71 Hiking Terms

October 20, 2020

hiking mountains forest

Do you know the terms for your natural environment, such as ford, glissade, monorail, scree and talus? Additionally, what is thru-hiking and peak bagging? Most activities develop their own unique culture, full of jargon and lingo that only the truest diehards understand, and hiking is no different! So instead of looking like a complete newbie as you gear up at the outdoor rec store or even out there on the trail, study up so you can keep up!

Learn how to speak the language so you can effortlessly follow hiking articles, conversations with fellow hikers and more! Here is a comprehensive and extensive list of hiking terms and acronyms from One to Zed so you can learn the lingo like a true outdoorsman.

10 Essentials – Also spelled out as the “Ten Essentials,” it is a collection of must-have hiking gear and preparedness items to keep you safe in the event of an emergency. While the 10 items have evolved over the years, the concept is still very much the same. For example, an old-fashioned flashlight has been replaced by a headlamp.

hiking essentials

100MW – Part of a rugged, remote stretch in Maine, the “100 Mile Wilderness” is considered one of the most punishing parts of the Appalachian Trail. Limited resupply options add to the challenge.
Alpine Zone – A zone below a mountain’s snow line. While it varies depending on the region, it’s basically the extremely windy area near the tops of tall peaks, making vegetation hard to grow.
AMC – The “Appalachian Mountain Club” is an organization focused on offering activities and huts in New Hampshire’s White Mountains as well as some surrounding backcountry New England areas.
AT – The “Appalachian Trail” runs from Springer Mountain, Georgia to Mount Katahdin, Maine, a total of 2,184 miles.
Base Weight – Your backpack’s total weight crammed with gear, especially your tent shelter and sleeping bag. It does not, however, count consumables like food, water and stove fuel. Ideally, your base weight should be 15-20 lbs., but ultralight backpackers shoot for 10-12 lbs. or less.
Beta – Lingo that basically means “insider info.” You might ask a fellow hiker for any good beta, hoping to know about challenging spots, shortcuts or other helpful tidbits.
'Biner – No, hikers are not saying “beaner.” It’s short for carabiner, the versatile and handy metal clip used to secure ropes and attach other gear on the backpack and at the site.

hiker their dog walking towards mountain

Bivy Sack – A warming, protective waterproof sack or shelter that covers sleeping bags. Great for emergency purposes!
Blaze – Color-coded markings along trees that act as a guide along the trails. Bluebird Day – Simply put, it means a beautiful, cloudless day with bright blue skies.
Book Time – The estimated time a hike will take, which, of course, varies greatly. Book time is based on the formula using 30 min/mile plus 30 minutes per 1,000 ft. elevation gain.
Bushwhacking – Traveling off-trail, as you might guess, through dense shrubs and trees. Bushwacking trails are not obvious and are often slower detours.
Cache – A spot along or near a trail where a resupply of gear and food is stored.
Cairn – A stack of rocks often used to mark trails. It’s similar to blazes, but usually found in areas where trees are sparse.
Cameling Up – When reaching a water source, hikers fill an inline filter water bottle that allows them to drink immediately to stay hydrated. That way, they can refill and carry out more before hitting the trail.
Cat Hole – A 6-inch wide by 8-inch deep self-dug hole where you bury feces and toilet paper. Typically, cat holes are at least 200 feet from campsites, trails and weather sources.
CDT – The “Continental Divide Trail" that runs along the Rocky Mountains’ Continental Divide and the states of Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Colorado and New Mexico, totaling 3,100 miles.
Col – Also referred to as a “Notch” or “Saddle,” a col ridge’s lowest point between two peaks.

hiking people

Contour Lines – Found on a topographic map, contour lines represent nearby points at the same elevation — the closer the line, the quicker the elevation change, hence a steeper climb.
Cowboy Camping – Open sky camping, sans tarp or tent. Only a sleeping bag and starry skies. Best with a clear forecast, of course.
Declination – Short for magnetic declination, it refers to the angle of Magnetic North (where a compass needle points) and True North (the North Pole). The measurements of each North can change by up to 50 degrees so it’s essential to know the declination of your location to know your bearings with a compass and map.
Detritus – Dubbed “duff” for short, detritus is the accumulation of leaves, pine needles, branches and the like that cover the forest floor. In fall, the detritus can be several inches thick.
Dirtbag – Essentially, an avid outdoorsy person who escapes civilized society regularly to enjoy nature. For the record, it’s a term of endearment.
EMS – No, it’s not “Emergency Medical Services” (unless there’s a severe problem). More likely, you’ll hear it in more casual terms and it refers to the New England outdoor store “Eastern Mountain Sports.”
False Peak – Also called a “False Summit,” this is like a mirage for hikers. It’s when you think you see a peak, which turns out to be only a small hill or shoulder.
FKT – The “Fastest Known Time” and record for completing a trail or section of a trail. Unofficial community tracking — using only GPS data and social media posts — makes recording new records controversial.
Ford – Expect to get your feet wet in these river crossings! Avoid going barefoot and bring along some sandals and trekking poles for safety reasons. A ford will never come above your knees, but you can slip and lose gear or make your backpack wet.
Glissade – Like sledding, but without the sled. Instead, you use your bum. Just be careful to control your speed and direction, avoiding obstacles.
GORP – Whether you’re in the “Good Old Raisins and Peanuts” or “Granola, Oats, Raisins, Peanuts” camp, this is a snack bag every hiker appreciates.
GPS – The “Global Positioning System” is run by satellites and the U.S. military, and is used for not just directions on our phones, but location tracking in navigational devices.
Herd Path – An unofficial footpath formed over time by hikers. While an unofficial trail, it often presents a shortcut or path that avoids an obstacle.
Hump – To carry an extra heavy load of gear. A guide, for example, might have to hump extra cookware or tents for a group of campers.
Hut – On the trail, you’ll find “hut” to be a relative term. It could genuinely mean a shack-like structure or a more upscale cabin-esque full-service hotel. Never assume it’s one or the other when backcountry hiking.

hiking winter mountains

HYOH – “Hike Your Own Hike” is a nice trail sentiment that essentially means “to each their own” or to “live and let live.”
JMT – Part of the Pacific Crest Trail, the “John Muir Trail” is a 215-mile section that reaches 8,000 ft. of elevation, with alpine zones, majestic mountain views and ample wildflowers.
Lean-to – Also spelled Leanto, this elevated open shelter offers three walls and a roof for extra protection against the elements. Spacious enough for four to a dozen hikers to sleep overnight, a lean-to can be used to cook, too.
LNT – “Leave No Trace” is based on seven fundamental outdoor principles, designed to help hikers, campers and others minimize their environmental impact.

MEC – The “Mountain Equipment Co-op” is Canada’s largest outdoor retailer, catering to general outdoorsy folks, but more notably alpine mountaineers.
Monorail – An often annoying narrow band of snow and ice on a trail still left behind in spring. Monorails force hikers to tread lightly or along its mud-bank sides.
NOBO – Thru-hikers headed north along a trail say they’re headed “NOBO,” short for North Bound.
NOLS – The “National Outdoor Leadership School,” a well-known outdoor education program, offers worldwide trips for people of all ages. They also offer WFR classes on wilderness medicine through the Wilderness Medicine Institute (WMI).
NPS – Short for the United States National Park Service, this agency manages all national parks, monuments, conservatories and historical properties.
PCT – The “Pacific Crest Trail” runs through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade Ridge through the states of Washington, Oregon and California, totaling 2,654 miles.
Peak Bagging – Submitting or “bagging” a collection of peaks within a surrounding area. Common Peak Bagging lists include the 48-peak “New Hampshire 4000 Footers” and the 53-peak "Colorado Fourteeners."

hiking scenes

Posthole – The hole your foot makes in fresh, deep snow. An exhausting trek, groups of hikers will often rotate who leads, allowing each follower to step into the existing postholes. PUD – Annoying hills and rolling terrain that don’t seem to get you anywhere are called PUDS or "Pointless Ups and Downs." Sometimes, even on a topographic map, the section appears flat. Best to ask local hikers for some good beta.
Redlined – A “redlined” area is a personal accomplishment, meaning you’ve hiked every square foot of trail. Take a red marker and map, redlining major and smaller trails you’ve trekked.
REI – “Recreational Equipment, Inc.” is a consumers’ co-op outdoor recreational store that sells camp gear, sporting equipment and more. They also offer loads of outdoorsy courses and even vacations.
Rock Hop – When you expect a ford, but the water is only a trickling stream, you’re in luck! It’s a simple rock hop. This way, you don’t have to get your feet wet and can safely cross.
SAR – “Search and Rescue” is a volunteer-based unit that is dispatched when backcountry hikers find themselves in trouble. Since SAR is quite overwhelmed these days due to inexperienced hikers, do them a favor and get experienced! Know your survival skills (and winter survival skills if you plan on heading out in the snow) and — just in case! — get a GPS communicator that can use satellite networks to locate your position and alert SAR.
Scree – A field of loose rocks, typically smaller than the size of a head, that have the potential of moving like marbles beneath your feet. As dangerous as it sounds, hikers can easily get ankle and knee injuries in a scree field so tread cautiously.
Section Hike – Section hikes are part of a thru-hike. Hikers often choose to complete longer trails like the PCT or the AT through smaller section hikes.
Slackpacking – Opposite of humping, slackpacking is when hikers carry minimal food, water and gear. Typically, this is due to having someone else to hump for you or having accommodations at a hut, eliminating necessary gear like tents and other heavier, bulky items.
SOBO – If NOBO is North Bound, SOBO is — you guessed it! — South Bound along a trail. Stealth Camp – Also called a Dispersed Camp, this is a low-impact campsite setup situated away from other campsites. It’s often used to avoid bugs and critters that are attracted to the other campers. It’s also debated whether stealth camping is beneficial, following Leave No Trace ethics, or whether it’s best to centralize campsites to avoid further damage.
Switchbacks – A zig-zagging trail along a steep terrain. Like the inverse of an annoying PUD, a switchback trail creates a longer trail, but makes it easier to hike. Tempting to cut straight up and through, it’s unadvised to reduce erosion.
Talus – Similar to a scree, a talus is a field with large boulders, instead of small rocks. Expect to crawl or “scramble” over on hands and feet at a slow pace.
The Big Three – The Big 3 are the three heaviest essential pieces of hiking gear — sleeping bag, backpack and shelter — that a backpacker needs. To reduce their base weight, ultralight hikers aim to find the lightest possible variations of these pieces of gear.
Thru-Hikes – An end-to-end hike along the entire trail. More notable thru-hikes are the Appalachian Trail (AT) and the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT), where you can expect to trek at least 100 miles a week. A thru-hiker is someone along the trail.

hiking trail flowers

Topo – Short for a topographic map, which displays hills, rivers and other natural features of the region. Learn how to read a topographic map and contour lines so you never get lost!
Trail Angels – These are basically kind locals who take pity on dirtbags, giving rides into the next town or leaving treats (read: beer) along the trail.
Trail Name – A moniker or nickname that thru-hikers give themselves along the trail. Typically, a trail name is earned on merit or backstory, not self-chosen. Sometimes, a trail name can help disguise a hiker’s true identity.
Trail Magic – Treats or cache found along the trail, left by trail angels or simply discarded or lost by previous hikers.
Trailhead – The point where a trail starts and/or stops. Some larger trails have two trailheads several states apart, while other smaller trails might begin and end in a parking lot with designated signage and free maps.
Triple Crown – You have achieved a “Triple Crown” when you thru-hike the three largest, most notable trails: the AT, PCT and CDT.
UL – Abbreviation for “Ultralight,” it means a hiker is carrying a base weight of less than 10-12 lbs., allowing them to trek farther, faster and experience more of the landscape. However, Ultralight hikers must trade gear for experience.
USGS – The “United States Geological Survey” agency in charge of producing free topo maps (among other things) of the entire United States. A very valuable resource!
WFA – A course in “Wilderness First Aid” offers life-saving knowledge for hikers. You cover basics such as how to take care of wounds and injuries and how to address dehydration and shock using survival skills and Wilderness Medicine.
WFR – Also called a “Woofer,” it stands for “Wilderness First Responder,” who is someone (like a guide) who has taken an intermediate-level course in Wilderness Medicine.
Zero Day – Also used in the expression “take a zero,” it’s when a hiker spends two nights in a single campsite, giving a solid day to rest, recover or simply wait out nasty weather.

Ready to practice your dirtbag lingo? Then head to the nearest recreation store to speak with other experienced hikers and gain some practice. When you’re ready to hit the trails, brush up on your hiking terms so you’re ready to hold a conversation and keep some company.

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