Learning how to mark trails isn’t as difficult as you may think. With a few basic pointers, anyone can mark a path from scratch and provide a reliable route for hikers for years to come. All you need is a hatchet, some paint and a sense of care and interest.
Basics of Trail Marking
Whether you’re creating a leisurely hike through your property or planning a survival route, knowing how to mark trails correctly can make a big difference. There’s nothing in the world better than a well-marked trail, and nothing more frustrating than the opposite.
This article looks at the basics of how to mark trails. We review the most commonly-used methods, and how to apply them to your paths. Bear in mind, however, that just because a process is listed here, that doesn’t mean it’s appropriate in all contexts. Keep in mind that while you’re generally free to do whatever you like on your land, the same cannot be said for public property – not to mention other people’s backyards. If you start smearing paint on other people’s trees, or hacking blazes on public land, you're just asking for trouble.
Once you know that you’re free to make a new trail, actually marking it can be a fun experience. To get started, all you’ll need is a hatchet or machete, and durable paint. In no time at all, you’ll know how to mark hiking trails with ease.
Use Appropriate markers
There’s much debate over what exactly makes the best trail marker. Should you use cairns, cut blazes, or leave a colored flag? In reality, the best tag is the one that is most appropriate for your specific need.
For most people heading out for a day hike, chalk is king. It doesn’t permanently scar the wilderness, leaves no trash behind, and will wash off after a day or two. Chalk is especially useful in national parks or on private property, where you can get into severe trouble if you needlessly vandalize your surroundings.
2. Environmental material
However, chalk isn’t always the best option, particularly in wet weather. The next step is to use material already in the environment. Rock cairns are a classic, along with sticks and pine cones. Slashing or painting marks in trees is also effective.
3. Dedicated markers
Finally, you’ve got your dedicated markers. Trail ribbon is a popular choice, while reflective tacks are a good idea if you plan to return after dark. These methods should only be used under appropriate circumstances, such as long-distance trips far off the grid.
Personally, I like to use trail stakes when appropriate. Bamboo skewers or similar can be fitted with colored plastic flags and placed at regular intervals as you hike. They’re easy to see and can be collected effortlessly on the return trip. After a long hike, fiddling around with a knot of ribbon is the last thing you want to do every few hundred meters.
Remember though – and I cannot stress this enough – to be careful with how you mark, even with chalk. Landowners can understandably get frustrated with hikers leaving their markers behind or vandalizing their property. Inappropriate use of markers on private land can cause enormous headaches for the various organizations that maintain trails.
One rude hiker can cause a landowner to close their property to trail maintainers; effectively ensuring the closure of the path. So be conservative with your markings, and if ever in doubt, bring along a GPS or smartphone. If you don’t know how to mark hiking trails respectfully, it's best not to try.
Cairns and duck rocks
Both ducks and cairns are extremely common forms of trail marking around the world. They’re easy to recognize, easy to make and simple to understand.
Cairns are piles of rocks used to mark trails, particularly in areas with limited trees or other natural markers. They should be around 2-3 feet high, and tall enough to see through fog or snow. To indicate a turn, add an accent in the given direction. An accent is just a fancy word for an extra couple of rocks to one side. Make sure to keep the emphasis clean and distinct. Otherwise, it might just leave you with a wonky looking cairn. Alternatively, you can use sticks to make an arrow in the desired direction. Arrows are universally understood, and more suitable than accents if your marker needs to be interpreted by less experienced hikers.
Ducks are pretty similar but are usually just three or more rocks heaped on top of each other. These are quicker and simpler than Cairns but can be easy to miss if you’re not careful. It’s for this reason that many hikers have a distaste for ducks, which some people say are lazy and ineffective.
In my opinion, ducks aren’t all bad. For one, they can make good reassurance markers. When constructing either option, make sure the rocks are stable, but try to keep them tall and thin. Wider or lopsided cairns can be easy to mistake for natural formations, so don’t be afraid put pride in your work and add distinctive flourishes.
As mentioned before, blazes are simple markers consisting of a slash or painted mark on a tree. The simplest way to make a blaze is with a machete or large knife, by carving a clear, distinct indicator into a tree. Paint is an acceptable alternative if you are concerned about harming the tree. Either way, place the mark around eye level, facing inwards toward the trail. Make sure your signs are visible from both directions. Keep in mind, next time you pass, it will be from the opposite direction. Consider adding some additional marks to indicate turns. For instance, turning your blaze into an arrow.
As with all such intrusive markings, blazes should be used sparingly, and only when you have permission from the landowner. Acceptable distances between blazes vary, but anywhere from 200 to 300 meters apart is normal. Make each blaze count by sticking to prominent, eye-catching trees that come into view easily from the desired directions.
Understanding blaze code
While most trail markers are intended to be universally understood, blazes do have meanings of their own. In the US, a single vertical line means you should continue straight ahead. Two vertical parallel lines with a third stacked above and centered indicates the start of a trail, while the inverse (two parallel vertical lines above a single vertical line) indicates a trail end. A single vertical line with a second vertical line above and to the right of it indicates a right turn. As you might expect, a vertical line with a second line to the top and left is a left turn. Lastly, two vertical lines on top of each other, plus a single line to one side suggests a spur leading to a different trail. Keep in mind, however, that while these general rules often apply, different organizations have their own blaze codes, and they can even vary from trail to trail.
Making your mark count
If you’re trying to make a permanent trail marker, then make sure your mark counts. For blazes, this means cutting a flat surface into the tree to remove the bark, then painting over. In the US, hatchets are commonly used, with one hand on the handle and the other firmly holding the back of the head. Cut upwards in controlled movements, and keep the blaze as smooth and straight as possible. Then, cover the cut with a durable oil-based paint. The National Parks Service sells paint suitable for marking.
Don’t go overboard
However you choose to mark your trail, don’t go overboard with your markers. As mentioned before, 200-300 meters between markings is ideal, but this depends a lot on the terrain. Realistically, markers like blazes should come in predictable intervals, spaced an hour hiking time apart at the very most. If you can see two markers at the same time, then they’re definitely too close. Making trail marker the wrong distance apart is a common beginner mistake, and can lead to confusion – especially when you get lazy and start spacing them out later on.
Learn hiking lingo
If you’re marking a trail, you might also want to know what type of trail you’re making; getting your terms right could save both you and other hikers a lot of confusion. So, in the interests of marking trails correctly, here’s your basic list of lingo essentials:
- Trailhead: The point where your trail begins. This should be marked prominently.
- Loop trail: A simple trail type that loops back on itself, returning the hiker to the trailhead.
- Spur trail: A minor trail that splits off from the main hike. It might head to a lookout, a campground, or even another trail. Either way, these trails should be marked as spurs, with some identification to indicate exactly they’re going. For example, if you’re making a spur trail to a camping area, a distinct picture of a tent will help plenty of weary hikers later on.
- Thru-hike: A hike from one end of the trail to the other. If somebody is doing a thru-hike, it means they plan on covering your entire trail, end to end.
- Switchback/Hairpin/Dead man’s curve: A sudden, extremely sharp turn. Such turns are common on steep routes. These are points in the trail where it’s easy for hikers to get lost. If you’re trying to mark your trail correctly, make sure to indicate these turns clearly and consistently.
- Out-and-back: Sometimes called an “in-and-out”, these are simple trails that head to an endpoint but don’t loop back to the starting place. To return to the trailhead, hikers, need to follow the same trail that they followed on the way out.
See how others are marking trails
Even if you think you know what you’re doing regarding marking trails, there’s nothing wrong with seeing how the pros do it. I highly recommend visiting a few popular hikes, and observing how local maintenance staff marked trails. Pay attention to their blazes, what kind of symbols they use for indicator signs, and any other tidbits of trail marking that you can pick up.
Augmented reality: The future of trail marking?
Now that you’ve learned the basics of marking trails let’s talk about how everything you just discovered will one day become obsolete – maybe. Augmented Reality, or AR, offers instant information about your surroundings through your camera-enabled smartphone. Forget maps, compasses and the like; just download an app, and use your phone as your guide. Some AR apps even allow you to leave virtual markers, which only you can see on your phone.
These breakthroughs have the potential to save trailblazers a lot of trouble with landowners while keeping the physical environment pristine. For now, though, most serious hikers still use physical maps and rely on markers. Whether this will change in the future is anyone’s guess.
If you'd like to try experimenting with AR and similar virtual trail apps, check out this list here. A personal favorite of mine is Marmota, an app that instantly identifies any mountain peak you might happen to stumble across. It’s a great way to impress your friends with your seemingly expert knowledge of the mountains.
Do you have any trail marking tips we missed? Let us know in the comments below!
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