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8 Terms beginner backpackers should know

By: Jessica Cho + Save to a List

If you’re interested in backpacking but don’t have that one “expert” friend to give you your first lesson or introduction, consider me that friend. 

I went on my first backpacking trip in Wyoming, and am lucky to have had friends who are well-versed in backpacking/camping to guide me every step of the way.

Here are some terms I learned during my first backpacking trip that you should know on the trail - from one beginner to another.

1. Threading

Photo: Bibake Uppal

My definition: Depending on the location and distance of your backpacking trip, you’ll likely need to find natural water sources along the way to drink from. It’s important to ensure you are filtering your water properly to avoid potentially harmful and dangerous diseases like giardiasis (see definition below). After collecting and filtering/treating your water, you’ll need to do something called threading-- flipping your water bottle upside down and opening the cap slightly to flush out droplets of unfiltered water trapped in your bottle’s cap and on the threads of the neck of the bottle.

Google definition: Threads are the screw-like lips on the neck of the container that connect with a cap or a filter for a perfect seal to prevent leaking.

2. Giardia

Two people stand on rocks on the shoreline of a lake. There are evergreen trees along the shoreline.
Image by Jess Curren.


My definition: A harmful parasite that leads to illness from drinking unfiltered water. It’s caused by animal waste deposited in the water. Symptoms may include diarrhea and extreme digestive distress– something none of us want to experience, especially while out on trail! 

Google definition: An intestinal infection caused by a giardia parasite. Spreads through contaminated food or water or by person-to-person contact. Most common in areas with poor sanitation and unsafe water. Giardia is found on surfaces or in soil, food, or water that has been contaminated with feces from infected people or animals (CDC). Symptoms might include watery diarrhea alternating with greasy stools. Fatigue, cramps, and belching gas may also occur. Some people have no symptoms. Most cases clear up on their own within a few weeks. Severe cases are treated with antibiotics. 

(Editor's note: Giardia is especially common in areas where beavers live. If possible, avoid collecting water near beaver dams to reduce your chances of getting giardia.)

3. Dry bag

Photo: REI

My definition: A dry bag is a water resistant or water proof bag where many hikers store items (clothes, food, electronics, etc.) they want to keep dry from the elements! You can roll up the top of the bag and clip/buckle it up to keep your things safe from moisture.

Google definition: A type of flexible container which seals in a watertight manner. Often used in kayaking, canoeing, rafting, canyoning, and other outdoor activities in which sensitive items would otherwise get wet.

4. Brain

Photo: Dmitrii Vaccinium

My definition: Learning about your backpack’s “anatomy” is a necessity. The “brain” is the very top pouch on your backpack that swings over the top of your bag’s main opening. Keep things you want most easily accessible while hiking in this pouch (i.e. maps, snacks, raincoat, sunscreen, etc.). It’s the compartment that is easiest to pull things out of without needing to dig deep down into the hidden depths of your pack. There’s nothing more annoying than realizing you need something that would require you to completely unpack your bag!

Google definition: The top lid that fits over the top of the main compartment. Most top lids have at least one zippered pocket, although some backpacks have two, one on the top and another on the underside of the lid (sectionhiker.com).

(Editor's note: Not all packs have a brain. If your pack doesn't have one, you can wear a fanny pack to stash items you need to reach or attach them to the many straps and bungee cords on the exterior of the pack.)

5. Saddle

Photo by Alina Navarrete.

My definition: A section in between two mountain peaks that dips down like a “U” and resembles a saddle on a horse – hence the name.

Google definition: The lowest point along a ridge or between two mountain tops and the highest point between adjacent valleys or lowlands. In general usage another name for saddle is pass or mountain pass (See below).

6. Pass

Photo: Dannii Coughlan

My definition: A section that is a known route backpackers can take to traverse over one side of a mountain to the other. This can be a steeper section with significant elevation gain that requires both mental and physical toughness.

Google definition: A navigable route through a mountain range or over a ridge. Since many of the world’s mountain ranges have presented formidable barriers to travel, passes have played a key role in trade, war, and both human and animal migration throughout history.

7. Downloadable maps

GPX tracks from The Outbound app.

My definition: A software system for mapping out trails showing distance, elevation gain, and geographic landmarks along the way. This is a great tool for planning a route before you embark on a trip because you can download it and reference it for offline navigation (really important in areas that don't have cell service!). You can download the Outbound app to access thousands of pre-drawn routes for offline navigation.

Google definition: a diagrammatic representation of an area of land or sea showing physical features, cities, roads, etc.

8. inReach

Photo: Garmin

My definition: A device that resembles something like an old-school cell-phone. Though pricey, it’s a highly useful gadget for emergency situations, especially in areas with no service for making calls or sending texts. An inReach allows you to send messages using satellite and has an SOS button that sends an alert to a global emergency response center. So, if you’re caught in a bad situation, you have the comfort of knowing you can notify someone of your location. Note: the inReach is a Garmin product, but there are other brands that make two-way communicators. Do your research to find the best option for you.

Google definition: With inReach satellite technology from Garmin, you can send and receive messages, navigate your route, track and share your journey and, if necessary, trigger an SOS to a 24/7 staffed global emergency response coordination center via the 100% global Iridium satellite network (Garmin).

Take the learning process one step at a time when first getting into backpacking! Be patient with yourself and remember that knowing everything there is to know and becoming good at something new takes both time and experience. Enjoy the fascination and newness that comes with being a beginner– soon enough, you might be the one passing along knowledge and insight to others who want to do what you’re doing!

Read about my first time backpacking during a trip to the Wind River Range!

Cover Photo: Darina Belonogova

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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