What’s With Trail Names? – Becoming Sidetrack

According to the Appalachian Trail Conservancy, nearly 3 million people hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail each year. With such a teeming mass of humanity moving up and down its nearly 2200-mile length, it’s much less solitary than many expect. For the 4000 or so brave souls attempting to Thru-Hike, meeting other hikers becomes one of the highlights of the experience.

Long distance hikers have their own set of social conventions One of the strangest, and most obvious to the outsider, is the trail name phenomenon.

So What’s With The Weird Names?

For the uninitiated (and any of my friends or family I’ve forced to read this), long distance hikers across the United States adopt nicknames chosen or suggested to them by others on trail. These nicknames allow us to stay anonymous if we wish. Hikers are mostly awesome, but some people don’t want every stranger they meet in the woods to know their real name.

Often these names are given based on some defining characteristic, or some embarrassing mishap. There are several heavily laden Kitchen Sinks and numerous emotionally scarred Bear Baits every year. Other hikers I’ve met simply chose theirs, either because it felt empowering to them, or as one hiker bluntly put it, “to avoid getting some stupid trail name…like Sidetrack.” Ouch.

Crush (left), Croft (center) and myself (right) at Above the Clouds Hostel

They’re much easier to keep track of. It’s much easier to remember Unkempt Bed, Flips and Button than it is to tell which of the seven Davids, three Laurens and two Rachels you or another hiker might be talking about.

They also make for a great icebreaker. When a woman introduces herself to you as Ballsack, it’s almost impossible not to be a little curious. There’s usually a great story to be had, or something to be learned about your new friend.

Hello, I’m Sidetrack!

By the time I reached Neel Gap on my third day I had been offered several choices. None of them felt right. My body didn’t feel right either, so I got off trail for a while in an attempt to recover.

I was fortunate to form a friendship with Lucky and Nimrod who run Above the Clouds Hostel. We worked out an arrangement where I worked in exchange for my stay. This isn’t common practice there, but I proved I could earn my keep and stay out of trouble so exceptions were made.

One of my duties was to make sure all bed linens as well as everyone’s clothes were washed and dried before 9pm each day. This was not a particularly difficult task, but required attention to keep everything moving steadily along.

Lucky doing laundry. A rare occurrence if I was doing my job. Oops.

There were several other tasks that needed to be done and so many interesting conversations to be had that often got distracted.

One particularly busy day Nimrod had periodically asked me if I had checked the laundry, to which I replied “Sorry Nimrod, I got a little sidetracked” before scuttling off to toss in another load.

The fourth time he asked, I again replied “Sorry, I got sidetracked.”

“Sidetrack.” he said to me with a smile. “Yeah, that’s it! You’re Sidetrack!”

I stung a little at first. I couldn’t have such a negative trail name. Then I realized it’s pretty accurate. Here I was attempting an AT Thru-Hike, sidetracked from career ambitions, sidetracked into working at this hostel, and sidetracked from the laundry. I decided I’d keep it.

All of my best decisions and wildest adventures came when I got sidetracked from the everyday routine, and the original task at hand. I can be absent-minded and off-task, but I always get sidetracked into something good.

If you’re tired of your same old routine, the same old scenery and your same old name, hit a long trail and change it all up.

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Comments 2

  • Peter R : Jan 18th

    Great story, looking forward to following. Good luck, enjoy!

  • MP3 : Jul 1st

    Hey, good to meet you at Dennytown Rd. last week! Fortunately I remembered your trail name and that you blog on The Trek and just read this. Coincidentally, I was at a house party in my town last night, talking about hiking and backpacking and somebody asked why people have trail names. I was stumped. Wish I had read this blog before the party! Anyway, hope you’re doing well and seriously hydrating!


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