How Do Thru-Hikers Navigate on the AT and PCT?

How Do Thru-Hikers Navigate on the AT and PCT

When preparing to thru-hike the Appalachian Trail or Pacific Crest Trails (AT & PCT), people tend to wonder just how much navigation skill is actually needed to stay on the right path and not get lost. I’m often asked how I found my way when thru-hiking these trails and my initial reply usually starts with, “I followed the white blazes on the AT and the emblems on the PCT.” That’s my basic answer, and honestly, the majority of hikers for these long trails do just that.

While you really don’t need much navigation savvy to successfully complete the AT or the PCT, it’s definitely better and safer if you do have some basic navigation skills.

The AT is very well marked and its easy to follow if you pay attention to the signs.
The AT is very well marked and it’s easy to follow if you pay attention to the signs.

You Don’t Need to Navigate Much on the AT or PCT

When it comes to thru-hiking the AT or the PCT, the most important navigation skills are knowing where you are and whether you’re headed in the right direction on the trail. This is traditionally done with a map and compass and can include skills like knowing how to read contour lines, timing and pacing, and overall paying attention to your surroundings.

These are fundamental, basic navigation skills to have. However, to be transparent, if you were to survey a large group of thru-hikers, many wouldn’t be carrying a map or compass. Yet many of those same hikers would tell you they successfully completed the AT or PCT without them.

Here’s what they’d probably tell you:

  • The trail is really well-marked; it’s pretty tough to get lost.
  • There are loads of other hikers these days on both trails, so when in doubt, wait until someone else shows up and ask him/her.
  • Why would I carry bulky maps when I have a GPS or an app on my phone?
  • Guidebooks are heavy! There’s no need for that extra weight when I can use my phone.

And you know what? To some degree, they’re right. But, I still don’t think that blindly walking these trails is a good idea.

A compass makes it easy to check whether you’re hiking in the right direction on the trail.
A compass makes it easy to check whether you’re hiking in the right direction on the trail.

Why You Need Some Navigation Skills

Reality check: S**t happens. Sure, the AT and PCT are well-traveled, but parts of both trails can get remote in sections in the backcountry. What if you’re hiking late in the season and no one’s around? I remember when I was in the 100 Mile Wilderness on the AT in late September and I saw very few other people on the trail. What if your phone dies or you drop it in a river? What if it’s a big snow year in the Sierra Nevada section of the PCT and you can’t find the trail, or you’re walking in white-out conditions in the White Mountains of New Hampshire on the AT (this happened to me) and you can barely see a few feet in front of you?

After I thru-hiked the AT, I developed a greater appreciation for hiking navigation skills. I wanted to feel like an experienced hiker with more of an ability to read a map, contour lines, and orient. I took a class at a local outfitter to learn some basic skills and I felt more empowered. I felt that if something happened while out hiking, I had a better chance of handling it. For all these reasons, this is why I believe it’s a sound idea to have some navigation skills when hiking the AT and PCT.

The Most Important Navigation Skill

In my opinion, the top navigation skill needed to hike the AT or PCT is paying attention. Having a sense of where you’re headed in your day, knowing what markers to look for, and being present in your surroundings can really help to keep you on the trail and keep you safe. Whether I was on the AT or PCT, I always looked ahead in whatever guide I was using to know what to expect. This allowed me to feel informed and more prepared in terms of terrain to watch for, water sources, etc.

To support the skill of paying attention, these are some other tools I’ve used or ones that have been used by other thru-hikers I know.

Frequent white blazes mark the AT
Frequent white blazes mark the AT

Trail Markers

The iconic white blaze on the AT is a 6-inch-long by 2-inch-wide white paint mark on a tree, rock, telephone pole, or fence. It functions as a trail marker to let hikers know they’re still on course. They are extremely frequent on the AT, to the point that if I didn’t see one after a few minutes, I questioned if I missed a turn. Of course, that involved me paying attention, which I’ve already said is a vital navigation skill.

On the PCT, there are metal or wood emblems of the PCT symbol installed on trees and at junctions or intersections to keep us hikers going the right way. These weren’t always as frequent as the white blazes on the AT and sometimes I found I could go a whole day or more without seeing an emblem.

To quote directly from the PCTA website: “The PCT is not always easy to find. Carry maps and a compass and know how to use them. The detailed turn-by-turn descriptions in guidebooks can also be helpful in keeping you found. We recommend learning navigation skills from a skilled and experienced teacher.”

Wooden Trail Emblems are also used to mark the PCT.
Wooden Trail Emblems are also used to mark the PCT.

Navigation Devices

The popular trend these days is to use a navigation device instead of carrying a map and compass or a GPS unit, by using a Smartphone app like Guthook or GaiaGPS. In fact, I rarely saw anyone whip out a paper map when I was thru-hiking the AT and the PCT. Although, when I met my now boyfriend, Potatoes, on the PCT, I was pretty impressed he was carrying topographic maps of the trail and not using Guthook.

Guthook's AT Guide - Elevation Profiles
Guthook’s AT Guide – Elevation Profiles

Using an app has many advantages, such as being easy to have on your phone with less bulk. Guthook’s AT and PCT Guides (commonly called ‘Guthook’) are handy because you can read other hikers’ comments about things like whether a water source is still flowing or updates on trail conditions, which a map can’t tell you. Yet remember: what if your phone dies? Having a back-up form of navigation and knowing some skills can prevent a situation from turning sour.

I used Guthook while on the PCT in 2019 and have nothing bad to say about it. When Potatoes and I finished the Sierra Nevada Section this past summer, I had Guthook on my phone and he put GaiaGPS on his. I enjoyed using Gaia because it’s a topographic map, so we could see landmarks like lakes and learn the names of mountains around us. It let us appreciate what we were looking at more than Guthook, which is much more trail-specific.

Using a physical, hand-held map or GaiaGPS lets me do things like read contour lines and use my brain a bit more in other ways. For example, if I saw a river coming up, I could be fairly sure that would be a reliable water source. However, in a low snow year, I was pretty certain a small creek would be dry. I learned I could figure things out without other hiker comments.

Navigation apps are great tools, yet using a map combined with the skill of paying attention makes me feel more engaged while hiking.

The At Guide is available as a PDF or in printer book form
The AT Guide is available as a PDF or in printed book form

Guidebooks

Having a guidebook to complement the trail markers and further support navigation is very helpful. On the AT, I carried The A.T. Guide — A Handbook for Hiking the Appalachian Trail by David ‘Awol’ Miller, which is also now available in digital form for your phone. It was a valuable resource for me in terms of knowing distances, when a shelter was coming up, the next town stop, and most crucial, when the next water source would be.

It also has an elevation profile, so I knew what to anticipate for my day’s walk. If I ever questioned where I was, I could reference the book and ask myself if I passed such and such shelter or water source, for example. Again, this made it necessary for me to pay attention to my environment as I hiked, and I would often keep track of my timing to have a sense of how far I was between markers. If you get an idea of your own personal pacing, this is a good tool for measuring where you’re at on trail distance-wise.

Another popular guidebook for the AT is the Appalachian Trail Data Book by the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. For the PCT, a classic is Yogi’s Pacific Crest Trail Handbook by Jackie ‘Yogi’ McDonnell. All the mentioned books are updated each year.

Find a to learn map and compass at REI or a local outfitter
Find a class to learn map and compass at REI or a local outfitter

The Wrap-Up

While you technically don’t need serious navigation skills to hike either the AT or PCT, it is beneficial to have some, just in case. See if an REI or local outfitter nearby you offers an intro class on map and compass navigation skills. There’s also a wealth of resources available to teach yourself on YouTube.

At the bare minimum, know where you are in relation to the cardinal directions (N, S, E, W) while on trail and develop a keen sense of paying attention to your surroundings. If you rely on your Smartphone for GPS, always carry extra batteries or a battery pack. You may also want to consider hiking with someone if you don’t have a back-up form of navigation because there’s no guarantee your phone won’t die, break, or get lost.

Finally, if you don’t see a trail marker for a really long time, just turn back and retrace your steps until you do. Both the AT and the PCT are rather easy to follow without heavy-duty navigation abilities, but knowing the basics will make you feel smarter and more secure.

About the author

Heather Daya Rideout has been a life-long outdoorswoman. Her pursuits and passion for hiking and camping have taken her around the world for many long-distance trips; such as backpacking in Nepal, India, South America, Morocco, Europe, and North America. Heather has hiked the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and a route of 1,500 miles combining several Camino routes through Spain and Portugal. On any given day she would rather be outdoors than anything else and her lifestyle is a direct reflection of that deep love affair with nature. Heather currently lives in Idaho and she’s having a wondrous time experiencing the beauty it offers. You can read some of her other writing at www.wanderyoga.com.

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18 comments

  1. Great advice, not just for through hikes, but also for sections. Especially the one about PAY ATTENTION, which doesn’t require special skill but may require slowing down. Other basic tips: 1. If you don’t see a blaze or marker for awhile, turn around and look behind you. If you see one going the other way on the trail you just covered, then you’re on track. 2. Beware of side or “usage” trails leading to roads, campsites, water, viewpoints, etc. It can be easy to keep going straight on what you think is your main trail, without noticing that you’ve detoured. Even some game trails or water drainage paths look like main trails. 3. Pay attention on your maps and GPS to potential bail out routes toward roads, in case “stuff” happens.

  2. One thing we see up here in the Whites is that the AT thru-hikers don’t know where the escape routes (side trails leading off the AT) are when the weather becomes dangerous to hike in. This occurs when there are thunderstorms above treeline in the Presidentials or anytime after October 15, when winter starts up there. These are always marked as Blue-blazed trails. This has resulted in frivolous SAR callouts via SPOT or inreach when thru-hikers call out to be rescued. Since our SAR rescuers in NH are all volunteers, that’s really a bummer.
    Sure wish the apps that thru-hikers carried had the side trail listed (which GaiaGPS) does or if they just picked up a physical map when they enter the Whites.

    • Excellent point, Philip, and I agree for the awareness of those side trails for bailout being marked on apps.

      • I going backpacking with Guthook in a few weeks and will lobby for the inclusion of blue blaze side trails, at least for the Whites. I actually think it would add a lot to the app. I know they already have the data for the local trail system here.

      • I thought I was on the moon when I first hiked the AT. Then during my 265 zero days between years, I looked at the Trail via Google Earth. I was surprised how many houses and businesses butted up to the corridor. Keep track of where you are also helps first responders find you. Unless you have an inReach; then sit back bc Houston knows exactly where you are thanks to Iridium.

  3. It’ll be a sad day when you can hike a National Scenic Trail without knowing how to read a topographic map. Oh wait, I guess that day is here already.

    • I love maps, and I’ve loved them since I was a kid who’d lie on the carpet poring over the maps from the latest issue of National Geographic. But I cannot agree with your comment. We should be encouraging ways to make the backcountry more accessible. While we’re currently loving some places to death, we have a better chance of securing funding to preserve wild spaces when there are more people who care about the backcountry.

      I want people to have basic fundamental skills that will increase their chances of remaining safe. Being able to navigate safely is one of those skills. As technology improves, the need to learn an older skill declines. I learned morse code four decades ago; I don’t need it now because there are other secure ways of communicating. I don’t know how to start a fire without some bit of technology to make a spark. We can curse technology all we want, but we’re all dependent upon it in one form or another.

  4. I found sharing your adventure without having to leave the house very energizing in that it made me want to take up long hikes. It is so nice to have all the navigation and keep on track technology available today. I find it does lead to complacent behavior and I also have to remind myself regularly to pay attention to where I am going and am I on time. It is so easy to get wrapped up in the scenery and views along the trails (and off trail) that I lose track of time. Not paying attention can lead to dangerous results like getting lost, not ending up where you planned and your tent isn’t there. Sounds comical, but it can lead to being very cold, hungry, and lonely for an extended period of time. Great adventure you had and you planned well.

    • I agree, Ken. Apps and on-phone navigation is great, but it’s so rewarding to use other skills that involve our brains as well.

  5. A small orienteering compass weighs very little. I plan to hike the AT next year and will at very least bring tyvek maps for NH and Maine (to complement my Guthook app and AWOL e-pdf…I just love maps). The Whites in some cases are confusing with connecting networks of trails on treeless, often blazeless summits. The cairns are a brilliant concept but on occasion I have not been able to tell which cairn is marking which trail. AMC offers Map and Compass courses which provide basic skills that are frankly fun to apply and maintain. The need to know bail out points and alternate overnight sites NOT part of the AT is also a critical must-know item in bad weather. Great article and thank you Heather.

  6. A note on blazes just for newer hikers who may not have encountered this yet. Junctions and sudden turns are often marked with a double blaze. Keep alert for those and pause a minute to look around to be sure you are on the correct trail.

    And a note of thanks to all the volunteers who go out with scrapers, Brushes, and boundary marking paint to keep up the blazes on trails.

    • The frequent fires in the West mean there are long sections with no blazes. I did a winter hike through a recent burn area, and it wasn’t even clear where the trail was anymore. Trail crews have enough work on their hands just clearing out fallen trees & repairing the tread. While I’ve never doubted I was on the trail, finally seeing a blaze can induce a giddy delight.

  7. I use the GAIA app and recently mapped my route in Dolly Sods. The snap to grid feature is convenient but not always correct. The app took me onto an animal trail and I had to basically bushwhack through 2 miles of a blueberry patch. There were a few footprints so I wasn’t the only one fooled. Luckily I did not encounter any bears. Next time I plan a route with snap to grid I will match to a paper map before the trip.

  8. Great post Philip! The story of Geraldine Largay should hopefully convince anyone who heads into the woods, short trail or long, to gain some skills and understand basic navigation. As for apps I’m a CalTopo.com/Avenza guy because nothing else offers the amount of map layers and information I can choose for off-grid navigation… though I can see how apps like Gaia and AllTrails have a much shorter learning curve…”Luck favors the prepared” – Louis Pastuer

  9. I tried to use Alltrails when I was hiking a long section of the AT earlier this summer, it was laughable how bad it was. Doing simple tasks like choosing points on the trail like shelters or water or overlooks simply does not exist. It doesn’t even recognize AT shelters or there locations. It only allowed you to choose pre-made loops, out & backs, etc. I had to cross-reference shelters against Google & Google maps then use all trails to track my mileage. It was such a hassle. And killed my battery rather quickly.

  10. Great article. I like to carry the maps tho’ I also have the apps. Aside from a couple of flat out bewilderments on AT and PCT, the places I got most turned around on were going in and out of larger but remote campsites and esp. summits, where there were a lot of little side trails. Esp. vexing with summits, because after you’ve gone down a bit and not seen a blaze, you have to climb back up. Those are places where I have learned to pay particular attention–even sometimes taken a compass bearing to make sure I get back on the trail in the right direction.

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