Understanding Hiking Trail Markers

Trail Blazing: Important Symbols

The most common types of trail markings are called blazes, a term that can also refer to trail markings in general. You'll find two main types of blazes out on a trail: paint blazes, which are symbols painted on trees, or carved blazes, which are chiseled into trees or rocks on the side of a path. Coloration can vary from location to location, but standard blazes are usually marked in white paint [source: Seton].

Cairns, or rock ducks, are carefully arranged piles of rocks that guide hikers in areas where there are no trees or where visibility is poor [source: Holland]. Standard cairns use a small two-stone pyramid, which is augmented to communicate different messages. Although not used as commonly today, some Native American tribes also used twigs and grass as trail markings [source: Seton].

The language of trail markings includes three essential pieces of information: the starts of a trail, directions (turn right or left), and warnings. Many trails also use reassurance blazes, which let hikers know that they haven't ventured off their path [source: Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources].

Even if you didn't read this article before heading out on a trek through the wilderness, you'd probably be able to guess what most trail markers mean. Although they vary slightly from method to method, markers generally follow the same pattern:

  • Trail identifiers or reassurance blazes are indicated by single markers. In the case of traditional blazes, this takes the form of a single vertical line. Cairns use a single pyramid.
  • Directions are indicated by a reassurance marker with an accent on the right or left. This can take the form of an extra rock to the side of a cairn or a second vertical line placed to the side of the main blaze.
  • Warnings are indicated by multiple markers grouped together. This could look like one vertical line above another or a stack of three stones in a cairn [source: Seton].

As a rule, blazes should be placed around 200 to 300 yards (183 to 274 meters) apart. However, that can vary depending on the difficulty of the trail: If the path is naturally easy to identify, blaze frequency can be reduced, and vice versa. Regardless of frequency, all trail markings should be made in regular intervals [sources: Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation].

Blazing too little can cause confusion for hikers, but can you blaze too much? We'll explore over-blazing and the environmental concerns associated with it on the next page.