I am not a huge fan of this term “Apps”, but at least (most) everyone (sorry Mom) knows what I mean by it. I wanted to start a series of quick PCT Guides with this topic because it is one of the few I have not seen discussed extensively. I have no doubt there are many great blog posts about it, but most of the information I had before starting the trail was pieced together guesswork. This guide is from the perspective of someone who dislikes paper and therefore eschews physical maps.
That’s right, you really don’t need paper maps. (on the PCT)
I understand the map lobby’s perspective and their extreme distaste for the comment above. Yes, phones are electronics and electronics are prone to failure. Working in IT, I am all too familiar with the phenomena that provides my job security. That said, when was the last time your phone actually failed when you didn’t throw it under a moving garbage truck or drunkenly drop it in the toilet? By failed, I don’t mean you lost 4G or your call dropped, I mean it wouldn’t turn on or respond to commands. The answer for most of you: never. Now I grant you circumstances are more precarious for both your person and the phone on this type of journey, but if you secure you gear and treat it properly, hardwear failure is an unlikely scenario.
This Office Manager Eco-Friendly dream is at least partially contingent upon two major assumptions for it to be safe (besides the Apps):
- Battery backup to recharge your electronics
- Reviewing your route prior to blindly walking off into the wilderness
- Sadly, not really a requirement
You can read about my charger in my PCT Gear Guide, lots of options there. For #2 I am referring to doing a bit of recon before taking your trip. The PCT is really just a series of 3-5 day (sometimes shorter or longer, yes I know) backpacking trips with short breaks in between. Taking basic preparation steps like understanding where long water carries are in the next section, where you cross roads, solid options for campsites each day, etc., while you are in town can be hugely helpful to organizing it in your mind as you go. Flexibility is incredibly important, but knowing the tools you have to work with already helps limit the amount of time spent navigating while hiking. Then each day before you start and when you end, use the resources available to you like the ones discussed in this guide to refresh yourself and commit water options, camp spots, Raods and other navigational tools to memory. After that, quick phone checks for distance and time information is all you will need.
My final point before discussing the apps is this: some people like maps. I UNDERSTAND. I also kind’ve like maps. I know how to navigate using a map and compass, I can read a Topographical map. These skills are very helpful (especially reading Topo Maps), but really aren’t necessary to complete a Thru-Hike. Some reliance on others may be required, but anyone who pretends that a Thru-Hike is a solo activity (not looking at you crazy bush-men of the trail) is kidding themselves.
But wait, what happens when I don’t have cell coverage?
I’m not going to try and explain how Cell Coverage works and Data vs. GPS, etc. etc. What I will say is that for the apps discussed within, all we are concerned with is GPS coverage. You have GPS coverage even if in Airplane Mode with no Cell signal. GPS coverage has many factors controlling it, but for you, it primarily just matters how bad the GPS receiver in your phone is and whether you have at least reasonable exposure to the sky (no forest, mountains, large Albatross obscuring your line to satellites). YOU WILL NOT ALWAYS HAVE GPS COVERAGE. This is where #2 from earlier becomes very important: BE PREPARED. As long as you have a general idea where water is, the trail is easy to follow. You can find camping and likely you’ll only be out of coverage for a short period until you climb back up anyway. You will also have access to PDF versions of the maps on your phone, because you read this guide, so there’s nothing to be worried about….
3 quick notes.
- You need a smartphone.
- I use Android, I will mention iPhone.
- This is not a guide on using the applications, just a quick review. Feel free to ask questions in the comments.
The baseline and probably by far the most widely used App on the trail, Android or iPhone. Halfmile is my quick-check reference as well as a huge help in planning for the day. The iPhone version offers a few more features, but both will show you upcoming water (doesn’t mean there actually is water of course), camping, road crossings, town hitch points, etc. It will also tell you the Elevation changes between you and your destination or your exact mileage. Make sure to utilize the Simulation Mode if you currently don’t have GPS signal and you can generally estimate still with the App.
Guthook’s is a great tool and really what I base all my planning off of logistically. This became difficult after the Sierras due to mileage’s being off with Halfmile, but Guthook has stated this should be fixed within the next month or so and should not affect the main hiking season for 2016. The downloadable pictures of Campsites, water sources, towns, etc. can be very helpful and Elevation Graphs help you visualize the pain that you will be in that day. It is also extremely easy to filter between different types of Points of Interest if you are specifically looking for water for example. While in towns, water notes will update on your phone as long as you have Data signal or Wifi and you can also see notes regarding various points from hikers along the trail ahead of you. I found those notes only marginally helpful, but sometimes it was nice to have in your back pocket.
Yes, these Apps are $5.99 a piece and there are 5 sections to make up the whole trail. That’s a $30 complete trail logistics solution…not bad.
Make sure to download the Adobe Reader app and you are good to go. All of the same paper maps, nicely tucked away in a folder on your phone. The bigger screen you have the better, but you can always zoom in and out. Is this as good as looking at a big paper map? Of course not, but this is just backup in case of emergency, you have apps for the rest and meanwhile aren’t dumping your $50 worth of printed maps in the Warner Springs hiker box.
This same site will allow the downloads of Trail notes and inform on updates or major Trail changes.
The link above also allows you to print off all the maps, if you read through all this and decided….”This guy is obviously an idiot, I’m choosing to go with the direct opposite path. My future as a Cartographer is sealed.”
Download your water reports here when you get to town. If you are an awesome person (I hope to be one this year) send in your reports to them email@example.com, this will help keep the trail water situation updated for everyone. More detailed instructions are @ the link provided.
That’s really about it. I know I could provide more information or guides on use of these Apps, but the point is this: you can do it. You can do it with just a phone, your wits and a backup battery. Contrary to your daydreams, you aren’t discovering these wild spaces for the first time, people with GPS tracking devices and lots of dehydrated food have been there well before you.