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How to Navigate on the Pacific Crest Trail

While the Pacific Crest Trail is fairly well marked along most of its length, it’s still common for hikers to lose the trail. It happens for a couple different reasons:

  • The trail is buried in snow
  • There is an unsigned intersection
  • The sign at an intersection was confusing, partially hidden, or you were distracted when you walked past it

Make sure you know how to navigate if you lose the trail. You are especially at risk for losing the trail if you are hiking ahead of the pack or hiking southbound.

In order to navigate on the Pacific Crest Trail, you’ll need to:

Paper Maps of the Pacific Crest Trail

The go-to option for Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers has traditionally been the Halfmile maps made by Lan Cooper. Now there is a new and improved version available to Pacific Crest Trail thru-hikers that makes navigation easier (as well as more weather-resistant):

The National Geographic Pacific Crest Trail Maps, which were made in collaboration with the PCTA and Lan Cooper of Halfmile fame. It’s a set of 11 waterproof, tear-resistant maps that show elevation data and cover 240-260 miles of trail each. They weigh 3oz each, and include information on camp sites, water sources, burn sites, road crossings, and more.

The Halfmile trail notes and GPS points are still available, and are updated every year.

Remember that your map is only as good as your ability to use it. Make sure to spend time learning how to read and locate yourself on a map.

Compasses and Altimeters

Compasses and altimeters are important tools when it comes to being able to orient yourself on a map.

You will absolutely want to carry a physical compass, rather than just relying on your smart phone (which could be lost or out of battery). The Brunton TruArc 3 Compass is a good basic, affordable compass and should be sufficient as a tool to orient yourself on a map.

An altimeter watch isn’t mandatory, but it certainly does aid in determining your location on a topographical map when hiking in areas that aren’t of uniform elevation. One option is the Suunto Core Watch, which also includes a compass and barometer.

Phone Apps and GPS Navigation

There are three main phone apps used by thru-hikers on the Pacific Crest Trail. All offer offline maps and GPS tracking, which means they’ll still be useful when you’re outside of cell service. Make sure to carry a couple batteries with you so you can keep your phone charged, as well as a wall charger and cable to recharge when you’re in town.

National Geographic’s Gaia GPS App is newly useful with the publication of the National Geographic Pacific Trail Maps, which are available both as physical maps and within the Gaia GPS App. Having the same map available in both forms should make navigation more straightforward.

The Guthooks App is a very popular option on the Pacific Crest Trail. It’s more than just a map, with information on water sources, resupply points, camp sites, trail junctions, and more.

The Halfmile PCT App is another popular app on the trail. It contains both a map and a text-based view, with detailed information about nearby landmarks, water sources, resupply points, and more.

Emergency Backup Communication

You’ve wandered off the trail, your cell phone is dead, and you can’t orient yourself on your paper map. Worse, your food is running low, you’re unable to maintain your core body temperature, or you’re injured. Emergencies happen!

Don’t fall prey to “It can’t happen to me” thinking. It happens. Every year hikers are lost, injured, and even die on the Pacific Crest Trail. If you’re in an emergency situation, you need a way to get emergency help.

That’s where Spot Messenger comes in. It’s a satellite messenger, which means it works without cell service, and it can be used to call an emergency response team to your GPS location with the push of a button. As a side benefit, you can also use it to allow your friends and family to track your progress on the trail.

If you buy the Spot Messenger, you’ll also need to sign up for a service plan for $200 a year. You can also choose to add GEOS Search and Rescue membership to your plan, which covers up to $100,000 in Search and Rescue fees for only $18 per year.

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Has the information above changed? Know something other hikers should know? Leave a comment below.


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