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.
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
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
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
WILDERNESS NAVIGATION, 3RD EDITION
Finding Your Way Using Map, Compass, Altimeter & GPS
By authors: Bob Burns, Mike Burns
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.
The Mountaineers of Seattle, Washington offer a range of low-cost outdoor education courses.
Check their course schedule for available classes, here.
The Pacific Northwest Trail’s story is still being written and you can be part of it. Of America’s eleven National Scenic Trails, the PNT is among the newest, having earned the designation in 2009.
Why is this important to know? It can be easy to take for granted how long-distance trails come into being.
Each long-distance trail has its own story that chronicles how it transformed from a rugged concept to a refined continuous pathway. Advocacy work by the PNTA, financial support from our members, and countless weekends spent working on the trail by dedicated volunteers, are all chapters in the story of a trail that unfolds across generations.
This chapter in the story of the PNT is a familiar one; it’s very similar to the stories of the Pacific Crest and Appalachian Trails, which earned federal designation fifty years ago, when the National Trails System Act of 1968 was first established. Like they originally were, the PNT has largely been cobbled together from a network of pre-existing hiking trails through the backcountry; but also: bike paths, old rail beds, dirt roads, paved roads, bushwhacks, cow paths, and beaches.
Today, the PNT offers an experience that may be more challenging and rugged than it will be a generation from now. Until then, making the effort to be fully prepared for an adventure on the PNT is key to having a safe and enjoyable trip.
In 2017, five paid PNTA trail crews gave a combined 45 weeks of maintenance toward the improvement of the Pacific Northwest Trail, but the challenges that we face in the care of the PNT are bigger than we can handle alone.
Our trail’s users and volunteers, like you, can help us to assess and report the latest field conditions as they occur. You can get involved by visiting pnt.org/maps and submitting a comment form.