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By Lucy Higgins • June 15, 2023

When out on the trails, it doesn’t take a stretch of the imagination to understand why it’s proper etiquette to stay on the path. After all, trails exist for a reason: to efficiently inch up steep terrain, to circumnavigate hazards and water, to help protect plant species from getting trampled…the list goes on. While such protocol is commonplace for all trail users, a question arises for those actually creating trail systems: How, exactly, do we create maps and signs so people can successfully stay on and navigate trails, not get lost, and have the safest and most enjoyable user experience possible? 

Shelter / Unsplash

To help break down those questions, American Trails recently hosted a webinar entitled, “Informing the Trail Experience: The Process of Signing a Trail.” Led by Don Meeker, president of Terrabilt Wayfinding Solutions and Chris O’Hara, a senior designer with Terrabilt Wayfinding Solutions, the talk outlined the conceptual and tangible steps to create a trail system that’s as user friendly as possible. 

For Meeker, while no two projects are the same, there’s a common denominator to address as a starting point: clutter. “The Park Service once sent out a survey saying, what amenity do you want most? In all cases, it would come back, ‘We want clean, usable restrooms, we want good signage, and we want effective maps,’” Meeker says. “I shared this with a friend from the Fish and Wildlife Service, and he said ‘Oh, Don, that is just Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.’”

From those basic needs, it’s Meeker’s job to delineate what’s most important, and to create a signage system that can be implemented across the environment—regardless of where that may be. “We try to sort out this information, whether in Yellowstone or San Francisco Bay or upper Minnesota, along the Potomac trails, on the rivers, all of these conditions, trying to reserve a campsite in Alberta,” he says in the webinar. “We field review the conditions. We try to quantify the message. We want to create design standards.” 

Once those standards have been set, the team works on implementing a kit—think maps, trail markers, and signs—that’s scalable. That way, parts of that kit can be replicated in other locations, whether throughout a park or across a network of trails. From here, it becomes a matter of function and location. At each location, what is the function? And, what’s the most efficient way to communicate that function? In larger trail networks, that can look like using a code: certain symbols, colors, and blazes to denote specific paths, hazards, and mile markers, and more to communicate with travelers. 

Sebastien Goldberg / Unsplash

It’s at this level where attention to detail kicks into overdrive, Meeker explains.  What’s the appropriate size for a sign, based on its location on a trail, trailhead, or camping site? What typeface is on the sign, and is there consistency across scale? That is, can the same typeface be used in text (think a pamphlet) as well as a large sign? Having that clean, uniform font becomes a form of branding.

While it may seem minor, those smaller details add up to create a cohesive—and safer, more efficient—trail network. The quality of information is as critical as the quantity and location. To Meeker, it all matters, “whether it is a trail map, trail guidance, restroom signs, parking controls, safety warnings, regulations, instructions on how to do a function, campsite identifiers, schedules. A lot of little stuff. Where the visitor is standing, that little stuff is the center of their universe.”