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GPS for early PCT
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Eric McConnell
GPS for early PCT on 12/13/2013 18:12:47 MST Print View

My friend and I are hiking the PCT northbound this April and having a wedding in Tahoe on June 28th. If the weather agrees (which we won't know till we reach the Sierras anyway), we would like to hike straight to the wedding. Most of what I read, suggests not leaving Kennedy Meadows till after June 15. I know this is more of a guideline than a rule, I just want to be prepared. I'm Planning on leaving Kennedy Meadows end of May/early June.

I have experience in snow, living in Vail, CO for the past couple years. A few thru-hikers that said going off trail is very common in the Sierras and even harder to navigate when there is snow. I know how to use a topo and compass but plan on fine tuning my skills before I leave. I have read that a GPS is not necessary for the PCT, but Piece of Mind says a lot and my buddy is getting one for X mas so I figured I would get some input. I only plan on using it for the 400 miles between Kennedy Meadows and S. Lake Tahoe, while we are on a strict schedule. Then I don't mind veering off trail. We have narrowed down our choices to :

(i) DeLorme Earthmate GPS PN-60w S
(ii) Garmin 62s

How do you feel about these or any others you suggest. I also appreciate comments that I don't need one at all. Everything is appreciated.

Thank you,

Hiking Malto
(gg-man) - F
Re: GPS for early PCT on 12/13/2013 19:19:24 MST Print View

I used a 62s in 2011. The high Sierra is generally straightforward. The hardest ares are in the trees and snow when there are few navigational features. Check your resupplies leaving that early. MTR, reds and TM were all closed and I left KM on June 14th. You will also likely take a couple more zeros if there is much snow. It wears you out. I took three unplanned zeros in the Sierra after only taking a single zero in the first 700 miles. So factor that in. But all is not lost if you fall behind. There is a bus that runs up the east side of the Sierra to Reno that you could catch from Lone Pine north so you have many bail out points.

Edited by gg-man on 12/15/2013 06:02:11 MST.

Andrew Zajac

Locale: South West
Re: GPS for early PCT on 12/13/2013 19:35:14 MST Print View

FWIW I would skip the GPS, but bring a smartphone. I did it SOBO and the trail was still mostly snow covered in northern WA when I began. I didn't have a GPS nor the smartphone apps at that point, but found it navigable albeit stressful using halfmile maps and compass. If I were to do it again, I would still leave the GPS but use a better map so I could orient with prominent features that weren't included on the smaller half-mile maps. I would also definitely use the halfmile app or the guthook app. These can be powerful stress relievers.

Terry Sparks
(Firebug) - M

Locale: Santa Barbara, CA
Skip the GPS unit on 12/14/2013 22:15:36 MST Print View

You really don't need a stand alone GPS unit for the PCT. all you need to do is go to the "apps store" , down load the Halfmile PCT app that is free and you are good to go. I have used it on 5 trips on the PCT this summer/fall and it worked flawlessly for keeping me on the trail. The app will tell you when you are not on the trail an give you your distance to it along with a compass heading to get back on the trail. When you Re on the trail, it will give you the distances in miles, north and south, to waypoints such as water, trail junctions, roads, trail camp sites and passes, among other things that are helpful to get to where you are hiking to. And I know I already mentioned it but, it's FREE!
The other phone app you should also get is the "PCTHYOH" app and that is also free.

You can spend a couple hundred bucks to increase your pack weight or, you can get these apps that are specific to the PCT for free and are far better, do more, than a GPS unit can do with no added weight to you.
I was night hiking just south of Chicken Spring Lake in early October and didn't realize I took an unmarked trail until I was almost a mile off trail in the dark. For some reason, something just didn't seem right and checked my position on the Halfmile app for it to tell me I was no longer on the PCT. All I need to do was turn around and hike back, with the app updating the distance need to go as I got closer to the trail.

Jeff Howell
(swimming) - F
smart phones in sierras on 12/14/2013 22:21:01 MST Print View

I found a smart phone was plenty good for the PCT. Most of the time you don't even need it! But just so you know, I had no reception for most of the sierras, and often couldn't get GPS signal to work on my iphone using verizon. Definitely bring maps, and maybe a GPS if you anticipate lots of snow.

Hiking Malto
(gg-man) - F
Radically different trails on 12/15/2013 06:23:11 MST Print View

Here is the problem with interpreting the answers given to this question. You would think that you would get generally similiar answers from folks that hiked the same trail. The problem is that the trail is radically different, especially the Sierra, year to year. In late May 2011 you would have had 100% snow coverage from KM to Tahoe, there would have been snow bridges over many of the stream crossing, few footprints if any to follow and no resupply points open. In May 2012 and 2013 you would have had little snow to deal with and few logistical challenges. This changes the navigational requirements considerably.

While a smart phone may work great in what I would call low snow conditions, the battery life alone would be a show stopper in a year where navigation was a challenge. You will have people say "but I rarely have to use the GPS so the battery lasts a long time." The problem is if the conditions are bad then you will likely want the battery life and not have it. (Similar to saying my tarp works perfectly as long as it doesn't rain.) There is also a compounding effect. if the snow is bad you will likely have to deal with more contingencies which often require a bit more navigational challenges. An example of this was finding out that Reds was closed, my resupply didn't make it to VVR and I was making an unexpected resupply in Mammoth via the Mammoth Mountain? Trail. I saw a grand total of 5 ft of that trail and while there were trail markers, there were markers for multiple trails everywhere. That day alone would have burned up the entire battery of a smartphone.

I am not bad mouthing smartphones at all. I likely would go that route for much of the trail including the Sierra unless:
1) Early start.
2) High snow year

In you case you are planning an early entry, Late May and its still way too early to know the severity of the snow year. Will it more like 2011 or more like 2013? Likely somewhere in the middle since those were two of the extremes? Also, there are folks that get by without any GPS technology at all. I had plenty of snow north of Sierra City in 2011 and was able to get by using map and compass, but that also slowed me down.

Buck Nelson
(Colter) - MLife

Locale: Alaska
re: GPS for early PCT on 12/15/2013 07:53:57 MST Print View

Here is the problem with interpreting the answers given to this question. You would think that you would get generally similar answers from folks that hiked the same trail. The problem is that the trail is radically different, especially the Sierra, year to year.

As usual Malto is right. I also hiked the PCT in a very high snow year. I had talked to a PCT veteran who told me "I didn't even use maps on the PCT. I followed the trail or footprints." My experience was often very, very different.

I ran into many situations where there was no visible trail for miles or days and no footprints to follow, or places where there were tracks, but they ran in all directions and there was no way to know which set, if any, was on the right route. I ran into situations where a map did little good because falling snow and/or clouds obliterated the long views.

With good judgment and map reading skills it is definitely possible to get by without a GPS, but if there is a lot of snow it is likely to save you miles and stress.


Billy Ray
(rosyfinch) - M

Locale: the mountains
Re: re: GPS for early PCT on 12/15/2013 08:55:32 MST Print View

I agree with Buck.

But also keep in mind that following the location of the trail shown on your GPS when the trail is under snow may not be a good idea; could even be a very bad idea.

The best route for a dry trail is not necessarily the best route when there is snow cover.

For instance. A trail may be cut into a very steep slope. Very easy to walk when there is no snow. But when you get there it could be just steep and icy and there may be a better/safer route.

In other words, you still need to use good judgement and route finding skills.


Hiking Malto
(gg-man) - F
Snow routes on 12/15/2013 09:31:44 MST Print View

To build on the comment above.....I could tell going through the Sierra that most folks were using a PCT track or Halfmiles waypoints. I saw three strategies.
1) attempt to follow the trail exactly using the trail track (Not recommended.)
2) go waypoint to waypoint. Much more efficient. (The waypoints were where the tracks from method 1 and 2 converge.)
3) navigate using series of waypoints or route plotting. This is by far the most efficient. I believe this also requires the use of maps to do this broader route planning. A great example is when the trail traverses around a bowl while dropping. It will often be much easier to bomb down slope and arc back up to the trail area. You often can route up to a couple of miles at a shot. It is much easier to do this if you have common map and GPS points such as Halfmiles data and map set. It allows you to do the route mapping on the map, pick the waypoint and use the GPS for progress and directional purposes.

You may find that it is discomforting to not be on trail, said another way, it can be comforting when you spot signs that you are on trail especially if you haven't seen any signs for several hours.

Michael Driscoll
(Hillhikerz) - F

Locale: Monterey Bay
GPS for early PCT on 12/16/2013 16:42:29 MST Print View

I am going to let you and others help you decide on if you should bring one or not... however I will comment on which one you should carry... etrx 20 and a subscription for $30 with Garmin for a years worth of 24k topo maps... one can get the entire Halfmile's (a hiker of the PCT)GPS data in .gpx file format, google it... the entire length of the PCT in 24k and 50 miles east and west of it will be about 6GB give or take... there are other threads in BPL that talk about the different GPS units, they will shed some light on why... A pic of Base Camp with area coverage...

PCT _ GPX trail and map coverage

Amy Lauterbach
(drongobird) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
GPS for early PCT on 12/17/2013 09:59:40 MST Print View

Eric -

You didn't mention in your original post whether you're planning to carry an iPhone or Android phone anyway. If so, then you've already got a GPS that will do what the DeLorme and Garmins will do -- excepting that the smart phones are not waterproof and will take more effort to manage the battery life. But for purposes of the maps and the gps related functions, the smart phones are great.

If you're not planning to carry a smartphone, then ignore the rest of this message.

If you've got a smart phone, then get the apps mentioned (PCTHYOH and Halfmile PCT are great, I haven't used Guthook). If you've got an iPhone, then Gaia will let you carry the USGS and NPS (and other map sources) for the whole route, together with your waypoints and tracks. And Maplets will be useful too for USFS and NPS and many other maps. I'm not sure about mapping apps for the Android, but I have heard that Backcountry Navigator is better than Gaia on the Android platform.

If you're using an iPhone and have not already read the article about battery drain management, be sure to study it carefully:
I don't know of a comparable article for the Android phones, but if you hear of one please PM me so I can add a link to it in the iPhone article.

I can only speak for the iPhone, since that's what I use. Depending on the model (4 or 5) and carrier (ATT or Verizon), and depending on how much I use the camera and other apps, I'm getting 3 to 8 days of backcountry use on one charge. I'm getting one full recharge plus a little extra from the Jackery Mini 2600mAh battery 2.7 oz). YMWV.

For waterproofing, the LifeProof case works AOK and is light and has a slim form factor.

Good luck, Amy

Amy Lauterbach
(drongobird) - MLife

Locale: San Francisco Bay Area
GPS for early PCT on 12/17/2013 10:06:20 MST Print View

And, as others mentioned, if we don't break out of our drought cycle and get some snow here this winter, then your hike in the southern sierra will be a whole lot easier. Sad to say that the rainy season so far has been a bust. You won't be able to reasonably predict until April 1st, but as of now things are looking really dry.

This graph puts it in perspective:

The past two rainfall years have been at 60% of normal.
This year, so far, we are tracking to the two driest on record (1923-24 and 1976-77).

Anything can happen, but there are only ~100 days left in the rainy season, and the 10 day forecast is dry dry dry.

Edited by drongobird on 12/17/2013 10:17:30 MST.

Bob Gross
(--B.G.--) - F

Locale: Silicon Valley
Re: GPS for early PCT on 12/17/2013 13:38:40 MST Print View

There are some parts of California that are experiencing the driest year on record, so this is not looking good.

Backpackers kind of hate to see a snowpack that is 150% of normal, because that upsets too many summer schedules. However, we would really like it to be at least 75% of normal, just to see water runoff in the summer streams along the trails.