Hiker Slang

Hiker Slang

We write to taste life twice, in the moment and in retrospect ~ Anais Nin

At a book club recently for my book, Appalachian Trial Happiness, the readers said they wish there had been a glossary.  I had originally had set one up in the book but in the editing process opted to incorporate the terms and definitions.  So here it is as a companion to the book, and hikers please, add terms to the comments that I’ve left out and have a happy day my friends ~ Rev Kane

Approach Trail – The Approach Trail is best skipped in my opinion but many people will take the long stair filled stroll up through Amicalola Falls State Park.  Many people refer to it as the hardest seven miles on the trail.  That’s absolutely psychological, you’re nervous, you’re likely carrying too much weight and without a doubt it’s a hell of a climb.

Aqua Blazing, (Pink, Yellow and Brown Blazing, etc…) – there are a huge array of color related slang to describe the way someone is approaching their hike.  I’m sticking to some of the most frequent ones here. Yellow blazing, usually said with derision, refers to hikers who hitch a ride up the trail and skip parts of the trail.  It’s always interesting to know you’re several days ahead of someone on the trail and then catch up to them again, but in my opinion, hike your own hike.  Pink blazing is an interesting phenomenon, sometimes two people meet on the trail, fall madly in love and become inseparable hiking partners, they are said to be pink blazing.  I’ve also heard it used for a hiker who has changed pace to stick with someone they are crushing on.  Brown blazing is usually linked to an outbreak of Norovirus or other stomach malady and refers to someone who is having to frequently get off trail to use the privy or cat holes due to their ailment.  Finally, Aqua blazing refers to traveling through part of the trail by canoeing, kayaking or rafting down a river and rejoining the trail at the end of the run.  This most often occurs in Virginia but there are several places near the trail where this can be accomplished.

Blue Blaze – A Blue Blaze marks a parallel trail related to the AT.  At times they mark the trails to the shelters or water sources but blue blazes have a very different meaning on the trail.  You see some of the blue blaze trails are trails that are set up to skip around some of the gnarlier parts of the trail.  As such, “blue blazing” ends up being a derogatory term in the hiking community really suggesting that this person is not as much of a hiker as those who only follow white blazes.  The attitude is at complete contrast with the professed philosophy of hike your own hike.  As I read once, can’t remember where, an older hiker, defending his “blue blazing” basically admitted without doing that he’d never make Maine.  I’m a firm believer in the hike your own hike mentality, likely due to my focus on the journey instead of the destination and I did a few blue blaze trails over my 1000 miles.  My first was Albert Mountain, I’m a bad descender and while nursing a bad knee, I blue blazed Albert Mountain. On the profile the descent looked particularly gnarly, honestly on the profile the damn thing looked like a finger pointing up to the sky.  Turned out, as I would hear from others, that the descent was actually not bad. However, not knowing that in advance, it was the call I made. I’ll admit there is a bit of shame in this admission and the purists will look down on me.  A reminder that the less one cares about the opinions of others, the happier you will usually be.

Brown Blazing – (See Aqua Blazing)

My longest hiking partner, Second Star

The Bubble – is a very fluid term, it generally refers to the large grouping of hikers during the most popular times on the trail.  Most spring NOBO’s start between March first and April fifteenth, so that group, due to varying pace ends up being a pulse of hikers that pass through areas of the trail and trail towns together over a three week period.  Of course this happens in reverse with SOBO’s and really a bubble can get created anytime a big group of people end up starting around the same time.  Your bubble becomes you’re extended community, familiar faces to see in towns and on the trail.  You trade news, stories and information about fellow hikers you have in common, it creates a wonderful sense of community.

Cat hole – I’ll admit it, maybe this doesn’t make me a super hiker, but I wasn’t excited about the idea of shitting in a hole in the ground.  A cat hole, is the way you should properly execute this activity, you should dig a hole at least six inches deep, deposit your contribution and toilet paper and then mix it in with a stick and refill the hole with the dirt you removed.  Sort of the way your cat is supposed to treat its litter box.  Given the number of privies on the AT, if you stay around the shelters at night you have access to a privy nearly every night on the trail.  Of course there are nights in campgrounds and stealth camping nights and the occasional privy line that is longer than the time you have to wait.  I become completely comfortable with cat holing in the woods.  My preferred technique when possible was to use a fork shaped downed tree as an improvised privy.  It’s amazing on the trail how quickly you can become ok with just plopping your bare ass down on a mossy log in the forest.

Cowboy Camping – This is old school camping, just laying out under the stars on the ground without the benefit of a tent, shelter or hammock.  People do it, a lot of ultralight folks basically do it every night.  This term always leads me to think about another one, the cowboy shower.  A cowboy shower is effectively an exercise in efficiency, you get into the shower, fully dressed and use the shower and soap to first wash your clothes, piece by piece as you remove them and then finally wash yourself.  Hardly a necessary exercise while hiking the trail but apparently happens often enough that one hostel I stayed in had a prohibition against it.  This was a fascinating hostel with a fascinating list of rules, another was no shitting in the shower, I sometimes really worry about my fellow humans.

Default World/Life – The default world is the world off the trail, the world you belong to in your normal life.  In my opinion, it is the overly scripted world of expectations where you are forced to wear too many masks day to day.  It is in direct opposition to the trail where you can be who you truly feel you are inside, all the time.

Double Blaze – I include this particular definition because of the utter confusion it caused me on the trail.  I asked several other hikers, and then tried to devise the answer for myself by assessing what was happening whenever I saw them.  For a long time, after another hiker told me this, I believed that double blazes signified that we were crossing another trail or road.  The reality is, double blazes signify a sharp turn in the trail, at least that’s the official line.  Because I’ll tell you my friends, I’ve seen trails double blazed with the tiniest of direction changes and have been on hair pin changes on the trail that were not double blazed.  All part of the fun and adventures you have walking up the East Coast of America in the woods.

Flip/Flopping and NOBO/SOBO – refer simply to direction while hiking or thru-hiking.  NOBO is a north bound hiker, SOBO is walking south and a Flip/Flop is when you start somewhere in the middle, go North or South to the end and then flip back to where you started and go the other way.  There is lots of discussion over which way is best, all of it is irrelevant, what’s best is what works for you.  I advocate doing a NOBO hike in the spring if you are attempting a thru-hike.  You get the benefit of a much larger community doing it that way, sure, it’s also a bit crowded at the beginning, but the herd thins out mightily before you hit the half-way point.  When I was hiking south in the summer and encountering NOBO’s I’d hiked with early on, they were often a bit desperate to see other hikers if they were on their own.  It really showed me the absolute importance of community on the trail.  I believe, I don’t know for sure, but basic math seems to show that having that level of community is much more difficult for SOBO thru-hikers to find.

Grasshopper rain – No, grasshopper rain is not grasshoppers falling out of the sky.  But in the spring as you’re walking sometimes you hear the sound of water sprinkling down on the leaves.  It sounds just like rain and because you know it isn’t, you freak out a bit thinking it’s a snake or some other critter.  I heard this sound nearly a dozen times before I finally figured out what it was.  Coming down off of Max Patch at the edge of the field I heard the rain sound, but because of the open nature of the ground, I finally saw what was causing it, grasshoppers.  Hordes of little baby grasshoppers who apparently hatched out together in the spring and as you walk up on them they hop away in a tiny wave.  They are small and well camouflaged, so they are hard to see, but you can hear them hopping across the dried leaves, each little hop like a drop of rain landing on the leaves.

Hike your own hike – this is the most common phrase you will hear hiking on the Appalachian Trail.  What it means is that every person has to do the hike in their own way.  Some people will carry 15 pounds of ultralight gear, hike 20 miles a day and never touch a blue blaze.  Some will carry 72 pounds, hike at night and hike 8 miles a day.  Some people spend a lot of money on nice hotels and expensive meals in town, some sleep in hostels or 6 people in a cheap motel room and eat at Taco Bell.  Some people are on the trail to prove something to others, most to prove something to themselves, some are walking off tragedy and war, and some are trying to change their lives.  None of it matters, everyone is walking the same trail, over the same mountains and everyone has to do it their own way and that’s what the phrase means.  Everyone has to hike their own hike in their own way and it’s ok.  The trail isn’t Utopia, there are flawed humans involved, so sometimes people don’t reflect this attitude, but honestly the majority of hikers I met believed in the idea of hike your own hike.

Hiker Midnight – I’m not a morning person, but that becomes irrelevant on the trail.  Much like folks in the past, on the trail you really end up being a sun up to sundown person whether you want to or not.  First, especially in the spring, daylight hours are still short and you’re not up to your prime hiking speed yet.  So miles are hard to come by and you need most of the daylight to get the miles you’d like to get each day.  Yes, in the beginning that was only eight to ten miles a day, but that often took eight to ten hours to accomplish with breaks for lunch, rest, etc… It would not be uncommon to leave camp around eight in the morning and arrive at your final campsite at four.  The sun goes down early that time of year and even earlier when you’re in a bowl between mountains on the AT.  It would not be unusual in March to lose the sun at a particular site before four in the afternoon.  There’s only so much you can really do in the dark, sure a nice fire at the shelter and some conversation is fun but people are planning to be up by five or six in the morning.  So you end up retiring to your tent/hammock usually by six or seven at night.  Thus the term “hiker midnight”, people disagree on the time, but it is typically eight or nine at night, by this time a hiker camp seems like a town at midnight, almost no one moving about and little noise but the snoring of others, animal calls and the dropping of acorns.

Hiker Trash – in a lot of subcultures, the subculture will take a derogatory term coined by the public and co-opt it for themselves.  We are hiker trash, a term that if said in town by non-hikers is not a compliment.  But it has become a term of endearment between hikers, we are proud to be hiker trash.

Mau and Rev Kane

Hiking the Appalachian Trail – This one is not really trail jargon but something that does come up in conversation.  In 2009, South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford slipped off to South America for a little tryst with his mistress.  During his absence one of the explanations for his disappearance by a staff member was that he was out hiking the Appalachian Trail.   So from time to time when you tell someone you’re about to go hike the trail you’ll get a snicker and a question, “what’s her name?”

Nearos & Zeros – We all go into town, especially after a long swing of four or five days on the trail, not much in life beats a huge meal, a hot shower and an actual bed after you’ve been on the trail for awhile.  A nearo is a day where you do nearly zero miles, a little deceptive because it usually means hiking several miles into town and crashing for the night.  Of course you’re resupplying and don’t have a vehicle so you end up walking another couple of miles in town to get supplies, eat, etc… A zero is when you actually spend two nights in town and that second day do very little but rest.  Of course the same issue persists and often when you plan a zero you crash out the night before and spend the zero day walking all over town to do mail, get supplies and to eat, but at least you’re in camp shoes and not carrying much weight on your back.

Pink Blazing – (See Aqua Blazing)

Ponies (Ponieeeeeessss!!!) – the Grayson Highlands are a highlight for a lot of hikers as there are herds of wild ponies that live on that section of the trail.  I will admit, they are pretty cool, except for the horse shit everywhere.  I went through nearly the entire highlands before I saw my first pony.  I came over a small rock climb in the fog and as I hit the trail on the other side of the rocks, I realized I had a pony standing five feet away staring at me.  There was an entire herd right there with me in the fog, as I went for my camera in my pack one decided I must be digging out food and came and shoved his nose in my chest.  It was cool and a little disconcerting.  However the thing that really caught my attention about the ponies was the reaction of most female hikers.  Apparently that cliché little girl dream of owning a pony is strong in the hiker community.  Female hikers, women I would never have expected this from, would squeal in delight at the thought and the sight of ponieeeeeessss!!!  My friend Second Star, chief among them.

Privy – A privy is basically an outhouse, most of them operate off of basic composting principles and are kept up by local volunteers.  That’s right, that’s how amazing some people are, they actually volunteer to take care of outhouses so other people can have a comfortable place to relieve themselves.  Privies on the AT range from the utterly disgusting to some much nicer than you can possible imagine.  In part of Pennsylvannia the shelter keepers do an amazing job, not just keeping them clean but making the attractive.  Fake light switches, hand sanitizer, one even provided toilet paper, basically something unheard of on the trail.

Some are really well constructed, comfortable and in amazing locations, some were obviously built for pygmies in Africa and transported to the AT.  A couple of times they were so small I couldn’t close the door, one was so short on the sides that when you stood up after concluding your business you could say hi to the two female elementary school teachers who set their tent up near the privy.  I’m not complaining, both of those privies were better than squatting on a log.

Some of the privies were actually quite nice, particularly because of the view.  There were a few mornings sitting on the privy and watching the sun coming up was a damn pleasurable experience.  I’ve heard tell, didn’t see it myself, that some are made for making friends.  It is rumored that one privy in Maine is a double seater with a cribbage board between the seats.

Privy etiquette takes a bit of getting used to, each seems to have its own set of rules.  The one at Standing Bear Farm has a little sign you flip down.  The privy is great and even has a Plexiglas window on the door.  I remember that well because a female hiker missed the sign and came right up the stairs to the door, looked at me and being a nice person I of course said, “good morning.”  She blushed every time we crossed paths on the trail for the next couple of months.

Purist – A purist, and almost everyone attempting a thru-hike is a purist when they start, is someone who plans on seeing every white blaze, no blue blazing, no yellow blazing, no aqua blazing.  Taken to the extreme a purist will not miss an inch of the trail being careful to walk right back to the point on the trail where they walked off before starting again.  Very few hikers remain purists too far into a thru-hike attempt.  I compare what happens on the trail to the old boxing adage, everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face. We all start out with grand ideas and a romanticized vision of what the trail will be like.  Most lose those idealized visions once they are slapped with cold, rain, mud, ice, snow, heat, rocks and all manner of challenges that both make hiking the AT a giant pain in the ass as well as the most magnificent challenge you’ll ever undertake.

The Rage – the rage isn’t a widely used term but the concept is something we all experience on the trail.  At some point, I was never really sure what triggered it, I would hike days and nothing would happen and then I’d be out for two days and it would hit.  What is it?  The rage, that crazy insatiable hunger that suddenly overtakes you on the trail.  Given that you are burning four to six thousand calories a day and most days eating two to three thousand at best, you are always in a calorie deficit on the trail.  At some point your body has to recoup those calories, usually those are called town days.  In town I’ve seen some impressive feats of eating, my buddy Shaggy crushed an eighteen ounce hiker burger in Hot Springs, my friend Awesome crushed five Big Mac, fries and a two-liter coke on a town day.  Full pizzas per person, followed by desert and a milkshake was not uncommon. When the rage hits on the trail you turn into a bottomless pit, an eating machine.  In the Shenandoah National Park when the rage hit I ate over ten thousand calories in thirty-six hours, much to the horror of a section hiker who had recently started hiking with us.  The only reason I didn’t eat more that day was that I needed to leave some food for the next day or I’d be out of food, I was still very hungry when I went to bed.

Ridge Runner – I met about a half a dozen ridge runners on my hike.  For the most part they were really cool and helpful folks.  They are people who are usually being paid to hike along the trail, help out hikers and report any issues to the appropriate folks regarding wildlife, trail maintenance etc… They also in some areas have responsibility for enforcing shelter stay rules.

Safety Meeting – I was introduced to the concept of the safety meeting in the summer of 2004 at the Burning Man festival in the Nevada Desert.  One of my campmates was walking around one morning letting folks know there would be a safety meeting in ten minutes behind his trailer.  Now, we had a pretty organized camp but a safety meeting, really, what were we, affiliated with OSHA?  One of my other campmates saw the confusion on my face, laughed and asked me if I smoked pot.  Didn’t take me too long after that to connect the dots, especially when she returned a little while later relaxed and glassy eyed.

Section Hiker – as opposed to doing a thru-hike, section hikers are folks who are doing the full Appalachian Trail, one section at a time.  A section can be, 40 miles or in the case of LASHERS and BASHERS (Long-ASS, or Big-Ass Section Hikers) people doing hundreds of miles in a single swipe.  These folks have my absolute admiration, taking years and sometimes decades to complete the entire trail shows a level of dedication I have a hard time imagining.  In talking with them, they confirmed my initial thoughts, that usually about the time they got fully into hiking shape it’s time to go home.

Slack Packing – This is probably the one term I get asked about the most when I use it around non-hikers.  Slack packing is very simply hiking with a day pack instead of your full pack.  This can happen in a variety of ways but typically you’ll pay a hostel owner to drive you up the road some set of miles and then hike back to the hostel with only a day pack on, either with your own pack nearly empty or sometime hostels have day packs that you can borrow.  It’s a nice break from carrying a full pack and you can move really fast and cover a lot of miles on those days.  The next day the hostel owner drops you off at the same point and you continue on up the trail from that point.  I did a lot of slack packing due to my injury, I slack packed back to Mountain Harbour B&B the day after I first hurt my knee.  A side note, Mountain Harbour B&B has the most incredibly breakfast buffet you will ever sample.  I also did a lot of slack packing while rehabbing my knees in NY with my family.  I slacked all of Massachusetts during that time. But by far my luckiest bit of slack packing was due to my friend Backtrack who returned to the trail with an RV for the sole reason of slackpacking some of his fellow hikers.

Thru-hike – A thru-hike is most easily defined as walking the entire length of the Appalachian Trail in one relatively continuous time period.  Of course, as with anything it gets more complicated than that.  To get your certificate of completion from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC), you are supposed to have walked the entire length of the trail (except in cases of extreme danger, weather, fire, etc…).  The ATC doesn’t care how long this took and once you’ve completed it you get a 2000 miler certificate.  Within the hiking community you will hear all manner of twists and variation on this idea.  Some will tell you as long as you’ve done 2000 miles and gone end to end that’s good enough.  Others will tell you for a “thru-hike” it has to be completed in 12 months.  I’m sure there are variations I’m not aware of and honestly I never cared.  If you walk this trail from end to end, in any order, over any amount of time you’re amazing.  Personally I think the continuous time piece needs to be there to be consider a thru-hiker, but it’s a semantic game and my thought has always been let people call themselves whatever they want, your accomplishments are your own, hike your own hike.

Trail Angels and Trail Magic – I often talk about trail community, that community extends well beyond the folks who are actually on the trail hiking.  The towns along the trail, the hostel owners, the outfitters and of course the Trail Angels.  Trail Angels are folks who help hikers by providing trail magic.  I was more cynical of humanity when I went out on the trail than I am now.  I have the kindness of trail angels to thank for that change in me.  Trail angels offer trail magic in the form of free rides, free food, and in some instances even free places to stay or any other small kindness that a hiker needs.  They are truly angels, there isn’t a much better feeling than turning a corner on a hot day and seeing a cooler sitting next to the trail, opening the lid and finding cold drinks and snacks.

Trail Candy/Vitamin I – Ibuprofen, a hiker’s best friend, I almost shouldn’t admit how much trail candy I gobbled down on the trail, particularly after my knee injury.  But trail candy is a necessary evil when you’re beating on your body for hours and hours every day, day after day walking over mountains with weight on your back for months at a time.  I became particularly fond of the various ibuprofen PM mixtures that give you a little spike of anti-histamine to get you just drowsy enough to slip into sleep at night.

Trail Name – One of the first things anyone talks about with AT hikers is your trail name?  Sometimes people come to the trail with a trail name, this was the case with me.  Although given my resemblance to him, I really wanted to go with Yukon Cornelius but instead went with Reverend Kane, which became Rev Kane on the trail.  I did this for reasons of continuity with my work with the Ministry of Happiness.  A lot of people get their trail name on the trail due to things that happen on the trail.  There are a lot of people named backtrack for obvious reasons, fall down a hill and land in a burst of dirt and dust and voila, you look like Pig Pen from the Peanuts.  Sometimes you get renamed mid-hike whether you want to or not.  I met a hiker in the Shenandoah National Park, who kept getting caught in the vortex of places with comfortable seating and inexpensive, cold beer.  I renamed him Vortex  but the name didn’t stick.  Trail names are important though as it allows both the ability to communicate and be located on the trail but also allows you to remain relatively anonymous and separated from your life back in the default world.

Triple Crowner – These are the kings and queens of the hiking world.  The Triple Crown is thru-hiking the Appalachian (AT), Pacific Crest (PCT) and Continental Divide (CDT) Trails in the United States.  The AT is roughly 2190 miles, the PCT is roughly 2660 and the CDT is roughly 3100 miles long, so that’s 7950 miles to have hiked all three.  That of course doesn’t include the extra miles to camp sites, resupplies, interesting diversions and training hikes.  I’ve met a few triple crowners, they have a tendency to be very modest about the achievement and they are truly the hiking elite, and hell to keep up with on the trail as well.

Vortex – A vortex on the trail is someplace that has the tendency to suck hikers in and delay, and in some case permanently grab a hiker and keep him/her off of the trail.  There are a number of towns on the trail that have a reputation for this, Hot Springs, NC and Damascus, VA among some of the early ones.  In the Shenandoah National Park the waysides in the park, full of hot food, cold drinks and comfortable seating can have this effect.  However, I’ve met folks at hostels who walked in one year and didn’t leave for five years, folks who do work for stay and remain in place for a few days, a week or a season.  The lure of comfort and trail community off the trail can be dangerous combinations to thru-hiking ambitions.

White Blaze – The simplest definition is the mark that is used to indicate the path of the Appalachian Trail.  But White Blazes become so much more than that, they come to symbolize the freedom and dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail.  They guide our way and become a symbol of trail life.  The amazing thing to me is how the search image for White Blazes becomes such a priority in your brain even after being on the trail for a time.  I’ve spotted blazes on the sides of roads that I have driven my whole life and never realized crossed the trail.  White Blazes also become comfort during those times on the trail when you suddenly think your lost, one little white rectangle and you’re relieved and happy again.

Widow maker – A widow maker is a broken or dead branch or a dead tree that has the potential to come down and injure or kill a hiker.  Heading out on my thru-hike attempt widow makers and lightning strikes were my two biggest fears.  This is a very real risk on the trail, in May of 2015 a hiker was killed by a falling tree in a Maryland campground.  I took this risk very seriously, there were nights that I noticed a widow maker after setting up my hammock and had to take down and redo my entire set up.  Early in the trip, in the first campground in the Smoky Mountain National Park, during a particularly violent thunderstorm, I hear a sound I couldn’t identify between the sounds of the rain and thunder.  When I got up in the morning I quickly saw what the noise was, a 40 foot tree had been uprooted and fallen right in the middle of the campground.  Amazingly, it fell in between the two bear cable set ups and away from some other campers, landing about 15 feet from my set up.  Between the storm and aggressive bear warnings signs, that was one of the more sleepless nights on the trail.  The campground would later be closed due to the aggressive bear situation.

Wind Rain – Rain sucks on the trail, you get used to it, it’s a welcome break in the hot months but getting wet sucks.  Given that most of us are wearing trail runners and not waterproof boots our feet get really wet and I really hate wet socks.  This, I knew well before I started my thru-hike attempt but on my hike a coined a new term for a particular condition.  Imagine, you slept through a rainy night, you’re excited in the morning because the rain has stopped.  Great, I won’t need rain gear today and it’s cooled off, a great morning for a hike.  As you’re walking a wind gust comes up and bam, you’re wet.  Now you’re not soaked but wind rain is the water that is on the leaves of trees after a storm that gets brought down in wind gusts.  No matter how well you know this, it always catches you by surprise, nothing like ice cold drops of water dropping down the back of your neck on a chilly AT morning.

Yellow Blazing – (See Aqua Blazing)

Yogi-ing – Is a particular skill that most hikers develop on the trail.  It’s the ability to be both utterly fascinating and utterly pathetic to the general public.  You’re hope, and this really works best in state and national parks, is to spike people’s fascination with what you’re doing and engender enough sympathy that they pass on a little food, drink or a ride in return for your stories.  The concept comes from the old Yogi the Bear cartoons, Yogi was always in search of a lovely picnic basket purloined from the tourists in Jellystone National Park

Zeros and Nearos – (See Nearos)

Rev Kane on his arrival at Amicalola Falls State Park

Some Other Adventure Posts You Might Enjoy!

Appalachian Trail Happiness: Trail Community

Appalachian Trail Happiness: Reader’s Favorite Posts

Quitting the Appalachian Trail

My Favorite Appalachian Trail Photos of 2015

Appalachian Trail Happiness: Precious Moments

About Michael Kane

Michael Kane is a writer, photographer, educator, speaker, adventurer and a general sampler of life. His books on hiking and poetry are available in soft cover and Kindle on Amazon.
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