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Outdoor Terms Glossary

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While there are of course many, many outdoor related terms, there are a few that are used often and are good to know before heading into the outdoors.


Acclimatization: the process of adjusting to higher altitudes. The general rule is "climb high, sleep low" allowing your body to adjust during the evening hours. 

Altimeter: a tool that measures the altitude of an object. 


Berm: a bank, lip, or pile of snow, dirt, or debris that separates two areas. Often times referred to the snow that piles up between the tire tracks or to mud and debris berms on rivers and creeks.

Bearing: the direction of one object in relation to another object. Often times referring to the relationship between major landmarks. 

Bench mark: a stationary navigational reference point such as a tree, mountain, river, road. 

Blaze: something that marks the trail such as a cairn (rocks stacked on each other) or a mark on a tree.

Boatman: refers to the person steering the boat and navigating the water. Often used in rafting and fishing. 

Box canyon: a canyon with only one entrance that is also the exit. A canyon surrounded on three sides by walls. 

Buffer zone: the land between a protected area and developed area. It keeps the protected area from being in contact with industry and development.


Cache: supplies and food that are stored for later. Backpackers on long trips may plan ahead and leave a cache of food stashed away somewhere along their journey. 

Cairn: a stack of rocks, usually 3-5 piled on each other that marks the trail in areas where the path is not clear. 

Capilene: a type of synthetic material that is often used as a slang word for all types of synthetic base layers.

Cardinal directions: the four 90 degree points on a compass: North / 360 degrees; East / 90 degrees; South / 180 degrees; and West / 270 degrees.

Cataraft: a floating vessel that has two pontoon tubes connected by a frame and a floor. It is usually rowed with oars and is lighter and more maneuverable than a raft. 

Clinometer: a tool on high-tech compasses that allows the user to measure the angle of a slope.

Contour interval: the difference on a map between the contour lines. 

Contour line: the irregularly shaped loops on a map that show points of elevation. Contour lines that are closer together represent steeper slopes. On most maps every 5th contour line has the elevation printed on it. 

Coordinate: Latitude and longitude readings. GPS (Global Positioning System) relies on coordinates. 


Declination: the difference in degrees between magnetic north (the direction the magnetic needle on a compass points) and geographic north (the direction maps are printed towards).

Deet: Diethyl-meta-toluamide, an insect repellent that is controversial but is used in many bug sprays. 

Double blaze: two painted blazes or markings on a tree that announce a change in direction or junction along a trail.

Drytop: a waterproof jacket used for paddling and fishing


Flip line: a piece of webbing or rope that boatmen wear around their waists and in the event that their raft flips, they can use it to flip the raft back over. 

Frame: in backpacking, it refers to the metal or plastic pieces that keep the shape of the backpack and can often be molded to a person's body. In rafting, it refers to the metal structure that sit on top of the raft and hold the oars, cooler, tables, and all the gear. While this piece is made and stored separately from the raft, it is secured tightly while on the water. 

Freshet: a rapid rise in water and overflow in a stream or river due to snow melting or heavy rain. 

Fork: a split in the road or the trail.


Giardia: (giardiasis), an amoebic cyst that lives in water, typically found in areas where livestock or wildlife are grazing upstream. If consumed, it often causes diarrhea, vomiting, and stomach aches. Because of giardia, most backcountry users choose to filter and treat their drinking water. 


Hachure: short lines used to represent relief features that lie in the direction of the steepest slope.

Housing: the rotating part of the compass that holds the damping fluid, the magnetic needle and has degrees engraved around its edge from 1 to 360. Also known as the Azimuth Ring.


Kayak: a type of watercraft that is navigated by one or two people. There are both closed, hard-shell kayaks and open kayaks. They are used in oceans, lakes and rivers. 

Knob: a prominent rounded hill or mountain.


Latitude: the distance in degrees north and south from the equator. These lines run laterally (horizontally) around the globe and parallel the equator. One minute of latitude equals one nautical mile.

Layover day: a day of play and rest where the group opts to stay in the same place for two nights in a row and spend the day hiking, fishing, acclimatizing, or just relaxing. 

Leave no Trace: a practice of leaving wilderness areas the exact same way as you found them.

Longitude: the distance in degrees east and west from the prime meridian established in Greenwich, England. These lines run vertically (lengthwise) around the globe and connect each pole.


Magnetic north: the geographical region towards which all magnetic needles point. This point is approximately 1,300 miles south of true north and moves slightly each year.

Map projection: a process used in mapmaking where they transform a round object (the earth) into a flat object (a map) with the least amount of distortion. Note: There is always some distortion caused in this process which is why grid lines are not perfectly parallel.

Meridian: an imaginary line circling the earth and passing through the geographic poles. All points on any meridian will have the same longitude.


Oars: long wooden, plastic, or carbon fiber rowing sticks with blades on the ends. They are always used in conjunction with a frame.

Organic soil: dirt that contains a high percentage of organic material. This kind of soil is poor for constructing trails though since it rots, breaks down, compacts and holds water.

Orienteering: using a map and compass to navigate

Orienting a map: turning the map so that north on the map is pointing to north in the real environment as well. 

Outslope: the downhill slope of a trail that allows water to drain and keep the trail from becoming a swamp. 


Paddle: a shaft with either one or two blades used to navigate and propel a raft or a kayak. 

PFD: Personal Floatation Device (used to be called a life jacket) worn when participating in water sports. It's a vest that secures with buckles, zippers, or ties and provides floatation.

Pink snow: snow that is filled with an algae (which colors it pink) and protects it from the sun. If you eat this type of snow, it will give you the runs. 

Prime meridian: this is the meridian that runs through Greenwich, England at a longitude of 0 degrees and is used as the position of origin for measurements of longitude.

Puncheon: a log bridge built over fragile terrain that is wet.


Raft: an inflatable boat that can either be paddled by several people or rowed by one.

Ravine: a deep narrow cut in the earth's surface usually caused by runoff.

Relief: changes in terrain.

Relief shading: a process of shading the map so that it takes on a three-dimensional look. Typically, maps are shaded as if the light source casting the shadow is coming from the northwest.

River board: like a boogie board in the ocean but with more bouyancy and with handles on the top

Runoff: rainfall that is not absorbed by the soil. 


Saddle: the lower ridgeline between two peaks.

Scree slope: a slope greater than 30 degrees covered with small rocks and gravel that have broken away from the cliffs above. Scree slopes can be difficult and dangerous to travel on.

Skirt: to work your way around a mountain or obstacle. Used in both land and water sports. 

Slack line: a sport where a piece of webbing is anchored to two permanent objects such as a rock or cliff and a tree and a tightrope is created. Slack lining is the sport of doing tricks and walking on this tight piece of webbing. It's a great layover day activity and climbers use it to train for balance.

Slick rock: common name for southwestern sandstone made slick by the rubbing and grinding action of sand.

Slot canyon: a narrow canyon carved into sandstone or slick rock by centuries of rain and flash flooding. Slot canyons are often filled or partially filled with water and can be extremely dangerous to navigate through.

Snow bridge: a layer or "bridge" of snow that can be inches or feet thick spanning a creek or crevasse. Bridges can and will collapse when walked on so extreme caution should be used.

Switchback: a trail that zig zags it's way up a steep ridge or slope making the ascent more gradual.


Talus slope: Talus slopes are more angled, sloping at 45 degrees or more, than a scree slope. Talus is also larger than scree and the rocks have sharper edges all of which makes a talus slope far more dangerous to cross and difficult to scramble up or down.

Tarn: a small mountain lake.

Tarp-ology: learning how to put up the perfect rain and camp tarps.

Traverse: to go up, down, or across a slope at an angle.

Tread: a trail's surface.

True north: also known as geographic north-the North Pole.


Waypoint: A checkpoint used as a point of reference for GPS.

Whiteout: a no-visibility condition when the snow, fog, or thick clouds cause the light from above and below to be the same and everything appears white or grey. Shadows and horizon lines are non-existent.


Yogiing: a despicable habit of dipping into others picnic baskets when they are not looking. Used to be just for food, but more recently has meant teens searching for booze.

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