the PNT

Above:  A PNT thru-hiker follows the PNT in a temperate rainforest. Photo by Tyler Yates.

Wilderness navigation is challenging on the PNT

Even experienced backpackers are surprised by how challenging it can be to follow the Pacific Northwest Trail. At this early stage of development, most of the PNT is not marked, and the correct combination of paths are usually not obvious.

For those with less navigation experience, this guide will help you to understand what to expect on the PNT and give some ideas about how you can prepare.

If you are planning a long-distance adventure on the PNT, be aware that this trail requires more skill to follow than other popular National Scenic Trails do.

Wilderness Navigation, Mountaineers Books

Why is the PNT difficult to follow?

Bushwhacking through dense forests, cross-country scrambles and labyrinth-like logging roads all offer up serious tests at various locations along the PNT’s 1,200 mile corridor. But greater challenges can reward PNT’ers with a greater sense of satisfaction.

You can plan a short trip on the PNT that avoids these areas, but on longer trips and thru-hikes, strong navigation skills are essential. For prepared outdoor enthusiasts in search of a challenge, the PNT offers a chance to test advanced skills and great rewards for those who are ready for a wilderness adventure.

  • Bushwhacking through dense forests where no trail exists
  • Mixed Class 2 and 3 scrambling in rocky areas
  • Confusing networks of unmapped logging roads
  • Following overgrown connector trails and forest roads
  • Following trails which may not have been recently maintained
  • Most of the PNT is not yet marked with signage

Use the Right Tools

Outfitting yourself with the latest information and a combination of back-up navigation tools, like those shown below, will help ensure you have the safest and most enjoyable experience possible.

  • technology can fail — always take a back-up
  • develop the skills you need before your trip
  • study maps of each section before you leave the trailhead
  • supplemental maps that show the surrounding area can be helpful
Basic Navigation Tools
Physical Maps

PNTA strip maps have notes that help with navigation and trip planning. They are updated every year so you have the most current information.

National Geographic also has large maps of the PNT in our National Parks – these are great to have for finding “bail out” routes and for identifying distant mountain peaks and other natural features.


An analog compass is useful in many situations.
It can be used to follow a compass bearing during a bushwhack without draining your battery. It is also an important back-up in case your digital device stops working. Pay attention to the magnetic declination indicated on your map; it changes frequently along the 1,200 mile corridor.

Look for a compass with:
1.  a baseplate
2. an adjustable declination setting

Smartphone and Maps

The newest smartphones come with precise GPS units. You can download a navigation app and maps and turn your phone into a powerful navigation tool.

Guthook’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest Trail is the official hiking app of the Pacific Northwest Trail Association. This map-based smartphone guide app is produced in collaboration with the PNTA to reflect the latest changes to our dynamic trail corridor.

1. GPS-equipped smartphone and:
2. Guthook’s Guide to the Pacific Northwest Trail
3. In-app purchases of section maps

1. GPS-equipped smartphone and:
2. Gaia, Backcountry Navigator, or other app
3. manually downloaded maps of the trail
4. GPS waypoints available from guidebook author, Tim Youngbluth


PNT Digest, by Tim Youngbluth

Tim’s guidebook makes the perfect companion to the PNTA mapset because they share a common set of waypoints. The Digest is the most comprehensive source of information about the PNT. It is a helpful tool for planning a trip on the PNT, or finding your way along the trail.

Take the guide with you, but save “carried weight” by bringing only the pages you need.

Get the Skills You Need

Earn confidence in the outdoors and prepare for your trip on the PNT by learning how to use a map and compass before you go. Technology is no substitute for real navigation skills. When the screen of your device goes dark, you’ll have the knowledge to find your way without it.

  • do not rely on technology alone
  • practice skills before you go
  • learn the basics with these great books
  • consider taking an outdoor education course
Suggested Reading

Finding Your Way Using Map, Compass, Altimeter & GPS
By authors: Bob BurnsMike Burns

Suggested Reading

Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills, 9th Edition
For nearly 60 years it’s been revered as the “bible” of mountaineering–and now it’s even better than ever.

Outdoor Education

The Mountaineers of Seattle, Washington offer a range of low-cost outdoor education courses.

Check their course schedule for available classes, here.

Outdoor Education

REI offers free and low-cost navigation courses at their stores, nation-wide.

Check their website for a class or event near you. Or check with your local outfitter for opportunities near you.