From Breadcrumbs to Cairns, Staying on Trail and Not Getting Lost

By Chelsea Parrott


As the story goes, Hansel and Gretel left a trail of breadcrumbs behind them as they traveled away from their home and into the mysterious forest. Well, the birds ate the breadcrumbs, and Hansel and Gretel continued to get lost in a world of trouble. 

Fortunately, there are many non-breadcrumb methods for marking trails and helping hikers avoid getting lost in the outdoor world.


Stay on the Trail

Hiking trails are carefully planned and constructed to give hikers a clear footpath from one point to another. Staying “on trail” is important for the overall health of the outdoor spaces where humans enjoy visiting. These established trails concentrate human impact into one manageable space, rather than off-trail travel wherein excessive damage can occur to the flora and fauna of the ecosystem. Staying on the trail means helping mitigate erosion issues, protect sensitive wildlife, and even helps to protect other hikers from getting lost on false paths. 

Before you head out on an adventure, plan ahead and prepare by looking at a map and researching the trails that you will be exploring. How are the trails marked? How are adjacent trails in your area marked? Are spur trails or campsites marked along your route, if so, how will they look? Different methods for demarcating trails are utilized by different land managers across the United States. 


Follow the Blazes

A canted blue blaze trail marker on the Appalachian Trail.
These canted blue paint markings, called blazes, indicate that a side path off the Appalachian Trail has changed direction. Blazes are the primary trail markers on the Appalachian Trail.

Blazes are very common trail markers in areas that have trees or rock outcroppings. A blaze is typically a few inches tall/wide and painted as a rectangle or simple geometric shape of one solid color. Some blazes are small metal flags or plaques nailed into trees with a similar small dimension and constant color scheme per trail.

Blazes will be painted or affixed to trees generally at eye-level or higher in snowy areas. Where there are no trees, blazes can be painted on rock outcroppings that a hiker might see at eye-level or just underfoot on the trail itself. 

Blaze patterns vary from region to region. Some sophisticated blazed trails utilize multiple blaze configurations on one tree to indicate spur trails or upcoming changes in the path’s direction. While some trails have many blazes that can be seen easily throughout the hike, other land managers might intentionally use blazes sparingly to preserve the natural ascetic of wild spaces, untouched by human design.  


Look for Posted Signs

Trail sign in the Nantahala National Forest in North Carolina.
Trail markers like the one seen in this photo are often found at the junction of two trails in certain areas, and give information about the trail’s length, difficulty, and permitted uses.

Wooden, plastic, or metal signs are often used to mark trailheads or the intersection of multiple trails. These signs can display specific information about the trail including total mileage or rules about recreating responsibly in the area. Some signs are temporary and convey important information about trail closures or seasonal hazards such as bear activity or demolished bridges.

Fun fact: Signs that are made with treated wood provide a certain allure for wild animals to leave their own mark. I’ve seen quite a few bear claws and bite marks on wooden signs in the backcountry to the point where the signs were ripped apart and illegible! Remember that signs, just like anything on public land, should never be vandalized. Report any unwarranted carvings, stickers, or writing to your local land managers so these resources can remain accurate and applicable for all travelers.


Carved Symbols

Carved trail blazes are official trail markers that were once used more commonly than they are today. Carved trail markers can look like deeply scarred lines in a tree’s bark with basic shapes that attempt to weather the effects of a tree’s growth. 

Keep an eye out for trails that are marked with this older method, as the land managers might have since abandoned this method in favor of incorporating painted blazes intermixed with the old carving. 


Rock Stacks and Cairns

An intentional stack of rocks demarcating a trail is known as a cairn. Cairns are useful in areas like meadows, scree fields, wetlands, or above the treeline. Cairns can be as tall as a person, providing a visual path along an official trail where hikers might have no other indication of where to go next. 

Only land managers and official trail maintainers should ever make cairns along a trail. I repeat, hikers should NOT create their own cairns. Imagine trying to follow the trail but you keep encountering random cairns marking favorite lunch spots or fun bugs or other personal whims… careless cairns such as these could easily confuse the proper path and result in lost hikers. 

Besides getting people lost, unofficial rock stacks are potentially problematic for sensitive water-dwelling creatures such as the salamander. Salamanders live in the nooks and crannies between rocks within streams and rivers. When humans pick up rocks from the stream bed to stack or create dams, these creatures can be unceremoniously crushed or robbed of their habitats. Leave rocks where you find them, and if you must move a rock, do so with caution.


In the world of hiking, take the path most traveled to ensure our shared public lands are healthy ecosystems for generations to come. Leave the breadcrumbs at home and study how to stay safe wherever you’re going.


Learn more backpacking tips from World’s Best Adventures! If you like these tips and want to learn more, join World’s Best Adventures on a trip this spring. We take beginning backpackers, families, groups, and hikers of all skill levels on guided backpacking trips to some of the most beautiful locations in North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. Learn more here.

Posted in

Sign up for our email list!

Be the first to know about upcoming trips and news from World’s Best Adventures!

Please enter your name.
Please enter a valid email address.
Something went wrong. Please check your entries and try again.
[reblex id="1361"]
Scroll to Top