How To Fight A Thru-Hiker
As the old saying goes, opinions are like assholes – everyone has one, and they all stink.
Except mine, of course.
This is especially true when it comes to defining trail jargon. Hikers LOVE a good shorthand phrase, but our terms aren’t exactly Merriam-Webster-official, so there can be a lot of contention over what they actually mean. It doesn’t help that many people have very specific ideas about the “correct” way to hike the Appalachian Trail, and the way you move along the AT is one of the main sources of trail terminology. So if you’re the kind of person who would never take a “Nero”, and someone around the shelter picnic table insists that’s what you just did – them’s fightin’ words.
Disclaimer: The following definitions are based on my opinions, but are reflective of common usage. If you disagree with any of them – come at me, brah. (Or we can just chat and hug it out. I’m a lover, not a fighter.)
So, without further ado…
What exactly IS a “Zero”? And other thru-hiking terminology:
A day you hike zero miles along the AT. Used as a noun or verb. This normally means spending a day in town, although it’s not unheard of to “Zero” at a particularly scenic shelter or campsite. Zero days are busier than you might think. You’re rushing to get all your town chores done as fast as possible: shower, laundry, food resupply, clean utensils/cooking equipment, gear purchases/repair, send postcards or pick up any packages from the PO, eat a revolting amount of calories in a single sitting, etc., etc. I prefer the double-Zero; the first day for chores, the second day purely to chill, eat, and soak in the town vibes. I’ve taken my share of triple-Zeros as well, but the first day back on trail after that many days off is brutally hard. Given enough time, your body starts trying to heal itself, and this healing process is generally not conducive to “crushing big miles”. My legs and feet got so swollen after a particular quadruple-Zero that I looked like my hypertension-afflicted Grandma right before she died. Bonus term – “Vortex”: when you accidentally get sucked into staying in town a little longer than intended, whether for the comforts of civilization or to avoid bad weather on the horizon. This is always more expensive than you anticipate.
By far the most hotly contested, Nero is a portmanteau of “Near-Zero”. How this is interpreted varies from person to person – some say less than 10 miles, others, less than 5 miles. To my mind, a Nero is when you hike less than half your average daily mileage, which allows some variability from person to person. The key takeaway is that “Nero” refers to distance, not destination. Someone once tried to tell me I had done a Nero after hiking 19 miles into town, just because I’d be sleeping in a real bed that night. I responded by politely making a gesture that required very little interpretation.
This is the standard – hiking the Appalachian Trail by following the familiar white blazes. Some obnoxious purists insist on hiking past every single one. I am one of those people.
Almost all side trails along the AT are marked with blue blazes. These could lead to a shelter, water source, overlook, etc. Sometimes, these blue-blazed trails reconnect with the AT further down the trail – and sometimes, these routes are significantly easier (or harder) than the AT itself. The Appalachian Trail Conservancy (ATC) states “In the event of an emergency, such as a flood, a forest fire, or an impending storm, blue-blazed trails or officially required road walks, shuttles, or find-your-own transportation options are viable substitutes for the white-blazed route.” Note that they don’t say, “if you’re exhausted and it’s like, a really HOT day, go ahead and skip that white-blazed summit for the easier blue-blazed side route.” At what point have you done so much hiking off the AT that you haven’t really hiked the AT?
Think of a two-lane road, with one lane traveling in each direction. Picture the dashed yellow line, separating those two lanes… looks like a blaze, right? Now you’re getting it. Yellow-blazing refers to road walking (usually to cut off a small section of the AT), but also refers to straight up skipping sections of the AT via vehicular transportation. This is for cheaters. There’s great animosity and suspicion towards frequent yellow-blazers. How can they sleep at night, telling people they “thru-hiked the AT”, when they didn’t, actually? It’s a personal choice, but this is a hill I will die on: these people are not true thru-hikers.
Typically, this refers to basing your daily mileage and destination on whatever some cute girl on the trail is doing. But it’s 2022, baby, so let’s give women the credit they deserve; it can also go the other way, sometimes referred to as “Banana blazing”. It can be flattering, but please make sure you’re not becoming “that creepy guy who keeps changing his plans to hike with me”. If you ask someone where they’re stopping for the night, and they’re intentionally evasive – take that as a sign they would prefer some solitude.
Some people never quite get the hang of squatting over a cathole. Many of these folks plan their day around the next privy/toilet. I think I’ve said enough.
A pleasant alternative to break up the monotony of hiking, this practice refers to canoeing or kayaking parallel to the trail. There are a few sections of the AT especially well suited to this, such as along the Shenandoah River. Some say that for every 1 mile you paddle you can skip ahead 2 miles on the trail, but that seems a little… questionable to me, given that the current runs South to North along that particular river. Also, pick your fellow boatman with care – the bottom of the Shenandoah River is littered with glasses and other valuables lost forever when canoes flipped.
Hiking the trail Northbound, from Springer Mountain in GA to Mount Katahdin in ME. The primary window to start hiking NOBO is late March – early April, but has been shifting earlier in recent years, as hikers try to get on trail ahead of “the bubble” – the mass of humanity flooding the AT around the last week of March.
Hiking the trail Southbound, from Mount Katahdin in ME to Springer Mountain in GA. The primary window to start hiking SOBO is late June – early July, which means finishing in cold weather and snow by the time you get to the Smokies and beyond. It also means starting with the hardest sections of the AT, first; the White Mountains in NH are challenging even with well-broken-in trail legs. These folks are usually pretty hardcore and deserve some real respect. It’s often the choice of those who’ve already thru-hiked the AT NOBO, and are looking for a different experience the second time around.
Many Flip-Floppers start in Harper’s Ferry, WV in May (lots of recent college grads), head north to Katahdin, and then drive back to Harper’s Ferry to hike South along the AT to Springer. But there are a bevy of ways to skin this cat – others start at Springer, hike to Harper’s Ferry, drive up to Katahdin, and then hike back to Harper’s Ferry to finish their thru-hike. There’s a variety of great flip-flop alternatives listed on the ATC’s website. Many flip-floppers are constrained by the timing of graduations or job start-dates, and I’m honestly just impressed at the level of coordination required to complete the AT this way. Good for them.
Someone who completes the entire Appalachian Trail in one 12 month period. A real hardened badass. My goal.
Someone who’s working on completing the entire Appalachian Trail in sections – sometimes over the course of decades. Section-hikers tend to be very deferential to thru-hikers when they’re talking around a shelter picnic table, but I think what they’re doing is even more commendable. They keep coming back out, and always with fresh legs.
A “Long-Ass-Section-Hiker”. These people are essentially thru-hikers in spirit, but due to the demands of the off-trail world, have to complete their hike over the course of a couple years. How far you have to go to be a true LASHer is debated, but most seem to agree that anything longer than a month on trail qualifies. The real difference between the Section-Hiker and LASHer is that the latter is Hiker Trash through and through. Have you lost all sense of social norms and acceptable cultural mores on your section hike? Congratulations my friend, you’re a LASHer.
A disparaging term for day hikers, dripping in their scented lotions, sunscreens, and deodorants. But what does that make thru-hikers – wizards? Let’s not get too full of ourselves, y’all.
Hiking, but without your pack. Hardly seems like backpacking, right? That’s because it isn’t. It’s usually offered as a service by hostels, who will drive you up the trail and hold your pack for you as you hike back to the hostel. Occasionally, some local Trail Angel will offer to drive your pack ahead to a road crossing towards the end of your planned day. It’s a great way to bang out miles in a short time span. Some people are satisfied just knowing that they walked all the way from Georgia to Maine. Personally, I’m rather attached to the idea of carrying everything I need on my back the entire way from Georgia to Maine. You know, backpacking. This is a personal choice. I will not disparage slackpackers, though I will never join their ranks.
Though I can’t find the article, I first heard this term from The Trek’s glorious leader, Zach Davis – referring to the practice of eating continuously while hiking instead of stopping for snack breaks. I’m all about it. As anyone who’s hiked with me knows, I get very easily distracted when I stop and take my pack off. I’ve found the best way to get to my destination before dark is to pre-load my hip pouches to bursting with food for the day, and not stop until I reach my destination.
People love to complain about PUDs, or Pointless Up and Downs. The basic premise is this: why am I hiking uphill just to hike back downhill, if there’s not a view at the top or water source at the bottom? But that fails to grasp the nature of a wilderness path. In order to capture the meandering spirit of the mountains, the trail, too, must wander. The flattest and easiest path from GA to ME is I-95. Go walk a highway if you don’t like “pointless” up and downs, which is kind of the whole point of hiking through the Appalachian Mountains (duh).
I just learned this term, although I’ve been doing it for weeks: the act of procuring food or other resources from day hikers without directly asking. “Gosh, I sure am hungry. Too bad I have so little food left. What’s that? You didn’t quite hear me? I said, IT SURE IS A PITY I DON’T HAVE ANY MORE FOOD, AS I’M WASTING AWAY OUT HERE.”
Hike Your Own Hike:
Potentially the most charged phrase of all. On the surface, it refers to the idea that there are a multitude of ways to hike the Appalachian Trail, and to each their own. But the subtext in the way it’s said is often “sure, you can do that, but that’s not what I would do – and you’re an idiot for doing it that way.” It’s all in the delivery. Do you want a shower, laundry, and a real bed every 3rd day? Hike your own hike. Have you cut so many inches off your toothbrush handle to save weight that you have to stuff your entire hand in your mouth to brush your molars? Hey, hike your own hike, I guess.
The truth is that there is no “right” way to hike the AT. We all put into the trail what we need to, and get out of the trail what we need to. The Trail provides. For some, it’s all about making the experience as fun and easy as possible. For others, it’s all about being as hardcore and minimalist as possible. Lots of people fall in between those two extremes. As they say – hike your own hike.
This website contains affiliate links, which means The Trek may receive a percentage of any product or service you purchase using the links in the articles or advertisements. The buyer pays the same price as they would otherwise, and your purchase helps to support The Trek's ongoing goal to serve you quality backpacking advice and information. Thanks for your support!
To learn more, please visit the About This Site page.