A trail sign is a board or a post of wood, metal or some kind of synthetic material that displays written, pictorial or symbolic information about the trail and/or the surrounding area.
A good trail sign boosts a hiker’s safety and peace of mind. An unclear or misleading sign can stress, mislead, even endanger a hiker. A bad sign is worse than no sign at all.
To most hikers, a sign is a sign is a sign, but others in the field-trail builders, park designers, pathway policy wonks-distinguish among five different kinds of signs, each having a distinct purpose.
Types of Trail Signs
Directional Signs help the hiker navigate from Point A to Point B. They provide the names of points-of-interest or destinations, as well as the mileage to those destinations. The way mileage is expressed varies by park agency and geography.
Older signs tend to express mileage in fractions (Deer Meadow 2 ¼) while newer ones use decimals and tenths (Deer Meadow 2.2). When fractions are used, quarter-mile increments are usually the smallest trail measurement, though occasionally eighths and even tenths are used. When trail distances are expressed with decimals, the smallest measure is usually 0.1 (one-tenth of a mile), though a few signs use one-hundredth of a mile increment (Deer Meadow 2.25).
Cautionary Signs warn of potential trail hazards such as poison ivy, bears or errant golf balls.
Regulatory Signs are the do-this and don’t-do-that placards that encourage certain behaviors (Obtain Wilderness Permit) and discourage others (No Bicycle Riding).
Interpretive Signs explain a natural or historical site (World’s Tallest Lodgepole Pine, Three-Fingered Jack’s Cabin) along the trail or near it.
Objective Signs give information about trail conditions (Trail not Maintained) including the type of trail surface or warn about obstacles (Bridge Out, 1.5 miles).
Cosmic Signs are definitely not yet acknowledged by park official and sign-makers, but I’d like to see them added.
If, for example, lightning strikes a tree in front of you, that’s the universe telling you to get off the mountain. Cosmic Signs can also arise from cosmic thoughts and be put on signs, just like mileage markers. God, Mother Nature, great authors and poets often provide inspiration for cosmic signs.
P.S. Interested in more hiking terms? Check out Hiking from A to Z: A Dictionary of Words and Terms Used by Hikers