June 25, 2018 / Comments (0)

Hiker Lingo: Learning the Language of the Trails

Every hobby comes with its own jargon, and hiking is no exception. But if you’re new to the trails, or you’ve been at it awhile and still come across some terms you don’t recognize, here’s a list of common terms you might encounter.
  • Access trail – a trail connecting a primary trail, campground or parking area to a main trail
  • Alpine zone – habitat that occurs above treeline, at approximately 4,900 feet, primarily within the Franconia and Presidential Range in NH; endures high winds, precipitation, cloud cover, and fog which results in low annual temperatures and a short growing season
  • Appalachian Trail (AT) – a 2,190-mile trail between Springer Mountain, GA and Mount Katahdin in Maine
  • Ascent – a climb to the summit
  • Blaze – a mark left along trees, rocks, etc. that indicates the direction of a trail; purists refer to a blaze as the notches in trees that are then painted, but most people refer to blazes as any trail markings
  • Blowdown – a tree that has fallen across the trail
  • Bushwhack – hiking where there is no marked trail
  • Cairn (pronounced kayrne) – a rock structure intended to delineate the direction of a trail (i.e. a trailmarker), typically placed where suitable trees are absent
  • Cathole – a small hole dug to deposit human waste
  • CO – shorthand for Conservation Officer, which are assigned to each district in the state of New Hampshire; in other areas may be referred to as Environmental Police or similar terms
  • Continental Divide National Scenic Trail (CDT) –  a 3,100-mile trail between the Mexican and Canadian borders following the US Continental Divide along the Rocky mountains.
  • Cowboy camping – camping with only your sleeping bag and pad under the stars, rather than under the shelter of a tent or lean-to
  • Descent – hiking downward from the summit
  • Dirtbag – nickname often given to avid outdoors people
  • Elevation gain – the difference in elevation between the trailhead and the summit (or other ending point) considered over the distance traveled; a greater elevation gain over a short distance would indicate a steep/difficult hike, while that same gain over a longer distance would indicate a more moderate grade and easier hike
  • False peak – a dastardly trick played on you by a smaller peak, which FEELS like the peak until you get there and realize that you can see the ACTUAL peak from here and still have more climbing to do.
  • Gaiters – fit over the lower leg & top of your hiking boots to keep rocks, pebbles, snow & some amount of water from getting inside
  • GORP – good old raisins & peanuts
  • HYOH – Hike Your Own Hike, hikerspeak for “you do you”
  • Krummholz – “crooked wood” in German, it’s the stunted, malformed vegetation found in subalpine zones that tend to grow horizontally rather than vertically
  • Lean-to – a three-sided shelter with a slanted roof that provides minimal shelter from the elements
  • Long Trail (LT) – a 272-mile trail that follows the main ridge of the Green Mountains from the Massachusetts-Vermont border to the Canadian border and crosses Vermont’s highest peaks
  • Leave No Trace (LNT) – a philosophy designed to tread as lightly as possible when you enjoy the outdoors by “leaving no trace” of your activities behind you
  • NOBO – on a long-distance hike, refers to hikes headed northbound
  • Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) –  a 2,650-mile trail between the Mexican and Canadian Border
  • Peakbagging – hiking a collection of peaks, which are typically related to one another in some way (i.e. NH 4,000 Footers)
  • Postholing – when hiking through deep snow (especially when it’s fresh), refers to having most if not all of your leg become buried in the snow with each step. The result is a hole left in the snow. Post-holing is not only exhausting, but is frowned upon as the resulting holes can become dangerous for other hikers.
  • Redlining – to hike all of the trails in a specific area (i.e. all of the trails in the White Mountain Guide)
  • Register – a log book often but not always found at the trailhead where hikers can sign in. It can be helpful to sign them in case of emergency, as they can help rescuers determine when and where a hiker signed in.
  • SAR – Search and Rescue
  • Scramble – climbing up steep typically rocky terrain using your hands
  • Section hike – to hike longer distance trails in shorter segments rather than in one contiguous effort
  • SOBO – on a long-distance hike, refers to hikes headed southbound
  • Switchbacks – when a trail heads up a steep section of a hill in a zig-zag pattern instead of a straight line. This pattern not only reduces the grade for the hiker, but more importantly reduces erosion along the trail.
  • Thru-hike – hiking a long-distance trail end-to-end in one contiguous effort
  • Trailhead – the beginning of a trail, which is often but not always marked but a kiosk and /or parking area
  • Topo map – a map that provides details on relief as well as other features of the land (i.e. waterways). Contour lines on a topo map show elevation, with circles indicating equal elevation. Lines that are closer together indicate a steep change in elevation, while lines that are farther apart indicate a more moderate change in elevation.
  • WFA/WFR (pronounced “woofa” & “woofer”) – Wilderness First Aid/Wildnerness First Responder

Common Abbreviations for local agencies & nonprofits

  • AMC – Appalachian Mountain Club
  • ATC – Appalachian Trail Conservancy
  • DOI – Department of the Interior
  • GMNF – Green Mountain National Forest
  • NOLS – National Outdoor Leadership School, an organization based in the western US offering courses in a variety of outdoor fields, including rock-climbing, wilderness medicine, outdoor education, backpacking, mountaineering, and more.
  • NPS – National Park Service
  • SCA – Student Conservation Association, with an office in Charlestown, NH, their goal is to create the next generation of conservation leaders and they place students in a variety of ecological positions and internships throughout the world
  • SOLO – Stonehearth Open Learning Opportunities, an organization in Conway, NH offering courses in wilderness medicine
  • SPNHF – Society for the Protection of New Hampshire Forests, also known locally as the Forest Society
  • TNC – The Nature Conservancy
  • Trailwrights – a New England-based, all-volunteer organization that builds, maintains, and advocates for ecologically sound trails throughout the region
  • USGS – United States Geological Survey, which produces topographic maps and manages waterways, minerals, energy, and other resources that we rely on, as well as study the impacts of climate change on the Earth’s ecological processes.
  • USFS – United States Forest Service, which oversees 154 national forests and 20 grasslands in 43 states and Puerto Rico totaling 193 million acres.
  • USFWS – United States Fish & Wildlife Service, which enforces federal wildlife laws, protects threatened & endangered species, manages migratory birds, conserves fisheries &  wildlife habitat, manages our wildlife refuge system, helps with international conservation efforts & distributes grant funding throughout the country to fish & wildlife agencies.
  • WMNF – White Mountain National Forest – located in northeastern New Hampshire and western Maine, the WMNF protects more than 149,000 acres of land and hosts over 1,200 miles of hiking trails, including 160 miles of the Appalachian Trail


Heard any other terms that confuse you or that you aren’t sure you’ve figured out? Think there are others we should add to this list? Hit us up and let us know – we’re always happy to help!

Last modified: June 25, 2018

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