First things first: there are plenty of great ways to mark a course.
This write-up is in no way intended to suggest that one way is better than another way. We wouldn’t even call this a “recommendation.” On the contrary, we believe varied course-marking approaches are just one of the many idiosyncrasies that make every race unique. The Plain 100 doesn’t even have course markings!
Consider this write-up, then, a general preview of what you may encounter at your next race.
Types of markings
To mark a course, you need, well, course markings. These can take a variety of forms:
This list is far from exhaustive. We’ve seen paper plates tacked to tree trunks and Christmas lights strung along branches. Come race day, it’s important to just keep an eye out. It also helps to attend a pre-race brief, when available. A representative of the race will most likely provide an overview of the course markings and methodology.
The types of markings will vary not only by race, but also by course conditions. In a forested valley, you’ll probably see ribbons hanging from branches. On an open mountain saddle, you may see flags stuck in the ground along the trail.
Presentation of markings
We always display markings on the right side of the trail — UNLESS you’re on the “back” portion of an out-and-back section. In this case, the markings will be on your left.
Why only one side? We think this minimizes confusion runners may have with similar-looking markings that may be along the route. (More on these “unintentional” markings below.)
Junction/Intersection — DO NO TURN
When you approach a trail junction or intersection where you’re NOT supposed to turn, you’ll see two or three course markings close together on the far side of the junction. These markings will still be on the right side of the trail.
The close-together markings tell you (a) you’re supposed to go straight and, (b) once you’re through the junction, you’re on the right track.
Junction/Intersection — TURN
When you approach a trail junction or intersection where you’re supposed to turn, you’ll see three markings presented together on the side of the trail at which you’re supposed to turn. More specifically:
Turn left: Three markings together on the left side of the trail
Turn right: Three markings together on the right side of the trail
After you’ve made the turn, you’ll see three more markings on the same, corresponding side of the trail to let you know you made the turn correctly. This methodology has the benefit of keeping the turn signage consistent for out-and-back sections.
At some intersections, we may use an arrow sign or a volunteer to further highlight where you should go. When two distances split during a single event, for example, we may have a volunteer directing traffic: “50K runners to the left, 25K runners to the right!”
Distance between markings
In “regular” sections of trail, we display a course marking every 0.10 miles on straightaways. This may seem rather frequent, until you put the distance in minute terms. If you are power-hiking at a 30-minute mile pace, you’ll have to wait three minutes between markings.
In busy sections, like a trailhead parking lot, we’ll place the markings much closer together — as often as every 20-30 feet.
As noted above, we place markings close together as you approach and leave a junction or intersection. At an intersection itself, you may encounter 6-8 markings within a 30-foot stretch.
Course markings during the day and night are effectively the same, with one critical difference: we add reflective strips. The reflective strips make it significantly easier to locate course markings in the dead of night.
Of course, reflective strips only “work” with a light shining on them. This may present some challenges for runners, which we’ll discuss below.
It’s time for us to be a bit of a downer. Course markings don’t always go as planned. Here are a few hiccups you may encounter.
“It’s really dark out here…” (Finding reflective markings at night)
Over the past few years, more and more trail races have been decreasing their waste footprint. This includes removing paper cups and adding recycling bins to aid stations. It also includes replacing single-use “chem lights” with multi-use reflective strips for night-time course markings.
This presents a small (but worthwhile) challenge for trail runners, however. Chem lights can be seen from just about any vantage point, with or without a headlamp shining on them. Reflective strips, on the other hand, must have a light on them and be turned broadside to be clearly visible. I once spent 15 minutes in a fog-laden, boulder-strewn section of “trail” looking for a reflection. It turns out the nearest course marking was right behind me — hiding behind a tree trunk from my particular line of sight.
But, again, this is a worthwhile challenge for runners. We suggest checking for reflective strips with your headlamp often, including looking behind you. If you’re uncomfortable with looking up to move your headlamp beam, you can carry a handheld light as well. Better yet: tell your pacer to keep an eye out!
“I haven’t seen a marking in a while…” (No markings)
It happens: you’ve been running for a while and don’t see any more markings. At this point, we recommend stopping, taking a breath, and looking around. Do not keep running with the mentally, “the next marking has to be close.” This is a great way to get lost.
Once you’ve taken a few moments, try to recall the last time you saw a marking. It very well could have been a few minutes back, in which case you should continue forward. Keep in mind, though, how much farther you go down the trail. At a certain point, it’s time to turn back.
If you decide to turn back, take it slow. Keep your head up and ears open. You may find a marking or hear another runner. Most likely, you missed a turn, so you’ll want to keep an eye out for a junction. If you come to a junction, look up and down all directions to make sure you travel down the right one.
Ideally, you’ll turn back and see a marking — time to carry on the way you were going!
If you’ve done all this and still haven’t found any sign of the race, it’s time to consider yourself lost. We’ll discuss this in greater detail in a different write-up. It’s an important subject that deserves detailed treatment.
“ I see too many markings…” (Unintentional markings)
If you look closely, many public lands have what we’ll call “unintentional” course markings — the random ribbon or flag that happens to look like the ribbon or flag that’s marking your race route.
A relatively common example is the colored ribbon wrapped around a tree that the Forest Service has marked for removal. A race may pass through acres and acres of trees marked like this, perhaps in an area that recently burned and needs to be thinned.
Most races will know about these areas ahead of time and avoid them altogether or use a ribbon/flag color that is obviously different. Still, as a runner, you should be mindful of how your course markings are displayed. In the above example, the Forest Service wrapped the ribbons around the trunk — not dangle them from a branch.
“Why is this marking on the ground?” (Trail vandalism)
It’s uncomfortable talking about trail “vandalism.” We, like all trail runners, want to believe it’s incredibly rare and, when it does happen, was probably a mistake or a misunderstanding. But this write-up wouldn't be complete unless we addressed the topic head-on.
Trail “vandalism” is the removal, destruction, rearranging, replacing, etc. of course markings. Critically, vandalism need not be intentional — hence the quotes. Trail vandalism can, in fact, be a mistake and more often than not probably is. I was helping to flag a course a few years ago and witnessed, first-hand, a mountain biker ride past us — and take a course marker with him. He was sweaty, wearing a long-sleeve shirt, and the flag stuck to his shoulder. The biker had no idea. And this certainly wasn't his fault: we shouldn’t have placed the markers directly over the trail.
In this case, we corrected our mistake and the inadvertent vandalism did not affect the runners. Luck prevailed. But this isn’t always the case: occasionally, runners — versus race organizers or volunteers — may be in the best position to correct a mistake. If you find yourself in this unenviable circumstance, the entire trail running community will be profoundly grateful if you could correct the course marking. Tie it back up and be on your way!
Whether intentional or not, the best way to deal with trail vandalism is to have a solid knowledge of the route ahead of time. If you don’t have the best memory in the world, you can print a course map and turnsheet and take them with you. It might seem like over-kill, but we think runners should bring the tools and information they need to navigate a course without markings.
I, for one, study course maps in my bathroom leading up to a race…