I am a known as a bit of a "know-it-all", and so on trail I have been given (lovingly I'm sure) the nickname "Professor". This is my Trail Name. Over the years, I have hiked with and guided many people. It is always a pleasure to meet new people, but some of those people have stuck around for many years and become my Tramily. As you hike more, you too will eventually get your Trail Name, and it will most likely be given to you by your Tramily!
This is the first article in an Outdoor Evolution series on THRU-HIKING CULTURE. Over the course of the series we’ll be exploring the unique culture of long-distance hiking. What is special about it? How do aspects of long-distance hiking differ from their, “real-life” counterparts? What can thru-hiking culture teach us about human behavior as a whole? These are just some of the questions we’ll try to be answering. First up, with her thoughts on the families we form on trail and the names we give ourselves is OE regular contributor Jessica "SNUGGLES" Rakestraw.
Before you even make it to the trailhead, a thru-hike can be overwhelming. Most people need at least a year to plan and make arrangements properly. They need to save, sell, and say goodbye to modern comforts, family, pets, and a way of life they may never exactly return too. When a hiker finally arrives at the trailhead, they will undoubtedly feel excited, but also perhaps alone. After a year of planning, the moment has finally arrived, and many, when taking that first step, own only the items on their back.
"They enter the wilderness open to adventure and walking into the unknown. Most, however, never expect that they soon may be adopted and renamed…"
Connections are made amongst hikers often on the very first night on trail. Excitement and anxiousness fill the air as tents are pitched, dinner is made around a campfire or shelter, and water is filtered at a spring. It's in these areas where hikers congregate together for the first time that they realize they are not alone and that long-distance hiking can be pretty social; it's more than just a walk alone in nature. They swap stories about their day, gear, and what brought them out to the trail.
When dawn approaches after the first night, those same hikers pack up and start on the same trail, usually going the same direction. Throughout the day, miles may come between them, but at night most will find themselves once again meeting at a camp spot, town, or shelter if they haven't already seen each other periodically during the day.
As the days go on, the hikers get to know each other; they experience inclement weather together, hunger, steep climbs, rough descents, they trade food, split hotel rooms, and share many, many, laughs. It doesn't take long for a bond to form between them, especially those that met early on.
Some may find themselves hiking closer together during the day to share in conversation and making daily decisions together to ensure they stay together. Thus, a tramily forms. The hiker finds they enjoy spending time with these strangers who slowly become more to them. Now functioning in a way a family would off-trail, the term "tramily" a combination of trail and family, is often used to describe this close-knit group. A hiker does not get to pick their family off-trail, but a tramily is chosen, growing naturally and with bonds strong enough to endure even when the hike is over.
"If you take a step back, it makes sense that if one spends four to six months with others on the same trail, hiking the same direction, connections are bound to come about. Sharing in raw emotions and risky situations will draw people together, but what about the renaming mentioned previously?"
Long-distance hikers are often renamed while hiking with a "trail name." It is typically more like a one-word description of who they are or a funny event that they were involved in; think of it like a family nickname used off-trail. It's often hard to remember all the Brads, Saras, Roberts, and Wendys that are hiking the same trail at the same time.
"Given names no longer seem to represent a hiker and their new way of life in the best way, and it's simply easier to remember a trail name."
Traditionally a trail name is given to a hiker by another or a tramily. There are a select few who also name themselves, which is accepted, but typically not as fun. An example of how a trail name comes about would be in the event of a hiker who consistently hits his head on the second floor of a shelter, forgetting he was too tall to stand up straight; he may get the trail name, "Headbanger." It's not uncommon for hikers on a long-distance trail to have hiked several hundred miles, days, weeks, and months with each other knowing intimate life details but never knowing each other's real names; a trail name is enough for them.
Tramilies and trail names can all seem very illogical to those who have not spent an extended amount of time with hikers or on a long-distance trail. Both are very common and very accepted (often even by businesses such as hostels and restaurants found along the trail).
"So what happens to these tramilies and trail names after a hiker leaves the trail? They stick."
When hikers leave a trail and return to their lives and families, they have been removed from them for several months; they often feel disconnected. The world they return to moves too fast, having lived in a world where things only move as quickly as their feet can carry them. Their families' cares and concerns may seem trivial and shallow. Long-distance hikers often find that they are changed, and the world they return to no longer fits who they are.
The hiker has a new identity and has lived more naturally and freely.
They can't explain what they experienced, and their family and friends cannot precisely understand them.
The hiker, feeling disconnected, reaches out to those they can connect with, tramily.
The tramily functions as any other loving family would and are supportive and understanding of each other and often reminiscence about past times on the trail.
Like sharing in trail experiences, they share in off-trail experiences too. They share in the woes of returning to a life of more than just eating, sleeping, and hiking, and the bonds that formed over trail miles now grow more off-trail.
"As time goes on, the hiker and tramily adjust and conversations with each other wane. However, it's not uncommon for tramily members to meet up again over the years for a weekend visit, to re-hike sections of the trail they hiked together, or to even attempt new adventures."
Personal Thoughts on Tramily and Trail Names
In 2015 I hiked the Appalachian Trail, and a few of the hikers I met on that first anxious night at Hawk Mountain Shelter became my tramily. We shared the trials and tribulations of trail life for several hundred miles, and there is something about that time, that no one in my off-trail life has ever been able to understand.
I still have contact with most of my tramily today, five years later. We may not talk as often, but when we do, it's as if no time has passed between us. Over the years, I have visited a few of my tramily members post-hike, and we have continued to enjoy hiking and other adventures together.
My trail name, "Snuggles," has stuck and is often how I can tell how someone may know me. I consider my trail name an honor to have, given to me within the first week of my time on the Appalachian Trail by my tramily. It is a name that reminds me of chilly nights and snuggling up to my hiker friends for warmth.
Although I first desired a name that sounded tougher than "Snuggles," it has now become somewhat of an identity of its own.Over the years, the name “Snuggles” has become part of my blog “The Snuggle Diaries”. Under the guise of Snuggles, this blog expresses my creative side and thoughts of my continued experiences in the outdoors.
"“Snuggles” has also been the inspiration for a small book entitled “Mini Misadventures”."
Tramilies and Trail Names are a unique aspect of long-distance hiking or lengthy adventure on the trail. They are never the first focus or why a hiker decides to hike, but both are a special gift that happens naturally. Trail names and tramily connect a hiker to what can be called a trail community that exists both on and off-trail — a community where people live slowly and more sincerely. Tramily and Trail Names are ultimately just a small piece of what makes long-distance hiking so special.