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I'm currently trying to remark a trail that seems to be forgotten or had very little use in the past few years. The markers that remain (different types of ribbon) are fraying or crumbling depending what material they are made out of. They are mostly tied to trees. I've started by tying up some "flagging tape" to trees in a similar manner, but I wonder how well the flagging tape I've chosen will hold up. I don't want to have to do this again next year and I'd like someone who comes upon the trail in a few years to be able to enjoy it as I have.

I wonder if anyone has suggestions for ribbons or other materials that will be resistant to sun and weather and keep their color.

The stuff I'm using is quite thin and about 3.50 USD for 300 feet (90 metre), which seems to be enough for a maybe a mile (1.6 km) of trail. I'd be willing to pay a bit more for something that would last. $35 would be okay, but $350 is too much. It also needs to be pretty quick to apply.

Additional information

There are already colored plastic fragments of old trail markers strewn around the area of the trail. Another reason that I'd like the markers to last is that I'd like not to add more fragments like this every year. Markers that fade without a trace (like paint) might avoid this also.

A few of the comments and answers mentioned terrain and temperature. The trail is mostly wooded and in a temperate climate. It's a bit rocky in places. The coldest days in the winter get down to 0°F (–18°C) and the hottest days in the summer are around 105°F (41°C). Parts of trail typically may flood in the spring.

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    What type of terrain? There's a big difference between a trail through a dense tropical rain forest where a trail will become overgrown in months when not used, to a sub-Arctic tundra where cairns will remain visible until the next ice age. – gerrit Feb 20 at 9:12
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    @gerrit Not to mention, some terrains offer no cairn-building materials at all. – shoover Feb 20 at 16:02
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    What is your motivation for marking this trail? Are you wholly familiar with the area enough to be certain that your trail markers will not confuse hikers that cross your path to different destinations? Are you aware of the Leave No Trace principle? Do you realize that your trail marking will not only distract from the natural beauty of the area, but also cause further damage to it by introducing new hikers to it? – BlackThorn Feb 20 at 18:21
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    Unless you have explicit permission from the land manager I would stick to temporary markers like tape, chalk, and ducks. – crasic Feb 21 at 2:58
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    @BlackThorn I've been going there for two years, but while trailrunning, it's still easy to lose the trail. The trail markers will definitely be a help when I go there in the snow next year. There are no other trails in there, so no possibility for confusion. This place has its own sort of beauty, but it's also strewn with flotsam from the lake, including innumerable beer cans, antifreeze bottles, and decaying coolers. There's even a rusted out refrigerator. I'm not sure that replacing the trail markers will have a big negative impact on the esthetics, although I agree with you in principle. – WaterMolecule Feb 21 at 16:01
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If you want the quickest way to mark a trail, you could go for forestry marking paint. Some brands will advertize around 5 years of permanence. It requires careful placement of your marks so they are visible along the trail but this is true for any type of marker anyway. The advantages are:

  • No need to carry physical marks
  • No need to carry ancillaries like nails or hammers
  • No need to poke holes in trees
  • Very fast to mark

The main disadvantages:

  • Not the most environment-friendly contents
  • Doesn't work well in freezing temperatures (unless you're using non-aerosol liquid applications)
  • Requires touch-ups every few years.

There is a good reason why paint is the method of choice for most East-American trail systems like the Appalachian Trail or Long Trail. It gives the best permanence to ease of application ratio.

Furthermore, the problem with markers that are too permanent is that if the trail's course has to change, for example to combat erosion, it is much more work to disassemble them than to just let them fade off over time.

In trying to stick the closest to leave-no-trace principles, paint is also easier to deal with. You don't need to go back and remove the marks if the trail is decommissioned, and there will be no physical remains if it is abandoned.

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    Adding to your disadvantages, 5 years isn't very long. – gerrit Feb 20 at 13:44
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    Isn't trailbuilding inherently in contradiction to leave-no-trace? And: if nobody hikes a trail, there is also nobody to be annoyed by 300 year old cairns. I don't think cairns have any impact on the ecology, perhaps a mouse will hide under one but that's about it? – gerrit Feb 20 at 14:00
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    We're getting philosophical here, but for whom are you leaving no trace if there are no people to see it and no animals to be disturbed by it? – gerrit Feb 20 at 14:22
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    @gerrit For the other people who will explore the area in the future. I do a lot of bushwhacking and a few of the people who have the same interest like that it's as wild as possible. I know the area has been extensively logged in the past, so people have definitely been there, but it doesn't show. – Gabriel C. Feb 20 at 15:00
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    The Bruce Trail (Niagara Falls to Tobermory along the Niagara escarpment) uses flat-white paint blazes. Looks like chalk. Usually you can look down the trail while standing by one and see the next. After hiking a few 100 km of such trail, it becomes very automatic to look for them so you can stay on the trail. The paint seems to need to be re-done about every 3 to 5 years. – puppetsock Feb 21 at 19:42
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Before marking any trails, please speak to the forest service or whatever local authority is in charge of the land.

They likely have established methods for trail marking that should be followed, and using other means may even counteract their conservation efforts. In many areas, marking trails is illegal. See this article for an example.

Marking a trail may confuse people more than it helps. You probably do not know who uses the area and what alternative paths and destinations exist. People who set out on one of these alternate routes may come across your markers and be led astray. For example, there is a trail I hiked a few years back that many well-intentioned hikers had placed cairns on. Unfortunately, so many people had done it on so many parallel and perpendicular paths that it had obliterated the trail and made navigation without a map nearly impossible. Anyone who hikes there now bushwhacks through a cairn infested land because they can't find the trail at all. Re-establishing the trail would require a titanic effort for whoever undertakes it due to the misguided actions of the cairn-placers.

On a personal note, ribbons, paint, and bits of plastic are garish and make me cranky when I see them in the wilderness. I don't believe I am alone. If I want to explore a poorly marked trail, I bring a map and revel in the lack of trash (or as some might call them, trail markers) littered around the trail.

Please leave the trail marking to the experts.

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    +1 but I would remove the last paragraph. Personal preference isn't really pertinent. – Gabriel C. Feb 20 at 21:00
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    @GabrielC I speak from experience when I say that many many outdoorsmen don't like those items littering the trails. That is why the national forest service uses wooden trail signs, wooden rounds with arrows cut or burned into them, or sometimes even cairns; it doesn't break the natural setting. When they do use plastic trail markers, they are colored brown or whatever color to match the surroundings. I called it personal preference to present it as a possible reason why other people might get angry if they catch you doing it. – BlackThorn Feb 20 at 21:39
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    Agreed. Marking trails with unnatural items is just a form of litter in what is supposed to be wilderness. It wrecks the place. Even natural marker materials (eg, cairns) cause route/navigation confusion. If the track is unmarked, people should learn to navigate, or walk on officially maintained tracks. Leave the track marking to those in authority over that land. – Son of a Beach Feb 20 at 22:30
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    @BlackThorn You're misrepresenting the USFS guidelines with that comment. It's up to local management to decide how and when to mark/sign and bright colors are most definitely not proscribed. – Gabriel C. Feb 20 at 23:07
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    Please leave the trail marking to the experts because they use wooden trail signs and do it where it's supposed to be done. +1. The OP's "personal preference" is backed up by anyone who considers themselves a forester. The rest of you are guests; respect your host. – Mazura Feb 21 at 4:27
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Photo of cairn in Austria Source: Wikimedia Commons

Probably the easiest and most durable version is the use of cairns. Provided there is enough rocks around, they are easy to build, unaffected by bleaching of the sun and weather. If they are built big enough, they can even be seen at a certain level of snow.

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  • Best of all, the big ones will probably last until the next ice age. However, in a forest this may be difficult. – gerrit Feb 20 at 9:09
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    @gerrit In a forest, they are useless unless for marking a hard to see intersection. – Gabriel C. Feb 20 at 13:25
  • It really depends on the density. I have seen some good markings with cairns in forested areas. The denser the forest, the closer they have to be. But the same applies for ribbons or paint – Manziel Feb 20 at 13:41
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    @gerrit Indeed. I was following a route in northern Norway marked by some swedish explorer in the 1700's or something like it. It was only marked with 3 stone cairns (flat stone upright, two supporters each side). Some were lost, but it was still navigable (with some back'n forth's and searching for the next one). – Stian Yttervik Feb 20 at 13:42
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    You should consider local regulations. There are some places that specifically forbid making this kind of trail marker. Something about over-zealous buffoons scrambling all over the undergrowth pulling up rocks. Especially when the local undergrowth is very slow growing. – puppetsock Feb 21 at 19:38
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Permanent trails in NZ were marked with cut up bits of Venetian blinds - the aluminium ones and preferably white, nailed to trees with stainless steel (IIRC) nails. You can (could) often get these free from people renovating their homes. Now people seem to use triangular orange trail markers, as a more modern system - they go for about NZ$ 0.45 per marker here, so about US$ 0.30ish.

You need two nails for both of these, one at the top and one at the bottom inserted at about 80 degrees off vertical. This stops the marker spinning on the nail in the wind and eventually falling off because it has worn the nail through or enlarged the hole. Having said that, one nail will work in a pinch, so long as it is not horizontal, so that it can rest against the tree and not spin so easily.

The nails also need to not be inserted fully so that the tree has room to grow; pushing the marker out as it does. We used 50 mm (2 in) or 75 mm (3 in) nails, and markings in this way can last many many years (25+) with occasional maintenance to re-nail markers before the trees consume them or as small trees die off.

Edited to add the third option - As you already have flagging tape mentioned, this is also for less permanent marking. Marking spray paint, like this one - it's the fluorescent stuff you see marking construction sites. It lasts a surprising amount of time on the ground (~6 months) and even longer on trees.

Also edited to add - I agree with the other posters about contacting the local authority and making sure that you are allowed to mark trails yourself. In my experience, trails that have been removed are often removed for safety issues or to protect fragile ecosystems

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    I'm not too keen on putting nails in trees. I guess whether it damages the tree should be its own question. – WaterMolecule Feb 20 at 17:06
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    @WaterMolecule If you take into acount the very down to earth example of tapping maple trees for syrup, along with many trails being marked with plastic or metal caps hammered in the trunks, it is quite safe to say that trees can easily cope with a foreign object. They'll even grow around it. In fact, more damage will be done by people grabbing around a tree to help themselves up a trail than from a nail. – Gabriel C. Feb 20 at 17:26
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    AIUI The other problem with metal in trees is that the tree grows around it, then years or decades down the line it either causes damage to a sawmill or causes a whole log to be discarded after the sawmill puts it through a metal detector. – Peter Green Feb 21 at 4:23
  • Only if you are in a place where milling of native timber happens. It's pretty uncommon here unless on private land, which makes up a small % of native timber coverage. – bob1 Feb 21 at 7:59

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