If you’re new to hiking, you might quickly realize that other hikers are throwing around terms or acronyms that you have never heard before or don’t know what they mean. Even if you’re an experienced hiker, long distance hikers and backpackers also seem to have their own set of hiking slang and lingo that you now need to pick up on.
Don’t worry, I got you. I’ll explain as many different hiking and backpacking terms in this post as I can.
Class 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 – These classify how difficult and approximately how steep a given trail or route is. Class 1 is a leisurely stroll on a relatively flat trail. Class 2 is hiking up a steep incline, possibly using your hands to assist you in some spots. Class 3 is climbing an even steeper incline, definitely using your hands to assist you, possibly even using a rope and falls are more of a risk here. Class 4 is even steeper, most people would use a rope and technical gear here, long falls are a risk. Class 5 ventures into technical climbing routes, anchors and belayers are required and falls from a Class 5 route could very well be fatal.
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Scramble – Some trails will include a ‘short scramble’ near the summit or throughout the hike. This refers to a steep or rocky section that will likely require you to use your hands to help you climb up. Climbing equipment is not typically required for short scrambles. On some more established trails, there may even be ropes, chains, bars or ladders to help assist hikers up and down.
10 Essentials – The 10 essential gear items every hiker should carry, even day hikers, even on short or familiar trails. Just because you’re going out on a short hike doesn’t make you immune to illness or injury on the trail – or that you won’t encounter another hiker who desperately needs help!
Switchback – When the trail curves back and forth in sharp hairpin turns while going up or down a steep mountain instead of just going straight up to the summit. Switchbacks are crucial to preventing erosion, dispersing water runoff, protecting the vegetation and helping to hold the soil in place for the entire hillside. In short, stop cutting switchbacks – they’re there for a reason.
Widow Maker – A large dead branch suspended in a tree or an entire dead tree that is still standing up. These dead trees or branches could fall at any time (theoretically) but are especially risky when there’s any wind or a storm rolling through. Always check for window makers above your sleeping area and move to a new spot if needed.
False Peak or False Summit – Arguably the worst thing for a hiker to a find. This is when you’re huffing it towards to top of a hill or mountain, only to get to the top and realize it’s not the summit at all and there was a whole other peak hiding from your original point of view.
False lead – This is when you start hiking on a trail and the trail slowly becomes less and less recognizable until you realize you’re not on a trail at all and it was only a deer trail.
Herd Path or Social Trail – this is usually a narrow trail, easily visible to the eye – but it is not a designated trail or the ‘real trail.’ It’s usually a path established by deer or wildlife frequently going back and forth or sometimes made by hikers repeatedly walking off-trail. It only takes 4 pairs of feet making boot prints to establish a social trail which increases erosion, kills off plants on the forest floor that can take years or decades to restore, and can deter wildlife from their typical paths. This is why we don’t create or use social trails.
Monorail – This is the line of snow and ice that is leftover and last to melt right down the middle of a trail after being packed down all winter.
Scree – Small, loose rocks covering a steep hillside. They will often slide and wiggle around under you, making this uneven terrain particularly difficult to walk on.
Talus – Loose, small/medium boulders covering an entire hillside. Talus is typically made up of larger rocks than scree but can still be unstable, proceed with caution.
Cairns – Stacks of rocks intentionally built and placed by trail maintainers to mark the trail where traditional blazes or trail markers might not be feasible, like above treeline or in the desert. Hikers can walk from cairn to cairn to stay on track. You can see how other randos stacking a bunch of rocks would become problematic for hikers. Stacking rocks for funsies also greatly disturbs and displaces those living in the immediate habitat like insects, larvae, macroinvertebrates, healthy bacteria, native lichen, and more.
PUD – Pointless ups and downs. This is commonly used to explain summiting a small hill or mountain that has literally nothing at the top of it but trees – there is no view, no open resting place, nothing. Trail crews literally built this trail and made you hike up one side and down the other for no reason other than their own simple pleasure.
Tree Line – Have you ever noticed that the tops of mountains are typically rocky, don’t have many trees, and look a little barren? Tree line is the line where lots of trees grow below but no or very few trees can grow above that mountain on a given mountain. This is because mountain peaks typically experience extremely harsh weather, have longer winters, and lack nutrient-rich soil. Interestingly, there is no exact elevation where the tree line ends – this varies and changes depending on the region. For example, ‘tree line’ can occur here in Colorado anywhere between 10,000-12,000 feet give or take, but ‘tree line’ also exists on the east coast on smaller mountains at about 3,000-4,000 feet.
Peak Bagging or Peak Bagger – Usually someone who has a list of peaks or summits they want to hike and check off their list, as if to say ‘it’s in the bag’ after they’ve accomplished a certain peak.
Sand Bagging or Sand Bagger – A trail that appears easy or very enjoyable but then is actually very difficult or brutal. Or someone who implies a trail is much easier than it actually is.
Post Holing – When you try to walk through deep snow without any snowshoes and your feet create perfectly sized holes for your legs to sink into and get stuck in the snow/ice.
Bonk – To suddenly lose all energy, strength and motivation to complete a hike. This typically happens when your blood sugar swings from very high to very low, you haven’t eaten enough calories, you’re dehydrated or your electrolytes are out of whack. Not to be confused with boink…. perv.
Hanger or Hangry – Not to be confused with the thing you hang your clothes on, this is pure anger stemming from a severe lack of calories and yummy treats.
Crypto – Also known as cryptosporidium, a microscopic, water-borne parasite that can cause diarrhea, vomiting, stomach cramps and fever. Don’t forget to always treat your water.
Giardia or Beaver Fever – Another water-borne parasite, this one can cause Giardasis, know for its endless diarrhea and extremely painful, foul-smelling gas. Again, I can not emphasize this enough, always treat your water.
WFA (pronounced woofah) – This acronym stands for Wilderness First Aid. WFA is typically a 2-3 day introductory wilderness medicine course that will go much more in depth than your regular Red Cross first aid class and teaches hands-on skills that are highly specific to those who spend time in remote wilderness areas. The most reputable courses are offered through NOLS or SOLO.
WFR (pronounced woofer) – This acronym stands for Wilderness First Responder and is an even more extensive (and expensive) training than WFA. WFR courses are typically 9-10 days long and include both classroom learning plus practicing hands on rescue scenarios. Again this is tailored specifically for those who travel through wilderness areas and I highly recommend every hiker take either WFA or WFR through NOLS or SOLO.
SAR – Search and Rescue, this typically or most commonly used to refer to a search and rescue team, but of course can also just mean a search and rescue effort. If you live in Colorado, definitely purchase a CORSAR card – it’s like $3 per YEAR and helps keep our rescue teams funded and up and running. If you don’t live in Colorado – activate your google fingers and find if your state has a similar program that helps hikers easily support their local SAR.
Hot Spots – Irritated red spots on your feet, toes, heels etc that will eventually turn into blisters if left untreated.
SPOT – An emergency GPS device that can be used to summon a search and rescue team even when you don’t have cell phone service. Another popular alternative to SPOT are Garmin devices like the InReach or InReach Mini.
LNT – Leave No Trace is the center for outdoor ethics, a non-profit organization leading the movement to protect our outdoor spaces we love so much and the wildlife that inhabits them. It is a practice used by hikers everyday on the trail to leave our public lands just as we found it, so that the hikers who come after us can also enjoy the same wild space. It’s why we properly bury our poop (and toilet paper!)
Pack It Out – This Leave No Trace term is commonly paired with Pack It In, Pack It Out, meaning everything you bring into the woods inside your backpack, also needs to come out of the woods in your backpack. It’s why we pack out all our trash, including food waste like apple cores and banana peels, unless you see banana trees growing tall above you – it is NOT natural to leave a banana peel on the ground in the wilderness.
BLM – BLM land is managed by the Bureau of Land Management and, while this may vary by state or location, in general, BLM land is typically free to access, offers plenty of opportunity for different recreational activities like camping, hiking, ATVing, hunting and more.
FUD – Female Urinary Devices like the Pibella, She-Wee, or P-Style offer women a more convenient, more sanitary (I find) way to pee in the woods.
14ers – This refers to mountains, mostly in Colorado and western states, over 14,000 feet.
46ers – This refers to the 46 mountains over 4,000 feet in the Adirondacks.
Alpine Start – When you wake up and start hiking in the wee hours of the morning in order to complete a hike/climb before afternoon storms roll in or just to complete a gruelingly long route before the next night.
Bushwhacking – Traveling through the wilderness when there is no trail. The ability to read the topography of the land and use a topographic map and compass are a must while bushwhacking.
Gorpcore – An urban fashion trend, this term combines the words GORP (good old raisins and peanuts) and normcore (another fashion trend defined by its overly average-looking clothing.) Think of gorpcore as colorful, retro style Patagonia fleece jackets, over-sized puffy down coats, Arc’teryx outer shells and high cut Salomon expedition boots – all bought for the purpose of crossing over the hazardous city sidewalks and streets.
Weekend Warrior – Someone who typically only goes on 1-3 night backpacking trips.
Base Weight or Dry Weight – The total weight of all your backpacking gear, not including the weight of consumables like food, water and fuel.
Big Three – These are typically the three heaviest and most expensive gear items, referring to your backpack, tent and sleeping system (sleeping bag + pad.)
Ditty Bag – This is a stuff sack to hold small, miscellaneous gear items that you don’t want to get lost in the depths of your backpack.
Dispersed Camping – Choosing a random spot in the middle of the woods to set up camp, this is not a designated or reserved campsite. Always practice Leave No Trace – no one should be able to identify where you camped. This means picking up all gear and trash, not building any benches or fire rings, and camouflaging the spot where you slept, so there isn’t a flattened patch of grass or a perfectly cleared patch of dirt where your tent was.
Stealth Camping – While some people use dispersed camping and stealth camping interchangeably, I’ve always used ‘stealth camping’ to refer to camping somewhere illegally or where you shouldn’t be sleeping, whereas dispersed camping typically is legal.
Dry Camping or Dry Campsite – This term is often used among RVers, but can also be used in a backcountry setting as well to refer to a campsite without a water source – meaning you have to carry in all your water for the night + next day.
Cowboy Camping – Refers to sleeping out under the stars without a tent or shelter, you’re just inside your sleeping bag on top of your pad (or just on the ground!) This doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t carry a tent with you, but if the weather is nice and the sky is clear, forego the tent and try cowboy camping instead.
Cowboy Coffee – When you simply boil some water with coffee grounds in it (with no filter or coffee maker) then wait for the grounds to settle to the bottom and drink it.
Camel Up – When you drink as much water as you can while at a water source, so you don’t have to carry as much water with you while hiking. This only works if water sources are plentiful. If water sources are few and far between, you’re just gonna have to carry that water weight.
UL – The abbreviation for ultralight, referring to either ultralight gear like a specific tent or backpack or pack weight as a whole. While there’s not an official designation, ultralight backpackers try to keep their base weight as low as possible, often below 10 pounds. Ultralight backpacks, tents and quilts are often made of highly technical materials – typically making them much more expensive than their heavier counterparts.
Ounce Weenie – An ultralight backpacker who counts every ounce and pares down as much as possible. This term is typically used when the ultralight backpacker is being judgmental about a certain ‘heavy’ piece of gear or judging someone else’s pack weight.
Mid – Short for ‘pyramid’ this refers to a certain style of ultralight tents and tarps that come in a variety of sizes and are usually propped up by one trekking pole or tent pole in the middle then staked out around the edges.
Bivy or Bivouac – A bivy sack is another type of shelter, basically a waterproof sack or covering for your sleeping bag with a small opening/vent at one end for you to get inside it. These require much less space and have a much smaller ‘footprint’ than traditional tents – although, that also means much less space for you to sleep in.
MYOG – Stands for Make Your Own Gear. Some people choose to make their own gear because, in some cases, it can be cheaper than buying gear, and some people do it purely for the pleasure and enjoyment of making their own gear. It can be a hobby in and of itself.
HYOH – Means Hike Your Own Hike. Traditionally, this means a hundred people could hike the exact same trail but have a hundred vastly different journeys. In recent years, this has become more of a way to insult someone else who hikes differently than you do.
Trailgating – This is like tailgating, but at a trailhead, and is commonly an overnight affair where you sleep at or near the trailhead but are still close enough to your vehicle to have access to amenities like packs of beer or alcohol, a grill, coolers of food and bundles of firewood. While this can sometimes be fun, it can also sometimes be dangerous as this is a common activity for ‘non-hiking’ town folk to just come to the woods and let off some steam. As a solo female hiker, I try to camp as far away from trailheads as possible and stick with other like-minded backpackers.
Cat Hole – Similarly to how cats dig a hole to poop in and then thoroughly cover it up so there is no trace of them that their predators can find, we as hikers need to dig a 6 inch deep hole to poop in, at least 200 feet away from water sources, and then thoroughly cover it up so that no other hikers (or their dogs!) are exposed to the harmful bacteria in our feces.
Privy – A type of bathroom or outhouse near heavily used campsites and shelters to help reduce the impact (and toilet paper trash) of hundreds or thousands of backpackers all using the bathroom in the same spot in the woods. These are usually some sort of pit toilet or composting toilet. Never throw any trash, wipes, tampons/pads or anything other than plain toilet paper down the privy – those do not break down and trail maintainers actually have to dig those items back out – so don’t be gross.
Wag Bags or Poop Tubes – Certain places, like some deserts, glaciers or high alpine areas require hikers to pack out human waste aka poop. That is where wag bags (and possibly a poop tube to store your used bags inside your pack) come in to play. Wag bags differ from plain old plastic dog poop bags in that they are puncture-resistant and include a gelling agent that helps prevent the spread of disease amongst ourselves, our waste treatment workers and beyond. Please don’t use a plain plastic bag without a gelling agent to throw away human poop.
Long-Distance Hiking Terms
Thru Hiker – Someone who completes a long trail (like the Pacific Crest Trail or Te Araroa Trail) in one continuous hike.
Section Hiker – Someone who hikes a long trail (like the Appalachian Trail or Continental Divide Trail) in smaller sections as opposed to one long continuous hike. A ‘section hike’ could be as short as a weekend or as long as several weeks. Section-hikers typically spend years chipping away at sections of any given long trail, but this is a great alternative for those who can’t or don’t want to take half a year off to hike it all at once.
LASH – This stands for Long Ass Section Hike and is typically when hikers walk for a month or more on a long trail. For example, hiking from Georgia to New York would be a LASH on the Appalachian Trail.
NOBO – When a hiker walks northbound on any given long distance trail.
SOBO – When a hiker walks southbound on any given long distance trail.
Yo-yo – When a hiker completes a thru hike, then turns around and walks the opposite direction back to their starting point.
Flip Flop – When someone completes a thru hike (or LASH) but out of order. For example they might hike from Georgia to Virginia, then flop up to Maine and hike south back to Virginia where they left off. This is typically done in the same season or year as opposed to a section hike that might be split up over 2 or more years.
Purist – A thru-hiker who insists on walking every single step or passing every single blaze of a long-distance trail and will not take any side trails, detours, or jumps ahead. They also typically discount other “thru-hikers” who might have skipped even the shortest section of the trail.
Slackpacking – When a thru hiker or LASHer carries only a small day pack with water, snacks and supplies for the day while a trusty friend or shuttle driver transports their backpacking gear ahead. This can be particularly useful if you want to knock out a couple longer mile days without the weight and pain of your full pack.
Zero – This is a rest day or zero mile day, usually spent in town, at a hostel or motel. It’s is a great time to do laundry, resupply on food, eat as much ‘town food’ as possible like nachos and burgers and giant salads and beer and Chinese food buffets. Although, you can also spend a zero day at a shelter or campsite in the woods, find a peaceful stream or lake to relax at and soak your sore legs and feet, then hike on the next day.
Nero – This is a near-zero day. For example, when you camp only a few miles outside of town so you have a short, quick hike in the morning and can spend most of the day in town. Or maybe you stayed in town and leave in the evening, only hiking a few miles out and setting up camp. Neros are especially helpful for hikers who don’t want to pay to stay another night in town, so you camp nearby but can still go to the laundromat or Walmart or the Post Office.
Hiker Midnight – Most long-distance hikers tend to get in the groove of sleeping and waking with the sun. Hiker midnight usually means ~9:00 PM or just implies that hikers go to sleep early. Loud, late-night partying at shelters and campsites is generally not appreciated.
Triple Crown – The Triple Crown usually refers to the big three long distance hiking trails in the US – the Pacific Crest Trail, the Continental Divide Trail and the Appalachian Trail. A Triple Crowner is someone who has thru hiked all three. Side note – there is also a short section of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia called the Triple Crown, including three iconic destinations – McAfee Knob, Tinker Cliffs and Dragon’s Tooth.
Vitamin I – Ibuprofen, it becomes a daily vitamin once you realize the beating your body goes through on a long-distance hike.
Trail Name – Hikers on long distance trails are usually only known by their trail name, a nick name or code name given to them by other hikers. I’m a bit of a traditionalist here in that I believe a trail name can only be given to you by other hikers, you can’t choose one for yourself. Your trail name is usually based on something stupid or funny that you’ve done on the trail.
Tramily – Tramily or Trail Family refers to the small group of very close-knit hikers that you end up hiking most or all of a long distance trail with.
Dirtbag or Hiker Trash – While not exactly the same, I do use these terms interchangeably. Hiker Trash is an affectionate term for someone who hikes long distances, is almost always smelly, dirty and has very low standards of living – because really they just want to live in the woods. A great example of hiker trash is someone who licks Cheese Wiz (that exploded in their pack) off their tent fly for lunch because they need the calories and why not? Dirtbag may be more common the climbing community but again, is an endearing term for someone who embraces a dirty, outdoor lifestyle, closely resembling homelessness just so they can be immersed in the outdoor activities they love.
Yellow Blazing – The term used when someone hitch hikes ahead on a long trail, following the yellow lines of the road instead of the trail blazes.
Green Blazing – Hiking or backpacking while high on marijuana.
Blue Blazing – I have always heard or used this term to refer to canoeing or kayaking past a section of trail instead of hiking it, also known as Aqua Blazing. However, some people use this to refer to hiking side trails or alternate trails that are marked with blue blazes as opposed to white blazes.
Pink Blazing – When a male hiker purposefully changes his pace to match the pace of a special lady hiker. (It’s not always as creepy as it sounds, I promise. Obviously, there are times when this can be inappropriate or downright dangerous, but there are also lots of hikers who find and enjoy romance on the trail.)
Banana Blazing – When a female hiker changes her pace to match the pace of a special male hiker.
Black Blazer – While extremely unfortunate, this can refer to disgruntled locals who paint over (with black paint) or remove trail markers to mess with the trail community.
Bonus Miles – Extra miles you have to hike that don’t even count towards your final destination. For example, the Appalachian Trail is 2,190 miles, but the number of bonus miles you hike on side trails to get to shelters, water sources and roads or towns are too many to count.
Bounce Box – A box of supplies like food, medications, books, electronics, etc that hikers mail ahead to themselves on a long distance trail, bouncing it from post office to post office.
Hiker Box – A box that can be found in almost trail towns, almost like ‘leave a penny, take a penny’ but with gear, snacks and more. It is a place for hikers to dump gear, food or supplies you no longer need or want to carry, but someone else might need it or be able to use it. You never know what you might find in a hiker box!
Hiker Funk – The unpleasant smell that sinks into a long distance hikers clothes, boots and backpack. It typically can not be removed no matter how many times you wash them.
Hiker Hunger – When you’ve been hiking all day long, every day, for weeks on end, carrying a 30 pound pack up and over countless mountains, your metabolism kicks into overdrive and you can not consume enough calories to make up for the deficit anymore. I knew my hiker hunger kicked in when I started shoveling a pasta dish into my mouth using a piece of pizza and didn’t think anything of it.
AYCE – Speaking of hiker hunger, there’s no better place to spend an afternoon than at an All You Can Eat buffet.
The Bubble – Most long distance trails have an ideal place and time or season to start hiking them which creates a small crowd or bubble of hikers that move over the trail together. Of course there are always outliers who hike faster or slower or start in the off-season to try to avoid hiking in the bubble.
Ride Bride – A female hiker who partners up with a male hiker while trying to hitch hike into town because, supposedly, drivers are more likely to stop for a woman than a man by himself.
Ridge Runner – Someone who is hired to seasonally hike and camp on a certain section of trail to help protect, manage and promote stewardship of the trail among other hikers.
Work for stay – Some hostels along the long trails will offer hikers a place to stay in exchange for doing some work or labor around the property, sometimes this is very short term like a couple of nights or it can extend into several weeks or an entire season. Not all hostels offer this and unless prior arrangements have been explicitly made – do not count on or expect a work for stay, but it never hurts to ask! I also got creative and used this technique outside of hiking the trail, I used to sweep and clean the floors of a small yoga studio in exchange for ‘free’ classes.
Vortex – Getting sucked into staying in town longer than expected. This often happens when you spend a zero day in town, plan to hike out the next morning, but when the next morning comes – you find out your best hiking buddies are only just arriving in town, so you decide to stay another day with them. Sometimes this cycle can continue for several days, creating a vortex.
AWOL or AWOL’s Guide – Somewhat of a bible of the Appalachian Trail, it is a guidebook written by a hiker whose trail name is AWOL. It lays out the exact mileage markers of almost every stream, road crossing, shelter, campsite and other well-known landmarks, along with the elevation profiles of the trail and pertinent information and phone numbers you might need in trail towns along the way. This is also referred to as the book of lies, as sometimes it will list a water source as being 0.4 miles off trail – but it actually seem much farther.
Trail Angel – Someone who regularly supports long distance hikers, usually by providing rides to and from town, sometimes providing food or other logistical support, sometimes even opening up their own homes to hikers.
Trail Magic – Trail Magic usually comes in the form of food or sometimes alcohol. It can be as simple as a cooler full of fresh fruit and cold sodas and beer or as extravagant as a full on cook out, grilling up burgers and hot dogs or eggs and bacon with all the fixins. Never leave trail magic unattended, bears love trail magic almost as much as hikers do. But it’s not so magical when a bear needs to be euthanized for becoming habituated to people.
FKT – A Fastest Known Time is usually set and recorded for the long distance hiking trails. Some people are insane enough to train hard enough to attempt to break the records and set a new fastest known time.
Plot Twist – When you wake up, pack your things, and end up walking down the trail in the wrong direction. This happens a lot more often than you’d think.
Web Walker – The first person to leave a shelter or campsite in the morning, they get to knock down all the spiderwebs slung across the trail.
Let us know in the comments below – what’s a new term you just learned? Are there any extra hiking terms you would add to this list?
For more posts on living the hiking lifestyle, check out:
- 12 Tips To Stay Motivated On A Difficult Hike
- 5 Things Lady Hikers Need To Know Before Going Solo
- How To Make More Time For Hiking
- How To Prepare For Hiking In The Mountains
About the author, Mallory Moskowitz:
After studying Recreation, Park & Tourism Management, Mallory spent several years teaching environmental education, guiding hikes, and leading backcountry trips. Her life-changing trek from Georgia to New York on the Appalachian Trail is what sparked the creation of Your Adventure Coach, to share backpacking tips and resources with as many new hikers as possible.