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.

Mommy Hiker’s 2017 Essential Hiking Gear List

hiking gear lists

Before you hit the trails, you want to make sure you have the gear necessary to make the most of your trip. Whether you’re going on a quick walk around your local state park or you’re going on a longer overnight hike, these picks are sure to make your trip all the better.

Carhartt Hiking Shoes & Backpack

carhartt backpack

carhartt hiking boots

The bare bones of any hiker’s arsenal is a good pack and some durable shoes. Carhartt’s been at it 127 years, so they know a thing or two about rugged gear. These pieces of gear are made with durable waterproof material, so you can keep going all day.

Garmin Waterproof GPS

garmin GPS

With this Garmin, you can keep track of the routes you take, mark waypoints, and it also features a trip computer, sunrise and sunset times, information about hunting and fishing, a compass and a barometric altimeter. It’s powered by AAA batteries. This particular GPS is configured to handle tracking through deep tree cover or inside canyons and has a feature that allows you to retrace your steps.

Coleman Camping Stove

coleman camping stove

This Coleman stove is small enough to fit inside an 8-inch pan. It’s also easy to store: the burner and base separate making it even more portable. The large base makes stirring easy. The burner is adjustable and is optimized for fuel efficiency and performance under harsh conditions. One 16.4 ounce propane cylinder is good for up to 2.5 hours of cook time on high.

Sierra Designs Tent

sierra designs camping tent

Sierra has a reputation for crafting products that last decades.  This tent by Sierra Designs is a lightweight nylon and polyester three-season tent. This tent sleeps two people. Pitching is pretty easy, and there are only three poles. Storage and the rainfly are built in, so that’s a bonus.

Leatherman Multi-Tool

leatherman pocket knife tool

The Leatherman is a great way to have almost every tool you’ll need in one small space. Weighing in at 6.9 ounces, this little guy is home to 18 different tools. When you’re watching the weight of your pack increase, you can thank your Leatherman for being so petite.

Ray Ban Polarized Sunglasses

ray ban sunglasses

Nobody wants to walk all day long squinting. It’s important to keep your eyes from UV rays. In addition to your safety, these glasses will keep the path clear for you, and the polarized lenses are great for cutting down the glare. If you’re going to do any fishing, they’ll also help you see the fish in the water. A good pair of sunglasses can make the difference between a mediocre trip and a great one.

MSR Cookset

MSR camping cookware set

You’ve got to eat, and if you need to cook, it’s better to have something lighter than a cast iron skillet. This MSR cookset takes saving space to the next level. Everything in the set nests together and the whole thing is under 2 lbs.


Photive Waterproof Bluetooth Speaker

photive waterproof bluetooth speaker

Sometimes you want to have an impromptu trail dance party, or you just like singing in the shower. These speakers are nearly indestructible and can sustain eight hours of play on one charge.

Black Diamond Trekking Poles

black diamond trekking poles

If you’re distance hiking or you’re hiking treacherous terrain, you’ll need trekking poles. These trekking poles are ergonomic and collapse down, making them rather portable. If you need good hiking poles, Black Diamond offers a great lightweight product that’s made of carbon, so you know they’ll last.

Yeti Gear

yeti water bottle

Whether you need a good water bottle or something to keep your pot of coffee hot, Yeti’s 64-ounce Rambler is a great option. It has a wide mouth, and the cap is great for clipping to your pack. The bottle is made of stainless steel, it’s got double-walled vacuum insulation, so your beverage will stay really cold or hot all day long.

Kelty Sleeping Bag

kelty sleeping bag

If you’re camping overnight, you need a good sleeping bag. This bag from Kelty is rated for temperatures as low as 20°F. Available in regular and long sizes, this polyester bag featuring two blankets will keep you comfortable all night. It’s easy to store and it comes with a stuff sack. The total weight comes to 5 lbs 1 oz, so it won’t kill your back on a long day.

Explore Historic Rancho Sierra Vista with the National Park Service’s “Horse Tales”


If your child has a hankering for horses and hiking, then bring them down to Rancho Sierra Vista in Newbury Park, on Saturday, September 10th for heaps of outdoor family fun. Join the National Park Service Law Enforcement Rangers and their equine partners for a morning of family friendly interactive learning, and a short ranger-led hike through this history-rich landscape.

Purchased by the National Park Service in 1980, Rancho Sierra Vista, was settled in 1936 by oil geologist Carl Beal who established a sprawling ranch that extended out from Newbury Park to the Pacific Ocean and as far north as Camarillo. For a few thousand years before that, this fertile swath of earth was sacred Chumash land which encompassed the sandstone-peaked views of Boney Mountain and the enchanting streams and wildflowers of Sycamore Canyon.

Situated in the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, the largest urban national park in the country, Rancho Sierra Vista takes great pride in honoring its ranching heritage. And as part of the nationwide National Park Service Centennial Celebration, their Horse Tales program is a lively event that leaves kids, and adults alike, with a renewed love for animals and perhaps a fresh perspective on the abundant history surrounding their community’s open spaces.

Festivities begin at 9 a.m., as a cultural resource and interpretive ranger guides visitors through a ranch history touch table loaded with ranching artifacts providing a well-rounded illustration of the tools of the rancher’s trade. From adobe brick molds and cow hides, to musical instruments and kid’s toys, this full-sensory encounter will transport adventure-seekers back to the early days of the 20th century.

A truly equestrian-filled event, visitors will be welcomed to watch a thrilling demonstration performed by Rancho Sierra Vista resident horses, Bayberry, Jordan and Cache, then stay for a pet and greet. The National Park Service and California State Park mounted volunteers will also be on hand to conduct their monthly training exercises, located in the upper corral.

NPS Horse Volunteer, Kristina Bliss muses, “The most popular part of the Horse Tales program for kids (and adults!) is meeting and petting the NPS horses, sitting in the RSV surrey, along with interactive learning about ranching history at Rancho Sierra Vista.” This open-house-style event invites families to explore a wide variety of stations meant to inform and energize young minds through participation. Kids can track their progress with a program card by gaining stamps as they move through each experience, receiving a reward as recognition for completion.

Other entertaining activities will include a kid’s ranch brand, where children can create their own branded leather bracelet, a perfect souvenir to remind them of a wonderful day spent in the outdoors. And the Transportation Talk exhibition will allow guests a closer look at the surrey, a 4-wheeled horse-drawn carriage, a popular mode of American transport in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

An optional ranch history hike, led by a cultural resource ranger, beginning at 10:30 a.m., allows explorers an up-close-and-personal glimpse of one of the last remaining ranches from the first half of the 20th century. After the event’s conclusion at 11 a.m., stay and enjoy the natural wonders of Rancho Sierra Vista’s more than 10 miles of pristine trails, including a short 1.5-mile hike to a beautiful waterfall just inside the Boney Mountain State Wilderness, or sit under the majestic sycamores for a relaxing family picnic.

Know Before You Go

Ample ADA-approved parking for Rancho Sierra Vista is located in their main parking lot at the cross street of Via Goleta and Lynn Road in Newbury Park, CA, 91320.

There are public restrooms and water fountains located in the main entrance parking lot and near the Satwiwa Native American Culture Center.

Pets are allowed if they are on a leash and under control, but are not allowed on designated backcountry trails leading to Point Mugu State Park.

For more information about this event, contact the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area at (805) 370-2301.