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When hiking or scaling a mountain, beginner mountaineers often find it difficult to understand the different terminology they encounter along the route. Concepts such as elevation, prominence and warning signs on posts are often ignored. But ignorance can have rather serious implications for the mountaineer if weather conditions should change rapidly or if they do not have the correct equipment on hand.

In this guide, we will cover the basic and most important mountaineering terminology that novice hikers and mountaineers should take note of before a mountain climbing excursion.


The success and pleasure of your hike will depend on your understanding of basic mountaineering terminology. This basic guide serves to provide beginners, or those hiking solely for pleasure, with a basic glossary of the terms and symbols most often found during treks and hikes. It is, though, not intended for scaling Mount Everest! 



Photo credit by Simon

Photo credit by Simon

An anchor Is normally hammered into a rock face to be a point of attachment for a climbing rope.


A comfortable and often rainproof bag mountaineers, hikers, climbers or travelers use for carrying equipment, snacks, water and supplies.


Photo credit by Laterjay

Photo credit by Laterjay

In relation to mountaineering, backpacking refers to the act of undertaking a hike or climb, most often with a backpack. Overnight equipment such as a tent, sleeping bag and food supplies are carried for longer treks.


The title given to travelers who travel cross-country or overseas on their own or in a group, most often with only the most necessary travel gear and equipment packed in a backpack. Backpacking is also known as the budget travel option.


Photo credit by Flyupmike

Photo credit by Flyupmike

Indicates sparsely inhabited rural areas that is often very remote, undeveloped and not easy to access.


Indicates the weather conditions that relate to a specific location.
Tip: Beginners should avoid destinations where snow is prevalent during winter, and heavy rain in summer.


Phto credit by TheElectricWarehouse

Phto credit by TheElectricWarehouse

The elevation of a mountain indicates it’s rise above sea-level. Topographic maps are often used to indicate elevation.
Tip: Depending on distance it maybe a harsh or an easy climb.


Phot credit by Hermann

Phot credit by Hermann

The term used for organized walking along a marked route or footpath.


An uncomfortable constriction in the chest when one starts to breathe very hard and fast. It mostly happens when undertaking a hike or climb when not physically fit enough. It’s a serious condition, with medical assistance often required.
Tip: Check the grade and elevation of your hike beforehand. You want to enjoy it, not end up in hospital.


Photo credit by Stocksnap

Photo credit by Stocksnap

Trekking is an international term for walking a long distance with the intention of enjoying the scenery and exploring remote areas not necessarily connected with a footpath. Trekking can take place over a couple of hours or several days.


Photo credit by Lum3n

Photo credit by Lum3n

A survival kit is a group of items that’s essential for survival when lost or if you meet with an accident. Items may include a First Aid Kit, firelighters, PLB, and water purifying tablets.
Tip: Even day walkers can meet with accidents. Take at least a first aid kit and purifying tablets.


Photo credit by MabelAmber

Photo credit by MabelAmber

The term is used for casual walking. (Very much the same as a walk around town and not when hiking.) Hiking indicates a more strenuous type of activity, while walking is done more for enjoyment and does not require a certain level of fitness.



Photo credit by SImon

Photo credit by SImon

It’s a watch fitted with a barometric sensor to estimate your elevation.
Tip: A nice-to-have item but not critical for lower grade hikes or climbs. However, it’s necessary for 14ers or other higher-grade mountains.


Photo credit by Hans

Photo credit by Hans

Emergency medical care is always important, no matter the grade or elevation of the climb.
Tip: All hikers should have sun protection, insect repellant and foot care ointment packed in their medical kit.


Photo credit by Maxmann

Photo credit by Maxmann

Hiking shoes are specifically tailored and designed for hiking. These types of shoes allow the hiker to enjoy a more comfortable hike and can prevent sprained ankles or thorns entering the shoe. Hiking boots in particular are designed to protect the ankles and feet.
Tip: Regular, everyday shoes or sandals are for walking,not hiking.


Photo credit by AronHerne

Photo credit by AronHerne

A Geographical Positioning System (GPS) is a device that allows the hiker to accurately find their location on a digital map. Outdoor designs are often of rugged build and weatherproof, with a longer battery life.
Tip: A GPS is not critical for a well demarcated day route, but essential to carry on treks and if accessing remote, unpopulated areas or high-grade mountains.


Indicates a water bottle made of flexible plastic or rubber, fitted with a drinking tube and bite. The design is intended to be lightweight and easy to carry.


Photo credit by Skeeze

Photo credit by Skeeze

When hikers refer to a knife, it’s usually a quality hunter’s knife, with a belt fitted sheath, or an army type with multi-function tool design. The intention is to carry one item which can be   used for a variety of functions, as well as an eating utensil.
Tip: The old time favorite, the Swiss army knife is still among the most popular knives that hikers carry.


Personal Locator Beacon (image courtesy of NASA) By NASA Goddard/Rebecca Roth

Personal Locator Beacon (image courtesy of NASA) By NASA Goddard/Rebecca Roth

It’s the widely used name for a Personal Locating Beacon (PLB). When disaster strikes or when you are lost or injured, it’s critical for emergency rescuers to find you as soon as possible.
TIP: A PLB is a critical item for higher-grade climbs and remote locations, especially with snow avalanches.


Photo credit by SupportITNI

Photo credit by SupportITNI

Normally found on wooden posts, trees or even on rocks. It could indicate a detour, danger ahead or just a change in direction.
Tip: Some shorter hikes have differently colored footprints to mark different routes.


Grading is used throughout the world to indicate the ease or difficulty of a hike or climb. Beginner mountaineers are advised to start with easy grade mountains. Only move on towards higher grades as more experience is gained.

TO NOTE: There are different grading systems throughout the world. Example, the grading system in the USA might different from that in the Alps. It is thus important to know which grading system is applicable to the mountain you are going to climb. Below, we will discuss the grading system as set forth by the National Climbing Classification System (NCCS) as applicable in the USA.


Indicates the level of difficulty attributed to a route or climb, and is closely related to the distance, terrain and climate mountaineers may encounter on the route.
Tip: It’s important to know the grade of a hike / climb you are to undertake, otherwise it could end up miserably.


The National Climbing Classification System (NCCS) is a system for categorizing the terrain and climb in terms of difficulty and fitness requirements. There are seven grades, of which only the first two are suitable for beginners. See THE NCCS GRADING SYSTEM for more details.  
There are seven levels:
  1. Short, safe and easy climbs or hikes.
  2. Slightly more difficult routes taking up to 6-hours, requiring some navigational skills.
  3. Longer day routes with tricky descents or steep elevation.
  4. Also indicates day routes, but ones that will require intermediate level navigational skills as more hazards are likely to be encountered.
  5. Long routes, mostly covering remote areas with intermediate to advance level climbing skills.
  6. Difficult routes that can only be attempted by experienced climbers.
  7. Top of the range in terms of difficulty and fitness requirements. (For highly-experienced climbers only.)


Is definitely not for beginners. It normally covers difficult terrain and high altitudes with extreme weather at times.


Another term in the NCCS system. It indicates the level or grade of exertion that the climb or hike will require physically from the climber.


Is for a slightly more experienced trekker or hiker. It will involve daily walks of up to 12 km and may involve some hill climbing.
Tip: Recommended for reasonably fit and healthy beginners.


Ideal for beginners as it normally involves hiking or climbing over easy terrain in a short amount of time.


Indicates the steepness of the climb, and whether or not ropes and other climbing equipment are required to complete the climb.


The terrain will be difficult and involve climbing up to altitudes of 5,000+ meters. These types of routes are definitely not suitable for beginners.



Is the elevation or height above or below sea-level of a hiking or climbing location.


That is what you will put into your GPS to find your climbing location and most likely the route that you intend to take. Coordinates are required in order to identify the exact position of a location.
Tip: Always ensure your GPS and/or cell phone is 100% charged before leaving home; even when hiking shorter routes or trails.


Location means a few things for beginners – it just means ‘the place where something is’. It is the place where you are going to do your hike or climb. It’s also the starting point of your hike, and it may be the end of your climb as well, or the places where there’s camping or overnight facilities.


Generally speaking, a mountain indicates a large landform that is raised above the land in the surrounding area. To distinguish between a mountain and a hill, it is important to note that a mountain is considered to be higher than 2000 ft or 610 meters, otherwise it’s a hill.


A mountain range Is a belt of mountains connected by high ground that can cover a few hundred, if not thousands of kilometers.


Think of things like a GPS, map or a compass.
Tip: Make sure you know how to use it.


Think of prominence as the independent height of a summit. In other words, prominence indicates the difference between a mountain or hill’s height and lowest contour line.


This is a detailed map of the area or mountain range that you intend to visit, indicating a variety of natural reliefs. Most topographic maps today represent relief via contour lines.



What happens when a climber swings out sideways from the rock they are climbing due to being off balance.


The term is used as the latest time at which you can change or bail out of climbing plans without annoying your partners.


That is hanging from two toe hooks and not with your hands!


When people and equipment on a climbing trip are in disarray.
Tip: Beginners beware!


This is a word used to yell at other climbers. A dab is called when accidentally touching the ground, your spotter, or anything that isn’t the rock itself while climbing. It’s like hooting in traffic.


A name given to a climber with stronger fingers rather than route-finding skills.


Someone who uses unnecessary extra safety precautions and who’s not yet comfortable relying on proven methods and techniques.


Hiking up a mountain is a fun and exhilarating experience; yet, a certain amount of precaution and preparation is required for mountains that have treacherous terrain or require a certain skill level by the mountaineer.

It is, therefore, important to understand the basic terminology in order to scale mountains of different grades, such as Kilimanjaro (graded I - III on seriousness depending on time of year), or Everest (graded the highest level in seriousness at VII), which have treacherous cliffs and climbing conditions that can change rapidly and catch beginner mountaineers unawares.

As fellow travelers and avid mountaineers, we thus recommend you should take note of the basic terminology listed in this article, before taking on a level II to VII mountain.
TOP TIP: Save / Bookmark this article to your mobile phone if you carry it on a hike with you in order to consult when needed during a hike.




From the Routes.Tips Team,
Happy Travels!

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