In a Word

A PCT Hiker Glossary

Nine  maildrop   re-supply  boxes ready to be sent out over the course of this summer and fall during our PCT  thru-hike

Nine maildrop re-supply boxes ready to be sent out over the course of this summer and fall during our PCT thru-hike

We've come to realize that thru-hikers have their own language. Here's a quick guide to terms you'll probably see in our updates from the trail. Since we didn't invent any of these words, we have borrowed liberally in writing the definitions. Many thanks to those who unknowingly contributed to this post! Give us a shout if you have additions, corrections, or burning questions about hiker words not listed here.

Base Weight (noun): Weight of a hiker's backpack and all of its contents EXCEPT water, food, and fuel.

Big Four (noun): The four heaviest gear items that most hikers carry. These are: 1.) backpack, 2.) sleeping bag, 3.) sleeping pad, and 4.) shelter. When trying to reduce base weight it is often most effective to make adjustments within the big four

Bonus Miles (noun): Any miles hiked that are not along the actual PCT. These are often hiked to get to/from a resupply point or water source. They are also sometimes hiked due to a lapse of directional judgement (ie being lost!). 

Cache  (noun): Food, water, or supplies stored with the intent of retrieval for use later in the hike. Personal caches are generally stored out of sight near the trail, in a bear canister or other durable container. Sections of the PCT in southern CA have water caches that are right along the trail and intended for use by all thru-hikers. They are typically maintained/re-stocked by well-meaning trail angels though the existence & use of these caches is somewhat controversial. 

Camel Up (verb): To drink as much water as possible while at a water source to minimize the amount of water carried until the next source. This strategy is often employed in the southern CA desert and other stretches of trail that have long distances between reliable water sources.

Cowboy Camp (verb): To sleep outside on the ground (or groundcover) without a tent, tarp, or other shelter. Many thru-hikers prefer to cowboy camp in fair weather, to eliminate the time needed to set up and take down a shelter. It also provides better nighttime sky viewing, though there is no protection against creepy-crawlies or precipitation.

Dry Camp (verb): To camp in an area that has no nearby water source. A common technique among thru-hikers is to stop and eat dinner at a water source, then continue hiking into the late evening and dry camp further along the trail at the end of the day.

Flip Flop (verb): To skip a section of trail (usually due to snow levels or wildfires but sometimes just for convenience) but return to it later that season and complete the hike, often by taking the skipped section in the opposite direction.

Herd (noun): The main group of PCT thru-hikers. This nearly always refers only to NOBO hikers, who travel the PCT in much larger numbers than SOBOs.

Hiker Box (noun): A communal container found at popular resupply points along the trail (usually stores or hostels) that operates on the principle of "freely take, and/or leave". Hikers add items they don't need or want, and take items that will be useful to them. Hiker boxes most often contain food and fuel, but may also have small gear items. 

Hiker Hunger (noun): A feeling of insatiable hunger brought on by repeated long days of hiking combined with a limited food supply.

Hiker Midnight (noun): An hour when most thru-hikers will already be in their sleeping bags. Some refer to dusk/twilight as hiker midnight, while others insist that it is 9pm regardless of season. 

Hikertrash (noun): As defined by the author of the book of the same name: “A long distance hiker, shabby and homeless in appearance, rank in odor, more at home outdoors than in society, with a deep reverence and respect for all things wild.” Many thru-hikers use this term with pride and it carries more than a touch of irony.

HYOH / “Hike your own hike” (phrase): A mantra used by thru-hikers to indicate acceptance that many approaches and strategies can lead to a successful hike. Things that work or don’t work for one hiker don’t necessarily apply to another. There are no universal rules of thru-hiking.

The Look (noun): At some point along the trail, hikers develop the look. It is a combination of a lean, muscular body, an overall air of confidence, and gritty determination in the eyes. It is said that those NOBOs who acquire the look by Yosemite NP are bound to finish their thru-hikes. Those who don’t yet have it will probably leave the trail before finishing.

Maildrop (noun): A form of re-supply in which a package containing food, other consumables, and/or gear is mailed to a point along the trail for later pick-up. This can be done by the hiker them-self either from home or from a town on-trail, or by someone else who is managing shipments for the hiker. 

Nero (noun): Short form of “near zero”. A variation of zero in which a hiker walks only a few trail miles, usually to minimize costs associated with staying overnight in town while still completing town chores. A typical nero might consist of walking a few miles into town, spending the day doing laundry, resupply, showering, and eating a restaurant meal, then returning to the trail to walk a few more miles before camping for the night. Also used as a verb (ie. I'm going to nero today).

NOBO / northbound (adjective): Walking north on the Pacific Crest Trail. Also used as a noun referring to a northbound thru-hiker

Re-supply (verb): The act of replenishing food, fuel, toiletries, etc for the next section of hiking. (noun): The collection of food and other supplies a hiker has purchased or acquired for the next section of hiking.

Road Walk (verb): The act of walking along a road (paved or gravel) rather than on the trail. Usually done due to trail closure but also sometimes used to better access a re-supply point, avoid deep snow, or for personal preference. (noun): A mandatory trail detour whose route utilizes paved or gravel road. 

Section Hiker (noun): Hiker walking only a portion of a long-distance trail. Many section hikers would like to hike the entire trail but don’t have time to do it all at once, so they break the journey up over several hiking seasons. Other section hikers only intend to complete one or a few sections of trail. Popular routes for PCT section hikers include WA state, and the roadless section through the Sierra that coincides with the John Muir Trail (from Yosemite to Mt Whitney). The Pacific Crest Trail is officially broken up into 28 lettered sections (CA A-R, and OR/WA A-L), and some section hikers describe their hike using these letters. Thru-hikers rarely refer to the letters and instead divide the PCT into 5 geographical sections (WA, OR, northern CA, the Sierra, & southern CA).

Shakedown (verb): The act of paring down non-essential items to reduce pack weight. Often done by thru-hikers within a few weeks of starting their hike. Famously portrayed by Reese Witherspoon at a southern CA motel in the hit movie Wild.

Skip (verb): To bypass a section of trail by leaving the trail at one point and re-entering at another. Skipping may be done for several reasons including forest fire (smoke annoyance or actual trail closure), heavy snow pack, fatigue, lack of motivation, a perceived need to make up for lost time, or to meet up with friends who are hiking further ahead. Often hikers who skip a section of trail, but complete the rest of it, still consider themselves thru-hikers, especially if the reason for skipping was to bypass a trail closure due to forest fire. Hikers who skip sections of trail (by choice or due to trail closure) will sometimes turn around later and hike the skipped section in the opposite direction. This is known as flip flopping.

SOBO / southbound  (adjective): Walking south on the Pacific Crest Trail. Also used as a noun referring to a southbound thru-hiker

Stealth Camp (verb): The act of camping somewhere that is not generally allowed. Also used to describe camping in a spot that is not visible from the trail, generally leaving no trace of having been there.

Supported (adjective): Used to describe a hike in which someone carries minimal gear or food because they have an off-trail support team that will meet them at regular intervals. Also refers to any thru-hiker who does not need to find their own way to re-supply points due to pre-arranged rides or food/gear delivery, even if they carry all of their own supplies on-trail. This distinction is typically only applied when discussing record-setting thru-hikes. Supported hikes are typically faster than unsupported hikes along the same trail. 

Thru Hiker (verb): One hiking the entire length of a long trail such as the Pacific Crest Trail. Traditionally a thru-hike (noun) required a contiguous and complete hike from one end of the trail to the other. More recently the term has been used to describe those hiking most or all of the trail by various means, including section hikers, flip floppers and even those who skip large sections of trail.

Trail Angel (noun): A person who is not hiking the trail but who provides trail magic or other unsolicited aid to thru-hikers. Most trail angels have some personal connection or affinity towards the trail whose users they support, and many are previous thru-hikers themselves. Some provide various types of hiker assistance without accepting anything but gratitude in return. However, it is generally accepted that thru-hikers staying overnight in a trail angel's home should offer a monetary donation (at least US$20/person nightly) to help offset the cost of this generosity.

Trail Magic (noun): Unsolicited and often unexpected acts of kindness or gifts provided to thru-hikers. This often comes in the form of food, rides, or a place to spend the night. Also refers to the serendipitous luck that hikers may experience while on the trail (ie. the day after a thru-hiker's inflatable sleeping pad develops a leak, she finds a replacement foam pad in a hiker box). 

Trail Miles (noun): A measure of hiking mileage that only includes progress along the trail towards the end destination. Total daily mileage would include both trail miles and bonus miles (ie. backtracking along the trail 2 miles for lost gear does not increase a hiker's trail miles).

Trail Name (noun): Nickname given to and adopted by a thru-hiker, which becomes the name by which they are known to other hikers. A trail name usually derives from an unusual, humorous or significant characteristic of the hiker. Traditionally, trail names are bestowed by other hikers and are said to "stick" if the named hiker accepts the trail name. Many thru-hikers now designate their own trail name, though it still commonly refers to some characteristic of the hiker or their hiking style.  

Trail Register (noun): A notebook or collection of pages found at set locations along a long distance trail with the intention of having thru-hikers & section hikers sign their names as they pass through. Trail registers are one way that hikers can determine who has been through the trail ahead of them.

Trail Town (noun): A town located on or near a long distance trail where thru-hikers are likely to stop to re-supply, eat in a restaurant, perform other town chores, and/or spend a zero. Many trail angels live in or near trail towns.

Triple Crown (noun): The achievement of thru-hiking each of the three major national scenic trails in the United States: the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the Appalachian Trail (AT), and the Continental Divide Trail (CDT). Those who have made this achievement are referred to as triple crowners.

UL / Ultralight (adjective): Refers to a hiker whose base weight is 10 pounds or less.

Unsupported (adjective): Used to describe a hike in which the hiker carries everything they need and finds their own way from trail to towns to resupply. Hikers who use maildrops, whether sent by themselves or others, are still considered to be unsupported as long as they find their own way from the trail to the locations where the maildrops are picked up. The distinction between a supported and unsupported hike is typically only applied when discussing record-setting thru-hikes

Vitamin I (noun): Ibuprofen. Commonly used by thru-hikers.

Yo-Yo (noun): Hike that consists of a full thru-hike in one direction followed immediately by a thru-hike of the same trail in the opposite direction. A hiker attempting a yo-yo would hike from one end of a long trail to the other, then turn around and hike back to their original starting point.

Yogi (verb): To cleverly solicit food, drink, rides, or otherwise useful things from unsuspecting strangers along the trail. This is often done by striking up a seemingly innocent conversation with a day-hiker or non-hiker, but asking leading questions (How far is it into town from here? Is there a bus that could take me there? Are there any restaurants open this late?) that may prompt an offer of assistance. (noun): The trail name of PCT thru-hiker and triple crowner Jackie McDonnell who authors the PCT guidebook most widely used by thru-hikers.

Zero (noun): A day within the course of a thru-hike in which a hiker hikes no trail miles at all. Often used to pursue re-supply, but also utilized to rest, to take advantage of a particularly enjoyable area, to wait out bad weather, to meet up with friends, or due to injury. Zeros are almost always taken in town, though some hikers choose to enjoy zeros while on-trail. Most PCT thru-hikers take between 10-15 zeros or neros during the course of their thru-hike. Also used as a verb (ie. I'm going to zero today.