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I’m not a whitewater kayaker, but I live with two of them, and dinner conversations can get so flooded with jargon that it makes my head swim. Trying to parse the lingo can feel alienating; so much so that it’s become a game for me to string together nonsensical slang just to pretend I’m part of the conversation.
Anyone who has been new to a sport or activity can relate. Learning the language of a subculture—especially in outdoor activities—can feel like as much of a hurdle as learning the activity itself. Hiking lingo is far from the most egregious (it’s just walking, after all), but beginners can still get tripped up by unfamiliar phrases. Get a handle on this terminology, and you’ll be able to hold your own around any campfire.
Short for “Appalachian Trail,” this abbreviation refers to the most iconic long trail in the nation, which runs over 2,000 miles between Georgia and Maine.
Overnighters tend to concern themselves with how many pounds they carry on their backs, and for good reason. For those keeping track, baseweight refers to the weight of one’s gear before the addition of “consumables” like food and water. Your clothing, tent, stove, and even your pack itself contributes to your baseweight.
These marks—usually color-coded lines of paint on trees—help hikers navigate a trail.
That drained feeling when you’ve exerted without properly replenishing calories. Hanger or irritability may ensue. Solution? Have a Snickers.
These rock piles aren’t artistic sculptures or signs of alien activity. They serve the same purpose as blazes, marking the trail in the alpine or zones where painted trees aren’t present. (Note: The recreational rock stacks that people make for no reason don’t count. Knock them down at will.)
Before long stretches between water sources, some hikers prefer to do this by chugging at the source rather than carrying extra water.
Nope, it’s got nothing to do with hiking with your feline friend (though we’ve tried). A cathole is a 6- to 8-inch depression dug to do one’s business in the backcountry. In some environments, you may need to carry out human waste rather than bury it (see WAG Bag, below).
Shorthand for the Continental Divide Trail, one of America’s “big three” long trails that stretches between the Canadian and Mexican borders from Montana to New Mexico.
For backpackers who prefer not to carry a stove, cold soaking is a method of preparing dehydrated food sans heat. Simply add water and wait a few hours until the food has rehydrated.
No tent or tarp—it’s just you and that constellation-filled sky, baby.
Camping outside of a designated campground or campsite. Dispersed camping is legal in many national forests and parks, but may require a permit.
Is it backpacking? Is it trail running? Yes. Fastpackers aim to cover as much distance as possible at a swift pace.
Short for “fastest known time,” this one is what it sounds like: the known speed record on a given trail or section.
It’s not just a great piece of camp footwear: This refers to a thru-hike (see below) where a hiker does not travel directly from one end of the trail to another, but jumps around to link two or more sections. Backpackers may flip-flop for a variety of reasons: to capitalize on covering certain ground during one season or another, avoid poor conditions or wildfires, or bypass crowds.
“F” You Stop
The PG version of what we call it when your faster hiking buddy waits for you to catch up, then jets off before you can even catch your breath.
This waterborne parasite causes intestinal illness, and is the main reason we filter water in the backcountry.
An abbreviation for “hike your own hike,” a phrase often uttered amongst thru-hikers, especially on the Appalachian Trail. The expression serves as a reminder that there’s no one right way to backpack. Can also be translated as “mind your own damn business.”
Officially called ice cleats, they’re strap-on traction devices for icy hikes. While not technically correct, hikers often use Microspikes, the name of Kahtoola’s version of these, to refer to any ice cleat (it’s like Kleenex and tissues). Whatever you call them, the metal and rubber contraptions attach to your hiking boots to provide grip in slippery, frozen terrain.
An almost rest day where you hike nearly zero miles (see “Zero Day” below).
Short for northbound, indicating the direction of travel for a thru-hiker.
The abbreviation for “Pacific Crest Trail,” a long-distance National Scenic Trail which stretches over 2,600 miles from the Mexican border in California to the Canadian border in Washington.
The pursuit of hiking to the top of various summits, particularly each mountain in a given range or region. One who does this is a peakbagger.
The unpleasant experience of trudging through deep snow without snowshoes, where you find yourself sinking as far as your knee or upper thigh with each step.
Pointless ups and downs. These challenging sections of trail are the bane of long-distance hikers who’d prefer to take the direct route.
Short for Search and Rescue, these are the folks who will help you if things go really wrong.
Small, loose stones covering a slope, often found in the alpine below summits. Also see talus, below.
To complete a long trail in various chunks rather than as a thru-hike (see below). Sections might be as short as overnights or as long as multi-week treks. Many section hikers enjoy the experience of hiking a long trail without the monthslong time commitment.
Those sort-of-chilly, sort-of-mild weeks on either end of winter where conditions are unpredictable. Sun might be in the forecast, but you should probably still pack your puffy.
This technique, which refers to hiking a section of trail without a full pack, is often employed by backpackers or thru-hikers covering especially difficult terrain. Hikers will travel with a light load while their gear is shuttled ahead.
Short for southbound, indicating a direction of travel for a thru-hiker.
Non-maintained, unsanctioned paths that form due to continuous foot traffic. Some social trails arise where formal trails aren’t present; others are a sign of overuse and damage to an area.
Love ‘em or hate ‘em, these zig-zagging trails allow hikers to gradually ascend steep slopes without busting straight up them, preventing erosion in the process.
Rocky debris—usually larger in size than scree (see above), but smaller than boulders—that covers a slope. Talus presents a challenge for hikers off-trail or in the alpine.
To complete a long trail such as the AT, CDT, or PCT (see above) in one continuous push. Thru-hikers often spend months at a time living out of their packs
A person who provides benevolent assistance to hikers, often in the form of food, shelter, or a ride.
A kind act, like the supplying of food, by a trail angel (see above).
The access point for a given trail, usually where one parks to start or finish their hike.
A nickname that long-distance hikers bestow on their fellow trekkers. Trail names are a prevalent part of hiker culture on the AT, CDT, and PCT, and many thru-hikers only go by their trail name while backpacking.
Spend enough time on a long trail and you’ll often naturally coalesce into a group with some like-minded backpackers. That’s your tramily: You’ll hike with them, camp with them, spend zeroes with them, and often keep in touch long after the hike is over.
A zone marking the elevation where trees are incapable of growing. Treeline establishes the boundary between forest and the alpine, and varies in elevation by latitude.
A nickname for the “big three” long trails in the United States: the AT, CDT, and PCT (see above).
Type 2 Fun
When you’re not having fun anymore, but you know it’ll make a good story later. Like trudging over a pass in a snowstorm, or that time you lost your left trail runner to boot-sucking mud 5 miles from camp.
A subculture of backpacking dedicated to carrying the lightest gear possible. While the official baseweight cutoff to consider a kit ultralight is hotly debated, most hikers agree that it is around 10 pounds. Ultralighters have been known to do crazy things like cut the handles off their toothbrushes and spend thousands of dollars for less durable equipment.
It stands for waste aggregation gelling, but that’s just a fancy way of referring to a doo-doo bag for carrying human waste out of sensitive environments.
A rest day, often employed by thru-hikers. Refers to the number of miles covered.