Hiking Terms You Need to Know

Like so many sports and activities, backpacking and hiking have a language all their own. While some of the terms are descriptive and easy to understand, others are more esoteric and even downright bizarre! Die-hard hikers bamboozling you with trail lingo? Read on for an explanation of common hiking and backpacking lingo. You’ll soon know your tarp from your bivouac and your GORP from your spork.

Hiking Clothes

Base layer

Active underwear designed to keep you warm and dry. A base layer may become your outer layer if you get too warm.


An artificial material that is light, warm and insulating. Fleece dries quickly and is sometimes treated so as to be windproof. Fleece makes for an excellent mid layer on cold days or outer layer on warmer days.


Sleeves worn over your boots that come up to just below your knees to keep water out. Gaiters are useful when hiking through snow, long wet vegetation or crossing streams.


Wearing several layers of clothing makes it easier to stay warm. You can wear two, three or even four layers if it is very cold. Warm air is trapped between the layers which act as insulation. When layering, you can add or remove clothing to easily regulate your temperature.

Outer layer

The term used to describe your water/wind proofs although could be fleece or similar if the weather is fine. On dry days, your outer layer may be safely stowed in your back pack


Material that keeps you warm and dry by directing sweat away from your skin and through the material for easy evaporation. Cotton, for example, soaks up sweat and stays wet whereas a wicking material will not. Wicking materials make for an ideal base layer.

Outdoor & Hiking Gear


A device that indicates your height above sea level. Some altimeters use air pressure while more modern ones use information from satellites.

Day Pack

A small rucksack no bigger than around 30 liters designed to hold enough supplies for a single day’s hiking.

External frame pack

A rucksack or backpack that is attached to an L-shaped frame. External frame packs usually have a ledge for attaching a rolled sleeping bag or tent.

Internal frame pack

A backpack where the supportive framework is on the inside. Internal frame packs are more common and popular than the somewhat outdated external frame packs.

Lumbar pad

The part of a back pack that rests against your lower back. A well-designed lumbar pad can make all the difference between a comfortable pack and one that is a painful nightmare to wear.


When weight is important, a hiker may use choose to carry a spork instead of carrying a fork, spoon and knife for eating. This all-in-one eating implement saves all of a few ounces so is really not an effective way of cutting weight but if you are a minimalist hiker, a spork is one way to streamline your equipment list.

Food & Drink


Food or water supplies left by friends or family at prearranged spots on the trial so you can resupply during a hike. On a long hike this saves you having to carry all your supplies the whole way or having to buy supplies on route.

Camel up

Drinking lots of water whenever you find it rather than carrying water with you on your hike. It’s never a good idea to not carry any water with you but as water is heavy, it makes sense to carry only what you need and drink water from safe sources whenever you come across them on the trail.


Short for “good old raisins and peanuts” and a common trail food that provides lots of energy while taking up relatively little space.


Dried meat or fish that does not require refrigeration to keep it edible. Jerky is an ideal trail food and you can make your own.



Hiking at altitude can be tough. The higher you are, the less oxygen there is in the air. This is sometimes called “thin air” although this is an inaccuracy. Acclimation is the process of spending time at progressively higher altitudes to get used to walking in thin air. With acclimation, your body becomes better able to function using less oxygen by increasing the number of red blood cells in your body. Athletes call this altitude training.

Altitude Sickness

Going too high too fast can cause altitude sickness. Symptoms of altitude sickness include a throbbing headache, nausea and lack of appetite, difficulty sleeping, weakness and dizziness. Altitude sickness normally comes on within six to 24-hours and affects some people more than others. It usually abates once you descend to less dizzying heights.


Loss of body fluid resulting in a drop off in performance. Symptoms of dehydration include thirst, dry mouth, weakness, dizziness, confusion, unconsciousness and even death. For this reason, you should always drink plenty of water when hiking – even on cold days.


Normal body temperature is around 98.6 F (37 C). You’re hypothermic if your body temperature drops below 95 F (35 C). It’s worth knowing the symptoms of hypothermia. Hyperthermia is a serious condition. If you suspect you or one of your group is suffering from hypothermia, gently warm them up again and seek medical assistance.

Vitamin I

Hiking can leave you sore and tired. Vitamin I is trial-speak for ibuprofen, a common non-steroidal anti inflammatory drug that is favored by hikers. Vitamin I can be used to relieve minor aches and pains but should not be used to mask injuries or taken above recommended intake levels.

Widow maker

Trees or tree branches that are prone to falling in high winds and may cause serious injury. Walking through heavily wooded areas in high winds is not recommended for this reason.


Bear Country

Areas where bears are common. Grrr.

Bog bridge

A raised platform, usually permanent, to allow for safe and easy crossing of wetlands and bogs. Usually found on marked trails.


The uppermost point where the two sides of a slope meet. A ridge can be very narrow and exposed or wide and friendly. Many trails follow ridges.


The lowermost point where two sides of a slope meet. The sides can be steep or shallow and the saddle may be wide or narrow depending on location. Saddles are prone to flooding and snow drifts so negotiate with caution.

Wind chill

Temperatures drop significantly when it’s windy. For example, if it is 45-degrees Fahrenheit and the wind is blowing at 20-miles per hour, the wind chill-adjusted temperature will be 37-degrees Fahrenheit. Because of wind chill, it will be colder on exposed ridges than in sheltered saddles.

Sleeping & Shelter


A temporary shelter made from a tarp or from branches, leaves or palm fronds. Often used when hiking in good weather when a tent is unnecessary. A bivouac, sometimes called a bivi, may also be used for emergency shelter.

Bivi bag

A sleeping bag cover that will keep you dry and warm when used over a regular sleeping bag. Some weight-conscious back packers may use a bivi bag rather than carry a tent.

Closed cell mattress

A foam insulating pad on which to sleep. Very light, a closed cell sleeping mattress can make for a much more comfortable night’s sleep and provides not only padding but can help keep you warm by providing a barrier between your body and the cold ground.

Cowboy camping

Camping without a tent and sleeping under the stars. This may or may not also involve making a bivouac, cooking on an open fire or making cowboy coffee – coffee brewed without the use of a filter or percolator.


Fluffy feather-like material used to fill jackets and sleeping bags. Down is a very effective insulator that is light and packs down very small. However, down loses its insulating properties when it gets wet and must be washed using specialist detergent.

Dry camp

A camp where there is no ready water supply. If you are approaching and intending to stop overnight at a dry camp, it is important you gather as much water as is practical so you have enough for your needs.

Fire pit

An area of ground that is de-turfed and dug out to a depth of several inches so that a fire can be built. The pit prevents the fire from spreading inadvertently. Once the fire has gone out, the turfs are replaced so that there is minimal sign of a fire having been lit.

Hiker midnight

Because there is little in the way of artificial lighting in the wilds, hiking days tend to end early and start early and are regulated by daylight. Hiker midnight is around 9pm or about an hour after dark.

Mummy sleeping bag

A sleeping bag that is tapered at the feet and has a zip down the front rather than to the side. Most mummy sleeping bags also have a hood for extra warmth. Regular rectangular sleeping bags are cheaper but are usually heavier, take up more space and are not as warm although the can be unzipped and spread out.


A large waterproof plastic or nylon sheet that can be used as something to sit or lie on or to provide overhead cover instead of a tent and often carried by cowboy campers.

Type of Adventure


Cutting a trial through dense vegetation rather than following a designated path. Bushwhacking makes for slow and often painful progress but can result in finding places that are otherwise undiscoverable.

Slack packing

Hiking with little in the way of urgency. Slack packers have no fixed schedule, have no deadlines to meet or daily mileage goals to hit. Slack packing is a very Zen-like form of hiking.

Stealth camp

Camping without leaving any ground sign. Hikers who camp in non-authorized places such as farmland are likely to stealth camp to avoid detection. It could be argued that all camps should be stealth camps has the first law of hiking is LNT – leave no trace.

You’ll Only Find it Hiking

Bear box/canister/bag

Bears are attracted to the scent of food. A bear box/canister/bag is a receptacle for food that is usually suspended from or between trees on a rope away from your camp to avoid attracting bears to your area. Some trails boast bear lines which are preset cords between trees specifically for hanging bear boxes.


Short for Leave No Trace. LNT is one of the “laws” of camping and hiking and describes how you should leave nothing behind, especially trash, when you hike. Even discarded food can create imbalances in the ecosystem and animals can choke on plastic food wrappers. Glass bottles can cause fires when the sun hits them as they can act like magnifying glasses. Take everything home with you that you take hiking – even if you no longer want it.


A reference to the awesome, classic TV series, to MacGyver means to do running repairs on hiking equipment using other items of equipment e.g. repairing your tent with bootlaces.

Mountain money

Hiking slang for toilet paper. It is only when you run out of toilet paper that you come to realize just how valuable it actually is. Always carry enough toilet paper!


A patch that zigzags uphill to make the ascent/descent easier. It’s much harder (and often more dangerous) to walk straight up or down a steep hill. This is also called contouring.

Trail magic

Random acts of kindness when hiking. For example, helping a hiker you meet on the trial repair their tent or giving a stranger some food or water.


A generally unpleasant stretch of hiking. This may be because you are tired, the surroundings are dull or the weather is unpleasant.


Like the famous bear, a Yogi is a hiker who scrounges food from tourists and other hikers. Being a Yogi is okay if an emergency has robbed you of your food but is frowned upon if it is a regular occurrence.

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