The Lingo of Hiking the Appalachian Trail

My boyfriend, Roy, started his trek on the Appalachian Trail on March 19th, 2019. Leading up to his 2192-mile, 5-7-month journey, I read books and Roy educated me on the various aspects of hiking the trail. There is a lot of terminology around thru hiking; it has its own language or lingo. So, I’m using this post to educate those new to thru hiking or for those who are just curious. I know there are many of you out there who would never dare to spend one night without running water or a comfy bed. I remember an executive who famously told me that staying at a Hampton Inn was as close to camping as he would ever get.

Roy on top of McAfee Knob, about 713.6 miles northbound on the Appalachian Trail


Here is some of the lingo associated with hiking the Appalachian Trail:

  1. AT – This is the way most hikers refer to the trail, which starts at Springer Mountain, Georgia and ends at Mount Katahdin, Maine.
  2. Thru Hike – From a technical, pure point of view (i.e. Roy’s), this is successfully hiking Springer Mountain to Mount Katahdin continuously from start to finish within the same year and without gaps. Roy attempted his first thru hike in 2015 and ended it at mile 531 due to medical issues. In order to have completed that thru hike, he would have had to return to the trail and finished within 2015.
  3. NOBO – This is a Northbound hiker on the AT. This means starting at Springer mountain and heading north. About 90% of hikers head north bound, which makes for more company on the trail and generally starting in March or April after most of the snow is gone.
  4. SOBO – This is a Southbound hiker on the AT. This means starting at Mount Katahdin and heading south. About 10% of hikers head south bound and they head out in May or June. Southbound is difficult because there is less support on the trail, especially in Maine, so less opportunities to resupply.
  5. Trail Legs – Getting your trail legs means that you can hike for longer stretches and through tougher terrain after several weeks on the trail. Most thru hikers start slow with eight to ten miles a day and, after they have their trail legs, will hike from fifteen to twenty-five miles a day.
  6. Hiker Hunger – I have actually witnessed this in person. When a hiker like Roy is on the trail, they are burning upwards of 4,000 to 6,000 calories a day. Roy can sit down and eat two whole entrees at a restaurant and finish off half of mine for good measure. I’m not sure he is ever full.
  7. Trail Angels – These are people who help hikers out. It might be a hostel owner near the trail or someone who has attempted or succeeded on their thru hike. It is amazing the amount of people that have either given Roy a ride, paid for his hotel room or meal, or given him free food. It’s one of the greatest things about the trail: Trail Angels generously support those trying to complete the hike and many remain anonymous.
  8. Trail Magic – As I write this, Roy has been on the trail for 2 and a half months and I believe he has averaged trail magic at least once every two or three days. This might be a cooler stocked with sodas, water, or free protein or granola bars. There are some Trail Angels that set up camp and cook breakfast or burgers for those hiking through.
  9. White Blaze – This is the marking on the trail that indicates the official route of the AT.
  10. Blue Blaze – This is the marking on the trail to a scenic overlook, mountain top or easier bypass around a difficult section of the trail. For a purest like Roy, blue blazing is to be avoided.
  11. Yellow Blaze – This is the term for someone who has some other transportation besides hiking to complete the trail. This is obviously something Roy would not consider doing. He might get a ride into town, but he is brought back to where he got off to continue his hike.
  12. Pink Blaze – This term is for hikers who find romance on the trail, which sometimes affects forward progress. So if Joe and Suzy are pink blazing, they may stay in a town longer than anticipated.
  13. Zero – To take a zero is to not hike any miles that day. Usually, this is done in a town at a hostel or hotel. For Roy, he likes to take a zero about once a week to recuperate and resupply.
  14. Nero – This is to hike part of a day and to rest a portion of the day. So, a nero might be when you hike three miles into town and then stay at a hostel. Or it might be to hike to a spot like Fontana Dam and spend the rest of the day relaxing.
  15. Trail Town – There are many towns that the trail actually goes through, like Damascus, Virginia, or that are an easy mile walk from the trail. These towns are geared toward thru-hikers and frequently have deals for hikers like laundries, all-you-can-eat pizza places, outfitters and hostels who let you camp nearby and use their showers.
  16. Bubble – The bubble is the group of hikers that are in the same portion of the trail. For Roy, this meant that many shelters at the beginning of the trail would have up to 40 people camping there. The bubble can take over a trail town or shelter and make it inconvenient to camp or find resources, like rides or hotel rooms.
  17. Flip Flop – This term is used when a hiker stops part of the way and then gets a ride to another section. This can happen because of illness, family obligations, or not being able to get to Katahdin by October 15th (when Baxter State Park closes). So, the classic flip-flop is to NOBO to Harper’s Ferry and then get a ride to Katahdin and hike SOBO to Harper’s Ferry, thereby finishing the trail.
  18. Bear Bagging – This is putting your food in a bag and stringing it over a tree branch to keep it away from bears and your camp site (and you). Many shelters have bear steel cables, which help in keeping the food away from bears. There are also bear canisters, which are heavy, but also keep bears away from your food.
  19. Gram Weenies – These are hikers who use ultra-light gear and watch “every gram”. There are folks on the trail who only carry 10 pounds in gear, as opposed to the 30 pounds that Roy is carrying.
  20. Slack Packing – This is where normally, during a difficult section with lots of rock scrambles, that Trail Angels or hostel owners will take care of your gear and you aren’t responsible for carrying your pack for that section. Of course, Roy has not done this so far.
  21. AWOL Guide – This is a guidebook issued each year with the entire trail, highlighting services, elevations, water and shelter locations along the trial. Each year, it is published for NOBO and SOBO.
  22. Gut Hook – This is an app with similar information as AWOL, but it can pinpoint your location on the trail, although you must have a connection to see that.
  23. Trail Name – Hikers are given names along the trail like Green Giant, Dixie, AWOL and Tiger Lily. It must be given by another hiker or a past thru-hiker. Roy is not a fan of this practice so “Curmudgeon” has been hinted at as his trail name but hasn’t stuck.
  24. Section Hiker – These are hikers who are only doing a section of the trail, which might be a day hike to a popular spot like Max Patch or Clingman’s dome, overnight for the weekend or a weeklong hike.
  25. The Green Tunnel – Unfortunately, most of the trail is in a green tunnel of trees. Scenic overlooks and pastures are few and far between. The upside is that sunscreen isn’t as important, but it can get monotonous.

This is just a partial guide to all the language/lingo associated with hiking the AT and there are many sayings that go along the trail as well. I was stressing out about the amount of rain that Roy had to hike through in the prior few days and he said, “No Rain, No Pain, No Maine.” Regardless, I am so proud of his tenacity and effort in taking on such a daunting task. It’s inspiring.

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