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Trail Construction and Maintenance Notebook

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Trail signing comes in two forms. Trailhead and junction signs are used to identify trail names, directions, destinations, and distances. Reassurance markers are used to mark the trail corridor when the tread may be difficult to follow.

Signing is typically used at trailheads to identify the trailhead and the trails there. At some locations, destinations accessed by these trails and the distances to the destinations will be displayed. (See Standards for Forest Service Signs & Posters, (EM 7100-15), especially parts 2.7, 5.1.1, and 5.4-5.11). Signs are also used at system trail junctions (and road crossings) to identify each trail by name and indicate its direction. Signs are also used to identify features, destinations, and occasionally, regulations, warnings, or closures.

Reassurance Markers include cut or painted blazes on trees; wood, plastic, or metal marker tags; marker posts; and cairns. These markers are used to help travelers identify the trail corridor when the tread is indistinct, the ground is covered with snow, or when the path is confused by multiple trails or obscured by weather such as dense fog. National Trails are usually marked periodically with specially designed marker tags. Signs or reassurance markers can be used to identify a system trail at confusing junctions.

The amount of signing or reassurance marking depends primarily on the planned level of challenge for the user. Low challenge trails will typically be signed with destinations and distances. The trail will usually be so obvious that reassurance marking is necessary only at points of confusion. As the desired opportunity for challenge rises, the amount of information given by signs usually drops to trail identification and direction. You may find special guidelines for wilderness. Reassurance markers are more useful as the tread becomes more difficult to identify and follow.

Installing Signs

Trail signs are made of a variety of materials; the most typical is a routed wood sign. Signs are usually mounted on posts or trees. Signs in rocky areas should be mounted on a post seated in an excavated hole or supported by a well-constructed cairn.

The amount and type of signing and reassurance markers should be detailed in a sign plan for the area you are working in. Consistent with the plan, signing and marking should be esthetically appropriate, the minimum necessary, visible, in useful locations, and well maintained.

Wooden posts may be obtained onsite or hauled in. Onsite (native) material is usually less expensive, but may have a shorter useful life. Native material usually looks less artificial; it is usually chosen in primitive settings. Purchased posts should usually be pressure treated. Their longer lifespan will offset the initial purchasing and transportation costs. Round posts appear less artificial than square posts and provide more options for custom alignment of signs at trail junctions. Posts should be at least 150 mm (6 inches) in diameter.

Well-placed signs are easily readable, yet far enough from the tread to provide clearance for normal traffic. In deep snow country, try to locate the post in relatively flat surroundings to reduce the effects of snow creep.

Spikes or lag screws can be used at the base of the post to improve anchoring (Figure 69). Seat the post in the hole and hold it vertical while you drop a few rocks into the hole to secure it. Tamp these rocks with a rockbar or tool handle to jam them into place. Continue to place rocks and dirt in the hole, tamping as you go. Top off the hole with mounded soil to accommodate settling and prevent puddling around the post.

Drawing of signpost installation.
Figure 69--The key to placing solid posts is to tamp
the rock and soil with a rockbar as you fill the hole.

In rocky areas or very soft soils (such as adjacent to a turnpike structure), sign posts can be supported by a cairn. Horizontally placed spikes or lag screws should be used at the base for anchors. Chinking with smaller rocks help tighten the post against the cairn stones.

Signs should have holes predrilled so they can be attached to the post. Level each sign and secure it to the post using plated lag screws. Plated hardware reduces rust stains on the sign. Plated washers should be used between the head of the screw and the sign face to reduce the potential for the sign to pull over the screw. In areas where sign theft is a problem, use specialty theft-prevention hardware. The bottom edge of signs should be set about 1.5 m (60 in) above tread level. The sign's top edge should be 50 mm (2 in) below the top of the post. Where snow loads are a problem, the post can be notched and the signs seated full depth. Treated posts will be susceptible to rotting where they are notched, so they should be spot treated with preservative.

Use caution when mounting signs to trees. The sign should be obvious to travelers and legible from the tread. If mounting on trees doesn't meet these conditions, use a post instead. Mount signs to trees with plated lag screws and plated washers, rather than spikes. This way, the sign can be periodically loosened to accommodate tree growth. Leave a gap between the sign and the tree to allow for the growth.

Installing Reassurance Markers

Reassurance markers are used only where the trail is not obvious. If the tread is obvious during the regular use season, these markers aren't needed. Reassurance markers may be useful if a trail is hard to follow because the tread is indistinct, regularly covered with snow during part of the normal use season, or if weather conditions (such as fog), make the trail hard to distinguish at times. Reassurance markers are also useful at junctions with nonsystem (informal) trails, or where multiple trails cause confusion.

Place markers carefully. They should be clearly visible from any point where the trail could be lost. This is a judgment call, and often controversial, based on the challenge level served by the trail and the conditions along it. Higher challenge trails need fewer markers; lower challenge trails may need more. If part of a trail has reassurance markers, all of it should be marked.

Each marker location should be flagged before installation and checked for visibility in the desired direction of travel. Each location should be marked in both directions (on both sides of the same tree) so there is no question whether or not the marker is official. This second marker might not be as usefully sited for those traveling the opposite direction. The marking decisions should be based on traffic traveling in both directions. Be conservative with markers. It's better to improve tread visibility than to rely on markers except on high challenge trails where tread may frequently not be visible at all.

The classic reassurance marker is a blaze cut on a tree. The standard Forest Service blaze should always be used to differentiate it from the freeform blazes and antler rubbings that appear on nonsystem trails (Figure 70). Different types of blazes may be used on some specially designated trails, such as the Appalachian Trail. Cut blazes carefully as a mistake can't be repaired. If a blaze is consistently buried by snow during part of the use season, the blaze can be cut higher on the tree, but not so high that it becomes difficult to locate from the tread. Blazes are no longer cut on trees in many parts of the country.

Image of blazes and marker tags.
Figure 70--Blaze trees on both sides. Cut no deeper than
necessary for clear visibility.

Next up the scale of reassurance markers is a routed or branded wooden trail marker, which is routed or branded onto wood and mounted on the tree. Routing and scorching is much more durable than branding. A variation of these markers are routed or branded national trail markers. Check with your local trail manager and review your forest plan to learn what's appropriate in designated wilderness--there is much variability nationwide.

Painted blazes are sometimes used for visibility. Be absolutely sure to use a template of a size specified in your trail management plan. Always use the specified color. Don't let just anyone start painting blazes. They should not be painted on rocks.

Marker tags or "blazers" are used when higher visibility is desired and esthetic considerations are not as high. Most common are colored diamonds of either plastic or metal. Various colors are used. For trails used by mountain bikes or off-highway vehicles, the tags should be reflective. These tags should be mounted on trees with aluminum nails. Allow 12 mm (1/2 inch) or so behind the tag for additional tree growth. Directional arrows, where appropriate, should be placed in a similar fashion. Blazers can also be mounted on wooden or fiberglass posts.

Cairns are used in open areas where low visibility or snow cover makes following the tread difficult or where the tread is rocky and indistinct. Two or three stones piled one on top of the other, "rock ducks," are no substitute for cairns and should be scattered at every opportunity. Cairns are similar in construction to rock crib and consist of circular tiers of stones (Figure 71).

Image of cairns
Figure 71--Two- or three-stone "rock ducks"
are not a substitute for cairns and should
not be built.

Make the base wide enough to provide enough batter for stability. In really deep snow country, it might be necessary to add a long guide pole in the center as the cairn is built. An anchored pipe can be built into the center of the cairn so a pole can be replaced or removed each summer.

Cairns should be spaced closely enough that during typical episodes of poor visibility (such as dense fog) the next cairn is visible in either direction from any given cairn. Cairns should be placed on small rises (not in swales). If cairns are used in areas of large talus, use a 2-m (6.5-ft) guide pole in the center to differentiate the cairn from adjacent piles of rock. The best time to decide where to place cairns is during a day with poor visibility.

Guide poles are used in settings similar to cairns. They are most useful in snowfield crossings to keep traffic in the vicinity of the buried tread. Guide poles should be long enough to extend about 2 m (6.5 ft) above the top of the snowpack during the typical use season. Guide poles should be at least 100 mm (4 in) in diameter. They should be sturdy enough to withstand early season storms before the snow can support them and to withstand pressures from snow creep later in the season. Avoid placing guide poles in avalanche paths. Don't mark trails for winter travel if they cross known avalanche paths.

Guide poles are also used in large meadows where tall grasses make cairns hard to spot, or where there is too little stone for cairns.

Sign and Marker Maintenance

Sign maintenance consists of remounting loose or fallen signs, repairing or replacing signs, and resetting or replacing leaning, damaged, rotting, or missing posts.

If the sign is missing, a replacement sign should be ordered and installed. Check out the probable cause of the loss. If it was theft, consider using theft-resistant hardware to mount the replacement. If the sign was eaten by wildlife, look at less palatable materials. If the weather or natural events munched the sign, consider stronger materials, a different location, or an alternate strategy for mounting.

For signs mounted on trees, you may need to loosen the lag screws slightly to give the tree growing room. If the sign is on a post, check to make sure that it is snugly attached. Replace rotting posts. Don't just try to get through "one more season."

Check with your manager for guidelines when signs should be replaced due to bullet holes, chipped paint, missing or illegible letters, incorrect information, cracked boards, splintered mounting holes, or missing pieces. At each candidate sign, consider the consequences of not repairing or replacing deficient signing. Take some photos to help portray the situation.

Cut blazes may, on rare occasions, need to be "freshened." If a blaze has "healed" to the point where it doesn't resemble an official blaze, it may be carefully recut.

Blazers and marker tags should be checked for continued usefulness. If the tread is more obvious than when these markers were originally installed, consider removing some. If folks are getting lost, restore more visible tread, move existing reassurance markers to more visible locations, or add a few markers where they will be most effective.

Remove all signing and reassurance marking that doesn't fit the plan for the area.

Before-and-after photos are useful for documenting what is happening to signing in the field and for documenting how new signing looks before the forces of nature (and visitors) resume work. A good sign inventory with photos makes ordering replacements for missing or completely trashed signs much easier.

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Updated: 4/14/2014
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