Hiker's glossary

One way or another, thru-hikers learn a lot about life on the trail. A vocabulary of trail life has developed. Here's a few terms you might encounter on the trail.

AT: Appalachian Trail. Scenic hiking trail that runs from Springer Mountain in Georgia to Mount Katahdin in Maine.

Base weight (or base pack): The weight of your pack without food, water and fuel. Nowadays, "Light" or "ultra-light" backpacking, is all the rage. Less is better. The rule used to be: "Pack light; cold night." No more. Today's hiker lives by the the maxim: "Go lighter; pack only what you need." Since the elite hiker needs less, your hiking status varies inversely with base weight.

As a practical fact, your base weight is a measure of your financial well-being and tolerance for discomfort. The notion is captured handily in the aphorism "you hike your fears." The macho of the macho gets by on 5 pounds base weight. I carry about 16. That cost me a bundle.

Bonked: The let down caused by too little or too much food. A bonked hiker has lead legs and moves in slow motion.

Bounce Box (aka bump box): A shipment of supplies from one resupply to the next. For example if you think the weather will be sunny, you can ship your rainfly to some point ahead. Same goes for crampons, ice axes, bear canisters and other gear that might be extra for an upcoming leg of the hike. A bounce box is overkill for the JMT, but not for PCT, CDT or AT.

Cowboy Camp: Sleeping in the open without a tent. Like the frontiersmen, a few elite hikers will tackle a thru-hike tentless. The approach is not for all. Rain, snow or mosquitoes can trigger demons or worse.

Class of [2016]: The group of thru-hikers that start their epic hike in any one year. The size of each successive the thru-hiker class has increased steadily for the past decade.

CDT: Continental Divide Trail. Scenic hiking trail that runs from Arizona border with Mexico to the Montana border with Canada.

"D" tab: Small cloth loop, typically nylon, sewn into the seam of a backpack. "D" tabs are often used as attachment points when tying items to the pack with paracord.

Day Hiker Stink: The unmistakable waft of sweat, deodorant and shampoo apparent to thru hikers (who haven't seen deodorant or shampoo in days) as they pass a day hiker. Some experienced thru hikers can identify the brand of shampoo without breaking stride.

Dirt bag: Someone who drops out and dedicates his or her life to a non-remunerative pursuit. Originally a dedicated (and now revered) group of rock climbers who eked out an existence in Yosemite by eating out of dumpsters and sleeping in cars and caves. Now also refers to true-thrus who have dedicated themselves to perpetual thru-hiking.

DIY: Do it yourself. For the most part, thru-hikers are strapped for cash. Many are young and haven't yet started their life's work. Many have selected life-styles that prefer personal freedom to wealth. Many are just plain cheap. More importantly, many are highly skilled as craftsmen and can fabricate their own sleeping bags, down coats, rain gear and tents. You name it. Personally, I fall in the all-thumbs class of bourgeois hiker who purchases his gear.

Dry Camp: Overnighting in a spot without water. If you hike in Southern California, water is scarce. It's a desert. Water sources are far apart and iffy. For a long stretch, a hiker might have to carry as 5-liters (11 lbs) to stay hydrated till the water. In some places, true thrus are dependent on caches of bottled water left by Trail Angels. When dry camping, there's no splashing off the sweat or trail dust; plan on a scruffy night.

Expendables: Non-food and water items that are consumed during the hike. For example, cooking fuel, band aids, aspirin, handi-wipes and sunscreen.

Flip/flop: A hike that starts one direction (e.g. Northbound or NoBo), but, at some midway point, jumps to the other end. The hike is then complete in the other direction (e.g. Southbound or SoBo). This approach to thru hiking is very controversial among the Purists.

Gearhead: An obsessed hiker whose dedicated to the continual refinement of his backpacking gear. Backpack, tent, clothes and sleeping bag are upgraded to the lightest, driest, warmest affordable. Inessentials are culled, and luxuries like a pillow or an iPhone are selected with the greatest of care. Gearheads are especially skilled at picking shortcomings in the pack of the non-gearhead.

Giardia: A protozoan parasite that causes a severe gastrointestinal disorder. Hikers can become infected after contact with water, food or soil. Since Giardia is found in Sierra streams, most Sierra hikers use filters, tablets or steripens to purify the trail water they drink. It's a pain.
Recent studies seem to show that there is little waterborne Giardia in Sierra streams and that most Giardia appears to be caused by poor 'camp hygiene.' Some true-thrus strive to develop resistance to waterborne microbes by drinking unfiltered water. If successful, they will be the pioneers of a new branch of medicine that might be called, mens supra microbe (Mind over microbe).

Green-vest People: The staff at the local REI. Remember everyone in a green vest is a 'specialist.' Pay close attention to the brass pins and dangling feathers on the locker loops; they signify mastery of the REI way.

Hiker Hunger: The ravenous hunger that one feels after a vigorous hike and a multi-day deficit of calorie intake. Also, the alleged reason all food, except freeze-dried food, tastes better on the trail.

Hike your own hike: First principle for knowing one's limits, and a reassuring motto that explains why it is just fine that you can't keep pace with that friendly, happy group that's leaving you in the dust. Also a nostrum for the proclamations of the purist (see below).

Hiker's Box: A container at a resupply point full of free stuff left by other hikers. The idea is to leave a little take a little. They pickings can include food to shoes to hiking sticks. Cheryl Strayed famously picked up a "ski pole fit for a princess: white with "bubble-gum Pink nylon wrist strap" at the Kennedy Meadows hiker box.

Hiking Heavy: A redistribution of weight to the extremities and accompanying lassitude that comes after lunch.

Hiking Machine: A male or female hiker-athlete who can repeatedly hike 25+ miles a day without undue strain. By comparison, your competent backpacker might travel 10-18 miles per day. Many of the PCT hikers are hiking machines.
Historical note: In the Spring of 1862, Stonewall Jackson's famous 1,300-man "Foot Calvary" (aka the Stonewall Brigade) marched 400 miles in 4 weeks including a famous 57-mile march in 51 hours!

Hiker Pride: A superior feeling of satisfaction derived from hiking exploits. Hiking pride increases with the number of bagged peaks, miles hiked, and treacherous encounters. Hiker pride is inferior to rock climber pride.

Hiker Stink: The pungent waft of a hiker that hasn't bathed or changed clothes in days. While it resembles the "homeless waft," it lacks the bouquet of stale beer. However, it can be easily distinguished from day-hiker stink (q.v. Day-hiker Stink). Maybe the source of hiker pride or the cause a perfunctory apology when in town.

JMT: John Muir Trail. Scenic trail that runs between Mount Whitney and Yosemite National Park.

Leave No Trace (LNT): Innocuous sounding dictum initiated by the forest service in the 80's to protect the wilderness from human clutter. In a nutshell you must pack out everything you take in—including used toilette paper. No more burying toilette paper. This unsettling necessity has led to a new 'paper-free' practises based on lambs ear, rocks, stones and even bare hands. On the bright side it could be worse. (see WAG Bag below)

Light-weight backpacking: Backpacking with a base weight between 12 and 20 pounds. Not to be confused with ultralight backpacking and much more likely to smell the flowers.

NoBo: A hike that starts at the southern terminus and proceeds along a north bound route. i.e. North Bound

Operational Readiness Test (ORT): Rehearsal tests conducted by the operations team of a space mission. This is the last chance to try out all procedures and test the systems prior to the launch. Used in this blog to imply a shakeout hike. While no serious blogger would use an an acronym like this, ORT seems fitting here since it is most satisfying to repeat aloud.

Purist: A true-thru who insists that a through hike must be done on the official route by walking every inch of the trail, from beginning to end, in sequence. No flip/flops. No scenic detours. No skipping sections for weather or time restraints. No purist would grant Cheryl Strayed or Bill Bryson true-thru status.

PCT: Pacific Crest Trail. Scenic hiking trail that runs from the California border with Mexico to the Washington border with Canada.

PCT herd: The clusters of PCTs hikers that tends dominate portions of the trail. In early May, a group of 5 or more PCTers will descend from Throop Peak every thirty minutes. The clusters form because of seasonal constraints; hiking in winter is impractical and unsafe for almost everyone. Since most PCTers start the trek in early April, to catch the early thaw, they bunch up at in the initial stages and then thin over the course of the trail.

Pee/Snot/Sweat Rag: A frequently-rinsed, cloth substitute for tissue. Lightens the load and conforms with the 'leave-no-trace' mandate. The recommended practise is to assign a function to each corner of the rag for a specific purpose.

Reentry: The act of rejoining the work-a-day world after departing from the world of the trail. Often characterized by challenging questions about one's future, rapid weight gain and planning for the next thru-hike.

Resupply Bucket (or box): A bucket or box cached down the trail with food and expendables for an upcoming leg of the hike. Since food is often the heaviest item in a pack, a resupplied hiker can lighten the load by only carrying enough food to get to the next resupply.

Section Hike: A portion of a thru hike. For example, since the JMT shares significant trail mileage with the PCT, many PCTers consider the JMT a section hike. i.e. not a thru-hike. In the true-thru culture section hiking is more respectable than day hiking, but not on par with the true thru-hike.

SoBo: A hike that starts at the northern terminus and proceeds along a South Bound route.

Solo: A hiker that walks and camps alone.

Thru-hike: A long-distance hike where the hiker intends to walk the trails' entire length by starting at one end and finishing at the other. The most famous thru-hikes in the US are the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail and the Continental Divide trail. By comparison, the John Muir Trail is 211 miles.

Thru-hiker: A hiker who has endured or is enduring a thru-hike. Thru-hikers are the aristocrats in the hiking world. Interestingly, the society of thru-hikers seems to mirror the mainstream: "less of everything is more."

Toilette Magic: Rediscovery of the relative joy of a pit toilette compared to the squat or lean.

Trail Angel: A volunteer who provides support for thru-hikers. Support comes in many forms including establishing water caches on desert stretches, providing free or cheap room and board, showers, and rides to and from the trail. The generosity of trail angels is legendary.

Trail Blog or Trail Journal: A record of the events on the trail. Often entries are made en route to be followed by the folks back home. Usually includes a few objective data points like the day of your hike, the distance covered that day and the overall distance. It would look something like this:

Date/Day:
[The day/date of the hike.  If you started 10 days ago, this is day day 10.  Chances are good that I was surfing the net while the thru hiker was climbing a Sierra Pass]
Location:
[Where the day's hike starts.  Not always a place that invokes a transcendental state of being.  e.g. Motel 6 or Waffle King]
Hike:
[John Muir Trail]
Today’s miles:
[Distance walked that day.  The real measure of thru-hiking prowess]
Total Trip:
[Distance covered since day 1.  If that number is in excess of 1,000 that's a true-thru in my book, but a true-thru would probably object.]

Trail Ambassador: A blogging, true-thru whose hike is sponsored by an equipment manufacturer for the purpose of testing out and advertising gear. Also a representative of a do-gooder, outdoor-oriented organization.

Trail Doubt (aka trail trials): Anguish caused by the rigor or loneliness on the trail. A common cause of quitting the hike. Zach Davis has written a popular book on the topic, Trail Trials, a psychological and emotional guide to successfully thru-hiking the Appalachian Trail, that serves up plenty of pat advice that may not be useful if you are a few decades past believing pat advice.

Trail Magic: The unexpected good fortune that happens on the hike. May include: free food, new friendships, rides to town, and especially surprising acts of kindness. Hikers are vulnerable to the indifference of the elements, the promise of trail magic is key to the romantic allure of the trail.

Trail Name: An honorific bestowed by your fellow hikers. A necessary part of leaving your old self back home.

True-thru: A hiker who has completed a thru-hike in style that embraces the adventure and the rigors of the wilderness. They take the concerns of the Purist to heart. (True-thru is a neolism used here to distinguish a breed apart.)

Ultralight backpacking: Backpacking with a base pack weight of 5-12 pounds. Not to be confused with lightweight backpacking. A sign of an accomplished hiker who needs but a few comforts to cope with elements. Not for the faint hearted.

VVR: Vermilion Valley Resort. A backwoods fisherman's retreat located on Lake Edison which serves as a convenient resupply and stopover for JMT and PCT hikers.

WAG Bag (Waste Alleviation and Gelling Bag): Park service supplied kit for carrying out human waste for disposal in special purpose 'Human Waster' dumpsters. Required for everyone who climbs Mount Whitney from Whitney Portal. Could be worse; you don't have to hike your pee out.

Walkup permit: A wilderness permit issued on the day of a hike. Wilderness Office Federal Agencies will hold back a few permits at each office issue for hikers who do not have a reservation. It's a bit of a gamble, but it often likely a permit can be obtained without a reservation.

Water Cache: Water bottle and water jugs put out for thru-hikers in dry areas, like the southern portion of the PCT where there may be 20 miles between creeks or springs.

Wilderness permit: A permit issued by the National Park Service or National Forest Service Wilderness Office that allows a hiker to camp in the wilderness. The number of permits issued on any day is limited in order to restrict wilderness access and protect it from overuse. Permit reservations, that guarantee the hiker a permit, may be obtained as much a 6 months in advance. Each year there is a mad scramble to obtain a permit to hike the JMT.

Zero Day: A day on the hike without hiking. Zero refers to the number of miles hiking as opposed the the beers, burgers and pies consumed.
version 1.0