When the pilots of small aircraft fly in clear weather, they often orient themselves by referring to visible landmarks like roads, buildings, or obvious terrain features rather than flying by navigation instruments. They can still refer to their instruments if they’re uncertain about their heading or the outside visibility deteriorates, but flying by sight is simpler, easier, and requires less skill and expertise.
Following outdoor trails is similar. If the trail you want to follow is obvious and well marked, you can usually follow it by sight without having to refer to a navigational instrument like a compass or a GPS unit. If the outlines of trail becomes harder to see, you’re uncertain if you’re headed in the right direction, or you’ve lost track of how far you’ve travelled, those are times when you can refer to navigation aids. But most of the time, it’s faster and simpler to to follow a trail without any instruments, provided you know what to look for.
Learning how to follow a trail without a compass or a GPS is one of the most important navigation skills you can learn. While there are times when using a compass or GPS is essential, skilled outdoor navigators use them a lot less than you’d imagine. With a little practice you can learn how to tell if you’re still on the trail, what the trail markers mean and how to interpret them. This lets you move a lot faster and cover more distance than if you have to stop all the time to try to figure out where you are from scratch. The best place to practice these skills is by hiking trails on foot, building up from well-marked trails to more obscure ones that require careful observation skills.
The Anatomy of a Trail
Hiking and outdoor recreation trails don’t exist by accident. They’re carefully planned, built, and maintained using a standard set of construction, signage, and trail marking conventions designed to make them easy to follow. These techniques are fairly uniform nationwide and shared by a close-knit community of trail planning, construction, and maintenance organizations that includes government agencies, conservation organizations, and legions of volunteers. Once you learn how to recognize the different parts of trails and follow them, you can use the same skill set wherever you go.
All trails have a beginning and an end. The start of a trail is usually signed with the name of the trail or sometimes a number to identify it. Trails usually lead to an interesting destination and pass points of interest like view points or historic features along the way. Trails may intersect other trails if they’re part of a larger trail system or lead to campsites and other facilities.
Trails that start along roads are called trailheads and often have parking spaces nearby or pullouts where you can leave a vehicle. Many trailheads have an information kiosk with a local map, information about the organization that manages the trails, a list of local regulations, or safety notices that are worth reading before you begin your trip.
The surface of a trail, the part that you walk on is called the tread. It’s usually made with nearby materials, such as native soil, fine gravel, or stone that have been compacted to create a hard, but natural looking surface. Logs backed by shallow trenches, called water bars, may also be angled across the tread to help direct water off the trail. If the tread crosses a particularly wet area, stepping stones or bog bridges might be used to elevate it so you can keep your feet dry.
Trails are usually 4-6 feet wide and cleared of any intruding vegetation, which is periodically cut back by trail maintainers. If you look up and ahead, you should be able to see the compacted surface of the trail stretching out before you. If it crosses a grass-covered area, you’re likely to see a bare earthen path where the trail is. If the trail runs through a wooded area, its surface will be slightly grooved or indented from the passage of many feet and littered with tiny bits of dried leaves and forest duff.
Trail maintainers will sometimes leave fallen logs along the side of the trail to mark its sides and channel hikers along the intended path. If the trail is situated at a higher elevation above the timberline, the sides may be delineated with low stone walls, called scree walls, to keep hikers on the trail, and off fragile alpine plants growing alongside it.
Trail Blazes and Markers
Trail builders often place blazes alongside a trail to mark it at points where the tread becomes hard to see or follow. These blazes are often 2″ x 6″ colored rectangles painted on trees or wooden posts on the side of the trail. The same color is used all along the trail and any intersecting trails will usually use different colored blazes. Some trail systems also use non-rectangular blazes like discs or multi-colored lines.
While it’s less common with hiking trails, some trails blazes are color coded to denote trail difficulty. Cross country ski trails are usually marked with diamond shaped blazes where green, blue, and black are used to signify beginner, intermediate, and expert difficulty levels. Mountain biking trails often use the trail marking and difficulty system used by ski resorts where white circle, blue circle, green square, black diamond, and double black diamond blazes correspond to the easiest, easy, more difficult, very difficult, and most difficult trails.
Blazes are painted alongside a trail in both directions of travel. So, if you’re following a blazed trail but haven’t seen a blaze in a while and begin to wonder if you’re still on the trail, turn around. You might see a blaze going back in the opposite direction, confirming that you’re still on track, just headed the other way.
Blazes can be grouped together to form patterns. The most commonly used ones are the two staggered blazes indicating an upcoming left or right turn in the trail. These blazes are usually reserved for turns that are easy to miss if you’re not paying attention or ones that have some complicating factor like a boulder scramble added in. The majority of obvious turns in trails aren’t blazed because the tread is clear enough to follow.
Rock cairns are also used to mark trails, particularly above timberline where trees and shrubs don’t grow. These are large conical rock piles, located besides trails like blazes. They’re easy to see in good visibility and daylight, but can blend into the background in fog or darkness, which is why it’s important to have a compass or GPS with you at those times. Cairns are also visible in winter when there’s snow on the ground, unlike the painted blazes you’ll sometimes see on rock ledges that are part of a trail.
Trail maintainers are given a wide degree of latitude when it comes to blazing and marking trails. Some trails like the Appalachian Trail are very heavily blazed and easy to follow. It’s estimated that there are over 160,000 blazes along the 2,200 mile trail. This averages out to about one white blaze every 70 feet although they can be a quarter mile apart in places where the tread is easy to follow.
But most trails have far fewer blazes because they’re unnecessary when the tread is clear. Repainting blazes also takes lower priority with trail maintainers than preventing erosion or cutting back vegetation, so they’re used much less frequently than on the Appalachian Trail, which is heavily blazed out of tradition’s sake more than necessity.
Some trails are also intentionally blazed less and signed less to provide visitors with a richer wilderness experience that requires greater self reliance and outdoor skills. These trails often require the use of navigation tools like a compass or GPS to follow. This is the norm for trails in the designated Wilderness Areas found in many National Parks and Forests in the United States.
Trail junctions are usually signed and provide another way to confirm that you’re hiking along the intended trail. You can think of them as islands of certainty in the trail system and they’re usually easy to find on a map if you have one.
Trail junction signs usually have arrows on them pointing to the continuation of the trail on the other side of the junction. They may also list the mileage to the trail’s next point of interest or its final destination. It’s worth noting here that trail signs in designated U.S. Wilderness Areas don’t have mileages listed on them in order to provide visitors with a richer wilderness experience.
While you can reliably follow trails using the techniques described above, there are a couple of common trouble spots where you can fall off a trail if you’re not on the lookout for them.
Trails that climb hills are often built using switchbacks, where the tread is angled up a hill to the right, before turning a hard left to climb the next bit, zigging back and forth like the stairs in an Escher painting. If you’re not paying attention it’s easy to walk off on the end of one of the zigs and lose the trail. You can usually recover from this pretty quickly by backtracking, but it’s something to watch out for.
Another common error is walking down a water bar’s drainage ditch by accident. Water bars are logs or short rock walls that are laid at an angle across a trail to redirect rain water off it and prevent erosion. A shallow ditch is typically built at the bottom end of a water bar to help drain the water into the surrounding woods or landscape. If the ditch is on a curve in the trail, you can find yourself walking down it instead of the trail. You’ll quickly notice that you’ve fallen off the trail and need to backtrack.
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Written 2017.Editor's note: Help support this site by making your next gear purchase through one of the links above. Click a link, buy what you need, and the seller will contribute a portion of the purchase price to support SectionHiker's unsponsored gear reviews, articles, and hiking guides.