Trail blazing

Trail blazing

Trail blazing is the practice of marking paths in outdoor recreational areas with blazes, markings that follow each other at certain — though not necessarily exactly defined — distances and mark the direction of the trail.

In older times, a tree could be blazed by a simple hatchet chop, or several chops, such as Three Chopped Road in Richmond, Virginia, which once was a footpath through a forest.

Effective blazes must be immediately recognizable, easy to see all year round, and durable through rain, wind and snow. In recent years, environmental concerns have also begun to play a part in the choice of blazing method.

Figuratively, trail blazing can mean avant garde or inventive work in arts or sciences, evoking the literal meaning of going into new territory which has no marked paths.

Types of blazing

There are many ways of blazing trails. All have advantages and disadvantages.

Paint blazes

In modern times, most commonly, a painted marking of a consistent shape or shapes (usually, but not always, rectangular), dimension and color or combination of colors is used along the trail route. Commonly, in North America, to avoid confusion, it is one single color, often white or one of the primary colors — red, blue or yellow, as green tends to predominate in woodland environments where most trails requiring blazing are found. Orange can also be used, but on the whole it is good to avoid earth tones as they are not as easily distinguished from their surroundings.

Ideally, blazes are placed at a height of around six feet (180 cm) above ground level so that they may be near eye level yet remain above snow level in wintertime.

The system by which blazes are used to signify turns and endpoints in trails (see below) also strongly favors the use of paint blazes.

There are some places, however, such as Harriman State Park in New York where the many trails built over the years have necessitated a scheme that includes multicolored rectangles, rectangles with differently-colored dots in the middle, letters in the rectangle and similar permutations.

In some European countries this is, in fact, standard procedure. Austrian trails use the national flag, and in Slovenia, the blazes are in the form of a white point inside a red circle (Special winter blazes must also be set. These are steel poles 4 - 5 m high on top of which there are red arrows oriented in the appropriate direction.). Blazes used to mark European walking routes are yellow points encircled with a red ring.

When using paint on trees, the preferred technique is to use a drawknife to smooth the outer bark of trees without penetrating to the inner bark (so as to not injure the tree), then using an oil-based paint to create the blaze. Stencils are often useful, and sash brushes are the preferred brush type for precise work. Oil-based paint seems to last longer than latex-based and seems to be more benign to the bark. Blazes may also be painted on obvious rock surfaces or on posts set into the ground (or on utility poles, fences, or other handy surfaces) where the trail follows a road or goes through fields and meadows.

Since paint introduces small amounts of potentially toxic chemicals into a protected environment, it is often preferred to keep the rectangles small, to a standard size of 2 by 3 inches (5 by 7.5 cm). Some trails or parks have used larger sizes, however. The standard blaze for the Appalachian Trail is a white rectangle 2 by 6 inches (5 by 15 cm).

Painted blazes fade with time and exposure and must be repainted every so often.

Affixed markers

Alternatively, plastic, metal or even sometimes wooden markers may be affixed to trees, usually by nails. These last longer than paint, but are vulnerable to both the chewing of animals (porcupines especially) and the growth of the tree swallowing the nails and causing the marker to fall off. To protect against this possibility, most markers are put on nails with some space between the head and the bark.Markers thus require more skill and labor than paint, and also require an area with an abundant supply of trees to work as intended as they are difficult to place on rocks.


Surveyor's tape hung from branches or tied around trees is sometimes used to indicate trail routes, but usually only for temporary or unofficial trails, most commonly when a trail route has been selected but the trail itself is under construction. They are sometimes used for permanent trails, but even though they are probably the easiest blazes to place this is rarely seen as they are the most vulnerable to the elements of any trail blazing method. Nor are they always easy to see.


, so that hikers forced to crawl by heavy winds and occasional infamously lethal weather can find their way to safety.

Below treeline, cairns are used less frequently, often like flagging to indicate informal or unofficial paths or just their junctions with official trails. They are the least visually intrusive and most environmentally friendly blazing method. However, their construction requires sufficient stones be either available in the area or brought to the trail. They tend to get buried under snow in areas with heavy winters as well as being knocked over and scattered by animals or vandals. These drawbacks make cairns not a favored method of indicating trails.

In some parts of the world, it is traditional for walkers to add a stone to cairns as they pass. This particularly applies to summit-cairns.

Carved blazes

Lastly there are trails blazed by cuts made in bark by axe or knife, usually the former. Most often these are informal routes made by loggers or hunters, or trails descended from those routes.

While carvings can be set at eye level, just like paint, they have a natural tendency to change into something unusable as the tree grows and heals what is essentially a wound. Due to the maintenance and skill this requires, as well as an increasing aversion to doing something so damaging to the tree, this is almost never used for new trails today.

However, in past centuries it was often the only method used.

Degree of blazing

It is not enough to simply cut a trail, and then blaze it via the chosen method. The trail builder must consider first how much blazing to use. The different land-management philosophies principles often have a practical impact on this decision, as well as the kind of users the trail is likely to get and what kind of trail it is in the first place. In wilderness areas, whether state or federal, it is preferred that blazes be kept to a minimum so that the land seems "untrammeled by man," as the U.S. Wilderness Act, the first statute on this subject, requires. Most wilderness trails are also used by serious hikers and backpackers who find excessive blazing to be visually annoying and distracting.

By contrast, in a typical municipal or county park, or any land open to a wide variety of users, especially one where overnight camping is either forbidden or infrequent (for example, if it is located in a well-developed metropolitan area), one can expect much more casual users who are not used to finding trails and appreciate frequent blazes.

Single-track trails of the sort favored by those on foot also receive more blazes than those that follow old roads or other wide routes, which are often self-evident and are thus usually blazed only as necessary to infrequently reassure travelers, by whatever means, of the route they have chosen.

ystems of blazing

On a large piece of land, there is likely to be at least more than one trail. The person or persons responsible for maintaining the trails, along with whatever public or private entity has ultimate authority over the land, decide on how systematic they wish the trail blazing to be.

, all trails other than the Appalachian Trail use the same blue blaze (pictured above). Usually at least, the same blazing method is to be used on all the trails to be blazed.

However, blaze type might be mixed when different user groups (i.e., snowmobilers, horse riders, mountain bikers) are allowed on trails. For users of faster vehicles, blazes are often more outsized in order to be seen better at high speeds, and sometimes affixed markers best communicate who may and may not use a trail besides those on foot.

Colors are often assigned simply with an eye toward making sure that no two trails that intersect use the same one, but it can go further than that. On all state land in New York's Catskill Park, for instance, primary trails, especially longer "trunk trails" that go great distances, use red markers if they go in a generally east-west direction and blue if they go north-south. Shorter spur, loop or connector trails take yellow (There is one exception; the recently-constructed Mill Brook Ridge Trail uses yellow due to connecting at either end to two shorter red-blazed trails which should really be yellow under the system, but for which color was not an issue for many years).

On the rare occasions when two trails run concurrently, usually at a slightly staggered junction, only one trail is signed, in contrast to numbered highways. In those cases, the longer or more heavily-trafficked trail's blaze predominates, to minimize confusion. And in some other cases, such as southern Vermont where the AT and the Long Trail follow the same path, there is the fortunate accident of both trails using the same white blaze.

A trail blazing system must also consider whether there are any property lines that approach or intersect trails, since if they are not posted paint blazes and tape are common ways of indicating these, and can cause confusion for users.

Meaning of blazes

Even within the confines of a single trail, blazes must do more than simply reassure the trail user he or she is on the trail. They must alert the users to imminent turns, particularly if there is some confusion about what might be the trail, which can occur often in open woods, rocky open areas or on lightly-used trails, switchbacks, and where trails begin and end.

Volunteers working in Harriman State Park in the 1930s for the newly-formed New York - New Jersey Trail Conference developed a system whereby a vertically stacked pair of blazes, with the upper one generally offset in the direction that the trail turns; a triangular pattern of blazes would indicate a terminus, its point up or down depending on whether that was the beginning or the end. These began to be used elsewhere and are now fairly standard throughout North America.

A triangular pattern with its point to the side was also devised for eventualities like spurs or junctions, but these have not caught on.

As noted above, this system does much to encourage the use of paint blazes. Markers can also follow these patterns; but are not always (in the Catskill Park and most other lands overseen by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, turns are indicated by a simple vertically stacked pair of markers, with no directional offset). It cannot be used with cairns or tape flags, and probably not with carved blazes.


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