Understanding Trail Markers

Here’s how to identify and interpret blazes and cairns to keep you on the right trail.

Maybe you’ve been on trails before where you noticed a little spot painted on a tree and wondered about it. Or, you’ve seen a pile of neatly stacked rocks—called a cairn—but didn’t think much about why it was there. Or maybe you know perfectly well what those two things have in common, and what they mean. They’re trail markers, and they’re important.

Yes, trails have the good old-fashioned signs that say the trail’s name, sometimes the distance of the trail, and if you’re lucky, a map. But trail signs are usually just at trailheads and occasionally at trail junctions. So how do you know where to go when there isn’t a trail sign, especially when you’re at a juncture (or what looks like a juncture), and a faint trail goes off in one direction or worse, two, in addition to what you think is the main trail?

In those circumstances, look around. Look on trees for painted spots, called “blazes,” and on the ground for cairns—those weirdly, neatly stacked rocks that look like they took someone hours to balance. Here’s how to identify and interpret both.

Blazes

Not every trail is “blazed,” but the ones that are can be easy to follow…and fun, like a treasure hunt, if you know what you’re looking for. The Continental Divide Trail, for instance, is marked by aluminum markers with a blue, white and black CDT logo (a different kind of blaze than paint). The Pacific Crest Trail is blazed with PCT signs on trees. The Appalachian Trail is blazed by a white rectangle that’s roughly 2 inches wide and 6 inches long. Shorter trails that spur off the Appalachian Trail are marked by blue blazes.  

Aside from the major trails that go on for hundreds of miles, some shorter trails are also marked by blazes. Those are most often found in trail networks used for Nordic skiing and mountain biking. The blazes are easy to spot, up at or above eye-level on trees, so that people skiing or riding by can spot them quickly and stay on the route they intended to ride or ski. Hikers and trail runners can make use of them, too. One trail loop in a Nordic or mountain biking area will have the same-colored blaze throughout the loop. Blazes will appear, most often, at trail junctures to keep you on the path intended.

Appalachian Trail Blaze with Hiker in Background

Cairns

Humans have been using cairns as trail markers for thousands of years. People traversing across barren landscapes have long realized that they could stack rocks to indicate the correct route—as well as the direction of a trail or the safest, best route when there is no trail. Cairns are most often used in that latter circumstance: when there is no trail to follow, especially when a route is on a rocky scramble, or it climbs a peak covered in scree.

In either circumstance, or any other when there is no clear trail, keep an eye out for unnatural stacks of rocks. The stack should indicate the safest/best route.

Usage note: Legitimate cairns are stacked by land management agencies, and shouldn’t be stacked by trail users. Doing so can create unsafe conditions—it’s the land managers who know the safest routes. There are Leave No Trace ethics about leaving what you find, and the organization believes that cairns are an essential form of route-finding and a safety tool best left to land managers.

Where To Look

Knowing when and where to find either cairns or blazes can save you frustration. You don’t need to look for them if you’re on a designated trail with a clear direction to follow. If a trail starts petering out for whatever reason—perhaps you’re on an oft-used portage trail, or a faint animal track heads one way and you’re not sure if you should follow it, look around you. You may see a tree with a blaze painted on it. You may see sticks or logs overlaying the trail, cutting off the route to the smaller animal track and intended to keep you on the main trail.

If you’re in an alpine environment above treeline, or the terrain becomes particularly rocky and difficult to identify the intended trail, look for cairns. Once you follow a cairn, look up and try to spot another one. Generally, both cairns and blazes are placed strategically…just when you think you’re lost, they’ll show you the way.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.

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