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Guide to Understanding Trail Markers

Hiking is a great activity while camping! It gives you the opportunity to explore your surroundings and connect with nature. You can take a look at the wildlife that lives in the area as well as the plant life that thrives. As you make your way along the trails you may see some signs with markings on them or even piles of rocks. No these aren’t the acts of vandals or someone just bored and stacking rocks (well, most aren’t)! They’re actually there to help you. This guide to understanding trail markers will help make sense of all those quirky oddities so you can better navigate the trails on your next hiking trip.

Trail Blazes

You’ve probably heard the term “trail blazer” in reference to a person before. It’s usually used to indicate someone who heads into the unknown and sets a path for others to follow. People like Steve Jobs and Amelia Earhart have been noted as trail blazers. This term comes from markings left along trails by those that first forged through them! They would leave markings telling others which way to go so they wouldn’t be lost. Today they can be kind of hard to understand if you’re not an avid hiker so that’s why we’re going to let you in on what they mean. These are all made up of lines or blocks. You will see them carved or painted into the trees.

The markings that indicate the beginning and end of a trail are very close to one another. The start of trail is a single line over the top of two lines in a pyramid form. The end of a trail will be the same thing just upside down.

When you get to an area that may look like you can go in different directions and you aren’t sure, look for the lines. A single line by itself indicates that you’re to go straight. To turn right you’ll find two lines that are next to one another only the right one will be higher. If you’re supposed to turn left, the left one will be higher.

The last marker is to let you know that there is another trail that intersects. It’s typically depicted by two lines on top of one another with another line off to the side, usually on the side of the trail where the intersection takes place


Cairns are piles of rocks! They’re stacked by humans in a way that ensures you can tell they didn't just fall that way naturally. This is a great way to identify the path when there are no trees around to put the blazes on. These piles are usually around 3 feet tall or larger and about 2 feet wide or larger. There are a couple downfalls to Cairns. While they are great to let you know you’re still on the right path and they’re easy to see, they don’t tell you which way to go from there! The other downfall is, some people see these piles of rock, don’t know what they mean, and then go make their own pile somewhere for fun. These piles that are made for fun may end up causing someone to get lost, thinking they’re on the right path since they saw what looked like a Cairn.

Thankfully most of the trails we hike are in parks so they actually have real signs with easy to understand pictures. These will show things like a person with a walking stick to depict a trail, arrows pointing which way to go, danger signs like a picture of a bear, snake, or falling rocks, and much more. But if you do find yourself on a trail that is less traveled, knowing how to read the above trail markers will make your trip more enjoyable. They may even save you from an unexpected overnight camp in the woods if you get lost!

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