One day last fall, I missed a turn on the trail, and added at least 20 minutes to my hike. I know better: when you get to a junction on the trail, make sure you find the trail marker that will show you which way to turn. I also know that you’re supposed to make sure you don’t hike too far without seeing a marker. My experience that day just high-lighted to me the importance of trail markers.
What exactly is a trail marker? I think of them as the bread crumbs that help you follow a trail and find your way home (or, more likely, the way to your car). All hikers need to use them, regardless of whether you’re a seasoned hiker who’s hiked a particular trail many times, or you’re new to hiking. Their very important function is to mark the hiking trail so you don’t accidentally head out into the surrounding terrain and get lost, upset landowners by entering private property, or take a wrong turn. Their value has been very clear to me when the trail is lightly travelled, or leaf-covered, and goes through uniform woodsy areas (you know, those areas where the surrounding environment looks the same no matter which way you turn). However, as I was reminded that day last fall, they are just as important on well-worn trails that intersect with other well-worn trails or trails that cross a road.
There are all sorts of ways to mark or blaze trails, including carvings on trees or on posts; wood, metal, or plastic attachments on trees; flags; rock piles; poles; and paint. Some of these methods (such as tree carvings), have lost popularity over the years.
Standardized trail markings are important to hikers for a number of reasons, including helping you to know which trail system you’re on and understanding the message being communicated through the marker. In North America, painted blazes in a single standardized colour are very common, and that’s what we’ve used since the beginning of the Bruce Trail, when the first blaze was painted in 1962. However, the blazing system we use on the Bruce Trail has changed a bit since then.
We currently mark the trail using a system of offset blazes, “invented in 1969 by Bob Fuller, a volunteer for the New York-New Jersey Trail Conference”. The offset system is particularly helpful when you need to know which way the trail goes. In the early days, a change in direction was noted by a pair of blazes, with one blaze painted above the other. In the offset system, the upper blaze is no longer aligned to the blaze below it; instead it appears offset or diagonal to the right or the left of the blaze below it, showing you which way that change in direction goes.
Today, the Bruce Trail is marked with rectangular blazes that you’ll find on trees, fence posts, stiles and tall rocks; and markers might be painted on or pre-cut metal rectangles that are screwed on. We also use two colours to mark the trails. Standardized white blazes are used for marking the main trail route that runs from for almost 900 km from Niagara to Tobermory. You’ll see blue blazes, though, when you’re hiking on trails that aren’t part of the main route, known as side trails.
Trail reroutes and other changes are common on the Bruce Trail, so keep in mind that blazes on the trail take precedence over any trail map. In these days of apps, websites, and social media, news of formal trail reroutes can be communicated very quickly, but are published after the trail has been reblazed.
How does a blaze get on the trail? First, a trail maintenance worker finds a good location for putting in a trail marker. A tree next to the trail with a flat area at about eye level results in a blaze that hikers can easily see. Blazes are rectangles that are 2”(5cm) wide by 6”(5cm) tall, so this means finding a tree that is at least 2” wide. The bark on the chosen spot is scraped and carefully painted so that the blaze sides are straight and the corners are square. This is important so that the blaze looks unusual in the natural environment and therefore stands out. If the weather isn’t suitable for painting, a metal blaze will be screwed on instead.
Blazes need to be repainted every couple of years, depending on the weather conditions they’re exposed to and the type of tree they’ve been painted onto (for example, poplars seem to have a waxy/oily bark that doesn’t hold blazes for long).
Blazes are painted along the trail so that you can see the next one from each blaze. This is particularly important in fall and winter when the trail can be obscured by leaves or snow. If there isn’t a tree or structure where a blaze needs to be, a “blaze board” will be put up. A blaze board can simply mean putting in a cedar fence post, or involves something a little more complex like constructing one by attaching a piece of 2” x 4” to a T-shaped fence post. If you’re interested in seeing blaze installation in action, check out part 5 of the Loose on The Bruce trail maintenance videos.
Blazes are there to help you navigate the trail more safely, but as visible as we make them, if you’re not actively looking for them, they won’t always help you hike safely. While we may all know that when we get to a junction on the trail, we need to stop and locate the trail marker that shows us which way to turn, and we know that we need to make sure we can always see a blaze on the trail horizon, there are times when we all hike without paying attention to trail markers. So, if you’ve been hiking along deep in thought or conversation, and suddenly wonder “where the blazes am I?”, take a moment to look around, locate a trail marker, and follow those bread crumbs home.
Looking for a cultural activity that also supports the Bruce Trail? Why not join us at Theatre Orangeville on April 4 for Norm Foster’s Screwball Comedy?