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Blazing the Way: Trail Markings a Thru-Hiker Should Know

Read Time: Approximately 11 minutes

For those who have made the decision to hike a long trail and assembled all their gear, you’ve taken the time to get mentally prepared and physically prepared, why would you want to bypass parts of the trail? This is why understanding trail markings like hiking blazes are important on a thru-hike and ensuring you travel the right way each time!

Hiking blazes serve an important role on the trail, they can keep you moving in the right direction when all other signs have evaporated. Take the time to learn as they will guide you on your hiking journeys!

Double white blaze on the appalachian Trail marked on a tree showing you the way forward. Trail markings are important to hiker's success!

What Are Blazes?

A frequent question by nearly all new hikers centers around the trail and their confusion on how you don’t get lost on the trail, this leads them to learn a little more and ask what are blazes in hiking?

A trail blaze mark helps provide direction, showing you where to head next and ensuring you don’t lose the trail and get lost. Blazes are a crucial component of trail upkeep and are used to signal key spots such as the start and finish of a trail, a change of course, or another trail intersection.

Now that we have gone over why trail marking, like blazes, helps to provide on the trail we can now go a little further and explain the normal blaze setup and how you can read them with ease while out on the trail.

How to Read and Understand Trail Markers

In general, most trails are blazed fairly similarly with a majority featuring painted blazes, though some trails may deviate from the standard they are an exception to the rule, so then that leads you to the question of how to read trail blazes?

For most a single blaze means to continue straight, on double blazes the top blaze indicates the direction to turn to follow the trail. Most of the time 3 blazes mean the beginning or end of a trail or a spur or offshoot trail available.

Let’s look into each different way trails are blazed as each provides hiking trail details that are important for you to stay on course in the forest. Natural lands can easily cause disorientation if you manage to get off the trail you may get turned around so let’s discuss what blazes look like and their overall meanings.

Straight

This is telling you that the trail continues in a generally straight direction without any bends or curves. These are by far the most common blazes you will find on most trails and the easiest to understand when learning how to follow a trail.

Straight With 2 Blazes

This is to blazes one on top of the other and while similar to the above single blaze it is used when the trail is obscured ahead or that you may have difficulty locating the blaze and is more like a heads up that you may need to focus more on finding the blaze to stay on track.

Right Turn

This blaze is one lower blaze and then another offset above it to the right. This is a sign to the blaze reader that the trail will bend to the right ahead and follow the trail to the right side regardless of what may look like a trail in another direction.

Left Turn

This blaze is one lower blaze and then another offset above it to the left. This is, like the right above, a sign to the blaze reader that the trail will bend to the left ahead and follow the trail to the left side regardless of what may look like a trail in any other direction.

Trail Start

This looks similar to an inverted V, with two blazes low and one centered above them. This is the blaze that signifies a trail start, as expected there is only one of these at the start of a trail.

Trail End

Similar to the trail start this looks like a proper V with one low blaze and two top blazes. This as with the start of a trail exists only once at the end.

Trail Intersection

This marking is just to ensure you know of any connector trail that runs into your current trail, this will look like two white blazes with a single blaze on the side where the other trail will intercept.

Common Methods Used to Mark a Trail

There are many ways that are used when marking a trail, some require different types of signs to effectively mark the trail. The most common blaze trail marking paints, typically due to ease to replace and costs being lower than many other methods.

Marked trails are vital to hikers knowing and following the path and causing less environmental impact while hiking.

Paint

Painted markings can be either on trees or rocks and there is also a recent trend to use reflective materials so that they can easily be seen at night when hiking.

Paint blazes are the most common and can be used for many hiking trails as it is easy to see on the trail. This also makes them easy to replace in case one has been damaged or needs replacing so that hikers are able to find their way around a hiking trail with ease.

A part of paint is coloring, the trail marking colors are just to make sure trails are unique from one another and that you don’t mistakenly hike on the wrong trail.

Cairns

Cairn trail markers are used in large parts above the treeline where paint or markings may not be easy or simply visible. These are stacked rocks that have been used for centuries as trail markers and can be found in most mountainous terrains.

While a cairn trail marker doesn’t require a lot of material it can take time to build, and manage as many people think they are cool by knocking them down. This can lead to issues for any future hikers not being able to easily find their way from point to point.

While a rock cairn is really just a pile of rocks they are able to last nearly forever through bad weather and other hiking-related conditions, if built solidly are one of the longest-lasting markers useable on a trail.

Side note, there are also piles of rocks called “trail ducks” which are just much smaller rock piles that are typically stacked enough only to convince the observer it is not a natural formation.

Marking a trail with rocks is a good solution in many places where access to trees and a visible sightline isn’t easily possible but they also don’t work in all places so we will talk about more options that can be eye level for a hiker.

Posts

These are hiking trail signs that are buried in the ground much like a fence post which offers signage areas with arrows that are to help point out directions.

Posts are a simple and effective way to communicate multiple converging trails and to help point hikers in the right direction. They are also fairly simple to replace if they should get broken or damaged without too much effort.

Tags or Affixed Markers

These are typically a plastic or similar badge that is nailed or attached to a tree or object on the trail. As you may expect these are less than optimal to LNT principles but they are longer lasting than paint and can be more effective when hiking in areas where there is little continual access to repaint.

Cut In or Etching

These are cut or etched into the surface, so like cutting the trail symbol into a rock face, tree trunk, or similar hardened object which can be found on hiking trails.

These types of blazing can leave a very long-lasting mark, but they also require good tools and not everyone has them handy while hiking the trail.

Flags

Trail marking flags are typically tied around a tree trunk and many times are for temporary details as they are simple and easy to remove later making them a good temporary solution but less of a long-term marker.

Frequently Asked Questions and Additional Trail Marking Meanings

There are many non-official blazes that are more like hiker slang than really stand for anything, among these are things like brown blazing, blue blazing, yellow blazing, pink blazing, and many more which I have tried to answer to the best of my abilities below.

What is a White Blaze?

The white paint markings on trees along the Appalachian Trail are 6 inches long and 2 inches wide. These “white blazes” serve as markers to assist hikers to stay on the correct trail route.

The white blaze has become a symbol for much of the thru-hiking community and can be seen referenced in movies, YouTube, and many other forms of popular culture.

What is Yellow Blazing?

Yellow blazes are more a hiker slang than a real trail blaze marking, basically yellow blazing is when hikers choose to skip portions of the trail choosing to instead be driven further up the trail.

This is frowned upon by many in the thru-hiking community as purists are always wanting to make sure they walk all the steps between the blazes on their thru-hike attempt.

Others will justify it to stay “with friends” because they are falling behind and don’t want to lose the tramily, sometimes it happens with injury but it is to be avoided for a complete thru-hike.

What is Pink Blazing?

The term “pink blaze” is hiker slang that means that a person is hiking to stay caught up with someone they have become infatuated with or want to start a relationship with, it started as “pink blazing” as boys would chase girls but to be honest it happens both ways.

If someone refers to someone as pink blazing, they mean they have lost interest in talking and being around others and they are heavily focused on keeping pace whether slow or fast with the person of their infatuation.

What is Blue Blazing?

On the Appalachian Trail, there are side blazes marked in blue which are alt routes or side trails to unique views or other points of interest. Many may take these to go check out a view then head back to the main trail to continue on the original trail.

Blue blazes though can be used as a form of “cheating” on the AT where the hikers follow the side trails as shortcuts to cut miles off the main trail and get to places sooner than they normally would.

A blue blaze will be seen on posts and trees and is typically a rectangle that is painted or marked with blue paint similar to the white blaze to let you know that the blue-blazed side trail is a legitimate off-shoot trail and not just a game path animals made.

What is Aqua Blazing?

This one is another trail slang for hikers who choose to take to the rivers for certain sections where you can kayak or use other water travel to move through a section.

While this is bypassing the original trail the intent is fairly similar to see the amazing lands that our country has and even less have seen the water-based paths people take in many ways.

This will not work with purists but I can see the reason why this would add to a unique experience while hiking for 6 months!

What is Platinum Blazing?

Recently this book has popped up with the popularity of thru-hiking and includes a focus on enjoying the finer things available on the trek, instead of focusing on being as cheap, frugal, or inexpensive as possible.

Combining hiking and their backcountry excursions into engaging with local culinary, cultural, historical, and other recreational experiences. Typically this approach will add serious expenses to your thru-hike so unless you have the money don’t prioritize this approach.

Final Thoughts on Hiking Blazes

Blazes are important hiking symbols that indicate the correct route. There is a specific type of blaze for each different hiking trail, such as white blazes on the Appalachian Trail.

Blazes also have come to signify more than just what direction to go: some hikers use them as slang for hiking behaviors! In the end, understanding each blaze and trail marking help to keep you safe and hiking on the correct route even if you use a GPS device or cell phone.