Dictionary of a thru-hiker

A thru-hikers dictionary contains many mysterious and intriguing words that might sound incomprehensible at first. Acronyms and other terms that will make you scratch your head when you first start reading up on what it takes to thru-hike. I thought I’d try to shed some light on some of the words most frequently used.

Let’s start with thru-hiking?

Thru-hiking is short for through-hiking, so hiking through a country or a long-distance trail start to finish. I’ve heard different definitions. Some say you’re a thru-hiker when you finish a long-distance trail start to finish, others say it’s about hiking through an entire country from border to border. Take the PCT: it does both. You cross the entire country, border to border. And when you’ve accomplished that, you’ve also finished the entire long-distance monster that is the Pacific Crest Trail. The same goes for the Continental Divide Trail (CDT), also in the US. But what about the Appalachian Trail (AT)? Not border to border, but definitely counts as a thru-hike. There are also border-to-border hikes that are much shorter than the AT, and the E-routes in Europe cross many countries along the way.

Another important distinction is that you have to complete a thru-hike in one year. If you hike 62 miles on the AT every year for 35 years in a row, you’ve completed the AT, but alas, you’re not a thru-hiker.

The list below is certainly not complete yet and somewhat biased towards terms used on the PCT. If you’re missing words or terms, please let me know in the comments below so I can add them! Each term with * in front is PCT-specific, the ** are for terms only used on American trails.


  • Base weight: The weight of your backpack with everything in it, EXCEPT all consumables, such as food, water, snacks, and fuel. If it varies in weight during your trek, it’s not included in your base weight. Also not included are the things you’re wearing (clothes, shoes, watch) Fiercely debated in some cases. (I.e. trekking poles: some say you’re ‘wearing’ them and so they’re not included in the base weight.) Bragging rights about base weight belong exclusively to the ultralight hikers, so I include my poles in my base weight. If somebody voluntarily tells you their base weight without you asking about it, they probably didn’t include their trekking poles in that weight. 😉
  • Blue blazing: Derived from ‘yellow blazing’ (see below). When you’ve blue-blazed a section of trail, you went over water, usually in a boat or canoe. For instance, when you take a boat across a lake that you’d otherwise have had to hike around.
  • Bounce box**: A box of stuff you mail ahead to yourself with gear or food you need or want later on, but don’t want to carry right now. If the box stays unopened, the United States Postal Service will let you ‘bounce’ it (forward it) to another location free of charge.
  • Cache: or ‘water cache’. A cache usually contains something hikers need, in a location where it would otherwise be hard to get. Usually, this is water along dry sections in the desert, but caches can also contain other items. Often maintained by trail angels.
  • Cairn: Stacked stones that function as a guide in places where the trail is unclear. You walk to the cairn and from there, you should be able to spot the next one, etc.
  • Camel up: Drinking as much as you possibly can at a water source, so you have to carry less water on your back.
  • Cathole: Hole you dig into the ground for your ‘number two’. Should only contain that and nothing else, pack out your toilet paper, dig at least 15-20 cm or 6-7 inches deep and 200 feet away from water sources, camp spots and the trail.
  • Christmas toes*: Hiking this many miles with a heavy pack might cause your feet and nerve endings to start rebelling, resulting in loss of feeling in your toes. It happens to some hikers (but not all), and most regain the feeling somewhere around Christmas, hence the name. For me, it lasted until the end of December. Specific to NOBO PCT hikers (who usually end their hike somewhere in August or September).
  • Cold-soaking: In the interest of saving weight, you can decide to leave your stove at home and cold-soak all your meals. This means adding cold water to your couscous, rice, noodles or other dishes in a waterproof container. Do this somewhere around lunch and your dinner will be ready around the time you pitch your tent.
  • Cowboy camping: Sleeping underneath the stars on your sleeping pad. Saves time as you don’t have to pitch your tent or pack it up in the morning. If you’re lucky and the skies are clear, you’ll get a spectacular show during the night, especially in the desert! Not advised when there’s rain in your immediate future.
  • EFI: aka ‘Every-Fucking-Incher’. Someone who is determined to walk every inch of the trail and not skip a single step. Also known as a purist.
  • FarOut (formerly known as Guthooks): Phone app used for navigation, also has useful (and less useful) information about water sources, camp spots, hotels, restaurants and everything else you ever wanted to know along the trail, along with many things you didn’t.
  • Flip-flop: Walking the trail in non-consecutive sections. Usually done because of obstacles on trail such as snow or fire closures. Example: you start hiking in SoCal, skip the Sierra because there’s too much snow, hitch to Washington and hike SOBO from there back to the Sierra.
  • HYOH: ‘Hike-your-own-hike’. One of the most important phrases on trail. Meaning: hike the hike you want to hike, at your own pace, using the equipment you feel comfortable with. Don’t listen to anyone trying to tell you that you’re too slow/fast/clumsy/heavily packed or anything else. Also: don’t try to up your speed (or slow down your pace) just to stay with tramily because you think they’re the only ones that will ever accept or like you. There are many other outrageously kind, cool and awesome people just in front of you and just behind you. Who knows who you’ll meet by slowing down or taking that break when you need it.
  • LASH: ‘Long-ass-section-hike’ People that can’t or don’t want to hike the entire trail, but do a very long section. For example: If you walk through all of California, then go home: Congrats, you’re a LASH-er!
  • LNT: ‘Leave No Trace’ The most important one! Leave no trace of your presence along the trail. Among many other things, this means you carry out all your trash, including your used toilet paper. Don’t use soap in or near water sources, and preferably not at all. Not even biodegradable soap. If you have to move items such as rocks, etc. to pitch your tent, put them back where you found them when you leave. The list is much longer, but make sure to get acquainted with it before departure.
  • Nero: ‘Near-zero’. Walking close to zero trail miles in a day. Often, this will be construed as less than 10 miles. Usually happens on days when you come into town or leave it.
  • NOBO / SOBO: ‘NOrth BOund or SOuth BOund. For the PCT: NOBO’s hike from Mexico to Canada, SOBO’s from Canada to Mexico.
  • PLB: ‘Personal Locator Beacon’ – a GPS tracker you carry with you and which transmits your location and an SOS-signal to emergency services with one press of a button in areas without cellphone reception. Some models will also allow you to send regular text messages to others.
  • Postholing: Walking through snow that has gone soft, usually later in the day when the sun has been shining. It means wet feet and slow going! Hard work…
  • Purist: See EFI
  • Resupply box: A box of food and/or other supplies you mail ahead to yourself to places where food is limited or very expensive.
  • Slackpacking: Hiking a section without your backpack or with just a day pack. Might happen when, for example, trail angels shuttle your bag ahead for you.
  • Trail angels/Trail magic: People who help hikers to reach the finish line by supplying them with goods or services they need. Most of them do this without the intention of earning money with it, which doesn’t mean they always do it for free. It is common courtesy to compensate them for things such as gas money or their expenses in hosting or helping you. Trail magic is what trail angels supply. This could be anything from a ride to or from trail, food, a place to sleep, etc.
  • Trail name: Name you earn on trail, given to you by other hikers. Usually because you did something stupid, noteworthy or incredible. Once you’ve earned your trail name, that’s the name you’ll go by the rest of the trail.
  • Tramily: Trail family. The people you hike with consistently. The people who have your back. Need I say more?
  • Triple Crown: Someone who’s hiked all three major thru-hikes in the US, has earned the (imaginary)Triple Crown. These are the Pacific Crest Trail, the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail. A total of around 7875 miles.
  • TCCY: Triple Crown Calendar Year – someone who’s earned the Triple Crown in one calendar year has completed a TCCY.
  • Ultralight / UL: You’re only truly ultralight when your base weight (see above) is below 10 lbs. Lightweight is everything below 20 lbs. I’m a lightweight hiker, as going ultralight requires going without too many comfort items I highly value. I don’t mind carrying a bit extra if it means I enjoy the hike more. In addition, where you’re going and what you will be doing there, are crucial. Going ultralight on the PCT is fairly easy, but I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re likely to bump into extreme circumstances.
  • Widowmaker: Check the trees around your potential campsite before pitching your tent for widowmakers, which are dead or loose branches hanging in the trees around the spot. They could potentially drop down onto your tent at night. And it’s not just the branches. Sometimes, entire trees can be dead but still standing, just waiting for the right gust of wind to drop on your head.
  • Yellow blazing**: Following the yellow marks on the roads in the US. When you ‘yellow blazed’ a section, you hitched around it, skipping a part of the trail. Highly frowned upon by EFI’s.
  • Yoyo: After completing the entire trail, you turn around and go back the way you came, hiking in the other direction, back to where you started.
  • Zero: No miles walked on trail that day. Usually in a town, but can also be done on trail.

Missing anything? Let me know in the comments below!

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