I’ve been back from the trail for so long now that I’m having trouble remembering the details. Luckily, I have my pictures, which are sometimes a better way to remember the trail than actual memory. Look at Washington, or the New England Trail from last year– as painful as those two hikes were, the pictures make me wish that I was there again. Human memory is such a subjective thing, all it takes are a few good pictures that make an experience look like more fun than it was in reality, and we’re wishing we could do it all over again. Knowing how miserable some of those days in Washington were, I’d still do it again. I don’t care how painful it was. Well, I’d give it a few months now.
But that’s not what I’m here to talk about today. Today is the final myth of the PCT, the myth of guidebooks.
In all my time hiking on the Appalachian Trail and the Long Trail, I’ve grown used to guidebooks that are very well written, packed with useful information and options for books that have no extraneous information. In fact, geared toward through-hikers of the Appalachian Trail, there are three very good options: The Through-Hiker’s Companion, The Through-Hiker’s Handbook, and The AT Guide. Each of these has a data-book style mileage sheet, town guides, shelter guides, water and resupply info, and just about anything you could want. It doesn’t work that way for the PCT.
I’ll list the options that I know of below, along with the pros and cons of each (although mostly cons, because I’m a pessimist). Note that my knowledge of these books comes from the 2010 versions. I’m sure many will disagree with me on these assessments, but this is just what I found over the six months that I was out there. Please keep the hate mail to a minimum unless you have something productive to say.
Notes from 2013: I’ve been thinking about adding some perspective to this article from 3 years removed from the PCT. With Guthook’s PCT Guides for iPhone and Android now a staple of the PCT guides repertoire, I have a lot more appreciation for how difficult maintaining a guide for the PCT is. The italics at the end of each section are my updated notes.
Wilderness Press Books and Data Book
The official guidebooks for the PCT are large, bulky tomes, updated every several years by Jeffrey P. Schaffer. There are three volumes for the entire trail: Southern California, Northern California, and Oregon/Washington. Each book has extensive maps of the PCT and side trails, although they’re not very detailed maps– just trails and some major features, but no topographical data. They also have mailing information and directions to towns in case you need to send yourself packages, but there’s not a great deal else regarding towns.
The biggest shortcoming for the Wilderness Press books is their size. Schaffer goes into great detail describing every turn and every natural feature that you can see from the trail. It is exceptionally verbose, which is not something I’m interested in carrying with me on a long-distance hike. It’s a fine read when at home, but there’s no reason to carry such lengthy descriptions on your hike. Most people cut the book into pieces that were easier to carry, but the only parts that were really useful were the maps, which is only a small portion of the book in general. Since the mileage information is buried in the heaps of text, the PCTA publishes a Data Book companion to the guidebooks. It takes mileage points directly from the guidebooks and lists them in a spreadsheet. This is much simpler than the guidebooks, but lacks maps (which is fine). The downside I saw to the data book is that it has several ambiguous waypoints. For instance, one of my friends pointed out his favorite: “shallow divot.” What does that look like? Who knows. But I sure hope I don’t have to keep an eye out for it.
Notes from 2013: I haven’t really heard anything more about this guide set since hiking in 2010. My guess is that Halfmile’s and Guthook’s guides have pushed it further down the ladder as guidebook of choice for PCT hikers.
Long-distance hiker Yogi publishes a pair of books that were recommended to me as the best information for planning the PCT, and she seems to be the long-standing alternative to the Wilderness Press books. Her books come together, one a large tome with planning information, the other a smaller book with town and trail info. It seems like a very good book, and even includes contributions from a dozen other hikers who hiked in different years from Yogi. I used Yogi’s trail/town guide for most of the trail, finally giving up on it when I got to Washington. Why?
I found Yogi’s information to be oftentimes outdated, but most of all extremely opinionated. Since the book was mostly useful as a guide to towns, I found myself opening it only when I arrived at a resupply location. Each time, her maps of towns were basic and missed out on many of the best parts of a town. In other cases, she would spend multiple paragraphs lauding certain establishments that most hikers found to be mediocre at best, while glossing over or completely leaving out hiker favorites like the Big Bear Hostel, or the Apple Shed in Tehachapi. She spent so much time describing how wonderful certain areas were that I felt cheated when I left a place I had loved in order to hurry to Yogi’s recommended places that turned out to be disappointments. The towns that I found to be the best of the entire trail were barely mentioned, and the best food I ate in trail towns came from restaurants that were entirely left out of her book. Oftentimes I asked locals about places that were highly recommended by her, and less than half the time would the locals say anything good about those restaurants.
To make matters worse, the information became less accurate as the trail progressed. I ended up losing two resupply packages because her mailing information was wrong– in one case an address had been changed five years ago and never been updated in her (yearly) book. Most of the talk that I heard about Yogi revolved around her unwillingness to take suggestions from her readers, including updates to information like that outdated address. I think I’ll stay away from this kind of town guide in the future and just use an iPhone with Google Maps and Yelp instead. Plenty of other hikers had much better luck with that.
Notes from 2013: My opinion of Yogi has changed more than of any other guidebook for the PCT. While I still disagree with most of the opinions in her books, the effort it takes to maintain such a comprehensive guide is staggering. I would recommend Yogi’s book to aspiring through-hikers, but with the caveat that you should never take all of the book’s information as gospel. I have great respect for Yogi’s ability to create the guidebooks and maintain them over the years.
Eric The Black’s PCT Atlas
Eric the Black is a relative newcomer to the PCT guides circuit, and he may have shot himself in the foot this year. His books seem to be pretty amazing at first glance. The layout of each page is simple and intuitive, with a section of map with waypoints and mileages, and a databook-style mileage list on the facing page with an elevation profile, simple icons to represent water sources, campsites, road crossings, trailheads, and so on. I used Eric’s books in combination with Yogi’s, since his had extensive information on the trail itself, while Yogi’s had more information for towns.
If you hear anything from this year’s through-hikers, though, you’ll hear how much everyone wanted to kill Eric the Black. His elevation profiles were extremely inaccurate (at times showing miles of downhill when, in fact, there were huge climbs in those sections of trail), and his maps were not always entirely accurate, either. I found the guidebook to be passable and continued to use them for the entire trail, but I had to train myself not to trust them too much. Oftentimes there were glaring inaccuracies that got hikers lost when they wanted to follow his maps– campsites listed that turned out to be in completely inaccessible places, trails that followed dirt roads that never showed up, or water sources that were impossible to find– but if you take his maps with a grain of salt you can usually do fine. And I think most people were okay with that, except that the full set of guidebooks cost around $200. Eric is planning the next edition of his books for next year or the year after, and I’m pretty sure he’s taken steps to correct the inaccuracies. I hope he also realizes that charging such high prices for the books doesn’t always lead to people feeling very good about inaccurate information.
Notes from 2013: I haven’t heard much about Eric’s PCT Atlas since 2010. I’m guessing the time it took to switch from 2nd edition to 3rd edition probably caused a lot of backlash from through-hikers. As I’ve said with Yogi’s books, the amount of work it takes to make these guides is incredible, so I can’t blame Eric for the few inaccuracies. What I have heard about Eric’s guides, though, is that his John Muir Trail and Colorado Trail guides are top notch. I hope to hike the Colorado Trail some day, and I’ll grab Eric’s book without a second thought.
Another relative newcomer to the guidebook scene is Halfmile. Many hikers used Halfmile’s maps this year, and they were mostly much happier than those who used Eric The Black’s books. Why? Halfmile’s maps are free. All you have to do is download them from his website, print them out, and you’ve got yourself a full map of the PCT. I’ll admit that I found Eric’s maps to be more pleasing to the eye, but Halfmile’s are more accurate. Guess which is more important.
It’s hard to go wrong with Halfmile’s maps with the price tag. The only gripe I would have, and it’s a small one, is that the full set of maps takes hundreds of sheets of paper, which might be a pain to print out if, like me, you have no printer. Halfmile realizes this, and has a link on his page to one of his preferred printing services which will print high-quality versions of his maps for $75. That’s still cheaper than Eric’s books. The only thing you have to worry about is sending yourself the maps of each section of trail, since carrying several hundred sheets of paper is probably not going to work out so well while you’re hiking. In general, I’d say this might be your best bet if you’re planning a PCT hike anytime soon.
Notes from 2013: Halfmile has pretty much become the established heavyweight of PCT maps, and with good reason. Everything I said in 2010 still holds true.
Paul Bodnar is yet another newcomer to PCT guidebooks. His Pocket PCT was nearly unknown this year, but I’d bet that it will be more common in the near future. I’ll admit that I hiked with Paul for much of the PCT this year, and I was impressed by his dedication to making a perfect guide. He made a GPS track of the entire trail, taking waypoints for just about everything that a hiker could want, and his next year’s version of the Pocket PCT will probably blow the official Databook out of the water. His current version of the book is basically just elevation profiles combined with mileage data for the entire trail, with basic information on resupply points. The entire trail is covered in three tiny books (actually pocket sized, not like most pocket-sized books).
Notes from 2013: Paul is my partner in creating the Guthook’s PCT Guides for iPhone and Android, so all of the information from Pocket PCT is also included in the apps (plus a TON more, like photos, descriptions, interactive elevation profiles, maps, etc.). He still maintains the Pocket PCT book, and it’s still the best data book out there.
My recommendation, if you need one, is that you go with Halfmile’s maps combined with the Pocket PCT. As far as I can tell, these are the most accurate and concise guides to the PCT, and the price is as good as you can get. Neither has perfect town guides, but the best town guides for the PCT that I found were the locals, not some hiker’s guidebook. But really, you’ll find problems with any guidebook, no matter how perfect it is. Just don’t take any of them as absolute truth.
Notes from 2013: Well, now I also recommend taking Guthook’s PCT Guide for iPhone and Android. Paul, his wife Alice, and I have put thousands of hours of work into making these apps the best supplement to paper guides that can be found anywhere. I’ve heard from lots of through hikers that the apps have helped them in uncountable circumstances.
Working on these guides has given me a deep appreciation for the work that Yogi, Eric, Halfmile, and others do to maintain guides. None of us do it to make a comfortable living. We do it because we love the trail.