Home / Backpacking Skills / Navigation and Trip Planning / Trail Blazing Conventions and Guidelines

Trail Blazing Conventions and Guidelines

Crawford Notch State Park - Trail Blazing along the Maggie's Run Trail in the White Mountains, New Hampshire USA
Crawford Notch State Park – Trail Blazing along the Maggie’s Run Trail in the White Mountains, New Hampshire USA. Courtesy Erin Paul Donovan, ScenicNH Photography. Some might argue that this trail is over-blazed.

The first question that most volunteer trail adopters ask is “When do I get to paint a blaze?” I know, because it was one of the first questions I asked when I volunteered to adopt a trail on Mt Washington.

But there’s more to painting blazes than meets the eye, requiring careful consideration of the balance between wilderness preservation, route layout, and the user population (casual day hikers vs weathered long distance hikers) that will hike the trails. For example, over-blazing can ruin the wilderness experience, while under-blazing can result in the creation of social trails, where people create their own shortcuts because the intended trail isn’t obvious.

Weighing the different variables is such an art form that many trail maintenance organizations discourage volunteers from painting trail blazes since an overzealous application of paint can take decades to age away. Instead, volunteers are given the task of clearing water bars for erosion control or easy brush clearing, leaving blazing work in the hands of professional trail crew.

Trail Blazing Guidelines

There are few standardized guidelines in the United State’s trail maintenance community for blazing and local practices vary widely in terms of colors, whether blazes are painted on trees or attached to trees with pieces of wood and plastic, the distance between blazes, the frequency of re-blazing, and so on.

Maggies Run blazing near Webster Cliff, White Mountains
Maggie’s Run blazing near Webster Cliff, White Mountains

From: How to Paint Blazes by Patrick Wilson (see PATC) – (original source no longer available):

  • Blaze in one direction at a time before turning around at the end of your trail.
  • Space blazes well apart and at constant intervals.
    • Fifty yards apart is a good working minimum.
    • At least half the time when walking a trail, no blaze should be visible.
    • Two blazes should never be visible at once.
    • Most trails are over-blazed.
  • Choose live, conspicuous trees close to the trail (on either side), preferably with dark bark. Never blaze rocks, blowdowns, concrete posts, etc.
  • Paint blazes at eye level.
  • Avoid painting two blazes on either side of the same tree in case it falls.
  • Trim back any foliage that blocks view of blaze.

Blazing practices can also vary widely when multiple organizations, for example state and federal organizations, maintain different intersecting trails through the same area,

For example, the blue blazes shown in the photos here are maintained by the State of New Hampshire and mark a side trail off the Appalachian Trail in New Hampshire. The white-blazed section of the Appalachian Trail that intersects it is very sparsely blazed as is the local custom, and probably maintained by the Appalachian Mountain Club or the US Forest Service, I’m not sure which. The contrast in different blazing styles is particularly garish, but arguably warranted since the blue trail is used by day hikers visiting a nearby roadside attraction.

Mount Madison Cairns
Mount Madison Cairns

Reassurance Markers

Contrary to what you might expect, trail blazes are not considered route markers for trails but reassurance markers to help travelers identify the trail corridor when the tread is indistinct, the ground is covered with snow, or when the route is confused by multiple trails or obscured by weather, such as dense fog. There are many different types of reassurance markers beyond trail blazes used in trail systems ranging from rock cairns to guide poles, often found in meadows or snow fields.

Seen in this light, the placement of reassurance markers is always a judgement call, often controversial, based on the difficulty of the trail, the expected users, and the challenge of following it.

Most Popular Searches

  • trail blaze paint amc
  • Trail painting
  • what are blazes in hiking

6 comments

  1. Oh how I wish I could post a couple of Pictures along with this comment…I have a Number I have taken over the years with situations just like your first Photo including one that has you going in two directions up the same hill and both bright and bold Blue and neither one was the Official Trail!! The second Picture I have, I took last week is a Picture of a Home Made Map on a 12×12 piece of Pine Board nailed to a tree with ungalvanized nails showing the Trail going around the Lake, North and South clearly marked on the Map with a big N and big S and a “You are Here” notation with a Large Red Arrow! Nicely done, Someone spent some time and effort making this sign…The Problem is the Trail was on the wrong side of the Lake which I verified with my new Topo Map. . Secondly the Trail was headed South to East which I verified twice with my Compass, and the “You are here” notation was only half a lake off as to it’s correct location of the Sign..I did call the Forest Service when I got home because their Office is not open on Weekends, their M-F 9-5’ers at this Forest. I did NOT take down the sign because I could have gotten a $250 Fine for destruction of a Trail Sign but I did write a note and used a Safety Pin to pin to the Note to the Wood Clearly noting the Mistakes…

    Out in the Desert of So. Cal I had a lot of problems with Cairns in the Mojave and the Anza Borrego Deserts and would dismantle unofficial ones routinely if I saw the Footprints going in two directions. It seems everyone who visited and took a hike away from Camp made a series of Cairns as they hiked their “own” hike, none of which were on a designated trail… And people wonder how people get lost in the Desert….

    Just for fun, I followed a White Quartz Rock trail for over two miles one day. It just led up one of the many Canyons and stopped. Apparently the person then turned around and returned to camp from that point evidenced by their footprints. I did not dismantle this one because all they did was lay out a white Quartz rock where it could be easily seen..To bad they stopped for I went a mile further on and got a couple of pictures of some Desert Big Horn Sheep, (Borrego means Sheep), a herd I personally located for the State Park System and the Federal Government (BLM) back in 1975 who did not know the herd existed after I had read a Newspaper Story on the Sheep and their locations…I reported them as well as sending a couple of pictures and got a nice Commendation thanking me. I also donated a lot of money and helped build a Water Guzzler for them. I object to these Guzzlers now because I fear this how a number of diseases that are attacking the various herds is being spread between the herds or what I call family units. Then I got really mad when I found out the Desert Big Horn Association was Selling off to the Highest Bidder a Hunting Trip for the very same sheep they were trying to save..So some rich guy bid $50,000. so no else could match that and yes he got his Sheep..a older male with a full Curl to the Horns..that was in 1979..

  2. Here’s our blazing standard: http://goo.gl/jce21r
    Totally agree about over-blazing. See standard about transitions.

  3. What in the blue blazes is going on at Crawford Notch?

  4. A good post, and a timely one for me,I was doing a day hike for the first time yesterday at the Lehigh Gap Nature Center, in Slatington,PA, which the A.T. goes right through, now i still consider myself a novice day hiker but i’am somewhat familiar with the A.T. white blazes doing some small day hikes and trail maintenance with my local hiking club. but there is a area where a small connector trail called the woodpecker trail(with nailed on wood maroon blazes)and there is a sign posted for this trail about waist high..that intersects with the A.T. but also this same small patch of land there is a red sign posted stating P.A. state game land, hunting is allowed with some trees with orange plastic ribbon tied around them, but this area also had trees with large patches of faded white blazes maybe the size of a laptop screen painted on them, and still not 100% sure if they were A.T. blazes (i was thinking maybe the blazing isn’t consistent all along the trail?..), i was a bit lost for a bit, after a few minutes i did find my way on to the a.t. i then also had a hard time finding the blue side trail known as the North trailI(i was carrying a trail map…)but again this had a higher up trail sign which i missed as a fellow hiker pointed out to me as he passed me and i don’t remember seeing a eye level blue blaze showing the start of tho side trail, so later in the day after i made my way back to the nature center a worker there told me some hikers had gotten lost and had confused those larger white blazes for the A.T. ones, she thinks they may be boundary markers for P.A. state game lands? I mentioned to her maybe in the same spot where the woodpecker trail sign his they should have a A.T. sign to help eliminate some of the confusion. And if i understood her correctly i thought she mentioned that sometimes A.T.C. auditors/monitors come through and find out if theres any changes or editions they need to that part of the A.T. …so for me this is a helpful post for the next time on the trails..

  5. Great post. I volunteered for the AMC Trail Maintenance Crew in the 1980s (at age 15-16) and one of my jobs (besides building bog bridges and digging drainange ditches) was to paint the white blazes on the section of the AT between Garfield and Guyot. I think the only instructions I got were to paint over the old blazes, and I should be able to see the next blaze when standing at one blaze. Also, it was OK to paint on rocks. I was so proud of this job and got compliments from passing hikers all day long. The paint was indeed permanent as it never came off my boots, which was fine because it made for great conversation!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *