I’ve hiked a lot of trails in New England where the trail blazing is erratic. Sometimes this is due to a shortage of tail maintainers and sometimes it’s deliberate, in order to create a greater sense of wilderness. Regardless of the cause, it can be unnerving, particularly when bad weather or nightfall is approaching.
Here are some tricks that I use to stay on a trail when the blazes disappear. They require good observation skills and map reading vigilance, but they seem to work for me pretty well.
- This should go without saying, but make sure you bring a map with contour intervals and that you know how to find north using a compass or a watch. As you walk, refer to your map every 15 or 20 minutes to figure out where you are at the current moment so you can backtrack to a known location if you need to.
- Bring a watch. You can accurately figure out where you are on a trail by dividing the time you’ve been hiking by your miles per hour rate.
- Pay close attention to the contour lines on your map. They provide good clues about where you are and what you should expect. If the trail blazes disappear, for example, it’s useful to know if you should be heading uphill or downhill. Remember, that contour lines that are in a frown (as you approach them) mean down.
- Look for a heavily trodden path. The picture above is from the Long Trail in Vermont where it crosses a ski slope. These trail breaks are never blazed very well and you need to be on your best game to find out where the trail picks up again. Following a heavily trodden trail in the grass is a pretty reliable technique. Many hikers also build little rock cairns to mark the route so that people following them can find the trail. These are also helpful trail markers.
- Look for boot prints or game tracks. If you see other peoples’ footprints and animal tracks, chances are pretty good that you’re actually on a trail.
- Look for signs of trail maintenance. The best signs are chain sawed or axe-trimmed tree blow downs, water bars and punchions. Water bars are shin-high rock or wooden barriers in a trail designed to catch rain and divert it off the trail. Punchions are short wooden bridges designed to span muddy trail sections or to protect fragile vegetation. All of these trail maintenance artifacts are a sure sign that you are walking on a trail and that it has been maintained in the past.