hand, I don't care for planning, enjoy flexibility, and know for a fact that you can always hitch-hike your way further down the road to a better place if need be. Regardless, sometimes it is easier to just suck it up and send yourself some food rather than waste a day figuring out where to get it. In the case of the CDT, both of these locations are relatively early in the hike and so I will be packaging and possibly even mailing both of these before I even leave town to begin my hike. (On the Pacific Crest Trail these locations were later in the hike and I simply shopped on trail, mailed them from my current town to the next one, and had food waiting for me at the next destination.) Now, either add these necessary resupply places to your list of mail drops or, if one happens to be near one of your "strategically" chosen locations use the location where food is a necessity to minimize the amount of packages you will need to collect.

Now you can split your maps up into appropriate groups. Pick 'em up. Have a good long sigh of relief and a nice ol' smile. That heavy stack of maps is nothing now. Look online or at Yogi's Guide to find appropriate postal codes or local businesses willing to hold your packages. Here's a hint. All U.S. Postal Offices will take packages addressed with simply your name, the town name and state, and a zip code. Then write "HOLD FOR THRU-HIKER" on the side of it and an estimated time of arrival and they will hold it at the post office for you. However, post offices aren't open at night or on Sundays, therefor, if their is a local business of some sort willing to hold your package, this address may be an easier option for you.

Package these up and address them. I never seal my packages so that if I decide I need something last minute it will be easy to add. Then, leave them with a reliable person with the appropriate money to pay for each package to be sent. In my case, I'm leaving mine with my roommate Jeff. (Thanks Jeff!) As I hike I'll know when I'm nearing a town that I've designated as a resupply point, I'll call Jeff, and all he will need to do is seal the package and drop it at the post office.

So, you've got maps. You've got gear. You've got a basic resupply strategy.

That's about it. That's about all you need to do. Sure, you need to figure out how you're getting to the start of your chosen adventure -- but that's relatively easy. Also, in the case of the Continental Divide Trail special consideration must be given to the water situation in southern New Mexico. As in, there isn't very much of it. How are you going to handle this? You may need to cache some water for yourself in the desert, look into it, and figure out how you'll do it.

The last part is the hardest. Try not to worry about it. You've hiked before. You know what you're doing and you're comfortable with your gear. The trail will reveal itself to you one step at a time. What may seem like a massive undertaking will instantly collapse into a mile at a time. One water source to the next. One day at a time. One town to the next.

And when the trail doesn't reveal itself -- well, then you'll just have to find it.