Skip to Content

How to Read Hiking Trail Blazes

Spread the love

What the Blazes? How to Read Hiking Trail Blazes

When you’re on your hike, have you ever noticed those colorful markings on trees, rocks, and posts that are intended to guide us through the wilderness like a trusty compass? Yep, that’s right, we’re talking about how to read hiking trail blazes!

If you’re new to hiking or just need a refresher, understanding trail blazes is essential for ensuring you don’t get lost and making the most of your outdoor adventure. Whether you’re wandering through dense forests, scaling rocky mountainsides, or meandering along tranquil riverbanks, these little marks are like breadcrumbs leading you in the right direction.

So, grab your hiking boots and a sense of adventure as we delve into the art of deciphering trail blazes. Trust me, once you’ve got this down, you’ll be navigating trails like a seasoned pro, leaving the worry of getting lost far behind.

The Different Types of Trail Markers

When it comes to trail markers, there are numerous symbols and signs out there, each with their own unique way of pointing you in the right direction. Here’s a rundown of the main types you’re likely to encounter on your hiking escapades:


White blaze on tree

These are perhaps the most common type of trail marker. Blazes are usually symbols or patterns painted directly onto trees, rocks, or posts along the trail.

They can come in all shapes and colors, but the most common are rectangular or diamond-shaped blazes in vibrant hues like white, yellow, or blue. Keep your eyes peeled for these trusty marks — they’re your bread and butter for staying on track.


Stone cairn pile on red desert hiking trail

Picture a stack of rocks that wouldn’t look out of place in an ancient Incan ruin — that’s a cairn. These stone sculptures are like mini landmarks, often used in areas where traditional blazes aren’t practical, like rocky terrain or above the treeline.

Cairns can range anywhere from a few feet in height to over 5 or 6 feet tall depending on the landscape and weather conditions in the area.

Keep in mind that while it’s tempting to make new cairns or add to existing ones, you should try to resist the urge. Not only does it go against the Leave No Trace guidelines, but too many cairns in one area can get confusing.


Appalachian Trail sign post

Signposts are handy trail markers when other materials, such as trees and rocks, aren’t around. In addition to indicating which trail you’re on, signposts will sometimes indicate the distance to various points along the hiking trail.

However, don’t rely too heavily on these distances being completely accurate. The trail might have been rerouted, but the sign was never updated. So, the distance could be shorter or longer than what’s indicated.

Affixed Markers

Sometimes, instead of painting directly onto nature’s canvas, trail markers come in the form of metal or plastic signs affixed to trees, posts, or even the ground. These markers often feature clear symbols or directional arrows, making them easy to spot from a distance. Just be sure to give them a quick scan as you pass by to avoid any wrong turns.

Carved Blazes

In the past, people used to mark trails by carving symbols or words into trees. For obvious environmental reasons, this type of trail marking has fallen out of favor for markings that don’t physically damage trees, like painted blazes.

You can still sometimes see carved blazes on the trail. Since they’re no longer re-carved every year and the tree bark has started to grow around the marking, they’re not as obvious anymore. However, you’ll occasionally see where trail maintainers have carved a blaze into a stump.

Flagging Tape

Flagging tape is like the neon sign of trail markers, impossible to miss even in the densest of forests. Typically bright in color — think fluorescent pink or orange — this tape is tied to branches or strung between trees to create a clear path for hikers.

Since it’s not as long-lasting as other markers, flagging tape is typically used for temporary routes or trail maintenance. If you come across flagging tape on a trail, make sure you double-check your route to prevent wandering off course.

How to Read Hiking Trail Paint Blazes

When you embark on a journey into the wilderness, you’re surrounded by towering trees, rocky outcrops, and winding paths disappearing into the unknown. In this vast expanse of nature, it’s easy to get turned around and lose your way.

Fortunately, that’s where trail blazes come into play! Trail blazes are markings placed along a trail to guide hikers and outdoor enthusiasts on their journey.

While they might look like random markings, these blazes are passing along important information about the way you should be going to stay on the trail. That’s why it’s important to know how to read hiking trail blazes.

Here’s a basic rundown on the different types of blazes you might see on the hiking trail and what they mean:

  • Three blazes with one on top means the trail is starting
  • A single blaze means to keep going straight
  • Two blazes with one offset to the right means turn right
  • Two blazes with one offset to the left means turn left
  • Three blazes with one to the side means there’s an upcoming intersection (make sure you don’t take the wrong trail!)
  • Three blazes with one on the bottom means the trail is ending
Illustration of hiking trail blazes on trees

A Few Important Notes on Hiking Trail Blazes

White and red blazes on tree next to hiking trail

Not all trails will use the above blaze patterns. Sometimes, smaller trails just use a single rectangle to mark the way and not indicate any turns or intersections.

This is why a hiking map is one of those essential pieces of hiking gear you never want to leave behind. It’s also a reason why it’s always important to research your trail ahead of time.

Related: The 10 Worst Beginner Hiking Mistakes You Never Want to Make

Also, keep in mind that small trail networks will sometimes use multiple rectangle blazes in different colors to differentiate one trail from another. For example, one trail might be represented by a single orange blaze while a different trail might be represented by two blue blazes stacked on top of each other.

You should always familiarize yourself with the different blazes in the area you’re hiking to make sure you understand their meanings.

Deciphering Hiking Trail Blazes

From deciphering colors and shapes to understanding spacing and direction, reading hiking trail blazes is like unlocking a secret code that opens the door to endless exploration and discovery.

The next time you find yourself surrounded by towering trees or rugged mountain peaks, take a moment to appreciate the beauty of the trail blazes guiding your way. They’re more than just painted symbols on trees — they’re beacons of adventure, leading you on a journey of discovery and self-discovery.

More Helpful Hiking Tips

Did you enjoy learning how to read hiking trail blazes? Are you looking for additional tips that can help you get out on the trail and make every hiking adventure more enjoyable? Then please be sure to take a look at some of our other popular posts:

Picture of white blaze on tree with text overlay How to Understand Hiking Trail Blazes

Picture of red and white blazes painted on tree with text overlay What the Blazes?! How to Read Hiking Trail Blazes

Picture of stacked rock cairn and red and white blazes on tree with text overlay The Different Types of Trail Markers You'll See on Hike and How to Understand Them