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Do You Speak Backpacker?

Author: Shawnté Salabert

April 23, 2019

Every sport has its insider lingo, and backpacking is no different. Whether you’ve logged thousands of miles or are strapping on a pack for the first time, here are some key terms that will help you decode fellow hikers’ trail talk.

Altitoots: You’ve probably heard that symptoms of altitude sickness typically appear once you’ve reached a certain elevation; the same is true for farts. Please note that if you’re eating freeze-dried meals, your altitoots will definitely smell like an extra-rancid version of whatever you ate for dinner the night before.

Bear Burrito: Take one tender backpacker and coat liberally with sweat and sunscreen. Stuff inside a sleeping bag. Leave the whole thing outside overnight. Hot sauce optional. See also: Cowboy Camping

Bear Piñata: Have you heard of the “PCT Hang,” where you carefully toss your food bag over a tree branch, then secure it with a rope, carabiner, and twig so that hungry bears can’t reach your precious cargo? Yeah, this.

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Bearea: This is an area where bears live, obviously.

Bearmuda Triangle: If you’re camping in a bearea, it’s good practice to space out the distance between your tent, your camp kitchen, and your bear piñata. More importantly, this is where your bear canister disappears to if you don’t secure it properly overnight.

Bonus Miles: An affliction usually avoided by goal-minded thru-hikers. Example: “So it’s three non-PCT miles to check out a stunning alpine lake and/or amazing view and/or famous peak? No, thanks—I’m not interested in hiking any bonus miles.” (Important note: bonus miles are always valid if they will result in the hiker obtaining food as a reward.)

Christmas Toes: You’ve just hiked 2,650 miles—congratulations! For your efforts, you receive a lifetime’s worth of high fives, a treasure trove of memories, and a free set of kinda screwed up feet complete with a residual numbness in your toes that will last until the holidays!

Cowboy Camping: If the weather report reads crystal clear, go ahead and roll out your sleeping pad, fluff up your sleeping bag, and prepare to spend the night with nothing above your head other than the sparkling night sky. Just make sure you conveniently forget about scorpions. And tarantulas. And mountain lions. And definitely don’t remember that I told you that I know a guy who once woke up with a snoozing rattlesnake snuggled up against his warm abdomen.

Food Fantasies: This affliction sometimes hits day hikers, but becomes a near-obsession for backpackers, especially as the miles stretch on and the food bag grows lighter. I once spent thirty torturous minutes descending knee-busting switchbacks while debating the merits of various potato products with a fellow hiker. In case you’re wondering, tater tots were the clear winner. And no, I couldn’t find any at my next resupply stop. And yes, I might have teared up a little bit upon realizing that. See also: Hiker Hunger

Gram Weenie: There’s lightweight, there’s ultralight, and then there’s gram weenie territory. Those who fall under this category will do anything to achieve pack weight nirvana—they’re the types who create a spreadsheet detailing the weight of each item in their pack down to a tenth of gram, slice away nearly every cord and strap on their backpack until it’s practically naked, and aggressively file down their toothbrush until it looks kind of like a prison shiv.

Hiker Hunger: Sure, you’re probably a bit peckish after a day hike, but you don’t know the true depths of hunger until you’re a few weeks into a long-distance trek. There is no single food item, no one meal, no all-you-can-eat buffet that can satisfy the ravenous pangs of a thru-hiker’s calorie-deprived stomach. True story: I know hikers who got off trail, rented a car, drove to Vegas, spent several hours feasting at a casino all-you-can-eat buffet, only to get kicked out before they felt even mildly full.

Hiker Midnight: Yawn. It is 9 o’clock and no matter how many times you say you’re gonna stay up and stare at the night sky or chat with fellow hikers around the campfire, you are definitely tucked inside your bear burrito, fast asleep by the time hiker midnight rolls around.

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Hiker Tan: This is like a farmer’s tan, but comprised primarily of dirt.

Packsplosion: Oh, do you need your water filter? Or your first aid kit? Or your headlamp? Right now? Silly hiker, you know it’s buried in the bottomless depths of your pack, so you’re going to need to unearth every single thing, including that damn bear canister you worked so hard to cram inside, until you find it.

Penalty Potatoes: Everyone has their own version of “penalty potatoes,” that one food you carry throughout your entire trip, but secretly hope you never have to eat. For some, it’s protein bars. For others, tuna packets. For me, it’s oatmeal, which went from “healthy breakfast staple” to “gelatinous concrete gut bomb that I hate with all of my being.” Good thing I packed plenty of it in every single resupply box one very sad summer!

Ray Way: Ray Jardine is widely considered to be a pioneer in ultralight hiking, especially given the popularity of his “Ray-Way” DIY gear kits. But what if you take ultralight a step beyond gear, and go the extra mile to make your body ultralight … by pooping? That’s right, you’ve gone and taken a Ray Way!

Second Breakfast: Once hiker hunger sets in, there’s no limit to the amount of meals you can consume in one day! Ate breakfast at 7 a.m., but feeling hangry at 10 a.m.? It’s time for second breakfast! Downed 1,000 calories of ramen at 5 p.m., but seriously considering slathering peanut butter on your own arm come 7 p.m.? Well, it’s time for second dinner!

Town Clothes: Town stops offer up the opportunity to wash your disgusting hiking clothes (which you should probably just burn at a certain point, honestly), but what to wear while you’re waiting at the laundromat? Many hikers sit around sweating uncomfortably in their rain clothes, which have a way of sticking to your skin in exactly the wrong places. Others scamper around wearing sundresses, shorts, and T-shirts they stashed in their pack or a resupply box—or raid the local thrift store for the cheapest, most garish outfits they can find. This is an excellent excuse to wear cotton without living in fear.

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Town Gut: When hiker hunger and sudden availability cloud your judgment on quality and quantity of food consumed during a town stop, your digestive system will likely revolt. Case in point: my decision to eat not one, but two juicy cheeseburgers one afternoon during my second month on trail…despite having a sensitivity to gluten, and despite not having eaten red meat in many, many years. I may or may not have spent the entire next day on trail limping uncomfortably from cathole to cathole.

Tramily: These are the people you fall into a rhythm with on trail. You hike together, eat meals together, camp together, hitch rides together, and definitely talk about poop together. Your trail family. Awww.

Vitamin I: This is ibuprofen, sustainer of life.

Vortex: Hikers beware—the lure of town is very strong. The abundance of food! The free-flowing beverages! The flush toilets! The camaraderie of hostel life! Before you know it, days will have passed…and your strength, motivation, and wallet will be sapped.

Water Math: Pay very close attention in school, kids, because there will be a day when you are standing next to a spring or creek or lake, looking at your trail map or app while trying to guesstimate just how much water you need to make it to camp or the next source without carrying unnecessary weight. The most brilliant water mathematicians among us have their formulas down to a science and will happily gloat to anyone within earshot that they arrived at each source having just consumed their last drop.

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Yogi: Do you know who is smarter than an average bear when it comes to procuring food from human beings? Backpackers. Rarely will the yogi say outright that they are hungry or that they want some food. Instead, they will linger in the vicinity, then strike up a casual conversation that may include saying things like: “What are you eating?” “Oh, gosh, that looks good!” “Boy, all I have left are a few Clif bars.” “Did you hear that? It sounded like a bear, but might have just been my stomach.” Then poof—like magic, they are now smiling and eating someone else’s food and their unwitting mark feels very, very good about helping a hungry hiker avoid starvation.

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Photos by Austin Siadak, Elise Giordano and Brendan Leonard.

Shawnté Salabert

Shawnté Salabert is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer with a taste for wild spaces. Her work has appeared in Backpacker, Alpinist, Outside Online, Adventure Journal, Modern Hiker, REI Co-op Journal, Land+People, and other outlets. She also wrote and photographed Hiking The Pacific Crest Trail: Southern California, which is available via Mountaineers
Books. For more information, visit shawntesalabert.com.