Like many outdoor sports, there are a lot of confusing hiking terms to learn. I spend a lot of time writing about hiking and teaching hiking skills and it can be easy to forget that not everyone knows all the hiking slang, jargon, and terminology.
To help everyone out, I put together a comprehensive glossary of hiking terminology. It’s essentially a specialized dictionary just for hikers. It includes slang, technical terms, acronyms, abbreviations, phrases, and tons of definitions.
There are over 300 different hiking terms on this list and I know I’ll add more as I remember them. Most of the terms are universal amongst English speakers, but some are specific to North America, the UK, Australia, or New Zealand. And I’ve tried to include regional terms too.
Jump to the hiking term you’re looking for:
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A – B hiking terms (alpenglow – bushwhacking)
Noun: Pink, purple, or reddish light on the horizon opposite the setting or rising sun. Commonly seen on mountains. It is technically an optical illusion that occurs when the sun is just below the horizon and its rays reflect off particulate or moisture in the lower atmosphere.
Noun: Originally, this word referred to the Alps Mountains in Europe, but now it can mean any high mountains. For hikers, “the alpine” usually refers to the area above the treeline.
Adjective: Related to high mountain plants or climate.
Noun: Beginning a climb or hike before sunrise to complete it in a single day. The term comes from “alpine style”, a self-sufficient type of mountaineering where you carry all of your gear as you climb, rather than leaving it behind in caches, expedition-style.
Verb: A form of backcountry skiing. Skiing outside of designated ski areas. The term usually implies that participants will use gear to ski both uphill and downhill. Skiers going alpine touring may go out for the day or on multi-day trips. Also called AT and ski touring.
Noun: Acronym for the Appalachian Trail, a 2,200-mile long-distance trail that runs from Georgia to Maine in the eastern United States.
Noun: An abbreviation for “alpine touring“.
Noun: Hikers mentally separate the outdoors into “backcountry” and “frontcountry“. The backcountry is generally a wilderness area accessed via trails, not roads. Close to roads, the line between frontcountry and backcountry may blur, but the farther away from a road you are, the clearer it is that you are in the backcountry. See also wilderness.
Verb: Skiing outside of designated ski areas. The term usually implies that participants will use gear to ski both uphill and downhill. Skiers going backcountry skiing may go out for the day or on multi-day trips. See also AT, alpine touring, ski touring.
Verb, North American: Multi-day hiking where you carry everything you need in a backpack to camp in the backcountry. See also bushwalking, trekking, and tramping. Note: In Europe and many other parts of the world, “backpacking” refers to budget travel where participants stay in hostels and carry everything in a backpack instead of a suitcase.
Noun: Outdoor clothing typically uses a layering system. The base layer is the layer next to your skin that provides warmth and/or moisture management. Base layers can be one-piece suits but are more typically a long-sleeved shirt (perhaps with a hood) and pants. Hiking base layers are typically made of merino wool or synthetic fabrics. Also called long underwear. See also mid-layer, outer layer.
Noun: The weight of all your gear, non including consumables like food, water, and fuel. Also called dry weight.
READ NEXT: 20+ Ways to Reduce Your Backpack Weight
Noun, slang: A state of irrational fear of bears, to the point that the sufferer imagines every shadow and noise to be a bear. (Adjective: bearanoid.)
Noun: A bag (often waterproof or water-resistant) used to store food and toiletries in a bear hang, bear wire, or bear pole to protect it from bears and rodents. See also food bag, food cache, Ursack.
Verb: bear bagging – see bear hang.
Noun: A loud explosive launched from a pen-style flare launcher. Designed to be launched into the air to scare a bear into retreating.
Noun: A type of food cache. A cable or wire strung between two trees or poles to suspend food off the ground and protect it from bears. A permanently installed bear hang and an alternative to a food locker. Many use a system of pulleys to allow you to raise and lower your bear bag, but some may require you to bring a rope to sling over the cable. Also called a bear wire.
Noun: A bear-resistant, hard-sided, portable container used for storing food. Usually made of sturdy plastic, bear canisters require tools and/or thumbs to open. Bear canisters are an alternative to bear hangs and permanently installed food caches. Land managers may require them in areas where there are no suitable trees to build a bear hang or bears are known to access bear hangs, and there are no food caches installed.
Noun: A type of food cache. A bear bag hung from a rope in a tree to protect it from bears and rodents. To keep food out of the reach of bears, the bear hang should be hung 6 ft from the trunk of the tree, 6 ft below the branch it is suspended from, and 12 feet off the ground. The tree should be 200 ft from your campsite and cooking area. In practice, it can be hard to find a suitable location for a bear hang and difficult to get the rope strung up properly.
Noun: A type of food cache. A pole used for suspending a bear bag out of the reach of bears. These come in several different varieties, all called bear poles. It may be a horizontal pole running between two trees. You throw a rope over top to suspend your food, then tie the rope off to the trunk of one of the trees. Another variety is a freestanding pole with hooks at the top. You throw a rope over a hook and then hoist your food to the top. In some locations, the campground will come equipped with a long stick with a hook on the end that you can use to lift your food onto one of the pole hooks. In other areas, the bear pole may support a series of bear wires or bear cables with pulleys that you use to hoist your food to the top.
Noun: A aerosol spray that contains capsaicin, a form of hot pepper, and is designed to deter bears. Spray into a bear’s face when it is 5 to 10 feet from you.
Noun: Slang term for giardiasis, a parasitic infection of the digestive system characterized by abdominal pain and diarrhea. Most commonly contracted from unfiltered water. Also called giardia.
Noun: When referring to geography, a bench is a narrow, level strip of land bounded by steeper slopes above and below it.
Noun: Refers to the three largest and most expensive pieces of gear that a backpacker carries: sleeping bag, tent, and backpack.
Noun, Australian, Canadian: A lightweight, bucket-like metal pot used for boiling water, especially over a campfire. Some versions (especially in Australia) have a spout like a kettle. Also called billycan, billy pot, and billy tin.
Noun: Shortened form of carabiner. Use this hiking term with caution as it sounds identical to a racial slur that is offensive to Mexicans.
Noun: To go to the bathroom. Hikers often use it to mean that they are leaving the trail to find a private place to go to the bathroom. The term originally comes from the tech industry.
Verb: To stay overnight at a temporary campsite.
Noun: A minimalist single-person shelter, typically used at a bivouac. Usually just a waterproof or water-resistant cover for a sleeping bag, but sometimes they may incorporate a hoop to suspend the material over the face of the occupant or panels of bug netting.
Noun: Another name for a trail marker, commonly used in the eastern United States, especially on the AT. Blazes are often painted marks on rocks or trees, while other kinds of trail markers may be made of metal or plastic.
Noun: Acronym for the Bureau of Land Management, a United States agency responsible for administering federal lands, especially in the western states.
Noun: See wag bag.
Noun: A hiker on a long-distance trail who is not a purist and takes alternative side trails instead of always sticking to the main route. The name comes from the side trails on the AT which use blue blazes.
Noun: Sunny weather with clear skies, often the day after a snowfall. This hiking term originated in the skiing community.
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Noun: A wooden walkway that is elevated above wet or marshy ground. Also called duckboard.
Adjective: Something that is very durable. This hiking term originated in the climbing community to refer to the placement of protective gear, but in hiking, it is used to describe gear (e.g. jackets, boots) that can stand up to abuse.
Verb: To become physically exhausted, usually due to low blood sugar. This hiking term originated in the long-distance running community.
Verb: To kick steps into snow on a steep slope to create a staircase to travel upwards. This hiking term comes from the backcountry skiing community and means the slope is too steep to use climbing skins so the skiers take their skis off and continue only in their boots. See also step-kicking.
Verb: To slide down a snowy slope as if you are skiing, but wearing only your hiking boots. This technique is most effective in slushy snow. See also glissade.
Noun, British: A small basic backcountry hut or shelter that is left unlocked and available for anyone to use for free. This hiking term is most commonly used in Scotland, Northern England, and Wales. See also hut, lean-to.
Verb: A form of rock climbing where participants scale boulders or small rock walls without ropes.
Noun: A box that hikers on long-distance trails send ahead of them by mail from one resupply point to another. The box commonly contains things the hiker only needs in towns such as a change of clothing, toiletries, batteries, chargers, and gear repair items.
Noun: A slang term for the removable lid compartment of a top-loading backpack.
Verb: To pack up camp and take down tents in preparation for leaving.
Verb: To be the first person to hike through fresh snow, forming a broken trail behind you. This hiking term is also used in backcountry skiing.
Noun: A brand name of stretchy fabric tube that can be used as a neck warmer, headband, and hat. While many other companies make these tubes, they are often all called buffs, similar to the way all tissue is often called Kleenex.
Verb: To hike off-trail through brushy terrain. This hiking term may also be applied to hiking on trails that are very overgrown with vegetation.
C – D hiking terms (cable car – dyneema)
Noun: A small cart attached to a cable that connects two points on either side of a river. The cable forms a loop like a clothesline with pulleys at either end. Hikers sit inside the car, then pull themselves over to the opposite bank by tugging on the line. Typically used in areas where the terrain makes installing a bridge expensive or impractical.
Noun: A location where gear, food, or water are left along a trail for long-distance hikers to resupply without leaving the trail. Water caches maintained by trail angels are common on dry portions of the PCT and CDT.
Noun: A stack of rocks used as a trail marker. Often found above treeline. The highest point on a mountains is sometimes marked with a cairn. A more recent trend has seen hikers building cairns for aesthetic reasons. This is problematic as it can confuse hikers who rely on cairns for navigation.
Noun: See hydration system. CamelBak was one of the first companies to make this product, so the term can apply to all hydration systems. (like Kleenex applies to all tissue). Also known as a bladder, reservoir, or platypus.
Verb: To drink a lot of water at a water source to avoid having to carry as much water on the hike.
Noun: See white gas.
Verb: To sleep outside overnight, usually in a tent.
Noun: An area designed for camping, often with facilities like toilets and water access. Some people may use campground and campsite interchangeably.
Noun: A small area inside a campground set aside for a party of campers. In the frontcountry, it often includes a picnic table, fire ring, and open space to pitch tent(s) or park RVs. In the backcountry, it usually consists of a tent pad or an open space for tents. It can also mean anywhere that a person has camped. Some people may use campground and campsite interchangeably.
Noun: A loop-shaped metal shackle with a spring-loaded gate used to attach things. Most commonly used in rock climbing, but hikers often use them to attach gear to the outside of a backpack. See also ‘biner.
Verb: A type of camping where you can drive your car right to your campsite. This term is most often used by hikers to differentiate car camping from backcountry camping. Sometimes called frontcountry camping. Occasionally, this term is used to mean sleeping in your car in a campground.
car shuttle/car shuffle
Verb: When a hike starts and ends at different locations (e.g. a traverse or point-to-point hike), hikers may travel in two cars to one trailhead, leave one car there, then travel to the other end of the trail in the second car. At the end of the hike, they will drive back to the first trailhead to retrieve the first car. In hiking terminology, car shuttle is more common in North America. Car shuffle is used in Australia. See also key swap.
Noun: A small hole dug in the ground to dispose of human waste. According to Leave No Trace best practices, the hole should be at least 6″ deep and located 200 ft from trails, campsites, and water sources.
Noun: Acronym for the Continental Divide Trail, a 3,000-mile long-distance trail that runs from the Mexican border with New Mexico to the Canadian border with Montana.
Noun: Rock that is, crumbly, loose, or unstable, making it unsuitable or unsafe for hiking or climbing. The term originated in the climbing community.
Noun: A half-open, steep-sided hollow at the head of a valley formed by a glacier. Also called a corrie or a cwm.
class 1, 2, 3, 4, 5
Noun: The Yosemite Decimal System uses five classes to describe the difficulty of hikes and rock climbs. Class 1 is hiking on a trail. Class 2 is scrambling with occasional use of hands. Scrambling with the use of hands and enough exposure that a fall could be fatal is Class 3. Class 4 is simple rock climbing, usually with a rope. Class 5 is technical rock climbing and is further subdivided into classes 5.0 to 5.15d to definite difficulty.
Verb: To ascend or descend a steep slope to a point where you are stopped by a cliff and cannot continue. The term may mean that you got stuck on the cliff and needed a rescue, but it can also mean that you had to turn around and try an alternate route.
Verb: To rehydrate backpacking food without heat. The process takes more time so hikers may carry a container with their food cold-soaking inside for several hours.
Noun: See white gas.
Noun: In the hiking context, this is a type of pit toilet where the waste is left to break down into compost. These toilets are often elevated above the waste collection area and have bins of wood chips that users scoop into the toilet after use to aid in decomposition.
Noun: A stuff sack with adjustable side straps that can be tightened to compress the contents of the sack. Most commonly used to reduce the bulk of sleeping bags and down jackets.
Noun: A line drawn on a topographic map that shows the elevation. Hikers often use the abbreviated version, contour.
Noun: A trail or road made by laying down logs perpendicular to the direction of travel. Often used in historical logging or to fill in wet or swampy sections.
Verb: To sleep out under the stars in a sleeping bag without a tent.
Noun: Coffee made by heating coarse coffee grounds with water, allowing the grounds to settle, then pouring it into a cup.
Noun: An insulated sleeve designed to fit around a pot, mug, or food pouch to keep the food warm while it rehydrates. Often made of thin foam or reflective insulating materials like Reflectix (used to make car sunshades).
Noun: Shortened form of cryptobiotic soil. A hardened surface layer made of both living organisms and inorganic soil matter often found in sensitive desert environments. They are very prone to erosion and can take decades to recover, so hikers must stay on trails in areas with crypto.
Noun: See Dyneema
Verb: To go for a hike that is short enough to complete in a single day, as opposed to backpacking, which takes place over two or more days.
Noun: A method of securing a tent or shelter in soft sand or snow. An object such as a stick or weighted bag is tied off to the tent, then buried in the snow or sand. See also snow stake.
Noun: Also called magnetic declination, the angle of deviation of your compass from true north depending on your position on earth. The angle of declination is marked on topo maps to enable you to adjust your compass for accuracy.
Noun: A chemical that is an active ingredient in many insect repellents. It is very effective at repelling bugs but it has some negative health effects, so it cannot be used in concentrations higher than 30%. As well, it can dissolve plastics, nylon fabrics, and waterproof breathable membranes so it should be used with care.
Noun: A campground that is officially sanctioned and approved by a land manager such as a park or other government agency. This can be either a backcountry or frontcountry campground and often (but not always) has facilities like pit toilets. This outdoor term is often used to differentiate from dispersed camping areas.
Noun: A small bag or stuff sack, typically with a drawstring closure used to organize small items. While a stuff sack can be any size, a ditty bag is small. The term comes from the British navy in the 19th century when sailors used small cloth bags to organize their sewing supplies.
Noun: Traditionally this was a derogatory term for an unkempt or dirty person. However, members of the outdoor community, especially rock climbers reclaimed the word and use it to celebrate an outdoor-centric lifestyle where participants live very cheaply (e.g. camping or in vans) to spend as much time as possible hiking, climbing, etc. See also hiker trash.
Verb: To camp outside a designated campground in an area with no facilities. This could be hike-in backcountry camping or vehicle accessed camping on back roads. In many areas, dispersed camping is practiced informally, but in some jurisdictions, there are designated zones where dispersed camping is allowed and may even require a permit.
Noun: A tent with two layers. The inner layer, called the tent body is made of fabric and/or mesh and is suspended from the tent poles. The outer layer, called the rainfly, is draped over the poles. This type of tent creates less condensation. See also single-wall tent.
Noun: See pit toilet.
Noun: A stuff sack made of waterproof material with a roll-top closure that keeps the contents dry even if it is submerged. These bags are most often used in the paddling community, but hikers may use them to store food or keep key gear like sleeping bags dry.
Verb: Camping in an area with no water source. In the RV and van life community, this is known as boondocking and often is a form of dispersed camping (although some designated campgrounds in arid areas may not have a water source). Backpackers commonly dry camp in places where it is not possible or desirable to camp next to a water source. In those instances, they will often carry large amounts of water with them to camp.
Noun: See base weight.
Noun, Australian: See boardwalk.
Noun: Abbreviation for Durable Water Repellency finish. A fluoropolymer treatment applied to the outside of fabrics such as waterproof breathable jackets. In typical waterproof breathable jackets, the waterproof breathable membrane is protected under a layer of fabric. The DWR is applied to this outer layer of fabric to stop it from becoming saturated with water (known as wetting out). Over time, the DWR finish wears down and needs to be reapplied with a spray-on or wash-in product.
Noun: Short form of Dyneema Composite Fabric. A high-performance non-woven composite material that is very strong and lightweight. It is made of a thin sheet of polyethylene laminated between two sheets of polyester. Commonly used in ultralight gear, such as tents and backpacks. Also called cuben fiber.
E – H hiking terms (elevation gain – hydration system)
Noun: The total amount you will climb on a trail or route, typically expressed in meters or feet. Typically this means net elevation gain (also called elevation change), which is expressed by the lowest point on the route subtracted from the highest point on the route. Cumulative elevation gain is the sum of every gain in elevation on the route. On rolling terrain, cumulative elevation gain and net elevation gain can be quite different.
Noun: A short snack break taken around 11 a.m. See also smoko.
Noun: An area where the terrain is steep enough that a fall would result in injury or death. The term is commonly used in the scrambling and rock climbing communities.
Noun: An area that doesn’t have any shade and is exposed to the sun.
Noun: The physical condition of being outside and exposed to severe weather conditions, especially extreme cold and high winds. Often results in hypothermia and death.
Noun: A point on a mountain that appears from below to be the top, but upon reaching it, you discover that the true summit is higher.
Verb: A sport that combines backpacking and trail running. Participants carry ultralight gear and travel further in a day than typical backpackers by running on suitable terrain – usually flat and downhill sections of trail.
female urination device
Noun: An enclosure for a campfire. This can be a steel firepit installed at a designated campground or an informal circle of rocks.
Noun: Brightly colored plastic tape used for marking. Rough or less established hiking trails may be marked with flagging tape instead of blazes or trail markers. However, the logging and mining industries may also use flagging tape as survey markers so use caution and do not blindly follow flagging tape. Sometimes shortened to “flagging”.
Noun: A soft fabric made from polyester that provides insulation by trapping warm air between the fibers. Fleece is typically fuzzy on the inside but may be smooth on the outside. Often used in mid-layers.
Verb: A thru-hiking term used to indicate that a hiker has started their hike somewhere in the middle of the trail and hiked in one direction, then returned to their start point and hiked in the other direction to complete their hike.
Noun: See rainfly.
Noun: A bag used to hold a backpacker’s food. This bag is often used as part of a bear hang or used in a food cache. Often a simple stuff sack is used but some hikers prefer to use dry bags or an Ursack. Also called a bear bag.
Noun: A type of food cache. A secure metal box with a latch closure for storing food and toiletries to keep them secure from bears and other animals. Often found at designated backcountry campgrounds or walk-in frontcountry campgrounds. Also called a bear box, bear cache, or bear locker. See also bear cable, bear wire.
Noun: A piece of protective fabric that you lay on the ground under your tent to protect the tent floor from abrasion. It is sized exactly to fit the dimensions of your tent and often has attachments to secure it to the tent body. See also groundsheet.
Noun: Acronym for fear of packing out bag. A bag used for packing used toilet paper, wipes, and menstrual supplies out of the backcountry to comply with Leave No Trace principles. Many hikers use a Ziploc bag covered in duct tape or a Ziploc bag with an inner paper bag to obscure the contents.
Noun: An unbridged stream or river crossing where hikers must wade through the water. See also rock hop.
Verb, New Zealand: See wild camping.
freezer bag cooking
Verb: A method of backcountry cooking where dry ingredients are placed in a Ziploc freezer bag, boiling water is added, and the ingredients are left to soak until they rehydrate.
from skin out (FSO)
Noun: The total weight of everything a backpacker is carrying and wearing.
Noun: A related concept to “backcountry“, the frontcountry is an area of wilderness or nature that is easy to access via road. For example, a drive-in camping spot, a short walk to a viewpoint, or a forested picnic area might all be considered part of the frontcountry.
Noun: See car camping
Noun: See female urination device.
Noun: A faint path made by the repeated passage of animals. In practice, hikers may refer to any faint trail as a game trail, even if it was not made by animals. See also boot path, herd path, social trail.
Noun: Fabric covers that bridge the gap between the top of your boots and the bottom of your pants. Used for keeping sand, rocks, snow, and rain out of your boots. They may be made of waterproof material and often have a zipper or velcro closure to make them easier to take on and off.
Noun: Gear messily spread all over a campsite, crag, or lunch spot by careless campers, hikers, or climbers. See also yard sale.
Noun: See beaver fever.
Noun: A year-round body of ice that is moving under its own weight. Typically located in the mountains or polar regions.
Verb: A method of descending a steep, snowy slope via a controlled slide either standing on your feet or sitting on your butt. Participants use an ice axe to control their descent or to stop. See also boot ski.
Noun: The brand name of a popular waterproof breathable membrane used in rain jackets. W.L. Gore & Associates invented this type of membrane so many hikers call all types of waterproof breathable membranes Gore-tex, similar to the way all tissue is often called Kleenex.
Noun: Acronym for good old raisins and peanuts. See trail mix.
Noun: Acronym for global positioning system. A navigation system that uses satellites to provide the user with their location. Traditionally only available on stand-alone GPS devices but now available on mobile phone apps like Gaia GPS.
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Noun: Also known as gram counter or ounce weenie. An ultralight hiker who weighs all of their gear and is obsessed with reducing their gear weight to the point that they look for savings of a few grams.
READ NEXT: 20+ Ways to Reduce Your Backpack Weight
Noun: Wastewater from washing dishes or people.
Noun: A waterproof sheet of plastic or fabric spread under a sleeping bag to protect against moisture and dirt. Commonly used when cowboy camping or as part of a tarp shelter. Some hikers may refer to a footprint as a groundsheet.
Noun: Also called guy wires or guy ropes. Thin pieces of cord used to tie a tent or tarp to the ground, trees, or poles to make it taut. May also be used as a verb: “to guy out”.
Noun: Short form of hand sanitizer. A liquid or gel, commonly containing alcohol, used to kill viruses, bacteria, and microorganisms on the hands. Commonly used by hikers instead of soap and water after going to the bathroom and before eating.
Noun: A type of waterproof breathable jacket, usually with a hood and often made of crinkly material that is very durable. In hiking terminology, the term is used to distinguish hardshell jackets from softshell ones.
Noun: A small flashlight worn on a stretchy headband. In the UK, it is called a head torch.
Noun: A heat-related illness that occurs when you are exposed to high temperatures and your body loses too much water and/or salt. See also heat stroke.
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Noun: The highest point on a hiking trail or route, expressed in feet or meters. The term can also mean the highest point in an area, such as the highest mountain in a country, state, county, or park.
Noun: A box where hikers may take or leave items such as food and gear free of charge. They are typically found along long distance-trails at hostels and gear stores.
Noun: The time of the evening when most backpackers go to bed. Commonly, this is 9 pm, but it can be earlier if the sun sets before then.
Noun: The layer of dirt and dust on a hiker’s skin, especially their legs that makes them appear tanned until they wash it off.
hike your own hike (HYOH)
Phrase: Often abbreviated as HYOH, hike your own hike is a hiking philosophy common on long-distance trails. It means that each hiker can decide how to approach their trip and what works for them without feeling pressure to conform to others’ opinions about how the trail should be hiked.
Verb: To walk in a natural setting, usually on trails. The line between walking and hiking can be blurry, but in general, a natural setting and an unpaved path are required for hiking. See also backpacking, bushwalking, fell walking, hill walking, rambling, trekking, and tramping.
Noun: Areas of skin where pressure and friction have caused the surface to become irritated. Hot spots are a precursor to blisters. Hot spots can be treated with tape, bandages, or creams to prevent a blister.
READ NEXT: How to Prevent Blisters When Hiking
Noun: A building in the backcountry designed for overnight use by backpackers, mountaineers, and backcountry skiers. Huts vary from very simple to luxurious. Depending on the area they may be locked or unlocked, be free or require a fee, and may require reservations. Also called a cabin. See also bothy, lean-to.
Noun: A flexible plastic water bag with a connected hose and mouth valve. The water bag goes inside your backpack and the tube snakes out onto the shoulder strap so you can drink hands-free as you hike. Also known as a bladder, CamelBak, reservoir, or platypus.
I – L hiking terms (ice axe – loop hike)
Noun: A specialized axe used by mountaineers for travel on ice and snow. The shaft has a spike on the end for driving into the snow when the axe is used as a walking stick. The head has a pick on one side, used to stop when glissading and flat, wide adze on the other used to chop steps in hard snow and ice.
Noun: Acronym for the John Muir Trail, a 211-mile long-distance trail that runs through the Sierra Nevada mountains of California, passing through Yosemite, Kings Canyon, and Sequoia National Parks.
Noun: An intersection where two or more trails meet.
Noun: On a traverse or point-to-point hike, two groups of hikers may elect to start at opposite ends, then meet in the middle to exchange car keys. After they finish their hike, they will drive the cars to a pre-arranged meeting point to swap the cars back to their owners. This strategy can be less time-consuming than a car shuttle.
Verb: See step-kicking.
Noun: Small pieces of wood used along with tinder to help start a fire.
Noun: Acronym for long-ass section hike. While a section hike could be completed in pieces as short as a day, a LASH is longer but is not a full thru-hike. A person who is completing a LASH is a LASH-er.
Leave No Trace (LNT)
Noun: A set of outdoor ethics designed to reduce negative human impact in the outdoors. Leave No Trace includes seven principles to promote responsible recreation.
Noun: A measure of the fluffiness of a down sleeping bag, expressed in centimeters or inches. The higher the loft, the warmer the sleeping bag will be for its weight.
Noun: A trail through the wilderness that runs for a significant distance, usually at least 100 km (60 mi). Examples of famous long-distance trails include the PCT and AT, but there are countless others around the world.
Noun: See pit toilet.
Noun: Another name for base layer. Most often refers to base layer bottoms, which are also called long johns.
Noun: A trail or route that travels in a roughly circular path without backtracking. A loop trail starts and ends at the same point. A variation on this is the lollipop loop where you start at one point and hike in a straight line to a junction where you follow a loop trail, turn to the junction, then retrace your steps back to the start point. See also point-to-point, out-and-back, traverse.
M – P hiking terms (merino wool – purist)
Noun: Wool from the merino species of sheep. It is thinner and softer than regular wool, making it more comfortable to wear. Merino wool is naturally moisture wicking and antimicrobial. It is also good at thermoregulation.
Noun: A spiked traction device made of chains and a stretchy plastic harness that attaches to the bottom of boots. Used for hiking on ice and hard-packed snow. Compared to crampons, the spikes are smaller and less sharp and the boot attachments are more flexible but less durable. The term microspikes refers to a product made by Kahtoola, but it is commonly used to describe similar traction devices. See also crampons, Yaktrax.
Noun: Outdoor clothing typically uses a layering system. The mid-layer provides insulation and sits between the base layer and outer layer. Mid-layers can be made of polyester fleece or use down or synthetic insulation. See also base layer, outer layer.
Noun: Soft cotton fabric padding with a sticky adhesive backing on one side. Used to pad blisters to promote healing and reduce friction.
READ NEXT: How to Prevent Blisters When Hiking
Noun: An accumulation of rocks, sand, and sediment deposited on the edges or at the toe of a glacier.
Noun: A sleeping bag with a tube-shaped tapered cut designed to fit a person snugly and a hood. The name comes from the shape of the sarcophagi that Egyptian mummies were buried in.
Noun: See white gas.
Noun: A type of biting flies or midges small enough that they are hard to see (1-3 mm long).
Noun: Acronym for the National Parks Service of the United States.
Noun: A small building that shelters a pit toilet. Some hikers will use the word outhouse as a synonym for pit toilet.
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Noun: The manufacturer’s listed weight for how much a tent weighs with everything that is included when you purchase it. Usually includes tent body, rainfly, stakes, poles, guy lines, stuff sacks, repair kits, and instructions. See also trail weight.
Noun, Australian: A faint trail. See herd path.
Noun: Acronym for the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,600-mile long-distance trail that runs from the Mexican border with California to the Canadian border with Washington.
Verb: An activity where participants attempt to reach the summits of many peaks. Often the peaks are arranged in a regional collection or as part of a local challenge. Usually, the summits are non-technical and require hiking and light scrambling with some off-trail navigation, but sometimes mountaineering is also involved.
Noun: A bottle for peeing into when you do not want to leave the tent. Often used with a female urination device.
Noun: Also called a pee rag. A piece of reusable cloth used instead of toilet paper when peeing. Users rinse the cloth out periodically and hang it on their backpack to dry. Technical pee cloths (e.g. Kula Cloth) made with antimicrobial fabric and hanging loops are available. Used instead of packing out toilet paper in a FOPO bag.
Noun: See female urination device.
Noun: Used toilet paper left on the ground near trails and camps. Often left behind by women and people who squat to pee in the false belief that it will biodegrade quickly. Instead, it can take weeks to break down and is unsightly.
Noun: See tent pegs.
Noun: In some areas, you require an official document to hike or camp. Permits can be a way for parks to collect user fees and/or reduce the impact of large numbers of visitors. Some permits are free while others have a cost. Depending on the location, you may need to get a permit at a trailhead, a ranger station, or online. In some places, you have to reserve permits in advance, while in others they are first-come, first-served.
Noun: A type of toilet that collects human waste in a pit or container. The waste enters the pit or holding tank through a hole directly under the toilet seat. In some locations, the waste will be left in the hole to decompose, while in others it will be pumped out or the tank will be helicoptered out for disposal. This hiking term can be used for toilets that have an enclosure (e.g. outhouse) and toilets without an enclosure (e.g. throne or thunderbox). See also composting toilet, drop toilet, long drop, outhouse, privy, throne, thunderbox, vault toilet, urine diversion toilet.
Noun: A built-in lighter on many camp stoves. When a button is pressed, a spring-loaded hammer strikes quartz to create a spark.
Noun: See hydration system. Platypus was one of the first companies to make this product, so the term can apply to all hydration systems. (like Kleenex applies to all tissue). Also known as a bladder, CamelBak, or reservoir.
Noun: Acronym for personal locator beacon. An emergency radio beacon that transmits your location to rescuers in case of an emergency. Unlike satellite messengers, it does not require a subscription service.
Verb: A method of descending snowy slopes by driving your heel straight down into the snow while keeping your toe up. The downhill version of step-kicking.
Verb: Hiking in snow that is soft and unconsolidated so that your legs plunge into the snow like a fence post being driven into the earth. If you are sinking above mid-calf, you are post-holing. Hikers wear snowshoes to avoid post-holing. Gaiters can help keep snow out of your boots.
Noun: See cozy
Noun: A brand of synthetic insulation used in jackets and sleeping bags.
Noun: See backcountry camping.
Noun: An insulated jacket made with synthetic insulation or down for warmth. Also called a puffy.
Noun: A thru-hiker who wants to complete their hike in a form that they deem the noblest. The definition of purism varies, but in general it means walking every single mile of the official route without using alternate trails and completing the trail in one season.
Q – S hiking terms (quilt – synthetic insulation)
Noun: A blanket filled with down or synthetic insulation and used instead of a sleeping bag. Some quilts are simple rectangles while others may have a more contoured shape or straps to attach to a sleeping pad.
Verb: To pick up gear and food at intervals along a long-distance trail. This could mean shopping at a grocery store or picking up resupply packages a friend at home has mailed to a post office.
Noun: A woven fabric (usually nylon) that uses a stronger yarn at regular intervals in a grid pattern. If the fabric is abraded, it will likely tear only up to the stronger yarn, reducing the length of the rip.
Adjective: A way of describing the sides of a river as they relate to the direction of water flow. So if you are looking downstream, river left is on the left side of the river. Commonly used in the paddling community.
Verb: A method of crossing a river or stream by hopping from rock to rock, typically through shallow water. A type of ford.
Noun: See return.
Noun: A way of getting from one point to another using a collection of trails. E.g. The most direct route to Lake A is to take the Trail B, then Trail C.
Noun: An established way to get from point A to B that does not have a formal trail. It may be marked with flagging or cairns, but usually only at key points. It may also use a herd path or game trail, but in some cases, there will be no evidence that people or animals have walked there.
Noun: Another name for a backpack. Some people use the word rucksack to mean a type of backpack, in particular a large backpacking backpack capable of carrying heavy loads, especially in military applications.
Noun: A measure of insulation. The higher the number, the more insulated it is. This hiking term is commonly used for sleeping pads.
Verb: To describe a route as easier than it is. This may be done intentionally or unintentionally. The term comes from the climbing community.
Noun: Acronym for search and rescue. An organization that helps people who are injured or lost in the backcountry. Depending on the area, they may be volunteers.
Noun: An electronic device that uses satellites to send text messages and GPS coordinates. Can be used in an emergency or as a means of regular communication. Some devices have two-way messaging capabilities but others can only send messages. Most devices require a subscription. See also inReach, SPOT.
Noun: Animal feces.
Verb: A method of moving through steep terrain that lies somewhere between hiking and roped rock climbing. In general, scrambling is less likely to occur on trails and often involves exposure and the use of hands. Class 2 and 3 in the Yosemite Decimal System.
Noun: Loose pebbles and small rocks on a slope or at the base of a slope. Scree is loose and will slide when you walk on it. See also talus.
Noun, Australian: Trail mix.
Noun: The months in between the prime summer and winter outdoor seasons. Usually, spring and fall. The exact months vary by region depending on patterns of snow accumulation and melt.
Noun: A tent made of one layer of fabric. These tents can be very lightweight but are prone to condensation. See also double-wall tent.
Verb: Skiing outside of designated ski areas. The term usually implies that participants will use gear to ski both uphill and downhill. Skiers going ski touring may go out for the day or on multi-day trips. See also AT, alpine touring, backcountry skiing.
skin out weight
Noun: See from skin out.
Noun: Areas of the backcountry that can be easily accessed from a ski lift. The term comes from the backcountry skiing community and usually applies to areas that are outside the boundary of the ski resort but can be reached easily from the lift, often with some uphill travel involved. Hikers may use this term for summer trails accessed from ski lifts.
Verb: Backpacking without carrying all of your gear with you. Each morning you hand off your extra gear to someone who drives it to that day’s endpoint. Slackpacking is often done from town to town and in some places, B&Bs cater to slackpackers. But slackpacking can also be done with the help of friends or family members.
sleeping pad/sleeping mat
Noun: A pad or mat used under a sleeping bag to provide cushioning and insulation from the ground. May be made of foam, inflatable, or use a combination of both. Also called a ground pad. See Therm-a-Rest.
Noun: A trail or section of trail that is challenging or unpleasant, usually because it is steep, has technical terrain, or lacks rewarding scenery.
Verb: slogging – To hike a trail or section of trail that is a slog.
Noun, Australian, New Zealand: See elevenses.
Noun: A wide expanse of snow high in the mountains or in the polar regions that persists all year. In contrast to a glacier, a snowfield has not consolidated into ice. Also called a neve.
Noun: Large platforms that strap to footwear to provide flotation in deep snow. Some snowshoes may also provide traction for steep slopes or icy sections.
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Verb: Hiking in snow while wearing snowshoes.
Noun: An informal, undesignated, and unmaintained trail created when hikers walk the same route repeatedly. Social trails often connect two nearby points, often in campgrounds or as shortcuts between two other trails. See also boot path, game trail, herd path.
Noun: Low clouds or fog are so close to the ground that visibility is greatly reduced. The term comes from the aviation community.
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Noun: A breathable, windproof, and water-resistant outer layer jacket made of soft and pliable material. In comparison to a hardshell jacket, softshells are softer, more flexible, and water-resistant instead of waterproof.
Noun: A portmanteau of spoon and fork. An eating utensil that combines the bowl shape of a spoon with the tines of a fork.
Noun: A short trail that leads off the main trail and ends at a point of interest such as a viewpoint, campsite, toilet, or water source.
Noun: See tent stakes
Verb: To camp without being noticed, often in areas where camping is forbidden or frowned upon. This can range from sleeping in a campervan in an urban area to pitching a tent in the backcountry outside of a designated campground.
Adjective: A slang term that means very excited, enthusiastic, etc.
Noun: A short break in a period of bad weather that gives you false hope that the weather will improve. It can also refer to a hole in the clouds that allows the sun to briefly shine through.
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Noun: A long and tough hike that involves prolonged suffering. The term comes from endurance sports.
Noun: See heat stroke.
Noun: Sharp zigzag turns in a trail that allow you to ascend a slope at a less severe angle than travelling straight uphill.
Noun: Polyester fibers engineered to mimic the lofty clusters of duck or goose down. See Primaloft.
T – U hiking terms (talus – USGS)
Noun: Hikers often use the terms talus and scree interchangeably. However, hikers will also use talus to describe a collection of large rocks on a slope or at the base of a slope. The rocks may or may not be loose. To geologists, a talus deposit is a collection of rocks of any size on a slope.
Noun: Abbreviation for tarpaulin (although that term is rarely used). A large sheet of waterproof material used to construct a temporary shelter.
Adjective: Used to describe hiking terrain that is challenging to walk on. This usually means the ground is very rocky, uneven, loose, exposed, wet, slippery, or steep (or some combination of these factors). In general, on technical terrain, a hiker has to scan the ground as they walk and place their feet carefully.
Noun: The temperature at which a sleeping bag will keep its occupant warm. Reputable sleeping bag brands use a standardized ISO test to determine temperature ratings. There are actually two ratings: The comfort rating is the temperature at which a cold sleeper will feel comfortable. This is the rating used on women’s sleeping bags. The lower limit rating is the temperature at which a warm sleeper will still feel comfortable. This is the temperature rating on men’s sleeping bags. (Some sleeping bags also have an “extreme” rating, which is the temperature at which a woman can remain for six hours without risk of death from hypothermia.)
Noun: A set of ten groups of items that are essential to bring along on every hike for safety. They include illumination, nutrition and hydration, insulation, navigation, fire starter, first aid kit, emergency shelter, sun protection, knife, and communication.
Noun: A portable shelter made of waterproof fabric supported by pole(s).
Noun: The inner layer in a double-wall tent. Typically this consists of a waterproof floor sewn to a breathable fabric and/or mesh upper. The tent body has zippered doors and clips to attach it to the tent poles.
Noun: A designated area at a campground for pitching a tent. Often it consists of wood laid down in a square and then filled with compact soil, sand, or gravel to form a level area. In some places, platforms made of wooden planks are used instead. Most tent pads in the backcountry fit tents no larger than a 4-person tent. In the frontcountry, much larger tent pads are common.
Noun: Dry material such as wood shavings or grass used to start a fire hot enough to light kindling.
Noun: A brand of sleeping pads. They popularized a form of self-inflating sleeping pad with a foam core, and some hikers will use Therm-a-Rest to refer to any sleeping pad or any self-inflating sleeping pad in the same way all tissue can be called Kleenex.
Adjective: Suitable use for any season except winter. Commonly used to describe tents and sleeping bags.
Noun: A type of pit toilet with no enclosing structure. Often made of green plastic with raised sides that hide the user’s lower torso and groin.
Noun: Hiking a long-distance trail from end to end, typically in one season.
Noun: A box-shaped pit toilet without an enclosure building.
Noun: Abbreviation for topographic map. A detailed map that shows natural and human-made features and uses contour lines to express elevation. Commonly used with a compass for navigation in the backcountry.
Noun: Acronym for toilet paper.
Noun: An electronic file containing a GPS record of a person’s hike. Typically shared with other hikers so they can follow the track to complete the same route.
Noun, Australian: A trail.
Noun: A person who provides trail magic.
Noun: Tramily is a portmanteau of trail and family. A group of hikers who meet on a long-distance trail and choose to hike together and support each other.
Noun: Acts of kindness towards thru-hikers such as transportation to town, accommodation, food, or drinks. This is typically provided free of charge.
Noun: Purposefully created marks along trails to show hikers they are on the right path. These vary by region and can include cairns, blazes, flagging, small tags, or signs. They are often brightly colored to stand out from the landscape and are usually attached to trees. However, in areas without trees, stakes driven into the ground topped by a marker or paint may be used.
Noun: A type of snack mix commonly eaten on hikes. The contents vary by region and personal preference but often contain nuts, seeds, dried fruit, granola, and candy. Also called scroggin.
Noun: A pseudonym used by thru-hikers and section hikers on long-distance trails. Often, fellow hikers bestow a trail name upon someone. Trail names are often lighthearted and connected to the hiking experience or the person’s life.
Noun: People who participate in trail running.
Noun: Running shoes designed for running on trails instead of pavement. Compared to road running shoes they have stickier soles for traction, internal plates underfoot to protect against jagged rocks, and increased durability.
Verb: Running on trails.
Noun: A traverse hike is one where you start and end at different points. Also called a point-to-point hike.
Verb: To walk across or through something. In hiking, you might say that you traversed a slope if you walked from one side of it to the other.
Noun: The line on a mountain or hill above which no trees grow. The edge of the habitat in which trees are capable of growing.
Noun: Long metal or carbon fiber poles that look very similar to ski poles with a padded handle and wrist strap at the top and a spike and basket at the bottom. They provide stability and reduce joint strain on uneven terrain. Commonly sold and used in pairs, but some hikers choose to use only one. Many hiking poles adjust in height to suit the user and collapse into two or three sections for storage. Also called hiking poles, hiking sticks, trekking sticks, walking poles, or walking sticks.
Noun: To complete the Triple Crown of hiking, a person must hike the three major American long-distance hiking trails: Appalachian Trail (AT), Continental Divide Trail (CDT), and Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in their lifetime.
Noun: Details about your hike left with a trusted person at home. A trip plan should include information about where you are going, who you are with and when you will be back. If you don’t return on time, your trusted person can call search and rescue. Trip planning apps are an easy way to leave a trip plan.
type 1, 2, and 3 fun
Noun: A scale for defining the pleasurability of outdoor activities. Type 1 fun is fun the entire time you are doing it. If it is not fun while you are doing it, but you may later look back on it as a positive, character-building experience, it’s Type 2 fun. Type 3 fun is never fun while you are doing it and afterwards you never want to try anything like it again. There is arguably a fourth type: Type 1.5 fun where it is mostly fun while you are doing it, but has moments that are not fun. The types of fun scale originated in the climbing community in the mid-1980s.
Adjective: Extremely lightweight. Adherents to the ultralight style of backpacking prioritize carrying the lightest load and the bare minimum of gear. There is no clear definition of what weight constitutes ultralight, but a base weight of around 10 lbs (4.5 kg) is considered ultralight.
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urine diversion toilet
Noun: A type of pit toilet that separates liquid and solid. In backcountry applications, this often means that solid waste is deposited on a foot-powered conveyer belt that the user must operate with a pedal to move the waste away from the hole into a holding tank.
Noun: Acronym for the United States Forest Service, a United States government agency that administers national forests.
Noun: Acronym for United States Geological Survey, a United States government agency that studies the natural landscape and produces topographic maps.
V – Z hiking terms (vault toilet – zero day)
Verb: To grab onto vegetation and use it as one would a rope when descending or ascending steep slopes.
Noun: The area outside a tent door that is covered by the overhang of the rainfly. Commonly used for gear and boot storage.
Noun: Also called a blue bag. A system of nesting bags used for packing human waste out of the backcountry. Most often used in sensitive environments where poop cannot ethically be buried, such as snowy mountain tops or busy river canyons. Some parks have zones where you must use these bags.
Verb: Frontcountry camping at a campsite where you have to walk a short distance (at most a few minutes) from your car.
Adjective: Impervious to water. When applied to hiking gear, it typically means that a waterproof coating has been applied to the fabric. To be considered waterproof, the coating must be capable of holding back a column of water at least 3,500mm tall in laboratory testing conditions. Most reputable hiking clothing companies make jackets that test at 10,000mm or higher. See also water-resistant.
Adjective: A fabric that is waterproof but also allows water vapor from sweat to pass through. Typically this is achieved by using a waterproof breathable membrane such as Gore-tex, laminated to a more durable outer fabric, which is then treated with a DWR finish.
Adjective: A fabric that is resistant to the penetration of water, but not waterproof. In practice, this means that a water-resistant fabric will soak through eventually, while a waterproof one will not. The term water-resistant can be applied to fabrics that are naturally water-resistant like polyester, or to fabrics that have a DWR finish or other water-resistant treatment. See also waterproof.
Adjective: A state that occurs when a waterproof breathable material becomes saturated with water. This happens either when the external DWR finish wears off or when the inside of the jacket becomes too saturated with moisture from sweat.
Noun: Acronym for Wilderness First Aid, a formal introductory first aid certification for backcountry settings.
Verb, British: Camping outside of a designated campground. This can be in the backcountry, which is essentially backcountry camping outside of a designated campsite, or in an RV or van in the frontcountry, when it is similar to stealth camping. See also freedom camping.
Noun: An uninhabited natural area that has not been significantly modified by humans.
Verb: See backcountry camping
Adjective: A fabric that cannot be permeated by wind.
Noun: See blowdown
Noun: A traction device made of metal coils and a stretchy plastic harness that attaches to the bottom of boots. Used for hiking on hard-packed snow. Unlike microspikes or crampons, they do not have spikes. Yaktrax is a brand name but some hikers use it to describe any slip-on traction device.
Noun: When a person falls skiing and their gear is spread across the slope, resembling a yard sale. The term can also be applied to campers, hikers, and climbers who have spread their gear around the area they are in, making a mess. See also gear explosion.
Phrase: Acronym for your mileage may vary, meaning your experience may be different than mine.
Verb: To complete a trail in one direction, then turn around and complete it in the other direction. This hiking term is most often applied to long-distance trails.
Noun: On a long-distance hike, a day in which you hike zero miles. A rest day.
So there you have it – over 300 hiking terms to add to your outdoor vocabulary. But of course, this glossary of hiking terminology can never be totally complete. What words am I missing? Or do you have a different definition for a hiking term? Leave them in the comments (and be sure to include where the world the word is used.)
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