What’s in a (Trail) Name?

Trail names are a part of AT culture that has actually spread to other trails and often hiking in general. The trail name is one of the ways we leave our everyday lives behind and maybe even try on a new identity when we’re out on the trail. Trail names can be suggested by other hikers or completely designed by the hiker themselves. Some people like to pontificate that a trail name must be ceremoniously bestowed upon you, but that is absolutely not true. Even if a trail name is proposed by another hiker, it’s only your name if you answer to it, therefore it is always your choice (and if someone keeps calling you a name you don’t accept…well they’re a giant jerk). Trail names are one of the great equalizers on trail. A 65-year-old retired rocket scientist is just as apt as an energetic 12-year-old kid to don the name ‘Mudbutt’ after a sliding fall. Some people like to choose one trail name and use that for the rest of their life; others like to get a new trail name for each new trail or maybe even switch names within one thru-hike if something better strikes their fancy.*

Some backpackers have successfully suggested trail names to others as one of their thru-hiking goals. I’ve read backpacking memoirs and blog posts where they are very excited about one (or more) of their submissions being accepted. If it’s okay, I would like to suggest to you a bit of trail name etiquette (and I do hope you’ll accept it!). It is always best to ask a fellow hiker if they want suggestions for a trail name before doing so. This is especially important when dealing with people who might have a cultural history of not being able to choose their own names. Along those lines, many people will love to tell you the story of how they got their trail name and what it means, but this is always a courtesy, not an expectation. Some trail names can have very personal meaning behind it and that doesn’t always need to be shared in the ten minutes you’re filtering water next to someone. Also, remember that not everyone shares your sense of humor or is comfortable with the same things you are, so please be conservative when given permission to suggest some names to a fellow hiker (unless you’ve gotten to know them well). This is especially important when suggesting anything about their physical attributes, performance, or a potentially embarrassing anecdote. Maybe you’d be okay with ‘Sasquatch’ as a trail name, but someone else who is extra tall and maybe particularly hirsute may be embarrassed by that suggestion. And, of course, never EVER suggest a name based on someone’s race or ethnicity. A POC can just have the name ‘Songbird’, no need to suggest ‘Black Songbird’. Finally, no one has to have a trail name. If you meet someone several hundred miles into a thru-hike and they’re still going by ‘Matt’ or ‘Just Chris’, please don’t pester them about not having a trail name yet. There can be some very sensitive feelings behind having or not having a trail name, it’s best to be as compassionate as possible to your fellow hikers.

Choosing Your Name

So, what’s in a trail name? Often, trail names will be the result of a funny story or event, such as the aforementioned ‘Mudbutt’. Also, as mentioned above, they may make reference to someone’s appearance, like a color they often wear (wear yellow and you’re likely to end up with ‘Big Bird’ or ‘Banana’ as a trail name) or something else about their look (like ‘Smiley’ or ‘Two Packs’). It can refer to something they want to be (like ‘Warrior’ or ‘Steady’). Things people like often inspire trail names and can come from everything from Harry Potter or Star Wars characters to hobbies or professions (although people often want to leave work behind). Food is a common originator of trail names (because what hiker isn’t obsessed with food?) and you’ll eventually meet a ‘Honey Bun’ or ‘Cheeto’ if you’re out there enough. Some will choose their name as a way to honor another person or their relationship with another person(s), so you’ll meet a lot of hikers named ‘Papa Bear’ and ‘Mountain Mama’. There’s a misconception that once someone has a trail name, it’s off the table for other people to use. More than one person can have the same trail name, just like more than one person in the world can be named ‘Sarah’. And, even though it’s totally up to you what you want as your trail name, keep in mind that names that are appropriated from groups you’re not a part of (like Geisha) or somewhat vulgar names (like Dick Flap), may put some others off when meeting you. By the way, TheTrek.co has lots of great articles on trail names including a silly trail name generator here, if you’d like to try it out!

I have chosen ‘Purple Lotus’ as my trail name. When I did my first section hike of the AT two years ago, I wanted to write about it on social media. Since I was a relatively new backpacker at the time (it was my first solo trip), I wanted a buffer of anonymity, so I knew I needed to get a trail name fast. I had already been devouring thru-hiking books and podcasts and I figured if successful people like David ‘AWOL’ Miller and Jennifer ‘Odyssa’ Pharr Davis could choose their own trail names, then I could too. I made my social media pages with my newly minted trail name, and I have zero regrets. Purple Lotus was a name that already had significance to me. I won’t go into full detail here (come hiking with me and we can talk about the whole thing!) but it was a name I was already using as my online gaming handle (before you ask, no I don’t play any ‘cool’ games anymore, just nerdy ones on my iPad), so I was accustomed to answering to it in a way. I love the deep symbolism behind the lotus, and my absolutely favorite part is that a lotus can only bloom successfully by making their way through mud, muck, and water. It felt like a perfect analogy for what a thru-hiker must go through to complete their journey. Oh, and the purple part? Well, I just really love purple and, when given a choice, I will always choose purple for my backpacking clothing and gear.

A hiker's crossed feet in the foreground, give way to an expanse of forested mountains in the background

A pic from my first AT section hike, look at my homemade ‘purple lotus’ gaiters!

*Note: Sometimes thru-hikers will change their trail name during a hike in an effort to escape consequences of bad behavior earlier on the trail (being inappropriate with women, skipping out on hostel charges, stealing fellow hikers’ gear, etc.). Not everyone who changes their name is guilty of misbehavior, but just an FYI.


Purple Lotus is a NOBO hiker in the AT class of 2024. Read her first post, an introduction of herself, here.

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Comments 2

  • Michael Beecher : Feb 11th

    Nicely written Purple Lotus! You sum up the trail name options well. I think the idea of the mythical induction of being bestowed an appropriate trail name is full of hiker romanticism and very appealing. But you could tread many miles waiting for one that fits…

    • Traci 'Purple Lotus' Withani : Feb 12th

      And, the great thing is, if someone wants that mythical experience, they are more than welcome to wait for it! The rest of us can get on with it 🙂


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