Like the AT, the PCT is incredibly well marked and it's difficult to get lost. For a successful and worry-free thru-hike we recommend just 4 navigational aids:
1) a smartphone + case
2) the Halfmile app
3) hardcopies of Halfmile's maps for high passes in the Sierras, stored in a Ziploc bag
4) a basic compass.
That's all you really need, but there are lots of options out there. Below is an outline of everything related to maps and navigation on the PCT.
Appalachian Trail veterans will be surprised to find the PCT is not blazed. There are no rectangles the size of a dollar bill painted on trees, rocks, or anything else that regularly marks the Trail.
In one sense this is because marking the Trail with painted blazes from start to finish is impossible. Whether in the desert or the snow-covered peaks of the Sierras, there just aren’t many trees to paint blazes on. Moreover, blazes simply are not necessary. Vegetation grows slowly in the American West, and so it would take decades for plants to overtake and obscure the footpath.
The PCT route is unambiguous except at (very infrequent) intersections with other trails. When this happens, the PCT shield logo has been nailed to a tree, stamped onto a wooden post, or placed on a fiberglass marker to guide you.
Historic Blazes in Yosemite
In the nineteenth century, the U.S. Calvary marked riding trails in the Sierras by carving shapes and letters into tree trunks. Though still found along the PCT today, these carvings do not mark current trails and should not be considered a navigation aid.
Most of the Time, No
The Appalachian Trail is so well marked it is practically impossible to lose the trail and get lost. AT thru-hikers who buy the expensive map set often realize how unnecessary the maps are and mail them home early in the hike. The PCT is similarly well marked. Not by blazes but by the footpath itself, which unambiguously slices through the landscape as demonstrated by many pictures in our PCT photo gallery. When the Trail intersects a road or other trail, confusion about where to go is eased by a PCT shield logo on a pole, post, or tree. That means 90% of the time, you don't need a map, just like on the AT.
Snow in the Sierras & Detours Around Closures
That said, some circumstances and conditions can obscure the footpath or create confusion. In the Sierras a heavy or even normal snow year can mean the Trail is completely obscured by snow. Cairns are out there but snow or fog can obscure them too. A map or one of the smartphone apps (see below) is essential to staying on the Trail. When there is a trail closure and detour, the detour will likely not be marked. Signs posted at closures may give directions like, "Head east on County Road until 247 then turn north. Continue for 1.7 miles..." but don't include a corresponding map, so a map of your own is helpful to stay on the route. There are also occasional trail intersections that are just plain confusing. A map can help you decipher which path is the correct one. Finally, if you need to leave the PCT via a side trail, a map can keep you from getting lost once you've left the PCT.
PCT hiker David Lippke, aka Halfmile, has created an indispensable resource with his map sets, smartphone app, and GPS data files all available for free at pctmap.net. The PCTA does not produce a map set. The U.S. Forest Service does not produce a map set. Incredibly, Halfmile is the one and only source for PCT maps, and he gives them away for free. The almost 500-page map set covers the entire official PCT route, plus alternates and detours around closures.
Maps are available for free download in two formats:
- large PDF files optimized for printing on 8 1/2 x 11 inch paper
- small PDF files optimized for smartphone viewing
Halfmile does not sell paper copies of his maps. If you want to carry paper copies of Halfmile's maps, you have three options:
Our editors do not think it is necessary to carry maps with you at all times and do not recommend that thru-hikers spend the money for an entire printed map set. We understand however that many hikers like referencing and studying the maps and there is nothing wrong with that. We do recommend the following:
Halfmile does not produce a map set for trail towns. The only town maps available are in Yogi's PCT Handbook, which labels distances to key locations like supermarkets, motels, and laundromats.
You may feel that hard-copy town maps are unnecessary if you carry a smartphone. You can just google the town and find out what you need that way, right? That's certainly an option but Yogi knows what's most important to hikers and only provides relevant info. Her tips are based on experience over many PCT thru-hikes and will save you a lot of googling time. We strongly recommend carrying her book with you.
Keep in Mind, People Give Terrible Directions
Non-hikers get around in cars and simply have no idea how long it takes to reach someplace on foot. Invariably, people give estimates in time, not distance. "It's only five minutes up the road," they'll say. Well, they mean five minutes by car, not on foot. 55 miles per hour = 80 feet per second. We don't walk that fast, and we doubt you do too. So five minutes by car is 24,000 feet, or 4.5 miles—that's over an hour of walking.
WiFi and Cell Signals Are Not Needed for the GPS to Work
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 GPS unit.
Android tablets, iPads, and the iPod Touch do not have GPS antennas and so cannot be used for on-trail navigation, which creates confusion because some app developers tout their app is compatible with these devices.
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.
Cell phones have four different radios — cellular, GPS, Bluetooth, and wifi. You will likely never use the Bluetooth or wifi features during your thru-hike and much of the time you will not receive a cellular signal either. However, if you leave your phone on all day, it will keep searching for a cell signal and kill the battery. Keeping the GPS radio on all the time will also shorten the battery life. You will typically go 7-10 days without an opportunity to recharge, so it's best to keep your phone off or in airplane mode to conserve battery life and only turn it on briefly when you need to determine your location.
Basic Tips for Battery Conservation
If your phone is powered on, but asleep — aka ready for use, but not actually in use — it still uses a lot of power and this background use will drain the battery in a few days even if you don’t take pictures, look at maps, etc. To prevent this do the following:
While hiking you can expect between 5 to 10 days of battery life if you take occasional photos, use the GPS function moderately, and follow the tips above. If you tend to take lots of pictures, have the habit of checking your location often, reference nature field guides, journal on your phone, or use the Kindle app at night, it would be wise to bring a spare battery or external battery.
We don't think GPS units should be brought on a PCT thru-hike — it's hard to justify the half-pound weight. In addition, since so many hikers bring smartphones, it is redundant to carry both a GPS unit and a smartphone. A smartphone's GPS function works even when the phone does not register any bars and the Guthook and Halfmile apps have all the GPS waypoint data pre-programmed. So in effect a smartphone is a GPS unit. However if you don't have a smartphone or prefer to use a dedicated GPS unit, that's fine, just make sure you are proficient with your particular unit before starting your trek.
GPS Waypoint Data
If you are going to use a GPS then you will need to program your unit with waypoints of landmarks, campsites, road crossings, fresh water sources, et cetera. Again, The Guthook and Halfmile smartphone apps already have this data built in, saving you the trouble, but if you would rather use a dedicated GPS then you have to load this data yourself.
The best source for GPS data is Halfmile, who provides files in the GPX format that is compatible with Garmin and similar units. They are free to download as ZIP files and contain three separate files:
- the footpath of the Pacific Crest Trail
- side trails and alternates
The files of the PCT and side trails are quite large (have a large number of track points) and so are only compatible with newer GPS units. Older units like Garmin's 60 series, Vista, or Legend have limited track point storage and cannot handle the files.
While it's unlikely, your GPS unit may not read the GPX format of Halfmile's files. In that case you will need to reformat the files to the type required by your particular unit. Three good programs (among others) are
GPS Coordinate Formats
GPS coordinates come in three formats:
- Decimal Degrees
- Degrees, Minutes, Seconds
- Decimal Minutes
For example, these coordinates are written differently, but refer to the same campsite at the north end of Anclote Key on Florida's Gulf Coast:
- Decimal Degrees
= 28.213156° N 82.846533° W
- Degrees, Minutes, Seconds = 28° 12' 47.36" N 82° 50' 47.52" W
- Decimal Minutes = 28° 12.78936' N 82° 50.79198' W
The formatting of coordinates in Google Earth can be changed by going to Tools and then Options. To change the formatting in your handheld GPS unit, refer to its user's manual. If for some reason you need to translate coordinates from one format to another manually, click on the calculator icon to use the Latitude & Longitude Coordinate Converter