What Is a Trail Name and How Do I Get One?

A thru-hike is a unique opportunity that attracts a very unique crowd of people. Who else would unabashedly refer to themselves as “hiker trash?” It only makes sense that this pastime would come with a quirky tradition like adopting a trail name.

If you’re new to the world of thru-hiking, you might be caught off-guard the first time an adult human being stumbles out of the woods and introduces herself to you as “Mrs. Potatohead.” But taking a new identity on the trail is a time-honored tradition among long-distance hikers.

So, what is a trail name, how do you get one, and why is this even a thing that exists?

Earl “The Crazy One” Shaffer standing on the summit of Katahdin in 1948. Shaffer was the first person to thru-hike the AT, and even he had a trail name. Photo via ATC.

What Is a Trail Name?

The Appalachian Trail Glossary defines a trail name as a special nickname adopted by long-distance backpackers, which has become a tradition on the AT and many other trails.

Getting a trail name can be a really big part of a thru-hiker’s experience. Let’s use a fictional character named Larry as an example. Pre-trail, Larry was on the verge of experiencing burnout at their nine-to-five, but on-trail, they’re no longer just Larry. Now, they’re “Captain Sausage,” which is much more empowering and way cooler.

Why Do Thru-Hikers Take Trail Names?

Thru-hikers have been using aliases on-trail for decades. Even Earl Shaffer, the first thru-hiker of the Appalachian Trail back in 1948, had one. (He went by “The Crazy One”).

Whether the tradition began as a way for thru-hikers to identify and track each other more easily or as a means of preserving privacy, trail names are now mostly seen as a thru-hiker right of passage and a unique form of self-expression in the trail community.

Many hikers also view their off-trail lives as separate from their identities on the trail and see it as only fitting that they take a new name when inhabiting their alternate life on the trail.

What’s In a Trail Name?

When it comes to trail names, anything and everything is fair game. Your personality, something embarrassing you did, what you ate for dinner last night (and how much gas you produced afterward), a quirky habit, your backstory, your gear… the list goes on.

Trail names can be sweet or sentimental, but equally as often (if not more), they’re silly and/or downright ridiculous. True to form, many thru-hikers end up with food-related trail names.

Most of the time, hikers will name other hikers, but trail names can come from trail angels or other people in the trail community. You can also get a trail name from a loved one back home or even a perfect stranger.

Photo via Furiosa.

One hiker shared the following story with The Trek about the unique circumstances that landed her the trail name Tuxedo:

“My friend Scrunch and I were at Boots Off around the fire, and we saw this really fat Tuxedo cat run towards the showers. We, of course, decided that we had to try to catch it, to you know… hold it and pet it. We split up for a bit and unfortunately could not find the cat, but because I ate a large portion of McDonald’s earlier in the day, I farted super loud, and she thought the cat was in distress. It’s fun to tell the story behind my trail name because it’s the exact opposite of what people would think and always gets a great laugh.”

READ NEXT – 13 Hikers Share How They Got Their Trail Names

The Choice Is Yours

This married musician duo was known on-trail as “The Purple People.” They hiked with a ukulele and xylophone. Photo via Furiosa.

At some point or another, you may find yourself at a crossroads: should you accept the moniker “Stink Butt?” Whether you decide to own a suggested name or flat-out reject it is totally up to you. If you aren’t feeling it, chances are another (possibly better) one will come along later.

The majority of thru-hikers eventually accept a trail name, but some choose not to. Others still may feel like the right one never came along. But not having a trail name is rare enough that it can become an identity in its own right: the ranks of thru-hikers include many Just Steves, No Names, and other no-trail-name trail names.

There’s also the option of naming yourself like Earl Shaffer did. It’s not as common, but naming yourself is a great way to avoid the scenario of having to tell someone that no, you don’t want that dumb name. Some hikers find empowerment in taking ownership of their on-trail identities by choosing a trail name that has special significance to them.

Whether your trail name is bestowed upon you by a fellow thru-hiker, a loved one back home, or yourself, adopting a trail name is a special experience that you can look forward to on your thru-hike. Who knows? You might even end up preferring it to your given name.

Leafblower” hiked the AT with… you guessed it! A leaf blower. Photo via Bloodhound.

Would you like to share the story behind your trail name? Feel free to drop us a line below.

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Featured image: Photo via Furiosa.

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Comments 10

  • JhonYermo : May 25th

    Two other “rather famous hikers”. Anish chose to name herself. And Scott Williamson chose not to take a trail name (and he stays shaved when he hikes). BTW ANISH beat SCOTT’S FKT, unsupported, for the PCT.

    • MysticGypsy : Jan 31st

      I decided to adopt my name from one of my favorite songs and paintings: Into the Mystic by Van Morrison and The Sleeping Gypsy by Rousseau.

  • Sparks : May 25th

    I took my trail name from my work. I am (was, now retired) a ships Radio Officer. In the early days of radios on ships (think, Titanic) a ships transmitter was (no shit) a generator. Ships power was DC, yes, DC, and it powered a generator who’s output had one side to ground and the other to the wire antenna (often 300 ft long and made from something like 19/16 (19 strands of 16 wire). When keyed, the sparks from keying it created ozone in the radio room. Sine it sparked when keyed, the RO got the name “Sparks”, a title still use today. My attack on the AP will be April 2024 at almost 74.

  • Collier Johnson : May 26th

    We were on a 13 mile stretch in the Smokies. There was snow on the ground and after a late start, we were starting to spread out along the trail. Our fellow hiker Eddie came rolling in late and was in rough shape. We heated up a warm drink for him and he just climbed into his bag, boots, jacket and all. The next day when Eddie got up, he took off his boots and the entire shelter cleared a 100 foot radius. Eyes were bleeding from the toxic vapors coming off of his feet. Animals were falling out of trees. Needless to say he was anointed with the trail name “Road Kill”.

  • Ghost : May 28th

    I picked up my trail name while backpacking in Uwharrie national forest. I was chilling around a communal camp fire with a few other hikers after a multi-day solo trip. One of the other hikers started talking about what he believed to be a ghost encounter at his camp site the night before…and I had to try not to laugh as I told him that it was just me, night hiking along a parallel trail. Apparently my light grey pack and hoody reflect moon light, while my pants do not. Making it look like a glowing torso and pack floating down the trail 😂

  • Killdeer : May 29th

    February 2020 I was hiking the AT when I had an off trail accident. I slipped going down some stairs and slammed into a wall, breaking my left collarbone and left number 1 rib ( don’t do it. It’s very painful ). I went home with a “clipped wing” three weeks before Covid shut everything down. In March of ’21 I was walking for exercise, and as I passed a school I heard the call of a Killdeer ( it sounds like it is saying ” Killdeer, Killdeer, Killdeer ! “). The other thing Killdeers ( the bird, not me ) are famous for is the “broken wing display” that they use to lead predators away from their nest or young.

  • Waka : Jul 28th

    My name comes from my early internet days. My first name is very common in my area. I know at least 10 other people with the same first name, and 4 of them are in my usual group of friends. Needless to say, it’s hard to talk about someone and constantly having to clarify which one you acutally mean. “Oh, you the boyfriend of Y?” – “No, I mean the boyfriend of Z!” Even back in school we were 4 people in the same class with the same first name. We used to just call each other by our last names to avoid confusion, heh.

    We used to have a small online forum, where it’s quite common to use nicknames. When I first got on the internet I chose to name myself after a character from a football/soccer related anime (Captain Tsubasa) because I thought it was a funny name. Lo and behold, some 10 years later people started calling me that offline as well, which was a bit weird at first, but seeing how so many people share my first name, it totally makes sense that my friends now use my online nickname.

  • MysticGypsy : Jan 31st

    I decided to adopt my name from one of my favorite songs and paintings: Into the Mystic by Van Morrison and The Sleeping Gypsy by Rousseau.


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