Once I had my route in place, it was time to go ahead and break down the trip into a day-by-day plan. Like any plan, things changed, and what I set out to do was of course different from what I actually did (not by that much though).
In making my “itinerary”, there were a few considerations that came to mind:
- Mileage per day
- Elevation per day, both ascent and descent
- Resupply opportunities
- Water sources
- Notable terrain obstacles, such as summits, passes, and river crossings
Mileage Per Day
Many hikers try to find their “magic number,” i.e. how many miles they should average per day on a given trip. This is no easy answer, and depends on a lot of different factors, in particular, the purpose of your trip. If the purpose of your trip is to go out and just have some fun, no need to put in a 50 mile day; if you’re looking to break an FKT (fastest known time), however, you might need to hoof it a bit.
On this trip, my objective was to finish the entire 650 mile route in time for me to fly off to my next adventure, so speed was of the essence. From experience, I knew that I could comfortable put in 15-20 mile days pretty comfortably on terra firma (meaning no snow), and that if need be I could put in longer days by starting earlier/ending later. From experience, I knew that on flat ground, my average hiking pace was around 3 or 3.5 miles per hour, around 3 miles per hour downhill, and around 2.5 miles per hour uphill. I used those numbers to give time estimates to the distances I was planning to tackle, adding in buffer time for the elevation gain or loss I would be encountering as well.
Elevation Per Day, BOTH Ascent and Descent
Andrew Skurka posted an article in March 2018 titled “It’s the vertical, stupid” . While the title may be a bit off-putting, in many ways he is right.
The limiting factor for me on this trip would be the vertical ascent and descent each day, i.e. how much of a beating my knees would be taking. Going up and down was what was going to limit me, not how far or how many steps; in short, gravity would tell me where to stop and begin again the next day.
From experience, I knew that I could manage around 4,000′ of ascent per day pretty comfortably, as well as a similar amount of descent. I figured that, from time I had put in on training trips and on the StairMaster, I could put in around 1,000′ of climbing in around 20-30 minutes, so I added that calculation to my time estimates based on distance. I also knew that my ability to climb and descend would progressively get worse later in the day as I tired more, and that climbs earlier in the morning would most likely be faster than climbs later in the day. Finally, I gave consideration to my pack weight: days where I would have more food would be more difficult than days when I was carrying less food. I would try and make my “big days” close to when I resupplied so that I could have a lighter pack.
I was not going to be able to carry 40 days worth of food in my pack, so I had to consider where and how frequently I would resupply. With a preference for a comfortable and manageable pack, I tried to limit my largest food carry to 8 days, knowing that any more would be quite uncomfortable. From analysis of my Food Considerations (see other page), I had calculated that a days worth of food would weigh a little less than 2 pounds, so I added the number of days of food x the weight of food per day to my pack weight to get a realistic understanding of what my pack would feel like each day.
I also had to consider how easily I could manage resupplying in towns, given my tight time schedule. Most thru-hikers afford a day or two to hitchhike a ride into a town, gorge themselves in town on fresh food and rest, and then hitchhike their way back to the trail. Given that I had a plane to catch at the end of this trip, I tried to figure out the most efficient ways of resupplying: either hiring someone to meet me at a trailhead with my pre-mailed box, or arranging for a ride into town and back to the trail to eliminate time waiting for a ride. I was willing to incur some more expense to gain this clarity.
I reached out to various town Chambers of Commerce, emailed local sporting good stores and outfitters, and searched the web for CDT “Trail Angels.” I was able to arrange for people to hold my packages along the way, and some even brought them out to the trail for me.
When mapping out my route, I made sure to drop pins on reliable water sources for each day, making sure I had at least 2-3 spread throughout the course of the day, as well as one relatively close to my camping location. I knew that in the early season most of the seasonal sources would be running as well, even if there was a poor snow year. Plus, the high alpine water of the Rockies was reportedly DELICIOUS!
Notable Terrain Obstacles
When planning out my route, I tried to identify major terrain obstacles that I should be aware of, such as exposed ridges, summits, passes, river fords, etc., so that I could plan my day accordingly. I wanted to make sure I was out of the higher elevations later in the day in case afternoon thunderstorms rolled in (which they occasionally did). I also tried to hit summits in the morning for the cooler, crisper air.
As per usual, my first draft of my itinerary was radically different from the second:
You can see my first draft above. Notice the red cells with huge elevation days. I tried to change those in my second draft, seen below:
Finally, I tracked my actual itinerary after the trip. Notice some large differences: