Pike National Forest (Lost Creek Wilderness)

Land Navigation: Trail Markers


Trail markers have been around for thousands of years. They are an important navigational tool for Wilderness Backpackers. They allow you to navigate from one point to another. Trail markers allow you to keep in sync with your topographical map. I have seen many types of trail markers while on my Wilderness Adventures and this article will discuss (2) types.

I have defined trail markers in (2) categories. The first being Man-Made Trail Markers and the second being Naturally Made Trail Markers. Both types allow you to quickly identify your surroundings and keep you on course. More importantly they will also give you guidance on getting you back home.

Trail markers have been used by wilderness adventures for thousands of years. In prehistoric times piles of rocks known as Cairn’s were erected to help individuals navigate to and from specific points.  They were also used to identify landmarks. So what should you look for when you are in a wilderness area?


Trail Signs

Man made trail markers come in variety of sizes and shapes.  Trail signs are the most popular and they are found in most wilderness areas in North America.  Most trail signs are made of wood but some are made of metal.  Trail signs let you know what trail you are on and many of them are used as navigational beacons to point you in the direction of a trail.  Topo maps will have these signs on them.  Some of these trail signs have a numbers on them instead of the name which should match up to the trail number on your topo map.

Rock Cairn’s

A cairn is a man-made pile of stones stacked together.  The word cairn from the Scottish Gaelic word (càrn).  Wilderness areas with rocks and boulders allow backpackers to construct these rock cairns. On my adventure into the Lost Creek Wilderness in Colorado I saw many of these rock cairns.  Rock cairn’s come in various shapes, sizes, and creative designs.  Rock Cairns have been around since prehistoric times.

Trail Blazing

Trail blazing various types of methods to mark a point .  Paint can be used to mark a trail.  The Appalachian Trail utilizes three colors to mark its trail system, (White, Blue, and Yellow).  Paint blazing can be used on rocks, trees, and signposts.  Carving is also used as a trail blazing method in many wilderness areas.  This practice can be damaging to trees depending on how it is applied.  The use of flags/ribbons is another way to guide or mark a trail.  The disadvantage of this is that it leaves man-made materials in a Wilderness Area.  If you are using it to mark your trail for your return trek you should remove on your return trip.  This prevents litter and it keeps the wilderness area in its original state.  If it is being used by others as a marker have them remove it as they pass by it.

Indian Trail Marker

There are also Indian Trail Marker.  This was a practice used by Native American Indians in the past to shape trees into distinctive shapes.  There are many of these markers in Florida and I have seen them throughout North America.  Some of these markers are naturally made and may be mistaken as an Indian Trail Markers.

Natural tree markings
Indian Trail Marker


Natural or environmental trail markers are markers made by natural events. These trail markers are very unique and they have distinguishable features. These markers can be fungus growing on a tree, rock outcroppings, large trees, downed trees, and many other unique markers. Natural trail markers are subject to change due to fires, storms, earthquakes, or even man-made events.  


Knowing and identifying trail markers is an important skill when you are navigating through any wilderness areas. You may want to use your camera and take pictures of these markers as you navigate through a wilderness area.  Taking a picture will help  you identify these same markers on your return trip.  Taking pictures also works very well when you are bushwhacking and off the trail.  I have used my camera to help me identify specific areas when I bushwhack.  Using trail markers in correlation with a good topographical map will make your stay in a wilderness more enjoyable and it will also prevent you from getting lost.   

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