Hiking the Continental Divide Trail (CDT) Northbound in 2013- sharing my preparation for the hike and my day to day experience while I'm on the trail. Inspiring people to follow their dreams.

Mapping the CDT- Jonathan Ley Interview

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Jonathan Ley with fellow thru hiker Erin "Wired" Saver  holding his maps

Jonathan Ley with fellow 2013 CDT thru hikers, Drop-N-Roll & Erin “Wired” Saver holding his maps

Anybody that has hiked the CDT since 2002 has more than likely had in their hands a map created by Jonathan Ley.  He is the man who has brought the mystery of the CDT to life, with his wonderful maps that he provides for free to any dreamer or thru hiker who requests them.  Those in the hiking world have heard his name before, but few have ever met him.  I’ve already spent hours, if not days, looking at his maps in preparation for my hike, so I wanted to learn more about the man whose maps would guide me across this country on the Divide.

Jonathan Ley grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, getting very little exposure to the outdoors except for the daylong drives to a place that you could consider “wild”.  It wasn’t until he moved to Seattle that he started getting exposed to the mountains and public lands that surround the area. This was when he first started falling in love with the outdoors and the world that it opened up.  After working a job that wasn’t exactly fulfilling his needs, he decided on a whim to hike the PCT in 1999, even though he had very little hiking experience under his belt just yet.   He learned a lot on the PCT by “trial and error” and felt that the trail was not something he wanted to do, but had to do.

After completing the PCT he spent the next year just hanging out around Seattle until a couple of friends suggested to him that he should hike the CDT with them.  The other friends ended up bailing for one reason or another but he decided to go ahead and hike the trail, anyway.  It was during this time that he started mapping out the trail that we now have available to us.  The CDT was an amazing experience for him.  When asked how the CDT compares to the PCT he says “I just felt it was ’more‘… more miles, more spectacular stuff, more boring stuff, more roads, more flat, more steep, more extreme weather… the PCT was very consistent, but the CDT varied quite a lot”.  He learned a lot on the trail, and had no real huge problems other then a wrong turn here or there and a lost camera during a hitch in New Mexico.  A few of his favorite sections were Glacier, The Winds, Southern San Juan’s, Gila River and the nameless sections in ID/MT, as well as some warm night hikes in New Mexico.  A few of his favorite trail towns include Grand Lake CO, Dubious WY, Ghost Ranch, NM, Silver City, NM, East Glacier, MT and Leodore, ID.  When he gets to town he goes for the usual hiker’s grub: pizza, beer and ice cream, even though he wishes he could say fresh fruit and salad.

When he compares the trail today vs. then, he feels that the trail is more known to the locals and there are many more hikers on the trail today than ever before.  As has often been said, no two people hike the same trail. This is as true today as ever, with more segments of actual trail existing vs. having to go cross-country.  It is up to you to decide which way you want to go on the trail.

The Maps

When Jonathan first started producing the maps and sending them out he was getting only about a dozen or so people asking for them each year.  As the number of hikers has increased each year, and the trail has become more well known, the number of requests has grown to 200-300 per year.  He says he gets a good mix of people ordering the maps; everything from a 15-year-old kid, to a person going for his triple crowner.   Everyone gets treated the same way regardless of what your desired use of the maps are and you can expect the same level of help as well.   As the requests for the CDs has grown, so has people’s generosity.  He hasn’t run the numbers but as he says “I might be lucky to be making minimum wage at this… but it’s fun and keeps me connected to the trail & hiking community”.   He does get some strange requests from people who miss the point of the maps, such as those people who want to drive the trail or even bike it.  The funniest requests are from people who think his site is about some software program called the CDT, leaving him messages on technical support for some really arcane coding questions.

He keeps the maps updated through the help of fellow hikers.  In a typical year he will get around 10-20 people submitting updates of various details.  There are usually 2-4 people who submit very detailed updates on the whole trail, which is great, but this can have it’s downsides.  It can be difficult when he gets conflicting feedback which forces him to use his own judgment on what to change or what not to.  Eventually he hopes that the maps will be like a big wiki-map, which the community updates and maintains.  He doesn’t see the technology for that just yet.  He does see the value of a single editor because there are so many notes and conflicting changes that it could turn into one big mess if not managed properly.

My mess organizing the maps

My mess organizing the maps

Bear Creek Maps, Updates and Best Practices

With the arrival of the Bear Creek maps created by Jerry Brown, you would think that there might be some competition going on, but, as Jonathan says “I’m glad they’re out there.  My philosophy is that the best thing for the CDT is more hikers -some of whom later become great advocates for the trail.  Footsteps are the lifeblood of the trail, and it will only die from a lack of them.  So, if people are able to have a great time using the Bear Creek maps, then great”.  He sees the maps complimenting each other. The Bear Creek maps only follow the designated route, whereas his maps offer many different options which hikers can follow, to change things up.  I appreciate the alternative routes, such as starting from Columbus, which is where I will be starting.  Also, as anyone who has read the maps knows, he likes to add some “personal flourishes” in the notes, giving people a couple of perspectives to choose from.

When asked what’s new for 2013 he adds “quite a bit of small stuff that all adds up to a lot”.  Sections in Montana that hadn’t been updated for years saw a lot of new updated notes in 2013.  Also he’s been trying to update the source of the USGS scans from the previous old versions to the newer ones. They’ve stopped publishing the traditional maps, so now they’re only available in digital format today.

A best practice for his maps can be summed up as “STAY FOUND.”  It’s not only the best two words of advice that he’s ever heard but also the title of the book that he recommends hikers read.  He says, “You should always know where you are on the maps.”  He suggests you navigate “to the next landmark or what’s happening in the next mile or so to the next stream crossing, trail junction, ridgeline… and when you get there, pick out the next landmark.  This way, you greatly reduce your chances of getting misplaced.”

GPS, what makes a successful thru hiker and the future of the CDT

I had to ask what some of his most frequent questions are and he told me:  Why don’t you put the maps up for download?  Do you have a GPS track?  Are you still doing this?  Regarding GPS, he has said several times, and notes on his website, that a GPS is not a mandatory item on the CDT.  Jonathan’s thoughts about GPS are that “plenty of people have hiked the CDT without one and had no problems.  If you’re not a great navigator, a GPS can be helpful but it can also be a crutch, that you’ll remain a poor navigator.  It just depends on what you want out there.”  If your’re trying to save ounces and want one less thing to charge up, he thinks you can leave the GPS behind.

I always like to ask people what makes them successful on hikes or large trips that they take, and Jonathan feels that it’s all about how you deal with adversity.  You need to understand that your plans are going to change constantly, over and over again.  You need to stay determined and keep the larger goal at the front of your mind.  He reminds me that “there can be some really sucky days out there, but you just have to remember the big picture, and that things get better.”

What does the future hold for the CDT?  He thinks it looks pretty good as far as hikers and the exposure the trail gets from those that hike it.  He does see a lot of the environmental and political pressure the trail faces because it is so remote, with no large population centers near it, unlike the Appalachian Trail (AT).  He believes the trail could use a “really active organization to help advocate for it.  Someone who has the ear of the local landowners & government agencies to make sure the trail doesn’t get paved over or worse.”  He believes that people like Jim Wolf have been great advocates for the trail for many years and he appreciates what they have done.  He’s happy to see hikers forming advocacy groups such as the CDTC and hopes that “some hiker from 2013 will make the CDT their mission in life”.  Who knows, maybe someone out there reading this post will heed his call.

What’s next for Jonathan?  He continues his tireless effort to keep his maps updated but he also spends time taking pictures, which he learned to love while out on the CDT.  He calls all of his photography equipment his ‘luxury’ items on the trail, joking that it weighs more than most people’s entire kits.  When asked what he would do with 5 months of free time, he thinks of places like Nepal or a proposed trail the length of the Andes in Chile, which he thinks would be spectacular.

We all go on adventures to help us change our lives and the CDT became one of those things for Jonathan.  He is the true definition of an advocate and ‘Trail Angel’ because he helps all of us who either hike the trail each year, or those of us who dream of it.  I hope that I can do a fraction of what Jonathan has done for the CDT.  We all owe him some gratitude for everything he has done, so please send him a note saying ‘Thank you’ because he is a true friend to all of us, especially the trail.


Check out Drop-N-Rolls Trail Journal and Erin “Wired” Saver Journals 


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