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My town (Groton MA, USA) has 110 miles of trails open to the public, but virtually no signs helping people navigate at intersections in the woods. I am on the Trails Committee, and I'm pushing hard to address this.

Initially I figured we'd just do whatever other organizations do that have been at this for a long time. Just about all backwoods trail signs I've ever seen have been simple routed wood. It seems the US forest service has been using this type of sign for many decades, perhaps a century. For example:

This happens to be from the Tonto National Forest in AZ. It's about as typical a trail sign as there is in the US.

This one is on the top of Mt Lafayette in the White Mountain National Forest of NH. Again, it's basically the same design. The sign at top was recently replaced, and I'm not sure if it is more yellow due to being newer and not weathered yet (this location is above treeline open to the sky all year), or whether it's the new "composite" material that is plastic and wood.

Presumably the Forest Service has looked into this and converged on something that works and has low lifetime cost. If it's good enough for the US Forest Service, it's good enough for me.

However, we have had several people pushing us to use newer plastic material that is claimed to last longer than wood, although its also much more expensive. The main body of the plastic is white, but the front has a layer of dark green on it. Routing lines into it cuts thru the front layer to expose the back, so you get white letters on dark green. I've seen these signs and they are quite readable.

The question is, do you know of any experience with different materials for trail signs? Are most wood because that's all that's been available until now? Are there organizations that are using newer materials where they would have used wood signs in the past? If so, is there any longevity data, lifetime cost data, etc?

Also, any opinions on the esthetics? If you were hiking the back woods of a small town in New England and came accross non-traditional trail signs, would you think Yuk, this high-tech stuff doesn't belong in the woods, or Cool, these guys are keeping up with the times, or something else?

Added about plastic signs

I didn't have a picture of the type of plastic sign I described, so I took one yesterday afternoon:

This sign is by the side of a road, so is larger than what would be in the woods. However, this is the material I was mentioning. Apparently it is also available in brown. I have been told that this material will last much longer than wood, and is supposed to be able to stand up to long term UV exposure.

I have meanwhile heard back from one sign maker with some good arguments against pressure treated wood. That and Karen's point about not knowing what volunteer resources might be available in the future to replace worn signs has me leaning towards a format like the wood signs shown above, but using the plastic material shown here.

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Interesting question. Do you happen to have a picture of one of the plastic signs? –  Mr.Wizard Jun 17 at 13:07
    
I'd like to retag this with trails and signage following this logic. Do you object? –  Mr.Wizard Jun 17 at 13:12
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@Mr.Wizard: I don't have a picture of a plastic sign. I'll try to take one over the next few days and add it to the question. Go ahead and retag as you think is apporpriate. I didn't know there was a signage tag. You don't get to see all the tags when you really need to, which is when you're writing a question. –  Olin Lathrop Jun 17 at 13:48
    
I don't believe there is a signage tag; rather I'm suggesting that it will be more general and therefore useful (in combination with other tags) than trail-signs. Since you don't object I shall retag, but ultimately it's up to the moderators to decide. Also, don't worry about the picture; I'll add some myself (in an answer) with my own thoughts on the matter. –  Mr.Wizard Jun 17 at 13:51
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I love how Switzerland has a nationally consistent set of signs. For a little while Zermatt was the sole town that placed wooden signs instead, but they have reversed on the decision, so now there is national uniformity again. Some people think they're ugly. Personally, I love them. –  gerrit Jun 17 at 14:33

6 Answers 6

up vote 17 down vote accepted

As a New Englander who hikes a lot, I’d say that the sight of any good signage is so startling and unexpected that the appearance of the material should be a distant secondary concern to the signs’ utility.


There are a few things to consider that you haven’t mentioned:

How long will you be on this trail committee?

Are you likely to have other board members in the future who are enthusiastic enough about signage to upkeep what you put out? Its very, very common to find trails that were last marked 10 or 20 years ago, but with no-one directly responsible for upkeep, or the responsible person being overworked, updating marking falls by the wayside, and you’re left back where you started with unmarked trails. If theft isn’t a concern, I’d go with the longest lasting sign you can afford for this reason alone. I’ve never worked for a group involved in trailwork that wasn’t hurting for both money and labor, but putting up expensive signs takes just as much time as putting up cheap ones, and if you can’t count on people willing and able to replace them, make sure they rarely need to be replaced.

How likely is it that signs will be stolen?

If you have attractive signs, some people will see them as fair game to carry off and use for décor, especially if the sign has interesting words, or a common name (Johnson Hill, for example). It’s an ironic problem, but very real. It means a great deal of extra labor and expense, and the more costly the signs are, the more expensive the problem.

Are the signs going to constantly in the shade, or in a swamp?

In either case, wooden signs can potentially have a much shorter life than expected because of damp. Will you need to use chemically treated wood to keep them from getting covered in moss and rotting? If so, I’d lean towards plastic in these cases, because the lifespan of wood can drop from a couple of decades to less than one.

Have you considered Metal?

And another potential sign material is etched metal. When I worked in the desert, these were the only signs that could stand up to decades of direct desert sunlight. I’m not sure if they were aluminum or stainless steel.

Ambiguity

Another consideration for signs is ambiguity of placement. For example, the sign you posted for Mt Washington is pointing to at least 15 destinations in at 4 directions. I haven’t tried to use that sign in particular, but I’ve often had difficulties at intersections where one sign tries to tell everything.

You end up spending 10 minutes discussing which direction Snooky’s Nook is in, or is that direction actually Bartman’s trail, which you know goes 5 miles out of your way (or more). If you can put maps at main intersections, the more directionally challenged hikers will love you. Baring that, put signs 10-20 feet away from the intersection, on the trail, if you want to be really unambiguous about what is where.


A few alternatives

I’m also going to suggest a few alternatives to written signs.

Have you considered alternatives like blazing trees on the most popular trails? Painted blazes do need to be repainted every few years, but if you do other trail maintenance, the additional effort isn’t too bad. The Blue Hills outside of Boston uses coded blazes painted onto trees, combined with small numbers at trail intersections. They’re more urban than you, so theft is a greater concern, but I really like their solution. The numbers are unobtrusive, but at the same time are unattractive enough to not encourage theft. However, what makes this work exceptionally well is that they have very good, very easily available maps that hikers can buy (leave money in a box on the honor system). I don’t know if you’d have the resources to create the high quality maps for distribution, and keeping maps in stock is something most organizations fail at. The more access points, the harder it becomes.

Another good color coded trail system is at Noon Hill in Medway, run by the Trustees of the Reservation. It’s part of the Charles River Reservation. They have color coded trails and maps on pedestals at main intersections. It might be less practical with over 100 miles of trail than with their 10-15 miles, but I love running across maps when I’m hiking in unfamiliar areas.

Source: I’m a frequent hiker and sometime trail maintainer and creator.

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Hi Karen, welcome to The Great Outdoors and thanks for your nice answer! I think you are discussing the topic very well, and I especially like the blazes. It was most widely used for trail marking anywhere I have been hiking and can make most signs uneccessary. –  Paul Paulsen Jun 18 at 7:51
    
Your point about not knowing who will be around in the future is very good. I think you're right about going for longest-lasting, even if it costs more. At the Trails Committee meeting last night, there was more acceptance of plastic signs than I thought. We are planning a few kiosks with maps, but those will always be scarce due to high cost. We provide our maps on-line. Check out mappingsupport.com/p/gmap4.php?q=http://dl.dropbox.com/u/… –  Olin Lathrop Jun 18 at 15:37
    
I'd like to add to this, excellent, list. Environmental concerns: Plastic is a petrochemical and will (at some level) of added to environmental pollution. Well sourced wood will have a considerably smaller environmental footprint than plastic. –  Liam Jun 18 at 20:58
    
@Olin Is that data available as a KML/KMZ file? –  Mr.Wizard Jun 18 at 21:07
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Great answer. I would only add that plastic would tend to be slightly more resistant to vandalism. Some place I go it seems like people can't pass a wood sign without carving at it. –  Russell Steen Jun 23 at 1:19

Switzerland has a nationally consistent policy for hiking signs with Swiss precision (for example and inspiration, see this impressive 64 page guide on signage), as required by law. This applies whether in the high mountains, on easy forest trails, or (usually short segments) on rural roads. You might find a sign indicating it's 5 hours and 55 minutes hiking to a particular destination. In total, 64784 km of routes are signed, of which 21856 km in the mountains and 17723 km on surfaced roads (For more information, see wandern.ch in German or French). Signs are present not only in tourist or nature areas, but everywhere; you can hike from one border to the other by following the signs. Note that Switzerland is rather densely populated, and certainly on any of the trails of the easy category, you're never more than an hour or so from civilisation, and probably the furthest you can get anywhere from the nearest road is a six hour hike or so. It doesn't really have anything that would be classified as wilderness, except in the truly hard-to-access areas where no signed routes lead.

Hiking signage uses either metal signs at intersections, posting the time in hours, or metal indicators mounted to trees (they used to do that, but not any more) or other objects, or, in the mountains, paint.

They have three categories, and the colour indicates the category:

A Wanderweg (hiking trail) is easy and indicated in yellow. They are found mostly in lowlands.

Schwende Wanderwege
(Wikimedia Commons, Paebi)

Rhombus on a tree
(Wikimedia Commons, Irmgard)

A Bergwanderweg (mountain hiking trail) requires mountain boots, and is indicated with white-red-white stripes, either on a sign, or in paint on a rock. They also use cairns.

Bergwanderweg
(Source: Wandern im Bregenzerwald. Note that this is actually in Austria, but in this case the signage is identical in Switzerland).

Finally, there are Alpinwanderwege (alpine routes), which require alpine experience and may cross glaciers, extended zones of boulders, be very steep/exposed, etc. Those are indicated in white-blue-white, or (just like the Bergwanderwege) with cairns.

Alpinwanderweg
(Source: Wandern.ch)

Intersections between trails usually have the aforementioned metal signs, and indicate the different categories. For example, here users can choose between a glacier-crossing route, a mountain hiking trail, or an easy interpretive trail:

Near the Rothornhütte

And often they include time estimates as well:

Near Munt Pers

Opinions differ, and for a while, the big hiking destination of Zermatt replaced all the metal signs by wooden signs, for aesthetic reasons. I haven't been there recently but I'm told they have reverted to the metal signs. Personally, I love them, but I may be biased because for me, it was in Switzerland that I learned to love mountain hiking.

There are a couple of other, newer categories as well, such as cultural routes and prepared winter hiking routes (not backcountry skiing), but those are far less common. Some more information can be found on the Wandern.ch site in German or in French, including a 64 page guide on trail signs with lots of pictures.

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I have some photos from Austria with red-white-red stripes, matching the Austrian flag... –  Nate Eldredge Jun 17 at 16:51
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Thanks for all the upvotes, but I'm not sure if it does terribly much to answer the question :-) –  gerrit Jun 17 at 19:36
    
@gerrit: Upvotes are for example and compilation efforts. +1 from me as well, and please delete this comment asap as "+1 comment" :D –  WedaPashi Jun 18 at 9:20
    
This seems like overkill. It seems like you're proposing a national signage system for a town in a different country. If the committee that the OP is on is waffling over wood vs. plastic picking a standard and having metal signs made up is going to confuse the issue further. I love the Swiss standard, but I'm not sure it applies to the OP. –  Freiheit Jun 18 at 14:59
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@Freiheit Actually, I agree. I posted this answer because I was encouraged to expand a comment into an answer, but it doesn't really help the OP. I think a national signage system is uniquely Swiss and will remain so forever. –  gerrit Jun 18 at 18:50

My only experience with this is as a hiker, and I can only give my own opinion. But first:

Examples

In the Columbia River Gorge there are a few different types of signage used.

  • Major road-side signs:

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  • Trailhead signs:

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  • Junction signs:

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  • Masonry signs:

    enter image description here

Unlike the stone sign WedaPashi showed the lettering on these masonry signs is quite fine, so they are easily obscured by moss/debris, but once you find one it is readable with effort.

The wooden junction signs weather and blend in to the surroundings, but they can be difficult to read. The also seem to weather unevenly, making some signs and parts of signs harder to read than others. (Below are two clearly different types of wooden signs as well.)

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Although I couldn't find a picture of one some of the wooden signs have become almost entirely obscured.

Opinion

In my opinion:

  • The "Trailhead" style signage is too obtrusive for the middle of a trail.

  • The wooden signs are aesthetic but can be hard to read and sometimes nearly impossible to read if the inner part of the lettering is worn off.

  • The masonry signs are very nice if there is existing stonework and you are looking for one of them, but they don't seem widely applicable. (Presumably you can't afford a masonry pillar for every junction!)

Proposal

Personally I would like to see wooden or dark colored signs with larger lettering, possibly filled with paint or resin. Some general examples, the first being my favorite:

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I think that these strike a reasonable balance between visibility and aesthetics.

On the other hand I do not like this style as it looks too much like a highway sign:

enter image description here

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Thanks for a lot of good examples. I've been warned that while routed signs with paint in the grooves can look quite nice (like your Glen Boulder Trail example), the paint wears off quickly and it takes a lot of effort to maintain. Is that Bell Creek sign real wood or the new "composite" stuff? It looks like it belongs in the woods, and if it's composite it should last a very long time. –  Olin Lathrop Jun 17 at 14:52
    
@OlinLathrop You're welcome. I was afraid that there might be a durability problem with paint; perhaps that style could be emulated in composite however. None of these are my own pictures, and frankly I don't spend a lot of time looking at signs, but if the Bell Creek sign is composite it's a departure from the standard around here. However since it appears to be new in the picture that is possible. –  Mr.Wizard Jun 17 at 14:56
    
@Olin What do you make of the construction of this sign? It looks like bleached wood but the lettering is dark and clear. I suppose it could have been made of bleached wood to begin with, but if it weathered into that state and remains that legible it impresses me. Does the lettering look burned on to you? –  Mr.Wizard Jun 17 at 15:09
    
@Mr.Wizard: Given that the pole it's attached to doesn't look particularly weathered, I suspect the sign isn't either. I think it's just made of wood treated to look like that. The lettering does look burned to me, although it's hard to be sure. –  Ilmari Karonen Jun 17 at 16:30
    
@Mr.Wiz: It looks like wood, but is weathering in a way I've never seen a wood sign do before. You are right in that the letters look too dark to be natural, so maybe they are burned. It's certainly readable now, but I wonder what it will be like in a few years. It would be nice to know how old it is and what type of wood it is made from. Where is this sign? –  Olin Lathrop Jun 17 at 16:57

IMHO, I would like to suggest using the ones made with plastic, probably Custom Engraved Signs. I believe its about personal opinion up to certain extent. The people who are suggesting you to use wooden trail signs are right about the fact that we should never put on something in nature there, which is made up of plastic in particular. But on the contrary I'd like to see this from another perspective that We should also consider the durability of the material.

The wooden sign boards would certainly last little lesser than the plastic-made trail signs. The trail sign are very crucial, so they have to stay there for a long time, and just the way they are placed and should be visible. The Wooden trail signs have an upper-hand in eco-friendliness but yes, the plastic-made trail signs outclass them from Durability and Visibility point of view. I believe, No authority personnel would place a trail sign at a place where it can be wiped out by water. Yeah, it may happen that the sign is placed at a windy place where it can be buzzed away by strong winds. There, plastic material is an issue because it would remain lying there in forests for years if un-noticed. But as long as the care is taken that they are placed well, plastic should not be a problem.

If you are looking for more options, I have come across a few other methods to erect a trail sign in my country, such as ones with engraved stone/pillar. These are pretty cheap to arrange, at least where I belong because there is always a lot of enthusiastic local people looking for some job to earn money and they would do it happily.

enter image description here

But I personally feel that these lack a lot in terms of visibility, specially during the dark hours, mainly if you can imagine the rains, grass, to worsen the things: if there is fog.

EDIT: If the care is taken about the placement from visibility point of view, then these should be an excellent idea over wood and plastic. There is a way, rather undocumented protocol about the way trails are marked in India. At a particular distance people have painted small arrows on stones which are perfectly visible. And where there is a tricky bifurcation in routes, they seldom use there stone markers. But yes, there are pretty rare in India as well. We hardly have Trail signs as such.

Now about considering the visitor's point of view referring to "Yuk, this high-tech stuff doesn't belong in the woods, or Cool, these guys are keeping up with the times, or something else?", I'll say IMHO, this depends on perspective, the way He/She feels about it. Most of them would like to see a wooden is my opinion, but as long as the Sign stands tall throughout the longer times, that matters the most.

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Stone markers like you show should last very long. But, we can have several feet of snow on the ground in winter, so a sign like that would be completely covered up. Otherwise its a interesting idea I hadn't thought of. –  Olin Lathrop Jun 17 at 13:53
    
@OlinLanthrop: I do agree about they getting covered up completely in snow or even grass for that matter. Yes, they are far less eye-catching/visible. Take care of the placement from visibility point of view, and that should be an excellent idea over wood and plastic. –  WedaPashi Jun 17 at 13:57

I have been researching sign construction various ways, with asking a question here being one of them. I was just forwarded a email from Adobe Signs, replying to questions from the Groton Conservation Trust (our local private land trust). Adobe Signs is the regular sign maker used by the Trust for their roadside signs. These signs are dark-stained wood with white painted routed letters. Part of Adobe's reply to the Groton Conservation Trust was:

I have used pressure treated lumber in the past for other customers to produce sign panels similar to the ones I've made for the Trust, always had problems usually within the first 6 months after installation so I discontinued using that type of material all together.

Pressure treated lumber has a considerable amount of moisture in it from it's treatment process using "chemical preservatives" that makes it very heavy and rot resistant. Unless pressure treated lumber sits for extended periods of time (months) under cover out of the elements until it is thoroughly dry (which is still almost impossible to find), the boards themselves don't rot but instead, because of the moisture content they begin to "crack" the length of the board, always through the area where the routing/engraving is made.

I have also attempted tests using the plastic decking material (various types from various manufacturers) but it's downfall is any type of paint (water, oil, enamel, etc) used to paint within the engraved/routered lettering in the panel chips, flakes and falls out...paint does not adhere or absorb into the panel like wood which causes the paint to fail almost immediatley.

I have not used the plastic material for engraving with the dark colored surface and lighter colored core Wendy mentions because the thickest this material is available is only 3/4".

Through my research In the past I have located 1" thick but it's extreamly expensive, only available in 96"x48" sheets, plus, it's still a plastic composite and in frigid temperatures (winter months) it can easily be broken...those darn kids :o)

I've attempted using other types of lumber (oak, redwood, poplar, etc) but they all have their own advantages/disadvantages. Ultimatley I've have chosen to keep using Fir lumber for this type of work because I have found it not only the most cost effective material but also the least expensive to "replace" should a panel be vandalized, or in the case with some of the panels Dan has found, rotting...the round posts I use on these installations is "pressure treated" and that will not change.

After an initial installation and many many years of exposure in the elements, I can honestly say it has proven itself time and time again (lack of calls, complaints or upset customers) that I've found as long as Fir timber is prepared, processed and treated thoroughly before, during and after the production process I use to manufacture these type of signs, I would still be hesitant to "try something new"...just my two cents but always open to suggestions :o)

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The answer has already been picked, but I want to throw in my 2 cents as well.

While I'm not against plastic, the sample you show turns me off. Looks too urban. If they make one that looks more natural, then I'm all for it.

Also, I think signage should be minimal. Trailheads and big intersections. Along the trail I like painted blazes.

When it comes to choosing a color for the blazing, check to see if there's any local laws/customs. For instance, the Appalachian Trail is blazed white the whole way, and approach trails being blue. In NJ, trails in state parks are orange. Each trail should be colored as to not have any confusion with any other trail. An example of doing it the wrong way, a bureaucrat in GA mandated that the blazes on all 7, criss-crossing trails, in one wilderness area, were to be changed to lime green (because it's more natural). The number of lost hikers went up after that move.

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We already blaze trails with small plastic markers that have a arrow and "Groton Trails Network" printed around the outside. The question is what to do at junctions so that people know which option to take, not how to stay on a trail once they decide on one. I think we have the latter pretty well covered. –  Olin Lathrop Jun 22 at 12:50

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