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Understanding Hiking Trail Markers

Trail Blazing Methods: Pros and Cons
What does this marker tell hikers?
What does this marker tell hikers?

We know that trail markings serve an important safety purpose to hikers and other outdoor explorers -- in fact, the U.S. federal government actually mandates their use. The National Trails System Act, passed on October 2, 1968, established four trail categories: national scenic, national historic, national recreational, and connecting trails. Under the act, either national trails agencies or private trail stewards are required to keep trails clearly marked [source: National Park Service].

But trailblazing raises some ethical questions as well. Most parks in the U.S. abide by some version of the Leave No Trace (LNT) philosophy, a set of principles promoting the responsible and ethical enjoyment of the outdoors. LNT emphasizes the importance of things like respecting wildlife, disposing of trash and minimizing evidence of human presence in the wilderness [source: Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics].

It's this last principle that makes trailblazing tricky, because one of the main purposes of trail markings is in fact to display a human presence. Moreover, the methods used to mark trails -- most commonly, paint and carving -- could easily be considered defacement if they communicated messages like "Brad + Angelina 4eva" instead of important trail instructions. Plus, there's a fine line between reassuring hikers that they're heading the right way and doing it like an impatient three-year-old on a long car ride: Constant signage is not only detrimental to the environment, but it also detracts from the natural experience.

Want to learn more about trail markings and how to be an educated, environmentally conscious hiker? Explore the links on the next page.