A Quick Lesson on Hiking Vocabulary

Christy Rukstalis

An excerpt from Christy Rukstalis’ hiking blog.

Christy Rukstalis is a piano teacher and outdoor enthusiast who loves to hike.

Explore her hiking blog Experience Mountain Loop for further PNW adventures and photography.


For those of you who are discovering hiking for the first time, or who are confused to whom or what I am referring, it seems prudent to elaborate on a few topics and define a few terms:

Switchbacks: Zig-zags going upwards, cut into a mountain so the trail will not be as steep. These make for much safer trails.

Kristen: My ultimate hiking buddy, friend and partner in crime (if it is a crime to love the outdoors as much as we do).

Mountain Weather: Mountains tend to make their own weather. As air moves over a mountain, the moisture condenses into clouds, or the clouds condense into liquid water, and it rains. So, often the clouds that pass over us in Everett end up being rain by the time they pass the mountains in their journey east. The shapes and massive size of mountains can create wind tunnels and pockets of high and low pressure that don’t usually happen in places that are flat and unobstructed. All of this makes for some very unpredictable weather. The only thing you can generally depend on at these higher elevations is that it will be colder than at sea level–about three degrees Fahrenheit for every thousand feet.

Scramble: No, this is has nothing to do with eggs. I use this term anytime when a hike requires using hands to climb–usually across fields of large boulders.

PNW: Pacific Northwest.

Camping vs. Backpacking: Camping is usually referring to camping with a car and sleeping in a tent at an established campsite. Backpacking, on the other hand, is when you carry everything you need for an overnight trip on your back… in a pack. “Making camp” when backpacking is just when you’re setting up your tent or sleeping arrangements for the night. Any sort of camping I talk about on this blog in reference to one of the hikes is almost certainly talking about campsites for backpackers.

Paracord: Lightweight nylon rope. It is extremely versatile for overnight hikes, and I often use it to hang a bag of my more smelly items (food, deodorant, and bug spray, for example) in a tree away from bears.

Mountaineer: Someone who climbs mountains. When hikers talk about mountaineers, they usually are talking about people with a particular set of technical skills to climb using ropes and harness and/or ice axes and crampons. “Mountaineers” denotes climbing mountains like Mount Baker or Rainier. “Hikers” climb smaller and less dangerous peaks.

Rock Cairns: These are stacks of three or more rocks (which therefore cannot be placed by nature) which courteous hikers place to show you you’re on the right path. Do not knock down rock carins unless they are misleading, as they are extremely helpful to lost hikers! Even add to them if you like, so long as you are not leading a weary hiker off the trail with a needlessly-placed rock tower.