Tell Me You’re Hiker Trash Without Actually Telling Me You’re Hiker Trash

Once, while walking through a mountain town in Colorado in the aftermath of my Colorado Trail thru-hike, I saw a guy with long blonde hair wheeling a bike down the street and thought “huh, that guy kinda looks like a thru-hiker.” Apparently, he thought the same about my partner and me, because he came up to us and asked if we were hiking the CT. Come to find out this guy had just finished the AT and we have multiple thru-hiking friends in common. Small world!

But the most incredible thing about this story, at least to me, is that we were able to peg each other as thru-hikers with a single glance, despite not being on the trail or carrying packs at the time.

I’d like to think I’ve gotten pretty good at spotting fellow thru-hikers over the years. They have a certain undefinable quality that makes them stand out from the crowd, radiating hikerish vibes even when they’re hundreds of miles from the trail. Or maybe it’s just the sock tan, who knows.

Either way, if you’re wondering whether you or someone your love might be secret hiker trash, you’ve come to the right place. Here are 11 absolutely foolproof signs to watch out for.

1. “The look.”

Complete the look with a fashion-forward fanny pack. Photo via Taylor Bell, thru-hiker extraordinaire.

You know the one I’m talking about. It typically involves some combination of:

  • Athletic booty shorts
  • Oversize Hawaiian shirt or sun hoodie
  • Darn Toughs peeking out of a pair of ragged trail runners
  • Lots of hair and dirt everywhere
  • Killer calves
  • Tan lines sharp enough to cut glass (or wait, is that just more dirt?)
  • Bonus: fanny pack (all the cool kids thru-hikers are wearing them these days)

Confused? Consult every photo in this post for examples of classic hiker trash fashion statements.

Many of us retain at least a few of these stylish fashion statements even when we’re not on the trail, trend-setters that we are. If “distressed” jeans are in, surely the same standard applies to the ragged edges and permanent dirt stains in my hiking clothes, right? Right? And if I only have 400 miles on my latest pair of Altras—not even into duct tape territory!—why on earth would I trash them just because they’re a little grubby? Those mothers are expensive!

READ NEXT – Thru-Hiker Fashion 101

2. Refers to days off work as “zero days.”

Zero whats? wonders literally everyone else as you elaborate on your weekend plans.

It’s easy to forget that normal human beings don’t know what a “zero” even is. The term doesn’t make much sense in any context outside of thru-hiking, where hiking zero miles automatically translates to a rest day. Remember, people, most folks use buzzwords like weekend or vacation in this context.


“Hey Steve! Gonna use any PTO this summer?”
“Heck yeah, I’m gonna take a few zeroes at the beach in July. Can’t wait!”

“Hey Maria! TGIF am I right?”
“Oh man, tomorrow can’t come soon enough. I am SO READY for a zero after this morning’s budget meeting.”

3. Uses a ziplock bag as a wallet.

Once you’ve discovered the unparalleled joy and functionality of a snack-sized ziplock wallet, there’s no going back. Why would you pay money for a bulky leather wallet, that barely has enough room to fit all your cards, when you could let your hiker trash flag fly free with an ultralight and easy-to-use trail wallet?

If you really want to get fancy and emulate the one-percenters, go all out with a posh DCF wallet instead—a nearly infinite step up in price from the good old ziplock, and so much more stylish as well.

READ NEXT – You’re Trash, and That’s OK

4. Thinks every food can be served on a tortilla.

Of all the potential warning signs on this list, this one is possibly the most definitive. I’m sure there is a small population of non-thru-hikers who wear hot pink booty shorts and carry their money around in a snack-size ziplock. But if you catch someone (over the age of four) using peanut butter to adhere a truly random assortment of snack foods, such as pepperoni slices, to a burrito-sized soft flour tortilla, you just know. There is absolutely no chance whatsoever that this individual isn’t hiker trash.


“What’s for dinner tonight Ma?”

“Spaghetti and meatballs, Johnny.”

“Yum! Oops, looks like you forgot to put the tortillas and peanut butter out on the table though. I’ll just run and grab them shall I?”

READ NEXT – Backcountry Recipes Ideal for a Thru-Hike

5. “The restaurant is only 2.5 miles away and it’s barely even raining. Let’s just walk it!”

“Everywhere is within walking distance if you have the time,” quipped comedian Steven Wright, not knowing his words would one day be adopted and immortalized by legions of Trek writers and thru-hikers.

It makes sense that after walking hundreds or thousands of miles, thru-hikers come home with a new perspective on the concept of “walking distance.” (And heck, if you have the time, why not opt for everyone’s favorite low-carbon, happiness-inducing mode of travel?)

I’ve definitely been guilty of overestimating the walkability of various destinations since becoming hiker trash. The biggest obstacle to my dream of never getting in a car again, I’ve found, is an overabundance of traffic combined with a lack of sidewalks or walking paths in many of the areas I’m trying to reach. Sigh.

6. Viscerally upset by A Walk in the Woods.

(Top) Near the end of the film A Walk in the Woods, Bryson and Katz follow the A.T. in Virginia along a (nonexistent) cliffside with a sheer dropoff. (Bottom) This cliff was primarily created using computer effects, with a small set being used during filming. Images courtesy of Route One Films and Wildwood Enterprises.

In the same way that a physicist would probably get really mad at Star Trek for not being scientifically accurate, A Walk in the Woods, the book/movie sensation that kickstarted the dreams of a generation of AT thru-hikers, seems to make said thru-hikers fly into a blind rage.

Whether it’s that scene in the movie where Bryson and Katz fall off a cliff in Virginia (“WHAT CLIFF?” yell the thru-hikers in the audience) or the book’s mildly deprecating attitude toward the AT and hiker culture, most thru-hikers have a thing or two to say about Bill Bryson.

Important to note I’m not saying every thru-hiker hates A Walk in the Woods. I’m saying that if someone says they hate A Walk in the Woods with the white-hot intensity of a thousand suns, they’re probably a thru-hiker, which is far less of an overgeneralization. It’s one of those not-all-rectangles-are-squares scenarios if you know what I mean.

READ NEXT – What A Walk in the Woods Gets Wrong About Thru-Hiking and the Appalachian Trail

7. Overuse of the word “groovy.”

There are people for whom it is generationally appropriate to use the word groovy multiple times per day, and then there are thru-hikers. And yes, there is certainly plenty of overlap between those two populations. But I’m just saying, the Venn diagram of 20-50-year-olds who say “groovy” and 20-50-year-old thru-hikers is a single circle. Change my mind.

Other culprits include “howdy,” “good deal,” “radical,” “let’s boogie,” and “peace and love.” I can report at least one known incident of a thru-hiker using the word “tubular” without a hint of irony, but unless someone else can weigh in here, there’s not enough data to determine a trend.

8. Wears a backpack on the Stairmaster.

Why in god’s name would anyone wear a gigantic, loaded backpack to the gym like a total nerd if they weren’t training for a super-serious hike? We’ve all been there—at least, all of us who live in the flatlands.

There’s nothing quite like sweating your way through an hour on the good old Stairmaster with an ungainly combination of water bottles, sacks of rice, and actual backpacking gear weighing you down, all while pointedly ignoring the constant looks from the beautiful gym rats surrounding you.

Hey, if you’ve gotta train, you’ve gotta train, and not all of us are lucky enough to live in areas with actual mountains and walking trails. Sacrificing one’s dignity in the name of trail legs is a character-building experience and a key milestone in every backpacker’s life.

9. Refers to Advil as Vitamin I.

Vitamin I at a hiker feed. Trail angels know what’s up. Photo via.

Who does that? Thru-hikers, that’s who.

Admittedly, other outdoorsy/athletic types, like runners and cyclists, apparently also use this term, so you have to take this one with a grain of salt.

Consult your hiker trash flow chart before making a determination.

Say the person in question uses the term “Vitamin I,” but they also use a fancy pants money clip and obviously have gotten a haircut in the last month. This person might just be an enthusiastic trail runner.

On the other hand, if they use the term Vitamin I, you can test whether or not they’re hiker trash by presenting them with a random assortment of junk food. If they immediately smear it all over a tortilla and start tearing huge chunks off with their teeth, you know they’re a thru-hiker. Trust me, it works every time. Maybe I should have titled this post “You Won’t BELIEVE This ONE WEIRD TRICK to Tell if Someone’s Hiker Trash!!! INSANELY ACCURATE!!!!!” Oh well, maybe I’ll write that gem next week.

10. Translates money to miles.

A common budgeting technique among prospective thru-hikers is to think of your money in terms of the number of miles you could hike with that amount of cash. For instance, one rule of thumb is to assume that a thru-hike costs roughly $2 per mile, not counting gear. (You can, of course, spend significantly more or less than that depending on how committed you are to budgeting and frugality).

Being mindful of this dollars-to-miles translation is an effective way to curb discretionary spending and stay focused on your ultimate goal of thru-hiking. That daily Starbucks coffee starts to look a lot less tempting when you consider all the miles and smiles you could finance with that money instead.


“We’re going to the movies tonight—wanna come?”

“Um no, movies are so expensive these days, that’s like eight miles right there.”


“Nevermind. Besides, I hate how theaters always sell Skittles and M&Ms but never tortillas. What are they thinking?!” 

11. Very excited about indoor plumbing.

…And other ostensibly normal features of life in the “plastic world” (to borrow Joal’s term). Just try feeling bad about your life when you get that first hot shower after a week of cold rain and mud. It’s impossible. Same with electricity, climate control, refrigeration, the existence of grocery stores, etc.

After even just a few days backcountry, that shit becomes magical! That attitude of gratitude—which we could all stand to cultivate a bit more, let’s be honest—is a sure sign of hiker-ness at its best.

Keep this handy Field Guide to Spotting Thru-Hikers in your back pocket at all times so you never miss an opportunity to ID a wild hiker outside their natural habitat. Now go forth, armed with knowledge, and meet your fellow trail people!

Featured image: Graphic design by Jillian Verner (@yourstrulyjillian).

Affiliate Disclosure

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.

Comments 13

  • Russ1663 : Jun 3rd

    Yup. I am guilty of hiker ways. Darn Tough socks, tortillas, Salomon trail runners all the time.

    Here is an extra indicator, maybe. I’m retired military. When I’m on the trail and stop for a rest. I take a knee and watch the woods and trail. It’s a patrol technique I havent shaken. Other hikers, bless them all day, will ask if I am ok, love that. On a trail by a road people check on me, some offer water. There is kindness in the world, I guess it isn’t newsworthy. Best of trail luck to you Kelly

  • Jim : Jun 3rd

    Ibex, loved your post! Laughed out loud several times. I’m an AT Dreamer so only 9 and 11 really applied to me, but I know what to do now to look the part! Hope everyone develops that attitude of gratitude you describe. Headed to do a 40 mile loop of the Virginia Triple Crown this fall and appreciate all the knowledge and experience the Trek offers. Keep up the great work!

    • Kelly Floro : Jun 7th

      Awesome, that’s one of my favorite places to hike – you will have a great time!

  • Oscar D. Grouch : Jun 3rd

    Guilty as charged of almost all of the above (“Groovy”? Really?).
    One recommendation, tho: a ziplock bag for a wallet will last until your next town stop, and that’s it. The credit card(s) will slice it every time. Switch to a Plackers Flossers baggy. Those things are tough!

    • Alec : Jun 7th

      Considering my lack of thru hiking experience a lot of these apply to me. Like an uncomfortable amount, thru hiking must be my destiny. Or maybe touring cyclists are a distant cousin; the ubiquitous tortilla (PB, pulled pork and maple syrup anyone? or carrot and salsa anyone?), Hawaiian shirt (known as SSBD or short-sleeve button down), and darn tough socks are three of my favorites

  • Sandy : Jun 4th

    How could you possibly miss the #1 indicator (IMO)??! The immediate question when buying/meeting/spying any item of gear or clothing – “How much does that weigh?”. My daily rant at websites (even resale gear pages) is, “WHY don’t they list the weight?!” ? I can literally tell you how much every item I own weighs in ounces and grams. Er…. except the couch ..? lol

    • Kelly Floro : Jun 7th

      Sooooo true Sandy. I also regret not including what I like to think of as opposite day calorie counting. “Oh no this only has 500 calories?? *disappointment*”

  • Lisa : Jun 5th

    Fantastic guide! Definitely guilty of all of these. I can even spot thru-hikers on normal hiking trails around town.
    One more way to ID a thru-hiker – they immediately have some sort of comment or opinion about gear (see above comment about the ziplock bag wallet) ?

    • Kelly Floro : Jun 7th

      as Bunny Kramer of All Women All Trails says, “ask 100 thru-hikers their opinions about gear, get 101 different answers!”

  • Chris : Jun 6th

    No mention of the technical gear some carry?
    Once met a family team of 3, who kept checking their altimeter. They got lost and had no compass. They arrived to the shelter at about midnight.

  • TBR : Jun 8th


    And, for the record, did not care for “A Walk in the Woods,” both book version (starting with the effin’ cover image!) and the movie. For a lot of reasons.

  • Pilgrim : Jun 11th

    Much in the way Redford’s sheer cliff is a story telling contrivance meant for those who have never, nor likely will ever, experience a thru hike, this list of hiker tropes and stereotypes is a kind of fiction too based on the fashion-sgnaling choices of kids who dream of being “groovy” and will ultimately go the way of the hippies – into bell bottom obscurity. Go cut your toothbrush handle off and HYOH!


What Do You Think?