How to interpret various types of trail markers, and the etiquette of putting up new tape.

I have mixed feelings about putting up trail tape in the wilderness. On the
one hand, there is no denying the positive psychological impact that a trail ribbon (aka "flag") can have on a hiker. Try it out: go to a seldom-hiked trail in a valley, or to an overgrown trail like Waialae Nui Ridge, or the northern KST trail on the broad mountain summit. If you are lost in the mountains, surrounded by head high uluhe ferns, with only the theoretical knowledge that you are supposed to be near an old unmaintained trail, the feeling of despair can be quite large when the sun is sinking and you are contemplating the prospect of sleeping outside. The same feelings are evoked when you mistake a pig trail for a hiker trail in a lonely and poorly flagged section of the mountains, and reach a dead-end an hour later. I had this experience on the descent of the overgrown "cliff-ey" slopes of Kului recently. The discovery of an old, faded trail tape in such a situation, evokes feelings of relief and elation: "someone's been here before! I'm not going to die." Of course, the tape doesn't always spell a safe exit, but what's relevant here is that feeling of fellowship with another explorer, that exists in a virtual sense, but is transformed into reality by that one little piece of plastic around a tree!
On the other hand, a single bright pink flag on a well cleared trail just seems to ruin the wilderness experience. Try this. Go to a lushly vegetated part of a trail where you can only see one piece of tape, and take a panoramic photo. Now cut the tape off (but replace it with a new piece when you leave), and take another photo. At home, compare them on the computer, and see which one you'd rather print and put on your wall. It's amazing how much that one flag takes away from the feeling of being in the wilderness.

But herein lies the dilemma: In the subtropical climate of Hawaii, vegetation grows lushly and quickly. Trails that aren't cleared every year, will quickly become overgrown and after two or three years can be completely reclaimed by nature. Trails don't magically get cleared—they are cleared by organized volunteers like the Trail and Mountain Club, the Sierra Club, private hiker groups, and individual who feel a kinship to specific trails they like to frequent. There are simply too many trails to maintain regularly in this manner, and so, they aren't. Trail tape is a necessary evil to safely guide us on these trails, and to ensure that the way remains marked even when the trails begin to fade.

Trail tape is usually bright orange or pink. But they can be other colors. A mix of different colors along the same trail don't carry any meaning. Trail tape is usually tied around sturdy tree branches or trunks. But in the absence of sturdy branches or even any trees at all, they might be tied to any piece of vegetation around—ferns, roots growing on the trail floor or against rocks. If there has been a landslide or a tree has fallen down or a branch broke in the wind, then the tape might be missing or lying on the ground. In such cases it may take some detective work to reconstruct their original locations. 

I personally carry tape to replace very faded tape I find along trails and to use as  a "breadcrumb trail" when I am lost or exploring an unknown route. In the latter case, I will write someting on the tape with permanent sharpie or paint marker pens, so that if I have to backtrack, I can separate my own tape from other generations of tape. I usually try to cut off all the tape I put up, once I backtrack, to avoid guiding others down a false path. 

This brings up an important point for new and intermediate level hikers: realize that not all trail tape was put up by a responsible person--the tape could lead you into danger. Experience with local trails and a high skill level are your best defense in deciding whether or not to follow a specific tape trail. Also realize that advanced hikers may have layed down a trail of tape to an advanced and dangerous trail. Your best defense against this is to stick to the trail directions you have for your trail, and not to be afraid to turn around if conditions get too dangerous for you, before you get stuck in a precarious position. The psychology of pushing yourself into a dangerous situation is a very real and natural phenomenon that affects hikers, and you have to be deliberately on guard against this by using your brain as a deliberate tool. Feel free to explore unknown trails, but be prepared to turn around and go do something else if need be, instead of being driven to finish it in one day! Always leave enough time to turn around on a new trail, or carry overnight emergency gear!

When I need to use trail tape, I like to use pink and yellow for their high visibility. Although I use orange sometimes, it often fades into the background of certain types of vegetation and lighting conditions. The same goes for yellow sometimes. The orange they sell in Coghlan's packaging at Sports Authority is a high quality orange tape that's better than the cheap see-thru orange from hardware stores. It probably lasts longer in the sun too. I buy pink from the City Mill hardware store. Ace hardware sells the yellow tape. As I said, the effectiveness of a color depends on the type of tree and the surrounding background that you tie it into...carry 2 or 3 colors and use the most effective one for the terrain. If you see very sun-faded trail tape, replace it with new tape, cut the old tape off, and throw it away at home. Unless very high visibility is required by circumstances, or you have to tie tape in an odd lcoation like a bunch of leaves, it's best to not leave long tails on your knot (it's too ugly); just flatten out the tape as wide as it'll go around the branch, and tie a tight and neat band with short tails. An alternative for putting up trail tape in areas where there are few long-lived vegetation present in good lcoations, is to carry a PVC pipe or two with you; cut the bottom off at home at an angle to make a stake you can hammer into the ground. Then tie trail tape around the PVC pipe. Just make sure it is long enough so hikers won't trip over it, especially at night!! You can carry two 2ft pieces and join them with a PVC connector joint.

Having said all this, please don't pave a highway of trail tape through the wilderness, use it very sparingly or not at all. If I find your highway, I'm just going to cut it down!  The exception might be in an area where there is obviously a LOT of deadfall and you have reason to believe that trees are going down on a regular basis. Most of our trails are taped by the Trail and Mountain Club, so you don't have to.

Hikers aren't the only ones using, or making, trails in the Hawaiian wilderness. Pigs trot their own trails. Sometimes it's obvious to spot in the form of tunnels that run close to the ground through otherwise dense vegetation. In my personal experience, pigs have an uncanny way of making contour trails that could get you out of trouble if you are lost offtrail in dangerous and overgrown terrain; I've crawled to safety on my hands through pig tunnels on more than one occasion. But the flipside is that they can also get you more lost or lead you into dangerous terrain. It's a gamble. Pig hunters also make trails, and they often mark their way with upside down bottles on branches, bushes, and short trees. The bottles are often empty plastic water bottles, or empty food cans (spam). Another type of trail marker you might come across, is quite ingenious; it is designed to last only a short while before disappearing: A running club on Oahu (I forgot their name now. They are more like a drinking and running club :) ), will sometimes do adventure racing along trails. They basically run along the trail and crash through the bush; I have actually found their blood from their cut legs, on uluhe and tufts of grass!! They use white flour to lay down arrows on the ground, as a trail marker. Sometimes you'll see tape marking narrow or overgrown little paths that traverse difficult bush or cliffs for a short distance--these usually lead to a rat trap, or a tree with white little socks over branches; these are all DLNR or University pest control or research experiments. Leave it alone! So the moral of the story is don't confuse any of the above trail markers for hiker trails, if you are specifically looking for a hiker trail.

To conclude, some important points: A single piece of tape indicates the path of the trail. Two pieces of tape that are equally faded (ie they were tied at the same time) tied closely together on the same branch indicates either a fork (split), an important turn, or, a side trail. In theory, the double tape should be on the side of the trail you want to turn to if you did the trail in reverse...i.e., if you turn right onto a side trail/junction the tapes should be on the corner closest to you if standing on the main trail, so that if you came back on the side trail, the tape would be on your left. But in practice you cannot always rely on others to have done this detail correctly, so it pays to make a mental note of which way to turn on the way back! 

And if you're confronted by tape stretching into both directions at a fork, what do you do? Well now...that's up to you...that's where the real adventure begins!

(Share your story about trail markers, or getting lost and found, with us by using the "comments" below.) 

[--May 2015] 

Above photo: We found this trail tape accidently offtrail; it was a welcome sight and made the rest of our hike easier. Someone clearly had the same ambitions as us to explore a secret valley!

Above photo: Orange trail tape leads the path of least resistance through a tangled mess of Hau trees and deadfall.

Above photo: I added orange trail tape to this overgrown unmaintained trail, so that the next person trying his luck with a machete can do so along the old route.

Above photo: Double tape bringing your attention to a turn. At this point we stopped following the river bed and began climbing up a hill.

Above photo: This double tape does NOT indicate a junction...someone just added a new piece to the old faded piece, but forgot to cut the old piece off. Always cut off the old piece!

Above photo: This trail is very obvious and you would think doesn't need the pink tape. However, there is a network of trails here known only by neigbourhood locals, and the tape acts as a road sign to guide hikers through the network and onto the correct trail that becomes a well-known hike.

Above photo: Turn left! Someone invented a new type of trail marker...

Above photo: Trail marker made by pig hunters.

Above photo: A trail marker made of flour. If you see this, you might encounter a bunch of crazy trail runners at some point!

Above photo: Trail tape marks a university student's research experiment into survival of native vegetation in the mountains. Leave it alone!

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