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Know Your Cwm from Your Astrobleme: 10 Weird Outdoor Words

Have you ever smelled petrichor? Or felt mizzle?

As an aficionado of both the natural world and obscure vocabulary, I thought I'd post a list of some of the more unusual and mellifluous outdoor-related words I've encountered during my years of exploring trails and dictionaries.

Have a look and feel free to weave any of these terms into conversation. It'll be a surefire way to establish impeccable nerd cred among your hiking buddies.

Do you have any favorite outdoor words not included here? Please share them.

#1: Alpenglow

The reddish glow cast by the sun across the peaks of mountains at sunrise or sunset.

Why I like it:
This is a favorite of many outdoor enthusiasts so perhaps it's not that unusual of a linguistic specimen for readers of the REI Blog. Really, no outdoor vocabulary would be complete without alpenglow. It's a warm-sounding word for an inspiring sight.

Usage example:
"Grab the camera, Jim! The alpenglow on those mountains will make a sweet backdrop for our group campsite photo!"

#2: Astrobleme
A crater in the Earth caused by a meteorite or asteroid impact.astrobleme

Why I like it:
Derived from the Greek "astro" for star and "blema" for wound from a missile, this is an unusually striking lexical contribution from the field of geology.

Usage example:
"The Barringer Crater in Arizona is one of the most well-preserved astroblemes in the world."             
                                                                                                             Credit: NASA  

#3: Crepuscular


Active in the twilight.

Why I like it:
Many woodland animals are active during dawn and dusk, so it's handy to have a word ready to describe them. A lot of critters commonly referred to as nocturnal are actually crepuscular. 

 Usage example:
"As the sun set, the deer, mice and other crepuscular creatures of the forest began foraging for food."


Credit: Donna Dewhurst/USFWS

#4: Champaign


An area of open countryside.

Why I like it:
Sounds just like the word for the bubbly libation frequently quaffed on New Year's Eve. The different spelling, however, gives it a different meaning. You'll totally blow your friends' minds the next time you come to an open field and say "hey, check out that champaign!"

Usage example:
"Just before sunset, I took out my binoculars and scanned the champaign for deer and other crepuscular wildlife."

#5: Cwm


A bowl-shaped glacially formed valley head; a cirque. Pronounced "coom."

Why I like it:
It's a word with no vowels.

"Let's hike up to that cwm and have lunch."

#6: Jökulhlaup


A glacial outburst flood.

Why I like it:
Although glacial outburst floods can be catastrophic, this Icelandic import is just plain fun to say. Take your pick of correct pronunciations: "yer-kul-hloyp," "YO-kel-yawp" or "yo-kul-h-loip."

#7: Mizzle


A very light rain made up of fine drops; a drizzle.

Why I like it:
Use in place of "drizzle" to brighten up otherwise dreary chitchat about the weather.

Usage example:
"Better trade that hoodie for a rain jacket. This mizzle could turn into showers at any time."

#8: Petrichor

The pleasant smell of rain on dry ground.

Why I like it:
The word is a combination of the Greek "petros" for stone and "ichor" for the fluid that flows through the veins of the gods. It means something like "essence of rock." Pretty poetic, don't you think? Pronounced "PET-ri-kuhr."

Usage example:
Even though it rained during our hike on Friday, it was nice to smell the petrichor after such a long, dry summer.

#9: Vermiculation

Example of vermiculationDefinition:

A pattern of worm-like lines.

Why I like it:
This word lives vividly in my mind because it's often used to describe the beautiful, labyrinthine markings on the back of a brook trout.

Usage example:
"After catching the brookie, I spent a few moments admiring its brightly colored spots and vermiculations before releasing it back into the river."

Photo: Brook trout with vermiculations. Credit: Eric Engbretson/USFWS

#10: Zastruga (or Sastruga)

A long, wavy snow ridge formed by wind erosion, especially in the polar regions.

Why I like it:
I needed a "z" word to conclude my list and this one (of Russian origin) seemed to make a good choice. The word sounds to me like the long extruded shapes it describes. (Note: The plural is zastrugi.)

 Usage example:
"The lonely Antarctic research station sat on vast plain of zastrugi."

 Below: Zastrugi. Credit: Bill McAfee/NSF 

Posted on at 9:56 AM

Tagged: outdoor, vocabulary and words

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I can't wait to use these word with my 5th grade science class. Thanks. I have to admit zastruga sound like an Italian pasta dish.

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Virga is any form or precipitation that doesn't reach the ground. There could be rain virga or snow virga. But in either case, the precipitation evaporates somewhere on the journey from clouds toward earth.


I thought I would add a few of my favorites I see missing from the list. These are all terms I learned in my geology classes but all having a relation to the physical world I find the appropriate for your list.

Angle of Repose: This is the steepest angle of a granulated surface before it begins to slide. Think of the steepest side of a sand dune. I find this term to have a wonderful ring to it; angle of repose.

Tombolo: This is when an island landmass becomes connected to the mainland by a narrow piece of land. The best example I know of in the States is Morro Rock in Morro Bay, California. From Wikipedia: "A tombolo, from the Italian tombolo, derived from the Latin tumulus, meaning 'mound,' and sometimes translated as ayre (Old Norse eyrr, meaning 'gravel beach')"

Columnar Jointing: This is a formation or jointing found in lava that takes place when lava is stressed as it cools. These formations are amazing to see in nature. Classic examples are Devils Postpile and Devils Tower in the US and Giants Causeway in Ireland.


These are great. Cwm is one of my favorite Scrabble words and it always drives my opponents mad! Thanks for some new (or old but forgotten) terms.


I love these words and have used many of them in the novel I'm writing.
Here are two more:
VESPERTINE: Pertaining to or active in the evening (see crepuscular).
MAUZY: Dreary, foggy, damp (could include some mizzle). Common usage in Newfoundland and other coastal parts of of Eastern Canada.


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