Hiking Terms: 134 Phrases and Words Every Hiker Should Know
Hiking is one of the best ways to get out and explore the great outdoors.
But as with any other hobby, there are plenty of hiking terms that can be quite confusing and make getting into it hard.
I mean, what’s a bivy and how do you glissade? If you’ve never been hiking, you may have no idea!
And there is no shame in that! But, it’s best to understand them so you can fully enjoy the activity.
In this post, I’m going to teach you about 134 hiking phrases and words that will make getting on the trail much easier.
Below you’ll find all 134 of the terms that every hiker should know and their definitions, sorted alphabetically.
Acclimation: To get used to a different climate or conditions, specifically to high elevations.
All Trails: A hiking app that helps you to find hikes as well as find out information about them. You can read trail reports and reviews and view photos and a map. With the pro version, you can download maps for offline use.
Alpenglow: The pink and orange colors that you see on a mountain when the sun is setting or rising.
Alpine: Relating to the mountains or being high up in the mountains.
AT: The Appalachian Trail. It’s a 2,200-mile trail that stretches from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. Many people enjoy attempting the thru-hike of this trail. The AT is one of the trails that must be completed to earn a Triple Crown of Hiking.
Backcountry: Areas in the wilderness that are not accessible by road and require visitors to hike into them. They usually have little to no facilities. Campsites are sometimes present where backpackers stop for the night.
Backpacking: A popular form of hiking where hikers head out into the backcountry wilderness for an overnight trip and carry all of their gear in one backpack.
Base Layer: The layer that is closest to your skin when using a layering system for getting dressed. This layer is used to wick sweat and moisture away from your body as well as keep you warm. It’s typically worn with a mid-layer and top layer over it.
Base Weight: The weight of your backpack with all of your gear inside. This weight does not include any consumables such as food, water, or fuel. These aren’t included because they will decrease as your trip goes on.
Bear Bag: A tough, waterproof bag that is used to store all of your food when in the backcountry to prevent bears from getting into it. It’s usually hung from a tree using a rope, called a bear hang.
Bear Bell: A small bell that hooks to the bottom of your backpack to warn bears that you are in the area.
Bear Canister: A hard, portable, waterproof container that is used to store all of your food when out in the backcountry to prevent bears from getting into it.
Bear Country: An area of land that is known for having bears in the wilderness. Parts of Montana and Wyoming are known as grizzly bear country. Most of the United States is in bear country. Special precautions should be taken place when hiking where there are bears.
Bear Hang: A system that is made when hanging a bear bag from a tree with a rope to prevent bears from getting the food inside the bag.
Bear Spray: A powerful, nonlethal deterrent spray that can be used on bears in the event that they get aggressive. The spray should ward the bear off and allow you to escape.
Bivouac: A temporary camp set up that typically has little to no shelter.
Bivy: A very minimal type of shelter that features just a waterproof shell that can slide over your sleeping bag. These are typically used in emergency situations, but some people use them in place of their tents.
Bladder: A type of water storage system that fits nicely into a hiking backpack. It features a straw that comes out of the backpack to allow for easy drinking.
Blaze: A marking or sign on a tree that directs hikers to the correct direction on the trail.
Blowdown: A downed tree in the trail
Blue Bag: Small plastic bags that are used ‘doggy bag style’ to carry your waste out with you if digging a cat hole is not allowed.
Boot Pack: Create steps in the snow with your boots in order to make walking on it easier by firmly stepping.
Boulder Field: A large area that is covered in large rocks that must be climbed over in order to continue on the trail.
Brain: The top section of a larger hiking backpack. This section typically unzips or unclasps and the storage section folds backward to allow entry to the rest of the bag.
Buff: A thin, light tube of material that is typically worn around the neck to keep warm air close to your body. It can also be used as a headband, face mask, etc.
Bushwhacking: Hiking off the trail through bushy vegetation that may need to be pushed or held back. This should only be attempted by experienced hikers as some route finding may be involved.
Cairn: A stack of rocks placed on the side of the trail by park rangers or trail maintenance teams to mark which direction the trail goes. They are also sometimes used to mark the summit. They should not be made for fun as it can cause confusion.
Camel Up: To drink a lot of water when at a water source because the next water stop is a long way away.
Cat Hole: A small hole, typically about 6 inches deep, that is used to go poop in when in the backcountry.
CDT: The Continental Divide Trail. This 3,100-mile trail stretches from the border of Mexico, starting in New Mexico, to the border of Canada in Montana. It covers 5 states and is another popular thru-hike. This is another of the Triple Crown of Hiking trails.
Cold Soaking: The act of soaking dried food, often times MREs in water to cook them. This requires no heat and is sometimes, therefore, referred to as a no-cook. Most commonly eaten when backpacking.
Contour Lines: The wavy lines on a topographic map that are used to define elevation along a trail.
Cowboy Camp: Sometimes known as ‘roughing it’, this is camping without any sort of shelter beside a sleeping bag.
Crampons: A type of traction device with spikes on the bottom that is pulled onto hiking boots to aid in hiking on ice or snow.
Crevasse: A deep crack in a glacier or ice that can be very dangerous to hikers and mountaineers if stuck in one.
Day Hike: A hike that is done entirely in one day, typically in a few hours time.
Dispersed Camping: Hiking in any area that isn’t within a designated campground. There are typically no facilities here. It can either be a backcountry campground or it can be parking on forest service land.
Elevation Gain: The amount of elevation that you climb on a hike from start to finish.
Elevation Loss: The amount of elevation that you lose on a hike from start to finish.
False Summit: A peak that you see on a hike that appears to be the summit but ends up not being it. This is extremely disappointing for hikers and mountaineers.
Flip Flop: When a person completes a thru-hike by starting anywhere along the trail. The person will then hike from there in whatever direction they like to the end. They will then return to where they started and finish it by going the other way.
Footprint: A tarp-like material that lays underneath your tent to protect it from water and other things like rocks and sticks.
Fourteeners: A mountain that has an elevation of over 14,000 feet. Altitude sickness becomes more likely at this elevation. In Colorado there are
Frontcountry: Camping sites that are usually closer to the road and are easier to get to. They may sometimes have running water or toilets.
Gaitors: A piece of fabric that goes over the bottom of your pants to bridge the gap between your pants and your hiking shoes. They help keep your feet and legs dry in wet conditions and protected on sandy, rough trails.
Game Trail: A trail that was created by the wildlife that lives in the area.
Glissade: A faster way to get down a mountain when there’s snow on the ground. After sitting on your butt, you’ll just slide down, following a path. Using an ice axe helps in the event that you need to self arrest.
GORP: A fancy way of saying trail mix. This stands for “Good Old Raisins and Peanuts.”
GPS: A navigation system that is used to help you understand where you are and to stay on track while on the trail. Some people use a physical device while others use a simple app such as All Trails.
Hardshell: The outer layer of your jacket that is completely waterproof and helps to keep you dry. It’s basically a piece of plastic that wraps around your body, that’s much more comfortable than plastic.
Hiker Box: A box where other hikers or Trail Angels can leave items that long-distance or thru-hikers might need on their journey. They’re typically set up near towns.
Hiker Midnight: The time that many backpackers and thru-hikers hit the hay for the night. While it depends on who you are, this time is typically around 9:00 pm so that the hiker can be up and ready for another day on the trail, bright and early.
Hot Spots: A spot where you may feel a burning sensation, pressure, or tightness that could be an indication that a blister is on its way. Take preventative measures such as using moleskin to help this.
HYOH: Hike Your Own Hike. A saying said by many hikers to let others know to do their own thing and not to worry about other people on the trail.
Ice Axe: A multi-purpose tool that can be used for mountaineering on routes that have ice and snow. Many people use them for glissading to self arrest. Other uses include maintaining balance or assisting in a climb.
JMT: John Muir Trail. A 211-mile trail that stretches from the Yosemite Valley to the park of Mount Whitney, which is the highest point in the contiguous US. The trail overlaps with the PCT for about 160 miles.
Junction: A point in the trail where two trails merge.
LNT: Leave No Trace. A group of 7 principles that help those in the outdoors leave nature as it was and to protect the outdoors. The principles are: plan ahead and prepare, travel and camp on durable surfaces, dispose of waste properly, leave what you find, minimize campfire impacts, respect wildlife, and be considerate of others.
Loop Hike: A type of trail that starts in one point and ends in the same point, traveling in a circular pattern without going over the same path. Essentially, it just goes in a large circle.
Lollipop Hike: A different type of loop hike where you start in one point, head out and come to a junction in the trail. From here, you’ll loop around and come back to this junction to go back to the trailhead.
Hiking Terms That Start With M
Microspikes: A traction device that slips onto your shoes with small spikes on the bottom to help with hiking in snow and ice. These are less intense than crampons and are best for well-packed snow. They typically pack up into a small bag and fit easily in your backpack.
Mid layer: Using the layering system for cold weather, the mid layer goes between the baselayer and the outer layer. This is the piece of clothing that keeps you insulated and warm.
Moleskin: A soft fabric that is similar to a bandage. They help prevent hotspots from turning into blisters.
Monorail: The line of snow that forms down the middle of a trial after an entire winter of hikers packing the snow down. This is typically the last section of snow to melt for the summer.
Mountaineering: Climbing to the top of mountains. Another word for hiking when you are trying to reach a peak somewhere. Sometimes, this means hiking in places that do not have trails and require technical climbing skills.
MRE: Meals Ready to Eat. Packaged, dehydrated meals that simply need to be rehydrated and heated. There are many options for meals. These are useful for backpacking, although aren’t always the best tasting.
Mummy Bag: A type of sleeping bag that is popular for backpacking. They have an insulated hood attached to them, therefore making you look like a mummy when you lay down in it.
Nero: A day where a hiker only hikes a few miles, compared to their normal amount.
NOBO: A thru-hiker heading northbound on a hiking trail.
NPS: National Park System. The large system that operates all of the country’s national parks, monuments, etc., which are home to many of the best trails.
Out & Back Hike: A type of hike that starts in one spot, leads you out to a viewpoint, stopping point, etc., and then travels the same trail back to the trailhead.
Outer Layer: Coming last to the layering system, the outer layer is on top of the base layers and the mid-layer. This layer should protect you from rain, wind, and snow. It’s should be waterproof and able to break the wind.
Pack: This is just a shortened version of the word backpack that many hikers use.
Pack Out: The term to describe bringing all of your garbage off of the trail with you and disposing of it properly once you’re out of the wilderness. This goes along with the LNT principles.
Pack Weight: The total weight of your backpack ith everything inside of it, including all consumables.
PCT: Pacific Crest Trail. A 2,650-mile trail stretching from the Mexico border in Canada to the Canada border in Washington. This is a widely popular thru-hike and is the final hike to be completed to receive a Triple Crown in Hiking award.
Peak Bagging: A goal that many hikers have to reach a certain set of summits.
Pee Funnel: A funnel-like device that is used to help women pee in the outdoors without having to squat on the ground.
Pit Toilet: The most popular type of toilet to be seen at trailheads. This is typically just a toilet seat with a large pit at the bottom that the waste falls into.
Privy: Another name for a toilet that is outdoors.
PLB: Personal locater beacon. A type of emergency communications device that can alert emergency services of your location if you were to need any sort of assistance. These typically do not allow you to send messages to people other than emergency services.
Plunge Stepping: The act of stepping heel first down a hill covered in snow to avoid tripping or going too fast down the mountain.
Point to Point Hike: A type of hike that starts in one location, leads you along the entire trail, and then ends in a different location. You will typically need to either have two cars (one at each trailhead) for point to point hikes or have someone to pick you up.
Post Holing: What happens when you step in soft snow and your foot and leg plunge into the snow. This can be dangerous if you aren’t careful and don’t know what’s underneath.
Puffer: An insulated jacket to keep you warm in cold weather.
Rainfly: The waterproof outer layer that covers the top of a tent for backpacking. Tents can be used without the rainfly.
Register: A book at the start of some trails that ask hikers to write their name and estimated return time to help gain an understanding of how many people are on the trail.
REI: Recreational Equipment Industries. One of the largest outdoor gear companies that also has great expert advice on many topics regarding hiking.
Reservoir: Another name for a hydration system or bladder. It holds the water nicely in your backpack and makes drinking easy.
Restock: A term that means restocking on any goods such as food and water that thru-hikers need. Sometimes this means picking up items at a grocery store and other times it means picking up things from the post office.
Roundtrip: The total distance that you will hike when out on the trail. This means total miles, whether it be out & back, loop, or point to point.
Route Finding: A skill that many hikers possess that allows them to go bushwhacking and find their way. It’s an important skill to have for mountaineering.
Rucksack: Basically another name for a backpack. A rucksack is a rugged, tough, and large bag.
Saddle: The lowest point between two high, prominent peaks.
SAR: Search and rescue. The group of people that search for missing and lost hikers.
Satellite Communicator: A type of emergency communications device that can typically contact both emergency services and family members if needed.
Scat: Another name for animal poop.
Scrambling: Hiking up a steep, rough terrain that typically requires the use of your hands to maintain balance.
Scree: A lot of small, loose rocks and stones that cover a portion of a trail.
Section Hike: When you complete just a short section of a longer hike. This could be just a few miles or it could be 50 miles.
Self Arrest: The rescue of yourself when you are sliding down a snow covered mountain. Many people use ice axes for self arresting, especially when glissading.
Shoulder Season: The season between peak hiking season or travel and the off season.
Slackpack: Hiking without having to carry all of your gear with you. This is when you hand most of your heavy gear (sleeping bag, sleeping pad, etc.) off to someone else and they transport it to your next stop.
SOBO: A hiker that is heading southbound on a trail.
Softshell: This is an outer layer jacket that is similar to a hardshell but doesn’t have the waterproofing that the hardshells have. It is softer and usually has some sort of water resistance to it instead. It’s also more breathable.
Spur Trail: A short trail that leads off of the main trail to see something else.
Stuff Sack: A bag that is used to store smaller items in your backpack as to not lose them or have them falling all over the place.
Summit: The highest point of a mountain.
Switchbacks: Zigzagging portions of a trail that are typically steep and used to climb a hillside without having to go straight up.
Hiking Terms That Start With T
Talus: A slope with a lot of loose, larger rocks that can be navigated by using your hands to help balance.
Technical Hike: A hike/mountaineering trek that requires additional gear that isn’t typically used on normal hikes. This may include ropes, ice axes, crampons, and a helmet.
Ten Essentials: The top essentials that all hikers should carry with them on every hike. This includes water, food, extra clothing, a knife, navigation, first-aid, shelter, fire starters, sun protection, and a headlamp.
Thru-Hike: A hike that is done from end to end on a backpacking trip. Some people consider it only done when it’s done all at once and others consider it done when anyone has completed it all during any time in their lives.
Topographic Map: A very detailed map that uses contoured lines to show elevation.
Trailhead: The starting point of a hike where you’ll find the parking lot and information for the hike.
Trail Angel: A person that provides things to thru-hikers such as food, drinks, toiletries, accommodations, etc., known as Trail Magic.
Trail Magic: The items that are left by a Trail Angel such as food, drinks, accommodation, etc.
Trail Name: Names given to thru-hikers by other hikers that are somehow connected to an experience or something about that person.
Trail Running: When people run on a trail rather than the road.
Traversing: To walk across something, such as a slope or hill.
Treeline: The spot on a mountain where the trees stop growing due to high elevation.
Trekking: Basically another name for hiking.
Trekking Poles: A set of poles that are useful for ascents or descents to take some pressure off of your knees.
Triple Crown: An award that is given to someone when they have completed the 3 major thru-hikes in the United States. This includes the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail.
Trowel: A small shovel that is used to dig a cat hole.
Ultralight: A term used by backpackers when they are trying to make their backpacks as light as possible.
USFS: United States Forest Service. They manage all of the national forests in the United States.
USGS: United States Geological Survey. They produce topographic maps and study the landscapes.
Wag Bag: A type of blue bag. Used to remove human waste similarly to how you would pick up dog poop. Usually used in areas where leaving human waste is harmful to the environment.
Water Purifier: A tool that it used to clean and purify water from streams and lakes, especially during long-distance hikes when you can’t carry all that you would need.
WFA: Wilderness First Aid. Hands-on training that teaches you about first aid and medical things for when you’re out in the woods.
WFR: Wilderness First Responder. Training to understand what to do in the event of a medical emergency when emergency services can’t get to you or the person in a timely manner.
Zero Day: A day where a thru-hiker doesn’t hike any miles.
Wrap-Up: Hiking Terms
Now that you know over 100 hiking terms, you’re basically an expert and will understand what any hiker is talking about.
With so many confusing terms and phrases, it can definitely be hard to pick up on all of the lingo, especially if you’re new.
There will always be more words to learn though, so this list will likely just keep getting longer and longer!