When hiking in Pennsylvania and other states, trails are typically marked with various signs and painted patches on trees and posts, called blazes. In Pennsylvania, there are standards for the size and color of these blazes, indicating the use and character of the trail.
The Pennsylvania DCNR has set guidelines for marking trails on state forest land. These guidelines are typically followed on state gamelands as well as within state parks. Pennsylvania DCNR has guidelines for both motorized and non-motorized trails. Motorized trail blazes are in the shape of diamonds while blazes for non-motorized trails are in the shape of rectangles, measuring 2" x 6".
The standard blaze colors set forth by DCNR are red, yellow, blue, and orange. Red blazes are used to mark shared-use trails. Shared-use trails are open to horseback, mountain bike and foot travel. Trails designated as state forest hiking trails are blazed in orange. These trails are intended to be for foot travel only. Cross-country ski trails are marked with blue blazes. These trails are also typically marked with the international symbol of a white skier on a brown background, posted at the trailhed. Finally, local hiking trails are blazed in yellow. Trailheads and major intersections may be marked with the international symbol of a hiker on a brown trailhead, indicating the trail to be used for foot travel only.
There are exceptions to the blaze color scheme to a number of trails found in Pennsylvania. The trails are designated to be for foot travel only, regardless of the color of their blazes. These exceptions are:
- The Tuscarora Trail, part of the Potomac Heritage National Scenic Trail, is marked with blue blazes.
- The Appalachian Trail, a National Scenic Trail, is marked with white blazes, and blue blazes are used on Appalachian Trail side and connecting trails.
- The Laurel Highlands Hiking Trail, a National Scenic Trail, and the Horseshoe Trail, connecting Valley Forge to the Appalachian Trail, are marked with yellow blazes.
- The Loyalsock Trail, a State Forest Hiking Trail, is marked with red and yellow blazes.
- The Baker Trail, a State Forest Hiking Trail, the North Country Trail, a National Scenic Trail, and the Mason Dixon Trail, connecting the Appalachian Trail to the Brandywine Trail, are marked with blue blazes.
- The Standing Stone Trail in south Central PA is marked with orange blazes.
- The Lost Turkey Trail is marked with red blazes.
Most blazes will be painted on trees or sign posts. On occasions blazes can be painted onto rocks. When crossing large talus slopes or fields, rock cairns can also be used to mark the route of the trail. It is important not to build rock cairns along trails, or disassemble exiting cairns, as this may cause confusion to those hiking the trail. Outside of Pennsylvania, cairns are used quite frequently to mark trails, especially on trails that follow ridge lines and mountain tops above the tree line.
When hiking a blazed trail you may encounter a double blaze. This means "caution" or "heads up". You will typically find these double blazes 20 to 50 feet prior to an abrupt turn in the trail or a trail junction. These double blazes are painted one above another on a tree. The direction of a turn can be indicated when the top blaze is offset to one side or the other of the bottom blaze. When the top blaze is positioned to the left of the bottom blaze, then look for the trail to make a sharp or abrupt turn to the left. And if the top blaze is offset to the right of the bottom blaze, then a turn to the right can be expected. You may also encounter what appears to be a double blaze, only being the size of a single blaze (2" x 6") and comprised of two different colors. This style of blaze is used to indicate trails that briefly share the same path or corridor.
Prior to 2008, side trails and local foot paths were marked with blue blazes. With the guidance published by DCNR, these trails are now marked with yellow blazes. This is an on-going and methodical process and you may still find blue-blazed local footpaths when out hiking. One of the catalyst to make this change was confusion occurring on trails that were routed through areas of the forest that were to be harvested for timber. Trees in harvest areas that were suppose to remain standing and not cut down were typically marked with blue marking paint. In many cases this paint was applied to the trees in a vertical orientation. When a trail, blazed in blue, crossed one of these ares, the route of the trail was near impossible to follow with all of the trees being marked with blue blazes. This prompted DCNR to modify the guidelines and to mark side trails and local footpaths with yellow blazes. Of course, this confusion can still exist for those trails that are indicated for cross-country skiing use (as these trails are still marked with blue blazes) and also the fact that logging companies have now taken to using yellow paint to mark trees in harvest areas as well. When hiking in areas marked for timber harvesting, remember to have a map with you and take your time following the route of the trail: don't rely on blazes alone.