Avid outdoorists are often guilty of getting so immersed in the culture of outdoor recreation that we throw around technical and highly specialized terms as if the whole world uses them in casual conversation. Usually, they don’t. Sorry about that. So we thought we’d throw together a quick backpacking dictionary full of commonly used hiking terms so if you’re new to the whole trail slang thang, you can nod knowingly when someone talks about getting beta for their thru-hike where they might have to do some bushwhacking and hope they don’t have to call SAR if they lose sight of the cairns. See what we mean? So read up and a carry on a hiking convo like a pro!
When you hike into the wilderness with all the food, gear and clothing you need to survive in a backpack for at least one night in the backcountry. Backpacking can describe trips of one night to 100 nights or more and involves sleeping outdoors with no amenities like toilets, running water or electricity. Read our article Backpacking 101 – an Intro Guide to Backpacking here.
This term is used to describe any area of wilderness that must be hiked/skied/cycled into and is not accessible by car, nor does it have access to electricity or utility services.
This term is often used to describe areas closer to developed regions. Think campgrounds, hiking trails and more that are easily accessible by vehicle or day hike.
Any hike that lasts less than 24 hours and doesn’t involve sleeping in the backcountry. A day hike could be a 1-mile walk on an urban trail or an 18-mile hike through the mountains as long as it takes less than a day.
This is when you sleep without a tent, hammock or other shelter: just you, your sleeping bag, and sleeping pad on the ground under the stars.
This term can mean different things depending on who you ask: either sleeping in a car that you’ve outfitted for the purpose (think mattress in the back) or frontcountry camping that simply involves pulling your car up to a campsite and setting up your tent.
Any one-way hike that takes a backpacker multiple days or months to complete. They are often long enough to require supply drops in order to restock food and other necessities and involve ending fairly far from where you started. The most famous thru-hikes are the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the Appalachian Trail (AT), and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), each of which requires several months on average to finish, but there are much shorter thru-hikes that take days or weeks, too.
This is when hikers complete sections of a thru-hike over an extended period of time, sometimes hiking just a few days or weeks a season for many years in a row, usually with the goal of completing the full length of a long trail like the AT, PCT or CDT in chunks over years instead of months.
Used to describe hiking or backpacking a trail with the intent of covering as many miles as possible in whatever time the hiker has allotted for themselves. It usually involves ultralight gear and little time spent enjoying scenery or relaxing. The goal is to complete a trail quickly, often incorporating trail running or attempts to set speed records, also known as FKTs.
Fastest Known Time. This is the fastest official time in which a person has completed a trail or section of trail. A speed record.
Ultralight hikers and backpackers are those who strive to carry as little weight as possible on outdoor excursions, the idea being that a lighter load allows you to hike farther and faster with less discomfort than a heavy pack. Often, ultralight packing sacrifices comfort for weight savings.
This describes a mountainous area, usually fairly high in elevation, where trees do not grow. It typically means you will be exposed and unprotected from the elements.
A more popular term with climbers than hikers, beta is first-hand info you get from others who have previously completed the hike you’re about to take. Good beta might include an experienced hiker’s recommendations for good routes, direction of travel, or what gear would be good to bring.
This involves hiking off-trail, usually in undeveloped wilderness areas where there may not even be any trails to begin with. It requires navigational skills and usually traveling through dense trees or brush to get from point A to point B.
Stacks of rocks on a desert trail. They are there to show you the way when signs or painted blazes on trees aren’t an option and are usually found in sparse, rocky landscapes. Because they are sometimes used as a navigational tool, you should never stack rocks for fun or relaxation in the outdoors.
The 6-8″ hole you must dig in order to poop in the woods. You can also bury toilet paper in a cathole with your solid waste.
Leave No Trace
Seven principles to live by and a series of outdoor ethics that all outdoorists should observe any time they are outdoors. Here is an article breaking down all 7 principles of Leave No Trace. In essence, it means “Leave it better than you found it.”
This stands for “Search and Rescue.” It’s trained outdoor emergency personnel who respond to distress calls from outdoorists who get lost or injured in the wilderness.
Someone who lives life simple and (often) dirty in the great outdoors. Think living in a van so you can spend all day every day rock climbing, living out of the back of your car on long road trips, not showering for days or weeks at a time while backpacking, or someone who lives in a bunk-style cabin in order to work as a guide. It’s usually a term of pride and endearment. “Just living the dirtbag life.”
Did you find this list of hiking terms helpful? Have a head full of handy backpacking definitions? Are there any terms you’re still unsure of? Drop us a comment! Then get out there and wander on!
Alisha is a freelance outdoor journalist and photographer based in Ogden, UT. She loves backpacking, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking and snowboarding (even though she’s terrible at it). She’s also pretty sure she’s addicted to coffee. alishamcdarris.com