A Hiker’s Guide To Understanding Trail Signs

In the modern age of smartphones and GPS devices, it is easy to think it is impossible to become lost. That’s a dangerous assumption to make – signals can drop, batteries run flat and the gadgetry itself can become lost or damaged. At times like these, you will need to turn to the physical signs along the trail that have stood the test of time.

When we talk about trail signs, these go beyond the standard “keep out” “beware of wild animals” and other such signs that you might see at mysecuritysign.com – important though these things are. Trail signs use their own language and symbolism – but it is not too complicated once you understand the basics.

While different trails have different signs, there are three basic types. Let’s take a look at each of them in turn.

Trail Blazes

Typically found in heavily wooded locations, trail blazes are marked onto trees at eye-level to give key information. The US Forest Service marks a standardized blaze that looks like a lower case “i.”

While some blazes are still carved, painting is now more popular and considered environmentally friendly. One blaze means continue straight ahead, and if there is a double blaze, the top one indicates the direction you should take. This key provides full details of what each blaze means.

Trail Cairns

If you have explored the National Parks of the UK, you will be well acquainted with cairns – but you also find them along some of the less hospitable trails in the US. They are typically used in areas that are subject to severe weather such as fog and snow.

At first glance they look like large piles of stones, and whatever the weather, it is hard to miss them. A cairn is typically around three feet high and at least two feet wide. The theory is simple enough – the cairns are designed to be visible in the worst conditions, and if you just keep following them, they will lead you to civilization and safety.

There is a tradition among hikers that it is good luck to add a rock to the top of the cairn – perhaps that’s why some of them are as huge as they are! Whether you are exploring the English Moors or the wilds of Acadia Park in Maine, if the weather turns ugly, cairns will become your best friends!

Trail Ducks

A duck is similar in concept to a cairn, but is much smaller, often just three stones high. The saying goes that a stack of two stones could be a coincidence, but a stack of three is a duck. As well as showing that you are on the right path, a duck will sometimes include a pointer rock that indicate the direction you need to take.

The fact that ducks are so quick and easy to construct is a double edged sword. Some hikers are so enthusiastic that they love making ducks all over the place, and this can reduce their reliability.

Naturally, a GPS system and a map remain your best tools – but by recognizing blazes, cairns and ducks, you might just get the clues you need to avoid a tricky situation.

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