Why Do Hikers Use Trail Names?

What is a hiking trail name?

Anybody that spends a long period of time will run into a few unique trail names. Trail names are usually unique, colorful and make you think about the person for a minute. They’re commonly used during long distance backpacking trips. Sometimes they’re self-made and others are given by friends met along the trail. So why do hikers use trail names?

Trail names are fun nicknames that hikers usually describe a little bit about them. They’re typically given to you on long distance hikes by fellow hikers, but some people name themselves. It’s a fun 80+ year tradition among hikers and backpackers.

Trail names work almost like a pneumonic device.You meet a lot of people along the trail and it can be hard to remember everybody’s name. It’s hard to remember the name John, but you’ll always remember the guy named Wet Cheese (yes that’s real).

What Is A Hiking Trail Name?

My first experience with trail names was as a whitewater rafting guide in North Carolina. It was basically a summer camp for college kids where everybody bunked in a tiny cabin along the river. The Appalachian Trail ran right through our camp so which led to countless experiences partying with thru-hikers on the trail.

What really surprised me is that 99% of the people I met only used their hiking trail nickname. It was a new identity that they all seemed to embrace. I met a lot of great people and I wouldn’t have remembered half their real names, but trail names are hard to forget. It’s been over 10 years and I still meetup with a guy named Squirrel every time he’s in town for a concert.

You don’t have to go by a trail name, but most hikers embrace the idea. It’s hard to remember everybody’s name on long thru-hikes so it’s much easier to go by trail names. It’s just a nickname that people use to describe the person. Trail names are a unique/authentic descriptor of the person or they reference an experience that happened to them on the trail.

Most hikers get trail names because of a personality quirk or something they did on the trail. It would be impossible to remember the name of every person you meet along the trail, but unique trail names stay in your head. People use their trail name as a “badge of honor”. You don’t need to go by a trail name, but it’s a sign that you’ve been accepted into the hiking community.

It’s Easier To Remember Hiking Trail Names

What's Your hiking trail name?

Think about how many James, Roberts or Johns you pass by on any given day. Trail names are much easier to remember since they tell you a little bit about the person. A guy that freaks out over a cougar that’s actually a house cat might get the Trail Name “Little Cougar”. It’s just a stupid name that helps describe the person when you can’t remember their real name.

It’s much easier to remember a person by a shared experience or story when you meet so many people with similar names. You don’t have to go by a trail name, but they’re a fun way to get to know people. It’s almost like those get to know you games teachers do on the first day of class. Everybody won’t remember your name, but they’ll remember that weird thing that happened to you.

There’s A Long Tradition Of Using Trail Names

There's a long tradition of hikers using trail names.
By DavidWBrooks – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=24267121

Trail names originated on the Appalachian Trail a very long time ago. Most people credit Earl Shaffer with inventing trail names in 1948 when he was the first thru-hiker that finished the Appalachian Trail in one continuous journey. He started calling himself the Crazy One and the tradition of trail names has continued for over 80 years.

I’m sure there were other hikers that were given nicknames on the trail, but Earl Shaffer is the one that made them famous. Here’s a quote that I found about trail names. It was written by Earl Prater and I think it summarizes the psychology behind trail names perfectly.

“A trail name represents a new identity, a new beginning, and a chance to leave everything that was once represented by ‘John Smith’ or ‘Jane Dougherty’ behind…People don’t come out here to talk about their jobs as lawyers or bartenders or car salesmen; they come out here to leave the hassles of everyday life – the stresses of rent, insurance, bosses, student loan payments.”

Obviously, it’s much easier to remember a trail name, but I think there’s more behind them. Trail names are a way to separate the hiker from the monotonous life you left behind. You become a completely different person by the end of your journey.

What If I Get A Terrible Trail Name?

Most people that are new to hiking are both excited and worried when they first hear about trail names. When I first started hiking I was worried about getting stuck with a terrible trail name. I could remember some of the terrible nicknames that the kids I played football with had in High School.

One of my best friends is still called “Snausage” and he’s a doctor in his 30’s. That was a variation of his last name, Sasquatch since he’s 6’8″, and who knows where the sausage part came from. The same guys that gave him that nickname were the groomsmen in his wedding so he knows that it came out of an unexplainable teenage “man love”, but I would hate to get stuck with a nickname like that.

You never know what kind of nickname you’ll receive on the trail. Some of them are good and others are terrible, but they all come from a place of shared comradery. Everybody’s going on the same crazy journey and most of the people you meet are kind-hearted friendly people.

Trail names are usually given by people that you meet on the trail, but you don’t have to go by that name. If a mouse gets into your food and somebody calls you Rat Pack that doesn’t have to become your trail name. Keep going by your preferred name and wait until a better name pops up.

Are Trail Names Required For Hikers?

Are hiking trail names necessary?

Nobodies forcing you to use a trail name if you’re uncomfortable. It’s a fun game hikers play, but you don’t have to use one if that’s not your style. It’s not mandatory to use a trail name during your hike. Hike your own hike and don’t feel forced into a name that you hate.

Just introduce yourself by your real name and the trail name will die. As you keep meeting more people along the trail a better trail name will pop up and you might start using it. Most people don’t hike the entire length of long trails so you’re constantly running into fresh faces along the way.

Most people are given a trail name within their first week or two on the trail. You start to naturally run into the same people over and over again. When two people hike at a similar pace you’ll eventually run into them again. Even if you don’t see them again, you already have a giant thing in common with everybody (hiking) so it’s really easy to meet people.

The second you meet somebody it’s like you’ve known them for years. It won’t take long for somebody to give you a unique trail name that you actually like. I’ve met people that absolutely hate trail names and 2 weeks later that’s all they go by.

Don’t Put Too Much Pressure On Finding A Trail Name

Some people take a lot of stock in Trail Names, but I’d always laugh (not out loud) at people that take them too seriously. Trail names are a shared game that everybody plays, but come on guys, it’s not that important. You can have an amazing hike without a trail name and they shouldn’t feel forced.

What I’ve always found dumb is that some of the trail names feel forced. If it comes on naturally and it’s a great fit then it makes sense to use one. There’s a lot of pressure to come up with a trail name and when they’re forced you end up with stupid stuff like: “I’m Flannel, because I have a flannel jacket” and ” I’m Pineapple, because I brought dehydrated pineapples” etc.

I never really thought about it until meeting a guy named Rainbow that hated his trail name. He had a weird coating on his sunglasses that left him with a rainbow pattern. The guy thought the name was stupid, but that’s how he introduced himself.

It made me think for a second. You’re a 30 year old man! Quit calling yourself Rainbow and ask people to stop calling you that. Think about the typical hiker you meet on the trail. They’re not the guys from Wolf Of Wall Street that will take advantage of you in a second. Most hikers are kind-hearted people and the last thing they want to do is upset you.

Don’t put too much pressure on finding a trail name. If the name comes on naturally, it’s funny, or has a good story behind it then it’s a good trail name. I appreciate the reasons behind trail names. You’re leaving your old life behind you and becoming a new person so here’s your trail name, but some names work and others don’t.

Trail Names Make You Anonymous (It’s A Good And Bad Thing)

Hiking trail names allow you to leave your old identity behind.

A lot of people like the anonymity of not using their real name on the trail. They’re leaving every part of their past life behind them and embracing the hike. You’re no longer Jim the boring insurance adjuster, now you have a brand new hiking identity.

I’ve met 100s if not 1000s of people on the trail and I don’t know most of their real names. Out of all those people I’ve shared my contact info with maybe 20 of them. The rest are left behind as anonymous acquaintances that share a common goal.

Anonymity can be both a good and bad thing. There are lots of people that I would have loved to keep in contact with, but I have no idea what their actual names are. How do you lookup your old pal “Fire Blanket” when your travelling through Denver on Facebook?

That’s why I try to exchange contact info friendly people along the way. I still have a group chat going with a handful of guys I met on the trail. We kept a similar pace so we kept running into each other and we’d text each other helpful info along the way.

A Few Commonly Asked Questions About Trail Names

There’s no set rules when it comes to trail names. Most of them come about naturally as you make friends on the trail, but there’s no hard rules to follow. Here are a few of the most common questions people have about trail names.

Can I Pick My Own Trail Name?

There’s no set rules when it comes to trail names. The common practice is to let other hikers give you a name, but some people choose their own name. I hate judging people, but most people that come up with their own trail names end up looking like dorks.

Do your own thing, but remember that people will ask the story behind your trail name. I met a guy that started calling himself Torch a few years ago. That’s an interesting name so I thought there would be a crazy story behind it. It was a serious letdown when he explained that he named himself that because it sounds cool.

All I could think was this guys a nitwit, lets get out of here. I like to tell myself that he had an off putting personality, but he seemed like a nice guy. I just couldn’t get past the first impression and I will always think of him as the jagoff that named himself Torch.

With that being said, there have been lots of people that I’ve met that had great names they came up with on their own. There’s a common difference between the good names and one terrible ones. Names that make you look like a showoff are bad, funny and self-deprecating names are fine.

I met a lady that named herself SAW because she’s a “Slow *** Woman”. This is a family friendly site, but you can guess the middle word. She would hike 5 miles per day and took lots of breaks. The names funny and it fits her hiking style perfectly. So it doesn’t leave a sour taste in your mouth.

Can My Dog Have A Trail Name?

Yes your dog can have a trail name.

The answer is an enthusiastic yes! Lots of people bring their dogs on long distance hikes and people get a kick out of giving their dogs trail names. More people were excited about discussing my dogs name than my own.

I used to hike with my Boxer Rocky and people would always joke about his trail name. That’s an extremely common name for a boxer, but that was the name from his previous owner. It didn’t take long before I decided that it was the perfect time for a new trail name.

I would feed him like crazy and he was constantly moving throughout the day. After a month or so he was by far the most muscular boxer you’ve ever seen. Most people joked about calling him Arnold, Tyson, etc. but then the name Flex was suggested and that finally stuck. I ended up keeping the name and that’s what I called him for the rest of his life.

Just like your own trail name, you can base your dogs name on a personality quirk or something that he/she’s done on the trail. It might be a little confusing at first, but won’t take long for them to get used to their new name.