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Trail Blazing Procedure

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Since 2014 I have blazed over 115 miles of trail in 3 different states. In the summer of 2020 I was asked to write a procedure for trail blazing by the Prince William Trails and Streams Coalition. This is a reprint of that procedure.

A great multipurpose trail should be properly thought out, designed and built. However, if that trail is not properly blazed, signed, have a trailhead kiosk and have an up to date map that ties these items together, it is not a great
multipurpose trail. This paper will concentrate on proper blazing techniques and how to make that aspect of a multipurpose trail great.

Before you even begin to blaze a trail, make sure that you have permission from the agency, organization or other entity that owns that trail. If you have permission, the next thing to do is gather the supplies that you will need. Here is a list of items that you will need:

  • Paint- It is preferable to use quart sized cans of oil based paint because the blazes will last longer.
  • Paint Brushes- Since your blazes will be 2 x 6 it is best to get some 1 inch and 2 inch brushes.
  • Template- This is something that you will have to make. It can be either a sheet of flexible plastic, a section of an old plastic milk bottle, old film, x-rays, etc.
  • A small bucket to keep your brushes and paint in while walking the trail to be blazed.
  • Rags or paper towels to wipe off excess paint from the tree that you are blazing, your template or to clean up any spills.
  • Quart sized containers of oil based brown, gray and black paint as well as spray cans of these colors to cover up old blazes or correct mistakes.
  • A scrapper to prepare the surface on a tree that you are going to blaze.
  • Rubber Gloves to keep your hands clean.
  • A small screwdriver to open the paint cans.
  • Multiple paint stirrers.
  • Multiple quart and gallon sized plastic freezer bags to place wet and/or used paint brushes into during and after your blazing excursion.
  • A small saw and a pair of loppers so that you can clear areas where blazes are placed for others to see.
  • A day pack is needed to hold all of this stuff. An optional satchel with a strap that goes over your shoulder is nice for holding things that you will need to use often so that you don.t have to take off your backpack and get into it unless absolutely necessary.

    You will need to cut out a 2 x 6 opening within your template before you start blazing. Make sure that your template is flexible and can fit around a tree. Make sure that the weather will be sunny, no rain and the temperature should be above freezing for 24 hours before and 24 hours after you blaze. If your blazes get wet or freeze, they will either be runny or flake off the tree. You will then have to redo your blazes.

    Some trail maintenance organizations mandate that two people do the blazing, that they must use a template and that they must use a can of paint and a brush to paint blazes. I have been involved with other trail organizations that, due to lack of personnel and/or having very long distances of trails to blaze, have condoned single blazers, no templates and even using spray paint for blazing. It is my opinion that spray painting blotches onto trees as blazes do not look very good. So, if you can do so, please use two people, a template and a can of paint and brushes to paint your blazes. Having two people blazing will cut down the chances of any mistakes.
    One of the most difficult aspects of trail blazing is to judge how often to blaze. If you have too many blazes, the trail looks tacky. If you don't blaze enough, people get lost. The key to good blazing is to stand next to the tree that you just blazed, look down the trail to the farthest point, then go to the tree just past that point and blaze.

    As for what color of blaze to use that is usually decided by the organization that oversees that trail. Most long distance trails in the United States are blazed white. The 2,200 mile Appalachian Trail is an example. Some long distance trails near white blazed trails are blazed orange. An example is the 300 mile Mid State Trail in Pennsylvania. Side trails and shorter trails are usually blazed blue. Trails used by horses are generally blazed yellow. If an area has lots of trails other colors are used to blaze. You should try not to duplicate colors of trails in a given area. An example of an area that utilizes different colored trail blazes is Prince William Forest Park in Triangle, VA.

    As for the type of blaze to use on a trail the most common type is the single 2 x 6 blaze on a tree. It will guide hikers on their hikes. If there is a turn up ahead two blazes are required. One blaze is two inches above the other, then 2 inches to either the left or right. If there is an obstacle ahead such as a low clearance, a cliff or difficult section of trail, two blazes are placed on a tree, one is two inches above the other. Turn blazes and caution blazes are always the same color. In some areas three blazes are placed on a tree to indicate the beginning or the end of a trail. This is not used very often but can be helpful to trail users in certain situations. The old school way to blaze the beginning or the end of a trail is to paint three blazes on a tree, each two inches above the other. Lately I have seen more instances of three blazes in the shape of a triangle to indicate the beginning or the end of a trail. All blazes are two inches apart. One blaze over two signifies the beginning of a trail. Two blazes over one (signifying a V for victory) signify the end of a trail. Again, I have only seen old school end/beginning blazes on The Mason-Dixon Trail in PA/MD/DE. As for the new style beginning/end blazes I have seen them on the White Trail within Doves Landing Park near Manassas, VA. So you may not have to utilize these types of blazes.

    When it comes to 2 different trails sharing the same path for a period of time it does happen. The trails will hopefully have different color blazes. If so, place the dominant or longer distance trail blaze two inches above the shorter distance or local trail blaze.

    When you begin blazing you should plan on only blazing for 2 or 3 hours at a time. The main reason is that it is a tiring process and you will be more prone to making mistakes if you try to blaze for long periods of time. Trust me on this. When utilizing 2 people (I hope that you do) one person should hold the template at eye level on a given tree and the other person should paint the blaze. Some people use a one inch brush, paint the edges of the template, then fill in the rest of the blaze after the template has been removed. Some people use a two inch brush and just swipe down the template. The first way is neater, the second way is faster. Be sure to wipe off your template after each blaze is painted as it gets very messy later on if you don't. And the blazes don't look as good. Switch off every now and then as to who holds the template and who blazes. It will be neater that way. Be sure to wear old clothes that you do not mind getting paint on. Because you will get paint on your clothes.

    It is recommended that you blaze one direction on a trail, then return blazing the other direction. Try and place your blazes on the right hand side of the trail. In some cases the only tree available may be on the left side but try and utilize the right side. Do not place blazes on opposite sides of a tree. If the tree falls down, you lose two blazes. If your blazes are on different trees, you only lose one blaze. If you are re-blazing a trail you may run into the fact that the old blazes have puffed out as the tree the blaze is on has grown. If you place a template over the old blaze and paint it, the old blaze will show and the entire blaze will not look good. I have found the best way to overcome this is to either use your brown, gray or black paint can paint or spray paint to cover the old blaze, then either paint a nice 2 x 6 inch blaze with a template above or below the covered up. Or just cover the puffed out blaze and paint a new blaze on a different tree. You can also place the new blaze over the old one and then cover up the puffed out part with brown, black or gray paint from your paint can. This method takes the longest but it is an alternative.

    If the trail that you are blazing has too many blazes on it, feel free to block out the too many blazes with your brown, gray or black paint. Try to match the paint to the color of the tree. While blazing, think of yourself as a hiker on this trail and how you would want to see the blazes placed. The key is to make the trail look professionally blazed so that it helps guide the hiker and does not get them lost, yet does not look like a highway with too many billboards. After you get done blazing, the trail should look better than it did before.

    As far as how often should one blaze a trail I have found that blazes generally start to fade after 3 or 4 years. Some trail maintenance organizations try to blaze their trails every five years. Some blaze only after they have gotten complaints. The former statement is preferable to the latter.

    If you have an accident and spill paint please clean it up. In some parks this is considered a hazmat situation and you have to notify the park. In any event, take care of any accidents that may occur. If you make a mistake blazing the best thing to do is to wait until the paint dries, then come back and correct the mistake with your brown/gray/black paint, then blaze again.

    Once you finish blazing you should make sure that your paint cans are closed tightly, that your used brushes and stirrers are either cleaned or disposed properly and that all supplies are stored properly after use. Make sure to clean yourself up as well. Once done, you can relax and know that you have helped improve the quality of the trail that you have just blazed.

    Mike Calabrese

    Works Consulted


    Ellis, Mark, Trail Blazing, Retrieved from spookybeavers.net on 11/14/2020.

    Prince William County, VA Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism, Prince William County Trail Standards, Retrieved from pwcgov.org on 11/14/2020.

    Proudman, Robert and Birchard, William, Appalachian Trail Design, Construction and Maintenance, 2nd Edition, Published January 1, 2000, Mountaineers Books, Seattle, WA.



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