Long-Distance Hiking FAQ

Some of the things you somewhat wanted to know about long-distance hiking.


Q: What’s the appeal of long-distance hiking?
Q: Do you carry enough food and water for the entire hike?
Q: What are some good resources for beginners?
Q: Do you have any advice for beginners?
Q: Hiker language?
Q: How frequently do you shower?

Q: What’s the appeal of long-distance hiking?

A: Hikers will cite hundreds of reasons ranging from the old ‘because it’s there’ and wanting a challenge to deeply personal motives like battling depression. I was first inspired to try long-distance hiking by On the Trail of Genghis Khan, a documentary about a man who spent more than three years retracing the path of the Mongols across Asia. During my first hike, I became intrigued by living in a way so far beyond the boundaries of normalcy and what that taught me about values and priorities.

Q: Do you carry enough food and water for the entire hike?

A: No! Hikers replenish their food supplies in communities along trails (see ‘resupply box’, ‘bounce box’ and ‘trail town’ in the Glossary of Terms below) and collect water from natural sources like streams, lakes and swamps and artificial sources like cattle tanks. Generally hikers treat their water via filtering, chemical treatments like Aquamira or iodine, or with UV light using a Steripen.

Q: What are some good resources for beginners?

A: If you have your eye on a specific trail, the dedicated website for that trail (if it’s too obscure to have a website, it’s probably not a trail you would want to debut on) is the best place to start. All trails come with a specific set of challenges and knowing what you’re getting yourself into and having appropriate gear and skills for what you’ll encounter is the bread and butter of long-distance hiking. Research gear thoroughly with online reviews.

Q: Do you have any advice for beginners?

A: Place limited value in recommendations. All hikers have different needs and capabilities and it’s your responsibility to be able to judge e.g. how much water you should carry or whether you should attempt a difficult ford. Hikers are also wrong a lot of the time, even about basic trail information. You’re wrong. I’m wrong. We’re all wrong. But at least I can check my own data twice, and if I’m going to get screwed over, it might as well be by myself rather than some other chump.

If you’re buying gear for the first time or transitioning to lightweight gear, note that different manufacturers use different methods for measuring backpack capacity (e.g. a 48 L backpack). Check to see whether the product description on the website has a breakdown of where the litres are coming from. If the breakdown includes pocket space, the overall capacity will be less than that of a backpack produced by a company that doesn’t measure pocket space, even if they’re marketed as having the same capacity.

Sleeping bag/quilt temperature ratings are also all over the place. Even mainstream manufacturers can’t be relied on to have performed standardized tests, but some do. Always read reviews and take into account that women usually sleep colder than men.

Q: Hiker language?

A: Glossary of Terms

AT: Appalachian Trail.

AZT: Arizona Trail.

Base weight: The weight of one’s backpack without consumables like food and water. Sometimes hikers count fuel, sometimes they don’t.

Bounce box: A box that a hiker ‘bounces’ from post office to post office along a trail. Hikers often use bounce boxes for items they won’t need often (USPS Priority Mail boxes can be forwarded unopened for free) or as a resupply strategy to supplement supplies bought in trail towns.

Bushwhack: I use ‘bushwhacking’ to describe off-trail or off-route travel, but some people will use ‘cross-country’ if there’s no literal whacking of bushes.

Cathole: A hole dug in the ground for feces.

CDT: Continental Divide Trail.

Cowboy camping: Camping without a shelter.

Cross-country: I use this term to describe hiking without a trail or the guidance of a streambed/fence/etc., but along a designated route.

Established campsite: I use this term to describe a campsite that’s not part of a campground but where other hikers have obviously been camping. These campsites are often noted on maps/apps and are generally clear and flat on trails with a high number of users.

Fastest known time (FKT): The speed record for a long-distance trail.

Fence-walking/fence-following: I use these terms to describe walking alongside a fence with no built trail.

Flip-flopping: Jumping around on a trail and changing direction, generally because of snow, fire closures or seasonal weather. E.g. I flip-flopped during my 2019 PCT hike, yuck.

FT: Florida Trail.

GDT: Great Divide Trail.

GET: Grand Enchantment Trail.

Hiker midnight: 9:00 PM.

HT or Heysen: Heysen Trail.

LASHing: See long-ass section hiking below.

Long-ass section hiking: Walking a long-distance trail in sections long enough that they could be classified as long-distance trails themselves. Generally these would be chunks of hundreds of kilometres.

Long-distance hiking: An ambiguous term with a definition that differs among hikers. For me, it would be a hike long enough to warrant resupply or at least a huge food carry.

Maildrop: A resupply package mailed to a destination along a trail.

Nero: Near-zero. A day with a small amount of hiking, usually when a hiker is entering or leaving a town. Composition of bad poetry not required.

NOBO: Northbound.

OT: Overland Track.

PCT: Pacific Crest Trail.

Purist: The basic definition is someone who believes in hiking every metre of a trail as it’s laid out on maps. There are different degrees of purism – the most extreme I’ve encountered is a guy who made sure on his AT hike that when he hitchhiked back from towns he resumed his hike on the same side of the road he had left it from. On a hike like the PCT, which experiences fire closures every year, hikers generally accept detours as canon.

Resupply box: A supply box sent to a trail town, usually to the post office but sometimes to a hostel or hotel or anyone else who will accept it.

Sawyer Squeeze: A popular type of water filter.

Slackpacking: Hiking a portion of trail without one’s backpack, or with reduced gear/supplies.

SOBO: Southbound.

Steripen: A device that treats water using UV light.

Stream-walking/stream-following: I use this term to describe walking along a streambed with no built trail.

The Herd: There are ideal dates to start long-distance trails or reach certain sections while thru-hiking, e.g. hitting in Sierras in mid-June on the PCT, and on heavily used trails that creates a huge glob of hikers known as ‘the herd’. Sometimes capitalized for ominous effect.

Trail name: A nickname given to a hiker on the trail by other hikers, often ‘Sunshine’ or ‘Joker’ or based on something silly the hiker has done.

Trail town: A town near enough to the trail to be easily accessible by foot or hitchhiking.

Zero: A rest day during a hike, usually spent in a town.

Section-hiking: Walking a long-distance trail in sections rather than as a thru-hike.

Stealth camping/random camping/wild camping: I use these terms interchangeably to describe a non-established campsite often located by wandering aimlessly. Depending on the nature of the campsite, it can require clearing (e.g. of pine cones and sticks) and the tossing of those things back onto the site after use.

Trail angel: Anyone who provides a hiker with goods or assistance. They can either be random people who have no idea what the heck you’re doing or self-defined trail angels who help many hikers every year on their local trail.

Trail magic: Whatever is received from a trail angel.

Triple crowner: Someone who has hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, Appalachian Trail and Continental Divide Trail. Also known as a badass.

USPS: United States Postal Service.

Q: How frequently do you shower?

A: My record for going without a shower is thirteen days on the East Coast Trail. Sorry not sorry!