The tell-tale trail

You're hiking merrily along a well-groomed trail, when suddenly the path stops and you're not sure which way to turn. When things like fallen leaves, streams, or snow have blurred the way, don't despair. Trail volunteers and park rangers often mark trees and rocks to help guide hikers. To find your way again, all you need is some common sense and a little know-how. Short of putting a good map in your pocket, we'll do what we can to help guide you safely through the woods.

Nothing can replace a good map and compass when it comes to finding your way. You can buy compass at most outdoor goods stores, and you can obtain a map of the area where you'll be hiking from the park ranger's station or from a local bookstore. Sometimes maps are available at the entrance to parks and at trailhead. Be sure you study the map before you hike so you'll have a mental picture of where the trail goes.

Follow the trodden path

Once you've located a trailhead, check your map and any posted maps or signs to make sure you're starting on the right trail. Then start your hike by following the beaten path.

The well-maintained trail will have brush and natural plants cut back so you can see the dirt and others' footprints clearly in front of you. Loose rocks and other debris will be cleared and placed to each side. A well-maintained trail usually follows an easy and obvious path; is leveled (sometimes cut into hillsides so you won't have to walk on a slanted slope); and may have occasional repairs where there have been washouts, fallen trees, or erosion.

When the road splits or crosses a stream you didn't expect, double check your surroundings against your map and compass to make sure you're still headed in the right direction. It's also a good idea to check your map against your surroundings every half-hour, or whenever you want reassurance you're still going in the right direction. In some areas, using your map and following a well-maintained trail will be all you need to do.

Follow the blazes

At some point, you may come across an area that's not clearly traveled. Also, when trails intersect or are crossed by streams--especially after the snow run-off each spring--they can become confusing or be obliterated altogether. Blazing alleviates the confusion.

Basically, blazes are marks on trees (painted, carved into the bark, nailed on, or tied to branches) that let you know you're on the right path. Usually, organized trail maintenance volunteers and park rangers put them up. How far apart they are depends on the trail. Some well-defined trails only have blazes at the trailhead and where other trails intersect. Other trails may have them every few paces or wherever it's unclear which direction to go. Follow the blazes by looking for them at eye level on the trees in front of you, and then walk toward them.

Note: As a tree grows, a blaze's dimensions can change. Further, trees occasionally mark one another when one falls against the other, leaving a scar.

Aside from what the U.S. Forest Service uses, blazes can be any shape--from rectangles to triangles to circles with dots in the middle. Because each trail organization uses a different marking system, it's best to become familiar with the markings in your area. For information, call parks and recreation services, check guidebooks, or use an Internet search engine to locate the association affiliated with that particular trail. For instance, type in "Appalachian Trail, blaze, hiking."

Some trails will have wooden posts at the trailhead or periodically along the route with a number painted on the top (this number corresponds to trails on Forest Service maps) and a symbol. A green circular symbol with a gently curved white line through it indicates an easy trail for beginners; a blue square with a more obviously curved white line through it indicates a more difficult trail; a black triangle with a jagged white line through it indicates a very difficult trail for advanced hikers.

Follow the cairns or ducks

At some point, you may find yourself standing on a large slab of rock--with no trees or trail in site. This landscape is called a bald. In this situation, small piles of rock, called ducks or cairns, point the way.

Cairns are typically spaced close enough together so you can see the next one even in fog. The Forest Service's standards for cairns are 3 feet high and 30 inches across at the base (or .9 meters high and .75 meters across). They're usually placed on small rises. You follow them by imagining a line from your feet to the nearest one and then walking toward it.


A small rock on top of a large rock indicates "this is the way." A small rock placed to the left or right of a duck might mean "turn in this direction" (but be sure to look for the next duck before heading off). Three rocks stacked may indicate "warning, proceed cautiously," and rocks arranged in a circle with one rock in the middle usually means "end of the trail."


If you follow ducks or cairns, you'll usually find the trail where it picks up again at the other side of the bald. On the way there, they may lead you uphill in a crisscross pattern (called switchbacks) to make it easier to climb a hill. Sometimes, instead of piles, rocks will be lined up next to each other and lead the way to where the trail picks up again.

Note: Ducks are sometimes quacks. Because the weather can move rocks that aren't permanently set, and because anyone can stack rocks on a whim, what appears to be a duck isn't always a reliable marker. Sometimes lost hikers pile stones, thinking someone will find them faster. Obviously, if you follow a lost hiker's piles, you could become lost as well. Again, always consult your map and compass when you're unsure. The best way to keep from following quacks is to stick to the larger piles (remember the Forest Service's standards).

If you cannot find the trail at the other side of the bald, you may have followed a quack. Backtrack and try again. Also be sure to check the trail that picks up on the other side of the bald with your map and compass to make sure it's going in the right direction; if it isn't, you may have followed a quack. Backtrack to the original trail and try again. Another sure way to know you followed a quack is if you don't find your destination spot within the time estimated.

Follow nature's signs

Remember the sun, moon, and stars move from east to west. And you can read these signs from nature to determine north and south (the following is true for the Northern Hemisphere, while it's reversed for the Southern Hemisphere):

  • Evergreens are often bushier on their south side (where they get more sun).
  • Moss grows thicker on the north side of trees and sometimes only on the north side.
  • The bark is sometimes darker on the north side as well, because it's protected by shade.
  • South-facing slopes will tend to be sparse of vegetation or completely bare because they're in the sun more often and don't retain as much moisture as north-facing sides.
  • North-facing slopes often have denser foliage.
  • Snow is sometimes more granular and pitted on the south-facing (sunny) sides of slopes, but remains longer and fresher looking on north-facing sides.

You'll soon discover that following directions can be half the fun of hiking. Keeping a lookout for nature's signs, blazes, and ducks or cairns can lift your eyes to the wonders of nature around you, as well as lead you to your destination.

Some Helpful Tips

When talking with rangers or trail associations before you head out, ask if a particular trail has any difficult or confusing sections.

Typically the U.S. Forest Service uses blue plastic reflectors to indicate cross-country ski trails, and orange to indicate snow mobile trails. These markings may be quite high on trees, to allow for snow depth.

Not every trail supplies blazes. Some trail organizations believe blazing destroys the wilderness by leaving man's mark on it and creates a false sense of security that lures beginners into dangerous situations.

Some people destroy markings (including historical ones)--another reason to bring your map and compass.