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Hiking the Pacific Crest Trail Pt.II: Trail Names & Terminology

Trail names are a tradition on all thru-hikes. They can only be given to you by another hiker, and this could be someone that you've known for a few days or less-than ten minutes. While many hikers will respect you if you don’t accept your trail name, there are a select few, who regardless of your denial, will still call you whatever crazy name they came up with. From grown men being called Sprinkles to addressing your best friend as a kitchen appliance, nothing is off limits. Once you get comfortable, calling people inanimate objects or calling someone you just met Papa seems totally normal.

Compass & Blender: Kennedy Meadows South 10/11/2019

Hello, my name is Compass aka Yellow Mom aka Dirty Tomato. My best friend, Blender, and I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) last year, and we were bestowed our trail names early on. If you want to read Part One of our adventures, check out the post here.

Aside from trail names, there’s a whole dictionary of trail terminology that makes up 90% of the conversations you'll have on the trail. Here are a few terms that are the most common, including some of my personal favorites:

1. NOBO, SOBO, and Flip-floppers:

When speaking about directions, north and south are replaced by NOBO and SOBO. NOBO, or northbound, refers to a hiker who starts at the Mexican border and ends at the Canadian border. SOBO, or a southbound hiker, starts at the Canadian border and ends at the Mexican border. A flip-flopper, like myself, is a hiker who completes the entire trail within the hiking season but doesn’t do the sections in order, and generally varies between going northbound and southbound. The most popular way to hike the trail is NOBO, and NOBO’s definitely reap the benefits on the PCT, as Southern California is full of trail magic and trail angels in the spring. When the SOBO’s hike through, later in the season, trail angels are fewer and farther between.

2. Trail Magic, Trail Angels, and Slack Packing:

Trail Magic is just that, magic. It’s when you turn a bend on the trail and Trail Angels are set up with a banquet of food to feed as many thru hikers as they can. This type of Trail Magic can often become a vortex; when you plan to spend just an hour, and don't end up leaving until the next day at noon. Trail Magic can also be as simple as an ice chest left on the trail, filled with drinks and other goodies and maintained by an anonymous Trail Angel. The best way to describe Trail Magic is like a mirage, but real.

Trail Angels don’t only feed hikers, they give you hitches (rides), places to stay, and more. Some Trail Angels may even give you the golden opportunity to slack pack. Slack-packing is when you take the weight off your shoulders, literally. A Trail Angel takes the heavily weighted items in your pack and drives with them to meet you up the trail, allowing you to hike along while wishing you were always an ultra-light hiker.

Perfect Spot for a Nap

3. Ultra-light Hiking and Cold Soaking:

To be considered an ultra-light hiker, a hiker’s backpack and gear weighs under ten pounds (not including food and water). An average pack's weighs approximately 20 pounds for non-ultra-light hikers. Many ultra-light hikers ditch the stove to save weight and simply use Tupperware to soak their dehydrated food and then eat it cold, known as cold soaking.

Speaking from the personal experience of an aspiring ultra-light hiker, this is not a great strategy to try in Washington. It’s constantly raining and you have to eat cold ramen, in wet clothes. Everyone else pulls out their stove and you are left to smell the delicious aromas of their warm, cooked foods. My attempt at cold soaking lasted about 500 hungry, unsatisfied miles.

4. Food Terms and What Happens After:

Ramen and instant mashed potatoes, aka the Ramen Bomb, is the pinnacle of the hiker food pyramid. It may not seem like a meal you’d usually envy, but on the trail this meal is the only thing that could challenge hiker hunger. Hiker Hunger is the bottomless pit that becomes a hiker’s stomach because... you’re always hungry! It often leads to you counting your food stores daily to see if any more food has miraculously appeared in your pack. Make sure to remind yourself how mad you’ll be if you don’t save a snickers bar for tomorrow.

Now, where does all this food go? When a hiker goes to church/goes to the office/ goes to see about a bear, a hiker goes off the trail to enjoy some time alone in the bushes and crosses their fingers that the trail doesn’t switch back leaving them in a very vulnerable position. Remember, always dig your hole 6-8 inches. And yes, dig it before.

5. Leave No Trace & Hiker Trash:

Leave No Trace

For being out in the woods, hikers sure do create a whole lot of trash, so Leave No Trace (LNT) is the main principle. Simply put, pack it in, pack it out! Leave only footprints. Holy grails come in waves on the PCT and they generally consist of toilets and trash cans. While you often carry a decent amount of trash with you on the trail, you also become trash as a thru-hiker. Hiker Trash is a compliment; it’s a proud title you wear. You’re dirty, you smell, you haven’t washed your clothes (and most likely your hands) for days, and your diet consists of anything you can shovel into your mouth. When you hitch-hike into town, some people will make you sit in the back of the truck because you’re a little too trail-fresh for their car interiors.

6. Zero, Hero, Nero and Resupplying:

Family Zero Day

Going into town consists of resupplying, eating, laundry, and showering. Resupplying is getting any food, gear, or supplies you need for the next section of trail. Once you get all your chores done, the decision on whether or not to zero, nero, or hero has to be made. A zero is a day where you don’t hike any miles, generally spent in a hotel bed eating pizza and ice cream. You could nero, when you only hike a few miles into or out of town and spend the rest of the day doing nothing except eating. Lastly hero, rare and quite exotic, is when you hike into town, resupply and then hike back out in the same day. This is a mystical concept that leads to a lot of respect for a hiker. I never once heroed, but I’ve got a good list of zeros and neros.

7. The Hiker Box & Hiking Styles

Another, more pleasant, holy grail is the Hiker Box, often found in local businesses and hotels in towns. This box is filled with other hikers' dirty, used belongings and half-eaten peanut butter jars. You'll find yourself sorting through and celebrating when you find something that you needed, all while avoiding any concerns for cleanliness. Was the granola bar you took sitting right next to a shoe that someone most likely hiked 500+ miles in? Yes. Can you let that disturb you? No.

This is all part of Hiking Your Own Hike (HYOH) and allowing the “trail to provide”, the mantra of thru-hiking. Take the zero if you want to, hike 5 miles a day or 35. You have to listen to your body and allow the trail to provide for you. There is no right or wrong way to hike. Whether you’re a purist, a hiker who has a true continuous footpath and ensures that they do not miss a mile of trail, or you’re a fan of yellow blazing, hitchhiking from one trail town to another to bypass a few or many miles of trail, the trail provides the unimaginable.

Now that you know the basics, get on out there!

Happy Trails,


Northern terminus 6/29/2020


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