HOW TO: Follow Trail Markers and Trail Blazes in Europe
As an experienced backpacker in the United States, I’m well-acquainted with how to read and follow trail blazes in North America. However, when I started hiking distance routes and trails in Europe, I quickly found that the system of trail markers was vastly different and – at least at first – a bit confusing. If you’re not familiar with route markers and trail blazes in Europe, this guide will help keep you on the trail and headed in the right direction for your next distance hike.
EUROPEAN LONG DISTANCE PATHS (E-Paths)
In addition to national trail systems and historical pilgrimage routes, the European Ramblers Association has designated twelve European Long Distance Paths (E-paths) spanning over 70,000 km across the continent.
The E-Paths run on existing national or regional trails with their unique local marking. However, it has been agreed to identify them also with a uniform marking: a blue shield with the yellow stars of Europe, in the middle of which is the letter E and the corresponding number of the E-path.
Europe’s 12 E-Paths
- E1 – Norway • Sweden • Denmark • Germany • Switzerland • Italy
- E2 – Ireland • United Kingdom • Netherlands • Belgium • Luxembourg • France
- E3 – Portugal • Spain • France • Belgium • Luxembourg • Germany • Czech Republic • Poland • Slovakia • Hungary • Romania • Bulgaria • Turkey
- E4 – Portugal • Spain • France • Switzerland • Germany • Austria • Hungary • Romania • Serbia • Bulgaria • Greece • Cyprus
- E5 – France • Switzerland • Germany • Austria • Italy
- E6 – Finland • Sweden • Denmark • Germany • Austria • Slovenia • Greece • Turkey
- E7 – Portugal • Spain • Andorra • France • Italy • Slovenia • Hungary • Serbia
- E8 – Ireland • Wales • England • Netherlands • Germany • Austria • Slovakia • Poland • Ukraine • Romania • Bulgaria • Turkey
- E9 – Portugal • Spain • France • United Kingdom • Belgium • Netherlands • Germany • Poland • Kaliningrad Oblast • Lithuania • Latvia • Estonia
- E10 – Finland • Germany • Czech Republic • Austria • Italy • France • Spain
- E11 – Netherlands • Germany • Poland
- E12 – Slovenia • Spain • France • Italy
For more detailed information on Europe’s 12 E-Path routes, please visit the European Ramblers Association website.
DIFFERENCES IN TRAIL BLAZES BY REGION
Given that the European Union is comprised of many different countries and languages, it should not be surprising to find a degree of variation in trail route marking. In general, Europe is split into four regions in which countries generally share common waymarking standards:
- South-West Europe: Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy
- Middle-South Europe: Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Hercegovina
- Middle-East Europe: Eastern part of Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Romania, Bulgaria
- North-West Europe: Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Great Britain, Vosges, Western part of Germany
But for Germany, where signage varies by East/West region (again, not surprisingly), route markers within grouped countries and (more generally) within regions tend to use complimentary marking systems. By that I mean, if you understand the signage in France, you will likely do well with the signage in Belgium, and so on.
South-West Europe (Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Portugal, Italy)
In south-west Europe, marked trails are divided into long-distance trails (GR or Grande Randonnées), regional trails (GRP or Grande Randonnées de Pays), and local footpaths (PR or Promenade et Randonnée).
Both GR long-distance trails and GRP regional trails use a two-stripe blaze system. GR long-distance trails are blazed white over red while GRP regional trails are blazed yellow over red. Path numbers may also be indicated in trail-specific colors, particularly at key intersections.
Arrows indicating directional changes appear below the trail marker in the distinct color of the trail (again, either white or yellow) with uniquely colored marks for diversions or forbidden directions at crossroads.
STRIPES: Follow this direction
STRIPES WITH TURN: Turn here
CROSSED STRIPES: Wrong Direction
Local (PR) paths are generally short walks (less than one day) and marked in the same manner as distance paths using a single yellow stripe.
Middle-South Europe (Austria, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Hercegovina)
In much of middle-south Europe, trails are generally divided valley and alpine trails, with specific notation for the degree of difficulty and special equipment needed.
In many areas, yellow signposts indicate the direction of the trail, the name of the trail, any distances to be noted along the route, and a circular dot indicating the degree of difficulty.
BLUE DOT MARKER: Easy trail path or valley trail path
RED DOT MARKER: Trail goes through mountains
BLACK DOT MARKER: Dangerous mountain trail with the risk of fall
Because of the topography of the region, signage may be difficult to see or maintain. Hikers are encouraged to use paper maps with a compass and/or GPS navigation.
In areas where signs may not be viable, painted blazes may appear on rocks or trees with three stripes: RED, WHITE, RED. Trail numbers may also appear in red or black paint on the white field of the blaze.
Local trails (or closed trails) will appear with a three-stripe marking: WHITE, TRAIL COLOR, WHITE.
Middle-East Europe (Eastern part of Germany, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Estonia, Romania, Bulgaria)
Much of Middle-East Europe uses a complimentary system of three-stripe markings for trail blazes. Whenever possible, this will be a WHITE-COLOR-WHITE system to increase visibility and clarity. While these can vary by country and trail, hikers generally follow the same three-stripe trail markings for the duration of the trail. Whenever possible, marking are designed not to overlap at trail intersections to ensure path clarity.
COMMON COLOR MEANINGS:
WHITE / RED / WHITE: Longer distance and summit trails
WHITE / BLUE / WHITE: Significant trails, often connecting regional trails
WHITE / GREEN / WHITE: Used frequently for local area trails
WHITE / YELLOW / WHITE: Often indicate short spur trails or shortcuts
Wayfinding and route signs will also adopt this general color scheme, with distances indicated and the type of path marked by color.
When paths may diverge or make sudden turns, three-stripe arrows may be used to indicate direction.
North-West Europe (Finland, Sweden, Norway, Denmark, Great Britain, Vosges, Western part of Germany)
Throughout much of the North-West European countries, paths are blazed with colors and – often – colored arrows pointing the direction of travel. While the colors have some differing meanings, it is manageable enough to follow a yellow-blazed trail for hundreds of kilometers.
ENGLAND, WALES AND SCOTLAND:
Having hiked through England on the North Downs Way Trail, the Pilgrims’ Way, and the Via Francigena, I’m more familiar with the English system of trail blazes and waymarking. While simple and generally quite effective, trail blazes in England and Wales can become rather confusing as they often do not carry trail names or unique trail colors, as we do for trail blazes in America. At a trail intersection, it is best to consult a reliable paper map or GPS to ensure you are taking the proper trail or spur.
Rather, trails in England and Wales are marked with easily followed arrows showing the direction of the main path and colors to indicate access rights, as follows:
YELLOW: Footpath – hiking only
BLUE: Bridleway – non-motorized only
RED: Byway – open to all traffic
PURPLE: Restricted Byway – no motor vehicles
Each of England’s National Trails and Scotland’s Great Trails are blazed with their national trail symbols; however, many trails are not frequently blazed, especially in Scotland. It is important that you have a reliable paper map and/or GPS while hiking trails throughout all of Great Britain.
Like most of the region, Finland using a color system to indicate access. In areas where trails may overlap, differing colors may be used. Finnish trail blazes also use a system of symbols to denote difficulty, specifically:
EASY TRAILS: Marked with a circle, usually blue
MEDIUM TRAILS: Marked with red square
DIFFICULT TRAILS: Marked with black triangle
In many Scandinavian countries, trail cairns (stacked rocks) are used to mark trails and routes, sometimes with paint directly on the rocks and sometimes with colored posts sticking up from the rocks. Due to the terrain in Finland, it is critical to have good wayfinding skills along with a reliable map and compass, or GPS if you prefer along with a backup paper map.
TRAIL CAIRNS AND OTHER NAVIGATION MARKINGS
Above the tree line, it can be difficult to place painted blazes consistently. A more common marker, especially in rocky areas, is a stacked stone marker called a “cairn” or “duck”.
The height of these markers can vary considerably. Often cairns are just four-to-five stacked stones. In areas with high snowfall, cairns may be several feet tall. Regardless of size, each marker should be clearly man-made (vs. a naturally occurring stone outcrop) and placed in an area of high visibility.
A “duck” is a small cairn built with a rock (or “beak”) on the top that points to a certain direction; these are more commonly found in the west.
Occasionally cairns are built by trail users for recreational or spiritual purposes. Please do not stack rocks along a trail so as to ensure the navigational cairns are safely and easily understood by hikers.
If you are hiking in Europe or the United Kingdom, most trail markers will have directional arrows to indicate turns along the trail. There can be some confusing signage along the way, especially when two trails converge or run concurrently, so a paper map and compass is highly recommended in even well-marked areas.
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Husband. Father. Backpacker. Pilgrim. Author.
My recent treks include the Camino de Santiago through Portugal and Spain as well as section hiking along the Florida Trail and the Appalachian Trail. In 2020 and 2021, I’m walking the California Missions Trail in the United States, as well as England’s ancient Pilgrims’ Way from London to Canterbury. Afterward, I’ll begin the Via Francigena, the historic way in Europe connecting Canterbury to Rome.