Before we begin discussing smartphone apps, we want to reiterate what we say on the emergencies page: carrying a cell phone is no guarantee of safety. People like to bring cell phones into the wilderness because it makes them feel safe. But cell phones don't make anyone safer — just the opposite. Having a cell phone creates a false sense of security and leads to risk taking. By believing cell phones are a safety net, people take dangerous leaps.
Most days on the PCT you cannot get a cell signal. The Sierras — the most isolated and remote part of the Trail — is where you will most likely encounter trouble and need to call someone and there is zero cell reception.
That said, we understand that most thru-hikers will be carrying a phone with them and there are many smartphone apps that can be useful or fun while on-trail.
If your bank has a mobile app, then it's wise to install it so that you can check your account, move money between savings and checking, figure out if you're on budget, et cetera.
Your Credit Card
If you are using a credit card rather than a bank-issued debit card, then it's a good idea to install your card's mobile app. Use it to make monthly payments, check balances, et cetera.
iPhone and Android phones have a GPS function that works even when the phone does not register any bars because the GPS radio antenna is separate from the cellular radio antenna. Since GPS signals come from satellites they are not blocked by mountains, canyons, et cetera they make your phone a reliable navigation aid. The Halfmile and Guthook apps described below come with GPS data for the route, campsites, water sources, et cetera, so in effect these apps transform your smartphone into a powerful GPS unit.
This app is not a map of the PCT — instead it is a very accurate, location aware, digital PCT databook. Using your phone's GPS antenna, the app determines your location on the PCT and calculates
the distance (via hiking the trail) to 3,000+ landmarks along the Trail's entire length. Notes are also provides for many of the landmarks and waypoints. If you wander off the Trail, the app
tells you how far away the PCT is and guides you back with a compass.
Other features include:
- mileage figures match Halfmile's printed map set and the numbers in Yogi's book
- simulation mode for hike planning and hiker support
- specific "how to walk there" instructions for all points
- live trail diagram with optional compass orientation
- calculates cumulative elevation gains and losses to all points
- search function for features like water sources, campsites, and resupply locations
- calculates which printed map pages contain your location
- works without cell service
- download and go — no extra configuration or data needed
Like Halfmile's app, the Guthook app is also an accurate, location aware, digital PCT databook that uses your phone's GPS antenna to determine your location on the PCT and calculate the distance (via hiking the trail) to landmarks along the Trail. However it includes additional features not included in Halfmile's app.
The app can display your location on a map, along with the trail itself and hundreds of waypoints. It also includes elevation profile maps that illustrate the climbs and ascents and show where you are on those climbs. You can search waypoints by trail section or name to find a particular location. Hundreds of waypoints have attached photos, so you can get a sense of where you are by matching up the app's photos with what you see on the trail.
The initial download is free but only comes with the first 40 miles of the PCT. You then have to purchase individual sections one at a time or buy the "Thru-Hiker's Special" for about 25 bucks.
This app uses your phone's GPS function to illustrate your position on US Geological Survey or other topo maps. Outdoor enthusiasts widely consider this to be the best app of its kind, and while it might be good on another trail or when hiking overseas, we don't think it is the best choice for a PCT thru-hike. It's a lot of extra steps and complexity compared to the Guthook app and has fewer features and less functionality.
However, since it comes up on blogs, forums, and magazine articles here is an outline of how to use it for the PCT:
After downloading the app, download USGS topo maps and/or USFS maps for the PCT's route through all three state. These are free and done in-app. Next, download Halfmile's PCT track and waypoint files in GPX format, available here. Gaia can read the GPX file format, and in the app Halfmile's data will appear superimposed over the USGS maps. While on-trail, the app determines your GPS location and displays it on the map.
US Postal Service & UPS
If the person handling your maildrops texts you the tracking numbers, you can use the USPS and UPS apps to see if the package has arrived before you do. Bouncing something forward? Keep an eye on it using the app. Need to mail something home? Use either app to find a post office or UPS store near the trail, office hours, and phone number.
There are lots of weather apps out there, but our favorite is from Weather Underground because it is hyper-local. This is important to people traveling on-foot since there can be a big difference between the weather where you're standing and the weather thirty miles away.
Weather Underground crowd-sources its information from a 100,000+ community of weather enthusiasts reporting live data from weather stations in their own backyards. This fills in the gaps between the airport weather stations used by standard weather services.
Key features include:
Rise - The Sunrise Sunset Calendar
Many thru-hikers like to rise at dawn and get moving at sunrise. And while the old Boy Scout trick of holding your hand out lets you estimate when the sun sets, you don't know when the last light of dusk actually fades. Use the Rise app to find the sunrise and sunset times for any day and any place in the world as well as the first light and the last light times, which can be quite different from the sunrise and sunset times.
There are other apps that do this, often targeted at photographers, but what we like about Rise is the incredibly simple, no-frills user interface.
You don't need to own a Kindle to use the Kindle app. Just download it, shop for books via the app, and read on your phone. That way you don't carry the weight of a book. If you do already own a Kindle and want to read on the Trail, don't bring the extra weight of the Kindle. Instead, download the Kindle app and read on your phone. All your existing ebooks can be synced to your phone.
Kindle app features: