When I first started hiking I was so enamored with the adventure of the trail that I failed to recognize that there are a million hiking terms kicking around.
As I began to tackle more and more miles everything began to slow down and I realized there was a hiking language all of its own. I found myself completely overwhelmed by all the terminology and slang that was being tossed around on a regular basis.
Just like any other hobby or practice, there are words and phrases that have different meanings than face value. Sitting around and having a conversation with a group of seasoned hikers left me scratching my head at times and wondering what the hell they were talking about.
Everyone has been more than happy to share their knowledge and help me learn along the way. There were obviously times where I was left to try and decipher the terms on my own, but that’s half the fun.
Hiking, Thru-hiking, and Trekking Useful Terminology
Believe it or not, there are a large number of terms related to hiking to learn. A lot of these terms are used fairly often, either when on the trail or engaged in a conversation about hiking.
There are going to be some obscure terms left off of the list, feel free to share them in the comments and we will add them accordingly. Hopefully, this list takes your trail tongue/hiker speak to the next level.
Access trail: A trail created and maintained to connect a primary trail to a road, campground, or another trail.
Acclimatization: The process through which your body adjusts to reduced oxygen levels associated with a significant rise in elevation.
Aiguille: A sharp pinnacle of rock in a mountain range.
Alcohol stove: An ultraportable backpacking stove that runs on denatured alcohol and is used to boil water and prepare trail meals.
Alpine zone: The area high on peaks and mountains where trees and large bushes do not grow. The elevation varies depending on depending on the region and mountain range.
Altimeter: An instrument used to measure altitude.
Altitude sickness or AMS: Typically occurring at or around 8,000 feet above sea level. It causes dizziness, nausea, headaches, and shortness of breath.
Angel food: Food or hot meals given to thru-hikers by trail angels ( the salt of the earth).
Ascent – To climb upward while gaining elevation, usually used to describe tackling a mountain or large hill.
AT – Appalachian Trail. A 2,200-mile hike and one leg of the “triple crown” of thru hikes.
Aqua blazing – Canoeing or floating a portion of the trail.
Backcountry: Remote or sparsely populated rural areas; wilderness. Areas that are difficult to access due to lack of roads and even trails.
Bagging the peak: Reaching the top or summit of a mountain.
Bare boot: Hiking (usually in winter) without the use of crampons, snowshoes, skis, or any other traction aids.
Base weight: The total combined weight of your backpacking gear excluding consumables such as food, water, and fuel. This is the weight of only the gear and should be limited to anywhere from 30 pounds and lower.
Base layer: The first layer of clothing that is closest to your skin which is sweat wicking and quick drying.
Bearing: A direction, usually assigned a degree, used when navigating with a compass.
Bear bag: A bag for food used by hikers that is hung high and out of reach of bears, at least 12 feet high.
Beta: Information that is specific to a hike from someone who recently completed it. Tricky spots, caches, shortcuts, and other insider information that makes trail life a little easier.
Bite valve: The end of a hydration bladder that you bite down on to drink water out of. It lets water flow when pressure is applied.
Bivy sack: A thin and waterproof layer of protection that protects your sleeping bag from the elements. Used by ultralight hikers as a shelter and an emergency shelter in a pinch.
Blaze: A spot or mark on a tree, rock, or sign that is used to identify a trail route. Often a paint spot or arrow used to guide hikers along the official route of the trail.
Bliss index: An informal rating used to measure a hikers happiness on the trail, 10 is the happiest.
Blue blaze: Eliminating a section of a trail by taking side trails, used to shorten the route and burn some miles quickly.
Book time: The estimated time to complete the trail found in guidebooks. The basic formula is 30 minutes for every mile and 30 minutes for every 1000 feet of elevation gain.
Bonk: Running out of energy due to lack of calories.
Bug trap: Unwashed and stinky sleeping gear. This happens after a week or two on the trail and should be remedied ASAP. Don’t be the stinky kid on the trail.
Broken out: A trail in the snow that has been packed down beforehand by hikers in snowshoes.
Bushwack: Blazing your own trail. Fighting your way through dense overgrowth and brush. It is slower and should be avoided as much as possible to preserve the environment.
Cairne: A stacked pike of stones that resembles a pyramid used to mark the trail. Much easier to spot in snow and fog.
Cache: A stash of gear and supplies that are hidden along the trail for retrieval at a later time.
Calorie loading: Eating as much high carb, high fat, and high-calorie food while in town for a stop.
Camel up: The practice of drinking as much water as possible from a source knowing that there is not a resupply point for a long time (also known as Tank up).
Canister stove: A small stove that doubles as a pot stand and uses a pressurized fuel canister that attaches to a threaded hub. The most popular choice among thru hikers.
Cat hole: A 6-8 inch hole dug to bury poop in.
CBS: Cold butt syndrome. This occurs when you sleep in a hammock without an underquilt.
CDT: Continental Divide Trail. A 3,100-mile trail and one leg of the “triple crown” of thru hikes.
Col: A pass between two mountains or a gap in the ridge.
Comfort hiker: The person who believes that 50 pounds on the back with everything including the kitchen sink is safer than using ultralight gear.
Cowboy camping: Camping like a cowboy with nothing more than a sleeping bag on the ground.
Cowboy coffee: Making coffee using nothing more than a cup of boiled water with coffee grounds added to the cup. Wait for the grounds to sink to the bottom and enjoy.
Crampon: A set of spikes that attach to your boot to prevent slippage when walking on ice.
Crest: The highest point on the trail.
Crotch rot: The unpleasant condition occurring in both men and women when the nether regions are neglected.
Cryptosporidium: An infection caused by a single-celled parasitic organism also known as “crypto” and found in water sources in the wild.
Day Hiker: You will smell them from a mile away. Freshly showered and the strong scent of deodorant their freshly showered smell and full bottles of clean water stick are in stark contrast to the average thru hiker.
Declination (Magnetic declination): When using a map or a compass for navigation, declination is the difference between magnetic North and true North.
Dirtbag: The avid outdoorsman or women who fully embrace the outdoor life while ignoring the cleanliness standards the rest of society observes.
Dome tent: A tent that is shaped like a geodesic circle. It’s a tent that resembles a half circle when pitched.
Draft tube: An extra layer of insulation at the top of a sleeping bag which prevents air from getting inside the sleeping bag.
Drumlin: Elongated or tear shaped hill formed by glacial debris or drifts.
DWR: Durable water repellent. A rating applied to the outer fabric of outdoor gear.
End to ender: A term used for a 2000 mile hiker.
Extension collar: The material at the top of a backpack that can be used to overload a backpack.
External frame pack: A large hiking backpack that uses supports that rest on the outside of the backpack. External frame backpacks position the weight high on the back allowing comfortable weight transfer to the hips.
Eyelet: Found on hiking boots, they are small holes with a metal collar that you run the laces through your hiking boots.
Fall line: The most direct route down from any slope, mountain, or hill.
False lead: A path that looks just like the trail but will take you down the wrong path.
Fastpacking: A cross between backpacking and mountain running, resulting in covering lots of miles covered in a short period of time.
Fiver: A short break, usually five minutes.
FKT: “Fastest known time”. This is the fastest known time that a trail has been completed (difficult to verify).
Flop house: Affordable housing commonly used amongst thru-hikers.
Footprint: The area that a tent or shelter takes up on the ground.
Freestanding: A tent, that when set up properly does not require any tie downs or stakes. Just keep your fingers crossed for no wind.
Gaiters: Garment worn over your shoes and lower legs used as protective personal gear to keep out snow, dust, and debris.
Glissade: The only way to descend a snow slope. You sit down on your rear and slide down the hill, think sledding minus the sled.
GAS: Gear acquirement syndrome. The unnecessary need to acquire new hiking toys that you may not need.
Gear head: That friend of yours who can never get enough hiking, camping, and backpacking gear.
Gear loft: A small area in a tent that is supported by a small cloth or pocket used to keep items that need to be easy to reach.
Giardia: An infection in your small intestine that is acquired through contaminated water. It’s caused by a microscopic parasite called Giardia Lamblia.
Gore-tex: A waterproofing material that is used on nylon and other outdoor products.
GORP: Trail mix, a high calorie, and simple trail snack. Acronym for good old raisins and peanuts or granola, oats, raisins, and peanuts.
GPS: Global positioning satellite, chances are you already know what this is and how it works. It is a constellation of satellites above that are able to locate you, as well as, give directions to a handheld device held by hikers.
Grey water: Grey water is the runoff from dishwater that should never be dumped within 200 feet of any freshwater sources.
Ground control: The person at home who handles the real world tasks the thru-hiker can’t attend to.
Groundling: A person who chooses to sleep on the ground every chance possible.
Guy lines: A cord or string used to attach and stabilize the rainfly above a tent.
Habitat: The natural home or environment of an animal, plant, or any other organism.
Half bench: A trail that is excavated out of the side of a hill and the trail is built with the excavated material.
Hammock: A sleeping system that hangs between two trees and rests at roughly a 30° angle. The most comfortable and lightest way to sleep while on the trail.
Hand wands: Slang term for trekking poles.
Happy camper: Being content with the situation at hand.
Height of land: The elevation that a hike begins, starting elevation.
Herd path: The unofficial path that hordes of hikers make when unintentionally taking the same path. Not always a good thing.
Hiker box: A cabinet or area at hostels where other hikers unwanted foods for the next hiker to arrive.
Hiker fridge: A hole dug into the ground and covered up to keep food cool.
Hiker funk: After a month or two on the trail the stench and grime become difficult to get out of your clothes. You stink… Really, really bad.
Hiker heaven: The home of Jeff and Donna Saufley who go out of their way to act as trail angels to everyone on the PCT. They will help with laundry, resupply packages, and general information.
Hiker hunger: The empty feeling in your stomach that you get used to after burning more calories than you consume on a daily basis.
Hiker midnight: Usually around 9 or 10 pm. Hikers wake with the sun and this time guarantees 8 hours of sleep each and every night.
Hiker shuffle: The way a thru hiker walks after taking off their pack. It resembles an elderly person who waddles as they walk.
Hiker tan: Not much of a tan, more of a layer of dirt that covers every area of exposed skin. Like a spray tan but with dirt.
Hiker widow: A loved one left at home while their significant other sits at home.
Headlamp: A flashlight that attaches to your head and shines a light in any direction that your head is facing.
Heel stepping: A method of walking down a hill with your heels digging into the snow to prevent slippage.
HEET: Liquid fuel in a metal container used to power a backpacking stove.
High point: The highest point on any given trail and often a source of pride to reach.
Hermit hiker: The hiker who prefers to walk alone.
Home free – The last leg of the hike when you can smell and taste the pleasures of home.
Hook and loop: A trail term for velcro.
Hostel: Affordable accommodations along the trail that has bunks, shared showers, mail drops, and occasionally a kitchen.
Hump: To carry an excessive load.
Hut: Permanent backcountry shelter that acts as a shelter for thru hikers. It can be an established building or a dilapidated structure.
Hydration bladder: A hydration system built as a backpack or waste pack containing a bladder made of rubber and plastic. It comes with a hose that reaches your mouth for easy access.
HYOH: Hike your own hike. You don’t have to keep a brutal pace for bragging rights, hike at your own pace.
Hypothermia: An abnormally low body temperature caused by prolonged exposure to freezing temperatures.
Iceberg: Enormous rocks that are placed strategically on the ground put in place to discourage people from abusing an overused campground.
Insole: Extra padding that rests inside of your boot for increased comfort.
Internal frame pack: The supporting frames of the backpack are on the inside of the pack rather than the outside. Internal frame packs have a larger volume, allow more mobility, and provide better stability.
John Muir Trail: A 211-mile section of the PCT that runs from Yosemite Valley to Mount Whitney. Often referred to as the finest scenery in the United States, the majority of the hike is in the Alpine Zone.
Junction: The intersection of trails.
Katahdin: The highest peak in the state of Maine, it is the Northern terminus of the AT. In other words, the finish line.
Knob: A prominent rounded hill or mountain, often used in the Southeastern United States.
Krummholz: “Crooked, bent, twisted wood”. Stunted or deformed vegetation.
Lash: Long ass section hike
Lash point: A loop or ring on the exterior of gear that allows you to attach any desired accessory for easy access.
Lean to: A permanent or temporary simple shelter that has three walls and an open end.
Leave No Trace: 7 principles put in place to promote conservation and sustainability of the wilderness.
Loft: The amount of air inside the insulating material of a sleeping bag, or in simpler terms, the fluffiness.
Long distance hiker: A loosely defined term that describes any hiker who takes a 2-week hike or longer.
Look, the: A determined stare that every thru hiker who accomplishes the trail develops at some point or another, you can see the focus in their eyes.
Loop trail: A circular route that leads back to the starting place without repeating any parts of the trail.
Lumbar padding: Extra passing or support placed in the lower back are of a pack.
Lyme disease: An inflammatory disease caused by bacteria from ticks.
MacGyver: An old TV show where the star could make anything out of nothing. It is a slang term for any temporary fixes along the trail that involve creativity and ingenuity.
Mail drop: A resupply package mailed to a hiker at prearranged locations throughout a thru hike.
Misery index: A number from 1 to 10 that measures a hikers personal misery or unhappiness level with 1 being the lowest rating.
Moccasin mail: Inspirational messages left behind by hikers to lift others spirits.
Monorail: A narrow section of snow and ice that remains on the trail in spring that you are forced to traverse while balancing carefully.
Mountain money: Toilet paper
Mouse hanger: A string hanging from the pack with a can or plate around the string to block mice from raiding your pack.
MPD: The pace you hike, miles per day.
Mud hooks: Muddy footprints on the trail left behind by those ahead of you.
Multi-fuel stove: A backpacking stove that will burn a variety of fuels.
MYTH: Hiking the entire length of one of the “big three” in sections or seasons over a few years.
Nero: A near zero-day, covering anything less than 10 miles in a day.
Nobo: Short for Northbounder. A term used to describe a thru hiker who starts in the South and hikes North.
NOLS: National Outdoor Leadership School. A large nonprofit organization that teaches wilderness and leadership skills.
Nooner: Stopping for a midday snack on the trail.
NPS: National Park Service, the government organization in charge of caring for public lands saved by the American people so that we all get an opportunity to enjoy them.
Old growth: A section of the forest that has never been touched by humans, an extremely rare find.
Orienteering: Using a map and compass to find your way.
Out and back: A trail that follows the same route to the payoff and back, on the same trail.
Outsole: Refers to the tread on the sole of your boot.
Pack, the: The large group of thru hikers that are all within a few hundred miles of each other. Each year as the popularity of the trail grows the pack grows accordingly.
Pack explosion: The aftermath of attempting to find something in the bottom of your pack, often coincides with a look of disbelief.
Pack it out: Packing out all your garbage so that you leave nothing behind. Leave nothing behind except footprints.
Pack weight: Total overall weight of your pack, including consumables.
PCT: Pacific Crest Trail. A 2,650-mile hike that spans the west coast from Mexico to Canada.
Peak bagging: Summiting a collection of noteworthy peaks in one area for the bragging rights and sense of accomplishment.
Pink Blazing: Slowing down or speeding up your pace to stay close to a romantic interest.
PLR: The “Path of Least Resistance”, or the easiest route.
Point: The person leading the charge in a hike, sometimes referred to as the point man or woman.
Posthole: When you are hiking through deep snow and your leg sinks deep into the snow. It makes for a super difficult hike.
Pot cozy: A piece of material that you wrap around a pot to keep it warm while it finishes cooking.
Potable water: Clean water that you can drink without filtering or sanitizing.
Power hiker: A person who chooses to cover as many miles as possible, hiking long hours well into the evening on a regular basis.
Privy: A small structure covering a hole in the ground where hikers can use the restroom. It’s a step down from a standard outhouse.
PUD: Pointless ups and downs that are not always shown on the map and are relatively small yet annoying constant elevation gains.
Puffy: A puffy down jacket.
Quads: A 7.5-minute quadrangle topographic maps commonly named after a landmark in the area.
Quilt: A sleeping bag that lays on top of your body like a blanket. Commonly used to reduce pack weight.
Rainbow blazer: People who use any means necessary to complete a section of the trail, including hitchhiking.
Rainfly: A waterproof cover that is made to fit over your tent and will prevent water and moisture from getting inside the tent.
Redline: To redline an area is to hike every possible section, inch by inch. Using the map of hikes you make a redline on each completed hike until there is nothing left.
Register: A logbook that is set up at trailheads for everyone to sign, used to locate the names of lost hikers.
REI: Recreational Equipment Inc. is a Seattle based outdoor retailer that is extremely popular with everyone who enjoys anything outdoors.
Relo: Short for relocation, a section of the trail has made a recent move.
Repeat offender: A person who is hiking the same long distance hike more than one time.
Resupply: Heading into town to refill on supplies.
Ridge runner: A person employed by the government or trail association who walks the trail and educates people and enforces rules and regulations.
Rimrocked: Being too scared to climb back down the same path that you just came up.
Rock hop: Getting across a stream or river by jumping from rock to rock without getting your feet wet.
RUA: Restricted Use Area. It is an area that has a special set of rules put in place by the Forest Service that is above and beyond normal backcountry rules.
SAR: Search and Rescue, they are volunteers who sacrifice their time to help a hiker in trouble.
Scramble: Hiking up a difficult section on the trail using your hands when necessary.
Scree: A large number of small, loose rocks that cover a slope or incline.
Section hiker: A person who hikes a thru hike in small sections until they complete the entire trail.
Shell layer: The outermost layer of clothing, usually waterproof or water resistant.
Shelter rat: A person who camps exclusively in trail shelters.
Slack pack: A day trip backpack with the essentials for one full day of hiking.
Slogging: Hiking uphill in the mud.
SOBO: Southbounder, a person who begins their thru hike heading South.
Stealth camp: Camping in a location that may not be allowed with the intention of not being seen.
Sweep: The last hiker in the group who makes sure that no one drops anything and no one loses the group.
Switchback: A trail that zigzags up a steep slope of a mountainside.
Talus: A large group of boulders at the base of a cliff that requires a scramble to cross.
Thru hike: Hiking the entire long distance trail at one time.
Topographic map: A map that shows the shapes and features of the land, including contour lines.
Trailhead: The point at which your hike begins, crossing over from the normal world to the backcountry.
Trail angel: A person who goes out of their way to help thru hikers in every way possible.
Trail beggar: Someone who is no prepared and asks everyone around them for food.
Trail magic: A random act of kindness or any treats left behind on the trail. It could be a home cooked meal or a cooler full of ice cold beverages.
Trail name: A nickname given to you by other hikers.
Tramily: Your family on the trail.
Treeing: Hanging your food high in a tree to avoid bears and other animals raiding your stash.
Treeline: The elevation in a mountain range where the trees no longer grow, also referred to as the alpine zone.
Triple crown: Someone who has hiked all three of the long distance hikes in America. The Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail.
Ultralight: A style of hiking with the lightest and most minimal gear possible.
Understory: The vegetation and growth that occurs under the forest canopy.
USGS: The United States Geological Service, the body responsible for topographic maps.
Verglas: A thin, clear sheet of ice that forms on rocks.
Vitamin: Ibuprofen, given that name due to the frequency that hikers consume it.
Waterbar: A large rock, log, or barrier that diverts water away from the trail.
Web face: The first person on the trail in the morning who ends up clearing out the spider webs with their face.
Widowmaker: Broken tree limbs or loose rocks that are loose and waiting to fall at any moment.
Wilderness area: An area set aside by the US government that is protected from commercial development.
Yard sale: The midpoint of the reorganization of a hikers backpack, it looks like a bomb went off.
Yellow blazing: Following the road, either by foot or hitchhiking, to avoid a difficult part of the trail.
YMMV: Your mileage may vary, a nice way to say that not everyone hikes at the same pace.
Yo-yo: Thru-hiking both directions in one season. As soon as you finish, you promptly turn around and walk the trail in the other direction.
Yogi: Getting extra food from another hiker by being nice but not asking. Yogi bearing.
Z rest: A sleeping bag that folds into a rectangular block.
Zero day: A day in which zero are covered, can happen for a variety of reasons.
Zero mile mark: The exact location where a measured trail begins.
Zig zag: When you hike on a switchback trail