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.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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!