I have been asked by several folks if I’m worried about getting lost. I guess the answer is not really — I’m more concerned with avoiding injury.
The symbol that most represents the AT is the white blaze. There are hundreds of thousands of these blazes. They are 2×6-inch strips of white paint on trees or rocks and they are analogous to the white lines on a road when driving a car. Follow the blazes and you are doing fine and are on the Trail. For the most part, the system works very well.
However, it is not a perfect system. There seems to be no standard as to how frequently the blazes appear. Sometimes I can see 4 or 5 blazes ahead, and sometimes it seems like an eternity until I see another. When you don’t see a blaze for awhile you get concerned that you may be off the Trail and/or on another trail. Sometimes, if you turn around, you are reassured to see a white blaze for hikers going in the opposite direction. When you can’t see one in either direction, you are more concerned. I speak with experience.
Another “trail sign” one sees frequently is analogous to an upcoming curve in the road. This sign is a white double parallel blaze, with one side higher than the other. The blaze that is on the highest side is the direction the trail will turn. Here is an example of an upcoming right turn.
Here is an example of an upcoming left turn.
Sounds simple enough, but frequently there are intersections or junctions with local trails, and you’re left wondering which way to proceed. So you think: no problem, I will look at each trail and go down the one I see a white blaze. Except I don’t see a white blaze on either trail. This can be frustrating and cost precious time. But fortunately, the vast majority of time, the system works well.
Another frequently seen marker is a blue blaze.
A blue blaze represents a water source. If the water source is actually on the Trail, such as a stream crossing the Trail, there will be no blue blaze, as hikers will find the water source automatically. When you do see a blue blaze, it will be a side trail off the AT, usually within a half-mile from the Trail. When you need or want water, blue blazes are very important. I have seen Carolina blue blazes more when I hiked in NC & TN. Since I left Harpers Ferry, most of the blazes have been Duke blue. I think Carolina blue blazes represent rancid, infected water. This only makes sense. GTHC!
Blazes are helpful only if you see them. I am frequently looking down to see where I should or can place my feet. There are rocks everywhere; many of them are pointy with sharp edges, and most of them can make you trip and stumble. Again, I speak with experience. I have to admit that most of the times I lost sight of white blazes and had to back-track, I had missed a blaze.
The last marker is called a cairn.
A cairn is a pile of stones, usually arranged in a decorative and unique manner. Cairns are equivalent to single white blazes, marking the Trail. They are most often used in rocky environments where there are few or no trees. When in the extremely rocky climbs of PA, many of the rocks had white blazes painted on them, but I did see several cairns. I believe cairns are more frequently found in New England. Stay tuned.
I took pictures of freshly painted blazes to make the pictures more obvious. The reality of the situation is that many blazes have faded over time and are in dire need of repainting. I have also seen downed trees with blazes on them which gives benefit to no one and can actually be confusing. The maintenance of the Trail, to include repainting blazes, is handled by local AT chapters. Considering that these are all volunteers, they do an amazing job. I believe without them, the Trail would shortly be impassable in numerous locations and cease to exist in short order.
When I first started on the Trail, virtually all recommendations were to start slowly and keep your daily mileage to about 10 miles per day. I did that for a couple of weeks and then slowly started to increase my mileage. I am now hiking between 12-14 miles per day and have had one 18-miler and three 17+milers. I will shortly start to focus on increasing my per-day mileage.