Like other outdoor activities and hobbies, hiking has its own set of terms, acronyms, and jargon. This unique vocabulary can make it intimidating for newcomers to join conversations and read articles about hiking and backpacking. Whether at camp around a bonfire or when meeting fellow hikers on the trail, knowing some common hiking terms can come in handy.
To help reduce the frustration that beginners often feel, we’ve put together a glossary of common hiking terms, expressions, and jargon. Here are more than 80 of the most common backpacking and hiking terms, listed in alphabetical order.
Getting an Alpine Start means starting your ascent early to avoid hazardous conditions, such as avalanches, rockfalls, and thunderstorms. An Alpine Start typically occurs between midnight and 3:00 am. To qualify as an Alpine Start, you must begin your ascent in the dark before the sun comes up.
An alpine zone is a high elevation area above the treeline. Alpine zones typically are found near the tops of high peaks and lack substantial vegetation like trees due to high winds and thin soils.
At 2,190 miles (3,524 km) long, the Appalachian Trail is the world’s longest hiking-only footpath. Often referred to as the AT, this trail is one of the most popular thru-hikes across the globe. Around 3,000 people attempt to thru-hike it each year.
The Appalachian Trail Conservancy, or ATC, is an organization that manages, protects, maintains, and conserves the Appalachian Trail. If you want to thru-hike the AT, you’ll need to register your trip with the ATC.
Backpacking involves hiking for at least two days while carrying everything you need for survival on your back. Typically, this includes food, water, cooking supplies, shelter, sleep systems, and other gear. Backpacking trips can range from a single overnight to many weeks or months in the wilderness.
Base weight is the weight of all your gear without consumable items like food, water, and fuel. The ideal base weight for a particular hiker depends on many factors, including the trip duration, expected weather conditions, and personal preferences. A good base weight for backpacking is around 15 to 20 pounds (6.8 to 9.1 kg), but many backpackers strive for a base weight of 10-12 pounds (4.5 to 5.4 kg) or less.
Short for bear canister, a bear can is a portable, hard-sided food storage container. These containers are designed to keep scented items like food and toiletries secure from bears and other animals. Bear bags have a similar function but are designed to hang from a tree.
Beta refers to insider information about a particular hike from someone who has completed it. You can get beta about a hike through various hiking apps, message boards, and online forums, as well as in-person from people in town or at a trailhead. The term beta is also commonly used by rock climbers.
The Big Three refers to your shelter, sleep system, and backpack. These items tend to be the heaviest and most expensive pieces of equipment backpackers need to purchase and bring with them. As a result, you’ll hear them discussed frequently.
Short for carabiner, a biner is a piece of metal hardware commonly used by rock climbers to secure themselves with a rope as they ascend a route. Hikers often use carabiners to attach items to their backpacks. Carabiners come in locking and non-locking versions.
A bivouac is a minimalist weatherproof shelter that people often refer to as a bivy sack or bivvy sack. Bivvys are especially useful on steep or technical terrain where setting up a tent would be very challenging. There are many different types of bivouacs designed for varying conditions. Some hikers carry bivvys as emergency shelters, while others use them instead of a tent as their primary form of shelter.
A bladder is another term for a hydration reservoir. This collapsible water container fits inside your backpack and usually comes with a tube and mouthpiece for easy hydration while hiking.
A blaze is a trail marker that helps hikers follow a particular route. These markers commonly appear on trees, rocks, signs, and other prominent features that are easy to spot. Blazes vary significantly from one area to the next. They can be made with paint, flagging tape, rock piles, etchings, carvings, signposts, or affixed markers (usually made of metal, plastic, or wood). Make sure to familiarize yourself with the different types so that you know what to look out for on the trail.
A Blue Blazer is a hiker who follows alternative routes or side trails instead of an official route. The term Blue Blazer is often used on the Appalachian Trail, where alternative side trails are marked with blue blazes. Many of the blue blazes are bad-weather routes or paths leading to views, shelters, and water sources.
This hiking term refers to extra miles that you end up hiking. This could be accidental because of a wrong turn or intentional while on a resupply mission.
Bushwalking is used mainly by Australians and equates to the word “hiking” in American English.
Bushwhacking is hiking off of a designated trail and often requires navigating through areas with dense vegetation. Sometimes bushwhacking is done for an adventure, while other times it happens by accident when hikers get lost. Hiking off-trail is prohibited in many areas, so make sure you’re familiar with the regulations before attempting bushwhacking.
A cache is an area on or near a trail where food, water, or other supplies are hidden for later use. Hikers can stash their own items in a cache or access supplies left by trail angels. Caches are common on long-distance hiking trails but are often critiqued for their environmental impact.
Man-made piles or stacks of stones that are used as trail markers are called cairns. Cairns guide hikers by indicating where to go to stay on the trail.
This expression refers to drinking as much water as you possibly can when you reach a water source. Hikers do this with the goal of pre-hydrating, especially when it’s a long way to the next water source. Cameling up at water caches is considered bad trail etiquette.
A hole that hikers dig in the ground to poop in and then bury the waste is called a cat hole. The hole should be about 6 to 8 inches (15 to 20 cm) deep and at least 200 feet (61 meters) away from the trail, campsites, and water sources. Any toilet paper should be carried out with you, not thrown in the cat hole.
The Continental Divide Trail is one of three major long-distance hiking trails in the United States. The trail stretches for around 3,100 miles (4,989 km) between the US borders with Mexico and Canada.
A contour line appears on a topographic map and indicates areas of equal elevation. The distance between contour lines shows how steep the terrain is. Areas with very close lines have a steep incline, while areas with contour lines spaced further apart slope more gradually.
Cowboy camping means sleeping under the stars with no tent. Choosing to cowboy camp is a great way to pack lighter, but you’ll want to make sure to choose a clear night with no rain.
A day hike lasts no more than one day, with no need to bring overnight gear. Day hiking is one of the most common types of hiking and where most beginners start.
A dirtbag is a hiker or other outdoor enthusiast who lives simply (often in their vehicle) and pursues their outdoor passions. Dirtbags are known for ditching conventional lifestyles and hygiene routines.
A false summit is a peak that looks like it’s the top of the mountain but is not actually the summit. False summits, also referred to as false peaks, can be discouraging for hikers who think they have neared the top, but in reality, have a long way to go.
Fastpacking is an adventure sport that combines trail running with ultralight backpacking. Fastpackers cover long distances at quick speeds while carrying only the bare essentials for overnighting in the wilderness.
Fastest Known Time, or FKT, is the record for completing a particular trail or section of trail faster than anyone else has. Hikers and trail runners can set records for supported hikes and unsupported hikes along major routes, including the Appalachian Trail and Pacific Crest Trail.
This hiking term refers to a method of thru-hiking where a hiker completes the entire trail in a nonsequential way. For example, a hiker starts at a point in the middle of the trail and then hikes to the northern terminus. The hiker then travels (by car, plane, train, etc.) to the southern terminus and hikes back to their original starting point in the middle of the trail. Some hikers employ this tactic to skip a section of trail in years with bad weather conditions and come back to hike it later in the season.
A fourteener is a mountain peak with an elevation of 14,000 feet or more. Colorado is known for having the most fourteeners compared to any other state in the US.
Ford means to cross a river in a way that requires you to get your feet wet. These crossings can be dangerous when the water is fast-flowing or has invisible undercurrents.
The term glissade comes from the French word for sliding and is a way to get down steep snowfields quickly. Hikers typically sit on their butts and slide down the steep snow and ice slopes, which is much faster than hiking down. Glissading requires caution since you could get severely injured if you lose control.
Gorp is another term for trail mix. This popular hiking snack is a mixture of nuts, dried fruits, and sometimes chocolate and other goodies.
A gram weenie is a person who is obsessive about their pack weight. This person may spend a lot of time trying to reduce their base weight and will go to painstaking efforts to do so.
This term describes a large group of hikers that set out together on a hike. The Herd can be found on day hikes as well as thru-hikes. The group usually loses some members as a thru-hike progresses.
A hiker box is a container, area, or box where hikers and trail angels can donate food, gear, and other items for other hikers to take and use. Hiker boxes are common in towns along long-distance trails and are a great way to get rid of items you don’t need anymore on your thru-hike. Thru-hikers can cut down on the cost of a thru-hike by visiting the hiker box before shopping at a store when they need to resupply.
Hiker funk describes the unpleasant smell associated with a hiker and their gear, especially on a multi-day hike. To cut down on hiker funk, make sure to follow good backpacking hygiene practices.
Hiker Midnight occurs at 9:00 pm, which often feels like midnight when you’ve had a long day on the trails. Most serious backpackers and thru-hikers go to sleep by this time so that they can get an early start the next day without feeling sleep-deprived.
Hillwalking and fellwalking are terms most commonly heard in the UK. They typically refer to walks or hikes in Northern England, especially the Lake District or Yorkshire Dales.
Huts are buildings that backpackers can stay in overnight. Huts are usually maintained by mountain clubs and other wilderness organizations. Some huts are free, while others may require a small fee and a reservation. Hut-to-hut hikes and treks are popular in the White Mountains in New Hampshire, Europe, and parts of Asia, including Nepal.
Short for Hike Your Own Hike, HYOH means to do what works for you and not feel obligated to follow someone else’s plan or way of doing things. Hike in the way that makes you feel most fulfilled and avoid telling others how they should hike.
The John Muir Trail, or JMT, stretches for 215 miles (346 km) through California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range. The trail features some of the United States’ most stunning mountain scenery and overlaps with the PCT.
A lean-to is a simple structure with three sides and a pitched roof. Lean-tos along hiking trails provide shelter for hikers both during the day and overnight.
Leave No Trace, or LNT, consists of seven principles that should guide and inform all of our outdoor activities. The principles serve as a set of core guidelines to minimize our impacts on the places we visit.
Mountaineering is a physically demanding pursuit focused on reaching the summit of a mountain (and returning safely). The sport is also referred to as alpinism and requires advanced technical knowledge and mountain climbing equipment, such as ice axes and crampons.
A nero is a low-mileage day when you hike only a short distance. The word nero is short for “nearly zero” and is commonly used by thru-hikers.
NoBo refers to a northbound hiker, typically on a long-distance route like the AT, CDT, or PCT.
The NPS is the United States National Park Service. The organization oversees all US national parks and many of the country’s public lands.
The Pacific Crest Trail, or PCT, is one of the US’s three major long-distance hiking trails. The trail spans 2,650 miles (4,265 kilometers) across California, Oregon, and Washington and stretches all the way from Mexico to Canada.
Peak bagging is hiking with the goal of reaching as many summits as possible, often within a particular area. For example, some hikers aim to summit all of the Adirondacks’ high peaks in New York State, while others dream of summiting all of Colorado’s 14ers. You may also hear this referred to as “hill bagging” in certain regions.
Rambling is an old-fashioned term for hiking that is used mainly in the UK.
Abbreviated SAR, Search and Rescue refers to a team of people (often volunteers) who dedicate their time to searching for and aiding lost or injured hikers. The teams are trained in wilderness first aid and are usually first on the scene following hiking accidents.
Scat is a word for animal poop. Keeping an eye out for scat along the trail is a great way to remain aware of wild animals in the area and protect yourself from an unwanted wildlife encounter.
Scrambling is a type of hiking that involves ascending steep, rocky surfaces. Scrambling is physically demanding and requires you to use your hands in addition to your feet to balance and navigate the steep terrain.
Scree is a collection of loose rock fragments that have accumulated at the base of mountain cliffs and volcanoes due to rockfall. Talus is a similar term that is favored in the US.
Screeing refers to descending a scree field by sliding down the loose rock debris. The technique can be dangerous and is not recommended for hikers without experience descending this type of terrain.
Section hiking is completing a portion of any long-distance hiking trail. This could range from a short section requiring only a couple of days to hiking a much longer portion of the trail over several weeks. Section hiking is a fantastic way for hikers to get a taste of thru-hiking without committing significant amounts of time and financial resources to the journey. Section hiking also allows hikers to complete an entire long-distance trail over the course of several seasons.
Slackpacking is when a hiker carries minimal gear while someone else transports their equipment to the next place they plan to stay. This assisted form of hiking is a much less demanding way to complete a trail, especially a long-distance route. The hiker typically only carries a small daypack with food, water, and essentials for that day.
SoBo refers to a southbound hiker, typically on a long-distance route like the AT, CDT, or PCT.
This term refers to camping, often secretly or discreetly, at an unestablished campsite or wilderness area. You may also hear this described as “dispersed camping,” “wild camping,” “free camping,” “ninja camping,” and “guerilla camping.” Stealth camping is illegal in many areas.
Summit fever is a mentality where a hiker puts reaching the summit above all else, even if it means endangering themselves or other members of the group.
A switchback is a path that cuts sharply as it zig-zags up a steep slope. Switchbacks make the ascent easier since they wind back and forth up the mountain rather than taking the steepest approach.
The Ten Essentials are a collection of essential gear items that hikers should carry with them when venturing into the wilderness. These ten items help ensure hikers are prepared in the event of an outdoor emergency. The Ten Essentials include navigation, a headlamp with extra batteries, sun protection, first aid, a knife or multitool, fire, shelter, extra food, extra water, and extra clothes.
Hikers can adjust their personal packing list based on the area they’re visiting. For example, a hiker in a heavily trafficked part of a state park may not need as many emergency supplies as a backpacker planning a multi-day hike in the backcountry.
Thru-hiking is most often defined as hiking a long-distance trail from end to end. This journey tends to take many months, and it is a lifetime dream for numerous backpackers. Thru-hiking is a demanding but incredibly rewarding pursuit that becomes a transformative and life-changing experience for many people.
Short for a topographic map, a topo map uses contour lines to show the terrain and elevation changes. These maps are handy for hikers and show various geographic features, including mountains, place names, rivers, streams, lakes, roads, railroads, and more.
A trail angel is a person who creates trail magic for thru-hikers through their generosity and kindness. Some trail angels may provide food and supplies, while others offer a ride or a place to stay.
A trailhead is the official starting point of a trail.
Trail magic describes a random act of kindness or generosity that is provided to thru-hikers. Trail magic can take many forms and is known for boosting hikers’ spirits.
A trail name is a nickname given to a thru-hiker by others on the trail. Hikers are typically not allowed to choose their own trail names. Instead, other hikers come up with a nickname based on the hiker’s physical attributes or actions on the trail.
A trail town is a community through which a long-distance trail passes. Typically, the community supports hikers by providing services, resupply points, and trail magic.
Tramping is a word for hiking that is used in New Zealand. Typically, tramping refers to a difficult multi-day hike through the New Zealand bush. Some people may also use the word for a challenging day hike.
Although many people use the terms hiking and trekking interchangeably, a trek tends to be a more strenuous or difficult journey. Treks are not usually shorter than 30 miles (50 kilometers), but they can be as long as 15,000 miles (24,000 kilometers) or more. Trekking is the preferred term in Asia, where it commonly refers to multi-day hiking tours in Southeast Asian jungles or in the Himalayas.
A Triple Crowner is a person who has completed all three of the major long-distance trails in the US. These include the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail.
Ultralight, abbreviated UL, is a style of gear and backpacking focused on minimizing weight. Ultralight backpackers seek to carry the smallest amount of equipment possible without compromising safety. Opinions vary on exactly what counts as ultralight backpacking, but typically a base weight of 10 pounds (4.5 kg) or less would be considered ultralight.
The United States Geological Survey is an essential source of geographic information system (GIS) data in the US. The organization produces detailed topographic maps that are crucial for hikers in the US.
In the UK, Australia, and New Zealand, walking tends to be the preferred term to describe hiking. In these places, even a challenging day hike could be described as a walk.
A wilderness first responder is a person who has completed extensive training to provide medical care in wilderness settings. Wilderness first responder courses are required in the outdoor industry for professional guides, search and rescue team members, and trip leaders. People who have this certification are sometimes referred to as “Woofers.”
Outdoor recreationists and international travelers who plan on visiting remote areas could also benefit from taking a wilderness first responder course. Although many organizations offer these courses, the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) is considered the industry leader.
Hiking purists who want to complete an entire trail along the official route are called White Blazers. This term is commonly used on the Appalachian Trail, where the official path is marked with white blazes.
A widowmaker is a hazardous tree that has dead or broken branches that could fall at any moment. Hikers should keep an eye out for these types of trees when they set up camp and choose a place to relax along the trail.
This hiking term refers to a type of thru-hiking. The hiker completes the trail in one direction and then immediately turns around and hikes the trail in the opposite direction.
Used by long-distance hikers, a zero day or zero is when you don’t hike any miles. A zero could be a rest day, a resupply day in a trail town, or a day spent waiting for a storm to pass.
Like any new hobby, learning to hike and backpack and discussing these activities with others can feel overwhelming at first. Now that you’re familiar with the most common hiking terms, you should find it much easier to read and talk about this exciting pastime. As you gain more hiking experience, many of these backpacking and hiking terms will become a common part of your vocabulary.
Did we miss anything? Let us know in the comments.