Hiking Guides

101 Hiking Terms and Acronyms That Every Hiker Should Know


As with any new hobby, there will inevitably be a flurry of new terms and acronyms to learn. Conversations with veteran hikers will often include an array of terminology that may go right over your head.

Many hobbies create their own culture where specific behaviors and language are the norm. But how do you, as a newbie to the hobby, engage relatively comfortably with people who have been hiking for years?

Learning some essential hiking and backpacking terms and lingo can enable you to put one foot in front of the other and help you explore the surface of what this great hobby has to offer.

So let’s take a look at my comprehensive and extensive list of common hiking terms and acronyms that will help you get on the trail in no time.

man hiking on a trail towards a snowy mountain peak.

A.T. – The ‘Appalachian Trail’ is a hiking trail found in Eastern United States that runs for almost 2,200 miles and passes through 14 states.

ALDHA – This stands for ‘Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association’, founded in 1983 to support and promote the interests of Appalachian Trail hikers. They are regarded as the first organization of long-distance hikers in the United States.

Altitude – The height above sea level at which a place is located.

Backcountry – A remote and undeveloped area, typically in the wilderness. These areas are typically not accessible by road.

Base Weight – The total weight of your backpack except for consumables like food, water & fuel. Conventional backpackers will have a base weight of greater than 20 pounds. Lightweight backpackers will have between 10 and 20 pounds. And ultralight backpackers will typically have a base weight of fewer than 10 pounds.

Baselayer – Base layers are ideal for keeping you warm and comfortable in various conditions. Not only do they provide an extra layer of warmth, but the fabrics also absorb sweat and evaporate it quickly as well. You can choose from a variety of base layer styles crafted with different fabrics that make them most suitable for certain climates or activities.

Bear Bagging – A general term used for hanging your food in a tree. This will help deter critters like raccoons, coyotes, chipmunks, skunks, and of course, bears from helping themselves to your precious food.

Bear Canister – A portable air tight hard-sided food locker used to store food to keep wild animals away from your rations and other scented items such as toiletries and trash.

Beta – Beta is an incredibly useful source of information that provides you with a general overview of the terrain, length, and nature of any outdoor route; be it hiking trails, climbing routes or river floats. It’s generally provided by someone who has completed your trip before and they have reported back on what to expect when attempting the same journey.

Bivy Sack – Born from the needs of climbers facing multi-day ascents, particularly on big walls, bivy sacks – shorthand for “bivouac sack” – provide lightweight yet reliable emergency weather protection for sleeping bags.

Blaze – To ensure hikers can find their way, a network of trail markers known as blazes is employed. These directional aids indicate the start and end point for trails, when routes change direction or meet up with other pathways.

Blister – If your footwear isn’t broken in or fits poorly, you may find yourself with painful blistering on the skin. Such swellings are usually filled with fluid and can cause considerable discomfort.

Book Time – When estimating how long a hike might take, it is important to remember there can be quite a bit of variation. Allocating 30 minutes for each mile traveled and an additional thirty minutes for every 1,000 feet in elevation gain, rounded to the nearest 5-minute increment. Book Time is a helpful approximation for trekking up mountains and across tricky trails.

Bushwhacking – Bushwhacking is the art of exploring trails that are not marked. It requires knowledge in GPS and navigation, so only those who have experience or had taken a map and compass class should attempt this activity. When done correctly, it can be an exhilarating journey full of adventure.

Cairn – A formation of stones, commonly used to indicate paths in sparsely wooded terrains. These can be likened to signs or blazes normally found on trails that traverse through arboreal areas.

A cairn along side a hiking trail at the foot of a mountain peak

Cameling Up – Hydrate yourself liberally if you find yourself far from the next water source, or in order to reduce your load for further travels.

Campsite – A designated area where people can set up a temporary shelter, such as a tent or RV, for the purpose of camping. These areas are typically equipt with amenities such as fire rings and grills for cooking.

Canyon – North America is home to a plethora of majestic gorges (or canyons) – deep ravines that are often accompanied by rivers flowing through them, providing spectacular views and unforgettable experiences.

Carabiner – A carabiner (or karabiner) is an incredibly useful device that allows you to quickly and easily connect items. It’s a metal looped shackle, with a gate that can be opened or closed depending on your needs – perfect for reversibly connecting components.

Cat Hole – These are deep pits for human feces that should be dug at least 200 feet away from bodies of water, trails, and campsites in accordance with the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics. Doing this will help ensure everyone enjoys their outdoor experience.

Clifftop – An area of ground at the top of a cliff.

Cloud Forest – Immerse yourself in a lush, tropical paradise that often experiences persistent cloud cover over the canopy – this is known as a Cloud Forest. Also referred to as water forest, primas forest or Tropical Montane Cloud Forest (TMCF), these montane evergreens are found mostly in subtropical and tropical regions.

Col – Descending the peak? You’ll come across a col, or “notch” or “saddle,” which is the lowest point between two peaks. This juncture marks where you cease descending one mountain and begin ascending another.

Cold Front – When cold air displaces warm air, a cold front is created. Cold fronts bring about rapid modifications in the weather; they are capable of moving two times faster than their warmer counterparts.

Cold Soaking – “Cold soaking” is a no-cook procedure of making backpacking food where dehydrated items are placed in an airtight container and filled with water, allowing them to rehydrate over time without any heat. It’s a popular process for campers and hikers alike.

Cowboy Camping – For those who seek to immerse themselves in the natural environment, cowboy camping is an ideal choice. After outfitting yourself with a sleeping bag, pad and groundsheet, you can simply fall asleep underneath the stars! Although it’s tempting to forgo bringing any shelter at all for such a no-frills experience, keep in mind that Mother Nature can be unpredictable; therefore it’s best practice to also bring along a tent or tarp just in case of inclement weather. Cowboy camping captures outdoor living in its purest form – unencumbered by fancy gadgets or elaborate setups.

Crampon – For a secure journey across snow or ice, you need the ultimate grip: Crampons. These removable spiked metal frames attach to your walking boots easily and make all winter adventures possible such as glacier crossing, scaling icy rocks, ascending snowy slopes, and conquering frozen waterfalls. Crampons are simply indispensable for any alpine expedition.

Day Hiking – Day hiking refers to a type of hiking that is completed in a single day and does not involve camping overnight on the trail.

Three people undertaking a day hike during a beautiful sunny day.

Daypack – A daypack is a type of backpack that is specifically designed for day hikes and other similar activities. A daypack is generally smaller in size than a traditional backpack and is intended to be used for carrying essentials such as food, water, clothing, and first aid supplies for a day trip.

Deadfall – A term used to describe fallen trees or branches that are lying on the ground in a natural setting, such as a forest. Deadfall can occur for a variety of reasons, such as natural causes like wind, snow, or ice storms, or from insect infestations or diseases that weaken and eventually kill the tree.

DEET – An active component in insect repellants, is crucial for hikers’ comfort and safety while exploring certain areas.

Detritus – Refers to dead and decaying organic material, such as leaves, twigs, and fallen branches, that are found on the forest floor. It is a result of the natural process of decomposition and is an important part of the ecosystem as it provides food and habitat for many organisms.

Dry Bag – A type of bag that is designed to keep its contents dry and protected from water, typically used for outdoor activities such as camping and hiking. They are usually made of waterproof materials like nylon or PVC and feature a roll-top closure to keep water out.

Dry Camp – Camping without access to water can be risky, so it’s wise to plan ahead and determine if reliable sources of H2O are available before or after the site. If not, you might want to reconsider your location altogether.

Elevation Gain – Figuring out the elevation gain of a trail or route ahead of time can save outdoor enthusiasts from unexpected challenges. Knowing how much elevation you’ll be climbing is expressed in meters (UK) and feet (US) so that hikers know exactly what they’re getting into before lacing up their boots.

False Peak – You know what they say about getting your hopes up too high? That’s exactly the feeling hikers experience when confronted with a False Summit. It appears as if you have finally reached the peak, only to realize that it is nothing more than an unassuming hill or shoulder in disguise.

Fastpacking – Fastpackers are a mix of hikers and trail runners, but they move at lightning speeds due to their usage of minimalist and ultra-light gear (UL).

FKT – The “Fastest Known Time” (FKT) record for conquering a trail or section of the route is highly disputed due to the controversial use of GPS data and social media postings as unofficial community tracking.

Foothill – A foothill is a low hill or slope at the base of a mountain or larger hill, usually formed by erosion and sediment deposits. It is a transition zone between a mountain and a plain.

Geocaching – An outdoor treasure hunting game that uses GPS coordinates to hide and seek containers, called “geocaches” or “caches”, anywhere in the world. Participants navigate to a specific set of coordinates and then attempt to find the cache hidden at that location. A great way to explore locations otherwise unknown to yourself.

Glissade – Take a thrilling journey down an incline covered with snow or loose rock, and feel the rush of glissading. This activity involves you slowly sliding on your feet or backside in order to make your way to the bottom.

A young boy glissading down a snowy hill

GORP – GORP (Good Old Raisins and Peanuts) is a type of trail mix that typically consists of a combination of raisins, peanuts, and other dried fruit, nuts, seeds, and sometimes chocolate. It is a popular snack to pack when going on outdoor activities such as hiking or camping as it is lightweight, easy to carry, and provides a good source of energy.

GPS – Global Positioning System (GPS) is a satellite-based navigation system. With its accuracy within tens of meters, GPS’s make getting from place to place much simpler; however, they should not be used as a sole source for navigating since it isn’t 100% reliable and map reading and compass use are still necessary skills.

GTX – An abbreviation used for the brand name Gore-Tex. A popular brand for hikers as the waterproof breathable material used to line their jackets, trousers, and boots makes it perfect for wet outdoor activities.

Guylines – Guy lines, or guy ropes, are the essential components of your camping setup that guarantee a secure and comfortable stay in any weather. By using stakes or sticks to anchor them into the ground, they ensure that your tent is kept firmly in place while you enjoy all the wonders of nature.

Herd Path – Over time, intrepid hikers have created an unplanned shortcut through the rugged terrain — one that often circumvents difficult obstacles. This unofficial footpath offers a convenient and exhilarating alternative to traditional paths taken by many explorers before them.

Hiker Boxes – Hiker boxes are a great way for hikers to share unused items or pick up useful extras from fellow travelers. These convenient physical containers can be found in trailside towns and many places that cater specifically to walkers; think gear shops, hostels, motels, and the like. Hiker boxes provide an economical option for those looking to lighten their load without sacrificing what they might need on the go.

Hiking Trail – A specifically designed and maintained route that hikers often frequent.

Hump – To be able to manage an abundance of luggage and supplies, a guide for example may have to lug heavy equipment such as additional cookware or tents for the benefit of other campers/hikers in the group.

Hut – A cabin along a trail for overnight lodging is often the perfect blend of rustic and comfortable. Typically, these cabins offer basic amenities such as running water in addition to protection from any adverse weather conditions.

Hydration Pack – Equip yourself with the convenience of a hydration pack or drink bag – an ideal system for any adventure. This backpack or waistpack is designed to be completely hands-free and contains a plastic, rubber “bladder” that can easily be filled and accessed. With its capped mouthpiece and drinking hose, you’ll never have to worry about staying hydrated on your journey again.

HYOH – As you wander the mountain trails, carry with you the spirit of “Hike Your Own Hike,” which encourages individuals to make their own choices and respect those of others. It’s a reminder that living life on your terms is essential for true freedom.

Keyhole – Certain hiking trails may be known as “keyhole” since they provide a break through the peak’s rock-strewn ridges, forming an alternate route to the mountain summit.

Latitude – In geography, latitude is an angle that provides information regarding the north–south position of a point on Earth’s surface. This coordinate ranges from –90° at the south pole to 90° at the north pole, with 0° indicating the equator.

Lean-to – Also known as a Leanto, this elevated open shelter provides three walls and a roof to give added protection from the elements. Providing sufficient space for four up to twelve hikers staying overnight, you can even cook in it. A lean-to is an ideal outdoor structure for adventurers who want some extra coverage when camping outside.

Leave No Trace – With the goal of preserving our environment for generations to come, ‘Leave No Trace’ encourages us all to practice mindful behaviors while outdoors. By being aware of how we interact with nature and making conscious decisions that minimize our footprint, we can ensure a better future for everyone.

Leave no trace sign at the start of a hiking trail

Longitude – Imaginary meridians – or lines of longitude, as they are often called – run from the North Pole all the way to the South Pole and measure your exact distance east or west of a point known as the prime meridian. These points on Earth’s surface can be measured precisely in degrees, minutes, and seconds. Longitude reveals our position relative to this cardinal line.

Monorail – During the springtime, hikers must take extra caution when navigating a trail riddled with an annoying monorail of snow and ice. To prevent slipping, one should either tread lightly or along its muddy embankments.

National Park – National parks are hand-selected by governments to celebrate the natural world, and they provide an opportunity for people to connect with nature in its most pristine form. Whether you’re simply looking to relax or explore its historical significance, a national park is the perfect place. Every one of these special areas has been meticulously preserved so that plants and animals can remain in their native habitats while preserving landscapes of remarkable beauty.

National Scenic Trail – Spanning across the United States, the National Trails System is an expansive network of over 91,000 miles (150,000 km) that contains 11 national scenic trails, 21 national historic trails, 1 geologic trail and more than 1300 recreation trails. Get out there and explore all this system has to offer.

NOBO – For thru-hikers journeying north along a trail, they often say that they are heading “NOBO”, which stands for North Bound.

NPS – The United States National Park Service (abbreviated as NPS) is the organization responsible for overseeing and maintaining the nation’s beautiful parks, monuments, conservatories, and other historic sites.

Overhang – An overhang is a rock face or wall deliberately constructed by climbers to have an incline of more than 90°, thus going beyond the vertical. Especially steep ones that almost reach horizontal are known as roofs.

PCT – From the diverse landscapes of Washington, Oregon, and California; stretching 2,654 miles along the apex of Sierra Nevada to Cascade Ridge – comes your journey through Pacific Crest Trail.

Peak – Standing atop a peak provides an unparalleled feeling of accomplishment. From the mathematical standpoint, this local maximum is defined as a point higher than all other adjacent points along its convex-up curve, with zero slope. It’s important to note that for one’s position qualify as such, it mustn’t be possible to climb any further without first having descended from the summit.

Peak Bagging – If you’re looking for a thrilling and fulfilling mountain excursion, peak bagging is the perfect activity. It entails conquering a set of related peaks in an area; it’s like ticking off items from your hiking bucket list! Two notable examples include New Hampshire 4000 Footers (48 elevations) and Colorado Fourteeners (53 summits).

Women bagging a peak at the end of her hike

Posthole – When you slip your foot into the powdery white snow, it creates a mesmerizing abyss. This can be physically strenuous at times so when hiking in groups, members will often swap who takes the lead to allow each hiker to step directly into tracks that have already been made.

PUD – Avoiding “Pointless Ups and Downs” (PUDs) on your hiking trail can be quite the challenge. Even though you may think that a certain area is flat, it could actually have several 30′ hills in succession – thus becoming an endless loop of frustration. To stay prepared for these surprise fluctuations, make sure to get quality Beta ahead of time so that the PUDs don’t take from the joys of nature.

Rain Shadow – Nestled in the shadow of mountaintops, rain shadows are regions that have been transformed into arid deserts due to being deprived from precipitation. On one side of a mountain range, lush rainfall and snow showers occur while the other is left dry with an absence of moisture-provoking weather systems.

Rambling – In Britain, ‘rambling’ is the preferred term for hiking on less mountainous terrain. This can involve hill walking or fell walking, depending on the particular course of your journey.

Redlined – Completing a “redlined” area indicates that you have accomplished an individual feat and hiked every inch of the trail. Grab your red marker and map and redline around each major path as well as small trails you’ve conquered for personal satisfaction.

Rock Hop – When you anticipate a ford, but discover instead only a shallow stream, count yourself fortunate. It’s as simple as hopping across the rocks to get over safely and without getting your boots wet.

SAR – The acronym S&R (Search and Rescue) stands for a group of generous volunteers who take time out from their family and professional lives to assist when backcountry adventurers find themselves in precarious situations.

Scrambling – If you’re looking for an adventure that will truly test your limits, scrambling is the activity for you. It takes elements of rock climbing, mountaineering, and hillwalking to create a thrilling journey full of steep hills and difficult terrain. You’ll need both hands and feet as you climb up these mountains – are you brave enough to take on the challenge?

Scree – Hikers beware: the danger of a scree field is real. Loose rocks, often smaller than your head, can roll like marbles beneath your feet. One wrong move could land you with an ankle or knee injury—so use caution on these tricky trails.

Section Hiking – If a Thru Hike is out of the question due to time constraints, one might opt for breaking up the journey into more manageable sections while making interspersed visits back home. This way, they can enjoy their hike piecemeal over an extended period and reap all its rewards without having to commit fully upfront.

Side Trail – Side Trail, also known as “Trailside”, refers to the areas closest to a trail. These regions are typically accessible and offer plenty of opportunities for exploration and adventure.

Sinkhole – A sinkhole is a discursive dip in the landscape that has no external channel to direct rainfall away. Put more simply, when it rains all of the water stays within this indentation and usually flows beneath the surface.

Slackpacking – Slackpacking is the exact opposite of humping – hikers carry only a small quantity of food, water and gear. This usually happens when somebody else takes care of their luggage for them or they have overnight accommodations in a hut, which gets rid of the need to bring tents along with other heavier items.

Snowpack – An accumulation of snow that has been compressed, solidified and hardened by its own heaviness.

SOBO –  If North Bound is signified by NOBO, then South Bound along a trail can be expressed as SOBO. A common phrase among hikers.

Spork – As a hiker, the combination of a spoon and fork known as “sporks” are all you really need for cutlery. Some even feature serrated edges to serve as knives too. This means that hiking with sporks can become your one-stop shop for dining on the go.

Stealth Camping – If you’re seeking a thrilling adventure, then Stealth Camping is the perfect activity for you. Rather than bush craft camping, which is also great fun—stealth camping adds an extra layer of excitement by needing to remain undetected in your chosen wild location where traditional camping isn’t allowed or common.

Summit – Summit, peak, pinnacle, climax, apex, acme and culmination represent the highest achievable point. To reach a summit is to achieve the most optimal level obtainable.

Switchbacks – Zigzags (known as switchbacks) can be a godsend when tackling steep terrain as they make the descent more manageable, however, they also add to the overall distance of your hike.

Tarp – A tarp, a shortened form of tarpaulin, is a must-have for hikers looking to save weight while on the go. These large and waterproof pieces of fabric are perfect for creating DIY shelters that keep adventurers content and safe during their journey.

The Big Three – For hiking, the three most essential items are your sleeping bag, shelter and backpack – collectively known as The Big 3. To reduce weight for a more comfortable hike, ultralight hikers look for the lightest possible versions of these pieces of gear.

A hiking backpack carrying 'the big three' essential items.

Thru-hiking – The ultimate way to experience a trail is by taking an end-to-end hike! For example, the Appalachian Trail (AT) and the Pacific Coast Trail (PCT) are among two of the most legendary thru-hikes, requiring at least 100 miles per week. The commitment entailed in completing such an ambitious undertaking has earned those who complete it a well deserved title: “thru-hiker.”

Topo – A topographic map is a great tool for anyone who loves to explore the natural features of an area. With this invaluable resource, you can easily learn how to read contour lines and never worry about getting lost again! Increase your confidence when adventuring in unknown areas by understanding how to use these comprehensive maps.

Trail Angels – Trail Angels are the locals who may not be on the trail themselves, but perform kind acts of service and hospitality to those who do traverse it often. Trail Angel activities can include providing van shuttles from a trailhead into town or leaving caches full of snacks and beer along the way.

Trail Cooking – Combining the ease of use, convenience and variety with lightweight outdoor adventuring philosophies, it’s no wonder that this cooking method has become so popular. With minimal equipment needed such as lightweight gear readily available to purchase or make yourself, prepping meals at home using dried ingredients can be placed into zip-top freezer bags for a hassle-free meal on the go.

Trail Head – The start and/or finish of a pathway is referred to as the trailhead. Some trails span multiple states, whereas others just consist of one parking lot situation with free maps for travelers. Signs typically mark these trailheads so that hikers can easily identify where they should begin their journey.

Trail Magic – Along the route, you may encounter delightful surprises left by trail angels or items that have been accidentally misplaced by earlier hikers. Whether it be snacks for energy boosts or essential supplies for your journey, these caches are sure to come in handy.

Trail Name – Whether earned or shrouded in secrecy, thru-hikers on the trail often take on a pseudonym. A moniker or nickname that is usually based off of merit and backstory rather than self-selection gives many hikers a sense of freedom as they traverse their journey. Trail names can also offer anonymity when needed, allowing some to hide behind its title while still enjoying their adventures.

Triple Crown – Earning the “Triple Crown” title requires you to traverse three of the most renowned trails in America: The Appalachian Trail, Pacific Crest Trail and Continental Divide Trail. Such an accomplishment is truly a feat that few have accomplished.

UL – Striving to carry a Base Weight of less than 10lbs, Ultralight backpacking provides various advantages. With fewer items in your bag, you can trek further distances and explore more areas with greater speed — all while maintaining energy levels and reducing the risk of injury. However, this approach does require an increased level of knowledge; an invaluable asset that doesn’t cost anything.

USGS The United States Geological Survey is a stellar organization that offers free topographic maps to any and all individuals in the country. No matter where you are, they have high-quality mapping resources available for everyone.

Waypoints – In its essence, a coordinate is the exact location of a point on earth that can be expressed in either Latitude-Longitude system or UTM (Universal Transverse Mercator). These coordinates are used to pinpoint spots around the globe and make navigation easier.

WFA – Discover how to save a life in the wilderness by taking a Wilderness First Aid course. You will be taught essential knowledge such as wound care, injury treatment, dehydration management techniques and shock prevention in the context of Survival Medicine. Don’t delay – acquire this invaluable skill today.

WFR – Often referred to as a “Woofer,” the Wilderness First Responder (WFR) is someone, like an experienced guide, who has completed intermediate level training in wilderness medical care.

Zero Day – For hikers, ‘taking a zero’ is when they spend two consecutive nights in the same campsite. It gives them an opportunity to catch their breath and recover or hunker down during inclement weather.

Hiking Terms & Acronyms Takeaway

I hope this comprehensive list of hiking terms and acronyms has helped you learn some of the lingo that many of us hiking enthusiasts use on a daily basis.

There’s still plenty more to learn about hiking, and you’ll forever keep on learning throughout your journey of hiking, but hopefully, this will provide a good platform for you to start from.

Mitch Taylor
With over 20 years experience with camping and hiking, I've taken it upon myself to share my insights. From common camping and hiking questions to gear recommendations, your adventure starts here.

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