If you’ve ever had a lengthy conversation with a long-distance hiker chances are good you’ve heard a number of terms you didn’t recognize right away. And maybe you got the gist of what they meant based on the context of the conversation, or you actually asked for a definition. Or maybe you just let them continue on and took a wild guess at what they meant (which can be amusing). This post is meant for those of you who fall into the latter category or those who wish to avoid that scenario altogether, and it’s going to define several of the most-used trail terms used on long-distance hikes.
** Important Note: In several instances below I used a specific definition from another site or organization to best explain a term. I have clearly labeled those uses and created a link to the original site for reference.**
Long-Distance Hiking Terms Defined
- Thru-hike: This may seem like a no-brainer, but I’m including it for my readers who may be dipping their toes into the world of long-distance hiking for the first time, and you might be surprised how many people asked me what a thru-hike was when I talked about my Appalachian Trail trip. A thru-hike is a hike of a long-distance trail end-to-end in one hiking season.
- Flip-Flop Hike: A flip-flop hike is a type of thru-hike during which a hiker hikes a trail in one direction for a period of time, then goes to the other end and finishes the trail hiking in the opposite direction.
- Trail magic: The Appalachian Trail Conservancy defines trail magic as an unexpected act of kindness. Most hikers refer to it simply as a gift from strangers and other hikers. Trail magic can take pretty much any form, from getting a hitchhike into town to a cooler of cold drinks at a trail head to a real bed and hot shower at someone’s house. The Pacific Crest Trail Association has a bit of a broader definition and states that, “trail magic is an act of goodwill you can perform or a remarkable moment that you might experience (on the trail).” By this definition, finding what you need in the hiker box exactly when you need it and meeting your future spouse at a shelter on the trail can both be deemed trail magic.
- Trail angel: The Awesome Foundation provides the perfect (in my opinion) definition of a trail angel; That is “someone who provides help, transportation, lodging, or food to a hiker.” Trail angels were literal angels for me along the Appalachian Trail many times, getting me into town to my drop-box before the post office closed and making me a guest in their home where I could shower and do laundry at no cost. They boosted my spirits and restored my faith in humanity, and I don’t mean that in a dramatic way at all. When you’re sick and tired of seeing the ugliness in people and you want to scream in frustration at all the hate and negativity in the human race go for a long-distance hike. You’ll meet strangers in towns you’ve never heard of, people you’ll never see again in your life that will show you that there is still love and kindness and GOODNESS in the world we live in.
- Drop-box: Obviously when you’re hiking 100+ miles at a time you have to resupply. Drop-boxes are resupply boxes you can choose to pack with food and toiletries, etc. and mail ahead to yourself when you start your hike. This usually means spending little to money in the towns you receive the box(es) and can be helpful. Many hikers choose to just resupply as needed in each town and not fool with drop-boxes, others use a combination. I left 8-10 boxes with my parents to mail to me as I hiked, but at times they were inconvenient because of the post office hours or wanting others items than what was packed. When I do my next thru-hike I’ll most likely just resupply in town regularly and only mail two or three drop-boxes.
- Blue-Blazing: The Appalachian Trail is clearly marked with white vertical rectangles, aka white blazes, but it also includes blue blazes to indicate side trails or alternate routes. Mark Kelley further defines it, “A Blue Blaze is a spur trail branching off of the Appalachian Trail. Blue blazed trails could lead to a vista, water source, shelter or campground, or some unusual natural feature. The blue blazed trails may be dead ends, so that it would be an out and back walk to something like a vista. Or, a blue blaze can be an alternate route of the Appalachian Trail, and you could leave the trail and then rejoin it a mile or two further down the path.”
- Yellow-Blazing: When a hiker chooses to yellow-blaze it means they skip a section of trail via walking, driving, or hitchhiking roads. This can be because they are having difficulty with the challenging terrain, the views are better (this is most common along the Blue Ridge Parkway), or they are simply tired of walking hundreds of miles in the woods.
- Hiker Trash: This is probably my favorite thru-hiking word, which is funny because it is incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to actually define and more of a you-know-it-when-you-see-it kind of terms. One 2013 thru-hiker defines it as “a hiker or group of hikers who have sunk down to a lower standard of living.” Individuals washing their clothes in a motel bathtub with a bar of soap, hiking in shoes with the toe boxes cut out or duct taped together, and sleeping on a bench outside of a grocery store with nothing on but a rain kilt all fall into this category.
Well, there you have it: the most commonly used long-distance terminology easily explained!
If something is still a little unclear or you have any questions shoot me a comment below or send me an email!