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What could be better than quitting your job and hiking 3,000 miles cross-country? Nothing—as long as you’re ready for the storms, aches and pains, and, well, smell. In Ask a Thru-Hiker, record-setting long-distance hiker Liz “Snorkel” Thomas answers your burning questions about life on the trail. Get Liz’s advice, plus all of Backpacker’s members-only skills coverage, in-depth stories from the trail, destination reports with interactive maps, full-length gear reviews, and more by becoming an Outside+ member today.
I was backpacking and ran into some thru-hikers who sounded like they were speaking another language. They were talking about “blue-blazers,” and “white-blazers,” and even “yellow-blazers.” What’s the deal with all these different color blazes?
Lost in Lingo
You aren’t alone in your struggle to understand thru-hiker jargon. Like any sport or subculture, long-distance backpacking is filled with a dictionary’s worth of terminology. But demystifying thru-hiker slang isn’t just about understanding words, it’s also about understanding the debate within the thru-hiking community over the “proper” way to hike.
The Appalachian Trail is marked with 6-inch-long by 2-inch-wide white paint marks on trees. These “white blazes” serve as markers to let hikers know they’re on the right track. In contrast, the Pacific Crest Trail, Continental Divide Trail, and other Western paths are usually not marked with painted blazes. Instead, they use metal emblems installed in trees and at intersections to keep hikers on track.
Blazes on the AT are carefully repainted every few years by the Appalachian Trail’s many volunteers. By some estimates, there are 165,000 white blazes along the entire Appalachian Trail.
When hikers talk about “white-blazers,” they’re talking about purists, people dedicated to thru-hiking or section-hiking past every white blaze on the trail. While a white blazing thru-hiker may leave the trail to resupply, they continue their hike by returning to the exact same spot. A white-blazing section hiker walks past every blaze over many years. When white-blazers finish the Appalachian Trail, they will have left their footsteps along the length of the entire, official AT.
When the white-blazed portions of the AT are closed, for example if there is a wildfire, the Appalachian Trail Conservancy designates an official detour. That is often considered to be the new “white blaze.” Even the ATC’s free Kennebec River Ferry has a white blaze painted on it. This means that hikers who canoe across the river (which is quite fun) are sticking to the white-blazed route.
In contrast, side trails and almost every other trail that connects with the AT are often marked with 6-inch by 2-inch wide blue paint marks on trees. These are called “blue blazes.” Blue-blazers are hikers that use side trails to go from one part of the AT to another, often as a shortcut or to avoid climbs. Sometimes, hikers choose to blue-blaze to catch up with friends they have been hiking with or because they need to reach a town by a certain date (for example, if they are meeting up with family or need to get to a Post Office before it closes for the weekend). Weather or snow conditions may be a factor, too.
Many white-blazers choose to walk blue-blazed trails as an out-and-back, such as spur to the top of Killington Peak in Vermont or one of the Presidential Range in New Hampshire. By returning to the same spot on the AT after climbing the peak (or visiting a waterfall or swimming hole), they still keep their purist cred.
Some white-blazers consider blue-blazers to be cheaters. Some blue-blazers consider white blazers to be uptight. This debate is part of the rich history of long-distance hiking culture. Regardless of whether a hiker white-blazes or blue-blazes, as long as they walk continuously from one terminus to the other, they still qualify for a Triple Crown Award given by the American Long Distance Association-West to hikers who have completed the entire length of the AT, PCT, and CDT.
Yellow-blazers, referring to the yellow median stripes on a paved road, is a term for hikers who hitch or get a ride. Sometimes, yellow-blazing is necessary (such as if a wildfire closes a large section of trail and there is no designated re-route). Sometimes, hikers just want a break. Like blue-blazing, some hikers will choose to yellow-blaze to catch up with friends or because they are running out of time and want to get ahead to a more scenic section of the long trail. Unlike blue-blazers, yellow-blazers don’t qualify for the Triple Crown unless they go back and hike the sections they skipped.
On trails in the West where painted blazes aren’t as common, you won’t hear the terms “white blazer” or “blue-blazer,” but “yellow-blazer” is still a common term. Less commonly, “yellow-blazing” may also refer to folks who walk a portion of a highway (marked by the yellow paint lines along a road). These folks are generally considered to still have continuous footsteps, though this kind of highway walking misses out on much of the adventure of a thru-hike (and is significantly less safe than walking trails).
Thru-hiker language is interesting and, like all aspects of culture, is always evolving. Sooner or later, you may find yourself platinum-blazing a flip-flop with an aqua-blaze in the middle.