Thoughts on Trail Life, Part 3

The third of six articles.

Part 3: Hiker Culture

To understand hiker culture I think it helps to understand the lifestyle. I really don’t think there’s anything else quite like it. You’re traveling from place to place, carrying everything you need on your back. Creature comforts and civilization are rare. You pack sparingly and eat ravenously. With the exception of days you take off, you’re sleeping in a new place every night; sometimes by people you know, sometimes by people you’ve never met, and sometimes by yourself. You completely lose track of what’s going on in the rest of the world, what it’s like to live “normally”, and what day of the week it is. You’re seeing lots and lots of nature, managing your supplies, taking pictures, setting up your camp, breaking camp, preparing your meals, and tending to your sores, blisters, aches, and pains. And in between all of this you’re walking, and walking, and walking. You feel the strain in your muscles with every step you climb and you feel the ache in your joints with every one you descend. You’re seeing hundreds of miles slowly and steadily inch past you. Deserts give way to forested mountains which descend into valleys and canyons, and on and on. You get extremely tuned into, and very accepting of, your own body; whatever it’s doing at the moment. You’re often too hot, too cold, tired, aching, hungry, and almost always filthy.

Really, really filthy. Seriously, you have no idea how bad it gets when you’ve been doing all of the above for a week or two without a shower and, for some long stretches, not even a way to wash your hands. You get grosser than you ever thought possible. And you get to be completely OK with it. You reach a point very quickly where you stop fighting it and fretting over it. It’s just the way it is, and the odors coming from your body are just what a human body does. It’s all OK. Besides, you understand that there really is nothing you can do about it other than quitting your hike. And that’s much too high of a price to pay.

The whole experience heavily impacts the way you see the environment around you, the people you meet, and even yourself. The raw, unpolished realness of what you’re doing changes something for you. You feel the need to be nothing other than the person you genuinely are; right here, right now, at this very moment. Pretense and affectation are things you have neither the time, energy, nor desire to put on. For a lot of hikers there’s a realization that for the first time in their lives they’re being 100% truly themselves. It’s beyond OK; it’s powerfully liberating.

And there’s something else that comes along with that; you become completely OK with everyone else you meet being just who they are as well. Hikers, by and large, are incredibly non-judgmental people. We don’t care how you look, talk, or dress, and we sure as hell don’t care how you smell. We don’t care about your gender, race, nationality, or orientation. We don’t care what your social status is, what religion you do or don’t practice, or what your political views are.

There are really only two things we care about. Do you respect the trail? Do you respect the people on and around it? That’s pretty much it.

Hikers are known to love them some beer when they get to town and have a, not unearned, reputation for being big fans of cannabis. If you’re not one who partakes of these things no one will pressure or criticize you. And at the same time, those who abstain have no issue with hikers who like a drink or a smoke. The Christian praying before eating, the Jewish person taking the day off because it’s shabbat, and the atheist will all sit in camp together, share stories and pictures together, and laugh until it hurts together.

What’s more, all these different kinds of people on the trail aren’t just OK with each other, we actively support each other. Hikers love helping each other any way they can. Low on water or food? Have some of mine. I got these great snacks in town, everybody please share them with me. Having trouble with a piece of gear? Let me see if I can help. I got some really useful information about an upcoming town or trail section so I need to share it with everyone I can. Those who’ve completed their hikes, and many times those who are taking a break from theirs, can often be found at trailheads; giving out “trail magic” to their fellow hikers. I have two trail friends who are licensed massage therapists and both of them have used their skills to help other hikers who were in pain. I and others have gotten free consultation from hikers who happen to be medical doctors. I’ve seen people giving free haircuts, gear repair, and tending to another hiker’s wounds. I’ve seen all of these things done for friends that people met on the trail and for complete strangers.

Because of all these things and the shared experiences, we’re also VERY comfortable around each other, often too a degree that takes a little getting used to when you’re new to the culture. We have an expression that there are no strangers on the trail and we really do act that way. If you see someone you haven’t met yet it’s completely normal to start talking to them, exchange names, and then part with an assurance that you’ll most likely see them again. If you stop to camp with other hikers and they are all sitting together fixing their dinners, just join right in. Even if you don’t know any of them it won’t be weird at all. If you’re at a place where you can do laundry and you want to wear almost nothing so you can wash everything else; go ahead, no one cares. If you’re in a camp full of people and need to change clothes before you crawl into your sleeping bag, just go ahead and do it if you’re comfortable with it. There’s no need to go look for privacy if you don’t feel like it. Some hikers have even been known to strip naked and no one cares. It’s just not a big deal.

There are a few unique quirks of hiker culture that arise from all of this. One is the way we greet each other. Hikers don’t shake hands, we fist bump. As comfortable as we are with being dirty, sweaty, and stinky; we’re not going to ask another human being to touch our dirty, sweaty, stinky palms. I guess we all have to draw a line somewhere. We also try to be cognizant of other people when we go into a town for resupply. Even though we’ve gotten used to the funk we understand that non hikers haven’t.

Another quirk of trail culture is the lingo we use. There’s a whole vocabulary of hiker slang and terminology to learn. I guess this happens in most any culture. I may do a separate post just on hiker speak. Somewhat related to this is the use of what we call “trail names.” If you haven’t heard of a trail name, it’s an alias you go by when you’re on a hike. It usually references something about you, some event that happened to you, or a quirky aspect of your character or how your trail experience goes. Some people give themselves a trail name, but in most cases someone else comes up with your trail name and if you accept it you start identifying yourself that way. From that point on that is the name you are known by. It’s an honor to give someone a trail name that they accept. On the trail most people know me as “Macro” and have no idea what my real name is.

The social aspect of trail culture is really interesting as well. You’ll meet someone, hike or camp with them for a while and then you separate and you may not see them again for days, weeks, or even months. You travel with other people, hang around with different groups, and make new friends. Your social scene is constantly in flux, with individuals entering and exiting it from day to day. Then one day, from out of nowhere, your friend from weeks ago shows up and you act like your childhood best friend just walked into the room. You may have only had a total of a couple hours of conversation with this person but you could not be more happy to see them. The little reunions like this are so fun and exciting. It seems that the earlier on in your hike you met the person the more excited you are to see them and everyone seems to have a particularly special place in their hearts for people they met on the first day. Making friends on the trail is incredibly easy and some people you will end up bonding with more than others, but everyone you get to know at all becomes a special part of your experience.

Another significant part of the social culture happens off the trail in places where hikers gather to take a break. This may be at campgrounds, hostels, or the homes of people who host the hikers in a sort of campground/ hostel setting. Everyone is so excited to get to these places where they can finally rest their tired feet, relax, and maybe enjoy some of life’s finer things like a shower and clean laundry. You walk in and immediately look around for who you know. This is a common place for the kinds of reunions I talked about. The energy and excitement in the place is just humming and you often won’t have to look long for friends because they’ll yell out your name from across the place as soon as they see you. Then you get settled in, shower if available, maybe get something to eat, and set about catching up with your friends you haven’t seen for a while. You share trail stories, talk about your gear, the condition of your bodies, and plans for the trail ahead. You talk about other hikers. Where is this person? Have you heard from so-and-so? How’s that one girl doing? And of course you talk about food. The first rule of hiker club is: We ALWAYS talk about food. Later you see some other hikers have arrived and your attention becomes totally fixed on them so you can yell out the names of anyone you recognize, giving them a warm and hearty welcome to this place of rest and friendship.

Maybe you spend a day or two here. You rest your body, enjoy some rare cleanliness, and fill yourself with food, laughter, and conversation. You’re revived, refreshed, and excited. Your soul is bursting. At some point though, it’s time to leave. There are many more miles to go and you’re determined to see every one of them. You pack up to leave and some of your friends are staying another day. You know it’s OK though. You know you’ll see them again. That’s just part of the magic of the trail.


Up next: Types of hike(r)s