Blazing Best Practices
With Spring in the air, it’s the time of year where trail maintenance and building goes into full gear. Giving faded blazes a fresh coat of paint is one task, along with blazing any newly-built sections of trail. To find out how you can volunteer for projects like these, contact your local chapter here.
by Bill Menke, Regional Trail Coordinator–Wisconsin
There are many different types of signs along the North Country NST. Each has a different purpose and all are valuable but blazes are the “workhorse” of signs.
Blazes far outnumber all of the other types of signs and are the key feature that allows a hiker to follow the trail. It’s important that you follow the standards published by the National Park Service for color and size.
With the suggestions below for proper spacing and tree choice, your blazes will be crisp and ready to guide the hiker.
Watch our blazing video:
Nelson Boundary Paint-Blue. Originally formulated for marking property boundaries (survey lines) in forested areas, it adheres especially well to trees and is long lasting in the outdoor environment. Yes, it is oil based and thus requires a little more work to remove the inevitable splatters from your skin but its durability and correct color outweigh that minor inconvenience.
2” X 6” crisp, vertical rectangle. A single blaze indicates to the hiker they are on the right track and two offset blazes indicate a sharp turn in the trail. A dollar bill is a little bit bigger than 2” X 6” but it is usually as near as your pocket and gives a decent approximation of the correct size. Cut a small notch in your paintbrush handle or paint an example on your blaze kit for reference.
Preparing the tree
The spot where the blaze will be painted should be clean, smooth, and free of furrows or cracks to allow a crisp, square-cornered blaze that is properly sized. It also allows the paint to adhere better and remain longer. Use the hatchet and wire brush in your blaze kit to remove lichens, bark and other debris. See tools and technique below for suggestions.
When walking the trail, during leaf-on season, a hiker should see only one blaze at any one time. Within a few steps of passing a blaze, the next one should become visible. Too often, over zealousness has led to 4, 5, or even 6 blazes visible at a time. This is tantamount to sign pollution and can tarnish the hiker’s experience in the wild.
We recommend a team for blazing. The lead person starts down the trail and selects a tree he/she feels is best to blaze. The paint person remains behind and confirms the tree selection or suggests a different tree that shows up better or that a tree either closer or further away should be selected. The third person, with the lopper, is needed to clear brush to keep blazes in sight.
If blazing alone, paint only one way at a time and paint backwards. Here’s how. Say you are walking north on the trail with brush and paint kit in hand. Paint the first blaze on the north side of a tree where you begin.
Progressing north on the trail, keep looking back over your shoulder at the last blaze to judge when it is no longer clearly visible due to distance or trail alignment. At that point, choose the next prominent tree that is highly visible to a hiker coming south and again paint on the north side of the tree.
Keep progressing in this manner until reaching the turn around point. Repeat the process of looking over your shoulder but now you are walking south and painting on the south side of the tree—selecting trees that are highly visible to northbound hikers.
Choosing a tree
One well-placed tree with a blaze is better than three poorly placed trees. Most often, these trees occur on the outside of a curve so they come into view quickly for a hiker. They are close to the trail and unblocked by other trees or shrubs. Often, a tree that is highly visible from one direction is not visible from the other direction so don’t depend on blazing the same tree on both sides. It does not matter which side of the trail a particular blaze falls on as long as the most visible tree is selected.
When it comes to which species of tree to blaze, some are better than others but your options will be limited by location.
- Young aspen are a poor choice. If you must choose Aspen, just recognize that you will have to repaint every 1-2 years.
- Paper Birch is another species that is so-so for blazing. The blue blazes show up well against the white bark but it is difficult to clean the tree of loose bark without creating more loose bark.
- Some of the better trees in the northern lake states are Red Pine, Jack Pine, White Pine, Red Oak, Red Maple, Balsam Fir, Ash, and Hornbeam (musclewood).
Make a blazing kit with the following items:
- Screw top plastic peanut butter (or similar) jar, full of blue paint.
- Citrus solvent or mineral spirits make for easy cleanup.
- An empty plastic receptacle to hold your brush while walking between trees.
- 1″ wide paint brush.
- Wire brush with a builtin paint scraper.
- Hatchet (hand axe) that is very sharp.
- Something to reference to ensure correct blaze size
- Trail Adopter Handbook – download online or request a copy from email@example.com
Everyone has favorite tools and methods. I like 1” wide brushes and plastic peanut butter jars for paint. I prefer a hatchet that is kept very sharp and a wire brush with a built-in paint scraper at the end. I have tried both the triangular paint scrapers and the two-handled bark knives and do not like either. We use the wire brush to clean lichens and other crud from the very smooth trees such as balsam and younger red maple.
The paint scraper works well on younger ash or even young red pine. The hatchet is used not to hack at the tree but rather as a plane. Hold the end of the handle in one hand and the back of the head in the other hand—with the blade facing up the bole of the tree. With both hands push the blade up the tree—cutting a little deeper into the bark with each stroke. Using this technique, you can easily control the depth so that you don’t cut into the smooth inner layer and you will achieve a very smooth surface for the paint.
Blazes usually need updating every four years.
Obliterate old blazes
When you reroute the trail, it’s imperative that you obliterate the old trail route and neutralize all blazes to keep hikers on the right path, not the old.