A Guide to Washington's Hiking Jargon
LNT? Lollipop? Type 2 fun? Sucker Hole??
Hiking comes with its own jargon. And for those who've been hiking forever, it's easy to slip into what might sound like a foreign language to people new to the activity. If you've ever been baffled by something your hiker friend said (or read in a trail description), we've pulled together a partial list of commonly-used words and phrases that will help you understand the hiking (and backpacking) community.
10 Essentials: The basic items you'll need when you're undertaking just about any hike.
Don't know what they are? We've got a list for ya. Also the 10 Essentials for your dog, if you hike with one.
Beta vs data: Data is the factual, permanent information (think mileage, elevation gain, how to get to the trailhead...the stuff you'd find in our hiking guide). Beta is current conditions (like what you'd find in a trip report).
Car shuttle (or bike shuttle): Used when you want to end your hike someplace different than where you began. With a car shuttle, you leave one car at your end destination, and take the second car back to your starting trailhead. At the end of the hike, use the second car to pick up the first one. If you want to accomplish this with fewer cars, or by yourself, you can bike shuttle, leaving yourself a bike at one end or the other.
Key Swap: Another alternate for thru-hiking, especially on traverses (see below). Arrange for a friend to hike the same trail as you, but start at opposite trailheads. Meet in the middle and exchange car keys (this is important). Then continue on, and you can drive each other's cars to to meet up and swap again.
Hiking vs. backpacking vs. camping:
- Hiking: going out on a trail just for the day. You can hike urban trails, beaches or remote mountain landscapes.
- Backpacking: spending the night outside (usually miles from a trailhead and relying on gear and food you packed in yourself). Also known as backcountry camping.
- Camping: Usually means staying at a campground with facilities (usually drive-in) and sleeping in a tent or other sort of shelter.
LNT/Leave No Trace (aka pack it in, pack it out): Leave No Trace is a set of values (and also an organization) about stewardship in the outdoors. It's the basic idea of leaving as little impact as possible when recreating outdoors.
Passes: These help fund the agencies responsible for keeping Washington's trails looking great. If you drive to a trailhead, you'll likely need a pass. Below are three common phrases people use to refer to the three most frequently required passes in Washington. You can get into the nitty-gritty about passes and permits here.
- Discover Pass: Usable on state lands (like state parks, Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) lands).
- Interagency Pass: A pass that covers both national forests and national parks (both federally managed). This pass does not cover state land.
- NW Forest Pass: Northwest Forest Pass. Usable on national forest lands only in Washington and Oregon.
If you're not sure which pass you need, look up your destination in our Hiking Guide. The pass requirements are at the top of the page.
(Currently, there is not one pass that works for all of the trails in Washington. Your best bet is to get a Discover Pass and an Interagency Pass. Those two will work for most of the trails in the Cascades and the Olympics.)
Privy: Often used in reference to a toilet placed at a trailhead. Some would call it an outhouse. They are typically pit toilets (meaning: hole in the ground, no plumbing) with hand sanitizer available (sometimes). If in doubt, take care of business in the town nearest the trailhead and bring your own hand sani.
Land manager: The government agency charged with managing a given trail. This could be the Washington Department of Natural Resources or Washington State Parks (state agencies), the National Park Service or the Forest Service (federal agencies), or county or city parks departments.
Fact: Washington Trails Association (WTA) is a nonprofit organization, not a land manager.
Topo: Usually used in reference to maps. Short for topographic, it refers to a style of map that illustrates the elevation changes in an area by using lines and shading to give the viewer an idea of the landscape they are hiking in.
Cloud deck: If you're above the clouds on a peak, the layer of clouds below you is the cloud deck.
"It'll burn off": Used in reference to light fog or cloudiness that will likely dissipate later in the day. "Burning off" references the action of the sun heating up the vapor and dissipating it.
In western Washington, this is also used in jest, when the clouds are very heavy and absolutely will not burn off, thereby ruining your chances of a view from the top of a very steep mountain you worked really hard to climb.
Marine layer: A low-lying fog that usually forms over bodies of water in the morning. This tends to burns off by midday.
Sucker hole: A spot of blue sky opening up during an insistently cloudy day. These often make hikers think it'll clear up, but the clouds never clear ... making you a sucker. Hence the name.
Sun showers: When it's sunny but also raining. Yes it is a real thing. It is magical.
"The mountain is out": When whatever volcano you live closest to is visible. Used both in cities and on hikes.
Talking About Trails
Blow-down: Trees that have fallen across trails due to wind. Sometimes these are previously-damaged, by fire or root rot (a fungus).
Bootpath: A frequently-used but informal trail, often used to access summits or lakes. Think twice about following these, since they can sometimes pass through sensitive habitat.
Bushwhack: Originally used to mean a cross-country (see below) hike, but as maintenance funding decreases, it is used more often to mean fighting your way through heavy brush on trail.
Cairn: A stack of rocks used for route-finding.
Cross-country: Hiking in an area with no trails.
Fall line: The slope of the hill you're climbing. If a trail is "on the fall line" it means it's going straight up the hill. Incidentally, these types of trails are bad for the landscape, and are usually boot paths or social trails.
Kick step: When climbing on snow (or a snowy section of trail), a kick step is how you establish somewhere to put your weight. Kick into the snow until there is a sturdy platform for you to put your weight on, then transfer your weight, and kick another step. It's like building your own little ladder.
Lollipop: A lollipop is a loop hike where you have to hike a bit to get to the loop part. Once you finish the whole thing, tracing your route on a map would look (roughly) like a lollipop.
Out-and-back: Hiking from the trailhead to a destination and back down the way you came.
Postholing: When hiking through snow, you might sink down quite a ways. This is postholing. Postholing can be dangerous, since snow can melt out from underneath before you see a difference on the surface you're hiking on. Hike with caution and have hiking poles with you to provide extra stability.
Scramble: If a trail ends before the true summit of a peak, hikers may scramble to get to the very top. This can require some ability to climb confidently on or around boulders, and usually requires maintaining three points of contact at all times. Three points of contact means you are climbing using both feet and one hand to steady yourself (Our friends at The Mountaineers regularly offer scrambling courses).
Social trail: Like a bootpath, a social trail is created by users, and not intentionally built by the land manager. They are typically much shorter than bootpaths, and create networks of small trails in a concentrated area, like summits, at lakes or in campgrounds where people wander around a lot. When you have the choice, try to use an established trail.
Switchback: When a trail zig-zags up the side of a hill to get to the top, the zigs and zags are switchbacks. While some hikers may find them frustrating, they're a key element of sustainable trails (they prevent erosion), so it's important to stay on them, and not cut the corners.
If you hate switchbacks, think of them this way: The view improves with every turn.
Slog: A very difficult hike. Could be steep, hot, wet, cold or hard to navigate. The trail could be bad, or really overgrown, or it could be a delightful combination of any of the above. Sometimes, a hike is a slog just based on how you feel, not external conditions.
Spur trail: A trail branching off the main route, usually a short one, to an overlook or another, secondary destination. Often, these are social trails, but occasionally they are official trails. The best way to tell? Look at your map and see if the trail is on it. If it is, it's likely the real deal.
Thru-hike: Often used in relation to the Pacific Crest Trail, to indicate someone hiking from Mexico to Canada. On a smaller scale, a thru-hike is when you start at one trailhead and end at another.
Traverse: Can be a noun or a verb. To traverse is to cross a hillside gradually, (think about what happens in between the zig zags on switchbacks. A traverse is sometimes used to mean thru-hike, when you hike from one trailhead to another, rather than an out-and-back.
Camping & Backpacking
Bear bag (or bear hang): This is how you secure your food when backpacking or camping. Despite relying (heavily) on the word "bear", these food security measures are actually more to prevent small critters like mice or chipmunks from getting into your food. Bear bags can be nylon bags (also known as ditty sacks) or the Ursack brand (made from Kevlar).
A bear hang is what you do with a bear bag; namely hanging it up in a tree (using a piece of rope or nylon cord) in such a way that you can get it down, but an animal can't get into it. Bear hangs are also a key part of character-building while backpacking, since it can be very difficult to find a tree that will support your bag and also keep your food away from anything that might get into it. And once you find the tree, getting the bag hung and tying the cord around the tree is a whole other process. We recommend doing this after you've brushed your teeth, so you don't have to get it all back down again to put your toothbrush and toothpaste away.
Irritated by how hard a bear hang is? Enter the bear can.
Bear can: Bear cans are made of a sturdy plastic with a special bear-proof lid. These do not need to be hung, but are heavier than a bear bag or Ursack. Several backcountry locations in the Olympics and Cascades require a bear can to be carried by all backpackers.
Bear box: Bear boxes are a blessing if you have access to them. These are large brown metal boxes found in national parks and some national forests, which have special locking doors that bears (and rodents) can't get into. They negate the need for the extensive bear hang process, but they're not everywhere. The best option is to get a bear can, which does not need to be hung from any trees.
Blue bag: Also known as a WAG bag. Primarily used in glacier travel, but are now required in some high alpine, sensitive areas (lookin' at you, Mount Baker). Blue bags are sturdy plastic bags you use to capture your poop when burying it is not an option. Yes, you do have to carry your used blue bag out of the backcountry with you.
Cat hole: The hole you dig to poop in when you're hiking or backpacking and there are no facilities available.
Dispersed camping: Camping in the backcountry where there is no formal campground.
Coulee: A unique geologic feature, a coulee is a box-shaped valley shaped by the Ice Age Floods. Learn more from an actual geologist, and then go hike one.
Cyn: The abbreviation for canyon on road signs. You're most likely to see this in Central Washington.
False summit: The incredibly frustrating feature of many peak hikes, where you think you're at the top, only to see the real summit much further away. Frequently marked by moans, despair or actual tears.
Ford: Crossing a river, usually involving taking off boots and/or getting the lower half of your body wet. This can be a noun or a verb. So "I forded the river" or, "there is a ford of the river on this hike." Fording can be dangerous, particularly in the spring when water is high. Consider the strength of the river you're fording and the depth of the water before proceeding.
Larch: No, they're not sick or dying pine trees. Larches are a high alpine conifer tree with needles that turns gold in the fall, prompting visitation by hundreds of hikers, often referred to as a larch march.
Lookout: Originally built to house forest service or park staff who would live in the lookout during wildfire season and help spot wildfires, now lookouts are popular destinations for hikers. Some can even be rented, but they are historic structures and maintained largely by volunteers. If they are locked and shuttered, do not attempt to enter them.
Saddle: The low area between two hills or mountains in the shape of a saddle. Trails often climb up to and pass through a saddle, before descending the other side.
Scree: A pile (or field) of rocks, formed over time by breaking off of a cliff or rock face above. Can sometimes be used interchangeably with talus, though scree usually refers to rocks smaller in size.
Talus: Like scree, talus fields are formed by chunks of rock breaking off from slopes above. Talus can refer to rocks that are larger or smaller, more stable or loose.
Tarn: A high alpine lake without inlets or outlets, usually created from pools of snow melting. Not great to swim in, since the oils from your body (and bug spray, and sunscreen) remain behind.
Eating + Gear
Bivy: Short for 'bivouac', a bivy (or bivy sack) is a minimalist shelter that can be used instead of a tent. A bivy is generally just big enough to cover your sleeping bag and face, with minimal protection from the elements.
Crampons: Metal spikes that attach to your hiking boots to make it easier to grip when hiking on ice (and in some cases, hard-packed snow). Sometimes used interchangeably with the word microspikes, thought they are different pieces of gear. Microspikes have smaller spikes and attach to your boots differently. Both are considered "traction" devices.
Gaiter: Pieces of fabric that wrap around the lower part of your pants and attach to your boots in order to keep out snow, dirt, pine needles, leaves and the dreaded tick. Some are tall and waterproof to keep out snow; others are short and breathable.
Gearhead: Someone who is extremely knowledgeable about gear. Like, knows things about gear you didn't know you needed to know. And frankly, you probably don't need to know. But if you're into that, you can talk for literally hours about it.
GORP: Stands for Good Old Raisins and Peanuts. The original trail mix. Now sometimes used to refer to all sorts of trail mix. Mostly people just say trail mix.
Alpine start: Getting up basically in the middle of the night to start hiking in the dark, often for the purpose of accomplishing a really long hike or climb in one day. (More common in the climbing community, but also applicable for Enchantments thru-hikes, summits of volcanoes, and when you decide doing a hike before going into the office would be fun). Good for seeing sunrises.
Bonk: The energy crash that comes if you haven't properly hydrated or eaten enough food during the day. Also can happen if you're just doing something very physically challenging and your body is running out of steam. Take a break, have a snack, drink some water and sit still for a while.
Type 2 fun: There are two types of fun, best illustrated by an approximation of your inner monologue while you're experiencing them.
Type 1 - An experience you are really enjoying in the moment and hope for it to continue forever. While it's happening, you think: "Wow, this is the best, I am having so much fun right now."
Type 2 - You're in a situation you wish would end, and you sort of hate yourself for getting yourself into it. But a few days later, you think: "That was awesome, I should do that again." Type 2 fun also usually involves experiencing it with your friends, because shared suffering is bonding. Think about how close people get doing crossfit.
Some people say there's a third type of fun (appropriately, type 3). However, this is not actually fun. This is a Type 2 fun experience but involving actual danger. It's an experience you do not wish to repeat regardless of how much time passes.