Hiking Terms: An A-to-Z of All Things Hiking

All sports and activities have their own lingo and quirky slang, and hiking is no exception. In this guide, we aim to school you in the ways of trailspeak with a comprehensive list of common hiking jargon and phrases.

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Written by: | Reviewed by: Brian Conghalie
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Don’t know your cols from your cwms, your FSO from your PLB, or your gaiters from your giardia?

Never fear! We’ve put together a comprehensive list of all the important terms, slang, and jargon you need to know for your time on the trails. From trailspeak slang to need-to-know logistical terminology, our list covers the lot!

A Comprehensive List of Hiking need-to-knows

10 Essentials

A list of ten must-have survival items recommended for hiking and backpacking. The list first appeared in “Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills” and included navigational tools, illumination, sun protection, insulation, first aid supplies, an emergency shelter, repair kit and tools, nutrition, hydration, and a fire starter.


Any US mountain over 14,000ft tall with at least 300 ft of prominence above any saddle between it and a taller peak. The state with the highest concentration of Fourteeners is Colorado, which has 53.


The pinkish light cast on mountains by the rising or setting sun. 

Alpenglow in the Nepalese Himalaya. ©Kieran Cunningham/My Open Country®

Alpine start

An “early start” to the hiking or climbing day, ranging from around 10 pm in the high mountains to 3 am. 

Alpine touring

Aka ski-mountaineering, in which skiers use skins on the base of their skis to ski uphill. Alpine touring skiers usually travel from hut to hut on multi-day trips. 

alpine touring
Alpine touring. ©Kieran Cunningham/My Open Country®

Alpine Zone

Elevations above the tree line in mountainous areas.


Climbing mountainous summits using rock climbing, mountaineering, and/or ice-climbing techniques in high-altitude mountain environments. The term is often used interchangeably with mountaineering but alpinism is typically associated with fast ascents undertaken in a single push with less gear. 


The abbreviation of the Appalachian Trail, the world-famous thru-hiking trail that stretches over 2,200 miles from Springer Mountain in northern Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine. 

Appalachian Trail
The famous Appalachian Trail.


Remote and undeveloped areas with few or no facilities.

Backcountry camping

Camping in remote and undeveloped areas.


The activity of undertaking a multi-day hike while carrying everything you need (shelter, food, clothing, etc.) in your backpack.

Base camp

The main encampment for mountaineering expeditions in which parties store most of their provisions and supplies.

Base camp at Everest
Think base camp and your mind probably jumps straight to Mount Everest.

Base layer

The layer of clothing worn next to your skin. This layer should be breathable and high-wicking in order to manage moisture (i.e. sweat) by transferring it to subsequent layers, which in turn allow it to evaporate on their surface.

Base weight

The weight of all your gear, not including food, fuel, and water.

Bear bag

A bag in which you store all of your food and scented items to keep them out of reach of bears and rodents. Usually hung in a tree in a “bear hang” (see below).

Bear canister

A hard-sided, bear-resistant form of food cache used to prevent critters little and large from accessing your food.

Small bear canister nestled in amongst rocks
A bear canister will protect your food.

Bear hang

Hanging a bear bag from a rope slung over a tree branch to keep it out of reach of bears and other wild animals.


A term, appropriated from the rock climbing community, for information about a trail or route supplied by someone who has already hiked it.

Big Three

The three main (and most expensive) items in a backpacker’s kit – a tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad. 

Bivy bag

A lightweight, one-person shelter used in place of a tent.


Rectangular trail markers painted onto trees, rocks, and other features. 

Blaze trail marker on tree in forested trail
Blazing a trail for others to follow.


Acronym for the Bureau of Land Management, the agency responsible for the management of public lands in the US.


Trees that have fallen in a storm, particularly those that block the way on a trail or campsites.

Blue blazer

A hiker or backpacker who takes side trails and/or shortcuts on long-distance trails instead of sticking to the traditional route. The term derives from the Appalachian Trail, where side trails are marked with blue blazes.


Aka “bombproof”. Anything (usually gear) that is extremely durable and reliable.


Basic, open mountain or backcountry huts or shelters in the British Isles that are free for all to use. 

Shenavall Bothy in the Scottish Highlands
Shenavall Bothy in the Scottish Highlands. ©Kieran Cunningham/My Open Country®

Boulder field

An expanse of terrain covered by boulders.


A colloquial term for the lid of a backpack. 


Hiking off-trail, occasionally using a pole, machete, or axe to clear the way.


A location where a long-distance hiker or thru-hiker stashes supplies on their route. On dry stretches of thru-hikes like the CDT, water caches are often maintained by “trail angels” (see below).


Man-made piles or stacks of rocks used as trail markers. “Cairn” is the Scottish Gaelic word for “pile of stones.”

Rock cairn on a clifftop overlooking Himalayas
A rock cairn stacked on a mountaintop in the Himalayas.

Camel Up

To drink as much water as possible at hydration points on long hikes, usually when faced with a long stretch before arriving at the next water source.

Car shuttle

Used on point-to-point hikes, this is when hikers travel in two cars, leaving one at the end of the trail and then returning to the start of the trail in the first car to begin their hike. This way, they have a means of returning to the trailhead upon completion of their hike and don’t have to hike the entire trail in reverse. 

Cat Hole

A small hole, usually 6 to 8 inches deep, dug by hikers to bury their scat.


The abbreviation of the Continental Divide Trail, the longest thru-hike in the Triple Crown. The CDT stretches 2,700 miles from the border with Alberta, Canada in the north to the border with Chihuahua, Mexico in the south.

continental divide hiking trail
The Continental Divide Trail stretches over 2,700 miles.


A half-open hollow at the head of a valley formed by glacial erosion.


Another word for a gap or saddle, refers to the lowest point on a ridge connecting two peaks.

Contour lines

The squiggly lines on maps that represent the shape of the terrain. The closer together contour lines are, the steeper the slope. Each fifth contour line is called an index line and has a number next to it that tells you the elevation at that point. 

Compass sitting on top of a map
The numbers on contour lines indicate elevation at that point.

Cowboy camping

Sleeping al fresco in a sleeping bag without a tent.

Cowboy coffee

Coffee made by boiling coffee grounds in water, waiting for the grounds to sink to the base of the pan, then pouring the (hopefully) ground-free liquid up top into your cup. An acquired taste.


Spiked traction devices worn on your boots to aid grip on ice and snow. 

crampons in action
Crampons are a must in this kind of terrain! ©Kieran Cunningham/My Open Country®


The highest ridge line of a mountain range or individual mountain.


Abbreviation for cryptosporidium, a microscopic parasite occasionally found in wild water sources that causes the diarrheal disease cryptosporidiosis.

Day hike

Any hike that is short enough to complete in a single day.


Magnetic declination refers to the angle of deviation between the north displayed on your compass and true north. This varies depending on your location. 

magnetic declination
Knowledge of magnetic declination will assist you in navigating your way.

Dispersed camping

Camping outside of established campgrounds in an area with no facilities.

Dry camping

Camping in a location with no water source.


Acronym for Durable Water Repellent, a (usually) fluoropolymer finish applied to the surface of garments that causes water to bead up on the outside of the fabric rather than soak through. 

Water beading on material surface due to DWR treatment
Water will bead up on the surface of fabric treated with a DWR coating.


The height, in feet or meters, above sea level of any given location. 

Elevation gain

The sum of every gain in elevation throughout an entire hike. This is sometimes also known as cumulative elevation gain or total ascent.


Sections of hiking trails are described as “exposed” if there is a high risk of serious injury in the event of a fall because of the verticality of the terrain.

scrambling on a dry day
Exposed trails are not for the faint of heart!

False summit

A peak or high point on a mountain that appears to be the summit from below. Upon reaching it, however, it is discovered that the real summit is higher. 


A crossover activity that combines backpacking and trail running.

Fire road

An unpaved, dirt track that provides firefighters and rangers with access to the backcountry.

Fire road into forest
Fire roads should never be blocked with parked vehicles.


An abbreviation for “Fastest Known Time”, i.e. the speed record on any given route. 

Food cache

A method used to protect your food from bears and other wild animals when camping or backpacking. Some of these methods include bear canisters, bear hangs, bear poles, bear cables, and food lockers.

Food locker

A secure box, often found at designated campgrounds in bear country, in which campers can store food to keep it safe from bears and other wild animals.


To cross a river.

hiker crossing a river
Fording a river should be undertaken with caution.

Frontcountry camping

Camping at established, car-accessible campgrounds.


From Skin Out, refers to the total weight of everything a backpacker is wearing and carrying.


Fabric guards that cover the gap between the collar of your boots and the bottom of your pants. Gaiters are usually waterproof and are used to keep water, snow, grit, sand, and pebbles out of your boots. 

Man wearing gaiters and holding trekking poles
Encompass your lower legs in a pair of gaiters to help to keep the wet stuff out.


A saddle or col.


A minuscule, water-borne parasite that causes giardiasis, a diarrheal illness. Giardia is usually transmitted via soil, food, or water contaminated with feces from infected animals or humans. 


To descend a snow slope by sliding down on your feet.


The brand name of the most popular waterproof-breathable membrane.

gore-tex brand
Gore-Tex is highly popular in the world of outdoor pursuits.


Global Positioning System is the navigational system that provides your location (on handheld devices and watches) by using multiple satellites. 

Gram counter

A hiker or backpacker who places a strong emphasis on keeping pack weight to an absolute minimum. Also known as an ounce counter.


A waterproof-breathable jacket. The term is used to distinguish hardshells from softshell jackets or basic rain jackets.


A source of illumination worn on your head.

Hiker wearing red head lamp
A headlamp frees up your hands for other things such as using trekking poles.

High altitude

Elevations of 8,000 ft or more above sea level. At this elevation, there is less oxygen in the air and many hikers experience symptoms of altitude sickness if not acclimatized.

High point

The highest point on any given trail or route.

Hiker hunger

The seemingly insatiable hunger that thru-hikers experience after a few weeks on the trail.

hikers eating muesli bars
Hiker hunger seems like it will never end!

Hiker midnight

The time at which most backpackers hit the hay in the evening, usually around 9pm. 

Hiker trash

A term of endearment for dirtbag hikers, i.e. those who embrace the frill-free, low-cost, low-maintenance lifestyle of long-term, long-distance hiking.


The traditional British term for hiking.

Hillwalking with a dog
Hillwalking = Hiking.


A backcountry or mountain residence where backpackers or mountaineers can spend the night. Huts range from unmanned and basic to luxurious, extravagant affairs with private rooms and dining.


Hike Your Own Hike is the philosophy of hiking any trail in the way that suits you best, irrespective of the opinions, principles, or practices of others. 

Ice axe

An axe used by ice climbers, hikers, and mountaineers. Hiking axes are designed to assist hikers when traveling on ice and snow. The shaft can be plunged into snow for support and the pick can be thrust into the slope when using the self-arrest technique in the event of a slip or fall. The adze of the axe can also be used to cut steps in snow or ice.

Hikers crossing a glacier with ice axes
Hikers crossing a glacier with ice axes. ©Kieran Cunningham/My Open Country®


Abbreviation for the John Muir trail, a 211-mile route in California’s Sierra Nevada.

Kick steps

Kicking the toes of your hiking boots into snow on uphill slopes to provide grip and create steps.


A prominent rounded hill or outcrop.


A Long-Ass Section Hike.

Leave No Trace (LNT)

A set of seven outdoor ethics and principles created by the Leave No Trace Center of Outdoor Ethics to promote conservation in the outdoors.

leave no trace
Remember to always “Leave No Trace”!


A hike that begins and ends at the same point.


Small, slip-on crampons used for stability, traction, and to avoid slipping on ice or snow. Microspikes, unlike most crampons, can be worn with almost any footwear.


Soft cotton fabric padding with a sticky adhesive backing on one side. Used to pad blisters to promote healing and reduce friction.


Glacial detritus that takes the form of rocks, boulders, grit, and sediment at the base of an existing or extinct glacier. 


Climbing to the highest point of mountains using scrambling, rock climbing, ice climbing, and or ski-mountaineering skills and techniques. 

Mountaineers on Gran Zebru
Mountaineers on Gran Zebru. ©Kieran Cunningham/My Open Country®


Shorthand for “northbound”, i.e. the direction of travel of a hiker on any long-distance trail.


A small gap in a ridge or crest. 


Acronym for National Park Service, the agency responsible for managing all national parks, monuments, conservatories, and historical properties.


Hiking trails on which you return the same way that you came. 


A small, usually basic building or hut that houses a pit toilet. 

outhouse along the trail
An outhouse along the trail will give you a little more privacy than digging a cathole!

Pack weight

The weight of your backpack.

Packed weight

The total weight of the entire package of any hiking gear at the time of purchase. This can be contrasted with trail weight, which is the total weight of said item when stripped of packaging.


A path that crosses over a mountain ridge or between two mountains or hills.


Abbreviation for the Pacific Crest Trail, a 2,650-mile trail that travels through the Cascade Range and Sierra Nevada in California, Oregon, and Washington, spanning from the Canadian to Mexican border. 

Pacific Crest Trail
The Pacific Crest Trail runs from the Canadian to Mexican border.


The summit or high point of a mountain. Also used as a synonym for ‘mountain’. 

Peak bagging

Attempting to summit all the mountain peaks in any given area. 

Pee rag

A piece of reusable cloth used in place of toilet paper when peeing.

Pit toilet

A rudimentary toilet with a pit or tank under the toilet seat instead of a flushing mechanism and sewage pipes. Waste collected in the pit is left to decompose or pumped out for disposal elsewhere. 


Personal Locator Beacon, a device that transmits your location to rescuers in case of an emergency.

Hiker using a GPS unit
In an emergency situation, having a PLB could be the difference between life and death.

Plunge stepping

Driving your heel down into snow or soft ground when descending as a means of creating a platform for your feet and gaining traction. When using this method, the toe should remain pointed upward or level with the heel.


Any hiking trail that begins at one location and ends at another, which isn’t the case with loop hikes or out-and-back hikes.


Plunging knee or thigh-deep into snow when hiking in winter. 

Primitive camping

Also known as wilderness camping, this entails camping at remote, backcountry sites with few or no facilities.

Backpacking tent pitched in the Alps
Getting as primitive as possible.


Pointless Ups and Downs.


Colloquial term for an insulated jacket.

Rock hop

To cross a river, stream, or terrain by jumping from rock to rock.

hiker crossing stream in hiking boots with trekking poles
Doing the rock hop.


The planned or designated course of travel to get from one location to another, usually by way of multiple trails.


Abbreviation for “roundtrip”, which refers to the distance from the trailhead to your end point and back. 


Another word for “backpack.”

Backpackers hiking with large backpacks
Rucksack = Backpack!


Another word for a col or gap, a saddle is the lowest point between two peaks.


The act of leading another hiker to believe any trail or trail section is easier than it really is.


Acronym for “search and rescue”, used to refer both to the team of rescuers and the operation of rescuing stricken hikers.


Using your hands and feet to climb a section of rock on a hike.


Accumulations of loose rocks on a slope.

scree for days
Scree for days! ©Kieran Cunningham/My Open Country®

Section Hiker

A hiker who hikes sections of long-distance trails, or who hikes long-distance trails in sections. 


A technique that involves pressing the pick of your ice axe into a snow slope with the weight of your body to arrest your fall.

Shared-use trail

A trail that can be used by hikers, bikers, and equestrians alike.

Shoulder season

The months between the summer and winter seasons, i.e. spring and fall.

trail in fall
The trail during fall.

Single-track trail

A trail that is only wide enough for one user. In most cases, these are mountain biking trails and have been worn deep into the terrain by the passage of many tires. When hiking on single tracks, hikers should take care to avoid oncoming and fast-moving bikers. 


Any area of the backcountry that can be reached via a ski lift or gondola, that provides easy access to hikers or backcountry skiers who don’t fancy the approach!


Having someone (or something) carry some or all of your gear for you when backpacking.


A challenging or otherwise disagreeable trail or section of trail.


Traveling in snowshoes, specialized footwear with a large footprint that allows hikers to walk over deep snow without sinking in or postholing (see above). outdoor gear for walking over snow. 

Kilted snowshoeing. ©Kieran Cunningham/My Open Country®


Shorthand for “southbound”, i.e. the direction of travel of a hiker on any long-distance trail.

Social Trail

An informal, unmarked, and unmaintained trail formed by hikers repeatedly using the same route, mostly to create shortcuts between two trails or points of interest. Also known as a herd path.


A jacket made with a soft, flexible material that is water resistant (not waterproof), breathable, and windproof. 


A lightweight plastic or titanium kitchen utensil that has a spoon head on one end and a fork (and often a serrated knife edge) on the other.


A short trail that deviates from the main trail to reach a point of interest, such as an overlook, campsite, or waterfall.

female hiker in light jacket overlooking mountains
Taking a spur trail may just lead you to a spectacular viewpoint.

Stealth camp

Camping secretly in areas where camping is prohibited, either in a tent or a van. 


Any outing in which you suffer inordinately, usually as a result of heat, steep inclines, bugs, rain, or annoying hiking partners.


The highest point of a hill or mountain.

hiker in the summit
At the summit, at last!


Zig-zagging sections of a hiking trail. These are usually found on steeper ground as they reduce the gradient of ascent.


Slightly larger rock debris than scree. 


A small mountain lake, usually formed in a cirque.

A tarn in the Italian Alps
A tarn in the Italian Alps. ©Kieran Cunningham/My Open Country®


Used to describe gear that is suitable for use in any season except winter.


A pit toilet with little or no enclosing structure to provide privacy.


Hiking a long-distance trail in its entirety, from start to finish, in one journey. 


A topographical map.

checking the map
A map showing the topography of an area.


A portmanteau of ‘trail’ and ‘family’ used to refer to fellow hikers who become like family, usually on long-distance hikes.

Trail angel

Anyone who provides trail magic.

Trail magic

Acts of kindness and generosity towards thru-hikers that are granted free of charge. This can include rides to and from trail towns, drinks, food, emergency repair, or accommodation. On popular thru-hikes, trail angels have been known to leave goodies such as meals, snacks, and water along the trail.

Trail mix

A common hiking snack that usually contains dried fruit, nuts, granola, seeds, and candy. 

Packed lunch containers of trail mix
Trail mix, the snack for hikers.

Trail name

A pseudonym used by hikers, mostly on long-distance trails. The most famous example is perhaps Alexander Supertramp (Cristopher McCandless). 

Trail weight

The total weight of a tent with the minimum amount of components needed to assemble it, usually means the body, rainfly, and poles.


The starting point of a hiking trail. 

The beginning of the trail and your next hiking adventure.


The elevation at which trees no longer grow usually marks the crossing point into alpine terrain.

Triple crown

The award given by the ADLHA to long-distance hikers who have hiked the Appalachian Trail (AT), the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) in their entirety.

Type 1 Fun

An activity that is fun from start to finish. 

Type 2 Fun

An activity that isn’t fun while you are doing it, but with hindsight might be viewed in a more positive light.

Type 3 Fun

An activity that isn’t fun while you’re doing it or looked back on fondly after the event.

hiking in rain
The Type 3 kind of fun.

Yosemite Decimal System (YDS)

The rating system used in the US and Canada to grade the difficulty of hikes, scrambling routes, and rock climbs. Class 1 hikes are easy walking routes suitable for hikers of all ability levels. Class 3 and 4 hikes are technical scrambling routes that often require climbing equipment. 

Hiking Terms 101

We hope our guide to hiking terminology and hiking slang has equipped you with all the vocab necessary for your time on the trails!

If we missed anything, let us know in the comments box below. And if you’d like to share this post with your friends, please do! 

Last update on 2024-05-22 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

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Kieran Avatar

Kieran James Cunningham is a climber, mountaineer, and author who divides his time between the Italian Alps, the US, and his native Scotland.

He has climbed a handful of 6000ers in the Himalayas, 4000ers in the Alps, 14ers in the US, and loves nothing more than a good long-distance wander in the wilderness. He climbs when he should be writing, writes when he should be sleeping, has fun always.

Kieran has taught mountaineering, ice climbing, and single-pitch and multi-pitch rock climbing in a variety of contexts over the years and has led trekking and mountaineering expeditions in the Alps, Rockies, and UK. He is currently working towards qualifying as a Mountaineering and Climbing Instructor and International Mountain Leader.

Kieran’s book Climbing the Walls—an exploration of the mental health benefits of climbing, mountaineering, and the great outdoors—is scheduled for release by Simon & Schuster in April 2021.

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