Category Archives: Appalachian Trail

Thru-hiking Lingo for the Appalachian Trail

The plaque at Springer Mountain.

Thinking of hiking the Appalachian Trail? (That’s “AT” to those in the know). It’s not enough to walk the walk; you gotta talk the talk, too.

Here’s some lingo you’re going to be hearing for the next, oh, five or six months.

(The following list is mostly directly related to the Appalachian Trail; I didn’t include “regular” hiking terms. If you’ve got some to add, please put them in the comments section below this post!)

On the Trail

  • Lean-to: (Also called a shelter): A primitive three-sided structure for sheltering hikers. First come first served, and the ethos is to squeeze as many in as possible, especially in bad weather.
  • Stealth camping: Camping in such a way that you can’t (easily) be seen. It doesn’t necessarily mean camping illegally — but it sometimes does.
  • Water bars: Stone bars that help channel; water off the trail.
  • Double blazes: indicate a change of direction.
  • Relo: A change in the route of the trail: Can be temporary or permanent.
  • PUDs. Pointless ups and downs. Many blue blazers (see below) try to avoid PUDs.

Trail Folk: Who We Are

  • SoBo and NoBo: Southbounder and northbounder; indicates a hiker’s direction of travel.
  • White blazer: A hiker who assiduously follows the exact, official  marked (white-blazed) route of the Appalachian Trail.
  • Blue blazer: A hiker who takes alternate routes, such as old AT routes that have since been relocated (often marked in blue); often blueblazers are blueblazing to avoid PUDs..
  • Yellow blazer: A hiker who “cheats” by hitchhiking (following the yellow marks on a highway).
  • Purist: A hiker who white blazes. often expresses a critical attitude about people who blue blaze, and let’s not even talk about yellow blazing.
  • Triple Crowner: A hiker who has completed the Appalachian, Pacific crest, and Continental Divide national scenic trails.
  • Hiker trash: What we all affectionately call each other when we’re covered with grime and headed for the nearest bar.
  • Thru-hiker: Yup, we spell it wrong. We’re into the lightweight thing; we get rid of stuff (like letters) we don’t need.
  • Section-hiker: Hikers who hike the entire Appalachian Trail over a stretch of several or many years.
  • 2000-milers: Anyone who has hiked the entire AT.
  • End-to-Ender: Same as above.

Thru-Hiking Gear and Stuff

  • Ultralight: A style of hiking where gear is chosen according to weight; the goal is the lightest pack possible.
  • FSO: From-the-skin-out: A measure used by weight-obsessed ultralight hikers to account for every ounce they carry, right down to their underwear.
  • Hiker box: A box maintained in some hostels or other trail service providers where hikers can donate food and equipment they no longer need to those coming after them.
  • Flyer: A box of  supplies you mail to yorself, to a location farther up the trail.
  • Mail drops: Boxes you prepackage when still at home and bribe a friend or family member to send to you at various post offices and hostels along the way.
  • Resupply: Going into town to get more food, pick up your mail drops, or  stock up or repair gear.
  • Vitamin I : Ibuprofen: What you need to carry all that stuff.

Trail Culture

  • Trail Daze: Hiker variation of Trail Days, the annual town festival in Damascus, Virginia, which brings hundreds of current and former thru-hikers into town.
  • Ruck: A ruck is technically an informal gathering, but in recent years, informal gatherings have become scheduled events at various places along the trail.
  • Register: A notebook left in a lean-to, trail head, or hostel, where hikers record pretty much whatever they want to. it’s the hub of the  non-digital hiker communication system.
  • Taking a zero: (zero-mile day): Taking a full day off in town or on the trail, where you do no hiking at all. (A “Nero” is a “nearly zero” day.)
  • Getting off: The polite way to say someone is quitting their thru-hike, the implication being he may get back on.
  • Flip-flopping: Continuing to hike the trail, but driving to another location and resuming hiking in a different direction. (“He was going NoBo, but he’s going SoBo because he realized he’d never make it to Katahdin in time, so he flip-flopped.”)
  • Slackpacking: It used to mean hiking at a leisurely pace, but on the AT the term has gotten commandeered to mean hiking without a pack (by getting someone to deliver it ahead for you).
  • Yogiing: Good naturedly trying to get day-users to give you food or drinks without actually asking.
  • Yoyoing: Doing back-to-back thru-hikes of the A.T., one in each drirection.
  • Trail name: It’s like a truck driver’s “handle.” You can try to name yourself — or you can “acquire” a name on the trail. (Do that at your own risk!)

 Trail Communities

Katahdin, the northern terminus.
  • Trail towns: Towns that are very close to the trail and are popular re-supply and rest stops because they have what hikers need and/or are especially friendly to hikers.
  • Ridge runner: Usually a paid summer position in crowded sections of the trail: Think of them as A.T. rangers.
  • Maintainer: Volunteers who keep the trail cleared of blowdowns (downed trees), cut down widow makers (hanging branches) and build puncheons (bog bridges).
  • Trail magic:  The serendipity of meeting someone on the trail who offers hospitality or help, usually when you need it most.
  • Trail angels: Purveyors of trail magic.
  • Hike your own hike: What we tell each other to let people make their own decisions about whiteblazing, flip-flopping, and other crucial issues of the thru-hiking world.

Appalachian Trail Thru-Hiking: A Primer

This overview is the first in a series of posts about how to plan, prepare, and pack for long-distance hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

Every spring, some 2,000 people converge at Springer Mountain, the southern terminus of the Appalachian Trail’s in northwest Georgia. A couple of hundred more start later in the season, going southbound from Mt. Katahdin, the Appalachian Trail’s northern terminus in Maine.

Historically, the drop-out rate has been enormous, with some 90 percent of those who start failing to finish. More recently, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, the completion rate has been higher – as much as 25 or 30 percent – perhaps due to the amount of information now available.

First Things First

Get some hiking experience! Sounds obvious? Unbelievably, some people show up at the trail having never backpacked before. Perhaps they were inspired by a slide show or a book, but it takes more than a dream to hike 2,200 miles

Long-distance backpacking involves aches and pains, smelly socks, smellier tent mates, foul weather (including mud, rain, snow, heat, and humidity), insects, rodents, roots, rocks, and sheer exhaustion. There are plenty of wonderful rewards — but not everyone is cut out to be a long-distance hiker. It’s better to find out first, before quitting a job and taking six months off!

  •  Preparation.  Read about it. Couples, old men, young women, a blind hiker, a family: it seems that everyone has penned his or her story of an Appalachian Trail thru-hike. What’s especially interesting is that these books and Internet accounts have so much in common. Everyone, it seems, starts with a too-heavy pack.
  • Fitness. It’s certainly true that the only way to truly get ready to put on a pack and walk up a mountain is to put on a pack and walk up a mountain. But hikers who are fit at the start are going to be a whole lot happier than hikers who aren’t. Anything aerobic will help.
  • Equipment: One rule is constant. Packs should be as light as possible. Most experienced long-distance backpackers use the lightest gear available. Or modify gear to cut weight. You’ll find specific gear suggestions under our “Equipment” category.
  • Foot preparation: Be sure shoes fit properly, are broken in and are comfortable going uphill and down — BEFORE you start your hike. Thru-hikers use either trekking shoe or hiking boots; the decision depends on pack-weight, ankle strength, and fitness.
  • Resupply Planning: Most hikers pre-pack food and supplies that they have bought in advance. Then someone at home mails the boxes to general delivery at post offices along the Appalachian Trail. Zip codes can be found in the Thru-Hikers Companion or the Data Book (see the section below, on resources). It is possible to buy supplies en route, although small towns may have only a tiny convenience store with limited supplies. Most hikers send boxes to the smaller towns, and do a combination of mail drops and en-route shopping in larger towns.

Appalachian Trail Planning Resources for Itineraries and Resupply

The Appalachian Trail Conservancy has a long list of books, guides, maps, and resources on every aspect of the Appalachian Trail. Contacting them and looking through the resources available at their website and Trail Store should be your first stop.

  • The A.T Data Book is a pocket-sized book containing information about trail mileages between water sources, campsites, mountain summits, road crossings, towns, and other features.
  • Guidebooks and maps are available for each region of the trail from the Appalachian Trail Conservancy. Each pack contains a series of trail maps, profile maps (showing elevation change along with major landmarks), and a guidebook for that section.
  • The Thru-Hiker’s Companion, published by the Appalachian Long Distance Hikers Association, contains information about major trail landmarks , but is most useful for its information about towns where hikers can resupply, do laundry, find cheap accommodations, and get meals.

Five million steps, one after the other. All it takes is thorough planning, a positive attitude, and a sense of adventure!

Karen Berger has thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail.

Lessons From A Walk in the Woods, at Night

This is a story in which nothing happens. but much could have… and that’s what I want to share.

A couple of weeks ago, you would have found me hiking up the Jug End on the Massachusetts Appalachian Trail at 8:30 in the evening, in the quickly falling dark. I carried a stick I had found on the forest floor to which I had jerry-rigged a battery-operated musician’s light. (Reason: I hadn’t been able to quickly find a headlamp, and I needed to be quick). I was not carrying raingear (it wasn’t going to rain) and I wasn’t carrying warm clothes (it wasn’t cold — yet, although that would change as the night wore on). I did have an orange and a pint of water in a shoulder pack slung across my back. I had not left a note on my car, and I had left no word at home where I was going. And, if you know the Jug End hike: It’s steep and rocky, and here in Massachusetts in August, it’s getting dark earlier every day.
So right about now, you are (I hope) wondering: What did she think she was doing, and why the heck am I taking advice on hiking from THIS woman?

The Phone Call:

Here’s what happened: At about 8 p.m., I got a call from an AT thru-hiker who had been planning to stay the night at my house. I had been expecting to pick her up at the trail, oh, about two hours earlier, so I was concerned, and very relieved to hear from her. But then she told me she was feeling ill, and she was still up high on the Taconic Ridge. The trail up there is one of those boulder-strewn ups-and-downs that makes for slow going, even for a fit thru-hiker 1,500 or so miles into the hike.  She was calling from her cell; she didn’t know exactly where she was or when she would be down and dusk was falling. I, on the other hand, knew what lay between the top and the bottom on that section of trail: A couple of miles of steep rocky scramble. And I was worried.

First of all, she was hiking alone. And second, she was “slackpacking” and didn’t  have much (or really, anything) in the way of gear. I had met her earlier that morning at the trailhead and I’d taken her pack to my house so she could hike unencumbered for a day. She had a rain jacket, but no flashlight. And she certainly didn’t have what she needed  to spend the night. With dark falling so quickly, she might not have enough light to get out.

When you’re exhausted and it’s dark, the descent off Jug End is about the last place on the entire Massachusetts AT you want to be. So I told her I’d drive over to the trail (It’s about five minutes from my house) and start hiking up to meet her.

Well, my hiking stuff was in total disarray at the moment: I knew where my boots were, and that was about it. I’m not the most organized of people at the best of times, but my hiking stuff had been displaced by a home renovation project; in the current disarray, no way was I going to be able to find a headlamp quickly (let alone a working one with the right sized batteries). And as luck would have it, our house emergency flashlights — the ones we keep around for power outages — all seemed to have come down with some type of flashlight illness… dead batteries, rusty contact points, etc. So I grabbed the one light I did have handy: a four-LED-bulb musician’s light — the kind orchestra players use to light their music stands. And I headed out.

Driving to the trail, I couldn’t help but notice how quickly night was falling, and how very dark the woods looked. I parked at the trail head, and as soon as I started into the woods, I immediately realized that heading onto a dark trail in the fast-falling night was with no gear and a tiny music light was not an ideal situation. I especially missed my walking sticks, which I’d simply forgotten — they live right by the front door, so there’s no excuse for that. But trail magic is pretty reliable, and an obliging hiker had left a perfect stick right on the trail.  I clipped the base of the musician’s light to the stick.

But I didn’t turn it on: There was a full moon, and I’ve found with night-hiking that your eyes can often adjust. Until you really need artificial light, you can be better off without it. Although it was dark, I could pretty much feel the trail underfoot; every once in a while I caught a glimpse of white blazes, which seemed to briefly catch the moonlight through the pines. I made sure I always noted where the blazes were, because it’s easy to wander off on an animal trail. However, luck was with me again, as this part of the trail is frequently marked. Plus it’s on a pretty steep ridge: There isn’t really anywhere else to go.


It was actually a nice walk: Perfect temperature, clear night, no bugs, quiet and peaceful. I settled into a moderate rest step, and climbed about half an hour before it got too dark to pick out the blazes anymore. All the while I was wondering just what exactly I thought I was doing: If the hiker had been injured, I wasn’t carrying anything useful except for water and an orange. The most I’d be able to do would be go back down for help. Or, I could get myself into trouble in the dark and become a second problem for someone else to solve. I walked carefully, and slowed down on the rocky bits.  I had deliberately not left a note at home because I didn’t want to worry my partner. That was (very) arguably a dumb move, but my partner isn’t a hiker, and I didn’t want him freaking out and calling the  volunteer fire brigade just because it was dark. It seemed like a good reason at the time, but as I continued uphill, it started sounding dumber and dumber, even in my own mind.

Finally, after I’d been walking close to a half an hour, It was fully dark. When I could no longer see any hint of a blaze, I turned the light on, and shone it up the mountain, hoping it could be seen from above. Sure enough, I heard a yell, from quite a ways up. I resisted the temptation to call out “Dr. Livingstone, I presume” and continued the climb.

When we met, my friend was relieved; she’d been thinking of simply sitting down and waiting for me, but she didn’t know how far she still had to go, or how long it would take me to get to her, or how cold it would be by then. We walked back down together, me carrying the light above both of us like a camera man’s lighting assistant. We looked ridiculous.

And that was that: No drama, no real problems. It may have been another 20 minutes till we got back to the truck. We drove home, ate a lot of food, and slept.

Lessons From a Non-Event

But I thought this little story of a non-disaster worth sharing because it has an alternate ending. Rain, which would have made the descent frankly dangerous. A fall. One, or both of us, getting lost off trail. It did get cold later that night, cold enough that the tree frogs stopped yammering. Cold enough that a stranded hiker might have become hypothermic.

Bad luck can happen, even to a thru-hiker with thousands of miles of experience. I wasn’t exactly being Ms. Brilliant Outdoors Educator by choosing to head up the mountain quickly, rather than stopping to try to find some gear. It seemed like the right thing to do — to try and get myself and my light up the mountain as far and fast as possible. It turned out to be the right choice… but it might not have been.

It takes smarts to learn from your own experiences. It takes real brilliance to learn from other people’s disasters. But it takes something else — perhaps imagination — to learn from what could have happened to someone else — and didn’t. Not to say “Well, everything worked out and was great” but “What can I learn from what didn’t happen.”

Please imagine.

As for us: I’m pretty sure next time my friend slackpacks, there’s going to be a headlamp in her daypack. For my part, it wouldn’t hurt to have a first aid kit and a little daypack containing the ten essentials on hand. Plus fresh batteries.

As it turned out, we had a power outage in the house that night …. and the piano light, still tied to the make-shift walking stick, was pressed into service again.

Appalachian Trail: An Overview

I’ve been wanting to start a series of articles about great long hikes for a long time, so here goes. And if you’re going to talk about long hikes, then as far as I’m concerned, you HAVE to start with the Appalachian Trail. It’s the great-granddaddy of the long-distance hiking movement, coming up on a century old, and it has an iconic status in the hiking world that is, quite simple, unassailable.  

Maine’s Mighty Katahdin, the Northern Terminus

Let’s get the numbers out of the way. 

  • 14 states (from Georgia to Maine).
  • It takes between 4 and 6 months to hike the whole thing, depending on how fast you go.
  • As of today’s writing, according to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, which manages the trail, 11,823 people have completed the entire trail from end to end. 
  • The youngest was a six-year old boy; the oldest a 71-year old woman (An 80 year woman is the oldest section hiker; ie, person to complete the entire trail in a series of sections hiked over several years). 
  • Approximately 25 percent of thru-hikers are women.
  • The trail encompasses some 250,000 acres of public land.
  • It runs for nearly 2,200 miles. (The precise length keeps changing due to slight locations to move the trail to better routings as they become available through easements, or to respond to storm damage.)

What is interesting to me is the head-and-shoulders dominance of the Appalachian Trail as a long-distance hiking destination. Since 2000, Some 600 hikers a year complete the trail —  out of 2,000 – 3,000 starters. Compare this to the several hundred to who attempt the Pacific Crest Trail — and the few dozen who actually succeed. The ATC estimates that some 2 – 3 million people hike on the trail each year, making it one of America’s most popular national parklands.Yet you can still find yourself totally alone with nature.

There’s no question that other trails are higher, have more stunning scenery, spend more time above treeline, have more variety… but it’s the AT that draws the hikers.

Appalachian Trail Basic Geography and Terrain

A few points about the AT if you’re considering hiking a chunk of it. (And thru-hikers: Check this article about basic Appalachian Trail thru-hiking information; it’s the beginning of a series for thur-hikers):

The trail can be roughly divided into four sections: The South (Georgia, North Carolina, and Tennessee), Virginia (along with West Virginia and Maryland), the mid-Atlantic states (Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York), and New England (Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine).

Southern Terminus Marker at Springer Mountain

The South has the highest mountains (although none of them poke above treeline, as they do in New Hampshire and Maine), along with a variety of terrain, from easy rambles to straight up and down scrambles. The Great Smokey Mountains National Park is a good starting point for beginners, with a combination of well-marked and maintained trails and spectacular mountain landscapes.

Virginia is possibly the easiest of the four sections, with sections of trail that are downright gentle. Thru-hikers typically hike about 20 miles a day here (or more).This section’s highlights in include Shenandoah National Park and the Mt. Rogers, which has dramatic open mountain terrain and wild ponies.

The “Long Green Tunnel”

The mid-Atlantic section may be where the trail got its nickname, the “Long Green Tunnel.”  But although the elevations are low, that doesn’t necessarily make for easy trail: Pennsylvania is called “Rocksylvania” because of the rocky glacial debris left all over the place. The New Jersey section is surprsingly wild and beautiful: It starts at Interstate 80, and immediately climbs past lovely Sunfish Pond, which is a glacial tarn. The trail then hugs ridges covered with mountain laurel. New York boasts the oldest miles of trail, in Bear Mountain State Park, and the lowest elevations (at the Bear Mountain Zoo), but there are lots of what hikers call  “PUDs” (pointless ups and downs; for more thru-hiker lingo, check out the AT lingo post) which add up to enormous elevation gains and losses.

Autumn in New Hampshire

In New England, the trail just gets prettier and prettier. The Connecticut and Massachusetts sections are varied, from the riverbeds of the Housatonic to the rocky outcrops of the Berkshire ridges. In southern Vermont, the AT is contiguous with the Long Trail before it veers east to new Hampshire and Maine where the trail finally breaks free on treeless mountain summits, navigates hiking trail that at times resembles rock climbing more than hiking (mileage goes WAY down here), then ambles through Maine’s so-called “100-Mile wilderness” and ends in glory atop Katahdin.

A Community in the Wilderness

An Appalachian Trail Shelter

If the Appalachian Trail were merely all that… the long mileage, the 14 states, the thousands of mountains … it would be remarkable, but there is another aspect to it: The trail community, which encompasses the thru-hikers, the day-hikers, the weekenders, the volunteers, the managers, the townspeople, the hostel owners, the shelters where hikers cluster together, and the hiking alumni who show up for trail festivals or to dispense a bit of ‘trail magic” — taking hikers home, giving them a bit of a trail vacation.

And all this takes place within a few hours’ drive of most of the East Coast metropoli. You can actually see New York City from the trail (atop West Mountain, in New York), and take a train in on the commuter line, which stops at the eponymous Appalachian Trail station. Benton MacKaye, the trail’s founder, envisioned the trail as a place for respite, recreation, and rejuvenation from a American’s increasingly urban environment. He envisioned communities visiting these rural areas, linked by a trail: staying a farms and in the forests, creating a sort of wilderness community. His utopian vision didn’t quite come to fruit as he intended, but instead morphed into a trail community that in its own way does what he envisioned: provide a chance to reconnect with nature in a profound and rejuvenating way. 

And that, I think is the crux of what makes this trail so special. The number of people who hike it, the volunteers who maintain it, the trail shelters where hikers gather and sleep, the trail festivals that have sprung up in communities along the route: All of these have created something more than a mere hiking trail. The AT is a community in the wilderness: Two ideas that don’t go together.

Biologists tell us that the richest areas in an ecosystem are the places where two different types of communities come together: forest and marsh, lake and prairie, sand dune and salt marsh. In such places, ecological communities support the species of each overlapping ecosystem, as well as a few species unique to the intersection. That, I think, is the magic of the Appalachian Trail: In the juxtaposition of community and wilderness, we find something unique: part wild, part civilized — and entirely magical.