The Ultimate Hiking Glossary Guide

by Sigita B | Last Updated: October 29, 2020

What is a footprint? What is a tarp, why would I need one and how is it different from a rainfly? What is the difference between an internal and external frame backpack? As you dive deep into the world of outdoors adventures and find more and more cool hiking gear and gadgets, it is bound to get confusing at some point. This is why we made this useful glossary that you can use to navigate the fascinating world of hiking gear and accessories, finding the best equipment to make your experience as easy and comfortable as it can possibly be.

This guide will come in handy for beginners and hiking enthusiasts who are not native English speakers but would like to shop their gear online. With this article, we will try to shed light on names, features and pieces of equipment that you might have stumbled upon while searching for best hiking gear.

 A couple is looking at the compass

Bivy sack

A bivy sack is a small, easy to set up one-person tent that is a good choice for light packers. They almost look like sleeping bags, but with one or two folding poles that give them structure and stability. This type of shelter works best for short (one night) trips. Although they are lightweight and take up very little space in your backpack, keep in mind that you will have to leave your pack outside overnight – bivy sacks are just that small!

Backpacking tarp

Backpacking tarps are an ultralight option for tents – if you are not afraid to be exposed to the elements. Basically, it is a sheet of waterproof fabric that can be attached to poles, trees and other things to provide shelter. It is the lightest type of shelter you can get but it has a few downsides. You will have to get a footprint so that you don’t have to sleep on bare ground, and the tarp will not protect you from bugs and animals, and it also offers very limited shielding from wind. Since tarps are only suitable for good weather and safe terrains, most hikers choose tents over tarps.

Daypack

What is the difference between backpacks and daypacks, you might ask. The distinction is somewhat blurry. Depending on the length and other specifics of your trip, you might need two packs – a bigger backpack to stash all your stuff (tent, sleeping bag, clothes, cooking equipment, toiletries) until you reach camp and then a smaller bag for when you leave camp for the day. 

Most daypacks are frameless and in the 15L to 35L range. It can hold a day’s worth of gear but a daypack typically won’t be enough for a longer trip. Some hiking backpacks, like the Deuter Transit 50 Travel Pack, have a built-in daypack so you don’t have to waste space – you can just use the daypack as a part of your bigger pack. 

Drop (in hiking boots)

The drop is the difference between the shoe’s height in the heel and the forefoot. Many hiking boots will typically have a 10+ mm drop, which means that the heels are higher than the balls of the feet of 10 mm.

In hiking boots and hiking shoes you will hear about zero-drop, and high-drop.

External frame backpack

External frame backpack is a backpack that has a frame (usually aluminum) on the outside with a sack-like bag attached to it. Nowadays, this type of a backpack might seem old-school but some hikers still swear by external frame packs. Overall, these packs are good for carrying heavy loads, are easy to wash and usually cheaper than internal frame alternatives. However, there are a few downsides as well – smaller selection, less special features, they are heavier and don’t conform to your body.

To learn more about the pros and cons of external frame backpacks and how they compare to internal frame packs, read our article on the topic (The Difference Between Internal and External Frame Packs). Need tips for packing an external frame backpack? We have you covered – read all about it in this article (How to Pack an External Frame Backpack: Some Tips).

Footprint

A footprint is a piece of durable, waterproof material that you can roll out underneath your tent to prevent its bottom from tearing. It will protect your tent’s bottom from wear and tear, thus elongating its life and preventing unpleasant surprises while you’re hiking.

Footprints are made of strong synthetic materials like polyester or ripstop nylon.

Most tent makers offer footprints that are compatible with their tents. However, you can make your own if you are crafty enough. Read this article to learn how. 

Gaiters

This is the hiking term that confuses many beginners! So what are gaiters? They are waterproof sleeves that you put over your shoes and pants before heading in wet terrains like small rivers, swampy land and others. They will help with keeping your feet dry and warm. They have other uses too, for example, they prevent sand and rocks from getting into your shoes in desert terrains. 

Internal frame backpack

Internal frame backpacks are the type of pack that’s the most popular these days. Whenever you search for hiking backpacks, most have an internal frame – unlike the external frame packs with an aluminum frame visible on the outside. Internal frame packs are made to fit the curves of your body and normally have a lot of comfort features like a wide, padded hip belt, adjustable torso length and comfortable shoulder straps. Although these packs are not as great for carrying heavy loads like their external frame counterparts, they are more comfortable and distribute the weight very well which helps with carry fatigue.

Looking for an internal frame hiking backpack? Read our reviews for best cheap hiking packs (What are the best cheap hiking backpacks) and best packs for heavy loads (Top 10 best backpacks for heavy loads).

Lumbar pack

Lumbar pack is a relatively big, usually rectangular pack that you can attach to your waist. Some also come with detachable shoulder harness. They are a good alternative to daypacks on one day hikes or short trips after you have reached camp. They have enough room for all the essentials – water, snacks, tools, some extra clothing or even a camera – when you don’t need to bring all your gear with you.

Rain cover

Rain cover is a thin waterproof overlay for your hiking backpack to keep it from water, snow or even dust. Some packs come with a rainfly made for their dimensions, but you can buy them separately if you need one, or if you have lost or damaged yours. They are a must-have hiking accessory, especially if you are carrying valuable electronics like a laptop, tablet of camera. Read all about Osprey backpack rain covers here (Osprey backpack rain covers: find the best one for your pack).

Rainfly

Rainfly is an outer layer of a double-wall tent. The bottom layer that usually has lots of mesh panels for breathability and keeping out bugs is known as the tent body. Rainfly goes over the tent body to provide protection from rain, wind, dust and other weather conditions. It is included when you buy a double-wall tent. For most tents on the market, rainfly forms a vestibule where you can put out your shoes, gear or backpack so you don’t have to keep them intent where there is limited space.

Shank (in hiking boots/shoes)

In hiking boots or hiking shoes, the shank is a thin piece of material between the insole and the outsole intended to support the foot and provide structure.

Ultralight hiking gear

When packing, one of the main concerns that hikers will face is weight. After loading up your pack you will have to carry it for hours or maybe days, limiting your freedom of movement and subjecting yourself to carry fatigue. The solution is, of course, taking less items with you or just choosing lighter ones. The world of lightweight hiking gear is vast and exciting, from ultralight tents to lightweight camping hammocks, to ultralight backpacking cooking gear. 

Waist pack

Waist packs, also called fanny packs, are hiking accessories you absolutely should consider! These tiny packs that go around your hips can store small things like your phone, maps, a compass and some light snacks. If you want something with a little more capacity, look for lumbar packs. You can use waist pack for short outings or in addition to a daypack or a hiking backpack if you need quick access to your essentials.