The Pacific Crest Trail is fairly well marked along most of its length. Yet it is still common for hikers to lose the trail either because it gets buried in snow, or they run into a confusing or unmarked trail junction. This is especially true for hikers hiking ahead of the pack, and for southbounders. So it’s important that you bring maps or a GPS so you don’t get lost in such situations. Some hikers also bring altimeter watches to better help locate themselves on their topo maps. All hikers should bring a small compass so they can set a bearing in an emergency situation (such as a backcountry bailout).
Most thru-hikers hike with paper maps. There are several different map options available for navigating the Pacific Crest Trail (see our our map section for more specific information about your various map options).
Paper maps are light weight, and they give you a lot more information about the terrain you’re hiking than a GPS can. Paper maps show you elevation changes, alternate routes, and off trail features not available with GPS devices.
When the trail is buried under snow – especially for a quarter mile or more – navigating with map and compass can be slow and difficult. This is particularly true on flat terrain, where the contour lines on your topo map are too far apart to be useful. Most hikers won’t encounter this situation. But hikers at the head of the pack, and southbound hikers likely will.
With GPS you can find the trail even if it’s buried under a foot of snow, and you can do it much faster and easier than you could with a map and compass. When get to those infamous unmarked forks in the trail that don’t show up on your map you can just fire up your GPS and it will point you in the right direction.
Your GPS will leave you high and dry if it runs out batteries. Good GPS devices for hikers and backpackers are ones with field replaceable batteries (the 9V, AA, or AAA varieties are the most convenient). If your GPS device gets destroyed (ie: dropped in the river while fording) you are out of luck. Also, GPS devices can sometimes struggle while below the tree line. While your GPS device will get a fine signal over the majority of the trail, this is important to keep in mind.
GPS devices are almost always heavier than paper map options. Finally, GPS devices can be expensive. Though there are many inexpensive models available, even the inexpensive models are more costly than many of the paper map options available to you. But remember, paper maps and GPS are not mutually exclusive.
Altimeter watches tell you your current altitude. Some models also keep track of your accumulated elevation gain for the day, the current temperature, and a rough weather forecast for the next 12 hours. Some hikers find altimeter watches useful for navigation. Most hikers find them unnecessary and hike without them.
Most altimeter watches designed for use in the wilderness use barometric pressure to calculate your altitude. This makes them particularly sensitive to changes in the weather. If a storm front moves in you may find your altimeter watch inaccurate by more than 100 ft.
The lightest navigational option is a paper map and compass. See our map section for more information.
The lightest GPS that accepts data cards is the eTrex Vista HCx ($300) at 5.5 oz (with batteries). To learn more about it, click here.
If you plan to bring maps with longitude\latitude information, you could get by with the Easy Showily track logger. You cannot load waypoints into it, but it will display your longitude\latitude on a screen and it only weighs 1.6 oz (with AAA lithium batteries).
If you can find inexpensive color printing then printing your own maps may be your cheapest option. If you cannot, then removing the maps from the Wilderness Press Guidebooks will be the cheapest. See our map section for more information on printing your own maps and the Wilderness Press Guidebooks.
For a GPS device, the Garmin eTrex H is the least expensive device available. It only holds 500 waypoints at a time, so you might only load the waypoints for the sections likely to be covered in snow. To learn more about the eTrex H, click here.
Has the information above changed? Know something other hikers should know? Leave a comment below.