The label ‘Hiker Trash’ is a term of endearment for those in the long-distance hiking community who have chosen to ditch social norms and live another way while on a trail journey. That ‘another way’ can be both wondrous and freeing, yet also a bit confusing to those that come upon us outside a grocery store as we shovel chips in our mouths with one hand while stuffing our backpacks full of noodles with the other.
So what is Hiker Trash really and why do we do the questionable things we do? To be clear, it’s by no means a put-down or insult when we’re referred to as Hiker Trash; it’s more like a badge of honor. We happily own this odd, quirky existence as something like an off-beat subculture. We hold our heads high when parading through town in our stench after days in the woods, on the usual search for plentiful food of any kind, charging outlets, and WiFi. We embrace our filthy socks, pit-stained shirts, and farmer-tan legs as a testament to our insane goals (“Wanna do 42 miles with me to get to that hiker feed dinner?”) and zany moments (“Ahhh, the mosquitoes won’t let me go poop!!”) while hiking a long-distance trail.
It’s been said that changes occur in the brain as a result of distancing from mainstream society, so possibly that can explain the abnormal actions of Hiker Trash. I personally think that when given room to breathe and let loose, you begin to no longer care what other people think. You realize all the talk on profession, money, and status doesn’t matter much when you come together with a tribe of people who share common goals: to hike, be outside, live simpler, and eat as much as possible.
To explain or define hiker trash further is best done with examples and imagery. Whether you’re genuinely curious about the term, or wondering if this is your new identity, here are some classic scenarios of Hiker Trash to the core.
How to Identify Hiker Trash
I was once told there’s an easy way to identify Hiker Trash by this scenario: You’re walking along a sidewalk and see half a candy bar on the ground. A day hiker would walk right on by. A section hiker may glance and consider it. But true Hiker Trash would snatch it up and then look around for more. Gross? Nah, we’re just always hungry. While on a thru-hike, the average male burns 4,000-6,000 calories per day, and for women, it’s 3,000-5,000. I repeat: We’re just always hungry.
How to Identify Proper Hiker Trash
I know, you’re thinking that ‘Proper’ and ‘Hiker Trash’ can’t go together. Yet as someone who identifies herself as Hiker Trash, I want to say there’s a right way to embody this status. Hiking a long trail may be an individual’s choice, yet it truly takes the support of many other amazing beings who tolerate our stinky bodies in their cars, businesses, and eateries.
I’ve sadly witnessed some thru-hikers who take on an attitude of entitlement as if we deserve to be treated like royalty simply because we’re taking on a big feat. Sorry, but that doesn’t fly with me. I believe in being respectful to all hikers, trail angels, business owners, and residents I pass on the street when visiting their trail town. Wearing the badge of Hiker Trash means we’re stewards of the trail and the values it represents. To me, being a part of the trail community weaves in values of kindness, inclusion, a willingness to help others and connect on a real-deal level, all while treating nature with awe and care.
Being Hiker Trash doesn’t mean it’s okay to act trashy. Manners go a long way and so does picking up after yourself. Set a good example so it doesn’t ruin it for other hikers to come later; it’s a shame when you hear a hostel owner tell you she’s going to close because hikers aren’t considerate.
Signs of Hiker Trash
If you’re Hiker Trash, maybe you’ve experienced some (or all) of the following acts. If you’ve been on the other side as a non-hiker (perhaps the nice postal worker or motel owner who insists he open all the windows while checking us in), you’ve likely witnessed these scenes before. Here are some tell-tale signs that Hiker Trash abound.
- Your raincoat also serves as a shirt and the compactor bag that lines your pack becomes a skirt as you walk around town, waiting for your clothes to dry at the laundromat.
- Forget the laundromat, you just wash your clothes in the bathtub at the motel.
- Forget washing your clothes, they still smell anyway after you wash them.
- The lesson your parents taught you about not talking to strangers didn’t seem to sink in when it comes to eagerly accepting an invitation to stay at someone’s home that you just met in the street, because you are enticed by a hot shower and a bed.
- Ignoring your parents rings true again when quickly jumping into a car for a hitch to town, with images of burgers dancing in your head.
- How many hikers with backpacks can you fit in a sedan after waiting an hour for a ride? Oh, just wait and see Hiker Trash do this; we’ve mastered the art.
- You realize you must smell very, very bad when another Hiker Trash tells you so.
- When you shower, you think there’s something wrong if the water running off your body isn’t brown.
- It doesn’t bother you to hang your undergarments off your pack to dry, even when
walking into a store.
- Your hiking shirt begins to disintegrate where your pack straps rub, or your socks
rip, but you keep them anyway because you think it makes you look even more Hiker Trashy.
- You base your resupply stops on whether the town has an All-U-Can-Eat Buffet or not.
- Your face lights up like a Christmas tree when you rummage through a hiker box and find copious amounts of chocolate.
- You have no shame in eating out of someone else’s half-used Nutella jar…because it’s Nutella.
- You eat a pint of ice cream and wonder why they make servings so small these days?
- You give up on ice cream pints and simply pack out ice cream bars so you can eat them while you hike out to save time.
- Your beard is so long it can be braided.
- You have to remind yourself constantly that you can’t just spit or pee at will when
not on the trail.
- You’re often sniffing around for charging outlets in bathrooms or on restaurant
porches, and when you find one, it becomes your new home for five hours.
- You’ve acquired the skill of how to open a bottle of wine with a tent stake.
- You’re happy to set up in an outhouse during a rainstorm to stay dry and eat dinner while thinking you’ve struck the lottery in scoring such a palace.
- You speak in code with other Hiker Trash with lingo like, “hiker hunger, hiker midnight, near-o, slackpack.’
- You’re set up outside a grocery store, taking all your food out of the packaging and putting it in your pack, and someone comes by and offers you money.
- The phrase ‘trail magic’ is the biggest turn-on ever
- Extreme-Sport Loitering has taken on a whole new meaning when it comes to sprawling out, eating, drinking, and napping outside of local businesses that let you do so.
- Food that you once thought would go horrible together is now your favorite snack (Fritos with peanut butter and tuna on a wrap anyone?)
- Eight people staying in one hotel room seems perfectly reasonable to you.
- Taking all your gear out of your backpack and drying it on decks, lawns, park benches and fences is totally normal.
- Hawaiian shirts, trucker hats, fluorescent-colored running shorts, kilts, buffs – Hiker Trash Fashion adds flavor and personality to the outfit you wear every damn day for five or six months.
Some might define Hiker Trash as those who have sunk down to a lower standard of living, yet I strongly disagree. When I’m on trail, I feel I actually have a higher standard of living in terms of connection with the land, with other humans and myself. Sure, I’m dirty on the outside, but if you look in the eyes of most Hiker Trash, they are bright and shining on the inside.
So what is Hiker Trash? It’s a way of being, with a free spirit that stays clean even when smelly. And that’s enough said.
I love this piece, Heather. And I’m glad you included the section on Proper Hiker Trash. As a section hiker who completed the AT over a span of 20 years, I found the vast majority of thru hikers fell into the Proper Hiker Trash camp. The few who did not, often in gathering in cliques, feeling entitled and oblivious to others, reflected badly on all of us.
Thanks for saying, Dave! It was really important to me to talk about proper Hiker Trash. We have to set good examples out there.
WOW that’s a great article.
Heather, you’re adding a lot of value to this site, bringing a whimsical approach to delivering solid info and advice. I enjoyed your emphasis on a positive ethos. Personally, I’ve never quite achieved “proper” hiker trash status, but I came close when a wino loitering outside a gas station near the AT offered me a cigarette out of pity.
Thank you for your worlds, Mark! My aim with writing is to be real and relatable while giving my two cents.
Aw man, that’s a funny experience you had! Gotta love being near the AT.
Who the heck puts chocolate in a hiker box??
Must be trail magic.
I know, right?! I have scored chocolate on a few occasions. Most times it’s been when someone had too much sent in a good box when they still had extra food. Another time was at a hostel in Virginia and the owners had been holding a resupply box for a hiker who had decided to get off trail, so she called them to say they could open it and put it in the hiker box. Oh my goodness, there was such good quality food in there and specialty chocolate! This was a good day for me for sure!
My first realization that I had become hiker trash on my AT thru hike was when my wife came to visit me and she brought down some spare street clothes I could wear. I just started changing right in the parking lot without realizing it. She just stared at me and asked, what are you doing?
But can you open a bottle of wine with just a tree and no tent stake?
This is a fantastic question, Philip! I’ll have to ask my friend who showed me how to do it with a tent stake…
Actually, it’s easy. Just bang the bottom of the bottle against the tree repeatedly. The sloshing liquid causes the cork to come out.
Nate, that is a classic Hiker Trash move!!
Another sign of hiker trash: it takes two entire cans of Resolve carpet cleaner to clean the stench out of your 200,000+ mile car (complete with busted shocks from Maine dirt roads).
And I still could only sell it for $1. People kept asking “What are all these stains from?” My response: “The trail, man!”
Cricket sounds ensue…
Oh man, Remington, that’s nuts! But you had a solid reply as a reason!
Outstanding piece Heather, just getting started backpacking and I can see things going a bit in this direction already for me personally. Lots of respect for how you pursue your craft.
Hi Joe, and thank you for reading. I wish you well in your new interest in backpacking and hope you embrace Hiker Trash spirit!
Thank you, Joe! That’s wonderful that you are getting into backpacking and I encourage you to embrace Hiker Trash nature!
Surprisingly, the first time I was called “Hiker Trash” was 40 years after my Thru as I drove thru Memphis in my beat up 1973 escort wagon plastered with hiking stickers and a “GAME” vanity plate. A guy who fit the description passed me hooting and hollering “Yeah! Hiker Trash”. I responded in kind. The wife asked to be let out at the corner. Needless to say i smiled all the way home.
Good stuff. I can relate to many of the above especially on needing to remind myself not to drop my pants just because I see trees.
I hear that Mike; I’ve caught myself a few times in town wanting to spit and remembering I shouldn’t!
Let’s not forget the farting also ?
You just need to get married for that.
My partner, who I met on the PCT, is the worst ever when t comes to farts and he proudly owns it. I definitely knew what I was getting into when I joined my Hiker Trash with his…
You might be hikertrash if you’ve washed your gear and cloths in a car wash.
Justin, that is hands down amazing! I miss you, buddy and thanks for saying hi through your comment.
Never thru-hiked but I’ve done weeks on the AT and in Utah’s Grand Escalante.
Stinking (BO) is a “badge of honor” you don’t know you have until you see the reaction of civil folks as you walk by in town – or as a hitchhiker when a driver hurriedly rolls ALL his windows down just as you sit down and buckle up.
So unknowingly I have been “hiker trash”. Now heather, you have made me proud of it, not embarrassingly apologetic to civil folks.
I’m glad you feel better about it, Eric. Sure, in certain circumstances we may want to drop our Hiker stench, but it’s not something to be ashamed of.
Thoroughly enjoyable article that made me smile more than once, and I’m so glad you put in some words about the biggest turn-off: the entitlement attitude that crops up amongst some. That needed to be said and I’m glad you said it.
Heck yeah, it needed to be said! Thanks for recognizing that, Drew.
I encourage friends to pick up hitchhiking hikers. I tell them that you can tell a thru-hiker by the smell, and if you’re still doubtful just ask them what their favorite section of the trail has been so far. That rapturous demeanor that comes over y’all when you’re describing a view, a hot spring, a chilly-as-all-get-out spring during hot weather – it’s pretty obvious you’re a hiker.
Yes, I’ve talked to several Trail Angels and folks that pick up hikers that say they can tell if someone is really hiking by what they talk about and demeanor. Enthusiasm is a big factor for sure.
Wonderful piece – brings back memories and wishes
Thanks, Michael! The trail and Hiker Trash life is always there when you’re ready to dip back in…
While I haven’t done any thru-hikes, but I am a avid weekend warrior. ( I plan to do some smaller thru hikes in a couple years when I retire ) I really liked your article. It makes me want to be on the trail right now. I live in New Hampshire and get to talk to a lot of thru hikers . They always willing to answer my questions.and take the time to chat with me.. Back to why I originally wanted to respond to your post. As a construction worker that has to use some form of outhouse on the jobsite my whole life, I will not seek refuge there, you may find me dead on side of the trail. That is where I draw the line!!! ;)
Thanks for sharing this insight on what it’s like to be a hiker fanatic! Have always been curious about those people.