Hiking through the forest you may have noticed what looks like a lower case “i” carved into a tree trunk. These are called blazes and were once used to mark trails.

I searched the internet but couldn’t find out why the blazes look like a little i. One theory is that the two marks would make the carving look more human made, so no one would confuse it with something made by nature.

One other story I heard, which I could find no evidence of, was that the i is actually supposed to look like a candle, since candles could light the way.

The Forest Service used to have very specific measurements for making a blaze and where to put it on a tree. The bottom part of the i was supposed to be 8 inches high. The top was supposed to be separated from the bottom by 2 inches and be only 2 inches high. In the old days they were made with an axe just above eye level.

The National Park Service recommends blazes on trees be only one mark that is 2 inches wide and 6 inches tall. Painted markers are preferred since they don’t cut into the tree’s bark. They also call them reassurance markers, to comfort hikers so they know they are on the right trail.

When hikers are above where trees grow, the Forest Service and lots of other countries suggest that rocks be stacked atop each other to indicate where a trail goes. These are called cairns or ducks. They are usually at least three stones high, so they appear to be manmade.

Long before Europeans arrived in North America, American Indians reportedly bent small trees over to mark routes.

Marking a trail is no big deal if it is easy to see. But what if it snows or a trail disappears at a creek crossing or into a meadow? That’s when blazes, cairns and ducks can be a big help.

— Brett French, Billings Gazette

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