When you’re new to anything, you’ve got to learn the jargon. Whether we’re talking a new job, hobby or activity, everything has a language of its own. Same with hiking.
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On my very first solo backpacking trip, I hiked through Big Cypress Swamp with a handful of others. (This is on the Florida Trail.) As we sat around camp the first night, I couldn’t follow the conversation. It was like I was listening to a foreign language. People were talking all about Pocket Rockets and Ospreys and Gregories. About the merits of sleeping quilts and ultralighting. About whether VivoBarefoots were better than Crocs. I had no idea what they were talking about, except for the Crocs.
Today, two years later, I know a lot more jargon. Oh, there’s still plenty for me to learn. You only know what you know, so who knows what I don’t know yet? (Hope you could follow that one!)
That being said, here are some terms with which to familiarize yourself.
Thru-hike: Hiking a long-distance trail in one attempt. For whatever reason, this term is most frequently spelled “thru”-hike and not “through”-hike.
Section-hike: Hiking a long-distance trail in small chunks over time. You don’t have to hike the trail in sequential order.
Slackpacking: Hiking with a light daypack, while someone hauls your heavy gear up the trail for you.
Ultralighting: Hiking with 10 pounds or less on your back is considered ultralighting. It’s difficult to travel that lightly, but it can be done with specialized gear.
Tents and Gear
Big Agnes: She sounds intimidating, but Big Agnes isn’t someone to fear. It’s a company that makes tents, sleeping bags, sleeping pads, clothing and more. The very first tent I purchased – and the only one, actually – was a Big Agnes Copper Spur. I love it! If I can figure out how to easily set it up, anyone can.
Footprint: Many tents come with a “footprint,” or you can purchase one as an accessory. A footprint is a piece of material that you set your tent on top of to protect the bottom, or floor, from getting ripped or punctured. It gets its name because it is the exact same shape and size as the tent bottom.
PocketRocket: This is a very popular camping stove made by MSR. I have one! There are also smaller PocketRocket “minis.” FYI: Don’t Google “pocket rocket” for more information. If you do, you’ll pull up sites for all sorts of vibrators! Instead, Google “pocket rocket stove.”
Sleeping quilt: A sleeping quilt takes the place of a sleeping bag. The quilt folds over your sleeping pad and snaps underneath. The area by your feet cinches closed. There are two main benefits of a sleeping quilt. First, quilts are typically lighter than bags, so there’s less weight in your pack. Second, they’re looser than a sleeping bag. So if you thrash around while you sleep or don’t like the enclosed feeling of a bag, a quilt works well. If it’s cold out and you snap all the snaps, you’ll be plenty warm. If it’s warm out, you can leave some of the snaps open, which makes the quilt work more like a blanket.
Gregory: Gregory is popular brand of backpack. I’ve got a big red one that I love. The company also makes hydration packs, suitcases and more.
Osprey: It’s a bird, but it’s also a popular brand of backpack. Like Gregory, the company also produces hydration packs, bags and more. I also have an Osprey, but it’s smaller and more appropriate for a dayhike.
Directional Trail Terms
Blaze: This is a marking to help you identify the trail and which way to go. National Scenic Trails all have blazes of a particular color. For example, the Ice Age Trail blazes are yellow, the Florida Trail blazes are orange and the North Country Trail blazes are blue. Most blazes are rectangular.
Bushwhacking: Sometimes if you become lost, you may have to bushwhack your way back onto the trail. Bushwhacking involves bashing through an area where no path exists. If you’re in a forested area, you may have to push aside branches and vegetation, and you may end up scratched, poked and pricked. It helps if you have a machete and your skin is covered. Some people intentionally bushwhack through an area to take a shortcut.
Cairn: Sometimes hikers stack stones on top of one another in little pyramids or towers to help mark the trail when blazes are missing or the path isn’t obvious. Other times they do it for fun, artistry or to inspire a feeling of camaraderie among hikers. The practice is becoming controversial, though, as some feel moving rocks may cause erosion, alter the landscape and even ruin insects’ homes.
NOBO: Hiking northbound.
SOBO: Hiking southbound.
Miscellaneous Trail Terms
Trail Angels: These are people who love hiking and trails so much that they offer to help hikers. Assistance may be in the form of shuttles, food, lodging, showers and more.
Trail Magic: When a Trail Angel leaves food or water or other items out for hikers, it’s called Trail Magic. Not surprisingly, hikers love to stumble upon Trail Magic.
Trail Mail: I just learned this term in 2018, when on the Superior Hiking Trail. When you lose something on the trail, then someone else finds it and returns it to you, you’ve just received Trail Mail.
Triple Crown: In the hiking world, it’s very prestigious to be a Triple Crown hiker, which means you’ve hiked all of the Appalachian Trail, the Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail. These three trails were the first to achieve National Scenic Trail status – in 1968, 1978 and 1968, respectively – and are often referred to as the AT, the CDT and the PCT.
Zero Day: Many hikers take a “zero day,” or rest day, when they reach a town. (Zero = walking 0 miles that day.)