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23 May 2024

Like everything else, the outdoors has a language of its own. The intention of this website is to avoid being overly technical and lingo-obsessed. Presented here are terms that may be used here, but often enough will be used out in the field and the definitions could help you understand what someone else is talking about. At the very least, they may be good terms to drop and impress at a party. We will add to this list as we encounter terms and deem their definition to be of some importance.

alpine zone: The area above the treeline (where trees won’t grow).

altimeter: An instrument that measures altitude.

backcountry: Isolated, remote, undeveloped rural regions that can be difficult to access because, for the most part, they lack roads and sometimes even trails. Wilderness often is used interchangeably, but describes the state of land as untouched, truly or virtually, by humans.

blaze: Don’t even go there … this is a mark (eg., paint spot or arrow) often on the side of a tree to identify a trail.

brook/creek/river/stream: Many use stream when they mean brook or creek and technically it is neither. It is any body of moving water that follows a defined channel. The hierarchy of streams is brookcairn: Obvious, manmade pile of rocks that mark trails, not the presence of ghosts or witches (as in “The Blair Witch Project”).

canopy: Uppermost layer of forest formed by the crown of trees.

cirque: Glacier-formed, semicircular or crescent-shaped basins with steep sides.

gaiters: Protective material, at least water resistant and often waterproof, that attaches tightly over boots to keep feet free of debris, mud and water.

habitat: A place that supports a living being by supplying its basic needs for food, water, shelter, living space and protection.

headlamp: Small but often powerful flashlight attached with a band or strap and attached to the head. It helps light a trail or a task in darkness.

junction: Where two trails meet.

knob: Prominent rounded hill or mountain.

loop trail: A route that returns to its starting point without forcing a hiker travel any section or portion more than once.

massif: A large mountain mass, or compact group of connected mountains that form an independent portion of a range.

NPS: National Park Service, the U.S. agency that administrates national parks.

old growth: A forest that never has been logged, or was logged so long ago as to contain a large percentage of mature trees.

out and back: A hike that follows a trail to a certain point and returns via the same trail.

pond: A still body of water smaller than a lake.

potable water: Drinkable water, mostly lacking health hazards.

privy: A trailside outhouse, or small structure covering a toilet pit or container. Finding toilet paper and hand cleaner are major bonuses.

saddle: A ridge between two peaks.

shoulder season: The transition periods into and out of prime hiking seasons – early spring and late fall. These periods are treasured by devout hikers because the trails become uncrowded.

spire: A tall and narrow rock formation.

spur, or spur trail: A trail that leads from a primary or even secondary trail to points of interest, such as viewpoints, geological features or campsites.

summit: The highest point of a mountain. Also used in verb form to signify reaching the highest point of a mountain.

switchbacks: Building a trail so as to zig zag up the face of a hill or mountain. They make the climb easier and help prevent erosion, which is why hikers should avoid switchback-cutting (short cutting by skipping the bend, zig or zag).

tarn: A mountain lake or pond, formed by glaciers and filled by river or rain water, often located in a cirque.

trailhead: The beginning of a trail, usually signed and, at more-popular locations, can be accompanied by privies (sometimes even restrooms), picnic areas, bulletin board and fee collection station.

understory: The shrubs and plants growing below the forest capony.

USGS: U.S. Geological Society, the federal agency that monitors and studies the country’s landscape, natural resources and natural hazards. As part of that task, it creates highly detailed, topographical maps used by hikers.

wilderness: The concept of “pristine” is the ideal, but realistically areas where human impact has been minimal to nonexistent.