Determining the best guide book for the Appalachian Trail is simple, all you need is AWOL’s amazing AT Guide and you’re good to go. Cut it in half and ship the second half ahead to save some weight and fret no more. Unfortunately, the same can not be said for the Pacific Crest Trail. Prospective PCT hikers are faced with an overwhelming array of guides, maps, and books from which to choose. Have no fear though, this post will help you wade through the sea of guides and tell you exactly what you’ll need, both before the trail to prepare and on trail to navigate.

I’m going to start by listing some of the available resources for PCT guide books and maps (With links to the listed resource). Buckle up, there are quite a few:

It’s amazing that there are this many guides and maps available for the PCT and yet there isn’t one great option with which to go! (Someone needs to convince AWOL to do the PCT!) The sheer amount of choices presented to potential thru hikers can create quite the conundrum as far as what to read and what to take with you on trail. Let’s simplify this mess.

I’m going to divide my choices up into two categories: Pre-Trail reading and On-Trail reading. I’ll list the chosen resources below each category and offer a little insight as to why they are the best. Remember, though this article is based primarily on my experiences and preferences on trail, it also reflects what a majority of PCT thru hikers my year (2014) were doing as well.

Pre-Trail Reading:

This category is for the resources that are best read before you even get on trail. Though they’ll help you prepare for the hike, you’ll likely be leaving these at home when you start your hike.

1.) Yogi’s Pacific Crest Trail Handbook – This is THE PCT guide book for preparing for a thru-hike. Though it is specific to the PCT, it offers many great tips and explains some of the intricacies of thru hiking in a way no other book does. What’s great is that it offers advice from many types of thru hikers, instead of offering one thru hiker’s opinion. If you have never thru hiked before, this book is a great guide to the world of thru hiking and I’d highly recommend it. If you have thru hiked, this book can still be useful, as it helps answer some of the questions you may have about the PCT. It is also a valuable resource for planning your PCT hike; the back half of the book consists of mileages and data (such as resupply availability, town maps, and town features) on all of the town stops along the PCT. These town pages are actually perforated and can be taken on trail, though I found that I never really used them. Google maps and some of the phone apps that I’ll mention later proved to be sufficient for town reconnaissance. Definitely give this book a whirl, especially if you are inexperienced.

On-Trail Reading:

This category is for the resources you’ll need on the trail. They’ll help keep you on-trail and informed on your position, destination, surroundings, and resource availability (such as water). I’m going to sub-divide this category into two sections: Physical Resources and Phone Apps.

Physical Resources

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1.) Half Mile’s Printable PCT Maps – These are the best maps for the PCT. They are frequently updated, easy to read, full of points of interest, accurate, correspond with the phone app, and best of all: free (well mostly, you’ll have to print them off). These maps will help you stay found on trail while also giving you a little insight into what terrain surrounds you. They also show campsites, potential water sources, and much more. The only issue with these maps is that there are just so many of them (A printed set of these maps is roughly equivalent to a ream of paper). My advice is to print them double sided and start the trail with a couple sections worth of the maps. As you progress on trail, you learn whether or not you really need the maps. If you like the maps and use them frequently, you can have someone mail the future sections to you as you hike. If you don’t have a great printer, consider ordering a printed map set from Yogi’s Website.

2.) The Water Report – This is absolutely essential for the Southern California desert sections of trail. This very compact (A couple of printed pages) report will give you the latest info on the few water sources found in the dry sections of trail. While you shouldn’t rely on this info (or water caches for that matter) having up-to-date info on potential water sources will make life much more pleasant in the hot desert. Make sure to print the water report out as close to your departure date as possible, so that you get the latest info (the report is frequently updated by hikers). In addition, it’s a good idea to update your water report as you progress though the desert.

Phone Apps

1.) Half Mile’s PCT Smartphone App (For iOS) (For Android) – This app acts as a companion to the paper Half Mile maps. It uses GPS to tell you your current mile marker, nearby points of interest (campsites, water, etc.) and allows you to easily locate yourself on the paper maps. It does not offer digital maps/topos but is still very useful. It also contains great data about towns, potential detours/alternate routes, and some resupply info. Between this app and the next two mentioned, you’ll have no need for a data book. Thanks to Half Mile’s generosity, this app is free!

2.) PCTHYOH (PCT Hike Your Own Hike) Smartphone App (For iOS) (For Android) – Another great free app, PCTHYOH is a sort of do-it-all PCT app. This app stores all sorts of important PCT information in your phone’s memory so it can be viewed offline, when you don’t have cell signal. Some of the app’s storing capabilities include: digital Half Mile maps, current water report, current snow reports, weather, town data, fire reports, and more. You can also update blogs and send GPS coordinates in app. Just get it, it’s free!

3.) Guthook’s Pacific Crest Trail Guide (GPS) Smartphone App (For iOS) (For Android) – This was my go to app for the PCT. It uses GPS to tell you exactly where you are on a series of digital topo maps. In addition to the detailed topo features, it has all the data you’d need on trail: campsites, town info, water sources, POI’s, privies, and more. It’s a very nice looking app and is easy to use. It can also display an elevation profile of the trail with your current position, which is very helpful for figuring out just how much climbing you’ve got left. Honestly, assuming no phone malfunctions or batteries dying, I think you could do the entire PCT with just this app and a water report (relying solely on a phone would NOT be smart though). All of this functionality comes with a cost though. You can choose to buy the entire trail in the app for around $25 or you can buy sections as you progress for $5.99. Fortunately, the first part of the PCT is free to try so test it out and see if it works for you.

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