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I have seen a lot of trail signs and one thing I noticed is that sometimes they have the distance from one point to another like,

Phelps Lake 4 miles

Death Canyon Shelf 8 miles

and sometimes the mileage is simply omitted. Are there reasons for this or is it simply a matter of style?

  • If the trail is rerouted, the mileage can change. – StrongBad Aug 29 '17 at 19:35
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    I don't think this can be answered, it's most likely a local policy thing. – Separatrix Aug 30 '17 at 11:34
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Knowing why distance was included or omitted in any particular instance requires asking the people that decided on that particular sign. In other words, in the general case, you don't know why.

I've been involved with specifying trail signs. One reason I can imagine that distances were omitted is because they weren't known with enough confidence to put them on a sign. A sign or a bunch of signs needed to get done, and nobody had time to go out and measure the trail distances. Another possibility is that whoever specified the sign just didn't feel it mattered.

I'm on the town Trails Committee, and am in the process of getting signs put up at trail intersections. This is more work and more complicated than most people would expect. We want distances for each destination, which means we have to actually know the distances first. GPS tracks can be OK, but are often not so good at measuring distance, especially when the trail is very curvy.

Before we can get signs made, I go out and get the length of every trail segment with a measuring wheel. The distances that go on the signs are often a summation of 10 or more individual trail segments. To avoid accumulating errors, I record the distance of each trail segment to 1/1000 mile. These are added up to get the distance to the destination for the trail sign, then rounded to the nearest 1/10 mile. With this process, we can be quite confident the result is accurate.

I can certainly see some organizations just skipping all that by not putting distances on signs.

I'll be giving a talk on this topic and trail mapping in general at the MA state Trails Conference later this year in November.

5

In Europe, especially in the mountains, trail signs usually have time instead of distance, even though the distance is probably accurately known. The mileage isn't really the most important thing as altitude change and terrain are much more important; 3 miles on a good track along a valley floor might take less than an hour, but 3 miles on a narrow, difficult path that ascends 3000ft to a Col might take several hours.

In short, distance might be misleading, so time is used as a better indicator of the commitment and effort required to reach the signposted destination.

Swiss mountain hiking signs By Irmgard (Own work) GFDL, and by CC-BY-SA-3.0.

  • What does Std. on the signs stand for? – Charlie Brumbaugh Sep 25 '17 at 15:52
  • It means "hour" – Qwerky Sep 25 '17 at 15:54
  • @Charlie: It stands for "Stunden", which is the German word for hours. Interestingly, the bottom sign uses "h" and "min", as in English, although the destination is clearly a German name. Maybe "h" and "min" are the abbreviations in one of the other Swiss languages, Italian or French? – Olin Lathrop Sep 25 '17 at 18:08
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    I agree that times are more useful, but in my experience the different local clubs who put up the signs don't use any standard calculation. Sometimes they seem unreasonably fast - perhaps it was measured by a super-fit youngster with a light load. Other times, it seems unduly slow. It's a pity they don't adopt a standard, such as some version of Naithsmiths Rule. The times on the Via Alpina website, for example, are all over the place if you use a height times distance measure. – Tullochgorum Sep 26 '17 at 12:06
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    I was once part of a large-group backpacking trip (about 30 people hiking seven miles to a campsite). The entire group left the trailhead over the course of about five minutes. One of the group leaders reached the campsite after one and a half hours; the last stragglers came in almost five hours later. Unless you've got some sort of standard formula, length-and-ascent is more generally useful than time. – Mark Sep 27 '17 at 2:10

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