A Few Things to Remember When You Are Out Blazing

The Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy places blazing locations at one minute intervals along the trail.   The Appalachian Trail Conservancy by comparison places blazes every five minutes or about every ¼ mile.  This means that a hiker on the Rachel Carson Trail will see the next blaze come into view in about one minute or 100 yards after passing a blaze.  If a trail user has not seen a blaze for several minutes of hiking they are expected to know that they are off the trail and should retrace their steps to the last blaze.

A typical blazing location is marked with two blazes, one blaze for travelers from each direction.  Additional reassurance blazing occurs after turns and at locations that might be confusing to trail users.  But too much paint along the trail is never good.  A hiker or runner looking ahead should as a rule see only one blaze or none at all.  This isn’t always possible but is a good guideline to follow.  In all there are over 4,000 individual yellow blazes along the RCT.

Blazing takes time and patience.  Each blaze should be oriented and applied with neatness, consistency and precision - no differently than how you would paint at home.  The days when hikers simply followed the yellow paint to navigate the RCT are over. Trail users are now wayfinding along a blazed trail where blazes are two inches wide by six inches tall.  If necessary a blaze can be proportionally larger for better visibility at a distance, something that happens rarely.  For example, there is a blaze near Bull Creek that is proportionally larger measuring 12” tall and 4” wide.  It occurs at a great distance from the last blaze and there are no intervening trees or objects that can be blazed.

All trail users are expected to pay attention and look for that next blaze.  Most blazes act simply as reassurance for the trail user who is navigating along an obvious path that is open and well maintained. If a trail user is not paying enough attention to the blazing and gets off the trail it is a learning experience for the person, not an indication that the blazing is flawed.  We refer to this as the Joe Kulbacki Rule.  Remember, trail users who have not seen a blaze for several minutes are obviously off the trail and should be so aware.

There are instances where the blazing can and must be improved.  Typically the section steward will ask for a change to the blazing.  A blazing steward and section steward accompanied possibly by the trail manager will evaluate each request and okay any changes.  In short, additional blazing locations should never be undertaken without considerable thought and examination, and should never be added simply because someone got off the trail at a certain point.

It is very important that each blaze is applied to be directional which simply means that it faces down the trail at the approaching hiker.  As such each blaze tells the trail user two things, “come this way” and “go that way.”  Whereas novice trail users are simply following paint, the experienced trail user will occasionally glance back to observe a location’s counter-facing blaze and be assured he is on the correct path.

As you are out on the trail here are some guidelines and recommendations to keep in mind

*Only blaze at blazing locations, turns and reassurance points already established.

*Reassurance blazes such as after a turn or at a point of possible confusion do not typically have a counter-facing blaze because it is not needed from the opposite direction. In cases such as where the trail contains two turning blazes in quick succession the reassurance blaze is not needed as that next turning blaze is already visible to the hiker.

*When restoring old blazing, check the health of the tree and use another tree if necessary.  If needing a new tree to blaze, choose a tree that is alive and healthy, locust being the one exception.  Do not expose the living cambium when smoothing the bark on a healthy, living tree.  If blazing a dead locust remove the bark first.

*Be mindful of the weather.  Generally paint needs a few hours to dry in summer but can take much longer with high humidity.  Don’t blaze if the temperature will drop to freezing before paint can dry.

*Use a thin, flat 2” chip brush with the end trimmed so that it has a straight end with sharp corners and stiff bristles.  The brush you would use to paint at home does not work because it is too thick, cannot make sharp corners and is too flexible.  The recommended brush, when trimmed, allows you to get into bark crevices as well as make sharp corners and is inexpensive.

*Try to use the same tree, pole or post at each blazing location for both blazes, but place turning blazes on separate objects if at all possible.  Placing turning blazes on separate trees adds to the attractiveness of the trail by dispersing the paint and keeping the counter-facing turning blaze out of view.

*Use only the approved yellow flat finish paint provided by the Conservancy.  A second coat of paint is recommended.  Never use oil based paint.

*Use flat, brown paint to “tuxedo” if blazes are not distinct such as on younger maples, beech or whenever the blaze does not stand out.

*Never blaze too high so that you cannot reach and maintain the blaze.  Five to six feet high is ideal, always aiming for maximum visibility.

*Never blaze directly at sharp bends and switchbacks as this can confuse persons new to the trail who typically think a blaze only means to continue straight ahead.  Rather allow the trail user to naturally follow the open, correct footpath and easily locate the next blaze.

*When restoring overgrown blazing use the 2” wide brush to accurately measure out the new blaze width.  Turn the brush 90 degrees and use three widths to measure out the length.  It is preferable to remove old paint by scraping but brown tuxedo paint can be used to bring the blaze back to size.

*When applying a turning blaze, separate the individual rectangles by 2” vertically.  Place the inside edges along the same line or slightly separated.  Do not overlap.  Keep everything plumb from the perspective of the approaching hiker.  If more than one trail is being marked leave a 4” vertical separation between trails.

*When applying a “pay attention” double blaze, keep the individual rectangles in vertical alignment separated by 2”.  This type blaze is rare.

*Always look ahead at the next blaze and evaluate its orientation, height, visibility, health, etc. from your perspective as the approaching hiker.  Make corrections, improvements and restorations and clear obscuring vegetation as needed.  Blazing typically involves doing much clearing and trimming of vegetation and branches to achieve maximum visibility.  A blaze that is not visible while approaching from down the trail is of no value, same as a road sign or traffic signal that is not visible to the driver or is facing away from the road.  If an area is badly overgrown it should be reported to the trail manager.

*Never add more blazing because the trail is overgrown, blocked or needs maintained.  Blazing locations have been established and all blazing already applied.  But it is easy to miss a blaze that has disappeared behind vegetation.  New blazing at a given location should not be necessary unless a blazed tree has died or fallen.

*Remove old and obsolete blazing wherever seen, preferably by scraping.

*Small diameter trees can be used if absolutely necessary but paint the entire diameter of the tree.  This should be a rare occurrence.

*Always orient the blaze so that it is central, vertical, directional, neat and highly visible.  Make corners sharp with flat sides, flat top and bottom so that the blaze is a rectangle measuring three times height to width.  Lightly mark out the new blaze after smoothing the bark, then step back on the trail to see if the location is correct and faces directly down the trail at the approaching hiker.  Then finish the blaze making final adjustments as needed.

*Make the blaze vertical even on trees or poles that lean. 

*When needing a new tree for blazing make a thorough search of the blazing location.  Often the perfect blazing tree is hidden by low branches, weeds and undergrowth which can take considerable time to first clear away.

*Know you pace count for 100 yards.  That next blaze needs to come into view after about one minute of hiking or after about 100 yards.  Local conditions will always dictate where precisely you locate the blaze. 

*On rare occasions it may be necessary to place a blaze on the ground such as along the edge of a road.  These blazes are typically larger so as to get the attention of the trail user.

*Pick a set of clothes for blazing which you can afford to get splashed with paint and use these same clothes whenever you are blazing. 

*Place a zip-lock bag over the ends of your brushes to keep them from drying out as you move between locations.  On very hot days you may need to stir a bit of water into your paint as it will tend to thicken from evaporation and become difficult to use.

*Thoroughly clean the threads and underside of lids on containers before closing and putting them away.  If these areas are not cleaned your container will be painted shut and likely impossible to reopen.  Clean the brushes and reuse them. Cleanup can take a bit of time.  Refill your container for your next outing.

In summary, visibility, neatness and consistency are the hallmarks of a well blazed trail.  Allow the trail user to navigate the trail, to learn from their experience and their decisions and to gain confidence.  A continuous stream of yellow paint is not the object of blazing. Instead, encourage the trail user to connect with their surroundings and not simply follow an unbroken stream of paint.

Finally, Thank-You!  Without your interest and help the Rachel Carson Trails Conservancy and the trails it maintains just wouldn’t exist.  Think about that.  You are making it happen!  As a Blazing Steward and member of the Blazing Team you have an important and awesome responsibility.  Your job is to guide hikers along our trails, to keep trail users safe and reassured and to make their sojourn a satisfying and memorable experience.  With your scraper, paint, brush and skill you get to talk to the trail users, let them know that someone took the time, made the effort, that someone cares about their experience, to literally accompany them along the footpath.  That’s the fun of blazing, the knowledge that through your work you are out there with every hiker and runner every step and stride of the way along our trails.  It’s a great feeling of accomplishment that comes from your contribution.