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You might think that you are savvy enough to hit the trails with nothing more than a good pair of hiking boots and the wind in your hair, but that’s a mistake that one too many people have made. It’s all too easy to get lost when you are hiking, and every year hundreds of people are reported missing.
It’s a sad situation but one which could be avoided. So many new hikers head out without properly preparing or without the right skills. Understanding how to read hiking trail markers is just one way you can stay safe while hiking.
What Are Trail Markers/Blazes?
While it can be scary when you’re heading out for the first time, and even when you’re an experienced hiker, there are things to help you. Trail markers, sometimes called trail blazes, are rectangular markers that are laid out in a kind of code.
They are usually placed on trails in areas where the pathway becomes less obvious and offer directions to keep you on track. You’ll normally find them placed on trees or sometimes on posts along the side of the trail. At times, these blazes might be etched into a tree, so keep an eye out if they aren’t immediately obvious.
What’s great is that these markers are located all over the United States and Canada in places like state parks, national parks, recreational areas, and more. While you will need to learn how to read them, once you can, you’ll be able to read them wherever you go. We’ll explain how to properly read them later in this guide.
When you’re hiking along a trail, you’ll notice that trail blazes are spaced relatively close together, around every 200 to 300 yards. This is great as by following them, it makes it very difficult to veer off course.
You will need to keep in mind that if two trails cross over one another or intersect, the markers may appear in different colors. For every area, each trail will have its own color and this is usually either red, white, blue, or orange. When you notice trail markers with two colors, this indicates that there are two trails meeting at this point.
While these markings are one of the most common ways that trails are marked, there are other methods. It’s worth learning how to read them all so that you’re safe no matter where you go. Other methods might include trail ducks, cairns, and paint, and we’ll cover these later in this guide.
Why is it Important to Learn How to Read Trail Markers?
Many people would mistakenly assume that you only need a map to tell you where you are going, but this isn’t the case. It is, of course, essential to have a map, but you should use this in conjunction with the trail markers. You can compare one against the other to make sure you’re following the right trail. What’s more, what you see on the map may not always be what’s there in real life; you can only rely on these so much.
A lot of people rely on electronic maps these days. Those that are on satnavs or cellphones. This is brilliant technology, but it isn’t always reliable. There’s a chance you might lose signal, your battery could run out, or the technology could malfunction. At times like these, it’s crucial that you have a backup.
At some times of the year, such as in the summer, the trail you’re on will probably be easy to see. But as fall and winter set in and the ground becomes covered in leaves or snow, it’s not as easy. Being able to read trail markers ensures that you don’t get lost. There are stories of hikers who have gone along the same trail hundreds of times and still managed to get lost when things start to look the same.
What’s more, if you’re taking in the scenery and enjoying nature (which by all means you should), it can be easy to get distracted and wander off course. If you can read trail blazes, you don’t have to worry.
Where wildlife and nature is concerned, trail blazes can also be useful. Many of the popular hiking areas around the country are close to areas where there is a lot of wildlife, and these areas need to be protected. We cannot simply go wandering in and disrupting nature, but if you veer off the course, this is likely to happen.
Types of Trail Markers/Blazes
Depending on the trail you are hiking, you may come across a whole host of different types of markers. It’s important to familiarize yourself with each of these so you can read them in any eventuality. There are different systems in place around the world, but if you’re hiking in the USA or Canada, you can feel confident that the following will always apply.
Many trail markers are painted onto trees and rocks, and this makes them much easier to see. In the USA, the most common type of paint marking is a rectangle that measures two inches by six inches.
Why these are so common is that they can be seen by hikers even from a distance. You’ll notice that the paint comes in a variety of colors. As we mentioned earlier, this is to denote which trail you are on.
However, in places like Europe, paint is used in other ways. More often than not, you’ll see three horizontal rectangles; the top and bottom being white while the middle one is a different color. These colors are used to represent different things.
Carvings, which are sometimes called etchings, are one of the least common types of trail markers. The reason for this is that they cause permanent damage to the tree.
These markings are carved into the tree using a knife or blade and are typically either an arrow or an ‘X’. They are very easy to read but not all that clear, especially if you are standing a distance away.
Probably the most formal of all trail blazes are the affixed marker. This is usually a piece of metal or plastic that is secured to a tree or a post. You will normally find these markers in places where there are not so many trees since posts can be erected where necessary.
Affixed markers provide hikers with lots of different information, including how long is left on the trail and which direction to go in. The problem with them is that they require a lot of work to put up and spoil the appearance of the natural surroundings. Moreover, they can become damaged or get knocked over. Sometimes, they may even become overgrown, so they’re normally only used on hiking trails that are well maintained.
In some countries, flagging or ribbons are the main method of marking a trail, but in the USA and Canada, these are normally only used as a temporary measure. You might find them on trails that are still being constructed or areas where people have marked an unofficial trail.
The good thing about ribbons is that they cause no damage to the tree. However, if they fall down they will litter the environment and no longer show the way.
Posts and poles are often used on trails where there is likely to be snow on the ground for at least part of the year. You’ll find these in North America, but they’re also very common in European countries. Sometimes the poles will be color-coded, whereas other times they won’t. They don’t show direction but do mark out the correct path.
In some places, there is a lack of trees. This might include mountainous regions, for example. What’s great about cairns is that they are usually left by previous hikers who have hit the trail before you.
They’re stacks of rocks that can be up to three feet in height and two feet wide, so they’re not easy to miss and do a good job at helping you stay on track.
This is an ancient form of marking out a trail and can be dated back to Inuit and arctic people who have used this for thousands of years. They’re reliable and robust, but the problem comes when people accidentally or purposefully knock them down.
If you’re out hiking and come across cairns, it is essential not to interfere with them. That said, some say it’s good luck to add a rock, and there’s certainly no harm in doing that!
Trail ducks are very similar to cairns in that they are stacks of rocks. Only in this case, they are much smaller. People make these to show direction, so sometimes you will notice there is a pointer rock to show you the way.
If you see a stack of rocks that is three or more high then this is likely a trail duck. Anything smaller than this could likely be coincidental. However, do keep in mind that sometimes people might make what appears to be a trail duck for fun, not realizing that this could be misleading.
How to Read Hiking Trail Markers/Blazes?
When you are just getting started with trail blazes, it might feel a little intimidating. After all, a bunch of seemingly random rectangles stuck to a tree or post would be enough to confuse anyone. But once you get to grips with what they mean, you’ll be hiking along trails without a care in the world.
Trail blazes in the United States are made up of a series of rectangles, usually around 2 inches by six inches in size. They are laid out in different patterns to indicate the direction or instruction you should follow. Here are the basic readings:
Beginning of the trail – This is marked with three rectangles that are laid out in an arrow pointing forwards. This will be two rectangles on the bottom and a single rectangle on the top.
Continue straight – If you spot a single rectangle, this is telling you to carry straight on.
Turn to the right – When trail blazes are laid out with one rectangle and a second one slightly higher and to the right, this is telling you to turn right.
Turn to the left – Similarly, if there is one rectangle with another placed slightly higher and to the left, this indicates a left turn.
Intersecting trail – Where two trails meet, you will see two rectangles, one on top of the other, with a third rectangle placed to the side. This rectangle will usually be a different color to highlight the fact that this is an intersecting trail.
End of the trail – When the trail ends, you will see an inverted version of the start marker with two rectangles on the top and a single rectangle at the bottom.