A Backpackers Dictionary: Useful Jargon for Hikers

If you're ready to start speaking the language of hikers and backpackers, read on for 52 terms used by avid outdoorists and their definitions!

Photo by Amy Boissonneault
Published on

If you are spending time in the outdoors, odds are you have heard at least a few of these terms. Maybe you scratched your head in confusion or just nodded along wondering what the heck “gorp” is. Learning to speak the language isn’t absolutely necessary, but it is kind of fun! And, it will definitely help you understand the world of hiking on a deeper level – especially for those who are just getting into it. Read on for 52 terms used by avid outdoorists and their definitions! (Feel free to bookmark this page for future reference, as well.)

Gear Terms

Big Three: Your backpack, shelter, and sleep system. Generally the most crucial gear to get you out on the trail for overnight trips. They are also, most likely, the heaviest items in your pack.

Bivy Sack: A personal sized, waterproof shelter that covers a sleeping bag. Generally used in emergencies but also used by ultralight hikers and climbers.

DWR: Durable Water Repellent. A fabric coating used on gear and clothing to increase rain protection.

Fly: Aka “rainfly.” A cover that fits over top the frame of your tent to protect from the elements and help keep the tent (and those inside it) dry. In most designs, a fly can also be used independent of the tent.

Footprint: Aka “ground cloth.” Attaches to the bottom of your tent to protect from wet earth, sharp rocks, and other objects that might damage the floor of the tent. Helps to extend the life of your tent.

Gaiters: Cover the lower leg and go over the top of your boot to keep dust and pebbles out. Often used in snowy conditions, as well.

R-value: The industry term for thermal resistance. This is the measurement used to determine insulation in sleeping pads. The higher the R-value, the more insulated the sleeping pad.

Temperature Rating: Listed on all sleeping bags, the temperature rating measures the lowest temperature that the sleeping bag will keep the average sleeper warm.

Three-Season: Refers to items that are good for use in Spring, Summer, and Fall. Not ideal for Winter use.

UL: Aka “Ultralight.” A style of backpacking and hiking that uses only the lightest, simplest gear. Generally, UL hikers will have a base weight that is under 10lbs.

A group of people with backpacks walk along a dirt trail through a field
Photo by Austin Ban

On the Trail and At Camp

Bear Box: A metal, bear-proof food storage box. When these are provided at a campsite you MUST use them.

Bear Canister: A portable, odor-proof container used to protect food from bears.

Blaze: Aka “trail marker.” Originally, this was a marker cut with an axe in a tree to mark the trail. Nowadays, it’s a colored mark used to help guide hikers – especially at the start or end or a trail, an intersection, or direction change.

Break Trail: Hiking in the lead position while creating a path through fresh snowfall. This is very tiring and groups will usually take turns in the lead position.

Cairn: A rock formation made by fellow hikers, generally used to mark the trail above the treeline.

Camel Up: Drinking as much water as possible at a water source to avoid carrying it.

CBS: Cold Butt Syndrome. Often experienced by those who sleep in a hammock. (To avoid it, invest in an underquilt for your hammock!)

Cowboy Camping: Aka roughing it. Used to describe camping without a tent or other type of shelter. Sleeping under the stars.

Cowboy Coffee: Boil water, add coffee grounds, wait for grounds to sink to the bottom, drink up!

Gorp: Good Old Raisins and Peanuts. Aka trail mix.

NoBo: A northbound thru-hiker.

Ridge Runner: A person whose job is to hike back and forth along a section of trail in order to educate hikers on trail ethics (eg. Leave No Trace), monitor campsite use, maintain the trail, and provide information to hikers. If you hike the Appalachian Trail, you are likely to meet a ridge runner.

SoBo: A southbound thru-hiker.

Spur: A dead-end side trail that branches off from the main trail. Usually leading to a view, waterfall, or other point of interest.

Switchback: A section of trail that has sharp turns and zig-zags up a steep hill… aka a mountain. See “Type 2 Fun.”

Trail Angel: A kind stranger who helps put a little extra pep in a hikers step during a long trail. Usually in the form of food, water, or unexpected help. Performs acts of Trail Magic.

Trail Magic: Unforeseen or unexpected support while on a long-distance thru-hike.

Trail Name: A nickname adopted by, or given to, a hiker for the duration of their trip.

Yoyo: Refers to a thru-hike that is completed in one direction, and then the hiker turns around and hikes it again, in the opposite direction.

A woman sits next to a tent while holding a mug
Photo by Julian Bialowas

Geographical

Alpine Zone: Region above the treeline and below the snowline.

Krummholz: Stunted windblown trees growing near the tree line on mountains. Generally seen in the subalpine.

Moraine: An accumulation of earth and stones carried and deposited by a glacier.

Scree: An accumulation of loose rock. Hiking up scree can be quite challenging. Going down, you can sort of ‘surf’ the scree.

Tarn: A mountain lake, pond, or pool. Generally, smaller than a lake.

Triple Crown: Hiking all three major National Scenic Trails – Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail.

General

10 Essentials: 10 survival items recommended for safe travel in the backcountry. To be carried by day hikers, backpackers, and thru-hikers, alike.

Alpenglow: When the setting sun creates an optical phenomenon, giving mountain peaks a reddish glow.

AMS: Acute Mountain Sickness, aka altitude sickness. Can occur at high altitudes, above 8,000 ft, and symptoms include dizziness, nausea, headaches, and shortness of breath.

AT: The Appalachian Trail. Thru-hiking takes roughly 5-7 months.

Base Weight: The weight of your pack and its contents, excluding consumables (food, water, and fuel).

Bounce Box: A clever method for resupplying during long-distance thru-hikes. A parcel which is continuously mailed ahead (aka, a mail drop) to various points with extra gear, toiletries, clothing, luxury items, and whatever the hiker needs.

Cat Hole: A small hole dug to dispose of human waste when no outhouses are available.

CDT: Continental Divide Trail. Thru-hiking takes roughly 4-5 months.

Flip Flop: On thru-hikes, skipping a section of trail to complete it at a later date. Often due to dangerous trail conditions.

HYOH: Hike Your Own Hike. A sentiment of “live and let live” or “to each their own.” Commonly used on the AT.

LNT: Leave No Trace. Seven principles practiced by those who frequent the outdoors in an effort to minimize impact from humans on nature and wildlife.

PCT: Pacific Crest Trail. Thru-hiking takes 2-5 months.

Shoulder Season: Trips between peak season and winter season. Generally considered to be early spring and late fall.

Thru-Hike: Hiking the entirety of a long-distance trail end-to-end. For example, the Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail, and Continental Divide Trail.

Type 2 Fun: Used to describe an activity that is not very enjoyable while you are doing it but is remembered fondly when it is over. Hard now, rewarding later.

Wag Bag: A container used to carry your poop when cat holes are not allowed.

Weekend Warrior: A hiker who is on the trail for 1-4 nights. Hikes only on the weekends or part-time.

Whiskey Jack: Aka, Canada Jay. A fearless and adventurous bird that may land on your hand, helmet, or hiking pole. Watch out they don’t steal your food in camp – they have been known to take food right out of the pan!

There you have it! 52 new hiking terms added to your glossary. Did we miss any terms that you use on the trail? Did you learn something new? Click on my profile below to let me know and find some gear to get you out on the trail.

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Growing up on the west coast, camping and getting outdoors in general was always (and continues to be) a priority. Whether it's skiing, hiking, camping, or something a little more off grid, it seems like we're always looking for the next adventure. ​ I might live in the city these days but I spend t...

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