Hello, My Name Is…
As prospective long-distance hikers know—but perhaps not so much our friends and family—one cherished tradition of Appalachian Trail hiking culture is ditching your real name in lieu of a trail name. Rather than repeat the reasons why trail names exist in the first place, you can read all about the Psychology of Trail Names or the Appalachian Trail Hiker Traditions (Item #2) in these two other related posts.
For those who are intending to hike the trail under a pseudonym, how you acquire one is divided into two schools of thought: Give them to ourselves or wait to be christened by fellow hikers. Sort of like comparing dogs to cats or pondering what came first—the chicken or the egg?
I’ve struggled with the notion of a trail name. Because I’ll be starting in Virginia as a FlipFlopper, I’ll be joining the hitherto-named Georgia to Maine (NOBO) hikers. Do I arrive on the trail with a name of my own choosing (ostensibly blending in with my…um…newer backpack and fresher-smelling clothing?) Or, do I wait for the universe to bestow one upon me once on the trail?
It isn’t without a little apprehension that I consider the ramifications of a trail name. While, I’m open to the idea of having a name surface while on the trail, I’m also not sure I’d want to be remembered by something I’ve done incredibly stupid—or—memorable, say like “Burnt Fingers” or “Wet Ankles.” And yeah, I know we are technically free to veto any trail name we don’t find suitable. In fact, you probably will never hear “I can’t stand my trail name but I have absolutely no choice in the matter since this is what some goofball hiker who has now dropped out called me my first day.”
To be honest, I have never been a fan of nicknames. Katina was an unfamiliar sounding name in the late sixties that attracted unwarranted attention in my Midwest suburban grade school. I was dubbed “Katina the Ballerina” by my unimaginative yet phonemically aware, eight-year-old pals. I hated it.
Later in high school, a basketball teammate insisted on calling me “Kat,” another morph of my name that didn’t sit well for no real reason other than it wasn’t of my choosing. That ended when I called her Whale Hips after she furiously elbowed me to the ground during some serious rebounding.
When I accepted an art director position at an advertising agency in the 1990s, little did I know that I had walked into the moniker department with handles like J.R., Slash, Bones and Greenie. I either wasn’t bestowed one, or rejected any suggestions like Ted Nugent at a global warming conference.
The only nickname that has ever stuck has been “Teen” and only two people call me that, my Dad and “Whimpy.” It is endearing coming from Dad, but creepy coming from his employee. I was 18 when I worked one summer at the family business. Jeff was 19. He thought my name was actually Teen because that is how Dad summoned me. Jeff is still working there to this day, has since become Whimpy (I believe hamburgers were involved) and I am still Teen to him.
I thought it might be nice if my spouse came up with my trail name, sort of as a means of having him symbolically accompany me on the trail. But after a few tries, nothing felt right to me. We don’t really have pet names for each, and none that I’d want to use on the trail, right Babe?
I think part of the issue with me was—and continues to be—control. I’d rather be in charge of my own self-perception, or as my industry would define it, “branding,” instead allowing outside forces to define me. Or, like the viewpoint a few other people espouse, I am simply planning a big hike, not seeking a new identity.
Five Reasons Why Having a Trail Name Isn’t a Bad Idea
Regardless of the origin, there are a few reasons why having a trail name makes sense. (Full disclosure: The following points were compiled from views found researching online forums.)
- Trail names add anonymity among a new set of comrades thrown together by chance, each independently deciding that this was the time to hike the A.T.
- Our given names are generally not of our own choosing. The trail does provide a temporary opportunity to either express yourself or be interpreted for who you are. Likewise, those who name themselves might arrive on the trail having a clear idea of who they are—or who they’d like to become.
- It is potentially easier to remember a hiker’s trail name, especially when there’s a story, instead of your real name.
- A problem with not choosing a trail name early enough is that no one knows who you are when you finally do chose a name.
- The trail name unites hikers long after finishing and represents the freedom of trail life long after your return to the regular world.
One final consideration for the control freaks: While you always can edit, if you are into social media and blogging, it might be easier to launch everything relevant about your trip—including a trail name—right from the start (sort of like implementing your own personal marketing plan.) Sites such as WhiteBlaze and TrailJournals even have a field for your trail name as part of your profile set-up when you first register.
Like dog vs. cat, I’m of the opinion there is no wrong answer about the right way to attain your trail name—be it conferred upon you by your hiking mates or be one of your own choosing. Like the philosophy of Hike Your Own Hike (HYOH), how one obtains a trail name (or not) is a personal preference.
Just don’t call me “Wet Ankles.” Or “The Ballerina.”
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I’m starting in Virginia on March 20th at Marion. I’m expecting to feel like the only man on the surface of the earth. In theory I think the trail should name me. On my first AT section hike a couple of hot college girls said when it started to rain at my first shelter, “Sir, you stove is in the rain!” Knowing it to be indestructible I just left it there, but their sir hit me like a shot to the gut. In my ears in sounded like old fart so I christened my self Sir Old Fart. While I’ve now embraced my oldfartitude, I don’t want that as my trail nome this time. I’m going with Reboot.
I’m going to be one of those self-namers 🙂
The trail will provide! On the first day even. Just be ready to listen..I’m section hiking. I started in 2011. My Damn left boot would NOT stay tied. Like 20 times a day in the 100 mile wilderness I tied that Damn boot. With a 64 lb pack I might add. My trail name is forever ” shoelace “. I’ll see you all in Georgia on March 7..can’t wait!
In school I was named Rain…because it rained every time I attended a group camp out. Those days are far behind me now and while I boast of clear skies and great weather, I’ve come along way. Due to the nature of my work (paramedic) I was dubbed Roadmedic back in the 90’s and it stuck. When I hit the trail in June…roadmedic will be off the scene and hoping it doesn’t rain to soon.
“Wet Ankles” conjures up so many images, I’m now curious if anyone has that name. Thank you for sharing your insight. Godspeed.