Navigating the wilderness isn’t just about knowing how to trail blaze or follow existing paths while navigating blaze markings. You need to know how to read essential signs, too! After all, nearly 2,000 people a year go missing in the forests of America.
Knowing how to read signs can keep you from being a part of that statistic! This guide will walk you through how to read trail markers and trail signs to keep you safe and on track as you explore the great outdoors.
Informative Highway Signs
More often than not, trail markings found on the highway will showcase white font against a dark brown background. Most of the time, these signs show the trail’s name, your current elevation, and maybe a symbol representing the national park.
As far as hikers are concerned, these are some of the least important signs to be familiar with. Sure, they provide essential details about the path you’re going to. However, you’ll really only use these once or twice upon visiting a new trail. I honestly hardly ever notice these signs when I’m re-visiting a trail I’ve hiked before.
If you’ve never gone to a specific trail, you’ll want to keep an eye out for these signs while navigating with a local map. These are available if you’re hiking in a regional or national park at the main office or a ranger station.
It’s better to find your way around manually using a map and these highway signs. GPS navigation isn’t always reliable when you’re searching for a trailhead.
You might have spotty reception, causing your app or device to misdirect you. Or, you’ll lose your way altogether when the signal disappears. With that said, it’s a good idea to take a passenger with you to act as a navigator. They’ll help if you miss hiking trail markers while driving.
Knowing how to spot a trailhead is a critical part of a hiker’s skill set. Otherwise, how would you know where to start your trek? Trailhead signs are like the highway signs described above. They have a brown background with white lettering. You’ll often find them roadside, mounted on any of the following pole or stake materials:
Depending on the trail and where it is, it might either be posted vertically or horizontally. For example, those mounted on the roadside will often be vertical. These types will show different information about the trail. This information is usually represented by hiking trail symbols, discussed below.
Horizontal trail markings will generally present little information. These are more likely to include the trail and park name and perhaps an arrow directing you where to start.
Note that trailheads can be unintentionally tucked away sometimes. There have been times when I’ve hiked an entire trail up and down, only to finally return to the start and stumble upon the trailhead thinking, “Wow, that would’ve been nice to see when I got here!”
With that said, if you think you’ve located the correct trail but you don’t see any signage, try looking around the trees and shrubbery. It shouldn’t be too hidden away. Still, your eyes might trick you into missing it, given its natural hue.
Important Trail Symbols to Recognize on Trailhead Signs
The most notable trail marker signs you should recognize include:
- One person or two people walking with backpacks and walking sticks. These trail symbols show that the trail is suitable for people who are hiking or backpacking.
- Person on a bike. Multi-use trails will typically have this on the sign. It indicates that the trail ahead is safe for bikers.
- Person riding on a horse. Trails that have this symbol on the sign are okay for those exploring on horseback.
- OHV (off-highway vehicle) letters or person riding a quad. If you see this sign, you can take your off-road vehicle down this route. Examples include Jeeps, quads, or motorbikes. Watch out for other vehicles and pedestrians!
Before you start on a new trail, it’s vital to check any available warnings relevant to the area. This will help you determine what gear you should bring. These will often be concentrated at the trailhead, where your journey will start. Some of the main types to look for include:
- Wildlife warnings: The most common I’ve seen are those informing hikers about snakes and bears. Based on that information, you’ll know what type of gear is appropriate (e.g., bear spray, sturdy boots, long pants, etc.). These might have a yellow or white background. You can find them near interpretive signs described below.
- Note: These signs will likely mention the specific species you should be looking out for. So, for instance, imagine you’re in the Southwest. Here, you’re most likely to find signs warning you of rattlesnakes or black bears.
- Stay on trail: I know – the temptation to ignore this sign is strong. After all, you’re a trailblazer! Yet, it’s imperative that you heed the message. Off-trail hiking is risky, especially for less experienced folks. It increases your injury risk and is the number one reason why search and rescue teams must locate adult hikers.
- Landslides or rockslides: Ideally, you would’ve gotten to know a bit about the environment before heading out. So, you would know if there was a rockslide risk before seeing a sign like this. Still, these posted on the dangerous portions of the trail. This helps to know when to watch your step exactly.
- Private property: Sometimes, a plot of private land is immediately next to a public trail. If there’s a chance of a hiker wandering into the landowner’s area, officials will help out by including this sign.
- Note: If the private land crosses through the trail, you can continue. In this case, you’ll most likely see a “Stay On Trail, Private Property” sign.
These are just a few examples of some of the most common warnings a hiker might see anywhere around the country. Of course, there are many more that will vary based on your geographic region. The specific environmental and wildlife risks present there will influence this, too.
It might be helpful to get to know the area before you venture out into the wild. That way, you’ll have an idea of the specific types of signs to watch out for.
Signs in this category are more popular on heavily trafficked trails. They’re excellent sources of cultural and environmental education. They often share tidbits about the geographic and societal history of a certain location.
For example, many interpretive signs in North America present timelines of the area’s settlement. The sign might mention what Indigenous population once managed the habitat. It might also discuss how they used and interacted with the surrounding plant life.
Other interpretive signs will walk visitors through the place’s ecological makeup. These will detail the fauna and flora species native to the park.
The goal of incorporating these signs into the hiker’s journey is to offer an engaging educational experience. They might feature informative graphics, plants’ and animals’ species names, and brief descriptions of an object or small habitat nearby.
Additionally, you might find interpretive signs with maps. These are useful for walking you through historical events. For example, they can illustrate where things happened relative to where you’re currently standing.
Most interpretive signs will be very easy to spot. They’re often encased in glass and wood and built quite tall or in other conspicuous styles. You’re most likely to spot an interpretive sign or “wayside exhibit” at the start of a trail with free brochures or maps of the area.
Smaller exhibits can be scattered along the length of a trail with bite-sized pieces of information to enhance your journey each step of the way.
There are a few key types of navigational signs you should know about before heading out to the trail. These are described in detail below.
Rock cairns are the most natural, traditional hiking trail markers you’ll get to learn. These are stacks of rocks that can have many different meanings, depending on where you are and how they’re arranged.
Cultures throughout the world have used and designed cairns in varying manners. Yet, the term itself was adopted from a Gaelic term meaning “heap of stones,” believed to be first dubbed by Scots. Historically, these folks used cairns to navigate challenging terrain. People also used cairns as land markers before the invention of lighthouses.
The styles that the NPS accept include the Bates cairn and conical cairn, primarily. The former is characterized by two stacks of rocks positioned a few inches apart. There might be a single large rock or two small rocks forming the base, with a long rock connecting the two pillars, sort of like a bridge.
The latter is more reflective of traditional styles. It consists of rocks carefully stacked on top of one another to form a single pillar.
It is vital that you never tamper with an existing cairn or build your own. A cairn trail marker is a crucial navigational aid. Messing with it can send it toppling to the ground or get other hikers lost.
You Are Here
“You Are Here” signs are very straightforward. They depict where you are currently standing in the context of either the trail or the entire park. Ideally, you’ll have a GPS or map with you, so this shouldn’t be your only means of navigation.
Plus, if your device’s battery happened to die while you were out or it’s too dark to see your map or even the trail clearly, these signs can be a lifesaver.
I recommend stopping at these and getting your bearings whenever you can. This can be especially helpful if conditions deteriorate and it’s hard to see the trail.
For example, imagine a thick fog descends on the area, or heavy rains reduce visibility. When this happens, recall the trail’s layout as presented on the sign and direct yourself based on that. Make sure to note landmarks to keep yourself on track.
Mile Markers and Destination Signs
These two sort of blur into one another, as they can both include the number of miles you have traveled or will travel to reach a certain point. The former is more applicable to loop trails, where there’s no particular destination for the hiker.
However, if you’re on a trail to a waterfall or something like that, you’ll most likely see the latter. Those showing the distance to a specific point will most likely have a destination name on it and an arrow pointing toward it, too.
The interesting thing about mile markers and destination signs is that they don’t always appear on a formal sign. Instead, you might find this information etched into a tree as a “trail blaze.” Trail blazes appear to be rectangles that direct you in case the trail’s hard to follow. They might indicate the start or end of a trail and whether to turn left or right.
You might also find paint marks or ribbons on trees. These aren’t necessarily directional but just help to reassure hikers that they’re still on the right path.
Still have questions about hiking trail signs and symbols? These frequently asked questions will clear up any lingering confusion.
What Is a Trail Sign?
A trail sign is a marker that directs outdoors people on where to go or avoid, dangers in the area, and more. You’ll find them on the roadside or along the trail itself.
Why Do Hikers Stack Rocks?
Stacking rocks, or building a rock cairn, is a longstanding tradition that helps hikers navigate a challenging or hard-to-see trail. There are many styles, but Bates cairns and conical cairns are the standard in North America.