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A few of my favorite maps

Good maps are essential. We plan to use two types of maps on our thru-hike, plus a third map type to keep folks at home informed about our location.

Paper maps

As a public service, a hiker named Half Mile has created a wonderfully detailed set of topo maps covering the entire Pacific Crest Trail. The maps include terrain, notes, and points of interest like campsites, post offices, and water sources. The route of the PCT is well-marked on the maps, as are side trails. Elevation profiles are placed at the end of each section. Check out Half Mile’s website to download free PDF files of the maps. We had the maps printed double-sided (less paper to carry) on a color laser printer (they won’t smear if wet). We’ll send ourselves the appropriate map sections in our food boxes, so we won’t have to carry them all at once.

A Half Mile map page with notes

Even if you have a GPS, it’s important to carry a paper map and compass as a backup. The GPS might fail, and it can lose its view of the sky in steep canyons or dense forests. If you don’t know how to read a topo map or take a bearing with a compass, orienteering is a fun way to learn!

Phone maps

Although we will be carrying old-fashioned paper maps, we’ll also be bringing maps on our smart phones. Here’s how:

Topo Maps App

If you have an iPhone, the Topo Maps app is a great way to go. The app is $8, but the maps are free. You can download USGS quads (map sections) for the entire US and Canada to your phone, so you can use them without an internet connection. The app will stitch together the map sections for you, and it also lets you search for features like mountains, lakes, and campgrounds. You can locate yourself on the map using GPS. This works well even in the wilderness with no cell service. We have been using the Topo Maps app on various hikes for the past two years, with good results.

In addition to his well-regarded PDF maps, Half Mile has created a set of GPS waypoints for the PCT. You can download these using the Topo Maps app. The app will then show a pin on the map every half mile along the entire length of the PCT. The author of the app has some good instructions on how to download waypoints, and he uses Half Mile’s waypoints as an example. You can get all of Half Mile’s waypoints by downloading just three files: one for California, one for Oregon, and one for Washington. This will save you some time.

The Topo Maps App with Half Mile's waypoints installed

GPS Kit

Sometimes you don’t need a topo map, but just want to know your altitude or bearing. GPS Kit can help. You can use this app to see a variety of GPS data not available in the Topo Maps app. We have also found that GPS Kit seems to locate our position more quickly than other apps, particularly when the GPS signal is weak. Sometimes we will first open GPS Kit, wait until it locates us, then open Topo Maps, which will use the position data acquired by GPS Kit.

GPS Kit can also be used to record your path, and it is surprisingly accurate. But be warned, this will burn your battery power very quickly!

Battery conservation

Phones are sweet backcountry tools, but they can be power-hungry. To save juice, keep your phone in airplane mode. This disables the cellular radio, as well as wifi and bluetooth. Who wants to take a phone call in the backcountry anyway?

To check your position efficiently, follow this procedure: turn off airplane mode, run the app to check your position quickly, then go back to the home screen and turn airplane mode back on. You will find your battery will last quite a while with this approach.

Maps at home

If you want to follow our journey from home, check out the Tracking tab at the top of this page for the link to our current location. We will be using the free GPS Tracker app to send our location to an online map whenever we have cell phone service.

Another fun thing to play around with at home is the PCT overlaid on Google Earth or Google Maps.  Check out Post Holer’s map. This is a cool way to browse the whole trail, or to look in detail at a specific portion. You can view terrain and satellite maps too. Happy mapping!

12 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great post. So I have got to ask. I noticed you have tracks on your iPhone with Halfmile’s way points using Topo Maps (my favorite). Did Halfmile just change this or do you have a magic trick I need to know about?

    January 28, 2012
    • Hmm, I’m not sure I understand your question. We downloaded Half Mile’s way points and you can see them in the image. His tracks still don’t work on the phone (I tried). However, in the background USGS topo map there is a dashed line for the PCT. Also, Half Mile completed his big yearly update of files a few weeks ago so perhaps this is related to the difference you are seeing. Let me know if I’m off base with what you were asking.

      January 29, 2012
      • So I figured out my mistake. Your example above has a red line for the PCT on that particular map only. I was thinking it was a track and I was missing out.

        February 4, 2012
  2. Charles #

    Are you packing in a solar charger for your smart phones or how do you plan on keeping a charge while hiking?

    January 28, 2012
  3. Charles #

    i should have RTFM…i see on your gear page that you list a charger. nvm :)

    January 28, 2012
    • Haha, Chris had to fill me in on what RTFM meant! It’s actually still a good question, even though you saw it in our gear list. A charger is one of the few items we haven’t finalized yet. The items in red text in that chart are still undecided. We don’t have much more to figure out, but a charger is one of them. We are leaning towards a battery pack, rather than solar charger because we can use it for the entire trail, including rainy OR and WA.

      January 29, 2012
  4. Charles #

    RTFM is a well loved acronym for those of us who work in the tech industry.

    re: charger’s – i hadnt considered the challenges of a solar charger in OR & WA. Perhaps both? there are some really effective/lightweight solar chargers that are coming out that would probably be super efficient in terms of power supply on the southern half of your trek and then switch as you get into more northern climes?

    January 30, 2012
  5. good luck guys i will see yall on the trail. :) i agree with the fact that maps are good. i did it last year without maps and was fine. this year i plan a complete helen keller hike. cheers

    February 6, 2012
    • Thanks adventurecrow! We’ve heard the trail is well-marked, so it’s rare to get lost, but it would be a pain to have to re-trace our steps if we took the wrong junction or something like that, so we figure it’s best to have the maps.

      See you out there, can’t wait!

      February 10, 2012
  6. Lawrence #

    I like the Halfmile Waypoints in Topo Maps but man, is there a better way to download the USGS maps? It took me hours last night just to download the maps to Big Bear.

    March 31, 2013
    • You can download multiple map tiles at once by pressing on a tile, holding, and moving your finger to another tile. This selects all the tiles between where you press and where you let go. It took us 2-3 hours to download all the map tiles for the PCT this way. A good wifi connection is important too.

      April 1, 2013

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