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Hiking Glossary

There are so many terms out there to do with hiking. This is my stab at listing them all with a short description of what they mean.If you notice one is missing, please let me know in the comments at the bottom!


The PureOutside Glossary of Hiking Terms

Alpine: Roughly the area on a mountain above the treeline. The treeline is the line where trees stop growing on a mountain.

Backpack: You need a way to carry extra gear, food and water when you’re out hiking. A good sturdy backpack is the most common way to do that. Other types of bags can be uncomfortable or inconvenient to carry around but a backpack can be comfortable and easy to manoeuvre even when it’s loaded with heavy gear. Most large packs these days have some sort of frame to help support the weight. Smaller packs that won’t hold as much weight don’t need a frame. Packs are measured in the volume in litres they can carry. Small packs are 10 to 20 litres, mid size are from 30 to 40 and large packs are from 60 to 70 litres.

Bear Banger: A small projectile that either makes a screaching noise or a large bang with the hope of scaring off bears. There is a technique to using the bear bangers to effectively scare the bear away from you and not towards you.

Bear Spray: Pepper spray designed to fend of attacking bears. Only designed to be used in a last-resort situation. Make sure you know everything you need to about preventing bear attacks. Bear bangers can be used before the situation calls for bear spray

Bushwhack: Travelling off-trail. This is not usually recommend so as to not disturb the natural area but sometimes it’s necessary to get where you are going or to find the trail again. Some people using a rating system from B0 to B5 where B0 is very easy to walk through and B5 is extremely difficult to walk through. The difficulty of the bushwhack depends on the height and density of the underbrush. Very thin short underbrush is easy to travel through. Thick tall underbrush can be impossible to travel through or require some sort of blade to cut your way through.

Cairn: Typically a pile or stack of rocks marking a trail or summit on a mountain. Some trails can be hard to locate when there there is a lot of brush or snow on the ground or it hasn’t been worn into the ground well. Cairns give a way for hikers to follow the trail if there are no other signs of it. Sometimes flagging tape is used if there are trees below the treeline.

Camp: To stay the night in a single location. Most people bring a tent or other type of shelter to stay the night in. You maybe staying one night or setting up a base camp to come back to for multiple nights. You might be spending the night in a tent, bivy sack, hammock, snow cave, under a tarp or just in your sleeping bag.

Col: The lowest point over a ridge, often called a mountain pass. They are often called saddle’s because of their shape, 2 higher points with a low point in the middle sloping off to both sides.

Compass: A small piece of hiking equipment that uses a magnet to point north. When you are lost or using a map for finding your way, a compass is invaluable for orienting yourself. You may have a good sense of direction but sometimes you can get turned around. Locating the sun can also be used as a compass. For situations like a snowstorm where you can’t see the sun, compasses are important to have.

Crampon: A set of metal spikes worn on a hiking boot that gives you traction on icy surfaces. Some crampons are specifically for travel on ice and some are for ice-climbing. There are different features to both.

Cryptosporidium: A protozoa that can be found in some backcountry water sources that can cause gastrointestinal illness. It originates from human and animal feces. Water should be treated in some way before drinking to remove the cryptosporidium. A rolling boil for 1 minute or a filter using an absolute less than or equal to 1 micron filter are highly effective ways to remove the protozoa. (source)

Day Hike: A hike that lasts less than a day. Compared to a multi-day hike where you take additional gear and hike for multiple days.

Dehydration: Your body does not have as much water and fluid as it should. Can be from mild to severe which can be life-threatening. Know the symptoms before you head into the backcountry and how to prevent dehydration. Usually taking enough water and food will prevent dehydration.

Elevation Profile: Every trail or route has an increase or decrease in elevation as you hike along the trail. That elevation change charted on a graph is an elevation profile. You can see the altitude of the trail as you would hike along it. A trail up and down a mountain would have a steep elevation profile whereas a trail along the beach would have a very flat elevation profile. Steeper trails take more energy to hike.

Exposure: This is the empty space below you when you are hiking or climbing. Most people don’t run into this when they’re hiking but you should pay attention to it. It’s basically the distance you could fall if something were to happen. On steep sections of a hillside, you might fall a long way before you came to a stop. The longer the fall, the more deadly it could be. When the exposure gets to be enough, climbers will often start to wear climbing protection and use ropes.

Flagging Tape: Coloured tape often used to mark a trail. It’s also used in logging operations so pay attention to which one you are following.

Gaiter: A piece of fabric that surrounds the top of your hiking boot and runs up your leg. Gaiters can be of various heights but the main idea is to cover the top of your boot and keep snow, ice, dirt or foliage out of your boots. Some gaiters are small and only cover the top of your boot plus a couple inches up your leg. Some gaiters are larger and run from the strap around the bottom of your boot that keeps it on, all the way to your knee. Gaiters can be made out of simple fabrics or more expensive waterproof membranes. The breathability and warmth of the gaiter depends on what fabric is used.

Geocaching: An activity where participants use GPS units to find “geocaches” around the world. Some of them are in the middle of cities and some are far out in the wilderness. The idea is that you take something from the waterproof container but you leave something as well. Sign the guidebook when you are there as well. When you get home, mark that you have found the cache on

Giardia Lamblia: Like Cryptosporidium, Giardia is not something you want to get into on a long hiking trip, or even a short one. Giardia is another protozoa that you might ingest when drinking water that has come in contact with human or animal feces. As with cryptosporidum a rolling boil for a minute or an absolute less than or equal to 1 micron filter are your best chances of killing the nasty bugs.

Gore-Tex: A family of waterproof membranes made by Gore. Most of the time the waterproof Gore-Tex membrane is attached to a protective outer layer and sometimes a protective inner layer. Some of their products are Gore-Tex Pro Shell, Gore-Tex Soft Shell and Gore-Tex Paclite Shell. They each serve different purposes and are built slightly different.

GORP: Trail mix usually with nuts, raisins and sometimes chocolate. It might stand for “Good Old Raisins and Peanuts”, or “Granola, Oats, Raisins and Peanuts”, or “Gobs of Raw Protein”. Also known as “scroggin” in New Zealand.

GPS: An acronym for Global Positioning System. GPS is most often used to refer to the hand-held units that hikers use when they are trying to find a particular place or their way back to the trailhead. Handheld GPS units display your position on a small screen as well as various other details like a track of where you have been, loaded tracks from your computer or waypoints you have already saved. Most GPS units can sync with your computer, transferring data to and from your unit. You can then use your computer to build tracks, display tracks on maps or upload them to different websites.

Hiking Boots: Hiking boots are taller, stiffer boots that are commonly used hiking. They aren’t the only footwear that you can use hiking but because of their support they are recommended. They come in different sizes, weights and materials. Some models are waterproof.

Hut: A cabin on a trail to use instead of your shelter or tent. Sometimes you have to pay for these huts or reserve them ahead of time.

Ice Axe: Typically only used when travelling on snow or ice, ice axes come in various shapes and sizes. Longer axes with a straight shaft are used like a walking stick for safety and stability in steep snow and ice. Shorter, lighter weight axes are used for ice climbing where both the climbers hands are holding axes. Ice axes typically have a pick on one side for digging into the ice and then a hammer or adze attachment on the other. The adze is wide flat piece used for digging out ice from an area to create things like steps in the ice.

Leave No Trace: A concept based on on the idea of not leaving a trace when you venture out into the wilderness. There are a number of principles under the Leave No Trace idea focused on making as little impact as you can on the areas you visit, packing out all the trash you bring in, not removing anything from natural areas and not disturbing wildlife.

Map: A set of images on paper or something similar that depicts where landmarks are in a particular area. You can use a map to follow a trail, find a mountain or waterfall, or get back to your vehicle. It’s important to have a map of an area that you are visiting to get a birds eye view of where you are and where you want to go. Maps are not especially useful on their own but when paired with a compass you can orient the map properly and pinpoint your location on the map. Maps are increasingly online these days.

Moleskin: Sticky pieces of fabric that can be stuck to your skin to prevent blisters. There are other methods but moleskin is usually the term used for the idea.

Multi-Day Hike: As opposed to a day hike, a multi-day hike takes place over multiple days. You’ll need to bring sleeping gear and shelter and more food. Often you’ll have to rely on streams and lakes for water sources so you’ll need to boil water or bring a filter. You bring food for multiple days that doesn’t take any preparation but most people bring cooking gear. Hiking for multiple days allows you to get farther than just hiking for one day.

Orienteering: Using a map and compass to find your way through unfamiliar terrain. This can be for getting from one place to another or orienteering or adventure races.

Peak-bagging: The activity of summiting as many mountains as possible. The most important part of the trip is to reach the summit.

Potable (Water): Safe water to be consumed by humans. It’s highly recommended to purify or filter water somehow when you are hiking to ensure there are no pathogens in the water that would make you sick.

Scramble: Ascending rocky faces or ridges. Scrambling usually includes using your hands for balance because of the steep terrain. The terrain is not steep enough to require protection and be called climbing.

Scree: The loose piles of small rock at the base of cliffs or crags. Also called talus although this tends to refer to rocks slightly larger than scree. Scree can be difficult to walk on as it’s unstable and can slide down the hill.

Shank: Stiff metal or plastic plates built into the soles of hiking boots to offer support. They can be half, three quarter or full length.

Subalpine: The area just below the treeline.

Summit: The highest point on a mountain. There is often a cairn there to mark the exact location. Summits are the locations peakbaggers are looking for to complete their goal.

Switchback: A sharp turn in a trail as it ascends a slope, hiking on switchbacks to the top of a mountain or ridge is an easier task than hiking straight up. They increase the distance you cover though.

Tarp: A single piece of waterproof fabric that can be strung to cover a camp or tent. Some hikers prefer sleeping under tarps rather than tents because of their light weight.

Tent: A type of shelter than can be used for multi-day hikes. A set of poles holds up a shelter of mesh and fabric to keep the elements away from you inside. There are many different types of tents that can be different sizes, weights and for different purposes.

Tentpad: A small wood or concrete base to put your tent on instead of disturbing the ground around the camping area.

Topo Map: Short for topographical map. A topo map has contour lines that describe what altitude a certain point is at. The contour lines are at different intervals like every 100 metres or every 20 metres depending on the scale. The closer the contour lines are together, the steeper the area on the map is. Large areas in between contour lines will be much less steep.

Trailhead: The start of a trail. Sometimes trailheads will be easy to find with a parking lot and signs, sometimes they will be small openings in the trees beside a logging road. Finding the trailhead can be the hardest part of hiking a trail. A good description of how to find the trailhead is a mark of a good trail book or website. Trailheads can be off in the woods as well, requiring some hiking along another trail to access them. Sometimes they have signs and sometimes they don’t.

Treeline: The altitude where trees stop growing on a mountain often because of cold temperatures or lack of moisture.

Trekking Poles: Trekking poles are like walking sticks but much lighter and specifically designed for hiking. They have modelled handles that fit your hands and pointed tips at the other end for piercing the ground. Most models have some sort of basket near the tip to prevent the pole from sliding too far into the ground when it’s wet or muddy. They can be fitted with larger baskets designed for snow and used in the winter for skiing or snowshoeing. Most models are collapsible in some way so you can attach them to your backpack easily.

Turn Around Time: A designated time chosen before the hike has started to turn around and abandon the initial goal. Turn around times are important when you need to get back to your vehicle or off a trail at a certain time. Losing light at the end of the day could be a concern or a gate to a road closing. Turn around times are best chosen before the hike has started so emotions on the trail do not affect your decisions.

Water bladder: No, it’s not your bladder when it’s full of water. It’s the flexible water container that you keep in your backpack. A small tube with a water nozzle on the end attaches to the bottom of the bladder and runs out the top of your pack. The flexible tube is much easier to get water from on the go than taking your pack off and retrieving a water bottle. They can be more work to refill because of other gear in your bag though. Camelback and Platypus are popular brands of water bladders

Waterproof Membrane: Special types of fabrics like Gore-Tex that allows air to pass through but not moisture. These fabrics can be found in waterproof clothing and gear like gaiters and gloves. They are important because without the breathability your sweat will condense on the inside of your clothing and you will be as wet as you would be without wearing waterproof clothing. There are many different types of fabrics and they all have different ratings of how well they breath and keep the water out.

Waypoint: A point on a map with some significance. This can be the place you are trying to get to or points of interest that you might want to look at along your hike. Many GPS units allow you to save waypoints while you are hiking. You can save important places like waterfalls, cabins or important trail intersections. Trailheads can be handy waypoints to have as well.

Wicking Fabric: Fabrics that move moisture away from your body. Clothing made of these types of fabric should be worn close to the body to move moisture (like sweat) away from your body and keep you dry and warm. You will be safer and more comfortable if you are warm and dry when hiking.

Vibram: A brand of rubber that’s commonly found on hiking boots. They can be of varying densities. Softer rubber tends to be more sticky and grippy but doesn’t last as long. The harder types last longer but doesn’t stick as well.

There’s a list of hiking terms and their definitions! Did you understand all of them?

Let me know if a definition didn’t make sense for you.

This may not be every single world related to hiking to start off with but that’s where I’m heading. Think a word should be added, let me know in the comments or send an email.

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